The Kangaroo Island dunnart, which shelters in the skirts of grass trees, had more than 95 per cent of its known habitat burnt. The Kaputar rock skink was only recently described by science. It is not listed as threatened but has a tiny distribution in the Nandewar Ranges in NSW, more than half of which was burnt.
Ms Box said some species that didn’t have extensive areas of habitat burned could still be at risk “due to a lack of resources or due to increased threats from feral animals”.
The glossy black cockatoos on Kangaroo Island were at risk of starving as their specialist diet of casuarina cones had been hit in the fires, she said. Similarly, the mountain pygmy possum and brush-tailed rock wallabies might struggle to find food.
She said ground-dwelling birds and small mammals were particularly susceptible to predation by feral cats and foxes, which were able to hunt more effectively when undergrowth was burned out by fire. Fish living far downstream of the fire event could be very severely impacted if heavy rain washed down a load of sediment and ash.
“While we are not aware of any extinctions due to the bushfires, and while there have been some encouraging sightings of threatened animals in fire-affected places, it is still not safe to enter many areas to make more detailed on-ground assessments,” Ms Ley said.
Sydney University professor in terrestrial ecology Chris Dickman said it was “entirely possible” species that were not previously threatened had become extinct in recent years and the change had not been noticed due to a lack of ecosystem monitoring.
“We don’t have the long-term monitoring to quantify the extent of species decline and to find out why it may be taking place,” Prof Dickman said. “There is so little statutory monitoring being undertaken that changes in populations are being noticed only when people who spend a lot of time in the bush put their heads together.”
In October, 13 researchers published a paper in the Conservation Letters journal that found government investment was “inadequate to address Australia’s extinction crisis”, estimating the country’s spending on threatened species conservation amounted to about a quarter of international best practice.
In compiling the list released on Tuesday – which includes 13 species of birds, 19 mammals, 20 reptiles, 17 frogs, five invertebrates, 22 crayfish and 17 fish – the scientific panel assessed species’ status before the fires, in light of the area of habitat burned and their vulnerability post-bushfires. A similar assessment of plants is under way.
The list will be used to target recovery efforts, which include food drops, breeding programs to reintroduce animals to their ranges, animal treatment and control of feral animals that either compete with natives for food and habitat or prey on them.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.