Environment

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The 550-million-year Story of Uluṟru

by Melanie Finch and Andrew Giles

Part of the magic of Uluru is the way it tricks your senses. Deep orange by day, at sunrise and sunset it appears to change colour, becoming a more vibrant shade of red, and then almost purple.

Its size also seems to change depending on your perspective. Approaching Uluru from afar you are struck by how small it appears. But as you get closer, you realise it is truly a huge mountain, a behemoth in the middle of the comparatively flat Australian desert.

Australian geologists are now revealing yet another dimension to Uluru’s magic: the spectacular forces that led to its formation.

Uluru is a time capsule. Within its sand grains, there is an epic 550-million-year saga of continents colliding, mountains rising and falling, and the remarkable strength of our most iconic mountain.

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Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Uluru is sacred
To the Anangu, Uluru is sacred. The Anangu are the owners of the land on which Uluru sits and they have long understood its magic.

Their Dreaming stories tell of the dramatic creation of Uluru and Kata Tjuta on the previously featureless Earth by ancestral creator beings known as the Tjukuritja or Waparitja.

If you get the opportunity to tour Uluru with a Traditional Owner you will hear stories about the significance of some of the dimples, caves and undulations, many of which have a unique and important place in Anangu culture.

Compared to the Traditional Owners, whose knowledge dates back several tens of thousands of years, scientists have only realised the significance of Uluru over the last 30 years or so.

Uluru’s geological history has been revealed by assembling different types of data, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. That puzzle is taking shape and the scene it reveals is perhaps even more spectacular than the rock itself.

To tell Uluru’s story from the beginning we need to travel back in time 550 million years.

India smashed into the Western Australian coast
Earth’s tectonic plates are constantly in motion, continents collide with each other and then rift apart. Around 550 million years ago, continents collided as part of the assembly of the supercontinent Gondwana, one of several times in Earth’s history where most of the continents were stuck together in one continuous piece of land.

Back then, a map of our globe would have looked very different. At this time, Antarctica was nestled against the Great Australian Bight. If you were around then you could have walked from Australia directly into Antarctica without getting your shoes wet. India was situated to the west of Western Australia when it was pulled toward our continent and smashed into the coastline.

India and Australia’s collision caused massive stresses to reverberate throughout the Australian crust, like waves of energy crashing through the continent. When those waves got to Central Australia, something pretty remarkable happened that geologists can understand by mapping the rocks beneath the surface.

Those maps reveal a complex network of ancient, interwoven fractures and faults, similar to the famous San Andreas fault network. Unlike a fracture in your arm bone, these faults never healed, so they remained broken, forming weak zones susceptible to breaking and moving again.

So, when the waves of energy from WA reached Central Australia, the network of fractures moved, pushing rock packages on top of each other. As the rocks moved past each other, they also moved upwards and were thrust into the air.

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Uluru, Red Centre, Northern Territory

An enormous mountain range emerged
Each fault rupture moved the rocks so quickly that huge earthquakes shook the ground. Gradually, these faults uplifted an enormous mountain range. It was called the Petermann mountains, and it was unlike anything in Australia today.

The mountains were hundreds of kilometres long and five kilometres high, more akin to the Indian Himalaya than Australia’s Great Dividing Range.

They were mostly made of granite, a rock that crystallises from molten rock (magma) deep underground. This granite was pushed up to the surface in the mountain-building process. Normally, mountains would be covered in vegetation, but 550 million years ago land plants had not yet evolved, meaning these mountains were probably bare.

Boulders cracked off, an ocean formed
Bare mountains weather quickly because they are more exposed to rain and wind. Big cracks formed in the granite, splitting away rocks and boulders, which fell into rivers gushing down deep valleys carved into the mountain.

As the eroded rocks tumbled in the torrential water, they broke apart, until only grains of sand remained, like the sand you see on the bottom of a river bed. These huge braided rivers came off the northern side of the Petermann mountains and snaked across the landscape until the rivers entered a low-lying region, called a sedimentary basin.

When the river reached the basin, the sediment from the mountains dropped out of the water, depositing layer upon layer of sand. The weight of it pushed down on the underlying rock, causing the basin to deepen until it was kilometres thick.

The overlying layers compacted the sand deposited previously, forming a rock called sandstone. Over time the basin continued to deepen and was covered by water, forming an inland ocean lapping at the foot of the huge mountain range.

Ancient faults reawakened, and Uluru rose from the ocean
Sediment continued to deposit into the ocean until about 300 million years ago when the ancient faults began to reawaken during a new mountain-building event called the Alice Springs orogeny.

The thick layers of sand that had cemented into solid sandstone were uplifted above sea level. Squeezed together by huge tectonic forces, the layers buckled and folded into M-shapes. The apex, or hinge of folds, was compressed more than surrounding rocks, and it is from the hinge of a massive fold that Uluru formed.

Folding and deformation made Uluru strong and able to resist the forces of weathering that eroded the surrounding, weaker rocks, including almost all of the once mighty Petermann mountains. If we could dig underneath Uluru, we would see it is only the very tip of a rock sequence that extends kilometres down under the surface, like a rock iceberg.

Uluru is a sacred site to Anangu and our respect for their deep knowledge and ownership of this land means we no longer climb Uluru.

But even if we could, why would we want to? Uluru’s magic is most evident when you stand at its base, look up, and picture in your mind the enormous forces that conspired to form it.

Melanie Finch
Lecturer in Structural Geology and Metamorphism, Monash University
Andrew Giles
Assistant lecturer, Monash University

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 29 December 2021.

Feral Horse Update

by Phil Ingamells, Victorian National Parks Association

In the December 2021 edition of the Victorian National Parks Association magazine Park Watch, Parks Protection Campaigner Phil Ingamells wrote the following two articles.

Feral Horses in Victoria

It’s been a tough journey, but Victoria now has a real plan for alpine recovery.

Nature conservation is largely about contested territory, and the battle for Victoria’s high country has been no exception.

