Australia is renowned for its unique diversity of species, and likewise for the diversity of ecosystems across the island continent. Although many would typically associate Australia with the golden sandy beaches, palm trees and warm weather of the tropical east coast, other ecosystems also hold both beautiful and interesting characteristics. Even the regions that might typically seem the dullest – the temperate zones in the southern portion of the continent – themselves hold unique stories of the bizarre and wonderful environmental history of Australia.
The two temperate zones
Within Australia, the temperate zone is actually separated into two very distinct and separate regions. In the far south-western corner of the continent is the southwest Western Australia temperate zone, which spans a significant portion. In the southern eastern corner, the unnamed temperate zone spans from the region surrounding Adelaide at its westernmost point, expanding to the east and encompassing Tasmanian and Victoria before shifting northward into NSW. This temperate zones gradually develops into the sub-tropical and tropical climates of more northern latitudes in Queensland and across to Darwin.
The divide separating these two regions might be familiar to some readers – the Nullarbor Plain. Not just a particularly good location for fossils and mineral ores, the Nullarbor Plain is an almost perfectly flat arid expanse that stretches from the western edge of South Australia to the temperate zone of the southwest. As the name suggests, the plain is totally devoid of any significant forestry, owing to the lack of available water on the surface. This plain is a relatively ancient geological structure, and finished forming somewhere between 14 and 16 million years ago when tectonic uplift pushed a large limestone block upwards to the surface of the crust, forming an effective drain for standing water with the aridification of the continent. Thus, despite being relatively similar bioclimatically, the two temperate zones of Australia have been disconnected for ages and boast very different histories and biota.
The hotspot of the southwest
The southwest temperate zone – commonly referred to as southwest Western Australia (SWWA) – is an island-like bioregion. Isolated from the rest of the temperate Australia, it is remarkably geologically simple, with little topographic variation (only the Darling Scarp that separates the lower coast from the higher elevation of the Darling Plateau), generally minor river systems and low levels of soil nutrients. One key factor determining complexity in the SWWA environment is the isolation of high rainfall habitats within the broader temperate region – think of islands with an island.
Contrastingly, the temperate region in the south-east of the continent is much more complex. For one, the topography of the zone is much more variable: there are a number of prominent mountain chains (such as the extended Great Dividing Range), lowland basins (such as the expansive Murray-Darling Basin) and variable valley and river systems. Similarly, the climate varies significantly within this temperate region, with the more northern parts featuring more subtropical climatic conditions with wetter and hotter summers than the southern end. There is also a general trend of increasing rainfall and lower temperatures along the highlands of the southeast portion of the region, and dry, semi-arid conditions in the western lowland region.
A complicated history
The south-east temperate zone is not only variable now, but has undergone some drastic environmental changes over history. Massive shifts in geology, climate and sea-levels have particularly altered the nature of the area. Even volcanic events have been present at some time in the past.
One key hydrological shift that massively altered the region was the paleo-megalake Bungunnia. Not just a list of adjectives, Bungunnia was exactly as it’s described: a historically massive lake that spread across a huge area prior to its demise ~1-2 million years ago. At its largest size, Lake Bungunnia reached an area of over 50,000 km2, spreading from its westernmost point near the current Murray mouth although to halfway across Victoria. Initially forming due to a tectonic uplift event along the coastal edge of the Murray-Darling Basin ~3.2 million years ago, damming the ancestral Murray River (which historically outlet into the ocean much further east than today). Over the next few million years, the size of the lake fluctuated significantly with climatic conditions, with wetter periods causing the lake to overfill and burst its bank. With every burst, the lake shrank in size, until a final break ~700,000 years ago when the ‘dam’ broke and the full lake drained.
Another change in the historic environment readers may be more familiar with is the land-bridge that used to connect Tasmania to the mainland. Dubbed the Bassian Isthmus, this land-bridge appeared at various points in history of reduced sea-levels (i.e. during glacial periods in Pleistocene cycle), predominantly connecting via the still-above-water Flinders and Cape Barren Islands. However, at lower sea-levels, the land bridge spread as far west as King Island: central to this block of land was a large lake dubbed the Bass Lake (creative). The Bassian Isthmus played a critical role in the migration of many of the native fauna of Tasmania (likely including the Indigenous peoples of the now-island), and its submergence and isolation leads to some distinctive differences between Tasmanian and mainland biota. Today, the historic presence of the Bassian Isthmus has left a distinctive mark on the genetic make-up of many species native to the southeast of Australia, including dolphins, frogs, freshwater fishes and invertebrates.
