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Australian Bush Fire: Could the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Be Extinct?

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You probably have not heard about the mouse-sized dunnart, and that is because it is not as popular as the platypuses or koalas that attract tourists, but this animal is arguably the most outstanding and unique mammal on Kangaroo Island of Australia.

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Now, it is sad to find out that the days of the Kangaroo Island dunnart’s may be numbered. Before the bush fires struck, the dunnart was already endangered. It was so rare that researchers who spent their time trying to study them had never set eyes on one.

Now the fear of never seeing one may become a reality. One-third of the 1,700-square-mile island has caught up in flames, including the whole area where these dunnarts are believed to live.

According to Rosemary Hohnen, an ecologist who has spent more than 24 months surveying the dunnart of the Kangaroo Island, “One hundred percent — all of our records of the dunnart since 1990 are within the burned fire scar. The entire range of the species has been burned. They’re in true peril, real peril of extinction.”

Over 1 billion birds, reptiles, and mammals nationwide — with some of them found nowhere else on the planet — may have been killed or severely affected by the fires eating fast across Australia, according to estimates by the University of Sydney. The potential death toll is much higher when we include other types of animals.

According to a research fellow and insect ecologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Mr. Manu Saunders, he said “We’re not just talking about koalas — we’re talking mammals, birds, plants, fungi, insects, other invertebrates, amphibians, and bacteria and microorganisms that are critical to these systems.

Though individual animals may survive, but in the absence of their habitat, “it doesn’t matter, they’ll die anyway.

Although scorched and dead koalas and kangaroos have quickly become the symbols of wildlife damage and suffering in the worst fire outbreak ever to hit fire-prone Australian continent, conservationists, however, have noted that those two species are not at any risk of getting extinct.

Of more ecological severe concerns are the animals that are unusual and may vanish from a continent with the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world.

The Extinction of endemic species, of course, means a permanent loss,” according to Christopher Dickman, who is a University of Sydney ecology professor.

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Initially, Christopher estimated that only half a billion animals were victims of the fire before doubling that number in a recent update. “While 1 billion is obviously a large number, the point here is that the number includes examples of many species that are ecologically vital.”

Among the most vulnerable Australian animals: the long-footed potoroo, which is a marsupial that resides in damp forest habitat that scientists believe may not recover from the recent fires; as well as the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo, that feeds on nothing else asides the seeds of she-oak trees that have now gone up in flames.

And then we have all the insects to worry about, as they are the foundation of every living forest. Insects make up half of the animal biomass and are the primary food source for almost anything that moves.

Another thing that bugs do is to break down organic matter as well as help to pollinate plants. Under leaves, inside branches, within hollowed logs as well as in pockets on the ground, several millions of bugs are being roasted alive. Some may disappear without ever getting discovered.

Only around 20 to 30 percent of Australian insects have been identified by science.

A single species of bee shows how dark the outlook is for several insect species. Land clearing and fires have already chased the green carpenter bee into extinction in both Victoria and South Australia.

Banksia plants, which are used for nests by the bees, have been burned. It takes three decades for this tree to grow to the ideal size and softness for the highly selective bees. It is hard to assess the situation of things because nobody can access the burned sites, but there is every likelihood that the species is in dire straits.

Invasive species, climate change, overuse of farm chemicals as well as human development also threaten insects. “The fires could be the last straw that drives fragile populations over the brink,” said Tanya Latty, an entomologist at the University of Sydney.

Wild animals aren’t the only creatures suffering.

Federal agriculture officials have said that at least 100,000 cattle will meet their death before the end of the fires. Farmers in Australia have believed that their livestock is keeling over from burns.

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The cows in Australia have stopped breastfeeding their calves because their teats have been scorched. An army of vets has been put together to assess those that are left standing. They’re also bothered about how to dispose of the dead cattle.

Stephen Shipton, an Australian farmer, lost a total of 50 cows when the fire struck his farm in Coolagolite, a small town in New South Wales, on the first of January.

He knows because he had to kill dozens of wounded cattle himself. Shipton said, “We’ve lost a third of our herd, and they’re still dying. The animals are just getting sick and other things at this point.”

Disease and Starvation are part of the damage that such fire leaves behind.

Animals that survive the fire may find it difficult to get food in an ashen landscape without plants that offer shelter and nutrients. Without trees to live in, birds may be unable to breed. Prey, including bugs, may be scarce.

Studies have revealed that two of Australia’s deadliest invasive predators, red foxes, and cats, migrate into burned terrain and kill animals whose protection and vegetation is gone. The animals at the most risk are the Kangaroo Island dunnart as well as other small animals that can serve as snacks to the scavenging cats and foxes.

Efforts to shield the nests of the kangaroo island’s subspecies of glossy black cockatoos from the deadly attacks of brush-tail possums was able to help the population reach almost 400 by 2018, but these birds are still considered endangered.

The cockatoos, which have been favorites of locals for many decades, appear to have been burned by the fire. We are talking about as many as six of eight known flock regions.

The biodiversity in Australia has been put on edge, and it’ll take at least a decade to salvage what is left.

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