Since well before 1974 when the Victorian National Parks Association published Dick Johnson’s remarkable book The Alps at the Crossroads, we have fought for a substantial Alpine National Park, fought to have licensed cattle grazing removed from the park, and more recently campaigned to have management of the high country – and the rest of Victoria’s parks system – properly resourced with both expertise and funds.

One of the most difficult problems in that journey has been that the high country is one of those places where impeccable evidence is routinely confounded by entrenched assumptions, where the truth is undermined by community ignorance or, unfortunately, outright mischief.

The Alpine National Park’s feral horse population (about 5000–6000 in Victoria with an additional 20,000 in Kosciuszko National Park over the NSW border) has been the subject of the most recent of those battles.

I remember one moment when a brumby advocate, invited by Parks Victoria to be a privileged member of an alpine horse advisory panel, assured the group that a scientific paper said horses improve the diversity of birds in grasslands. It turned out to be an Argentinian paper, and it actually said the opposite: horses trample nesting sites in that country’s extensive Pampas plains.

That’s a small problem, perhaps, but the relentless feral social media campaign that has personally targeted individuals, including park staff whose only crime is to call for evidence-based management of a national park, is no small matter at all.

Parks Victoria’s final Protection of the Alpine National Park: Feral Horse Action Plan, released recently, sets up a decade-long management program that has the capacity to reverse the declines in alpine ecosystems brought about by the expanding feral horse population.

It will aim to remove all horses from the Bogong High Plains and reduce the main population in the eastern part of the park by up to 500 in the first year. Rehoming will be the first option, with ground shooting and then aerial shooting considered to be the most humane method of controlling the remaining animals.

Brumby running, the control method championed by many horse supporters whereby wild horses are rounded up, roped, then trucked or driven out of the park before ending up in a knackery, is not supported by animal welfare advocates and won’t be allowed in the future.

The plan is the result of many decades of scientific study, and involved years of consultation with the broad community, brumby support groups, cattlemen, animal welfare experts, Aboriginal communities and ecologists. Along the way Parks Victoria has also had to defend its plan in a series of cases in the Supreme and Federal Courts, each of which resulted in unambiguous support for Parks Victoria’s intentions to control these feral animals.

We congratulate Parks Victoria in its pursuit of a plan that has real integrity, and we congratulate the Victorian Environment Minister for her unwavering support for that endeavour. We also congratulate our members for their crucial support for the long campaign to restore the ecological integrity, and the great beauty, of the Alpine National Park.

Now all we need is to get the NSW Government to control horses over the border. And, yes, we need to make sure the plans for managing all hard hooved animals are resourced well into the future.

Horseplay in NSW

The deeply flawed draft ‘heritage’ horse plan from NSW is a burden for feral horse management in Victoria, Phil Ingamells writes.

As long ago as 1986, the environment ministers of Victoria, NSW, the ACT and the federal government put their signatures to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would improve conservation management across Australia’s alpine region national parks for decades to come.

Still current (though now signed by the heads of the park management agencies), the MOU promises to achieve “excellence in conservation management … through an active program of cross-border cooperation”.

How strange then, that there seems to have been no attempt to co-operate on the control of some 8000 feral horses that roam on both sides of the NSW/Victoria border.

In 2018, the NSW government passed its extraordinary Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Act, a law that actually protects feral animals in the most prized conservation reserve in that state. This law was largely driven by then-Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who has since resigned but left alpine management chaos in his wake.

The natural values of the alpine region of mainland Australia have been the subject of vigilant study by botanists, zoologists, soil scientists and ecologists for well over 150 years. The breadth of that knowledge has been recognised in the National Heritage listing for the Australian Alps National Parks (AANP).

The listing states that “The AANP has outstanding heritage value for the scientific research that has taken place since the 1830s, demonstrated by the density and continuity of scientific endeavour”. That National Heritage listing sits within the federal government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, along with recognition of a series of threatened alpine plants and animals, and the critical listing of Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens as a nationally threatened ecological community.

Horses trash peat beds, bogs and fens.

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Alpine sunray in Kosciuszko National Park

If that needed any further clarification, in a 2019 Federal Court case brought against Parks Victoria by the Australian Brumby Alliance, the Judge unequivocally ruled that controlling feral horses would have no discernible impact on the cultural heritage values of the Australian Alps.

Moreover, the Judge said that the scientific evidence of the damage horses cause was “persuasive” and that retaining horses on the high plains “would not be an appropriate control of the threat they present to ecosystems, habitats and species in those alpine areas”.

The Judge dismissed contrary submissions that horses didn’t harm the high country, saying it “was not supported by scientific studies and was not persuasive”.

He was stating what pretty much anyone who walks in the high country knows, of course, but his judgement after such a comprehensive Federal Court trial should bear decisive weight.

It’s time to stop talking about feral horses, and act.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Government has released its final alpine feral horse management plan that aims to take all horses off the Bogong High Plains within three years, and reduce horse numbers in the eastern alps to at least levels that allow the recovery of alpine ecosystems there.

The ACT has been keeping their Namadgi National Park horse free for decades.

Hopefully, under a new environment minister, the NSW Government will re-interpret its horse heritage law, and all park agencies can fully co-operate on alpine management under the long-standing MOU.
It’s good to speak about ‘excellence’, and ‘co-operation’ in management, but far better to actually enact these things.

The links below were not in the Park Watch articles, and give a good background to the feral horse problem.

The last one refers to Reining in feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park which says that:
“Drawing on the best available information, our analysis suggests the potential benefits that may come from reducing feral horse numbers in the park could be significant and in the order of $19-$50 million per year.”

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Broad-toothed Rat in the Alpine National Park, Victoria

Huts of the High Country and Hut Etiquette

by Sonya Muhlsimmer

Did you know there are around 200 huts in the Australian Alpine region and do you know what hut etiquette is? Well, keep reading if you are interested in learning a few basic facts about the huts of the high country.

Recently I took a few experienced and novice hikers down to Kosciuszko National Park for a three-day hike. I took them to see and experience some backcountry huts like Horse Camp and Whites River Huts and along the Main Range to Seamans Hut and a short way from there to view Cootapatamba Hut.

