The ongoing bushfire season in Australia has been one of the worst in recorded history, and conditions are only expected to worsen as the season progresses. As things stand, over 18 million hectares of land have been engulfed by the fires and an estimated 1 billion animals have been killed in the process.
Conservationists are only just getting their heads around the extent of the damage to the ecosystem, with populations of some of Australia’s best-loved species (like the koalas) all but decimated by the disaster. In terms of Australia’s insects, however, the no-doubt devastating impact of the fires is yet to be seen. With huge swathes of natural habitat wiped out in a matter of weeks, what does this mean for Australia’s smallest inhabitants?
Why does Australia have so many bushfires?
Bushfires are a regular and natural occurrence across Australia, thanks to the hot, dry climate and abundance of flammable flora (like the famous eucalyptus trees). Annual bushfires are a natural part of the country’s seasonal rhythms, and the landscape is well adapted to them. In fact, many of Australia’s native plants can’t reproduce without them.
Since September 2019, however, hundreds of bushfires have raged out of control across Eastern Australia, swallowing up millions of hectares of land in the process. This has resulted in the direct death and loss of habitat of millions upon millions of plant and animal species, but what will be the impact on Australia’s insects?
Which areas have been hit hardest by the 2019/2020 bushfire season in Australia?
The areas worst hit by bushfires since the beginning of the 2019 season in Australia are New South Wales and Victoria, where the fires have destroyed over 6 million hectares of land. Over 5 million of these belong to New South Wales, where the bushfires have also taken over 2000 homes and displaced thousands of people.
Why is this bushfire season so much worse than usual?
Bushfires are a completely natural occurrence in hot, dry countries such as Australia. This season, however, record-breaking temperatures and a scarcity of rainfall have combined to make this one of the worst bushfire seasons on record. Since September 2019, hundreds of fires have raged out of control across Australia, destroying over 18 million hectares of land. An estimated 5900 buildings have also been destroyed by the blaze so far, including over 2000 homes, and the human death toll stands at 33. The hotter and drier-than-usual conditions at this time of year have directly contributed to this season’s apocalyptic fire conditions; something for which climate change is almost certainly to blame.
The cost of the fires to human life is evident, yet we are still to realize the true cost to Australia’s wildlife – and the ecosystem as a whole.
The environmental damage caused by the bushfires has been monumental, with scientists warning that some species could even be pushed to the brink of extinction. Hundreds of endangered plant, mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile and insect species have had large areas of their habitats wiped out, and the fires are also thought to have directly killed around 1 billion animals.
Those that survive the initial onslaught of smoke and flames will struggle to thrive in the razed landscape, and many more animals will die for lack of food, water or shelter. Among the worst-hit species are the koala, the Kangaroo Island dunnart, the Western ground parrot, and the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, but the impact on Australia’s insects is yet to be seen.
How have the Australia bushfires affected the insects?
As home to over 80% of all terrestrial life forms on Earth, forests throughout the world are hotbeds of ecological diversity. Among the billions of animals that live in Australia’s forests are thousands of insect species, many of which will be severely affected by the hellish bushfire conditions and resultant loss of habitat.
Slow-moving and flightless bugs and insects will be the first the go, as these will be killed directly by the fires. Those that are able to fly away won’t fare much better in the end, as huge chunks of their natural habitats will be destroyed. Without food, water, and shelter, most insects will fail to live and reproduce, and the second wave of insect deaths could be just as impactful as the first.
Being so small means that insects often go unnoticed, so it’s hard to know the true extent of their disappearance. However, the losses to the insect population in the worst-hot regions of Australia is sure to be catastrophic, as enormous areas of forest have been lost entirely.
But what are the implications of this for the rest of Australia’s finely balanced ecosystem?
A loss of insects equals an overall loss of biodiversity
Insects are a key part of the food web in any part of the world, and a sudden fall in numbers can have deep consequences.
Insects are a vital food source for a wide array of mammal, bird, reptile, fish and amphibian species. Therefore, a decline in insect populations directly leads to a decline in the number of creatures that usually feed on them. And a blow to Australia’s biodiversity isn’t the only thing to worry about – insects play many roles in the global ecosystem, and foodstuff is just one of them. Many insect species feed on decaying organic matter (i.e. rotting vegetation, dead animals, etc.). They are the invisible garbage-disposal system we’ve never had to live without, but a rapid decline in numbers may make us appreciate just how much they do to keep our planet clean and our ecosystems ticking over.
Since September 2019 Australia has been weathering one of its worst bushfire seasons to date, with an astounding 18 million hectares of land wiped out so far. With it has gone millions and millions of plant and animal species, with insects being hit just as hard as the koalas, birds, and wallabies.
The true extent of the damage to Australia’s bugs is yet to be realized, but it seems certain that the loss of the country’s insects (and their habitats) will be colossal. This is likely to be a heavy blow for biodiversity across the worst-affected areas, and may well lead to a second wave of deaths across the rest of Australia’s animal kingdom.