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Thursday, January 3, 2019

North Queensland Extreme Heatwave impacts koala population

I was scanning for news articles on heatwave impacts and came across this article on Koalas by ABC Capricornia.

It's a well written, but quite an alarming story By Alice Roberts and Jacquie Mackay: Koalas in trouble after Queensland's bushfires and heatwave, expert warns.

According to one CQUniversity academic, extreme heatwave and bushfire conditions could have major long-term impacts on animal numbers in Queensland. Alistair Melzer, a CQUniversity koala researcher, told the ABC that it could be years before the full impact is known.

And we have the iconic image of Chantelle Lowrie in Victoria giving a koala a drink from her water bottle in the 44C late December heat. (See my December 30 entry of Climate Diary of a heatwave)

To quote from the news article:
"The situation is koala numbers will have gone down as a consequence of this, particularly where the winds were at their strongest and where those fires occurred there'll be significant loss of koala populations, if not local extinction," Dr Melzer said.

"The Clarke-Connors Rangers, the Eungella area was severely affected by fire and that's been a significant refuge for koalas in Queensland for a long time.

"We're concerned there could be come long-term impacts on the viability of Queensland's koala population, depending on how badly those animals were impacted and how badly the habitat was impacted there."

Dr Melzer said koalas had adapted to heat extremes as a species, so populations would survive in areas where they were able to find sufficient water and habitat.

But he said the survival of individual koalas depended on the circumstances in which they found themselves at the time.

"One of the biggest threats to koalas is heatwave," he said.

"When we've got these very hot, dry conditions, the koalas need to try and avoid the heat, and two, they need to get as much water as they can but the foliage itself is compromised because of the hot dry winds."

Dr Melzer said in those conditions koalas would try to seek shelter at the base of a tree, in creek beds or in tree hollows.

"Inevitably once the temperatures reach a certain point, the koalas will become heat exhausted and once that happens they'll rapidly die," he said.

"That's exacerbated by fire — even if a koala survives a fire, the tree canopies are scorched by the fire then the animals will not have access to food or water as well, so they'll suffer then too."

In December 2009 I reported on IUCN report: Koalas threatened by Climate Change, and in May 2010 that Koalas face starvation, extinction due to climate change.

Crisis in NSW Koala populations

The crisis in Koala population decline is accentuated by extensive land clearing in New South Wales, enabled by new vegetation laws introduced by the NSW Government in 2017.

A report in November 2018 highlighted that Seventeen of New South Wales 20 deforestation hotspots contain koala habitat at risk of land clearing under new state environmental laws, a report by the NSW Nature Conservation Council, WWF-Australia, The Wilderness Society and National Parks Association of NSW has found.

“Our research shows deforestation is worst in areas with some of the most vulnerable koala populations left in NSW,” Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski said.

“High rates of deforestation in areas with koala habitat is a major risk for this iconic species, especially west of the Great Dividing Range where the deadly effects of climate change on koala populations is most acute.

“Without a dramatic change, koalas and other species that rely on forests and woodlands for their survival will continue their catastrophic decline.”

North Queensland Heatwave causes Mass death of Flying Foxes

Koalas aren't the only species feeling the heat, the Extreme heat wiped out almost one third of Australia's spectacled flying fox population, about 23,000 flying foxes are estimated to have died from heat exhaustion in the extreme heat of the North Queensland early December 2018 heatwave event.

Larger bat species, like the Grey Headed Flying Fox or Spectacled Flying Fox, are signature species which have a temperature intolerance to heat at 41-42C which may impact ecosystem services such as pollination and seed dispersal. (Welbergen, Klose, Markus and Eby 2008) The heatwave in 2014 in southern Queensland took a massive toll on the Grey Headed Flying Fox species particularly affecting young and lactating females.

Cairns and Far North Environment Centre video:

ABC News video report:


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