Before we get onto the huts of the first explorers, I want to acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional custodians on their traditional land of the Monaro-Ngarigo people on which we work, live and play and we give respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.

In the high country there has been some evidence found as high as Perisher Gap (around 1815 metres) of occupation and dwellings which may date back to 7000 years. However, there is still no information on how or where the huts were made. The thought is that rock shelters and dwellings were made out of sticks, bark and animal skins in an A-frame construction that could have been utilised in conjunction with the annual migration of Bogong moths. Then the first explorers, squatters and stockmen came around 1830 that started constructing simple huts with bark or canvas roofs. By the 1930s, huts were more one-room structures with fireplaces and corrugated iron roofs.

There are three main classifications for huts: survival huts, recreational huts and historical and architectural huts. Before we go any further, the majority of the historic huts are only to be used for emergencies. There is so much history around Kosciuszko National Park and huts from the old days available and is worth a read. The late Klaus Hueneke has written an excellent book called Huts of the High Country if you are interested in the history and range of huts spread out over the landscape. His in-depth knowledge of the history of the huts is astounding. This is where I have collated some of my information from. Klaus was a long-time member and former president of the Kosciuszko Huts Association, KHA.

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Sonya and Horse Camp Hut, Kosciuszko NP, NSW by Melissa Gibson

The KHA is an association that has been around since about 1970. KHA is a voluntary members club which strives to preserve, manage and reconstruct the huts of the High country. They have set down some guidelines for hut restoration, in which when required they work closely with Kosciuszko National Parks. Go check them out and donate or join. I have been a member for many years.

There are a number of sources of information about Australian alpine huts, most with similar advice. A list is at the end of this article. There is no definitive hut etiquette for Australian alpine huts. The following is a compilation from the sources below, and elsewhere.

Respect the hut’s heritage
Australian alpine huts were first built in the mid-1800s by farmers, miners, loggers, hydro and park management, skiers and bushwalkers. Quite a few of these huts have significant heritage value, and this must be respected. Graffiti should not be placed on the hut, or anywhere for that matter.

Huts are for shelter, not accommodation
It’s essential that all visitors have tents, hammocks or the like and do not need to use a hut for sleeping. However, in prolonged or very bad weather, huts are seen by many as better. Due to a massive dump of snow, a blizzard, and a whiteout, a friend was forced to stop in Cesjacks Hut in Kosciuszko National Park for three nights. Not far from there at O’Keefes Hut there was a blizzard for three days – in spring. Moving away from the hut was risky.

Quite often parties camp near huts for the convenience when cooking, especially in bad weather, then sleeping in tents. Huts are also social centres. Beware of mice and rats that live in the hut.
One reason that park managers advise that huts should not be used for accommodation is non-compliance with the Building Code of Australia. Due to the remoteness and cost, it’s very expensive to comply with the BCA for many huts.

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Whites River Hut, Kosciuszko NP, NSW by Melissa Gibson

Never rely on a hut
A hut may be hard to find in bad conditions, or the hut may have burnt down. In August 1943 the Gadsden party attempted to find Summit Hut on an exposed slope on Mount Bogong. The blizzard meant that they did not find the hut, and all three died. In the 1970s Summit Hut was deliberately burnt down, no loss.

Share the hut
With most huts on Crown Land and there being no exclusive use, anyone can use most huts. In bad weather there’s always room for more. On the Routeburn Track in New Zealand, the weather was so bad that parties could not leave the hut, and when the next lot of trampers arrived there were 60 or so people in a hut designed for 30 people. Cosy. Make new arrivals welcome.

Be very careful with fires
Misguided parties have accidentally burnt down huts, like Fitzgeralds on the Bogong High Plains. Many huts have had the open fireplace replaced with a pot belly stove, some of which are excellent, and some have poor designs.
Fires should be small and used only for warmth in cold conditions and perhaps cooking. Make sure that the fire is out before leaving, with lots of water. Fires outside huts are generally discouraged, with some huts having these fireplaces revegetated.
A friend of mine jumped into Munyang Creek at Whites River Hut to rescue a tent that had fallen off the pack of a beginner in another party, and was happy to use the fire to dry and get warm from the snowmelt.

Replenish the wood, including kindling. Stoves are better, faster and cause less impact compared to wood fires.

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https://theaustralianalpsnationalparks.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/code-huts.pdf?fbclid=IwAR29v6OYjXhE5-hDXTxXAxISlIrzqld5gzzF7EaGllW8swvZKl7gr4YfOjc

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Witzes Hut, Kosciuszko NP, with a dangerous firewood pile by Stephen Lake

Log book
Huts often have log books, and these should be used. Include party details, useful information about where you have been, and departure details. These will assist other walkers, management, and perhaps search and rescue. Advise the hut manager (often a bushwalking club) or the park manager if the log book is full or nearly so.

Water
Always wash away from the creek or river. In case others have not done so, if you can, go upstream from the hut for drinking water. If there’s a tank, be thrifty – tanks may run dry. If a tank is dry then put this advice in the logbook at the next hut.

Clean
Huts should be clean and neat. If there’s a broom, use it to sweep the floor. Food for the next party or an emergency should not be left. The chance of it being needed is slim to non-existent. Open packs of food attract rats and mice, and cannot be eaten due to this. Carry out your rubbish, and on the last day of your trip, see if there’s room in your pack for rubbish others have left.

Conclusion
So when you are visiting the huts, please pay respect to the first Australians and abide by the hut etiquette. Oh and if you have not done so already, consider joining the KHA. It is well worth it.

Hut etiquette resources

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Mount Wills Hut, Alpine NP, Victoria by Stephen Lake

Queensland Windfarms and Habitat Loss

by Carolyn Emms, President, Rainforest Reserves Australia

In Far North Queensland (FNQ) in landscapes with high biodiverse values, numerous large-scale industrial renewable energy projects are proposed. These locations are inappropriate.

