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By  James Chesters 5 June 2024 5 min read

Key points

  • We’re working to conserve Australian icons like koalas, the Great Barrier Reef, Camden White Gum, Flatback Turtles and Southern Bluefin Tuna.
  • We're helping to deliver the National Koala Monitoring Program and we're working with partners to protect the Reef from Crown-of-thorns Starfish.
  • Our researchers are helping to preserve Camden White Gum, protect Flatback Turtles, and have developed a DNA tagging method for Southern Bluefin Tuna.

Conservation is a collaboration between everyone in society. It’s a long-term team effort. We're celebrating five projects and their uplifting conservation success stories.

Citizen science saving koalas

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

That’s why we’re helping deliver the National Koala Monitoring Program (NKMP) in partnership with the federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the 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 effort recording 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 NKMP, koalas are easy to identify but hard to monitor. Population data is patchy, partly because koalas are hard to see when high in a tree.

Project wins, so far, include establishing a national network of monitoring sites and consecutive population estimates released by NKMP.

Help us help koalas by downloading and using the Koala Spotter mobile app. Get it for iOS and Android.

We’re helping deliver the National Koala Monitoring Program as part of conservation efforts to save the tree-loving marsupial. Photo credit: Stefano Borghi, Unsplash.
CSIRO researchers have been working with Indigenous rangers and community since 2022 to help save koalas. ©  Stefano Borghi, Unsplash

Caring for the coral threatened by hungry starfish

We’re protecting the Great Barrier Reef from ravenously hungry starfish.

The Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), known as COTS, is a significant threat to our World Heritage-listed reef. Since 2015, our scientists have played a leading role in developing the science underpinning the COTS Integrated Pest Management Program.

Crown-of-thorns Starfish grow up to 80 centimetres in diameter and have as many as 21 arms covered with poison-tipped ‘thorns’. They’re also notoriously hungry: a single adult starfish can polish off up to 10 square metres of coral annually. During an outbreak, COTS may eat 90 per cent of the live coral tissue on a reef.

One surprising management method takes 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 a bile salt solution. Within hours, the starfish break down almost completely. We're working closely with partners to use an understanding of COTS ecology to target where and when to send divers.

The program is a testament to collaboration in conservation, working closely with our research, management, and on-water control team partners. It’s just one we’re way we’re working together to minimise coral damage and improve the recovery of coral.

Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci).
During an outbreak, the Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci) can eat 90 per cent of live coral tissue on a reef.

Great Camden White Gum germination

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

Environmental changes have endangered the tree, leaving the survivors growing too far apart to pollinate one another and produce good seed. They needed help.

How to produce seed? Our Australian Tree Seed Centre researchers, with help from citizen scientists, undertook DNA studies and then cloned trees from the Nepean to make a “clonal seed orchard”. After more than a decade of work, we are finally producing seed.

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

With help from residents, Camden Council has since planted more than 700 seedlings locally, extending the endangered river-flat eucalypt forest.

New, genetically diverse seedlings will help protect the trees from extinction, forming a vegetation corridor that connects isolated groups along the river.

Camden White Gum (Eucalyptus benthamii) also known as Nepean River Gum. Photo credit: Dean Nicolle, iNaturalist. Used under a Creative Commons License[Link will open in a new window][Link will open in a new window].

Environmental changes have endangered the Camden White Gum (Eucalyptus benthamii), leaving the survivors growing too far apart to pollinate one another. ©  Dean Nicolle, iNaturalist

Facing the Flatback Turtle’s threats

The vulnerable to extinction Flatback Turtle (Natator depressus) loves staying close to home. Flatbacks have the smallest geographic range of the world’s marine turtle species, sticking to Australia's sparkling coastal waters.

These Aussie turtles face various threats, from climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and coastal development. Fortunately, our Flatback Futures project works in partnership to conserve and protect them. It’s part of WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA)’s North West Shelf Flatback Turtle Conservation Program (NWSFTCP).

NWSFTCP’s objectives include turtle surveying, monitoring and research, and reducing interference to turtle breeding and feeding locations. Flatback Futures combines information about the turtles and the community, acts on the results, and finds ways to adjust to change.

Onshore and offshore efforts are equally important for protecting flatbacks into the future. Protecting nests and improving egg and hatchling survival positively impact young turtles. However, these effects aren’t always immediately obvious in turtle nesting numbers. Offshore activities focusing on increasing juvenile and adult survival have more immediate positive outcomes for turtle populations.

A Flatback Turtle (Natator depressus) swimming in shallow sandy waters.
The vulnerable Flatback Turtle (Natator depressus) breeds and nests only in Australia's sandy beaches and shallow coastal waters. ©  Tim Karnasuta, iNaturalist

Using DNA tagging for Southern Bluefin Tuna

The Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) was severely overfished during the 1970s and 1980s. However, a new monitoring method is helping the population leap back. The population is no longer over-fished or subject to over-fishing.

Monitoring threatened species is vital to inform management actions to conserve populations. Researchers traditionally marked fish with physical tags to provide useful info on abundance or movement. However, this method is imperfect when tags are often lost at sea or not returned to scientists.

That’s why our researchers developed a new method to monitor the threatened population. Close-kin mark-recapture uses the DNA of related pairs of sampled fish to identify genetic matches between juveniles and adults.

Scientists measure the number of reproductive adults in the wider population by matching parent-and-child or half-siblings pairs. This information is crucial for effective conservation planning and management because fewer matches indicate a larger adult population.

The solid scientific data our researchers collect ensures that Southern Bluefin Tuna stocks are rebuilding and sustainable.

Conservation scientists are now using close-kin mark-recapture to monitor other diverse species, from seals and sharks, to bats and moose.

Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii). Image credit David Spencer Muirhead, via iNaturalist.
Close-kin mark-recapture uses the DNA of related pairs of sampled Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) to identify genetic matches between juveniles and adults. Image credit: David Spencer Muirhead[Link will open in a new window][Link will open in a new window], iNaturalist. Shared via a Creative Commons License[Link will open in a new window][Link will open in a new window].
CSIRO researchers developed close-kin mark-recapture to monitor Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) populations. ©  David Spencer Muirhead, iNaturalist

Why conservation is a collective effort

Conservation is a long-term effort requiring teamwork and sustained dedication, sometimes across generations. The efforts of these collaborative projects, programs, and examples go much deeper and further than the brief examples shared.

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

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