Australia's Chief Scientist

Australia’s threatened species

When Captain Cook was exploring the east coast of Australia, he had with him a very talented young botanist, Joseph Banks. Banks quickly realised that he was observing thousands of plant species that were obviously unique. He and Cook went home excited by all the different plants and animals they had seen during the expedition. Soon the whole of Europe was talking and speculating about the strange flora and fauna of Terra Australis.

Since then hundreds of species have become extinct in Australia, including at least 50 bird and mammal species and more than 60 plant species. Biologists have now listed all those plants and animals that they know are at risk of extinction in Australia. These are called endangered species. The list includes 19 species of fish, 16 frogs, 16 reptiles, 47 birds, 39 mammals and 612 plants.

There are two main threats to the continuation of species in Australia, and these threats have already caused extinctions. They are:

  • Loss of habitat – this may result from climate change, activities of humans or natural events;
  • the introduction of alien species which prey on and compete with native species for food and habitat.


Why does extinction matter?

A certain level of biodiversity is necessary to keep our ecosystems healthy. This is because each species performs a different function within an ecosystem. Extinction has always occurred; the important thing today is that the rate has greatly accelerated. This increased rate of extinction has already led to unstable ecosystems as well as to the loss of potentially useful species.

Can we prevent extinctions?

If we are aware of the problem and are concerned for our unique plants and animals, there is a good chance that we will, at least, slow the rate at which organisms are becoming extinct. For example, in 1994 when the ancient Wollemi pine was discovered, only 40 trees existed in its natural habitat. Since then, the Mount Annan Botanic Garden has grown hundreds of trees from seeds and cuttings and the plants are now grown commercially.

However, not all species under threat of extinction are being protected, nor is there sufficient funding to do so. Deciding how to allocate funds for threatened species programs is a difficult problem. The Australian Government Department of the Environment is responsible for policy issues and programs aimed at protecting threatened species in Australia.

More information on climate change and biodiversity is available at the Australian Academy of Science’s Nova: science for curious minds. A glossary, student activities and useful resources are also available.

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