Rainforest Reserves Australia (RRA) are a small group of hands-on regenerative conservationists who operate the Tablelands Cassowary Facility in partnership with the Queensland Department of Environment and Science. RRA have a particularly high stake in the conservation of the landscapes of FNQ. We care for sick, injured and orphaned Cassowaries and release them to the wild once they’re ready. The Atherton Tablelands is now home to some of our released Cassowaries and these big birds claim large territories of land and often roam far and wide, impervious to cars, roads, signs, fencing and any other human intervention.

Cassowaries and other iconic wildlife of FNQ are now facing two main existential threats: habitat loss and climate warming. Habitat loss accounts for the majority of species extinction in Queensland. While climate change requires a prompt move away from fossil fuels into renewable energy sources, the construction of industrial-scale renewable energy developments – or any developments for that matter – on the high-biodiversity landscapes of our region is ill-considered. Losing our forests and grasslands will negatively impact the water cycle, contribute to species loss, contribute to habitat loss, increase degradation, and fragment habitat. These will assuredly impact the capacity of our highly vegetated region to absorb carbon.

Wilderness and wildlife collateral damage
There are at least 17 large-scale renewable energy developments planned for FNQ and there may be more in the wings. The majority of these proposals impact the habitat of EPBC Listed Endangered or Vulnerable wildlife yet the requisite land-clearing will result in thousands of acres of vital habitat lost. According to recent estimates by ABC journalist Mayeta Clark, should all renewable energy proposals go ahead in Queensland, an estimated 13,332 hectares of remnant vegetation will be cleared statewide and 90 per cent of the land clearing will take place in North Queensland.

The scale of impending habitat clearance required for so many proposed renewable energy developments in FNQ is catastrophic. Clearing that amount of landscape for “green energy” runs counter to any good sense, which suggests we conserve our wild places and high biodiversity habitat for future generations to enjoy.

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Greater glider, endangered in Queensland and vulnerable nationally

Ring of Steel Atherton Tablelands
We’re confronted with a looming ecological disaster when we consider that, if approved, five industrial-scale wind developments are to be crowded into a small highly biodiverse pocket of the Ravenshoe region at the southern end of the Atherton Tablelands.

There are wind farms proposed for Chalumbin, Windy Hill, High Road and Mount Emerald. If all projects are approved, this is a minimum of 213 wind turbines within a short distance of each other on the Southern end of the Atherton Tablelands.

In painting this picture I hope that you can envisage the “ring of steel” that the wind developments will create, impacting rare and endangered migratory birds, raptors and bats in ways that have not been anticipated in any legislation.

See the videos on land clearing in the Chalumbin and Kaban areas near Ravenshoe.

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Land clearing for Kaban wind development, taken in September 2021

The fading call of the Sarus Crane
The small populations of Brolgas and Sarus Cranes are beloved to the people of the Atherton Tablelands. A world-renowned specialist on these birds Dr Tim Nevard, who lives in Ravenshoe, recently presented research on the impact this wind turbine “ring of steel” will have on nearby roosting Brolgas and Sarus Cranes. He reveals the five-kilometre buffer zones around Kaban and Chalumbin wind farms contain numerous confirmed roosting areas of these beloved birds.

Sarus Cranes are listed as vulnerable globally and are the world’s tallest flying birds. They are universally loved and play a significant cultural role in many countries. They also play a key role in our Indigenous people’s songlines and stories.

These graceful birds possess a complex emotional life and choose only one mate to bond with. When courting, they participate in an enigmatic dance together, leaping and bowing, trilling and trumpeting to each other in unison, a ritual reflected in images and folklore all over the world.

Globally threatened due to depleting wetlands, these remarkable birds are now under threat right under our noses from the above-mentioned progression of industrial wind farms on the Tablelands. It’s truly a travesty.

Dr Tim Nevard says that “Biodiversity has always provided the crucial buffer for life on earth, mitigating the effects of previous climate catastrophes. Choosing between nature and wind power is therefore not an option. To secure the future we must have both. Careless destruction of biodiversity in our time of climate change can only bring on many more problems for future generations … and badly located renewable energy projects should not be our legacy.”

Zoning doesn’t account for cumulative impacts.

The Queensland Renewable Energy Zone scheme doesn’t account for the cumulative ecological impacts of multiple renewable energy developments in North Queensland. There is no plan for a sensitive rollout of development. Developments are being rushed through with no community consultation and those impacted don’t find out until the bulldozing has started. By then it’s too late.

Queensland State Code Section 23 was designed to ensure wind developments are appropriately sited. But the legislation fails to protect affected flora, fauna or scenic values in any way. There are “no prescribed outcomes” for impacted habitat, wildlife, watercourses and scenic values. This allows proponents a license to destroy during the construction process without real legal consequence.
On the site of the proposed Chalumbin wind farm, 200 species were found by ecologists during a short window of observation last year. It’s estimated that there are many more species here yet to be witnessed. This gives one a sense of the sheer biodiversity of the area and what, or who is at risk if the wind farm development proceeds.

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Brolga (Antigone rubicunda)

Sacred region
Chalumbin is a sacred region of high significance for the Jirrbal and Warrangu tribes and their clans’ peoples. Locals refer to the area of Wooroora, Blunder Park, Blunder Creek, Glen Gordon and even Glen Ruth as Chalumbin (pronounced Chalumbn), seen as one of the last remote wilderness frontiers. According to Jirrbal lore, Ancestors still reside in the forests of Chalumbin. The area also holds significance for our wider community – a region where the stories of colonial force are in living memory. If a wind farm is built here, the unique history of Chalumbin, embodied in the remnant scrubby trees, rocky outcrops and grasses, will be destroyed.

To conserve existing high biodiverse ecosystems and preserve vulnerable and endangered wildlife species, renewable energy developments should not:

  • be located on areas of Matters of National Environmental Significance;
  • be located on areas of Matters of State Environmental Significance;
  • be located on any area that impacts vulnerable or endangered species or any location that impacts aquatic ecosystems or water quality;
  • be situated on good quality agricultural land;
  • be placed adjacent to World Heritage Wet Tropics Area.

This position is supported by the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) in their QREZ Technical Discussion Paper Submission. Rainforest Reserves Australia argues that all renewable developments planned for FNQ that do not meet the above criteria be stopped.

