Let’s not forget the scaly, slimy and spineless on Threatened Species Day

September 7th marks the anniversary of a spectacular failure in Australian wildlife conservation. On this day in 1936, the last known thylacine, the largest marsupial carnivore and the only member of the family Thylacinidae, died in captivity in a Hobart zoo. Today, this day is recognised (I cannot bring myself to write “celebrated”) as Threatened Species Day.

ARKive video - Thylacine - last known individual, 1936

In July this year, the Australian Government launched a new Threatened Species Strategy at a summit in Melbourne. Many conservationists, myself included, have welcomed these plans, which include targets to improve the conservation status of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 priority plant species by the year 2020.

Those who know me will know of my love for bandicoots, bilbies and quolls, so it should be no surprise that I’m delighted to see some of these species included in the new strategy. But still, in the days following the announcement I found myself having conversations with an assortment of friends and colleagues that went along the lines of “this is great but what about the threatened fish… or reptiles… or amphibians… or insects… or crustaceans…”

If we are serious about wildlife conservation and the preservation of ecosystems, we can’t afford to focus only (or mostly) on the cute and the fluffy. We need to strive to conserve all wildlife and especially to prevent the loss of species that play important ecological roles. We need to save the pollinators, the predators, the detritivores, the ecosystem engineers… there are many of these and, although some may have fur or feathers, most of them don’t!

So here, on National Threatened Species Day 2015, I’ve profiled eleven of Australia’s less-well-known threatened animals. These species possess neither fur nor feathers and all are listed under the Australian government’s EPBC as Critically Endangered or Endangered.

1. The Blind Velvet Worm (Tasmanipatus anophthalmus) – Endangered

Tasmanipatus anophthalmus - Photo credit Robert Mesibov  CC-BY-NC
Tasmanipatus anophthalmus – Photo credit Robert Mesibov CC-BY-NC

Despite its common name, the blind velvet worm is not a worm, but an onychophoran, a member of an enigmatic phylum that is closely related to arthropods. Velvet worms are tiny predators that squirt slime both to catch their prey and to defend themselves. Tasmanipatus anophthalmus is only found in the north-east of Tasmania, in eucalypt forests where it lives deep within rotting logs: the moist environment protects it from desiccation. The species is threatened by the clearance of native forest (or its conversion to plantations), removal of dead logs for firewood and overly frequent or high intensity fires.

Learn more about the blind velvet worm:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List

2. The Alpine Stonefly (Thaumatoperla alpina) – Endangered

Thaumatoperla alpina - photo credit Miles Nicholls (Creative Commons Attribution)
Thaumatoperla alpina – photo credit Miles Nicholls (Creative Commons Attribution)

The alpine stonefly is the largest Australian stonefly, and is endemic to the Bogong High Plains in Victoria. Five of the 12 sites it is known from are within the Falls Creek Alpine Resort, a popular skiing area. Nymphs spend several years living in cool alpine streams. Adults live for two months post-emergence and have poor flight capabilities, so colonisation of new habitats is limited. The species is threatened by climate change, drought and changes in fire regimes. Threats to the stonefly’s habitats include ski resort developments, pollution of watercourses by snow-making, and forestry activities. Predation on nymphs by introduced trout may also contribute to declines.

Learn more about the alpine stonefly:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia

3. The Wielangta Stag Beetle (Lissotes latidens) – Endangered

The Wielangta stag beetle is restricted to south-east Tasmania, where it prefers to live in wet eucalypt forests where there is a lot of fallen and dead wood. Adults and larvae live in the soil and feed upon decaying logs. This beetle is wingless, which means it is not able to easily colonise new areas. The major threat to the Wielangta stag beetle is habitat loss, through forest clearance, overly frequent fires and removal of dead wood. It is also threatened by the wildlife trade, as a species sought by collectors.

Learn more about the Wielangta stag beetle:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia

4. The Desert Sand-skipper (Croitana aestiva) – Endangered

The desert sand-skipper is a small butterfly found in the Northern Territory, restricted to the area around Alice Springs. Little is known about the biology of this species and relatively few specimens have been collected. Buffel Grass is a key threat to the desert sand-skipper. This introduced grass displaces native grasses, which may include the butterfly’s food sources. Buffel grass is also more flammable than native vegetation, and its presence alters fire regimes in Australian ecosystems by increasing the frequency and intensity of bushfires.

