Australian mammals on brink of ‘extinction calamity’

Feb 12, 2015

By Helen Briggs

Australia has lost one in ten of its native mammals species over the last 200 years in what conservationists describe as an “extinction calamity”.

No other nation has had such a high rate of loss of land mammals over this time period, according to scientists at Charles Darwin University, Australia.

The decline is mainly due to predation by the feral cat and the red fox, which were introduced from Europe, they say.

Large scale fires to manage land are also having an impact.

As an affluent nation with a small population, Australia’s wildlife should be relatively secure from threats such as habitat loss.

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7 comments on “Australian mammals on brink of ‘extinction calamity’

  • Australia is hardly a hospitable environment. It does take much to tip it over to make it unendurable to a given species.

    In a way it is like an arctic environment with only a few species, which makes populations unstable. Invasive species cause more havoc than it would in a ecosystem with many species.

    I think the news in only going to get worse as the effects of climate change ravage.

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  • Grab your passport Roedy and come on down under. Australia is a wonderful example of evolution in action. It’s native mammals are almost exclusively marsupial. That is, they give birth to a tiny fetus, that then finds its way from the birth canal to the pouch, where it attaches itself to a milk teat and completes its gestation outside of the body of the mother. When Australia broke away from Gondwanaland and drifted north, evolution didn’t go on to develop the full uterine mammalian method of reproduction producing fully formed young. Australia is a living ark of evolutionary history.

    And then there are the platypus and echidna, that are monotremes. Mammals that lay eggs, but suckle their young on primitive milk glands.

    Australia is hardly a hospitable environment…

    True, but the animals have adapted and all of the evolutionary diversity seen elsewhere in the world is seen in Australian Marsupials. Their are pluses and minuses in this. There are no large land based predators. A Labrador size dog called a dingo is the top predator on the mainland. No threat to humans. So you won’t get eaten in Australia. But we do have a wonderful array of the world’s deadliest snakes, spiders and marine animals so check under the toilet seat. And did you know that the song birds outside your window, all originated in Australia. All of the worlds song birds can be traced back to root stock here.

    Australia is also a tragic field study of what happens in an environment when non native animals are introduced into a foreign environment. Most of Australia’s small marsupials have been sent extinct by the cat and the European fox, both introduced by British settlers the Anglify the Australian landscape. We only know from bones what Australia had prior to the arrival of Europeans. Europeans also nearly drove the Australian Aborigines extinct, the oldest continuous human civilization on the planet. Human occupation sites dating back 50,000 years have been found. Genetics indicate the Australian aborigines were part of the first “out of Africa” migration.

    So Roedy. So much to see and do. Come on down.

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  • So much to see and do. Come on down

    Have never lost the craving in my stomach since we visited the Australia exhibition, some time in the 70s, with the school. Still not made it.


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  • We need to get rid of cats. They are such a huge environmental disaster here in Australia. I know the government will never do anything about it though as too many voters own cats.
    Climate change is not the boogey man here, it is domestic cats, feral cats, dogs, foxes, and pigs, and cane toads.

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  • What are those cute little spotted animals in the picture? Are they numbats? So many adorable marsupials down under! We just have the scary-looking possum here. And the poor possums get killed by cars by the thousands. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see a dead one on the road.

    I’ve always wanted to visit Australia and find everything about it interesting. It’s just too sad that Europeans think they have to turn every place they settle into Europe – bringing in invasive species like cats, rats, rabbits, sheep and cattle that compete with and wipe out the irreplaceable, unique Australian wildlife. Our own Hawaiian Islands are suffering the same fate. Cats and rats have nearly wiped out the unique bird population.

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  • GDay Sue,
    The “cute little spotted animals” are quolls. They come in a variety of sub species, and these look most likely to be Tiger Quolls (Dasyurus maculatus).

    While definitely threatened, their “cuteness” is relative, and they are actually a “lean, mean, killing machine” that preys on anything smaller or roughly the same size, and is in turn preyed upon by larger carnivores.

    It is worth remembering that the first mammal with a placenta to enter Australia was Homo Sapiens about 45,000 to 65,000 years ago, depending on whose radio carbon you believe. They also brought, later, Canines. The more recent Homo Sapiens to get here in 1788 brought Artiodactyla, in at least a dozen species, and Rodentia. Lagomorphs came a little later (and we even know the name of the pommy bastard who did it.) Shortly after came carnivores (more canines, and felines,) to “control” the lagomorphs, which were out of control. They wiped out an awful lot of animals, but not the rabbits, who have after all, known how to out-breed and hide from wolves for millennia.

    Since this did not work, we developed a very potent disease, Myxomatosis, which worked for a while, until they developed immunity. A newer, “better” disease is now used. There are still lots of rabbits.

    Meanwhile, various pastoral activities, particularly sugar, were feeling threatened by some native and imported insects, so cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced from Hawaii. This did not work either, other than for the cane toads, who are now in plague proportions, and to the very dubious benefit of some singularly stupid people who believe you can get high by licking them, the cane toads, that is.

    This list is woefully incomplete, and does not include the native grasses destroyed to provide better feed for sheep, and a myriad of invasive plants, all of which have contributed to the deep damage to the unique in the world Australian eco-system.

    It is difficult to see how much damage could be done to such a huge country by a single species, nor are the aboriginals not contributory to this. A massive extinction of many species occurred within probably 2,000 years of their arrival, and their “Fire stick farming” techniques.

    As a disclaimer, it should be mentioned that I have ignored in the “no placental animals” statement, the bats, the seals around the rocks, and a few placental mice that managed to drift across the Wallace divide clinging to logs, or with the first humans. And, very far back in the fossil record, there is evidence of long extinct placentals in Australia, or more correctly, this part of Gondwanaland.

    The list of “Cute animals to watch out for” and do’s and dont’s should include wiggly sticks. Do watch where you are putting your feet, as they are mostly venomous (very,) spiders that live in holes in the ground, mainly in the bush around Sydney, not really a problem, but again very venomous. Further North there are of course the famous “Snapping Handbags,” and at the beach a comprehensive variety of “Noah’s Arks,” again not a problem unless you swim on deserted ocean beaches, and/or at dusk or dawn, or dress like a seal.

    In the tropics there are some very dangerous jellyfish, Box Jelly and Irukanji, again, not a problem unless you are in the wrong water at the wrong time of the year.

    Should you come to Oz, you will be I am sure hugely welcome, and please don’t take all this too seriously. Really, the greatest risk you will have is being run over, when you look the wrong way before crossing the road.

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  • Thanks for the details! I knew I’d seen the little spotted quolls before, but I could only think “numbat”. I also find wombats, koalas and Tasmanian Devils cute (the contagious cancer that’s killing Tazzies is terribly tragic). But it’s definitely not all about how cute humans find certain animals – all species are important for the health of an ecosystem.

    I’ve only ever been to New Zealand (North Island). My son traveled extensively in Australia and Tasmania, and he loved both countries. I’ve been interested in Australia ever since I was a kid. The only things I really don’t like are spiders and other “bugs”, (I’ve got a spider phobia – but I’m working on it), and I’ve heard you have some terrifying spiders and bugs there! Lots of very, very poisonous creatures, but it’s interesting to think about why life in Australia developed so many venomous creatures. Hope to get there soon!

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