With taxonomists themselves a threatened species, endangered fauna risks going unnoticed and unlisted for protection – particularly if it isn’t cute and furry. By Andrew Stafford.
The bureaucratic threat to endangered species
In 1996, Dr John Stanisic, then curator of invertebrates at the Queensland Museum, was doing a routine environmental impact assessment near Taroom in southern central Queensland, some 380 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The purpose of Stanisic’s survey was to check for rare and threatened species around an impoundment for the proposed Nathan Dam, on the Dawson River.
The dam was a controversial project in the district, as it would have flooded large areas of arable farmland. The usual arguments were trotted out about jobs for the local community. The water, it was said, would supply the needs of the local towns. Others suspected that the real reason was to service a proposed mine at nearby Wandoan, now in mothballs due to the tanking price of coal.
Stanisic and his team were checking an obscure habitat called boggomoss, where natural springs emerge from the Great Artesian Basin and create small lagoons in the otherwise dry semi-arid woodlands of the Brigalow Belt. One of his team, who was searching for isopods, which the rest of us know as slaters, unearthed a snail from the leaf litter. “I knew right away what it was,” Stanisic says two decades later. “It was like, Eureka!”
Stanisic, who has discovered and described some 900 species since 1980 and who goes by the name Snail Whisperer on his own website, had been searching for this particular mollusc for 10 years. He recognised it instantly from one of two shells in the museum’s collection, collected historically from the nearby township of Theodore, but otherwise completely unknown in the wild.
Stanisic then went through the process of formally describing and naming the species: Adclarkia dawsonensis, the boggomoss snail. As its entire known habitat was about to disappear into a pit, he also went through the process of listing it for protection. “It takes about a 12-page proforma to get one of these things through,” he says. “It’s like filling out a census form, and you’ve got to know a bit about the snail first.”
The snail halted development of the dam, and its oddly triumphant story is an instructive one. Last week, the office of threatened species commissioner Gregory Andrews released an updated list of threatened species, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It has been widely and erroneously reported that 49 species were added to the list.
This is not true. Twenty-one species were added, comprising six mammals, seven birds, six plants, an insect and a fish. One species, the swift parrot, was upgraded from the endangered to critically endangered category, and a further 27 already listed species were updated to reflect changes in their currently accepted names and taxonomy, with no change to their status. Two species were deleted from the list altogether.
Nonetheless, it was the biggest update to the list since 2009, and took the number of threatened species listed – and thus protected – under the EPBC Act to 1794. “That legislation is relatively strong,” says Chris Pavey, an arid zone ecologist with the CSIRO in Alice Springs. “If you want to go ahead with a development, you can’t ignore any EPBC-listed species on your land; there’s just no way around it.”
When the left professes a grudging admiration for former prime minister John Howard, it is usually for strengthening gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But the EPBC Act, which passed with the aid of the Democrats’ Meg Lees as part of the deal for getting the GST through the senate, is the other piece of legislation it should thank him for.
That deal ultimately destroyed the Democrats, but it left a profound environmental legacy. The EPBC’s efficacy was demonstrated last August, when the Federal Court temporarily stayed development of Adani’s Carmichael coalmine on account of the failure of federal environment minister Greg Hunt to consider the mine’s impact on two threatened species: the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.
The halting of the mine over two reptiles caused apoplexy within the Abbott government. The senate had repeatedly frustrated its attempts to de-fang the EPBC Act via its “One Stop Shop” legislation, an attempt to streamline environmental approvals for large projects by handing the process to the states, as part of its war on so-called green tape.
The decision also proved the act recognised, very simply, that all species have an inherent right to exist and are deserving of our protection: the obscure as well as the iconic.
The problem, as the snail shows, is that we aren’t even close to knowing the extent of our own biodiversity. According to A. D. Chapman’s 2009 edition of Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World, Australia has an estimated 566,398 types of plants, animals and fungi. Of these, only 147,579 have been formally described and named. Stanisic says 700 of Australia’s snails, for instance, remained formally undescribed.
This illustrates two issues: the paucity of taxonomists in Australia, and the fact we are potentially at risk of losing thousands more species from under our noses. “There are many species about which we know almost nothing that probably merit listing and we simply don’t know anything about them,” says John Woinarski, deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and a professor at Charles Darwin University.
Worldwide, about 18,000 new species are described each year, roughly 75 per cent of which are invertebrates. But the problem is taxonomists themselves are a threatened species. Much of the work is left to museums, with small staffs and limited resources. “We actually need people to be out there finding and describing new species,” Pavey says. “And way before cuts started happening to research-based organisations like the CSIRO, museums have been copping it for a long time.”
A related problem is the tendency to prioritise cute and colourful megafauna. “People tend to forget that small animals and plants form 99 per cent of our terrestrial biodiversity,” Stanisic says. “But they get less than .001 per cent of a look-in when it comes to assessments and environmental surveys. Yet they have so much to tell us about what the fine-grain make-up of the landscape is.”
Woinarski says that while creatures such as the Leadbeater’s possum play an important public relations role in raising awareness of conservation issues, they create a bias at the expense of less charismatic species. And because so little is known about so much of our fauna and flora, the process of listing them as threatened is slow, finite and ad-hoc. In some years, marine animals might be the theme; reptiles in others.
“There’s a substantial degree of evidence that’s required, and for many of the most poorly known and most restricted species, there’s simply not enough knowledge to satisfy the onus for listing,” Woinarski says. “Many other species in Australia are highly imperilled and deserve to be listed, but aren’t. So our conservation problems are likely to be far worse than what is currently apparent.”
Further, as the decline of the swift parrot shows, listing a species on its own is no guarantee of saving it. “The act is far less good at dealing with more pervasive and subtle and insidious threats, such as predation by feral cats,” Woinarski says. “We need to understand the threats that are affecting threatened species and ensure we can combat those threats far more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.”
Years before his move into politics, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen pioneered a way of clearing the Brigalow woodlands around his Kingaroy peanut farm by pulling a heavy chain between two bulldozers, a method still being used today in the mulga woodlands further west. These days, almost all of what remains of the Brigalow is on roadside verges, with next to none protected.
Stanisic points out that he has since found two more critically endangered snails in those remnants of Brigalow around Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles, now the heart of coal seam gas development. “Every type of bushland I look at, I find another one,” he says cheerily. “I’m just in the process of describing two large snails from Queensland; it’s really quite amazing that things that large can still be unnamed in 2016.”
Invertebrate zoology, he says, remains a wide-open field of study. The Snail Whisperer signs off with a flourish: “Anything I can do to promote the snail world, the better!”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Snails’ place".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.