Scientists and researchers went to Victoria’s Bemm River in East Gippsland to check on the status of wildlife after the deadly bushfires that ravaged the land in March this year.
What could have been a damp swamp that is home to different wildlife species is now a blackened mess.
“These are habitats not known for burning. To have them converted to just smouldering charcoal was pretty confronting,” said Nick Clemman, a senior scientist for the Victorian state government’s Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research.
Clemman originally was looking for the swamp skink, a threatened species. He lifted up logs and rocks, where he usually found dozens of them, but this time, he only found a handful of survivors and none in other areas.
An interim report from 10 scientists estimated that about three billion animals died from the fires, two billion of which were “squamates” or known as lizards and snakes. Conservation experts also identified 23 reptile species who are in need of urgent action.
“They’re the most diverse group of terrestrial vertebrates that we have,” said David Chapple, an associate professor at Monash University. “They occur across every single different type of environment and habitat. They’re part of every food web of every ecosystem.”
About 1,020 species of lizard and snake, of which 96% exist nowhere else in the world, can be found in Australia. 7% of which is considered threatened, one in five existed outside protected areas such as national parks.
Clemann said the reptile species are already under pressure from being isolated in pockets, which also increase their vulnerability from fires.
“Even in the worst cases you’ll get survivors, but the problem comes when there are so few individuals that you lose genetic diversity – you get a genetic bottleneck with high levels of in-breeding,” he said. “When we think about climate change and increasing fire frequency, a concern is that a single bottleneck event is undesirable, but several of them can be absolutely catastrophic.”
He added that after the fires, the forest becomes incredibly dense, which is not the proper habitat for most reptiles.
“The reptiles were there because an area provided the right thermal environment, but the forest becomes incredibly dense after fires,” he added. “That brings new challenges to reptiles because their ability to lie out in the sun has been taken from them.”
Now, the scientists and experts are creating ways and planning projects to save the reptiles.
Genetic rescue, where specimens from different isolated groups are mixed together to make them healthier, is currently being looked at as a solution.
“If we are genuine about wanting to stop the obvious decline and extinction trajectory of some of those species, then we first need to stop doing harm,” he added.
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