WHEN YOU THINK of lyrebirds, what comes to mind may be the sound of camera clicks, chainsaws and the songs of other birds. While the mimicry of lyrebirds is remarkable, it is not the only striking feature of this species.
ABOVE: Male Superb Lyrebird in display.Alex Maisey, Author provided.
Ecosystem engineers change the environment in ways that impact on other species. Without lyrebirds, eastern Australia’s forests would be vastly different places.
What is an ecosystem engineer?
Ecosystem engineers exist in many environments. By disturbing the soil, they create new habitats or alter existing habitats, in ways that affect other organisms, such as plants and fungi.
A well-known example is the beaver, in North America, which uses logs and mud to dam a stream and create a deep pond. In doing so, it changes the aquatic habitat for many species, including frogs, herons, fish and aquatic plants. Other examples include bandicoots and bettongs.
The Superb Lyrebird acts as an ecosystem engineer by its displacement of leaf litter and soil when foraging for food. Lyrebirds use their powerful claws to rake the forest floor, exposing bare earth and mixing and burying litter, while seeking invertebrate prey such as worms, centipedes and spiders.
To study the role of the lyrebird as an engineer, we carried out a two-year experiment in Victoria’s Central Highlands, with three experimental treatments.
First, a fenced treatment, where lyrebirds were excluded from fenced square plots measuring 3m wide.
Second, an identical fenced plot but in which we simulated lyrebird foraging with a three-pronged hand rake (about the width of a lyrebird’s foot). This mimicked soil disturbance by lyrebirds but without the birds eating the invertebrates that lived there.
The third treatment was an unfenced, open plot (of the same size) in which wild lyrebirds were free to forage as they pleased.
Over a two-year period, we tracked changes in the litter and soil, and measured the amount of soil displaced inside and outside of these plots.
Lyrebirds dig up a lot of dirt
On average, foraging by wild lyrebirds resulted in a staggering 155 tonnes per hectare of litter and soil displaced each year throughout these forests.
To the best of our knowledge, this is more than any other digging vertebrate, worldwide.
To put this in context, most digging vertebrates around the world, such as pocket gophers, moles, bandicoots and bettongs, displace between 10–20 tonnes of material per hectare, per year.
But how much does an individual lyrebird displace? At one study location we estimated the density of the lyrebird population to be approximately one lyrebird for every 2.3 hectares of forest, thanks to the work of citizen scientists led by the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Study Group.
Based on this estimate, and to use our dump truck analogy, a single lyrebird will displace approximately 11 dump trucks of litter and soil in a single year.
Changes to the ground layer
After two years of lyrebird exclusion, leaf litter in the fenced plots was approximately three times deeper than in the unfenced plots. Soil compaction was also greater in the fenced plots.
Where lyrebirds foraged, the soil easily crumbled and the litter layer never fully recovered to a lyrebird-free state before foraging re-occurred.
This dynamic process of disturbance by lyrebirds has been going on for millennia, profoundly shaping these forests. For organisms such as centipedes, spiders and worms living in the litter and soil, the forest floor under the influence of lyrebirds may provide new opportunities that would not exist in their absence.
An ecosystem ravaged by fire
The Australian megafires of 2019–20 resulted in approximately 40% of the Superb Lyrebird’s entire distribution being incinerated, according to a preliminary analysis by BirdLife Australia.
So great was the extent of these fires that the conservation status of the lyrebird has been thrown into question. That the conservation status has fallen — from “common” to potentially being “threatened” — from a single event is deeply concerning.
Loss of lyrebird populations on this scale will have potentially far-reaching effects on forest ecology.
In the face of climate change and a heightened risk of severe wildfire, understanding the role that species such as the Superb Lyrebird play in ecosystems is more important than ever.
Without lyrebirds, eastern Australia’s forests would be vastly different places, with impacts extending well beyond the absence of their glorious song to other animals who rely on these “ecosystem engineers”.
We have uploaded some videos on YouTube. This is being used as evidence that Cairns Regional Council is dispersing the Spectacled Flying Foxes (SFFs), not deterring them as they claim (once they land in the trees, it is no longer ‘deterrence’, it is ‘dispersal’. But even if Cairns Regional Council were just deterring, this is largely irrelevant. If there are significantly pregnant females, all dispersal and deterrence activities must stop. Any SFF expert will tell you it is very likely a significant number of adult females are now signficantly pregnant.
