The Siberian tiger and the Orang-utan are among 20,000 species globally to be considered threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (http://www.iucnredlist.org/). This means that these animals, based on scientific assessments, are at risk of extinction if their current decline remains unchecked. This number, although impressive, is only the tip of the iceberg as only a fraction of all species have been assessed to date.
In order to get a more comprehensive picture of the current state of biodiversity, we have now begun to evaluate the Red List status of hundreds of species of Australian land snails. These animals generally don’t capture our imagination in the same way a stealthy tiger or a colourful toucan would, so you might wonder, of all animals, why snails?
This might seem like making light of a serious matter, but imagine being a land snail; you’re a cumbersome mover, dragging a piece of calcified real estate and forever seeking shade and moisture in a world that is gradually warming. You’re evading invasive predators and bush fires, while dense strands of introduced weeds are displacing your leaf-litter hideouts. You’d probably feel, well… Threatened? We already know that many native species of land snail have declined due to these and other threats. However, we know little of the severity of decline for the vast majority of Australian species, or which are at significant risk of extinction.
Traditionally, conservation efforts have emphasised furry and feathery creatures, such as those mentioned initially, which also account for the majority of IUCN listings. Many of these animals are subject to illegal trade, overharvesting and poaching, and often occur in areas with rampant habitat loss, regions fraught with political conflict, or across countries with widely differing approaches to conservation. Such assessments may be very time consuming, often involving large multi-disciplinary teams and drawing upon vast amounts of data from countless scientific studies.
However, that is not to say that invertebrates are not experiencing a plight of their own; a growing body of research suggests that many invertebrate groups are facing unprecedented threats, with loss of habitat arguably the greatest. Caught in the perpetual shadow of their vertebrate counterparts when it comes to research funding and public interest, invertebrates vastly overshadow them in terms of species numbers, creating a disproportion that epitomises the need to undertake assessments at a large scale while using a streamlined approach. Moreover, these arguably less charismatic species may require different conservation strategies to ensure their survival. In order to find out, we have therefore chosen gastropods.
Our project is ambitious; we intend to conduct conservation assessments for over 700 species of the extraordinarily diverse family Camaenidae. Members of this family are found in a multitude of terrestrial habitats, from pockets of verdant rainforest to the red soils of Central Australia, and in every state and territory apart from Tasmania. To evaluate the conservation status of a species, we need to understand its habitat and ecology, distribution, taxonomy and any potential threats acting on it. Assessments therefore crucially require the knowledge of taxonomic specialists.
It is no mere coincidence that we have proposed to work with this particular family. Camaenids have been extensively studied at AMRI for nearly a decade, and about 200 species have been described here during this time. This conservation assessment project, funded by ABRS BushBlitz, allows us to translate our systematic research directly into practical conservation outcomes. This will involve reconstructing historical distributions, identifying and quantifying factors leading to the decline of species, and also recommending conservation actions where relevant.
Obviously, we can’t do this scale of study alone. For this project to be successful, we depend on input from a wide range of stakeholders including scientists, volunteers, conservationists, decision makers, and the broader community. Furthermore, we also benefit from the considerable support of the IUCN.
If successful, the 700 taxa we aim to evaluate will contribute nearly 1 per cent to the total number of species currently on the IUCN Red List (it must be clarified that all species on the list are not necessarily threatened, it merely means that their conservation status has been rigorously evaluated). Our hope is that we can identify ways of streamlining large-scale assessments, so that invertebrates –sometimes ironically referred to by conservationists as ‘the other 99%’ as an indicator of just how diverse and overlooked they are – can routinely be assessed to enhance their conservation outlook.
Dr Anders Hallan & Dr Frank Koehler, AMRI