Learn more about the desert sand-skipper:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia

5. The native bee Neopasiphae simplicior – Critically Endangered

The bee Neopasiphae simplicior, which doesn’t seem to have a common name, is a small black short-tongued bee known from a single location in the Forrestdale Lake Nature Reserve in Western Australia. Very little is known about this species, which seems to be restricted to certain wetlands and occurs in conjunction with a number of other threatened plants and animals. Drainage and land clearing for urban and agricultural development has already destroyed over 80% of the wetlands in this region and given its extremely restricted range the greatest threat to the bee’s survival is likely to be habitat loss. A single bushfire could wipe out all remaining habitat!

Learn more about Neopasiphae simplicior:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia

6. The Margaret River Burrowing Crayfish (Engaewa pseudoreducta) – Critically Endangered

ARKive image - Margaret River burrowing crayfish, lateral view

The Margaret River burrowing crayfish is a small crayfish endemic to south-west Western Australia. It lives in narrow creeks, where it digs large and complex burrows that allow it to access the freshwater table during the dry summer months. The species has a limited distribution and is threatened by habitat loss caused by human activities such as agriculture and forestry, and the impacts of feral pigs. Changes to salinity, flow regimes and soil permeability all affect the crayfish’s ability to survive and construct burrows.

Two closely related species, the Critically Endangered Dunsborough Burrowing Crayfish (Engaewa reducta) and the Endangered Walpole Burrowing Crayfish (Engaewa walpolea), are also listed under the EPBC.

Learn more about the Margaret River burrowing crayfish:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List
Arkive

7. Mitchell’s Rainforest Snail (Thersites mitchellae) – Critically Endangered

ARKive image - Mitchell's rainforest snail
This terrestrial snail is currently known from five locations in New South Wales, where it lives in the northern coastal lowlands. There are estimated to be fewer than 500 mature individuals left, and the extant populations are isolated from each other by urban and agricultural developments. The snail seems to be a habitat specialist, and requires an undisturbed forest canopy to protect it from desiccation, and sufficient leaf litter to provide food and shelter. Threats to Mitchell’s Rainforest Snail include habitat destruction through land clearing, fire and the spread of invasive weeds, and predation by the noisy pitta and introduced rats.

Learn more about Mitchell’s rainforest snail:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
NSW Office of Environment and Heritage
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List
Arkive

8. The Grey Nurse Shark (Carcharias taurus, east coast population) – Critically Endangered

ARKive image - School of sand tiger sharks drifting just above the sea floor

The grey nurse shark was declared a protected species in 1984, making it the world’s first protected shark species. In 2010, the Australian east coast population was estimated at around 1100-1700 individuals, with evidence of population declines since the 1950s. Threats to the grey nurse shark include fishing (commercial and recreational), shark-finning, shark control measures, poorly-managed tourism activities and the aquarium trade.

Learn more about the grey nurse shark:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
NSW Department of Primary Industries listing
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List
Arkive

9. Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) – Endangered

This Australian freshwater fish was once widespread through rivers in the south-east of Australia, but most populations have declined and the species is now restricted to only parts of its former range. The Macquarie perch is threatened by changes to habitat quality, including increased sediment flow into rivers, loss of riparian vegetation, altered flow regimes and habitat degradation as a consequence of human activities, droughts and fires. Dams and weirs prevent fish from migrating to spawning or feeding areas. Introduced fish, including trout and carp, also impact Macquarie Perch through competition, predation and the introduction of novel parasites and diseases.

Learn more about Macquarie perch:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
NSW Department of Primary Industries listing
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List

10. The Baw Baw Frog (Philoria frosti) – Endangered

ARKive image - Baw baw frog on rock

The Baw Baw frog is found only on the Baw Baw plateau in Victoria. Although it was widespread in this area, the plateau is small and the frog population has declined considerably since the 1980s. The cause of this decline is uncertain, but threats to the species may include changes to climate, pollution, and pathogens such as chytrid fungus.

Learn more about the Baw Baw frog:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List
Arkive

11. The Grassland Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) – Endangered

Grassland earless dragon - photo credit Anna MacDonald
Grassland earless dragon

There are two remnant populations of the grassland earless dragon, one in and around Canberra, the other in the Monaro Tablelands in New South Wales. The species is restricted to native grasslands (an endangered ecological community) and relies upon the availability of burrows made by wolf spiders or crickets, or grass tussocks and crevices under rocks for shelter. The grassland earless dragon is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation as a consequence of urban development and habitat degradation caused by ploughing and other agricultural activities, including overgrazing, rock removal and the introduction of non-native plants.

Learn more about the grassland earless dragon:
Department of the Environment Species Profile and Threats database
Atlas of Living Australia
IUCN Red List

And finally… I know I’ve only listed animals here. I’m not sure I know enough about threatened plants and fungi to even consider writing about them, but you can learn more about Australia’s threatened plant species here, and about conservation of Australian fungi here.

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