Stop the dispersal-deterrence-eviction now!
CAPTION: Spectacled flying-foxes are important pollinators and seed dispersers in Australia’s Wet Tropics. Photo: Inigo Merriman. [Yes the picture is placed the correct way.]
Yet, the federal environment minister approved the dispersal last month under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) — Australia’s key environment legislation for protecting threatened species, and currently under a ten-year review.
Today, the camp is not only home to a big portion of the species, but also around 2,000 pups each year. Flying-foxes are extremely mobile in the region, so the camp provides a roosting habitat for more than what’s present at any one time.
Why dispersals don’t work
The council is permitted to disperse the flying-foxes with deterrent measures, including pyrotechnics, intense lighting, acoustic devices and other non-lethal means.
The Conversation sought a response to this article from Cairns Regional Council. A spokesperson said:
Relocation measures will only occur between May and September — outside of the spectacled flying fox pup rearing season to avoid a disruption to the species’ breeding cycle.
The relocation activity will be undertaken by appropriately qualified and experienced individuals and non-lethal methods will be used.
The program is tailored to minimise any stress on the animals and causes no injury of any type.
Dispersals risk stressing the already disturbed animals, and causing injuries and even abortions and other fatalities. They also risk shifting the issues to other parts of our human communities, as the bats tend to end up settling in an unanticipated location after having been shuffled around town like a game of musical chairs.
Cairns Regional Council argues their decision to attempt to move the bats to the Cairns Central Swamp is in the long-term interest of their survival. A council spokesperson says:
Heat stress events, urban development and increased construction in close proximity to the Cairns City Library roost will continue to stress and adversely affect the spectacled flying fox population.
Also, the health of roost trees at the library site, and therefore the viability of the site as a spectacled flying fox roost, is diminishing. Council believes relocation will mitigate human/flying fox conflict, enable the trees at the library to recover, and will likely reduce the high rates of pup mortality that have been recorded at the library colony.
But these animal welfare concerns arose from the accumulated impacts of the council’s poor management actions, or actions the council supported.
In 2014, the council was found guilty, under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act, of driving away spectacled flying-foxes and illegally pruning the habitat trees.
The Cairns camp was then subjected to a series of EPBC-approved roost tree removals in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Collectively these destroyed more than two-thirds of the available roosting habitat at the site.
This directly contradicts the specific EPBC Act referral guideline, which states actions to manage the flying-fox camps should not significantly impact the species.
And in 2015, Cairns Aquarium developers had to destroy trees home to hundreds of spectacled flying-foxes before they could start construction. That’s because under the EPBC Act, no building near or around the flying-foxes is permitted. In this case, the act’s well-intentioned protection measures caused far more harm than good.
Warnings fall on deaf ears
In the meantime, the national conservation status of the spectacled flying-fox moved too slowly from “vulnerable” to “endangered” in the listing process.
What’s more, the state government’s recovery plan for the spectacled flying-fox — in place since 2010 — has never been implemented.
Are there any solutions?
There are no solutions under the EPBC Act as it’s currently framed.
The tragic end to the story is that a dangerous precedent is being set for flying-fox management in Australia. Bat carers in Cairns are readying themselves for an influx of casualties from the dispersal.
Some bat carers have sadly reached the conclusion the dispersal is now the least-bad option for the bats after their stronghold suffered a death by a thousand cuts, leaving their home unviable.
Maree Kerr contributed to this article. She is a co-convenor of the Australasian Bat Society’s Flying-Fox Expert Group; an invited expert on the Cairns Regional Council’s Flying-fox Advisory Committee; President of Bats and Trees Society of Cairns; and is studying the role of education in public perceptions of flying-foxes at Griffith University
Evan Quartermain contributed to this article. He is Head of Programs at Humane Society International and a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.
Management mania’s lethal path in Australia. 360 degrees counter to Aboriginal use of patchwork cool burns for land management.
Story and photo by Ian McCallan from Hinchinbrook Island and Cardwell
Hinchinbrook Island, pristine landscape. Tourism promotion.
NATIONAL PARKS QUEENSLAND continue to ignore their charter: To manage our forests using “Minimum human interference”; protect from all interference other than essential management practices so that natural attributes are preservedand parks are actively managed to conserve wildlife.
