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Parting the clouds

Through new-species discovery, expansive organism-abundance studies and advanced modelling, University of Adelaide researchers are expanding global biodiversity awareness and informing environmental decision-making.

Boosting conservation through mammalian discovery

If announcing a new species is every mammalogist’s dream, Professor Kris Helgen has lived his many times over. The prolific Deputy Director of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Applied Conservation Science has discovered over 100 new mammal species, in all corners of the globe, with around 40 officially named and described.

For Helgen, these world-leading numbers are a valuable means to a critical end. His research in the field regularly adds to protected and endangered species lists, and provides evidence for establishing nationally protected environments. The discoveries also consistently trigger ongoing conservation action from third parties.

A prime example, Helgen says, involves his 2013 discovery of the olinguito. A member of the raccoon family, it was found in rarefied habitats called “cloud forests”, scattered high in the Ecuadorian and Colombian Andes. “When we first announced the olinguito’s existence, we knew very little about it. But in the years since, people in Colombia and Ecuador have sent us all kinds of information, including a more complete picture of the species’ distribution and how it ‘makes a living’.

“It’s also been used as a conservation and ecotourism ‘emblem’ to justify protecting more and more areas of cloud forest. That’s a very rewarding feeling.”

A similar story comes from the South Pacific. “Years ago, I named a new species from the Solomon Islands called the greater monkey-faced bat. It’s one of the largest and most endangered bats in the world. In part through my work, together with important contributions from others, several initiatives aimed at conserving the greater monkey-faced bat have sprung up involving important partnerships between local communities and international conservation and research organisations.”

But while new-species discovery may be what Helgen’s renowned for, he also understands the value of investigating the past. “Broadly speaking, I’m focused on documenting the richness of mammal life globally—today and in the past—with a particular focus on Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea,” he explains.

“In several projects here at the University of Adelaide we’re analysing ancient DNA and skull anatomy—in fossils and specimens collected by early European settlers—to understand how numerous Australian mammal species’ ranges and numbers have changed over recent decades and centuries. We’re especially studying animals like marsupials, native rodents and flying foxes; creatures that define the Australian bush.”

Having conducted similar research on an equally large scale in many other parts of the world, including the US, Africa and the South Pacific, Helgen knows well the conservation value it can bring.

“This kind of work has many benefits: documenting extinctions and illuminating how to avoid them in future; tracing the origins and impacts of invasive species; and tracking changes in endangered species’ populations and their environments to inform future action.”

It also, he continues, reveals patterns of evolution that show mammals’ deep connections to particular regions. “When you understand how strong each mammal species’ connection is to its environment, you really appreciate the tragedy of every single extinction. Some patterns of attachment stretch back hundreds of thousands, even millions of years.

“It shows us we need to work at all costs to push back against human impacts threatening the species and environments that make our world so rich.”

Exploring implications of cephalopods’ global success

High-impact University of Adelaide conservation-related research is also happening in the marine environment. After capturing global attention in 2016 with the first worldwide study tracking trends in cephalopod abundance over time—the last 60 years, no less— that study’s lead author, marine biologist Dr Zoe Doubleday, is now exploring how human activity is influencing those numbers; and what that might mean for fisheries’ sustainability.

The 2016 study broke significant new ground. It revealed that, unlike many marine organisms, cephalopods—squid, cuttlefish and octopus—are absolutely thriving amidst environmental change. Drawing on six decades of reliable data drawn from numerous international sources, including national fisheries records and scientific surveys, the findings showed populations had increased universally year-on-year.

“This result suggests cephalopods are benefitting from large-scale processes common to a range of coastal and oceanic environments,” says Doubleday. It also raises the possibility, she adds, that humans are inadvertently giving cephalopods a competitive edge by changing the environment so rapidly.

“That’s something I’m keen to understand, because cephalopods are voracious and adaptable predators, and inhabit all marine environments. They’re also, in turn, an important food source for marine mammals, some fish and seabirds.

“What ripple effect will their increasing prevalence have on the broader food web?”

One theory for the cephalopods’ rise is that they’ve been growing in number as a result of having more “real estate” available to them; a consequence of overfishing many fish species. Doubleday’s currently collaborating with colleagues at the University of Washington to test the idea’s veracity. But regardless of that study’s findings, she believes, the likelihood of cephalopods benefitting from rapid, human-induced environmental change is high.

“Cephalopods grow very quickly, have short lifespans of only one to two years, and can be very flexible in the timing of their major lifecycle events, such as when they reach sexual maturity. They can also change their body shapes rapidly. That allows them to adapt to changing environmental conditions much faster than many other marine species.”

It also means, Doubleday continues, that if environmental change maintains its current pace or thereabouts, we’ll need to consider adapting our fishing practices to suit. Illustrating the point, she’s currently consulting with government and industry bodies on development of South Australia’s first octopus fishery.

“Can we go some way to balancing out the human pressure by fishing more of the species that can adapt quickly and less of those that can’t? That’s the sort of key question I’m looking at now.”

Building a world-leading spatio-temporal species distribution model

Continuing the theme of informing conservation- and environment-related decision-making with comprehensive data, another University of Adelaide research team is taking spatio-temporal species distribution modelling to an expansive new level.

Led by Associate Professor Bertram Ostendorf, the group is developing the world’s most detailed continent-wide species distribution model to integrate nearly half a century of presence records with new satellite and corresponding spatial data. Initially being used to track abundance in Australia’s southern hairy-nosed wombat, the model will enable evidence-based continental and site-specific wildlife management, with spatial detail below the hectare scale.

According to Ostendorf, the model fills an important gap for environmental and conservation authorities. “Effective wildlife management relies primarily on two things: understanding species’ abundance and distribution over time; and knowing what’s influencing that abundance—what the ‘controls’ are.

“Obtaining empirical evidence of those factors has traditionally been very difficult. But our research shows modern technologies can overcome that challenge—particularly for animals like the southern hairy-nosed wombat, whose presence can be detected remotely.”

Southern hairy-nosed wombats inhabit open grasslands and construct highly visible warren systems, making them ideal candidates for population monitoring using satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools.

“We used freely available, very-high-resolution satellite imagery, combined with data from ground surveys and remote sensing, to map the wombats’ distribution and estimate its overall numbers and population trends,” explains Ostendorf.

“By combining this information with spatial data such as soil and climate maps, we’ve also been able to determine the factors affecting the wombats’ distribution and abundance at different spatial scales and epochs. Such a comprehensive picture is truly unique.”

The University of Adelaide data shows southern hairy-nosed wombat populations have increased over the past 30 years, he continues, and now number around 1 million. “Wombats occur in extreme climatic conditions and an environment that’s battered by invasive species and environmental change. They’re ‘ecosystem engineers’ responsible for creating habitat for other species that use their homes, hence play a broader role in arid and semiarid biodiversity conservation.”

The satellite imagery is also sufficiently accurate to identify population-control methods being used in a number of locations. “Understanding all these factors will allow us to make better-informed management decisions in areas of human-wildlife conflict; predicting areas needed for conservation and ensuring wombats’ survival.”

Related links:
Protecting the catch Research Tuesdays video
Faculty of Sciences website

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