By Jess Whinfield.
The combined size of the arid and semi-arid regions of Australia is 5.3 million square kilometres. That’s a full 1 million square kilometres bigger than the entire European Union. But there’s a lot less soccer and bickering over geopolitical birders, and a good deal more sun, sand and spinifex.
That’s excellent news if you’re trying to bury a body, but devastating for the morale if you’re looking for an extremely rare bird that looks like a chubby budgie, doesn’t really fly and only comes out at night. Fortunately, bird-lovers are an especially patient group of people. They’re willing to enjoy the varied discomforts that accompany looking for a very rare bird in a vast and inhospitable landmass. And in their search for the elusive, apparently extinct Night parrot, the efforts of a small number of conservationists and birding enthusiasts have been well rewarded with the end of the parrot’s 75-year ‘extinction’.
The secretive Night parrot – with its absence of any real neck and patriotic green-and-gold colouration – is one of a select group of plants and animals that captures the imagination through its apparent resurrection from oblivion. They’re known as a ‘Lazarus species’, named after a bloke that Jesus once raised from the dead. These are species that appear to disappear for years or decades. Or, in the case of the Wollemi pine, for an impressive 2 million years – prior to its rediscovery just outside Sydney in 1994, the most recent record of the 40m-tall tree was a fossil from Tasmania.
Australia is quite well represented in the Lazarus species stakes. Although with one third of the world’s mammal extinctions from the last four centuries occurring in Australia, we’ve given ourselves a rather grim head start.
Another of these Lazarus animals is the mainland subspecies of Eastern Barred Bandicoot. These shoe-sized marsupials, with their endearing eyes and too-short tails, were commonly found across South Australia and western Victoria until the 1930s. Their numbers then plummeted spectacularly, and by the early 1990s they were presumed extinct.
That was until a small population was found among the untouched wilderness of the Hamilton tip in western Victoria. In 1991, Zoos Victoria extracted a few breeding pairs from rusting car skeletons and moved them into captivity. Now extinct in the wild, the captive bandicoot population has steadily grown since then. This has been helped in part by the vivacity with which they reproduce (they have the shortest gestation periods of any animal at just 12 and a half days, after which the young are carried around in a nifty backwards-facing pouch).
The problem facing many Lazarus species is that the cause for their initial disappearance has rarely been resolved in the years between their apparent loss and rediscovery. For the Eastern Barred Bandicoot, those threats are foxes and feral cats – and as long as these predators persist in the bandicoot’s former habitat, their prospects for reintroduction will be limited.
Another of the Lazarus species is the Lord Howe Island stick insect. Because it looks like a stick, isn’t furry and doesn’t move around a whole lot, it’s not the most charismatic of species. But it is very charming in its own way. I have a little model one that sits above my desk and watches me procrastinate. Like the Night parrot, the length of time that rediscovery took (80 years in the case of this stick insect) was partly due to it being a small, well-camouflaged animal that only comes out at night and survives in a place where humans generally don’t.
It was presumed that Black rats caused the stick insect’s extinction in the early twentieth century. Rather, the stick insect had bunkered down on a barren rock shard 600km from the Australian mainland, but only 23km off the coast of popular tourist destination Lord Howe Island. It was on this volcanic outcrop that the insect once roamed contentedly, except when fishermen would use them as bait; such was their former abundance. In 2001, 2 breeding pairs were recovered from the 20-30 individuals that comprised the only survivors of the species, existing on a single bush on a single rocky outcrop in the middle of the ocean.
When I saw the sea-stack where all this magic happened, I may not have been telling the entire truth when I said the sea spray was making my eyes water.
In September this year, a milestone for the species was celebrated when the stick insects bred for the first time outside of Australia. People may not have flocked to Bristol Zoo to see the arrival of the new zoo babies as they would for a panda cub, but it was a win for the species. Like the bandicoots, their reintroduction to ‘mainland’ Lord Howe is hampered by the persistence of that which drove them to extinction. If everything goes to plan, the rodents that almost completely wiped out these stick insects will be eradicated in the not too distant future. With luck and good science, this will pave the way for the rat’s former hors d’oeuvres to reclaim Lord Howe’s forests.
The magical thing about all Lazarus species – insects, birds, and bandicoots alike – is their profound ability to generate hope and positivity. Conservation can be a pretty gloomy topic, and these miraculous rediscoveries offer us a chance to correct the mistakes we made that drove these plants and animals to their apparent extinction.
That’s not an easy task, and certainly the rediscovery of the night parrot is only the very beginning of the conservation efforts that will have to follow to ensure that this little bird doesn’t disappear again. Because next time it may not return.
Night Parrot Stories screens on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 at ACMI in Flinders Street.
Jess Whinfield is a veterinary student who mostly writes anatomy flashcards and the lifecycles of obscure parasites (for revision purposes, of course).