A partnership to conserve invertebrates in WA’s far south
Melinda is a researcher with the EDG and is based at the University of Western Australia; Sarah works for the WA Department of Parks & Wildlife; and Mark is with the Western Australian Museum. They represent part of the diversity of SCTIG, a multi-actor group dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates on Western Australia’s southern shores.
To be effective, species conservation should be collaborative. Ideally this would involve multiple parties across land management agencies, research institutions and the local community (see Decision Point #73 for stories on this theme). But how often are such groups formed, particularly for invertebrates? Can’t think of any? Well you wouldn’t be alone. Threatened invertebrates don’t get much press and even less active support.
The fact is that multi-actor groups are rare for invertebrate assemblages in Australia. Which is why we want to draw your attention to the South Coast Threatened Invertebrates Group (SCTIG). The ‘South Coast’ here belongs to Western Australia and this region is part of the internationally recognised southwest Australia biodiversity hotspot. SCTIG was set up back in 2001 and we’ve recently held our 17th meeting (the authors are all members of the group).
SCTIG was originally formed when the local land managers (now the Department of Parks & Wildlife, or DPaW) realised they needed the expertise from other groups if they were to have a hope of managing the hyperdiverse assemblages of terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates along the South Coast. Members of the group have consisted of DPaW, the Western Australian Museum, the University of Western Australia, the University of Melbourne, local NGO’s (such as Gondwana Link; South Coast NRM; and the Western Australian Speleological group), and the local community. What is noteworthy about SCTIG is that the group is actually making headway into some of the major hurdles involving invertebrate conservation; this in a region facing multiple threatening processes. Here we outline what SCTIG has achieved and reflect on what it takes for a multi-actor group to be successful.
The Linnaean Shortfall
A first and obvious step is to work out exactly what you have in the region. When it comes to invertebrates, unfortunately, this already poses a major problem. Invertebrates are experiencing a taxonomic bottleneck, with only a very small percentage of the fauna described each year. It’s known as the Linnaean Shortfall (see Decision Point #61, p6-8) and it relates to the fact that there is a general lack of taxonomists for invertebrates, and the majority of invertebrate species are under-represented in museums and other collections. Within the South Coast, invertebrate taxonomy for numerous groups has been kick-started by SCTIG.
“SCTIG has led the way in formulating invertebrate conservation listings and management plans.”
Members are asked to collect especially hard-to-get invertebrates that may only be present at certain times of the year, or in unusual habitats. One recent example was a request earlier in 2014 by a SCTIG researcher for the incredibly rare males of tiny Moggridgea trapdoor spiders. One SCTIG ‘community’ member responded to the request and found two males on tree trunks during a rainy night near Walpole. SCTIG members may be asked to preserve the animals a certain way or, in the case of land snails for example, ensure that they are kept alive for molecular research. These samples are often invaluable to taxonomists, saving them from expensive and potentially unfruitful collecting trips. The taxonomy of some species has been driven by land managers, who believe that the species or habitats are at risk and require conserving.
By recognising what lives in the region and getting key species described by taxonomists, the management of these species can begin.
The Wallacean Shortfall
After the taxonomy is resolved, the next step is to work out where these critters occur, or perhaps to substantiate expectations that they really are restricted species. The Wallacean Shortfall is the general lack of knowledge on the biogeographic patterns for invertebrates which inhibits identification of restricted species (see Decision Point #61, p6-8).
The SCTIG has tackled this issue in two ways. First, groups suspected of being geographically restricted were targeted by members whenever the opportunity arose, and passed on to SCTIG specialists in the WA Museum.
Second, SCTIG found funds to model likely refugial habitat across the South Coast. Targeted surveys of these potential refugia were subsequently formulated, often through collaborations. For example, after consultation with members of SCTIG, the NGO South Coast Natural Resource Management group funded intensive surveys of the terrestrial short-range endemic invertebrates of the South Coast in 2006-2007. These intensive surveys resulted in detailed maps of 174 terrestrial species and an analysis of the endemicity and biogeography of millipedes in the region.