Action and links
We invite you to visit the parks and reserves of the Atherton Tablelands to experience the ecological significance of the region. If you are passionate, we encourage you to find out more and take action by writing to the Queensland State Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon and Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley and follow Keep Chalumbin Wild Facebook page to keep abreast of the campaign to Keep Chalumbin Wild.

The ABC had two recent articles about this matter, The wind farms angering renewable energy fans, and Background Briefing: The giant wind farms clearing Queensland bush.

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Land clearing for Kaban wind development, taken in September 2021

The Blue Gum Forest – A Story of Change

by Tracie McMahon

Everyone has one of those places. The one they go back to again and again. Mine is the Blue Gum Forest. A flat area of land at the confluence of Govetts Creek and the Grose River in Darug Country (Blue Mountains NP). Perhaps it’s because it was the first place I ever experienced as a real camper, carrying a pack and everything I needed for survival, or perhaps, it is just the magnificence of the Blue Gums (Eucalyptus deanei) themselves, but I’m certainly not the first to wax lyrical about the Blue Gum Forest.

Andy Macqueen’s excellent book Back from the Brink (2007) chronicles the history of the forest from a non-indigenous perspective and its importance as the “cradle of conservation”. I love looking at the old black and white photos of walkers, artists, farmers, engineers and loggers, as they stand in front of the huge tree that marks the junction between the Perrys Lookdown, Acacia Flat, Burra Korain and Du Faur Head tracks. I have heard that tree described as “the Grandfather Tree” and it seems an apt description as it towers over all others, marking the end of a heavy journey or the start of a steep one.

Or it did.

Bushfires and floods in the Blue Gum Forest
This is a story of the impact of recent weather on the Blue Gum Forest (the forest) from a frequent visitor’s point of view. The forest and its magnificent trees not only suffered the devastation of the 2019-20 bushfires, but also many years of drought, and two significant follow up floods. The culmination of these events has left the area unrecognisable.

If you have not visited the forest after March 2021, prepare yourself for a shock. Not only is the misty canopy of Blue Gum gone, but the March 2021 flood has resulted in a changed water course. The ridges and gullies leading down into the forest are scored with deep crevices as minor tributaries that usually trickle into Govetts Creek have carved out tonnes of sand and scree, dumping it onto the flat below. Huge landslips are evident high on the sheer walls of the Grose, including one which locals have taken to calling “the seahorse”.

In the forest, some trees initially carried water marks 2-4 metres from their base and that is if you could see the base. Many of the trees now have sand, stone and debris dumped at their feet. You may be familiar with the fallen tree bridge that allows a walker to cross the creek to Du Faur Head or Walford Gully, without so much as a wet toe; it was thrown to the side like a toothpick. The first photo below shows the log in 2018. The second photo is from October 2021, wedged in boulders some 20 metres behind where the walker sits in the first photo.

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Walker on natural bridge over Govetts Creek, 2018

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The same bridge tossed to the side, October 2021

Recovery
You might be asking, will the forest recover? Well, the answer is only time will tell. National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is undertaking a study of hundreds of trees to answer that question, and if you are down there, that is what all the pink tape is about. As I write in October 2021, some of them appear unrecoverable, but others are recovering, and it will be a slow process. My photos below of the forest in 2018, October 2020 and October 2021 give some indication of the magnitude of the destruction.

But in order for the area to recover, it’s not just the trees but the whole forest we have to consider. During 2020 when the area remained closed, I was fortunate to be part of a volunteer remote weeding team with NPWS, hoping to get a head start on the weeds emerging in the first spring after the fires.

In October 2020 when it was first deemed safe for us to visit, (charred trees still crashed to the ground in the distance, and sections of the track were obliterated) we started pulling Scotch Broom and Gorse.

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Scotch Broom seedling Govetts Creek, October 2021

These weeds were thought to have been bought under control 10 years ago, but the seeds remain dormant and will very happily take over if given a chance. If you don’t know what they look like they are the super bright yellow bushes you find often on the clifftops and occupied ridges of the Upper Blue Mountains. On the next page is a photo of Scotch Broom on the top of a ridge in Blackheath in a vacant house block and a seedling pulled out on the banks of Govetts Creek. Not only do you have to worry about the seedbed remaining dormant, the seed is water dispersed so it is washed into the Grose Wilderness Area from the creeks upstream. Weeds of the Blue Mountains is a great source of information for those keen to find out what is, and is not, a weed in the bush.

NPWS weed teams and Bushcare groups have been working all spring 2020 and into autumn 2021, hoping to remove the seedlings before they can take hold. This allows the native vegetation to recover, giving the forest a better chance of recovery.

For me, this means finding and pulling weeds about 1 inch high from the sandy banks of Govetts Creek and its tributaries for a few days and weekends a year. Each seedling is pulled by hand, to ensure minimal damage to the surrounding native vegetation. It is vital that the native vegetation is left in place to stabilise the creek bank and outcompete the weeds. The volunteer team I worked with can cover about 500-1000 metres creek line in two days. Big infestations are marked for commercial teams to manage. All of this falls to the management of the lone ranger of the Grose Valley (there is only one for the whole Grose!). For anyone wanting to get involved, I highly recommend it. Just get in touch with NPWS Blackheath.

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December 2018

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October 2020

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October 2021

Things we can do to help
But there are other things we can all do, when COVID-19 lockdowns permit, and many of our feet start walking through this magnificent space. Here’s a few suggestions. I am sure there are many others. Firstly, be mindful that the area is still recovering. Stay on marked or used tracks. Popular tracks like Perrys and Burra Korain, have been rebuilt, are wider and have far better design for environmental management. Camp in designated areas only and don’t have a fire, unless permitted. Decisions about where fires are permitted are made for lots of reasons. This is not just about bushfire risk.