National Parks are now ‘landscaping’ wilderness to their preferred designs and the tool they use to achieve their aims is fire. They are managing our forest by continually burning them despite the obvious cruelty to wildlife and the extremely dangerous airborne pollution threat.
Hinchinbrook Island, off the east coast north of Townsville, is Australia’s largest Island National Park and World-heritage listed. Home to the rare and endangered Blue Banksia, (falsely claimed by QPWS to require fire to germinate) the Island has over the past few years been subjected to repeated major destructive interference by National Parks.
Fire from the sky destroys kilometres of forest
National Parks senior management have kept silent about a series of hot burns largely from incendiaries dropped from helicopters which we believe began in September 2014 on Hinchinbrook Island and continued into 2019 when nearby Gould Island was also included.
It is extraordinary, but Hinchinbrook Island together with all the other tropical islands off the north Queensland coast (with the exception of Dunk Island) have been deliberately burnt for many years.
The Hinchinbrook fires, planned and ignited by National Parks in September of 2014 destroyed about eighteen square kilometres of forest on the steep slopes of the Island right in the centre of the most attractive part of the Thorsborne Trail. Subsequent fires have enveloped even more of the Island and destroyed more Blue Banksia.
the wet tropical vegetation on Hinchinbrook needs no fires to survive; hazard reduction burns out of control
While the wet tropical vegetation on Hinchinbrook needs no fires to survive, the eucalypt forest favoured by National Parks “needs” cruel maintenance burns every five or so years. These burns kill rainforest species which National Parks describe as “Invasive rain forest”. Natural vegetation has been replaced by an intensely thickened Wattle dominated forest in the burn areas.
The subsequent airborne pollution kills native wildlife and the people who have the misfortune to live in the path of these huge and deadly smoke plumes. The majority of native animals unable to fly endure extreme cruelty.
Months after the 2014 Hinchinbrook fire, we were contacted by an expert witness who reported that a very hot fire had caused catastrophic irreparable damage to the forests of magnificent Hinchinbrook Island.
At that stage we did not know the cause of this fire. Investigations rapidly uncovered that this was yet another hazard reduction burn that went out of control and will take many, many years to repair. It was many months before we were able to get to the island to investigate, the damage was horrific with virtually every living thing killed.
Hot fires out of control on other islands, without regard to ecology, cyclone recovery
Last year (2019) Gould Island — just to the north of Hinchinbrook Island — was also burnt at the worst possible time, creating a hot-burn right in the middle of the nesting season for the Pied Imperial Pigeon. Large numbers of chicks together with most other native animals would have been incinerated.
The protection of rare species such as the Blue Banksia should be of paramount importance. The burn area contained significant numbers of saplings and many mature trees in the process of recovery from cyclone Yasi in 2011, the vast majority of this species were destroyed.
On our first visit, we searched for living specimens but could only find two tiny seedlings. The damage to both fauna and flora has resulted in substantial alterations to the natural biodiversity of these islands. National Parks destruction of rain forest species which do not burn readily, has resulted in dry eucalypt forests that are substantially more flammable than the forest it replaces.
In 2019, more fires were lit in extremely dry conditions at the beginning of November. These burnt fiercely for over four weeks causing extreme levels of life-threatening airborne pollution affecting the health and well-being of people in Port Douglas, Cairns, Innisfail and Mission Beach in the north to Ingham in the South. For the duration of this fire Hinchinbrook Island could not be seen from the adjacent mainland such was the level of dangerous airborne pollution.
Fire followed by heavy rainfall = erosion. Who is making these decisions?
Subsequent heavy tropical rainfall will have caused serious erosion of the now unprotected thin layer of topsoil on the very steep slopes at the top of some of the mountains. Twenty years ago, it would be unheard of to ignite major fires in the beginning of the wet [season] pointing the finger at inexperienced staff making decisions they were not capable of making.
National Parks have kept quiet about this and despite the carnage the people responsible still work for National Parks and plan further burns for this magnificent and very important World Heritage Area. As far as we know and despite the serious nature of the damage, no prosecutions are planned by the minister, Wet Tropics Management Authority or QPWS.
They started burning Cardwell a few days ago and really got stuck in. Mountains behind Cardwell, (the Cardwell Range) is almost invisible and they have just started. (Photographed end April 2020.)