Don’t underestimate the temperates
Although tropical regions get most of the hype for being hotspots of biodiversity, the temperate zones of Australia similarly boast high diversity, unique species and document a complex environmental history. Studying how the biota and environment of the temperate regions has changed over millennia is critical to predicting the future effects of climatic change across large ecosystems.
As regular readers of The G-CAT are likely aware, my first ever scientific paper was published this week. The paper is largely the results of my Honours research (with some extra analysis tacked on) on the phylogenomics (the same as phylogenetics, but with genomic data) and biogeographic history of a group of small, endemic freshwater fishes known as the pygmy perch. There are a number of different messages in the paper related to biogeography, taxonomy and conservation, and I am really quite proud of the work.
To my honest surprise, the paper has received a decentamount of media attention following its release. Nearly all of these have focused on the biogeographic results and interpretations of the paper, which is arguably the largest component of the paper. In these media releases, the articles are often opened with “…despite the odds, new research has shown how a tiny fish managed to find its way across the arid Australian continent – more than once.” So how did they manage it? These are tiny fish, and there’s a very large desert area right in the middle of Australia, so how did they make it all the way across? And more than once?!
The Great (southern) Southern Land
To understand the results, we first have to take a look at the context for the research question. There are seven officially named species of pygmy perches (‘named’ is an important characteristic here…but we’ll go into the details of that in another post), which are found in the temperate parts of Australia. Of these, three are found with southwest Western Australia, in Australia’s only globally recognised biodiversity hotspot, and the remaining four are found throughout eastern Australia (ranging from eastern South Australia to Tasmania and up to lower Queensland). These two regions are separated by arid desert regions, including the large expanse of the Nullarbor Plain.
As one might expect, the formation of the Nullarbor Plain was a huge barrier for many species, especially those that depend on regular accessible water for survival. In many species of both plants and animals, we see in their phylogenetic history a clear separation of eastern and western groups around this time; once widely distributed species become fragmented by the plain and diverged from one another. We would most certainly expect this to be true of pygmy perch.
This is where the real difference between everything else and pygmy perch happens. For most species, we see only one east and west split in their phylogenetic tree, associated with the Nullarbor Plain; before that, their ancestors were likely distributed across the entire southern continent and were one continuous unit.
Not for pygmy perch, though. Our phylogenetic patterns show that there were multiple splits between eastern and western ancestral pygmy perch. We can see this visually within the phylogenetic tree; some western species of pygmy perches are more closely related, from an evolutionary perspective, to eastern species of pygmy perches than they are to other western species. This could imply a couple different things; either some species came about by migration from east to west (or vice versa), and that this happened at least twice, or that two different ancestral pygmy perches were distributed across all of southern Australia and each split east-west at some point in time. These two hypotheses are called “multiple invasion” and “geographic paralogy”, respectively.
So, which is it? We delved deeper into this using a type of analysis called ‘ancestral clade reconstruction’. This tries to guess the likely distributions of species ancestors using different models and statistical analysis. Our results found that the earliest east-west split was due to the fragmentation of a widespread ancestor ~20 million years ago, and a migration event facilitated by changing waterways from the Nullarbor Plain pushing some eastern pygmy perches to the west to form the second group of western species. We argue for more than one migration across Australia since the initial ancestor of pygmy perches must have expanded from some point (either east or west) to encompass the entirety of southern Australia.
So why do we see this for pygmy perch and no other species? Well, that’s the real mystery; out of all of the aquatic species found in southeast and southwest Australia, pygmy perch are one of the worst at migrating. They’re very picky about habitat, small, and don’t often migrate far unless pushed (by, say, a flood). It is possible that unrecorded extinct species of pygmy perch might help to clarify this a little, but the chances of finding a preserved fish fossil (let alone for a fish less than 8cm in size!) is extremely unlikely. We can really only theorise about how they managed to migrate.
What does this mean for pygmy perches?
