Smoke billows from the air and bushes as firefighters escort a small team of biologists into Cosciusko National Park in southern New South Wales, Australia, on January 15. In a record-setting fire, researchers have granted a rare exemption from the park’s strict ban to prevent the extinction of Australia’s rarest fish, Nature reported.
Weather forecasts suggest that rain could push the ash from the fire into mountain streams, suffocating the only remaining mountain catfish. The fish can be found in the 3km long tantangara stream. The researchers collected 142 fish for artificial breeding in case they disappeared in the wild.
“In this case, they are more important than koalas because we don’t lose koalas because of fires,” says Mark Lintermans of the University of Canberra. Lintermans have been studying these finger-sized fish since they were discovered in 2014.
Unprecedented fires continue to rage in Australia, with the extent of the damage still unknown. For safety reasons, access to areas affected by the fire remains closed to all. As a result, some studies have been delayed for months or years, and destroyed scientific equipment and research projects face a series of catastrophic losses.
Will Woodgate, a remote sensing expert at the University of Queensland, runs a site at the Bargo National Forest Management in the south-east, part of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN). TERN is a national array that collects data on land surface conditions to provide data for global climate models.
The base center is a 70-metre tower, one of 20 in the network, connected to sensors and equipment, with a total value of A$500,000. As the fire swept through the scene, a steady stream of data was cut off for 20 years.
Live photos from the NSW Forestry Corporation show that the forest’s lower vegetation has been destroyed but the canopy is intact. The tower is still standing, so sensors at the top of the tower may have survived the fire, Woodgate said, but power lines and two containers storing computers, battery packs and communications equipment were burned.
The base’s generators and ground sensors could also be destroyed, woodgate said, and repairs could cost as much as $100,000, not to mention the time and effort required to get the site back and running. He said it could take months for scientists to be allowed to physically assess the damage.
Ross Crates, an ecologist at the Australian National University, is also in dire shape. He studied the critically endangered Regent Honey Bird. Because the fire may have destroyed 20 percent of the bird’s habitat, it has become more difficult to find and count the honey eaters. It could take years to know their fate, he believes.
If the bird were to migrate to a new habitat because of a fire, it would be “almost like getting our research back to square one.” “It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
For researchers who study affected species directly, fires can also cause emotional damage, says Euan Ritchie, a wildlife ecologist at Deakin University. “It’s like your family members are hurting so much, so it’s hard to accept. He said.
Ross Thompson, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Canberra, said he had been mentoring students who had been studying the fires for the past few days. “If you’re studying for a three-and-a-half-year Ph.D. and you’re running into a fire in the middle, it could have a big impact on whether you have enough data to get the job done, ” he said. He said.
Despite the devastating damage caused by the fire, ecologists are preparing to make the most of it. “Interference is one of the best ways we can understand ecology. Thompson said.