‘A Lot of These Species Are Right on the Edge’: More Than 50 Australian Plant Species Could Go Extinct in 10 Years
Scientists published the first major assessment of the health of Australian plant species in two decades, and the results are urgent, The Guardian reported Tuesday.
More than 50 of Australian plant species could go extinct within the next decade, but only 12 of them are listed as "critically endangered" under the nation's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Thirteen of the at-risk species are not listed at all.
"Some of these species, it would just take a grader truck from a council to accidentally run over them to destroy a whole population," lead study author and University of Queensland postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Silcock told The Guardian. "Some of these areas are only a couple of metres wide."
The papers' authors argued that their findings indicate that the Australian government should re-evaluate its lists of endangered species and coordinate them with the guidelines established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The paper, published in the Australian Journal of Botany, drew its conclusions from previous publications and from 125 interviews with experts in the field.
Here are some of the key takeaways by the numbers.
- 1,135 species were considered.
- 80 of those do not currently appear on any Australian state or federal lists.
- 418 are in "documented, suspected or projected" decline.
- 296 are at risk for extinction if current trends continue.
- 55 are at "high risk of extinction."
Silcock said the study offered important guidelines to improve the situation.
"It's a good news story in that there are things we can do," she told The Guardian, "but it's a call to action because if we don't do something there are species that will be lost."
Most of the threatened species were concentrated in key regions where changes in land use have made them more vulnerable. Species in southwest Australia, southeast Queensland and the Sydney basin are at risk due to urbanization and species in southeast South Australia and Victoria are at risk because of land-clearing for agriculture. The most at-risk species tend to be shrubs and southern Australia's orchids.
In general, the greatest threats to Australia's plant species are development, disease and the spread of weeds. However, Australia's plants are not as imperiled as the country's unique animal life."Australian plant conservation is not the disaster zone that mammal conservation is," Silcock told The Guardian. "A lot of the species are doing quite well but it's not a reason for complacency because a lot of these species are right on the edge."
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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