Updated: Jun 8, 2020
This wildfire season has been disastrous for wildlife in Australia, burning over 100,000 square kilometers, killing hundreds of millions of animals, and threatening entire species (1). These fires are causing intense concern about wildlife as they move through national parks and globally important hotspots of biodiversity. However, some species receive more attention in conservation efforts than others – so, to shine a light on the ‘forgotten’ species, a recent New York Times article by Helen Sullivan covers the risks that the wildfires pose to Australia’s insects, with a particular focus on the velvet worm, Australian alpine grasshopper, and trapdoor spiders (1).
These insects are all endemic species - meaning that they are found only in Australia. Moreover, in the case of the velvet worm, its range is limited to a confined geographic area – this is detrimental during natural disasters because, if a part of that range is destroyed, a significant portion of that species is lost (1). On the other hand, trapdoor spiders have additional challenges in that they reach maturity late and have few children (most spiders lay thousands of eggs, increasing the chances of some surviving). So, the survival of each offspring becomes more important (1). The alpine grasshopper, meanwhile, thrives around water and fares poorly when things dry out (1). With the wildfires coming near or within the population ranges of the velvet worm, Australian alpine grasshopper and trapdoor spiders, it puts their populations at risk of decreased health, genetic diversity, and extinction.
Insects are incredibly important for the success of ecosystems, providing vital services like pollination and decomposition of dead matter (1); yet, they may face barriers to conservation attention because they are not seen as ‘charismatic’ species. The charismatic species are often larger animals like koalas and kangaroos that are distinctive, cuddly, and have generally good reputations with people (2). Due to these factors that make charismatic species likeable, they tend to be more frequently studied, draw more funding, and receive more attention from the media and the public (3). Insects are harder to sell - out of the insects listed in the New York Times’ article the velvet worm, whose face is the cover photo for the article, appears to be the most charismatic (1). While appearance may help conservation efforts from the public, perhaps a more effective strategy for the insects is to stress their ecological importance. It is nearly impossible to imagine a world without them.
Hope can be found in the fact that the velvet worms, Australian alpine grasshoppers, and trapdoor spiders are being studied by scientists who care deeply about their continued survival. Moreover, by learning more about these species and how they are affected by fires, we can help prevent or diminish these effects in our own country. Canada is vulnerable to similar wildfires, especially in the western provinces – fire seasons in British Columbia and Alberta have been particularly devastating in recent years (4). So, while the Australia fires this season have been absolutely devastating, perhaps at least their experience can help us work in advance to protect Canadian ecosystems.
1. Sullivan H. Some of Australia’s Smallest Species Could Be Lost to Wildfires. New York Times. 2020. Web, accessed January 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/science/australia-fire-ecology-insects.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share
2. Ducarme F, Luque GM, & Courchamp F.. What are “charismatic species” for conservation biologists? BioSciences Master Reviews. 2012. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frederic_Ducarme/publication/302596828_What_are_charismatic_species_for_conservation_biologists/links/5731e95508ae9ace84047338.pdf
3. McClenachan L, Cooper AB, Carpenter KE & Dulvy NK. Extinction risk and bottlenecks in the conservation of charismatic marine species. Conservation Letters. 2011; 5(1): 73-80. DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00206.x
4. Rabson M. Climate change driving up risk of wildfires in Canada: fire experts. Global News. 2020. Web, accessed January 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/6378861/australia-canada-wildfires-climate-change-risk/