The 2019–2020 megafires burned vast swathes of south-eastern Australia—almost 12.6 million ha (Wintle et al., 2020, TREE, 35, 753–757). For some areas on Australia's east coast that escaped burning, prolonged drought preceding the fires had placed plant and animal populations under duress for several years.
Across this period, we have monitored two nationally Endangered carnivorous marsupial species that occur patchily in restricted high-elevation wet forests of eastern Australia (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; undergoing IUCN Red List assessment). The black-tailed dusky antechinus Antechinus arktos has been severely affected by drought. The silver-headed antechinus Antechinus argentus has been both affected by drought and directly impacted by the megafires. We found both antechinus species persisting in mid 2020, after the megafires, but populations of each have suffered in different ways.
Although only limited known habitat of A. arktos was burned, our annual monitoring since 2014 shows this species has suffered major declines since 2019 at its type locality and former stronghold of Springbrook National Park, Queensland. Not only have we failed to catch A. arktos there in the past 3 years (in 2015, we had 30 captures), but our captures of co-occurring once common species, such as the brown antechinus Antechinus stuartii and native rodents, have declined by up to 10-fold. However, as well as live capture and camera traps, we have employed a canine detection team to help study this population. Although general findings indicate detections have diminished since 2017, the dog team found A. arktos at Springbrook in 2019 and 2020; unfortunately, most of the 2021 surveys were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Antechinus argentus has suffered major impacts to its habitat from the extensive bushfires of 2018 and the 2019–2020 megafires. In Queensland's Bulburin National Park, which may support the largest population, over 3,000 ha of rainforest and wet eucalypt forest burned in 2019 (Melzer et al. (2020) Post-Fire Assessment Report — Natural Values: 2019/2020 Bushfire, Bulburin National Park, South East Queensland Region. Department of Environment and Science, Queensland Government, Brisbane, Australia), c. one-third of suitable A. argentus habitat in Bulburin.
Dog and trapping surveys in 2020 and 2021 found A. argentus at several regenerating burnt sites at Bulburin. We had hoped for recovery of the A. arktos population after the return of rain this past summer, but three rounds of trapping in June–August 2021 at Springbrook failed to capture any individuals.
This research is supported by the Australian Government's Bushfire Recovery for Wildlife and their Habitats programme, the National Environmental Science Programme, the New South Wales Government's Saving our Species programme, and WWF-Australia.