During Australia’s bushfires, many animals have been displaced from their usual habitats and are choking on smoke. (Supplied: Georgina Steytler)
Scientists warn the megafires on the eastern seaboard will result in the loss of entire species of birds and wildlife.
- Scientists are warning fires may have wiped out large populations of birds and other wildlife
- Smoke is also causing erratic behaviour in some native animals, including bees
- More roadkill is likely as wildlife moves into townscape areas in search of food and water
Meanwhile, animals have been displaced from their usual habitats and are choking on smoke.
Grant Palmer, senior environmental science lecturer at Federation University, said the ongoing smoke could trigger wildlife to behave bizarrely.
“Smoke can trigger different behaviour in wildlife — they might appear more active or a bit unsettled,” Dr Palmer said.
Instead of fleeing from fire, echidnas burrow underground and hibernate while waiting for the fire to pass them.
“They dig into a burrow or the soil and slow down their metabolism and make a buffer from them and the fire,” Dr Palmer said.
“There’s some interesting photos of these echidnas with a ’90s flattop hairstyle, where their spike have been burnt off.”
Echidnas’ spines are modified hair, and they can grow them back. (Supplied: EchidnaCSI Project)
Dr Palmer said this did not permanently injure echidnas, as they could grow their spines back.
“Their spikes are actually modified hairs, so it’s like us singeing our hair. They look a bit weird for a little while, but they do recover,” he said.
Native animals flee their homes
Dr Palmer said because wildlife was losing habitat and moving into more populated areas, he had expected there would be more roadkill.
“We’ve seen lots of kangaroos move into townscape areas,” he said.
“Roadsides gather water as well, and they’re often green areas, so we’d expect animals such as wombats and kangaroos to use roads as a food refuge,” he said.
At least a billion animals have died in the eastern Australian bushfires, but Dr Palmer said the number of invertebrates that have been killed was estimated to be “many magnitudes” higher.
“Invertebrates are the engine room of our ecosystem. Their functions are critical to how the ecosystem recovers to fire,” he said.
“It will have long-term impacts of the type of recovery we will see.”
Dr Palmer said the Australian bush needed fire to regenerate, but it was not used to being burnt this frequently.
“The recovery is going to be very different this time, we’re going to lose species out of the systems completely — it’s a worrying thing,” he said
Dr Palmer said some wildlife have been using the disorienting effects of the bushfires to hunt smaller prey.
“Smoke and flames may trigger some species to move into the burnt area and take advantage of it,” he said.
“We know birds of prey can move into burnt landscapes and [hunt] vulnerable prey.”
Bird species being pushed to the brink
Samantha Vine, head of conservation for BirdLife Australia, said about 50 species of birds had been identified so far as being majorly affected by the fires.
“For birds that were already threated with extinction, we’re really concerned this is an event that is going to push them that much closer to the brink,” she said.
Many of these breeds, including the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo, the regent honeyeater and the north-eastern bristlebird, had lost at least a third of their populations.
Bird species including the glossy black cockatoo have lost at least a third of their populations. (ABC News)
In addition to the animals incinerated in the flames, Ms Vine said many birds were struggling with the after-affects of the fires.
“Many animals get lost and can’t find their way back, and if they do come back, is there any habitat left,” she said.
“Birds are turning up in weird places, so I imagine the ones that have fled their homes are looking for new ones.
“But if that’s good habitat it’s unlikely to be empty, so there will be fierce competition for resources.”
Ms Vine said emergency intervention, such as captive breeding, would be required for species that were already threatened due to drought, feral predators and habitat destruction.
“It’s really heartbreaking, the initial estimates of what devastation the fires wreaked,” she said.
Bees are choking on smoke
Ian Cane is a third-generation beekeeper in East Gippsland, where one million hectares has been burnt and multiple fires are still burning.
“Hives have been burnt, so that’s a total loss there, and bees are also suffocating in the smoke and dying due to the excessive heat,” he said.
Mr Cane said the amount of smoke in the regions’ forests had been extreme for months.
“Bees go out to fly and just don’t make it back as the environment they’re flying in is too unhealthy,” he said.
Many of the bees have been relocated to South Gippsland, in the hope to save some of the population from suffocation.
Mr Cane said the smoke also confused the bees, disrupting their natural cycle.
“They won’t gather water to keep themselves cool, and they certainly won’t be collecting honey,” he said.
Due to the amount of damage to the forests the bees relied on, Mr Cane said the population would not recover for decades.
“It will take 40, 50, 60 years, and some species may not come back,” he said.