More than 14,000 species of invertebrates lost their habitat in the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, according to a post-fire analysis which recommended doubling the number of species listed as threatened.
The research, prepared for the federal government by scientists from the National Environmental Science Program (NESP), found that the number of insects, spiders, worms and other invertebrates affected by the disaster was well above number of vertebrates affected.
But this fact has been largely overlooked due to the focus on more popular animals such as the koala.
The NESP study warns that the true figure is likely well over 14,000, as many Australian invertebrates are not described or have no data available to measure declines.
At least one animal, the Banksia montana scale in Western Australia, is considered likely extinct as a result of the Black Summer fires in that state.
“If you look at the animals most affected by fires, about 95% of them are invertebrates,” said John Woinarski, professor at Charles Darwin University and one of the authors of the research. “And he got very little public attention.”
Australia has 111,233 described species of terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates. Although they receive less attention than Australia’s unique mammals and birds, they play an important role in the ecosystem, such as pollination or as a food source for larger animals.
Others are scavengers that break down ecosystem debris – such as leaf litter – which recycles nutrients in the soil, promoting plant growth and reducing fire fuel loads.
Scientists were able to use existing records and fire maps to compile enough data for 32,164 invertebrates, while noting that for some species they were working with, there were only one or two known records of their existence. .
Scientists found that 14,159 – about half of these species – had at least part of their habitat burned by fires, with 1,209 having had either 50% of their known range burned by fires of any severity, or 30% by very severe fires.
Of those 1,209, scientists had enough data to recommend that the government add 60 species to Australia’s nationally threatened invertebrate list, which currently numbers 63.
Jess Marsh, scientist on Kangaroo Island and co-author of the research, said the 60 they recommended for listing were “just the ones we know” – meaning there was enough data available to make them eligible for a threat assessment by the Scientific Species Committee.
It is up to the committee to review these species before making a recommendation to the federal government as to whether they should be listed as endangered under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
âA lot of the species that are probably the most vulnerable wouldn’t be eligible because there isn’t enough data,â Marsh said.
Among the invertebrates scientists recommended for listing were the Kangaroo Island murderous spider, a centipede of the genus Atelomastix in Western Australia, and a type of caddis found in New South Wales and Victoria whose larvae live in water and are sensitive to chemical changes caused by fire.
Marsh has been researching the Kangaroo Island Killer Spider for several years. It is one of the many ancient species of murderous spiders found in Australia, so named because they eat other spiders. They are sometimes called pelican spiders for their unusual appearance which resembles the shape of the water bird.
They are considered vulnerable to fire because they live in the leaf litter found in low vegetation which is more likely to burn when bushfires strike.
Prior to the fires on Kangaroo Island, the island’s murder spider was only known from one location, which was completely destroyed in the 2019-2020 disaster.
Marsh said two specimens have since been found at another location 2.5 miles away.
She said this highlights a problem common to many invertebrates – that their habitat ranges are sometimes so small that a single fire could be enough to affect the entire species.
Libby Rumpff, another University of Melbourne-based co-author, said the work also highlights the difficulty of conserving so-called ‘data-deficient’ species that have attracted little attention or funding.
âIf you’re labeled as having insufficient data, you’re put in a box and you just have to hope someone does something,â she said.
âMany invertebrates are poorly understood because they are rare or have restricted distributions, and because there is a bias towards vertebrates and the more charismatic groups. “
Marsh said she hoped the analysis would prompt a rethinking of approaches to conserving Australian invertebrates. This could include landscape-level conservation planning that protects entire habitat areas with high levels of endemic invertebrates, she said.
Such an approach could mean “we can protect species we know but also those we don’t know”.
âInvertebrates have been neglected and have not been valued from public opinion to decision makers. This has to change, âMarsh said. âWe need to find a way forward to include invertebrates in conservation planning. “
Woinarski said if even the 60 species they recommended were listed as threatened, it would represent a profound change in the conservation status of Australian invertebrates.
He said there were other species that Australia could lose without knowing it.
âInvertebrates are the stuff of life. They are the fulcrum of a large part of the food webs in Australia. If you stuff the community with invertebrates, there will inevitably be consequences for things other than just these species. “