Featured Musing Musings

Wildlife, Climate Change and Mass Death

Deborah Rose: January 2014 – Australia has just come through its hottest year on record, and the new year is bringing ever more record breaking heat. ‘Weather on steroids’ is how the Australian Conservation Foundation puts it.

Those who experience the heat most relentlessly are wildlife. Possums get burnt feet from walking on hot surfaces, and birds fall out of the sky dead from heat, individuals wander around in a daze, and many stumble and fall, never to get up.

Most vulnerable are flying-foxes, also known as megabats or giant fruit bats. Of the four Pteropus species in Australia, two are endangered. The grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) appears to be in a serious state of decline. For them, extreme heat is lethal both to individuals and to the future of the species.
The connection between heat and death is this: when temperatures reach 40°C (104°F) flying-foxes start to suffer. If these temperatures continue, the suffering goes on, leading to organ failure and death. Basically, when temperatures reach 43°C (109°F) they ‘start to melt from the inside out’, as one scientist vividly described it. Heat waves of this magnitude generally occur in January. The young are born in late October, and in January many females are still lactating, and babies are still largely dependent on their mothers. Both mothers and babies are most likely to succumb.

Recently about 100,000 flying-foxes died over the course of a couple of days when temperatures rose to and above the critical 43°C point. The numbers are not settled, and this number is from only one area, so the figure is provisional. At the same time, it tells an awful story. Many flying-foxes literally fell from the trees, while others died where they were, the locking mechanism in their feet still clamped to the branch. Others sought to escape the heat by moving lower. In the words of Justin Welbergen, a flying-fox heat stress scientist, in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of tees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

Bellydipping, courtesy of Nick Edards
Bellydipping, courtesy of Nick Edards

In urban areas, flying-fox volunteers turn out during heat waves to spray a cool mist into flying-fox camps in an effort to keep the temperature down and the humidity up. They rescue as many downed flying-foxes as they can, and euthanize those who can’t be saved.

The heatwave is still in process as I write, moving its way from region to region. Carers continue to work incredibly hard to try to save as many individuals as possible. The first big wave of death was in South east Queensland. More are following. It is too early to develop a clear picture of the numbers of deaths throughout southeast Australia. The figure of 100,000 comes from Queensland; it will be adjusted, and the figures are not in from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
On the basis of current reports, it is clear that we are witnessing a great (perhaps the first great) mammalian mass death event that is directly attributable to global warming. The term ‘mass death’ is defined by numerical and temporal dimensions. It involves the deaths of a large number of creatures, taking place in a compressed time frame. Even a tenth of the 100,000 deaths, taking place during a couple of days is mass death.

Australia is a place of extremes – the most arid inhabited continent on earth, a region of extreme unpredictabilities, of boom and bust ecologies, and cycles of fire and flood that are linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the Indian Ocean Dipole, and other big climate drivers. There have surely been mass deaths due to heat stress before on this continent. The records only go back a hundred years or so in any reliable and comprehensive manner, but other lines of evidence leave no doubt that climate fluctuations and extremes are integral to Australian ecologies.

The question thus arises: if there have been heat waves and mass death events in the past, is this one particularly significant? Four aspects of significance stand out at this time.

The first concerns continuing climate change escalation. The direction of change is clear: we are experiencing unprecedented heat waves that are ever more frequent, intense, and prolonged, according to the interim findings of Australia’s Climate Council. It is important to note that extreme weather is associated with climate change, but given the complexity of causality scientists are wary of attributing it directly to climate change. Sarah Perkins of the University of New South Wales explained: ‘While we can’t blame climate change for any one event, we can certainly see its fingerprint. This [January heatwave] is another link in the chain.’ Every analysis that brings new information into the models tells us that the big picture is worse than had been thought. Just a few weeks ago a team at the University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre published an article showing that having found a way to model cloud cover, they can predict that higher temperatures will be reached sooner than anticipated, and that by the year 2100 the global temperature is likely to increase by 4°.

The second aspect is the stand-out fact that our nations are not taking appropriate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Global temperatures are rising, the fossil fuel industry is booming and seems to grow ever more powerful. There is nothing on the horizon to suggest that we as citizens or we as a species are collectively or effectively engaging with climate reality. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Verlyn Klinkenborg points to the curious fact that many people seem to want to avoid using language that sounds apocalyptic. And yet, he says, we are in the midst of an apocalypse. This is not a big final event leading to redemption, however. It is a ‘rolling apocalypse’ that is changing everything. As we experience it here in Australia, and as we struggle to help our fellow creatures who are experiencing it far more disastrously than we are, we can see that the rolling apocalypse is bringing ruin, despair, suffering and death, and that it is spreading patchily across time, space and species.

