Kangaroo Island echidna, goannas resilient despite ferocity of latest bushfire: Dr Peggy Rismiller

Dr Peggy Rismiller documenting a termite mound burned internally from encased tree branch and new colony mound constructed since fire event. Rosenberg's goannas only lay their eggs in termite mounds. The large termite mounds that burned in the fire were too large for Rosenberg's to use. The good news is that the termites were already rebuilding shortly after the fire. New mounds will provide new nest sites.
Dr Peggy Rismiller documenting a termite mound burned internally from encased tree branch and new colony mound constructed since fire event. Rosenberg's goannas only lay their eggs in termite mounds. The large termite mounds that burned in the fire were too large for Rosenberg's to use. The good news is that the termites were already rebuilding shortly after the fire. New mounds will provide new nest sites.

World renowned environmental physiologist Dr Peggy Rismiller is already documenting how Kangaroo Island's bushland and native species are recovering from the recent bushfires.

Dr Rismiller is an expert on a range of local animal species including the echidna and Rosenberg's goanna.

These and other native species, as well the vegetation itself, are remarkably resilient and are already bouncing back.

Together with her partner Mike McKelvey, she has been venturing out onto the burned ground and writing updates on sightings and signs of these and other species.

She is sharing her current information regarding the resilience of KI's scrub and native species with the local community and her fellow wildlife experts.

"Fire is a natural part of the Australian landscape," she writes. "As biologists we view natural fires as one of nature's 'reset buttons'.

"Regeneration can start almost immediately. We have found fresh epicormic leaf growth, animal tracks and scats even as smoke was in the air.

"This past month a wildfire swept across the west end of the island. Homes have been destroyed, possessions, income and livestock have been lost. This has had a dramatic and traumatic effect on our community.

"The Kangaroo Island community has been through many previous fires and proven to be resilient. As nature begins the regeneration process, we will once again respond and mend.

"Many of you have asked if monitoring of individual animals continues. The answer is yes. When we revisit old study areas all animals, alive or dead, will be monitored for microchips.

"New individuals will be chipped and many transmittered so we can continue to follow them through the ecological successions."

Dr Peggy Rismiler monitoring 7 month old echidna at nursery burrow in fire ground on Kangaroo Island. Female echidnas construct a nursery burrows that are well protected from fire. She discovered this newly weaned and now independent young echinda at the burrow entrance. Tracks,and fresh foraging in the area were evidence that the mother was also alive and well.

Dr Peggy Rismiler monitoring 7 month old echidna at nursery burrow in fire ground on Kangaroo Island. Female echidnas construct a nursery burrows that are well protected from fire. She discovered this newly weaned and now independent young echinda at the burrow entrance. Tracks,and fresh foraging in the area were evidence that the mother was also alive and well.

30 years of knowledge

Over the past 30 years, the couple have had first-hand experience with a number of fire events, both on KI and further afield.

"Presently we are in the field monitoring many of these earlier sites and will continue monitoring through the coming seasons," she wrote in one of her udpates.

"Some of these sites were also burned in recent years and the comparative reburn data will continue to fill out our understanding of fire as one of natures "reset buttons" or as one of our technical volunteers said 'this is natures alt, control, delete.'

In the past, their primary intent was to document the survival of termite mounds where Rosenberg's goannas lay their eggs, goannas themselves and of course echidnas.

But during their outings and research, all wildlife sign and sightings were recorded.

"The fire here began at the end of December and has continued through nearly the end of January," Dr Rismiller writes.

"This is the courtship and mating time for goannas. From 30 years of documenting goanna movements, behavior and habitat use, we know they are great diggers and have numerous burrows.

"The burrows used at this time of year are "insulated" enough to provide a safe retreat from a fire. Exactly how the fire will affect breeding this year is yet to be seen."

Most termite mounds survive bushfires and she has documented young goanna emerging from the mounds.

"In the Dudley fire area, one year after the fire, we found a higher number of young goannas surviving because the rich natural regeneration of flora provided greater and denser cover."

Regarding echidnas, these natives are also remarkably resilient.

In filming documentary "Echidna the Survivor", a echidna was recorded walking around a still smoking bushfire area, foraging on some insects scurrying on a burnt log.

"As one of the oldest and longest surviving mammals, echidnas have an amazing survival history," she writes.

"They too are great diggers. In a fire situation, an echidna will dig down, manipulating dirt between the spines as partial insulation.

"Depending on the ferocity of the fire, spines tips may actually 'melt', but the echidna survives and can continue to lead a normal life."