An informal Cardwell-based group was formed to combat the destruction of our wet tropics forests and wildlife by continual burning and to make the public aware of the extreme dangers of breathing heavily polluted air. Air quality in the wet tropical regions is dangerously compromised by months of heavy smoke from National Parks ignited forest fires.
Despite the fact that airborne pollution is responsible for over 3,000 premature deaths in Australia every year (over double the road toll), the local town of Cardwell is blanketed in thick smog usually for several weeks at a time. This pollution is apparently necessary for National Parks landscaping.
The publication of US research into the deadly effects of Pm 2.5 airborne pollution, the major component of bio mass smoke, paint an awful picture for the people that live close to these magnificent Islands. Far North Queensland should have the cleanest air in Australia yet National Parks are now one of the biggest creators of this deadly pollution.
Pm 2.5 is the new asbestos but unlike asbestos this is affecting everybody down wind of the burn sites.
Blitzkrieg of fire novel in the 70,000-year history of fires in Australia.
Historical research post-European settlement indicates that there is a huge, almost vertical, spike of burning beginning about two hundred years ago that is still rising. This peak suggests a huge rise in deliberately-lit fires, as far as can be ascertained far higher than any other event, in the 70,000-year period of human habitation of the continent.
[Learning from traditional Aboriginal patch-burning with cool fires is a far cry from dropping incendiary devices for hot burns across the countryside, particularly in an era of climate changed-induced drought and bushfires, Editor.]
We questioned the QPWS officers responsible for fires in this area about the pollution they create and this was their answer:
“Bush fire smoke is a perfectly natural substance and therefore completely harmless.”
They also replied to questions about how many plants required fire to germinate, the answer was 26.
The current research shows there are no plants in the Mediterranean climate areas of Australia, that is the areas containing the fire belts of Australia, that need fire to germinate. Australia has about 30,000 plant species the vast majority of which are either severely damaged or killed by fire.
Author’s conclusion of this investigation
I believe the World Heritage listing for Hinchinbrook Island should be suspended until a full and independent investigation has taken place to determine the competency of National Parks to manage World Heritage sites such as Hinchinbrook and Gould Island, and that they should be required to show good cause for their deliberate failure to comply with their own directives and management protocols to responsibly manage world heritage areas.
The extensive research into hazard reduction burning shows clearly this practice does not work.
Extensive US research into the extreme dangers of inhalation of Pm 2.5 was completed in about February of 2020. See above link to ABC Radio National Health report.
The deliberate production of this substance and its distribution throughout Australia should be banned immediately without exception.
I’m Penny and I wrote the Mt Lofty koala petition — thank you for sharing it. In response to your query, this is the story!
DHA said that they had withdrawn their Masterplan for 342 houses.
This turned out to be sort-of true.
They have ditched the big development, but they did not withdraw their plan. They have kept it current under the same development assessment number. This means that they can submit a new plan without going to the public and submissions are disallowed.
We have approached council re[garding] this and asked that any new plans must be go out to submission.
However, DHA has stated that they will put forward a much smaller development and that they won’t clear all/most of the critical koala habitat. So yes, it is a win. But it also depends what they do next … so we are keeping a good eye on them!
— Cheers, Penny. 16 April 2020
UPDATE: Toowoomba koala habitat Mt Lofty
A big hello to all our wonderful supporters!
Today we woke up to this headline on the front cover of our local paper: DHA Ditches Mt. Lofty Plan.
342 houses will no longer be built on this precious land. There is still some way to go on this, as all this really means is that the original plan has been withdrawn. It remains to be seen what will emerge in its place. However, it’s a win and we are celebrating (we like to think the koalas are too, in their own secret way).
This petition shone a light onto our little neck of the woods, onto our koalas, onto our beautiful forested land with its creeks and waterfall, with its mists and endless views. We could NOT have done this without all the people, from all around our bruised planet, who cared enough to support us.
Let’s take strength from this and keep on fighting. Lets show the greedy, the thoughtless, the uncaring and powerful that we mean business. We fight. We don’t stop.
— The Save Mt. Lofty Inc Team, 21 February 2020
Petition to local council, ask state and federal officials to say NO.
