Iconic Australian conservation stories – CSIRO

By James Chesters

June 5, 2024
5 minutes reading

Most important points

  • We work to conserve Australian icons such as koalas, the Great Barrier Reef, Camden White Gum, Flatback Turtles and Southern Bluefin Tuna.
  • We help implement the National Koala Monitoring Program and work with partners to protect the reef from crown-of-thorns starfish.
  • Our researchers are helping to conserve Camden White Gum, protect Flatback Turtles and have developed a DNA tagging method for Southern Bluefin Tuna.

Nature conservation is a collaboration between everyone in society. It is a long-term team effort. We celebrate five projects and their uplifting conservation success stories.

Citizen science that saves koalas

Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are iconic Aussie. They are also officially endangered.

That’s why we help implement the National Koala Monitoring Program (NKMP) in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCCEEW). Since 2022, our scientists have been working with indigenous rangers and community members to help the tree-dwelling marsupials.

To save koalas you need reliable information. The NKMP is a multi-year initiative that captures accurate and up-to-date information on population status and trends.

Koalas are easy to identify. Most people are unlikely to confuse them with other animals. However, in the words of the NKMP, koalas are easy to identify but difficult to monitor. Population data is patchy, partly because koalas are difficult to see when perched high in a tree.

Victories include establishing a national network of monitoring sites and successive population estimates released by NKMP. Help us help koalas by downloading and using the Koala Spotter mobile app.

CSIRO researchers have been working with Indigenous rangers and the community to save koalas since 2022.
© Stefano Borghi, Unsplash

Caring for the coral threatened by hungry starfish

We protect the Great Barrier Reef from hungry, hungry starfish.

The crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), known as COTS, poses a significant threat to our World Heritage Reef. Since 2015, our scientists have played a leading role in developing the science underlying the COTS Integrated Pest Management Program.

Crown of Thorns Starfish can grow up to 80 centimeters in diameter and have as many as 21 arms covered with ‘thorns’ with poisonous tips. They are also notorious for their hunger: a single adult starfish can scavenge as much as 10 square meters of coral every year. During an outbreak, COTS can consume 90 percent of the living coral tissue on a reef.

One surprising management method is taking the fight to the starfish. In 2014, James Cook University Researchers refined a cheap, accessible killer for the very hungry starfish: vinegar.

Individual divers targeting priority outbreaks inject COTS with vinegar or bile salt solution. Within a few hours the starfish almost completely disintegrates. We work closely with partners to use our knowledge of COTS ecology to determine where and when to send divers.

The program is a testament to conservation collaboration, working closely with our research, management and monitoring team partners on the water. It’s just one way we work together to minimize coral damage and improve coral recovery.

Crown of Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci).

During an outbreak, the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) can eat 90 percent of the living coral tissue on a reef.

Great germination from Camden White Gum

The once common Camden White Gum (Eucalyptus benthamii) of Sydney’s Nepean River has seen hard times. The tree only grows on the Cumberland Plains and in the Blue Mountains.

Environmental changes have endangered the tree, causing the survivors to grow too far apart to pollinate each other and produce good seed. They needed help.

How to produce seed? Our researchers at the Australian Tree Seed Center, with help from citizen scientists, conducted DNA studies and then cloned Nepean trees to create a ‘clonal seed orchard’. After more than ten years of work, we are finally producing seed.

Our researchers recommended planting orchard seedlings next to existing trees to help conserve the species.

With the help of residents, Camden Council has since planted more than 700 seedlings locally, expanding the endangered eucalyptus forest in the river plain.

New, genetically diverse seedlings will help protect the trees from extinction and form a vegetation corridor connecting isolated stands along the river.

Environmental changes have endangered the Camden White Gum (Eucalyptus benthamii), causing the survivors to grow too far apart to pollinate each other.
© Dean Nicolle, iNaturalist

Facing the threats of the Flatback Turtle

The vulnerable to extinction Flatback turtle (Natator depression) likes to stay close to home. Flatbacks have the smallest geographic range of the world’s sea turtle species, sticking to Australia’s sparkling coastal waters.

These Australian turtles face several threats, from climate change, habitat loss, pollution and coastal development. Fortunately, our Flatback Futures project is working together to preserve and protect these. It is part of WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA)’s North West Shelf Flatback Turtle Conservation Program (NWSFTCP).

The objectives of NWSFTCP include surveying, monitoring and researching turtles and reducing interference with turtle nesting and feeding sites. Flatback Futures combines information about the turtles and the community, trades on the results and finds ways to adapt to changes.

Onshore and offshore efforts are equally important for protecting flatbacks in the future. Protecting nests and improving the survival of eggs and young has a positive impact on young turtles. However, these effects are not always immediately apparent in the number of turtle nesting sites. Offshore activities that focus on increasing juvenile and adult survival have more immediate positive results for turtle populations.

A Flatback Turtle (Natator depressus) swimming in shallow sandy waters.

The vulnerable flatback turtle (Natator depressus) breeds and nests only on the sandy beaches and shallow coastal waters of Australia.
© Tim Karnasuta, iNaturalist

Use of DNA tagging for southern bluefin tuna

The southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) was seriously overfished in the 1970s and 1980s. However, a new monitoring method is helping the population jump back. The population is no longer overfished or subject to overfishing.

Monitoring threatened species is critical to management actions to maintain populations. Researchers traditionally marked fish with physical tags to provide useful information about abundance or movement. However, this method is imperfect when tags are often lost at sea or not returned to scientists.

That is why our researchers developed a new method to monitor the endangered population. Closely related mark recapture uses the DNA of related pairs of sampled fish to identify genetic similarities between juveniles and adults.

Scientists measure the number of reproductive adults in the broader population by matching pairs of parents and children or half-siblings. This information is crucial for effective conservation planning and management, as fewer similarities indicate a larger adult population.

The sound scientific data our researchers collect ensures that southern bluefin tuna stocks are recovering and sustainable.

Conservation scientists are now using the recapture of closely related species to monitor other diverse species, from seals and sharks to bats and moose.

Southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii).  Image credits David Spencer Muirhead, via iNaturalist.

CSIRO researchers developed recaptures of closely related species to monitor populations of the southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii).
© David Spencer Muirhead, iNaturalist

Why conservation is a collective effort

Conservation is a long-term effort that requires teamwork and ongoing dedication, sometimes spanning generations. The efforts of these collaborative projects, programs and examples go much deeper and beyond the brief examples shared.

With your continued support, we hope to achieve many more conservation victories.