Your fire might seem small but think about how much wood was burnt. Now multiply that by how many campers visit the area each year. Now compare that to how long it takes for a tree to grow that wood and replace the wood. Fallen timber is habitat for native fauna, and also valuable replacement of nutrients to the soil. Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) contains some eye-opening data on this for those interested. Thirdly, check your gear, shoes, tents, etc. before you come. Clean and disinfect them. Don’t bring weeds and fungal diseases like phytophthora in inadvertently. Finally, whatever you carried into the forest, carry it out.

My involvement with the weed team was fuelled by a desire to get back to my “special place” as soon as possible, not from any particular environmental fervour, it just seemed like a “fair exchange” for the privilege of early access. But it has made me realise that the word “exchange” has no relevance in places like the Blue Gum Forest. The forest is not there so I can visit. As I look up and see the old Grandfather Tree’s outstretched limbs torn, barren and leafless, I realise that not everything is forever. We have to look after it.
I am beginning to think that, in my lifetime, I will never again be enveloped in the silvery blue softness and dappled light of the eucalypt canopy. Instead, I will have to content myself with a cuppa and chat with the old tree about “the good ol’ days.” And that, is certainly a conversation worth having.

Tracie McMahon is a corporate escapee, and member of the Upper Blue Mountains Bushwalking Club. She now spends her time bush wandering and wondering. You can find more of her ramblings at The moving pen.
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Outcrop of established Scotch Broom

The 50 Beautiful Australian Plants at Greatest Risk of Extinction

by Jennifer Silcock, Jaana Dielenberg, Roderick John Fensham, Teghan Collingwood

As far as odds go, things don’t look promising for the slender-nerved acacia (Acacia leptoneura), a spiky plant with classic yellow-ball wattle flowers. With most of its habitat in Western Australia’s wheat belt cleared for agriculture, it was considered extinct for more than 160 years.

Now, just two plants are known in the world, and they’re not even in the same place. This species is among many Australian plants that have come perilously close to extinction.

To help prevent the loss of any native plant species, we’ve assembled a massive evidence base for more than 750 plants listed as critically endangered or endangered. Of these, we’ve identified the 50 at greatest risk of extinction.
The good news is for most of these imperilled plants, we already have the knowledge and techniques needed to conserve them. We’ve devised an action plan that’s relatively easy to implement, but requires long-term funding and commitment.

What’s driving the loss?
There are 1,384 plant species and subspecies listed as threatened at a national level. Twelve Australian plant species are considered probably extinct and a further 21 species possibly extinct, while 206 are officially listed as critically endangered.

Australian plants were used, managed and celebrated by Australia’s First Nations people for at least 60,000 years, but since European colonisation, they’ve been beset by a range of threats.

Land clearing, the introduction of alien plants, animals, diseases, and interruptions to ecological processes such as fire patterns and flooding have taken a heavy toll on many species. This is particularly the case in the more densely populated eastern and southern parts of the continent.

Things aren’t improving. Scientists recently compiled long-term monitoring of more than 100 threatened plant species at 600 sites nationally. And they found populations had declined on average by 72% between 1995 and 2017.
This is a very steep rate of decline, much greater than for threatened mammal or bird populations.

On the brink
Many species listed as threatened aren’t receiving targeted conservation action or even baseline monitoring, so an important first step in preventing extinctions was identifying the species at greatest risk.

To find the top 50, we looked at the evidence: all available published and unpublished information and expert surveys of over 120 botanists and land managers. They’re targeted by our Action Plan for Australia’s Imperilled Plants.

Threatened Species Recovery Hub video

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Thirty of the species in the plan have fewer than 50 mature individual plants remaining.

And 33 are known only from a single location, such as the Grampians pincushion-lily (Borya mirabilis), which occurs on one rocky outcrop in Victoria. This means the entire population could be destroyed by a single event, such as a major bushfire.

So how can we protect them?
Some of the common management actions we’ve proposed include:

  • Preventing further loss of species’ habitat. This is the most important action required at a national scale.
  • Regularly monitoring populations to better understand how species respond to threats and management actions.
  • Safely trialling appropriate fire management regimes, such as burning in areas where fires have been suppressed.
  • Investing in disease research and management, to combat the threat of phytophthora (root-rot fungus) and myrtle rust, which damages leaves.
  • Propagating and moving species to establish plants at new sites, to boost the size of wild populations, or to increase genetic diversity.
  • Protecting plants from grazing and browsing animals, such as feral goats and rabbits, and sometimes from native animals such as kangaroos.

Another common issue is lack of recruitment, meaning there’s no young plants coming up to replace the old ones when they die. Sometimes this is because the processes that triggered these plants to flower, release seed or germinate are no longer occurring. This can include things like fire of a particular intensity or the right season.

Unfortunately, for some plants we don’t yet know what triggers are required, and further research is essential to establish this.

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Grevillea caleyi at Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne, Victoria by Melburnian

Now we need the political will
Our plan is for anyone involved in threatened flora management, including federal, state, territory and local government groups, First Nations, environment and community conservation groups, and anyone with one of these plants on their land.

Plants make Australian landscapes unique — over 90% of our plant species are found nowhere else in the world. They’re also the backbone of our ecosystems, creating the rich and varied habitats for our iconic fauna to live in. Plants underpin and enrich our lives every day.

Now we have an effective plan to conserve the Australian plants at the greatest risk of extinction. What’s needed is the political will and resourcing to act in time.

Jennifer Silcock
Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland
Jaana Dielenberg
University Fellow, Charles Darwin University
Roderick John Fensham
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland
Teghan Collingwood
Research Technician, The University of Queensland

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 13 May 2021.

A Pink Treasure Hunt

by Tracie McMahon

Lockdown has given me time to flick through my seemingly limitless camera roll of bushwalking photos and one particular journey has caught my imagination.

I am fortunate to walk on Darug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri country (also known as Blue Mountains NP, Newnes Plateau and Kanangra-Boyd NP) and spent a good part of 2020 hunting for the usually elusive pink flannel flower (Actinotis forsythii).

I saw my first pink flannel the year I joined the Upper Blue Mountains Bushwalking Club (hereafter, the Upper Blueys) on Newnes Plateau after the 2013 fires. It was one small, tiny plant amongst a blackened scree. The leader enthused how rare it was and how lucky we were to see it. It may never happen again! With the huge 2019-20 fires, I was sure we might get another glimpse and so the hunt began.