Nearly all species of pygmy perch are threatened or worse in the conservation legislation; there have been many conservation efforts to try and save the worst-off species from extinction. Pygmy perches provide a unique insight to the history of the Australian climate and may be a key in unlocking some of the mysteries of what our land was like so long ago. Every species is important for conservation and even those small, hard-to-notice creatures that we might forget about play a role in our environmental history.
But the real question is: why are there so many endemics in Australia? What is so special about our country that lends to our unique flora and fauna? Although we naturally associate tropical regions with lush, vibrant and diverse life, most of Australia is complete desert. That said, most of our species are concentrated in the tropical regions of the country, particularly in the upper east coast and far north (the ‘Top End’).
There are a number of different factors which contribute to the high species diversity of Australia. Most notably is how isolated we are as a continent: Australia has been separated from most of the rest of the world for millions of years. In this time, the climate has varied dramatically as the island shifted northward, creating a variety of changing environments and unique ecological niches for species to specialise into. We refer to these species groups as ‘Gondwana relicts’, since their last ancestor with the rest of the world would have been distributed across the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago. These include marsupials, many birds groups (including ratites and megapodes), many fish groups and a plethora of others. A Gondwanan origin explains why they are only found within Australia, southern Africa and South America (the closest landmass that was also historically connected to Gondwana).
Early arrivals and naturalisation to the Australian ecosystem
Eventually, this connection also brought with them one of our most iconic species; the dingo. Estimates of their arrival dates the migration at around 6 thousand years ago. As Australia’s only ‘native’ dog, there has been much debate about its status as an Australian icon. To call the dingo ‘native’ implies it’s always been there: but 6 thousand years is more than enough time to become ingrained within the ecosystem in a stable fashion. So, to balance the debate (and prevent the dingo from being labelled as an ‘invasive pest’ unfairly), we often refer to them as ‘naturalised’. This term helps us to disentangle modern-day pests, many of which our immensely destructive to the natural environment, from other species that have naturally migrated and integrated many years ago.
Invaders of the Australian continent
Of course, we can never ignore the direct impacts of humans on the ecosystem. Particularly with European settlement, another plethora of animals were introduced for the first time into Australia; these were predominantly livestock animals or hunting-related species (both as predators and prey). This includes the cane toad, widely regarded as one of the biggest errors in pest control on the planet.
When European settlers in the 1930s attempted to grow sugar cane in the far eastern part of the country, they found their crops decimated by a local beetle. In an effort to eradicate them, they brought over a species of cane toad, with the idea that they would control the beetle population and all would be well. Only, cane toads are particularly lazy and instead of targeting the cane beetles, they just thrived on all the other native invertebrates around. They’re also very resilient and adaptable (and highly toxic), so their numbers exploded and they’ve since spread across a large swathe of the country. Their toxic skin makes them fatal food objects for many native predators and they strongly compete against other similar native animals (such as our own amphibians). The cane toad introduction of 1935 is the poster child of how bad failed pest control can be.
But is native always better?
History tells a very stark tale about the poor native animals and the ravenous, rampaging pest species. Because of this, it is a widely adopted philosophical viewpoint that ‘native is always best’. And while I don’t disagree with the sentiment (of course we need to preserve our native wildlife, and not the massively overabundant pests), there are rare examples where nature is a little more complicated. In Australia, this is exemplified in the noisy miner.
The noisy miner is a small bird which, much like its name implies, is incredibly noisy and aggressive. It’s highly abundant, found predominantly throughout urban and suburban areas, and seems to dominate the habitat. It does this by bullying out other bird species from nesting grounds, creating a monopoly on the resource to the exclusion of many other species (even larger ones such as crows and magpies). Despite being native, it seems to have thrived on human alteration of the landscape and is a serious threat to the survival and longevity of many other species. If we thought of it solely under the ‘nature is best’ paradigm, we would dismiss the noisy miner as ‘doing what it should be.’ The truth is really more of a philosophical debate: is it natural to let the noisy miner outcompete many other natives, possibly resulting in their extinction? Or is it only because of human interference (and thus is our responsibility to fix) that the noisy miner is doing so well in the first place? It’s not a simple question to answer, although the latter seems to be incredibly important.