Gaining a solid understanding of the biogeography of species enables identification of potentially threatened invertebrates, and increases the likelihood of getting these successfully listed on the State’s threatened species list.
Policy and research
SCTIG has led the way in formulating invertebrate conservation listings and management plans. Prior to SCTIG, there were 3 invertebrates on the State Government threatened species list for the region (2 spiders and a snail). With impetus from the group, 26 additional species have been added as threatened (17 millipedes, 5 spiders and 4 insects). And SCTIG has been proactive in writing management plans, including the Stirling Range National Park Management Plan for invertebrates.
SCTIG has also fostered research collaborations and knowledge sharing which in turn benefits the invertebrates. Land managers such as DPaW officers often have access to difficult-to-reach sites, including those affected by disturbances such as fire, weeds and plant diseases (eg, Phytophtora dieback, aerial canker, myrtle rust, etc). They can relay important observations to specialist researchers, such as mass invertebrate death, the presence of invasive invertebrates, or damage to habitat by disturbances.
The researchers may then visit the site, facilitated by the land managers (occasionally this involves exciting transport such as helicopters!). Alternatively, the annual SCTIG meeting may be held nearby to facilitate a field trip to the location. From these interactions, adaptive management of invertebrates is being driven. For example, the effects of fire on conservation-listed pill millipedes was initially thought to be a threatening process. However, subsequent observations after burns have allowed us to begin to understand that the millipedes can survive certain fires. The impact of multiple fires, different fire intensities, and the timing of fire (eg, larger impacts may be evident with fires occurring when millipedes emerge from hibernation), is currently unknown and may require structured research (any fire ecologists interested?).
This close, on-going collaboration between members of SCTIG has facilitated timely adaptive management for numerous native invertebrates, as well as the relatively quick identification of the arrival of invasive species.
The fruits of collaboration
Conserving this huge proportion of the world’s biodiversity is a monumental task. But rather than be overwhelmed, SCTIG has faced the problem head-on and, after 13 years, the group is making a difference. Our 2014 annual meeting was one of the largest meetings to date and featured land-managers from outside the South Coast region who are interested in invertebrate conservation within their own region.
SCTIG has demonstrated that the keys to successful collaboration are common goals, plus the tenacity and perseverance of a few key people within different organisations. Annual meetings help to focus members on agreed actions and outcomes, provide access to expertise, update everyone on the progress of research, and keep members informed of policy changes, management plans, changes in management regimes or other issues affecting invertebrate conservation.
Successful collaboration results in many and varied rewards: land managers benefit from an accessible knowledge pool and researchers benefit through the collaboration with publications and outreach activities. As an added incentive, members have been regularly recognised for their efforts in invertebrate conservation through researchers naming species in members’ honour (11 species to date).
Finally, meetings held in the South Coast region are always concluded with a field trip. Not only do these provide specimens for study and greater local knowledge, they also serve as enjoyable bonding exercises that allow members to get to know each other outside of the meeting room. Each of us have enjoyed the many meetings that we have attended over the years, and hope that other regions around Australia take the initiative to form similar successful collaborative networks to conserve their own invertebrates.
Why inverts and why the South Coast?
Terrestrial invertebrates are believed to represent a whopping 78% of macro-biodiversity (vertebrates represent less than 3%) and the south-west Australian biodiversity hotspot is believed contain a large assemblage of largely undescribed invertebrate taxa. We know this region contains many very rare vertebrates such as Gilbert’s potoroo and the western ground parrot; and plants such as Banksia montana. And we know that the majority of threatening processes affecting vertebrates and plants (such as fragmentation, dieback disease and climate change) are also highly likely to be impacting the invertebrates. What’s more, the region possesses large numbers of short-range endemic invertebrate species (ie, 65% of 174 species accessed by Framenau et al. 2008 in the region). Given their restricted distribution and poor dispersal potential, such species are more susceptible to extinction.
Framenau VW, ML Moir & MS Harvey (2008). Terrestrial Invertebrates of the south coast region of Western Australia: Short-range endemics in Gondwanan relictual habitats. WA Museum, Perth.
More info: Melinda Moir firstname.lastname@example.org