In October 2020, a club trip headed out near Jinki Ridge and we had the first sighting. A single small tuft hidden amongst banksia skeletons. With time on my hands, I knew there must be more and considered likely sights. Soon Ikara Head, Dobbs Drift, and Goochs Crater were all full and then came the mass flowering at Narrow Neck. In contrast to my previously solo wanders along Glenraphael Drive I now required a high-vis vest to avoid being hit by an onslaught of eager photographers on what was clearly the “Flannel-flower freeway”.

But still, there are always plenty of other places to explore and in doing so, these tiny flowers have taught me so much about geology and botany. I would like to make it clear, that I am a novice at both, and it is only through slow and frequent walking, rampant curiosity and the generosity and patience of my fellow walkers that I have a rudimentary understanding of either.

What I found was intriguing. At each site, this one species of flower had many variations. Some had many petal-like bracts, some only a few, bracts varied in colour from pale pink to a deep magenta, pale green and cream. Some had bracts that alternated in colour and some were a single colour. The centre (flowers) also varied in colour from a paler pink to a deep magenta, and in some cases formed like conjoined twins, surrounded by an odd assortment of bracts.

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The thumb shows the size of the delicate stem of a tiny specimen

At one site near Mount Hay, a particular outcrop grew in a daisy formation with many flower heads (a compound umbel). I am fortunate that my rampant curiosity was entertained by a few other fellow members of the Upper Blueys who graciously shared photos of their own sightings.

My hunt for variety continued from October 2020 to March 2021 across all the areas fellow enthusiasts had identified. The lesser flannel flower (Actinotis minor) was also in abundance and caused much discussion, as many of these blended seamlessly with the pink flannels, particularly around De Faur Head, where bracts and flowers on the tiny flannels also came in pale pink, green and cream.

My only lament as autumn days grew shorter was that I had yet to see Actinotis gibbonsii. A tiny, tufted herb up to 10 mm with small green bracts. My inquiries of “those in the know” told me I’d left it too late. The only sighting had been around Newnes and even then, you really needed a magnifying glass to spot it.

So I shelved my hunt for another season, and began exploring possible flora for an upcoming club camp in Kanangra-Boyd NP, having settled on paper daisies I thought I was set. On Day 3, our erstwhile leader took us out around the boulders near a trig point, an easy walk after a few days of Kanangra “hills”, and a wander back. Tiny daisies had sprung up in all the hollows and I wandered off to take a closer look.

“Oh my god!” I shrieked. The poor walk leader thought I had woken a dozy tiger snake. I had just found an entire field of the tiny Actinotis gibbonsii. The hunt for pink was complete.

Finding and photographing the flannel flower was really the bonus of my excursions, the real joy was in being out on tracks, navigating to places mentioned by others and thinking about the geology and terrain as to where the flowers might be and why.

Tracie is a corporate escapee, and a member of the Upper Blue Mountains Bushwalking Club. She now spends her time bush wandering and wondering. You can find more of her ramblings at The Moving Pen.

Tasmanian Rangers Go Wild for Timor-Leste Forest Guards

by

Jessica Hewenn, Media Officer of the Tasmanian Rangers Association

Part of being a Park Ranger in Australia is having the public comment on how great a job it must be. Indeed, while there might be some complaints about difficult working conditions, or being a glorified cleaner, in general it is a pretty great job – especially compared with Rangers working in other parts of the world.

Some of those more difficult locations are even on our doorstep. One of Australia’s closest neighbours, Timor-Leste, only established formal independence in 2002, and their first and only national park was declared in 2007. This is Nino Konis Santana National Park, named after the independence movement national hero who was born in what became the park.

That same year, the concept of the Thin Green Line and the subsequent foundation was formed, aimed at raising awareness of park rangers at the front line of global conservation efforts. Nino Konis Sanatana National Park has an area roughly the size of Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park and a marine reserve about a third of that size. The Thin Green Line is three volunteer-based Community Conservation Groups (CCG) and a government ranger team of 12.

The coastal and ocean side of the park falls under the official jurisdiction of five Coastal Guards, who live in three of the villages of the park. Inland, the seven Forest Guards are dealing with forest encroachment for saleable timber, fuel wood or for slash and burn agriculture; forest fires; overgrazing; invasive species; wildlife poaching and growing illegal trade; and a proliferation of airguns. They need both training and basic equipment – such as motorbikes, uniforms, boots, backpacks, torches, and patrol equipment such as water purification kits and tents – of which they have none.

The NKSNP is formally managed by Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Directorate General of Forestry and Industrial Plants. The government’s budget allocation to the Department for Protected Areas and National Parks for FY20 was $73,000, including salaries. Through Conservation International, the principle NGO supporting the work of the Coastal and Forest Guards in Timor-Leste, we are aiming to raise $25,000. And we are doing that by trekking through our own National Parks.

The Tasmanian Rangers Association is the professional body of protected area managers in lutruwita/Tasmania and has organised a relay down the length of the island, the first of its kind in Australia.

Starting on 9 October 2021 and ending a month later, the Ranger Relay will cover 525 kilometres. The route starts at Penguin in the north, and goes on the Penguin Cradle Trail, and the Overland Track into the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The relay then paddles across Lake Pedder in kayaks, and rows in dinghies on the Port Davey and South Coast Tracks, ending at Cockle Creek in the south.

In their spare time, teams of Tasmanian rangers and field officers will be trekking, cycling and paddling through land that is largely protected under reserves and parks. There will even be bonus walks on Tasmania’s northernmost national park on Deal Island in Bass Strait, and its southernmost national park, on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.

All of the funds raised will go, through Conservation International, to the Forest Guards in Timor-Leste, to protect the country’s area of highest biodiversity, and help bolster that thin green line.

To achieve this we need you. We need donations, we need to spread the word, and we need the public to support the work of protected area managers around the world. This is your chance to contribute to our neighbours – barely more than the length of the Ranger Relay from Darwin – and bolster their ability to protect and preserve their National Park. Plus, it will be the perfect vicarious adventure to be following: live tracking and updated progress will be on our website, as the Relay treks through some of the most special parts of the island.

