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Statement from Australia’s Natural History Museum Directors

05 February 2020

IMPACT OF FIRES ON BIODIVERSITY ON A SCALE NOT SEEN SINCE SPECIES 

RECORDS WERE FIRST KEPT

Loss is in the ‘trillions’ of animals due to climate change crisis


The Directors/CEOs of Australia’s leading natural history museums today issued a joint statement in support of increased funding and co-ordinated national action to address the impacts of climate change on the nation’s biodiversity following the bushfires which ravaged the continent over the past few months.

The Directors of the Australian Museum (NSW); Museums Victoria; South Australian Museum; Western Australian Museum; Queensland Museum; and Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory; whose natural science collections hold almost 60 million reference specimens said:

Natural history museums are among the most trusted public institutions* playing a critical role in describing and conserving our natural history in Australia and connecting the natural environment with the public through education outreach and exhibitions.

We now recognise human-induced climate change, alongside land clearing and habitat use, as the over-arching issue affecting Australia’s unique wildlife as evidenced by more intense bushfires, drought, floods and the impact of warming oceans on the Great Barrier Reef and other marine environments.

Our museums hold invaluable reference collections for the nation – we are the ‘ark’ of information on Australian species with collections that date back as early as the 1850s.

Collectively they form an irreplaceable resource and provide unique insight into the composition and evolution of our natural history and a benchmark by which the devastation caused by the bushfires can be measured.

The impact of the recent fires on Australia’s biodiversity is on a scale not previously seen since record-keeping began in the mid-1800s. The estimate of the destruction to our biodiversity from the fires is in the ‘trillions’ of animals, when considering the total of insects, spiders, birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and even sea life impacted over such a vast area.**

Australia’s natural history museums are committed to finding out how species have been affected, to implementing and supporting programs to restore those species that can be saved, and to engaging the public in mitigation strategies.

Over the next few months, and once it is safe to do so, each museum plans to return to the field, working in collaboration with our national networks of museums and herbaria, state government agencies and universities to ascertain the impact of the fires and work to plan for the restoration of species where possible.

Each museum will focus on examining the damage of the fires on existing field research sites and comparing the findings with our data sets, providing a longitudinal view.

In the longer term, our Museums will draw on our rich scientific expertise and data sets to provide conservation advice. We will also engage with the Australian public through citizen science and other activities and will work towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Australia’s leading experts across the natural history disciplines work at our state-based museums. Museum research scientists are in the field year after year describing and monitoring the biodiversity of different regions, including many endemic species present nowhere else on the planet. Additional funding for this research is urgently needed to allow museums to carry out this significant work.
The bushfire climate change crisis has reinforced that we have much to learn from our First Nations people and that First Nations understandings of our natural species and land management is to be respected, understood and embraced in our research.

The time to act is now and the nation’s natural history museums are ready to respond.

Signed:

Kim McKay AO, Director & CEO Australian Museum (NSW); Lynley Crosswell, CEO & Director, Museums Victoria; Brian Oldman, Director, South Australian Museum; Alec Coles OBE, CEO, Western Australian Museum; Dr Jim Thompson, Director, Queensland Museum Network; Marcus Schutenko, Director, Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory.

ENDS#

*C. Dilenschneider, “In Museums we Trust. Here’s How Much (Data Update)”, 3 June 2019. <https://www.colleendilen.com/2019/03/06/in-museums-we-trust-heres-how-much-data-update/>
**trillions estimate based on number of arthropods in 8 million hectares (Dr Chris Reid, Senior Entomologist, Australian Museum)

Queensland Museum Network

“Australia, in particular Queensland, is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Recent and devastating bushfires around our country has seen enormous loss to our biodiversity and our unique species. Queensland Museum has been undertaking research that measures/identifies losses that can be found right on our doorstep in Lamington National Park. Through our role as custodians of the Queensland State Collection of more than 14 million objects, we are in a unique position to investigate the impacts and responses on species diversity to climate change phenomena.”

Dr Jim Thompson, CEO

Collection

Queensland Museum has been collecting and documenting the natural and cultural history of Queensland and Australia since 1862: 158 years. Queensland Museum has 14 million biodiversity specimens. Queensland Museum has a large and strong collection of vertebrates and invertebrates including mites and spiders, insects, and parasites. Together our collection tells the life story of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world – Queensland.

Queensland Museum also holds specimens of a number of extinct, threatened and endangered species, there is concern a species of spider from Kangaroo Island described by Dr Michael Rix may be extinct after all its known habitat was burnt in recent bushfires.

Queensland Museum’s earth sciences collection is one of the largest collections in the southern hemisphere, with some of the most iconic Australian dinosaurs and marine reptiles. Basic knowledge of these species that inhabited our regions over vast geological time has many applications for science, climate projection and land management.

Major data sets – fire-affected areas

Lamington National Park was one of the areas badly affected by bushfires in Queensland. `
Queensland Museum researchers have been working since 2006 as part of the IBISCA-Queensland Project which established permanent plots within Lamington National Park, to identify which animal and plant groups are likely to be most sensitive to climate change and which ones can best be used as indicators for monitoring such change. See Memoirs of the Queensland Museum - Nature Volume 55, Part 2.
https://www.qm.qld.gov.au/About+Us/Publications/Memoirs+of+the+Queensland+Museum/MQM+Vol+55

Collaborative work in response to the fires

Queensland Museum staff and our partners work collaboratively on plants, invertebrates and vertebrates to map and clearly document patterns of highest endemism in priority areas, information that can potentially be used to inform adaptive fire management.

Queensland Museum has close and ongoing partnerships in Queensland studying these areas with:

  • Griffith University, University of Queensland, James Cook University, and Central Queensland University,
  • The Federal Government (ABRS) Bush Blitz surveys which aim to describe and document Queensland’s biodiversity and heritage.

Longer-term research on climate change and biodiversity impacts

As the home of the largest reef system on earth – the Great Barrier Reef – Queensland Museum is a leading institution on corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Researchers are also studying the effects of climate change on wider marine life. Queensland Museum have a number of partnerships focusing on the Great Barrier Reef including the establishment of a coral bank.

Additional comments

Like museums around the world, Queensland Museum is in the position to use our collections and knowledge to empower public engagement and awareness of climate change to start a conversation based on scientific research and historical records.

Our goal is to investigate the impacts and responses by species to climate change phenomena, from the perspective of small changes in distributions (time frames of several years), to medium term habitat shifts at the landscape level (periods spanning 20–100 years), to long term changes at the evolutionary level of geological time scales (millions of years). We are in the position to be able to use our collection to understand past and current change and to learn how we can mitigate future consequences.

The climate change debate is not about whether climate change occurs, but about the rate at which it continues to occur and the extent to which human civilisation is changing greenhouse gas levels (through over-population, industrialisation, fossil fuel consumption, other pollution, land clearing) that are causing the present, rapid changes to our climate patterns

The impacts of climate change in Queensland is one of the biggest environmental challenges the state faces.

For more information or to organise an interview please contact:

Kylie Hay, Senior Media Advisor, (Monday to Thursday), (07) 3842 9388, 0434 565 852
Christine Robertson, Senior Media Advisor, (Wednesday to Friday), (07) 3840 7789, 0417 741 710
media@qm.qld.gov.au