Statement from Australia's Natural History Museum Directors

Article | Updated 1 month ago

Australian Pig-footed Bandicoot illustration by Peter Schouten
Australian Pig-footed Bandicoot illustration by Peter Schouten
WA Museum

JOINT STATEMENT FINAL Sat 1 Feb, 2020
STATEMENT FROM AUSTRALIA’S NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM DIRECTORS
IMPACT OF FIRES ON BIODIVERSITY ON A SCALE NOT SEEN SINCE SPECIES RECORDS WERE FIRST KEPT

Loss is in the ‘trillions’ of animals due to climate change crisis

The Directors/CEOs of Australia’s leading natural history museums today issued a joint statement in support of increased funding and co-ordinated national action to address the impacts of climate change on the nation’s biodiversity following the bushfires which ravaged the continent over the past few months.

The Directors of the Australian Museum (NSW); Museums Victoria; South Australian Museum; Western Australian Museum; Queensland Museum; and Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory; whose natural science collections hold almost 60 million reference specimens said:

Natural history museums are among the most trusted public institutions* playing a critical role in describing and conserving our natural history in Australia and connecting the natural environment with the public through education outreach and exhibitions.

We now recognise human-induced climate change, alongside land clearing and habitat use, as the over-arching issue affecting Australia’s unique wildlife as evidenced by more intense bushfires, drought, floods and the impact of warming oceans on the Great Barrier Reef and other marine environments.

Our museums hold invaluable reference collections for the nation – we are the ‘ark’ of information on Australian species with collections that date back as early as the 1850s.

Collectively they form an irreplaceable resource and provide unique insight into the composition and evolution of our natural history and a benchmark by which the devastation caused by the bushfires can be measured.

The impact of the recent fires on Australia’s biodiversity is on a scale not previously seen since record-keeping began in the mid-1800s. The estimate of the destruction to our biodiversity from the fires is in the ‘trillions’ of animals, when considering the total of insects, spiders, birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and even sea life impacted over such a vast area.**

Australia’s natural history museums are committed to finding out how species have been affected, to implementing and supporting programs to restore those species that can be saved, and to engaging the public in mitigation strategies.

Over the next few months, and once it is safe to do so, each museum plans to return to the field, working in collaboration with our national networks of museums and herbaria, state government agencies and universities to ascertain the impact of the fires and work to plan for the restoration of species where possible.

Each museum will focus on examining the damage of the fires on existing field research sites and comparing the findings with our data sets, providing a longitudinal view.

In the longer term, our Museums will draw on our rich scientific expertise and data sets to provide conservation advice. We will also engage with the Australian public through citizen science and other activities and will work towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Australia’s leading experts across the natural history disciplines work at our state-based museums. Museum research scientists are in the field year after year describing and monitoring the biodiversity of different regions, including many endemic species present nowhere else on the planet. Additional funding for this research is urgently needed to allow museums to carry out this significant work.

The bushfire climate change crisis has reinforced that we have much to learn from our First Nations people and that First Nations understandings of our natural species and land management is to be respected, understood and embraced in our research.

The time to act is now and the nation’s natural history museums are ready to respond.

Signed:

Kim McKay AO, Director & CEO Australian Museum (NSW); Lynley Crosswell, CEO & Director, Museums Victoria; Brian Oldman, Director, South Australian Museum; Alec Coles OBE, CEO, Western Australian Museum; Dr Jim Thompson, Director, Queensland Museum Network; Marcus Schutenko, Director, Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory.

*C. Dilenschneider, “In Museums we Trust. Here’s How Much (Data Update)”, 3 June 2019.
**trillions estimate based on number of arthropods in 8 million hectares (Dr Chris Reid, Senior Entomologist, Australian Museum)

Message from WA Museum Chief Executive Officer, Alec Coles 

WA Museum staff note that while fire has had a significant detrimental impact on the Stirling Range invertebrate fauna, populations of some species recover quickly after fire. This is most likely due to their occurrence in soil where the effects of fire are lessened, and/or when juvenile life stages are developing prior to their emergence as adults during winter.

Museum collections may now represent the only record of certain invertebrate species occurring in fire-devastated regions. Many invertebrate species affected by fires in eastern and south-western Australia have yet to be named and described by taxonomists, due to the Australian forest ecosystems being mega-biodiverse and a lack of expertise and funding for many animal species. Support for rapidly undertaking taxonomic descriptions should clearly be a very high priority.  

WA Museum Collection

The WA Museum and its precursor bodies date back to the late 1800s and the biodiversity collections have been accumulated over the last 150 years, representing an almost continuous record of aspects of biodiversity of our state.

The Western Australian Museum has a collection of some 4 million natural science specimens, mostly from Western Australia, making it the most comprehensive historic, and continuing faunal collection from the western third of the country.

Major data sets – fire-affected areas

Western Australia has experienced significant bushfire activity in the Lower Southwest of the State, although in recent periods fires in the lower south east and the Kimberley have increased in number.

WAM staff have been carrying out targeted surveys on endangered black cockatoos throughout the south-west of western Australia for over 20 years and have an extensive database of both historical and current on the distribution, status , relative abundance, habitat preferences, food, movements and breeding requirements for all three species.

Of particular concern is the damage to the Stirling Range National Park. The WA Museum has a comprehensive dataset for this area where staff have been recording and monitoring terrestrial invertebrates for 25 years. A substantial area of this national park has recently been burnt. The Stirlings, because of their age and topography, represent Gondwana fauna with species that have evolved in isolation over millions of years. The loss of such fauna is devastating.

Collaborative work in response to the fires

Museum staff will continue to work with staff from the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions to monitor threatened species of invertebrates in the Stirling Range National Park. These include trapdoor spiders and land snails.

Recently, WAM staff have been analysing nest tree mortality data and have identified fire as a major threat to the long-term conservation of Baudin’s Cockatoo and the Forest Red-tailed black Cockatoo in the Jarrah-Marri forest. Fire is the major cause of tree fall of actual nest trees and of future or potential nest trees and hence the retention of the right type and number of hollow-bearing trees is essential to prevent the rapid collapse of bird habitat in the Jarrah-marri forest. An audit of nesting trees revealed an average age of 240 years with a span of 120 – 400 years.

Longer-term research and outreach on climate change and biodiversity impacts

Climate Change and biodiversity loss will be addressed in the new galleries of the WA Museum, to be opened in late 2020. This will also be a cornerstone topic in the planned Learning Program.

Black Cockatoos (all 3 species): The continuing net loss of actual nest trees by fire (over 50% per decade) is a key threatening process. Also, the impacts of climate change over the past 50 years has seen dramatic changes in the distribution, foraging ecology and breeding seasons of all three endemic black cockatoos in the south-west. The long-term plan of WAM is to continue to monitor populations, raise awareness of the status and conservation needs of these birds through information sheets, scientific papers and seminars.