Impact of fires on biodiversity on a scale not seen since species records were first kept

Loss is in the ‘trillions’ of animals due to climate change crisis

The Directors/CEOs of Australia’s leading natural history museums today issued a joint statement in support of increased funding and coordinated national action to address the impacts of climate change on the nation’s biodiversity following the bushfires which ravaged the continent over the past few months.

The Directors of the Australian Museum (NSW); Museums Victoria; South Australian Museum; Western Australian Museum; Queensland Museum; and Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory; whose natural science collections hold almost 60 million reference specimens said:

Natural history museums are among the most trusted public institutions* playing a critical role in describing and conserving our natural history in Australia and connecting the natural environment with the public through education outreach and exhibitions. 

We now recognise human-induced climate change, alongside land clearing and habitat use, as the over-arching issue affecting Australia’s unique wildlife as evidenced by more intense bushfires, drought, floods and the impact of warming oceans on the Great Barrier Reef and other marine environments.

Our museums hold invaluable reference collections for the nation – we are the ‘ark’ of information on Australian species with collections that date back as early as the 1850s. 

Collectively they form an irreplaceable resource and provide unique insight into the composition and evolution of our natural history and a benchmark by which the devastation caused by the bushfires can be measured.

The impact of the recent fires on Australia’s biodiversity is on a scale not previously seen since record-keeping began in the mid-1800s.  The estimate of the destruction to our biodiversity from the fires is in the ‘trillions’ of animals, when considering the total of insects, spiders, birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and even sea life impacted over such a vast area. **

Australia’s natural history museums are committed to finding out how species have been affected, to implementing and supporting programs to restore those species that can be saved, and to engaging the public in mitigation strategies. 

Over the next few months, and once it is safe to do so, each museum plans to return to the field, working in collaboration with our national networks of museums and herbaria, state government agencies and universities to ascertain the impact of the fires and work to plan for the restoration of species where possible.                                                          

Each museum will focus on examining the damage of the fires on existing field research sites and comparing the findings with our data sets, providing a longitudinal view.                      

In the longer term, our Museums will draw on our rich scientific expertise and data sets to provide conservation advice.  We will also engage with the Australian public through citizen science and other activities and will work towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Australia’s leading experts across the natural history disciplines work at our state-based museums. Museum research scientists are in the field year after year describing and monitoring the biodiversity of different regions, including many endemic species present nowhere else on the planet.  Additional funding for this research is urgently needed to allow museums to carry out this significant work.  

The bushfire climate change crisis has reinforced that we have much to learn from our First Nations people and that First Nations understandings of our natural species and land management is to be respected, understood and embraced in our research.

The time to act is now and the nation’s natural history museums are ready to respond.


Kim McKay AO, Director & CEO Australian Museum (NSW); Lynley Crosswell, CEO & Director, Museums Victoria; Brian Oldman, Director, South Australian Museum; Alec Coles OBE, CEO, Western Australian Museum; Dr Jim Thompson, Director, Queensland Museum Network; Marcus Schutenko, Director, Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory. 




Quotes from our state museum directors and a summary of the South Australian Museum’s scope of research activity is below.

“Our key research focuses on animal responses to climate change and the development of effective conservation interventions. Recent key projects involve communities through citizen science programs enabling local participation in the generation of new knowledge and direct communication of research findings to end-users. This shows how museum collections and research inform contemporary and practical issues arising from climate change impacts on biodiversity and sustainability more generally.”

Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum Director


The South Australian Museum has been collecting natural science specimens since 1856, more than 150 years. The South Australian Museum holds over five million objects, of which two and a half million are natural science specimens. The particular strengths of the Museum's biological collections are:


  • Extensive collection of the Australian fauna and of South Australia in particular gathered from a comprehensive state-wide survey program of over 30 years. These represent the only verifiable proof of the temporal distribution of animals, showing how distributions can change over time. The importance of the state-wide survey program is to provide an unparalleled 360 degree view of the biodiversity of South Australia’s fauna, which can inform many of the actions that may need to be taken to assist animal populations to adapt to present and imminent climate change impacts.

  • The largest collection of biological tissues in the Southern Hemisphere, which includes significant holdings of Australian native animals. This collection is particularly strong in having tissues from specimens which are themselves held in natural history collections, allowing verification of identification and other details. Detailed genetic profiles based on these tissues can inform a wide variety of conservation actions.

  • Extensive collection of subfossils (owl pellets and bone deposits from caves), allowing the study of the pre- and post- European distribution of native animals in the State.


Major data sets – fire-affected areas

Our research has both a short-term and strategic emphases. In the immediate time frame our ongoing research on the conservation the native Green Carpenter Bee population in Kangaroo Island, led by South Australian Museum researcher Dr Remko Leijs, has provided pre-fire baseline data on their distribution and conservation status. Unlike introduced bees, the Green Carpenter Bee is a buzz pollinator - many native plants rely on it for pollination and seed production. Approximately 95% of Green Carpenter Bee habitat has been lost in the recent Kangaroo Island bushfire event. The first actions to assess its status are possible because of the several years of work that Dr Leijs has conducted on the population.

Strategically, we have been involving Citizen Scientists in regional studies of microbats and marsupial pygmy possums to establish the importance of remnant habitat patches in a largely agricultural landscape and to develop a strategic approach for assisted translocations. We have very recently received a tremendous boost in support for our fundamental research on the latter topic through winning a federally-funded ARC Linkage Project grant with Flinders University and several other partner organisations. Maintaining habitat on a regional scale and the use of translocations are important strategic responses to immediate (eg. bush fires) and long-term climate change impacts.

Collaborative work in response to the fires

The South Australian Museum is proud to host the Inspiring South Australia programme – a partnership to engage communities in science and improve science literacy. Inspiring South Australia has regional science hubs in fire-affected areas including Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills and is working to explore bushfire recovery initiatives.

As an immediate response to the bushfire crisis, the Inspiring South Australia programme at the South Australian Museum expanded its 2020 SA Regional Science Small Grants to include applications for bushfire recovery events/activities that engage local communities in science. 


Longer-term research and outreach on climate change and biodiversity impacts

The South Australian Museum is an institution that creates new knowledge through the rigorous and transparent application of scientific research. We have a strategic research focus on understanding how our fauna will adapt to climate change and we are developing approaches that will assist rapid and effective adaptation. Our research is supported by federal and local funding and has extensive citizen science involvement, delivering practical outcomes directly to those who manage the private and public conservation estate. Findings on biodiversity change are shared through myriad public engagement touchpoints including temporary exhibitions, public talks and social channels.

We own two competitions that provide opportunities for public response to environmental issues: Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year includes an Our Impact (depicting human impact on nature) category while the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize encourages artists to make a statement about the scientific issues facing our planet, and offers a valuable platform for them to contribute to the environmental debate. 


Additional comments
The Museum cares for a wealth of treasures with national and international significance – it is admired for its world class collections, which have been amassed over more than 150 years and encompass everything from fossils of the first known life on Earth to pieces of Martian meteorites. The Museum’s collections are still growing and used each day in scientific and cultural research.

The Museum is one of Australia’s most successful research museums, with 151 scientific papers and presentations in 2018/2019 and is a strong partner, with strategic relationships across the resources sector as well as with state and federal governments.


Released 4 February 2020

Photo: Carpenter bee by James Dorey

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