Talking Animals: ‘Worst may be yet to come’ for animals caught in Australia wildfires

There are still some wildfires burning in Australia — leaving many animals at risk. So far, they’ve killed 33 people and an estimated one billion native animals.

University of Windsor anthrozoology professor Beth Daly joined Tony Doucette in the Windsor Morning studio as part of the show’s Talking Animals series to discuss the long-term effects of the Australian bushfires on animal species and the ecosystem as a whole.

Let’s talk about the animals affected. Are these endangered species?

Many of them are endangered species because Australia is a unique place. Australia is its own little ecosystem. It has been separated from mainland for its whole existence so many of the animals that live in Australia live nowhere else. So it’s really a diverse and interesting little microcosm of its own world of animals.

Could animals which are not endangered now become endangered as a result of this? 

Obviously when there is destruction like we’ve seen which has just been horrific — absolutely. All animals require food and water and a lot of their access to such has been destroyed.

Fire and Rescue personal watch a bushfire as it burns near homes on the outskirts of the town of Bilpin, 90 kilometres northwest of Sydney, on Thursday. (David Gray/Getty Images)

I’m fascinated by some of the stories of koalas approaching people to get water. That doesn’t strike me as normal animal behaviour.

Nothing we’ve seen is normal. I’ve talked to people I know who are animal specialists and everyone is saying, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before. There’s no precedent for this.’

People aren’t even sure how to respond. Zoos have gotten together and talked about how they can help zoos in Australia. The zoos themselves don’t know what they need because they don’t know what’s yet to come.

How do wild animals typically respond to something like a fire?

What’s interesting — and we’ve seen this here in Windsor at Ojibway Park — fires are normal. In Australia, they’ve seen a regular yearly amount of burning. This is not in an irregular thing. What is irregular is the extent to which this fire has destroyed so much.

In fact, what’s normal usually is that some parts of habitats and ecosystems are destroyed which results in a normal change. The animals respond by finding new places to live. But what’s happened with this particular incident is that it’s wiped out access for many animals to find new shelters and to create new habitats.

I understand that aside from the fires killing animals in Australia, there’s also some culling going on?

Yes. In fact, many people don’t know this, but there are feral camels in Australia that were brought over. Australia has only been settled for a couple of hundred years. Prior to that, Aboriginal peoples lived as people do within, respecting the environment. But when it was settled and colonized, people brought camels in to get across the desert areas.

As a result, there’s a large number of feral camels. What’s happening now is those feral camels are actually going into residential areas, taking water from air conditioners and destroying a lot of residential properties. They’re literally being shot from helicopters.

Going back to the discussion about endangered species, notable examples include koalas and kangaroos. But I’m sure their ecosystem is more varied than that.

Absolutely. They’re doing fine. Usually, the species that are most at danger of course are species that have a very small distribution. We see koalas on the news because they’re adorable, but they are really not at risk. Neither are kangaroos because their distribution is across all of Australia.

Animals that are being affected are those that, for instance, live only in a small regional area such as Kangaroo Island. The big concern which I keep reading about is a small little marsupial called the Kangaroo Island dunnart and that is a little rodent. It looks like a little mouse. It has been almost wiped out. There are so few of them. Kangaroo Island is a very attractive tourist destination and that area has been decimated.

Ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate 480 million animals have died in the bushfires in New South Wales, Australia, since September. A rescue effort is underway. (Tracy Burgess/Australia Wildlife Rescue Organization)

There’s also what appears to be a spiny anteater?

Yes. I was just reading about the poor little short beaked echidna. Because it has such a small territory, it’s being wiped out.

It’s not just access to food or water, but also what’s happening is predators are coming into the area that haven’t done so before. So foxes and cats are actually going distances of 30 and 40 kilometres because they know that there is easy prey and it’s really interesting. Scientists have not seen this before.

Someone here on the other side of the planet — in Windsor, Ontario — might hear us talking about this dunnart, this little mouse-like creature, and wonder why they should be concerned about this. What would you say to those people?

It’s such a philosophical question. On one hand, should we care about all species? And our response is, ‘Of course we should.’ But also we don’t know the effect that the tiniest species has on an entire ecosystem. Many of us have heard of the butterfly effect.

But the smallest little species somewhere in the middle of a tiny area could have an effect on the entire ecosystem. It may eat the bug that pollinates the flower that gives oxygen to the area. We’ve seen all of this before with the butterfly effect. It’s turned into movies and a whole philosophical ideal that many of us talk about.

Do you think the worst may be yet to come here?

It looks like it could be for something like the Kangaroo Island dunnart and many of the feral camels and many of the animals that live in small areas that have been affected. There’s also many species that we don’t hear about. I have read that there are up to 50 species that could literally be wiped out as a result of this single fire.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.