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From a very young age, we are taught the basics about nature and how ecosystems work. But for many of us, school science class was the last time issues like climate change and extinction were explored in much detail and front of mind. For ecologists like Dr Euan Ritchie from Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, this is troubling.
‘Unfortunately, Australia’s biodiversity crisis isn’t on the wider public’s radar day to day,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘This is because many people don’t see the problems for themselves, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. As a result, the issues are not given the attention they deserve and our natural world declines further and more rapidly as days go by.’
From time to time, you might hear that another animal is endangered or that more trees have been cut down to make way for new housing. But the issues we face go much deeper than this. The fact is, in the past few hundred years, Australia has the worst record in the world for mammal extinctions. ‘Australia’s flora and fauna is globally recognised as unique, and yet we’re terrible at conserving these natural treasures,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘Mammals are in dire straits. For example, since European settlement more than 200 years ago, we’ve lost roughly 30 native mammal species forever and many more are only clinging to survival by a thread. By way of comparison, only one mammal species has become extinct in the US in that time. It’s also worth noting that plants in particular are often forgotten about, yet they too are disappearing at an alarming rate.’
How has the situation become so dire?
Dr Ritchie says that the situation we find ourselves in has multiple causes but one common denominator. ‘Ultimately we are the reason, both in terms of population size and our way of life, which promotes unsustainable consumption,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘More specifically, habitat destruction for agriculture and urbanisation is the number one cause of biodiversity loss. Feral and invasive animals (e.g. foxes and cats) have a big impact too, especially on mammals, birds and reptiles. And climate change threatens to compound these.’
Another issue is that species endangerment or extinction almost always has a flow on effect. ‘When we lose one species, many others within the same ecosystem are usually affected too,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘Much like a car engine, all the moving parts are connected and each one helps keep the motor running. We often don’t see/appreciate the consequences of losing species until they’re lost, at which point it’s too late and very hard to replace the role they perform in nature’s complex web.’
'Since European settlement more than 200 years ago, we’ve lost roughly 30 native mammal species forever and many more are only clinging to survival by a thread. By way of comparison, only one mammal species has become extinct in the US in that time.'
Dr Euan Ritchie,
The much-publicised coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is one example of ecosystem degradation that most people are aware of. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other serious issues that are rarely spoken about publicly with such rigour.
‘For example, losing many of Australia’s digging mammals from large areas of the Australian continent has damaged the environment, says Dr Ritchie. ‘Bilbies, bettongs and bandicoots dig holes in the ground – turns out they’re very good at this – and it also turns out this has a really important effect of aiding soil fertility, water infiltration, and seedling germination.’
‘In our oceans, where sea otter numbers have shrunk, we’ve learned that these same animals can help us in the fight against climate change. Otters like eating sea urchins, and that’s a good thing, because when there are too many sea urchins, they can overgraze and destroy kelp forests. Kelp forests are home to many marine animals but are also very good at trapping and storing carbon. So more sea otters means less sea urchins, which means more kelp and more carbon taken out of the atmosphere.’
Furthermore, the endangerment and extinction of predators has a significant impact.
‘Predators have two very important roles,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘Firstly, predators control grazing animals, such as deer and kangaroos, meaning the world is greener. There’s more trees, grasses, flowers, berries, etc., and that means there’s more food and shelter for other animals. Secondly, larger top predators such as dingoes control how many smaller predators like foxes and cats there are, indirectly protecting other species like bilbies that are often killed and eaten by foxes and cats.’
Dr Ritchie says that Australia’s biodiversity crisis isn’t reversible per se but we can stem the losses and aim for a more sustainable and biodiverse future. Ultimately, to reverse the trend, conservation requires new legislation and sufficient investment from the government so that the root causes can be addressed.
But as a precursor to large scale solutions, bringing these issues to the attention of the public and making them more tangible – through science communication – might be the key to getting the ball rolling.
Science communication involves scientists communicating scientific principles to everyday people (including non-scientists) in creative and engaging ways. It aims to explain methods and findings to people who may otherwise have never heard about a particular fact or theory and gives serious issues the spotlight they deserve.
Science communication is a booming area and it comes in many forms, from science-based pub trivia, to annual celebrations like National Science Week, and radio programs like Einstein A Go-Go. There’s even live events, where scientists such as the award-winning Michael Mosely go on tour speaking to huge crowds around the world.
Just as Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth made its mark, Dr Ritchie believes that science communication could rally the troops and help make a difference to Australia’s biodiversity issues. He encourages everyone to get involved in science communication, even if science is not an area you’re immediately attracted to.
‘Science communication really provides something for everyone,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘The advantage of science communication, as opposed to watching the news or reading scientific journal articles, for example, is that you hear the factual evidence from those that can present it in a way that’s easy to understand, relevant to individuals, but also still accurate. You’ll be amazed at how many seemingly far-fetched concepts actually have real-world relevance and application. It’s all about creating public awareness and understanding, and encouraging discussion. People power speaks volumes. The more people who are informed about the severity of these issues and are passionate about making a difference, the more successful we will be in pushing for government change.’
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