Monash researcher awarded $255,000 to assess impacts of bushfire on biodiversity

Monash University

The recent bushfires that swept across South Eastern Australia were unprecedented in scale and intensity.

These fires had negative effects on the economy, our safety, and our health.

The impacts of the bushfires on biodiversity are likely to have been equally profound, but measuring biodiversity impacts across many species over such a large area of affected land presents a formidable task.

The Australian Government, through its Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Program, has awarded ecologist Dr Reid Tingley, from the Monash School of Biological Sciences, a grant of $255,000 to tackle this pressing problem, using a new biodiversity assessment tool known as environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling.

“As organisms move through the environment, they leave behind traces of their DNA,” Dr Tingley said.

“Collecting this eDNA in water samples from sites that have been affected by bushfire will enable simple and rapid collection of data on species presence post-fire,” he said.

“The 2019-2020 fires highlighted an urgent need for a rapid assessment tool that can be easily deployed to support more traditional post-fire assessment approaches. said

“This is particularly important as sites can be difficult to access following fires of the scale and intensity as we experienced in 2019-2020.”

Researchers will sample fire-affected river basins throughout South Eastern Australia covering an area of approximately 150,000 km2.

This type of study is only possible due to the existence of the researchers’ pre-fire eDNA samples from fire-affected regions, and the rapid and cost-efficient nature of the eDNA approach, which enables collection of data on biodiversity and on individual species.

Aquatic eDNA sampling has also been effective for determining distributions of invasive species, such as carp, redfin, trout, and mosquito fish, as well as some terrestrial invasives, such as deer, feral horses, feral goats, and foxes.

“Understanding the distributions of these non-native species will enable us to understand the interactive effects of fire and non-native species on Australian biodiversity,” said Dr Tingley.

The project fills a critical gap in our understanding of the impacts of bushfires, by assessing the extent to which biodiversity has declined and subsequently recovered across a broad spatial extent.

“Our insights will enable the identification of species and areas in urgent need of management, and form an important baseline for future monitoring,” Dr Tingley said.

“It will also provide a landscape-scale understanding of bushfire impacts, providing insight into biodiversity recovery post-fire.”

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).