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Protecting endangered species we don’t know much about

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) uses set criteria to define species extinction risk. At the pointy end of the wedge, species are classed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable. Overall…

The lack of biological information about some species may be keeping them off the IUCN critically endangered list. Mariana Campbell

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) uses set criteria to define species extinction risk. At the pointy end of the wedge, species are classed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable.

Overall, the IUCN system for defining species viability is considered robust. On a species-specific basis however, extinction risk may be underestimated.

Inappropriate classification is often due to a lack of ecological information. It may seem trivial, but this mis-classification could result in lack of action.

At the time of writing, Australia had 96 species within the “critically endangered category”. I am certain the list would be far longer if there was sufficient data upon a greater number of species.

The endangered unknown

For example, the Freshwater Whipray (Himantura Dalyensis) was only discovered in 2006. It was identified from only a few specimens captured from rivers in northern Australia. Seven years later nothing is known about its population size, distribution, life-history, and ecology. The species is currently listed as endangered, but really we don’t know how the population is faring.

The Spear-Tooth Shark (Glyphis glyphis) also inhabits rivers in northern Australia. It is considered to grow to over three metres but an adult individual has never been captured and identified. This magnificent animal was only described to science in 2005. The species is IUCN listed as endangered, but without even knowing where the adults exist we have no idea about past or present trends in the population.

The Mary River Turtle (Elusor Macrurus) is Australia’s largest freshwater turtle. It extracts oxygen from the water through a gill like structure in its tail, and has been given the nickname bum-breather. Despite being located only three hours from Australia’s fourth largest city, the species was only described to science in 1998. The eggs of this turtle were plundered throughout the 1960s and 1970s and sold in pet shops throughout South Australia. Older Australians may know this critter as the “penny turtle”.

The species fails to attain IUCN critically endangered status. Although the IUCN do acknowledge that more ecological information about the species is urgently required.

Mary River turtles live only hours from Brisbane, but we know very little about them. Mariana Campbell

The lack of scientific knowledge about the animals that roam this continent is perhaps testimony to its size and biodiversity. But it also reveals a long standing lack of investment into ecological study and research.

Encouraging programs

Fortunately the tide is changing. Australian universities are now populated with some of the world’s best ecologists. Collaborative ventures such as the Terrestrial Ecosystem Resource Network and the Atlas of Living Australia are web-based portals that store Australian ecological-based data records and improve access.

The Australian Animal Tracking and Monitoring System helps hundreds of researchers from around Australia track the coastal and oceanic movements of marine animals, allowing them to share their results.

The Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis supports working groups to get information and ideas from ecologists through to resource managers and policy makers.

These joint ventures are inspired. They are going to change the way we view and manage Australian animals. I just hope we are not waking up too late.

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  1. Mark Poynter


    Your article says " At the time of writing, Australia had 96 species within the “critically endangered category”. I am certain the list would be far longer if there was sufficient data upon a greater number of species"

    However, it could be that the opposite is also true. That is, if we had more information because we actually started looking more intensively, we may well find that some endangered species may be more common than is expected.

    One example I am familiar with is the Long-footed…

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I agree Mark

      The IUCN criteria for listing a species as endangered etc has a number of different areas of assessment, including population size.

      However, while population size is important, whether the population is declining or growing (and whether this is just a normal fluctuation or because of threatening processes) is also important. How these are assessed in species we know little about would be a cause for questioning whether or not the listing is appropriate.

      I also share you concern about the amount of resources spent on 'charismatic' species. But of course, much of the money raised for species protection is raised because of these charismatic species - and their protection is as much a political decision as it is a rational conservation decision. There are probably more 'deserving' species that warrant protection (because of their ecosystem importance), but there probably will never be much money for invertebrate (or similar) protection.

  2. Jeremy Tager


    Another example and one that in my mind highlights many of the deficiencies of the current listing and protection of threatened species is the snub fin dolphin. It was discovered in 2005. It had previously been mistaken for the Irawaddy river dolphin. It inherited the Irawaddy's migratory status although that may well be dangerously wrong. It was nominated for 'priority listing' under the convoluted federal system, but failed to make that year's short list due to data deficiency. Unfortunately, the threats it is facing along the east coast due to port expansion and coal mining may see it disappear before we know what we have found. The laws don't require developments to undertake the work that fills this data deficiency and in the absence of knowledge, approvals are happily given. It is easier under the EPBC Act to build a coal mine than it is to protect a species, particularly one about which almost nothing is known.

    1. John Rodger
      John Rodger is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director Wildlife Biodiversity CRC Bid

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Deficiencies in information, positive or negative are fundamental characteristics of the current biodiversity crisis. The current conversation has rightly focused on the animals and their populations but there are also the invisible problems. Populations can seem large and viable but lack genetic diversity like the Tasmanian devil and others can succumb to an emerging disease like the frogs. Better surveillance of current threats, preparation for emerging problems and better integration of responses across the many players; agency, NGO, community and industry is critical if we want to change the current trajectory of decline.

    2. Jeremy Tager


      In reply to John Rodger

      And a regulatory system that is more than a sham system of protection. Until we have legislation that has protection as a priority rather than approval with conditions and offsets, we will continue to see biodiversity decline, often precipitously.

  3. Dion Wedd

    Curator Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin at Territory Wildlife Park

    In response to Mark's comments below,
    It's an interesting debate for sure. I am not sure if the lack of knowledge is attributed to the lack of work on the species. I think it can often be a lack of research about people who do know about the species. Our approach to science relies heavily on what is peer reviewed and published. If hasnt been published, it is seems to be assumed that we don't know anything about it.
    As an example I have been keeping Himantura dalyensis (formally H chaophraya…

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    1. Hamish Campbell

      Post-doctoral Research Fellow at University of Queensland

      In reply to Dion Wedd

      Hi Dion,

      I couldn't agree more. The lack of understanding about a species status could go both ways. Conservation resources are limited so we need to make the most appropriate actions with the knowledge available. Classifying and quantifying that uncertainty is a science in itself.