Echidna also have a unique physiology that allows them to lower heart rate, respiration, metabolism and body temperature while buried deep in soil.

"They are one of many native species that have evolved with fire. Again, from 30 years observations and documentation in the field, most echidna nursery burrows are well protected from outside disturbances and environment.

"We discovered a nursery burrow at one of the control burn sites. During post fire surveys we found tracks of the female and soil disturbance at the nursery burrow entrance indicating she was returning to suckle the young. A few months later, a juvenile echidna was found at the site.

"If a female with young in a nursery burrow did not survive the current fire, it is most likely that the young is close enough to weaning to survive. Echidnas are survivors and have outlived past fires, climate changes and greenhouse effects."

Latest field report

Here is Peggy and Mike's latest field fire update from established data sites that were within the December 2019/January 2020 fire area:

Monitoring by P Rismiller and M McKelvey, Pelican Lagoon Research & Wildlife Centre, Kangaroo Island 5222 Australia

In nature, lightning strike fires are one of several natural "reset buttons."

When an event such as fire, occurs, nature is not slow to respond. Nature responds immediately. People on the other hand need time to assess, comprehend and plan. Nature's time and people's time are different in magnitude, composition and outcomes.

Nature is a dynamic multi tasker. Nature can adjust and process so quickly and subtly that we are not always aware of what is happening.

Some of the first obvious colonizers on the fire ground are the bacteria, moulds and fungi which begin the processes of ash neutralization (some of the ash pools are registering pH of 11- highly alkaline conditions necessary for germination of specific plants including many Kangaroo Island endemic plants.)

Extreme chemical or pH conditions are part of a natural succession that neutralizes through coming weeks, months and seasons. Invertebrate colonizers and recyclers are inhabiting the scorched and burned plants and expanding their habitats within the soil. They are converting and transporting nutrients from the debris back to the soil. These areas are the active edge supply lines. In addition to termites we recorded several different ant species, carrion beetles, dragon flies, small flies and wolf spiders.

While monitoring some fire grounds that were still smoking, natural regeneration of the environment was already evident.

Investigating termite mounds that appeared at first sight to be destroyed, we found another story...renewal of life, recycling soil and food for others.

There are always casualties in a fire. However, some islands of vegetation endure as refuge for remaining core animal populations. During past Kangaroo Island wild fires have documented that there are survivors and they are naturally resilient. The survivors represent a core. The number of individuals within this core adjusts to the resources available. How a core evolves can be influenced by outside factors such as artificial revegetation and supplementary feeding. Nature follows a succession of plants, which provide food and shelter for expanding populations. The job of these successional species is to prepare for future species. Any food and shelter supplement programs must be strategically planned and well thought out. Poorly planned and executed supplementary programs can be detrimental and counter- productive.

Most obvious in the fire areas were macropod tracks, traces and live sightings.

There were numerous areas of fresh echidna foraging in all the burned sites monitored and visual sightings of a number of large, very healthy individuals with no signs of fire trauma.

End of January into February is the time of year when young echidnas are weaned. At weaning they are totally independent and have very little to no contact with adult echidnas. It will not be unusual to find small (young) echidnas foraging and travelling through burn impacted sites over the next months. It is BEST PRACTICE not to remove/relocate echidnas from these areas. Nursery burrows are well protected from fire. An open nursery with young at the entrance was found during monitoring on 25 Jan.

Weight of young can be between 800-1800g. Weight/size has nothing to do with health or age of the young. The latter is dependent on the size of the mother. Large females wean large young, small females, small young.

Rosenberg's goanna tracks and freshly dug burrows were also recorded in the monitored fire areas as well as a number of skinks and other reptiles.

A variety of birds were sighted in and over the monitored areas and included, Wedge-tail eagle, Little eagle, Ravens, Grey Currawongs, Magpies, Nankeen Kestrel, Superb-blue wren, Bush Stone curlew, Striated Thorn bill and much to my surprise the Western Whip bird. The Western Whip bird is frequently heard during surveys but they can be very secretive and elusive. The one we observed was within natural habitat, foraging between remaining vegetation and out into the skeletal habitat. It was interesting to directly observe their feeding habits on invertebrates within the fire grounds.

We will continue monitoring over the next weeks, months and years. We are happy for people to share this information. We would welcome sightings of echidnas and goannas from the fire areas. End of January through the first week in March are recorded times for goanna egg laying. Keep your eyes open for this event. We can be contacted via e-mail at: rismac@kin.net.au

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