​Small and isolated habitat patches crucial to species survival

Tue, 11 Dec 2018

Your small local patch of bushland could be playing a much bigger role in conserving biodiversity than you think, according to new research.

The global study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the conservation values of vegetation patches in 27 countries on four continents including Australia, and considered their size and distance to other habitat.

The results were surprising according to lead researcher Professor Brendan Wintle from Melbourne University, who is the Director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

“Compared to large and well connected habitat areas, small and isolated patches of habitat have generally been treated as not very important to conservation,” said Professor Wintle.

“This includes places like small patches of bush, wetland or grassland along roadsides, in urban areas or in between agricultural crops.

“What we have found however, is that small and isolated habitat areas are very important to the survival of many rare and endangered species.

“We need to re-think vegetation management regulations and policies that allow small patches of vegetation to be destroyed.

“The environment is suffering a death by a thousand cuts. Losing small habitat patches, especially when it happens all over the country, is contributing to Australia’s current extinction crisis”.


Edithvale Wetland in Melbourne’s south-east is home to 110 species of birds, as well as range of mammals, reptiles and other wildlife. Patches of nature in urban areas can have great value for biodiversity conservation as well as people. Photo: Friends of Edithvale Seaford Wetlands.  

Co-researcher Dr Heini Kujala from the University of Melbourne said that once you start considering how much habitat is left for a species, small patches can be very valuable.

“Small habitat patches can sometimes be the last pieces of a once widespread habitat. For species that rely on this type of habitat that makes them very important,” said Dr Kujala.

“Definitely we are not saying that it is an improvement to cut up big habitat areas into smaller pieces, rather that many of the small pieces that we have left are really important for conservation.”

Co-researcher Professor Sarah Bekessy from RMIT University in Melbourne argues that the study has very high importance for urban planning policy in Australia.

“We can’t continue to allow vegetation in urban areas to be lost to development. These places are very important for nature and also for people’s physical and mental health.

“Our policies should protect these valuable places and aim to restore more habitat in urban areas.

“Adopting biodiversity sensitive urban design approaches would improve urban areas for people as well as wildlife,” Professor Bekessy said.


Community volunteers at a tree planting working bee at Seaford wetland.  Photo: Friends of Edithvale Seaford Wetlands.

Professor Wintle hopes that the research will raise awareness among planners, land managers, scientists and the community about the value of small vegetation patches.

“It’s good to know that the work of community groups in conserving and restoring small patches of habitats in their local neighbourhood is a thoroughly worthwhile activity”, said Professor Wintle.

The Threatened Species Recovery Hub is a collaboration of 10 leading Australian universities and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to undertake research to support the recovery of Australia’s threatened species. The hub receives funding from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.

 
Case study – Edithvale and Seaford Wetlands in south-east Melbourne

The Edithvale and Seaford Wetlands are tiny surviving remnants of the huge Carrum Carrum Swamp. In 2001 they gained Ramsar status and protection because they are a haven for migratory waders, coming in from Siberia, Alaska, northern Europe and Japan, to spend the summer here. Around the world the numbers of these birds are in decline and these wetlands are incredibly important in slowing this decline.
These wetlands are also home (either permanent or temporary) to 110 species of birds including the threatened Australasian Bittern. Frogs, reptiles, bats, possums, water rats and macroinvertebrates also need the wetlands.

Many people in the community greatly value these wetlands and the regular ‘dose of nature’ they provide. A community group called Friends of Edithvale Seaford Wetlands help to care for the wetlands and to raise awareness about their importance to people and nature alike.

Top image: An eastern rosella at Edithvale wetland in Melbourne's south-east. Photo: Wayne Butterworth CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.
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