Palaeoconservation could be the key to rescuing endangered animals

When a species is listed as endangered, experts employ typical practices such as habitat protection, climate control and feeding. In other words, they provide the animal with more of what it already had, and is now lacking. 

Palaeoconservation, on the other hand, is based on the idea that these same animals would thrive in a different environment, living under different conditions. 

Professor Mike Archer from UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences says that studying the ancient past, including fossils, could improve conservation strategies for the future.

“Many animals and plants have a wider adaptive resilience than their current situations might suggest,” he says.

In palaeoconservation, ancient remains of a species’ ancestor are used to determine future conservation practices for the modern day. And it has had amazing results.


Mountain pygmy-possum © Zoos Victoria


Mountain Pygmy Possum

Burramys parvus, also known as the Mountain Pygmy-possum, is a critically endangered species living in the Snowy Mountains in east Australia.

When studying fossil deposits in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland, Professor Archer was able to link this native species to an ancient ancestor.

“Almost identical ancestors were thriving in cool, temperate lowland rainforests 25 million years ago. We believe they moved into the alpine area during a warm, wet period during the Pleistocene (Ice Age), but when the climate changed, they became stranded there, just able to survive by hibernating in winter and avoiding the temperature extremes that characterise the alpine zone.

“And now climate change is threatening them once again, with possibly only 2000 left alive. But using our knowledge of the fossil record, we have proposed that they could be reintroduced into the environments where they were once abundant and thrived for millions of years.”

By collaborating with Mountain Pygmy-possum researchers Dr Hayley Bates and Linda Broome, as well as Australian Geographic, Australian Ecosystems Foundation and Prague Zoo, Professor Archer was able to establish a breeding facility in a lowland rainforest.

He worked closely with the Secret Creek Sanctuary to raise funds for the construction of a purpose-built facility, and has since been able to introduce a small number of possums to the area to begin breeding.

“This project is already working in just the way we predicted based on our understanding of the fossil record,” Professor Archer says. “The animals are now thriving in the new lowland environmental conditions and have even begun to mate and produce cute little youngsters.” 

In the next couple of years, the group is hoping to release the Mountain Pygmy-possums into the wild to monitor how they adapt to the new climate.


Western Australia Swamp Tortoise © Perth Zoo


Western Australian Swamp Tortoise

Amazingly, this is not the first time palaeoconservation has been used in Australia to support an endangered species.

The Western Australian Swamp Tortoise was believed to be extinct for 100 years before it was rediscovered in 1953. Since then, population size has dwindled to around 50 in the wild, sparking the need for major conservation action.

Last year, in an initiative run by the Western Swamp Tortoise Recovery Team, 200 of these amphibians that had been bred in captivity were released into the wild.

However, instead of returning them to their known habitat, these animals were relocated 80 km north of Perth in Scott National Park and Moore River Nature Reserve.

Studies of fossil records in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area had uncovered a closely related species that historically inhabited a very different environment to the known home of the tortoise. 

“The tortoise is critically endangered in part because the swamps where it occurs at the moment are gradually drying up,” says Professor Archer.

“But perhaps there’s a different palaeoconservation informed strategy that could save this turtle. We have found specimens of the same genus and quite possibly the same species in a 15-million-year-old deposit in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland. This wasn’t a dry desert swamp area at that time; these fossils were found in what would have been a freshwater pond in a cool, temperate lowland rainforest.

“Hence future efforts to conserve this turtle could perhaps seek out similar ponds in the rainforests of eastern Australia, ideally where there are no other turtles with which it might compete.”


Southern Corroboree Frog © Zoos Victoria


Coming full circle

While not all Australian animals can be traced back through fossil history, experts believe that the current collection of fossil remains could still be useful in understanding modern species better.

The critically endangered Southern Corroboree Frog is one such species. While no fossil ancestors have been identified, the frogs are living and declining in the same region as the Mountain Pygmy-possum, even hibernating at the same time of year.

Professor Archer believes this correlation could help to direct a similar conservation translocation project to save the Southern Corroboree Frog from extinction.

“Perhaps we could think about the Mountain Pygmy-possum’s fossil record as a proxy for the missing fossil records of other similarly threatened alpine animals and plants.

“Given that climate change is now driving it towards extinction in the alpine zone, it would seem sensible to at least consider the conservation value of translocating a population out of the alpine zone and down into the same lowland wet forest environments that kept species of Burramys comfortable for at least the last 25 million years.”

To learn more about how fossils can help to identify new species and save endangered species, click here.