This brings me to my third aspect, which concerns the meaning of all this for flying-foxes and other wildlife species. For the grey-headed flying-foxes whose numbers are already dropping alarming, the prospect is extinction in the wild. Like all flying-foxes, their fertility rate is low. A lot of investment goes into raising one baby each year. As the flying-fox scientist L. Martin shows, it only takes small increases in mortality to produce large effects on population health.

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The escalation of death goes hand in hand with the escalation of extreme weather. Last year Welbergen estimated that 50,000 flying-foxes had died in heat waves over the preceding fifteen years. Already this year, 100,000 flying-foxes may have died, and the event is not over. Whatever the final tally, it will be set against the record of the previous fifteen years, and it will tell a terrible story of escalation. In addition, as Welbergen points out, this is a vision of the world that is coming – the flying-foxes are among the first to fall, but they will not be the last.

If climate change were the only issue the situation would be dire, but actually the situation is more than dire. At this time, shooting and other forms of cruel harassment are knocking the species in two big ways: absolute loss through direct death, and loss of reproductive capacity through stress and death taking place during the time when females and juveniles are particularly vulnerable. The usual acronym for how extinctions come about is HIPPO: habitat loss, introduced species, pollution, population growth (human, that is), and overconsumption. I keep adding to the acronym, which has now grown in my thinking to HIPPPMOCC – habitat loss, introduced species, persecution, pollution, population, murder, overconsumption, climate change. Directly or indirectly, every one of these factors hits flying-foxes, killing them, damaging their future, and pushing them into a rapidly expanding vortex of death.

The fourth aspect of significance is proximity: this is happening now. We are witness to it, and many of us are doing the best we can to help those at the front line of rescue, care, and mourning. As moral creatures ourselves, we are called into responsibility for the suffering of our fellow creatures, and that call is not contingent on climate change but arises simply and directly from the precarious condition of flying-foxes in distress.

The context of mass death amplifies these responsibilities. Climate-induced mass death is the new disaster. It is telling us that climate change is far more real than we seem to care to imagine and that we are profoundly unprepared. We need to find ways to ‘sing up’ flying-foxes and other creatures by showing all the support we can for them and their future. This means keeping up the vigorous defence of their lives and well-being. At the same time, it means getting serious about all this death. We need more respectful modes of disposing of large numbers of dead bodies. We need to take this death seriously by grieving and memorialising these terrible losses. The anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan has pointed out that ‘science has no mourning rituals’. He was calling for wider cultural participation that would go beyond the litany of numbers. In this time of mass death, we need to mark mass graves as sites for remembrance and commemoration. We need rituals of mourning, and rituals that support and praise the carers.

In addition, we need a new iconography. Everyone is familiar with the polar bear on the ice floe which now signals the precarious condition of wildlife in an era of global warming. It is a perfect image for the Northern Hemisphere, but here in the global south we need our own locally relevant images.

We need a bio-regional approach to images of the relationship between wildlife and climate change that will help us imaginatively to grasp the crescendo of suffering that is taking place here where we are. In a large section of Australia, flying-foxes are the ideal creatures to help us make the connections between the HIPPPMOCC factors, our actions, and the lives of others. Like us, flying-foxes want to live, to raise their young, to go on being part of the wider world of life. They, like us, are creatures who suffer and die, and they are members of species that may yet be lost in the rolling apocalypse of change that is becoming cataclysmic. Their vulnerability is the visible crest of a wave that is bearing down on earthlings at a rate and with impacts that we perhaps cannot, but truly must, start to imagine.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

On temperature, climate change and dead flying-foxes:

On heat stress:

See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvJrZ1mYNXA&feature=youtu.be

Martin on population dynamics (just one of many papers):
Martin, L. “Is the Fruit You Eat Flying-Fox Friendly? The Effects of Orchard Electrocution Grids on Australian Flying-Foxes (Pteropus Spp., Megachiroptera).” In The Biology and Conservation of Australasian Bats, edited by Bradley Law, Peggy Eby, Daniel Lunney and Lindy Lumsden, 380-90. Sydney: Royal Zoological Society of NSW, 2011.

Visvanathan on mourning:
Visvanathan, S. 1996. “Footnotes to Vavilov: An Essay on Gene Diversity.” in Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue, edited by F. Apffel-Marglin and S.A. Marglin. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Klinkenborg on apocalypse:

For a walk through a death event that occurred last year, see this Youtube video.

For more on this event, and on incidents of cruelty to fling-foxes, see recent posts: www.deborahbirdrose.com