Benchmarking taxonomic and genetic diversity after the fact: Lessons learned from the catastrophic 2019–2020 Australian bushfires

Date: 21, May, 2021
Author(s):   Catullo, R.A., Schembri, R., Tedeschi, L.G., Eldridge, M.D.B., Joseph, L., Moritz, C.C.
Publisher: Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

Environmental catastrophes are increasing in frequency and severity under climate change, and they substantially impact biodiversity. Recovery actions after catastrophes depend on prior benchmarking of biodiversity and that in turn minimally requires critical assessment of taxonomy and species-level diversity. Long-term recovery of species also requires an understanding of within-species diversity. Australia’s 2019–2020 bushfires were unprecedented in their extent and severity and impacted large portions of habitats that are not adapted to fire. Assessments of the fires’ impacts on vertebrates identified 114 species that were a high priority for management. In response, we compiled explicit information on taxonomic diversity and genetic diversity within fire-impacted vertebrates to provide to government agencies undertaking rapid conservation assessments. Here we discuss what we learned from our effort to benchmark pre-fire taxonomic and genetic diversity after the event. We identified a significant number of candidate species (genetic units that may be undescribed species), particularly in frogs and mammals. Reptiles and mammals also had high levels of intraspecific genetic structure relevant to conservation management. The first challenge was making published genetic data fit for purpose because original publications often focussed on a different question and did not provide raw sequence read data. Gaining access to analytical files and compiling appropriate individual metadata was also time-consuming. For many species, significant unpublished data was held by researchers. Identifying which data existed was challenging. For both published and unpublished data, substantial sampling gaps prevented areas of a species’ distribution being assigned to a conservation unit. Summarising sampling gaps across species revealed that many areas were poorly sampled across taxonomic groups. To resolve these issues and prepare responses to future catastrophes, we recommend that researchers embrace open data principles including providing detailed metadata. Governments need to invest in a skilled taxonomic workforce to document and describe biodiversity before an event and to assess its impacts afterward. Natural history collections should also target increasing their DNA collections based on sampling gaps and revise their collection strategies to increasingly take population-scale DNA samples in order to document within-species genetic diversity.