Mount Lofty is a very special place, right on the edge of the Toowoomba Escarpment. It’s a place of forests, permanent springs and Toowoomba’s only waterfall.
We, the Mt. Lofty community, see and hear koalas here all the time. Malcolm and Belle have a special place in our hearts because they’re breeding right now. We want to see little baby koalas here. Australia needs that to happen very, very badly.
It’s not just koalas either. There are lots of other animals here too, such as echidnas, wallabies, kangaroos, goannas, small mammals, bats, reptiles and frogs. The bird life is amazing.
But that’s about to change.
This land has escaped the developers only because it’s an ex-Rifle Range and has been owned by the Department of Defence for over 100 years.
But now our Federal government wants to clear all the land that’s flat enough to build on, including 38 hectares (that’s 76 football fields) of Critical Koala Habitat. They’ll bulldoze the forest and cram the bare dirt with 342 houses and villas, on blocks down to 300m2.
Few of these houses are for the Defence force. An independent consultant says most of them will go to investors and second home-owners.
They even want their own special planning code so they can get away with it.
It’s not too late though!
Right now, the Toowoomba Regional Councillors have this application sitting on their desks. They have the environmental grounds in the planning code to reject this development and save the koalas, and all the animals, on this land.
The community has been fighting this for over two years now. Time is running out — the decision could come any time within the next few months.
Please tell the people doing this that we just cannot keep on this way. We have lost over a billion animals in the fires. Koalas are slow and many of them were burned to death.
We cannot afford to lose more animals, especially when this land was never paid for and doesn’t have to be destroyed for one-off financial gain.
On 15 January 2020 Lyn Gynther, Kangawatch Queensland posted on Facebook:
Kangaroos in their hundreds in Queensland are huddled under trees on the Surat to St George Road looking extremely poor because farmers have fenced off their properties and the roos can’t access water … this is absolutely disgusting and it is happening right across other parts of Queensland as well where this cluster fencing is being erected.
What is the matter with the government in this country not to mention the RSPCA for not stopping this fencing fracturing the ecosystem to begin with … I’m so angry, I hope every farmer in that area goes broke. And I don’t wish harm to anyone normally but anyone who can stand by and do this is not worth the piece of paper their name is written on.
On 16 January Lyn posted:
I just rang the Maranoa Council (1300 007 662) about the kangaroos on the Surat–St George Road and asked that they please put out water stations … I was told they would NOT be helping the kangaroos in any way and the council have been in fact funding farmers to erect exclusion fencing and since this has happened, the sheep farmers production rate has increased from 0.1% lambing to 60% lambing as a result of wild dogs [being kept out] but they did admit that exclusion fencing has also been erected on some properties solely to keep macropods locked out.
They further told me that it is not their responsibility to worry about wildlife and that the reason they won’t be putting any water out for them is because it will cost them money to do so and they need to spend the rate payers money in line with how the community expect it to be spent … I was then told to contact DPI who deal with the QLD FERAL PEST INITIATIVE program.
They said there are 5 water facilities on the stock route (which farmers can also use — so obviously there are also stock on the stock routes eating what little feed there is left for wildlife) and those water facilities are 1 every 10klms … they are aware of 2 that are dry due to the drought but still will not help the animals. Oh, and BioSecurity may also be someone to speak to (I was told), and at the end of the day Agricultural Management has to come before the wildlife.
Comment thread to Lyn’s post indicate there are many Australian citizens and ratepayers who agree with Lyn and would not agree with the council.
Lyn then wrote to a Brisbane journalist:
I contacted the Maranoa Council yesterday [see outcome above] after I got a report that more than 200 kangaroos were locked out with the exclusion fencing on the Surat–St George Road and they were unable to access water.
ALSO note that DES [Queensland Dept of Environment and Science] have tried to investigate a number of illegal culls (eg helicopter blasting away the roos; urea in water; illegal shooting) but no one will speak when they get out there … also permits are not being applied for, they are just doing it on a grand scale now … but still the DES are issuing permits to others knowing full well it is going on.
Contact Lyn for further information and please support her efforts for the kangaroos (and other wildlife like emus, as seen in this image taken mid-2018) locked out of their usual wildlife corridors. This exclusion fencing (inset) locks out and traps wildlife (then often shot) has become a feature of an opportunistic return in central Queensland to sheep farming as wool prices have recovered.