Since late Fall 2019, we have been witness through the media to horrific and uncontrollable wildfires raging in South Australia.
By mid-January 2020 an area the size of West Virginia had been consumed by fire and approximately 28 people killed (compared with the Paradise, Calif., fire in 2018: 150,000 acres and 85 deaths). We have also heard of the devastating effects of the fires on the wildlife. A rough estimate of close to a billion animals, birds, insects and other life forms consumed by the fires, their environments so destroyed that even those which survived the fires had no way to survive the resulting devastation. Many people may wonder why so much attention has been paid to this natural tragedy, but it is an important event and we can learn much from it.
Australia is a continental mass far from other landmasses, large or small. Most, except for New Zealand, are often referred to as the Island Nations, as they are mostly archipelagos such as the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Timor, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea. The Australian continent finally separated from Antarctica 30 million years ago. As a result of its isolation and changing climate over eons it has species of many life forms that exist there and nowhere else. This is living bio-diversity, illustrated plainly for all to see. Most of us grew up able to recognize a kangaroo because of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Most travelers to a large zoo will make a point of visiting the Koala bears, slow-moving and cuddly- looking, despite curving claws. These are two of the many species of marsupial mammals that evolved on the Australian continent.
Although Australia’s fossils show a great variety of life forms similar to those world-wide, some of their mammals are unlike those of most other parts of the world. In this way, Australia demonstrates the amazing process of trial and error in the course of evolution. The class Mammalia is considered to be the top of the evolutionary heap because of the complexity of design. Mammals come in three very different forms: Egg-laying, pouch carrying and placental. Australia has all three types living and surviving today on the continent. It’s unique, like having a present-day, on-going demonstration of an evolutionary biological experiment which has lasted millions of years.
Mammals have several features that distinguish them from other life forms: they are warm-blooded, have hair, teeth, live young, milk glands, and a 4-chambered heart. The Monotremes such as the Duck-billed Platypus and the Spiny Anteater or Echidna are an interesting transition between reptiles and mammals. They possess all the mammalian characteristics but also some reptilian ones. They have no teeth as adults but they have stiff beaks or bills. They lay eggs, they have a combined outlet (cloaca) for fecal, reproductive and urinary tracts like reptiles, but their young emerge from the eggshell in a very immature state and are protected by the mother’s body as they develop, fed by milk absorbed from her skin but not through nipples, They are found only in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea.
Marsupial mammals are those whose young are born in a very early stage of development and grow after birth in pouches of skin that develop on the mother’s body when she is pregnant. The marsupials secrete milk and have nipples, sometimes many, inside the pouches. Kangaroos, Wallabies, Koalas, and Opposums are all examples. Some species of Opossums are also found in N. and S. America. Along-side these unusual types of mammals are the placental mammals, of whom we are most familiar, whose young develop inside the mother’s body and are born at varying levels of development and independence. As more peoples settled in Australia from other continents they brought with them other placental mammal species of all kinds, disturbing the natural balance between the three types. This pre-existing competition in numbers makes the wildfires more threatening to the survival of the unique species.
As in the U.S. since the devastating California fires, there has been discussion in Australia of fire prevention, forest management, controlled burning and some of the techniques used by native peoples to prevent huge fires. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the Native American tribes in the forest areas, used similar practices, called mosaic cool-fire burning, which uses small, purposely-set fires, in the cool and wetter times of the year to burn dead brush. In N. America this technique was used to preserve accessible hunting areas in the forests and also to provide garden spots for growing basic storable foods. These techniques also provide corridors that wildlife can use to escape larger fires during the hotter times of the year. Such corridors on Kangaroo Island, a major wildlife preserve and eco-tourism destination in S. Australia, could have saved many of the thousands of animals trapped and destroyed by the recent fires there. In northern Australia, the use of these Aboriginal bush clearing techniques in modern times has already significantly reduced the incidence of wildfires.
This type of management also needs to be used on a different scale in the National Forests in the U.S. and areas where we know that fires threaten human life and property. This Australian tragedy should provide the impetus for projects we know we need to do.