From the Tasmanian Rangers Association, to all our fellow bushwalkers, thank you.

For more information and to follow the Ranger Relay, check out the relay website. This also has donation information.

Dead Frogs Across Eastern Australia

by Jodi Rowley and Karrie Rose

Over the past few weeks, we’ve received a flurry of emails from concerned people who’ve seen sick and dead frogs across eastern Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

One person wrote: “About a month ago, I noticed the Green Tree Frogs living around our home showing signs of lethargy & ill health. I was devastated to find about seven of them dead.”

Another wrote: “We previously had a very healthy population of green tree frogs and a couple of months ago I noticed a frog that had turned brown. I then noticed more of them and have found numerous dead frogs around our property.”

And another said she’d seen so many dead frogs on her daily runs she had to “seriously wonder how many more are there”.

So what’s going on? The short answer is: we don’t really know. How many frogs have died and why is a mystery, and we’re relying on people across Australia to help us solve it.

Why are frogs important?
Frogs are an integral part of healthy Australian ecosystems. While they are usually small and unseen, they’re an important thread in the food web, and a kind of environmental glue that keeps ecosystems functioning. Healthy frog populations are usually a good indication of a healthy environment.

They eat vast amounts of invertebrates, including pest species, and they’re a fundamental food source for a wide variety of other wildlife, including birds, mammals and reptiles. Tadpoles fill our creeks and dams, helping keep algae and mosquito larvae under control while they too become food for fish and other wildlife.

But many of Australia’s frog populations are imperilled from multiple, compounding threats, such as habitat loss and modification, climate change, invasive plants, animals and diseases.

Although we’re fortunate to have at least 242 native frog species in Australia, 35 are considered threatened with extinction. At least four are considered extinct: the southern and northern gastric-brooding frogs (Rheobatrachus silus and Rheobatrachus vitellinus), the sharp-snouted day frog (Taudactylus acutirostris) and the southern day frog (Taudactylus diurnus).

A truly unusual outbreak
In most circumstances, it’s rare to see a dead frog. Most frogs are secretive in nature and, when they die, they decompose rapidly. So the growing reports of dead and dying frogs from across eastern Australia over the last few months are surprising, to say the least.

While the first cold snap of each year can be accompanied by a few localised frog deaths, this outbreak has affected more animals over a greater range than previously encountered.

This is truly an unusual amphibian mass mortality event.

In this outbreak, frogs appear to be either darker or lighter than normal, slow, out in the daytime (they’re usually nocturnal), and are thin. Some frogs have red bellies, red feet, and excessive sloughed skin.

The iconic green tree frog (Litoria caeulea) seems hardest hit in this event, with the often apple-green and plump frogs turning brown and shrivelled.

This frog is widespread and generally rather common. In fact, it’s the ninth most commonly recorded frog in the national citizen science project, FrogID. But it has disappeared from parts of its former range.

Other species reported as being among the sick and dying include Peron’s tree frog (Litoria peronii), the Stony Creek frog (Litoria lesueuri), and green stream frog (Litoria phyllochroa). These are all relatively common and widespread species, which is likely why they have been found in and around our gardens.

We simply don’t know the true impacts of this event on Australia’s frog species, particularly those that are rare, cryptic or living in remote places. Well over 100 species of frog live within the geographic range of this outbreak. Dozens of these are considered threatened, including the booroolong Frog (Litoria booroolongensis) and the giant barred frog (Mixophyes iteratus).

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Leaf-green Tree Frog

So what might be going on?
Amphibians are susceptible to environmental toxins and a wide range of parasitic, bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens. Frogs globally have been battling it out with a pandemic of their own for decades – a potentially deadly fungus often called amphibian chytrid fungus.

This fungus attacks the skin, which frogs use to breathe, drink, and control electrolytes important for the heart to function. It’s also responsible for causing population declines in more than 500 amphibian species around the world, and 50 extinctions.

For example, in Australia the bright yellow and black southern corroboree frog (Pseudophryne corroboree) is just hanging on in the wild, thanks only to intensive management and captive breeding.

Curiously, some other frog species appear more tolerant to the amphibian chytrid fungus than others. Many now common frogs seem able to live with the fungus, such as the near-ubiquitous Australian common eastern froglet (Crinia signifera).

But if frogs have had this fungus affecting them for decades, why are we seeing so many dead frogs now?
Well, disease is the outcome of a battle between a pathogen (in this case a fungus), a host (in this case the frog) and the environment. The fungus doesn’t do well in warm, dry conditions. So during summer, frogs are more likely to have the upper hand.

In winter, the tables turn. As the frog’s immune system slows, the fungus may be able to take hold.

Of course, the amphibian chytrid fungus is just one possible culprit. Other less well-known diseases affect frogs.

To date, the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health has confirmed the presence of the amphibian chytrid fungus in a very small number of sick frogs they’ve examined from the recent outbreak. However, other diseases – such as ranavirus, myxosporean parasites and trypanosome parasites – have also been responsible for native frog mass mortality events in Australia.

It’s also possible a novel or exotic pathogen could be behind this. So the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health is working with the Australian Museum, government biosecurity and environment agencies as part of the investigation.

Here’s how you can help
While we suspect a combination of the amphibian chytrid fungus and the chilly temperatures, we simply don’t know what factors may be contributing to the outbreak.

We also aren’t sure how widespread it is, what impact it will have on our frog populations, or how long it will last.

While the temperatures stay low, we suspect our frogs will continue to succumb. If we don’t investigate quickly, we will lose the opportunity to achieve a diagnosis and understand what has transpired.

We need your help to solve this mystery.

Please send any reports of sick or dead frogs (and if possible, photos) to us, via the national citizen science project FrogID, or email calls@frogid.net.au.

Jodi Rowley
Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, UNSW, Australian Museum
Karrie Rose
Australian Registry of Wildlife Health – Taronga Conservation Society Australia, University of Sydney

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 28 July 2021.

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