Australia Fires Imperil Populations of Green Bees, Honeyeaters and Potoroos


Australia’s record-setting bush fires are threatening the country’s unique wildlife—from koalas to native birds to bees—and researchers fear that some species are being pushed to the brink of extinction by blazes that have consumed an area the size of West Virginia.

The fires have killed at least 26 people, burned thousands of homes and could shave as much as 0.4% off economic growth, according to some experts. More than 13,000 head of livestock have been killed by the fires in New South Wales state, where more than 20,000 square miles of land has been burned.

The fires threaten to rage on into February—summertime in Australia—if not longer.

Some scientists are concerned about a metallic green-colored bee that lives exclusively in areas that have been ravaged by fire, along Australia’s east coast and on Kangaroo Island in the south. Researchers suspect the green carpenter bee has been wiped out on Kangaroo Island.

“The species is likely to be in dire straits, as all of its habitat has now either burnt or is threatened by fire,” said

Katja Hogendoorn,

a bee expert at the University of Adelaide, who has been working for half a decade to preserve the population of green carpenter bees on Kangaroo Island.

The bush fires are presenting a new challenge for conservationists in a country that already has a high extinction rate. There have been 100 known plant and animal species extinctions since 1788, according to the Ecological Society of Australia. Some native animals struggled after the arrival in the 18th century of Europeans, who cleared land for farming and introduced predators such as foxes and cats.

The fires may have killed more than a billion animals, according to a rough estimate by

Chris Dickman,

an ecology professor at the University of Sydney, who based his calculation on animal-density data from 2007 that involved more than 100 species of mammals, birds and reptiles. That data didn’t include bats, frogs, insects and other invertebrates.

Scientists from ecological and conservation circles, in conjunction with government officials across the country, are drawing up plans for population surveys to provide a more definitive assessment.

Animals that survive face tough odds, said

Dale Nimmo,

an expert in animal response to fires and an associate professor at Charles Sturt University. Habitats opened up by fire leave survivors vulnerable to predation by foxes, cats and birds, which are known to flock to burned areas in search of easy prey.

“You have all those stressors that are acting upon our wildlife and then you have an unprecedented fire,” Mr. Nimmo said. “Many species are narrowly distributed because of those other stressors so the fire is the thing that might drive a species closer and closer to extinction.”

Mr. Nimmo said some species have evolved responses to smoke or the sound of fires that can trigger them to take cover or flee. Small mammals and reptiles can shelter in the burrows of wombats—a squat muscular marsupial—and larger animals like kangaroos seek out creeks or other water sources. But the vast scale and intensity of the fires may have reduced the chances of survival, he said.

Creative solutions are sometimes needed to help the survivors. The government of New South Wales state has airdropped thousands of pounds of carrots and sweet potatoes to endangered brush-tailed wallabies over the past week. The wallabies typically survive fires by taking refuge in the rocks but are left stranded with limited food after the fires burn plants around their rocky habitat.

Scientists are also concerned about a glossy black parrot subspecies and a dunnart—a mouse-size marsupial—that are found only on Kangaroo Island.

At Risk

The parts of Australia’s east and south that are now being hit by wildfires are also home to many of the country’s threatened animal species.

Number of threatened species by bioregion

Number of threatened species by bioregion

Number of threatened species by bioregion

Number of threatened species by bioregion

Experts also hold grave fears for the pouched frog, the regent honeyeater—a bird with a pre-fire population of less than 500—the long-footed potoroo—a marsupial—and the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, among other species in eastern Australia.

Australia’s famous bearlike marsupial, the koala, has also been affected. The koala’s main habitat is on the fire-ravaged east coast—which is sometimes called the “koala coast.”

To make matters worse for the species, the only population of koalas not affected by chlamydia—which can cause infertility and blindness—is on the severely burned Kangaroo Island.

The koala is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is possible the fires will prompt a reclassification to endangered, said

Natasha Speight,

a koala researcher at the University of Adelaide. A population survey covering several states will be required over the next few months to assess the fire’s impact on koalas, she said.

Dramatic footage shows firefighters driving through blazes in Australia. As emergency services tackle the country’s wildfires, vulnerabilities in the global firefighting network have emerged. Photo: State of Victoria/AFP via Getty Images

Land clearing and fires in the early 20th century narrowed the range of the green carpenter bee and left it extinct in some areas. Ms. Hogendoorn and other researchers focused their conservation efforts on Kangaroo Island after fires in 2007 hit the island.

Those fires destroyed the bee’s main habitat—dead banksia trees—and it would take at least three decades for that habitat to recur naturally. Its other nesting option, the dead stalks of the grass tree, disintegrate after about six years and were disappearing by 2013.

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Researchers have built nesting stalks to help the bee population on Kangaroo Island. By last year, they were looking after 440 stalks crafted from balsa wood at a dozen locations in and outside a national park on the island. Those stalks are all believed to have been burned, Ms. Hogendoorn said.

The bee plays an important role in the ecosystem. Some native Australian flowers with hard-to-access pollen can’t be pollinated by honey bees and rely on the carpenter bee and other species, known as buzz pollinators. In essence, they grab onto flowers and shake the pollen loose by rapidly moving their flight muscles or banging their heads.

“It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it because it’s a stunningly beautiful bee,“ said Ms. Hogendoorn, who thinks it could be a month before researchers can return to Kangaroo Island to assess the habitat.

A dead koala on Kangaroo Island on Jan. 7.


Photo:

david mariuz/EPA/Shutterstock

Write to Stephen Wright at stephen.wright@wsj.com

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