The amazing biodiversity of Australia is a badge of honour we should wear with patriotic pride. Conservation efforts of our endemic fauna are severely limited by a lack of funding and resources, and despite a general acceptance of the importance of diverse ecosystems we remain relatively ineffective at preserving it. Understanding and connecting with our native wildlife, whilst finding methods to control invasive species, is key to conserving our wonderful ecosystems.
I’ve mentioned a few times in the past that my own research centres around a particular group of fish: the pygmy perches. When I tell people about them, sometimes I get the question “why do you want to study them?” And to be fair, it’s a good question: there must be something inherently interesting about them to be worth researching. And there is plenty.
Pygmy perches are a group of very small (usually 4-6cm) freshwater fish native to temperate Australia: they’re found throughout the southwest corner of WA and the southeast of Australia, stretching from the mouth of the Murray River in SA up to lower Queensland (predominantly throughout the Murray-Darling Basin) and even in northern Tasmania. There’s a massive space in the middle where they aren’t found: this is the Nullarbor Plain, and is a significant barrier for nearly all freshwater species (since it holds practically no water).
The group consists of 2 genera (Nannoperca and Nannatherina) and 7 currently described species, although there could be as many as 10 actual species (see ‘cryptic species’: I’ll elaborate on this more in future posts…). They’re very picky about their habitat, preferring to stay within low flow waterbodies with high vegetation cover, such as floodplains and lowland creeks. Most species have a lifespan of a couple years, with different breeding times depending on the species.
Why study pygmy perches?
So, they’re pretty cute little fish. But unfortunately, that’s not usually enough justification to study a particular organism. So, why does the Molecular Ecology Lab choose to use pygmy perch as one (of several) focal groups? Well, there’s a number of different reasons.
The main factors that contribute to their research interest are their other characteristics: because they’re so small and habitat specialists, they often form small, isolated populations that are naturally separated by higher flow rivers and environmental barriers. They also appear to have naturally very low genetic diversity: ordinarily, we’d expect that they wouldn’t be great at adapting and surviving over a long time. Yet, they’ve been here for a long time: so how do they do it? That’s the origin of many of the research questions for pygmy perches.
The influence of the historic environment on evolution
From an evolutionary standpoint, pygmy perches are unique in more ways than just their genetic diversity. They’re relatively ancient, with the origin of the group estimated at around 40 million years ago. Since then, they’ve diversified into a number of different species and have spread all over the southern half of the Australian continent, demonstrating multiple movements across Australia in that time. This pattern is unusual for freshwater organisms, and this combined with their ancient nature makes them ideal candidates for studying the influence of historic environment, climate and geology on the evolution and speciation of freshwater animals in Australia. And that’s the focus of my PhD (although not exclusively; plenty of other projects have explored questions in this area).
Of course, it’s all well and good to study the natural, evolutionary history of an organism as if it hasn’t had any other influences. But we all know how dramatic the impact humans have on the environment are and unfortunately for many pygmy perch species this means that they are threatened or endangered and at risk of extinction. Their biggest threats are introduced predators (such as the redfin perch and European carp), alteration of waterways (predominantly for agriculture) and of course, climate change. For some populations, local extinction has already happened: some populations of the Yarra pygmy perch (N. obscura) are now completely gone from the wild. Many of these declines occurred during the Millennium Drought, where the aforementioned factors were exacerbated by extremely low water availability and consistently high temperatures. So naturally, a significant proportion of the work on pygmy perches is focused on their conservation, and trying to boost and recover declining populations.
This includes the formation of genetics-basedbreeding programs for two species, the southern pygmy perch and Yarra pygmy perch. A number of different organisations are involved in this ongoing process, including a couple of schools! These programs are informed by our other studies of pygmy perch evolution and adaptive potential and hopefully combined we can save these species from becoming totally extinct.
Hopefully, some of this convinces you that pygmy perch are actually rather interesting creatures (I certainly think so!). Pygmy perch research can offer a unique insight into evolutionary history, historical biogeography, and conservation management. Also, they’re kinda cute….so that’s gotta count for something, right? If you wanted to find out more about pygmy perch research, and get updates on our findings, be sure to check out the Molecular Ecology Lab Facebook page or our website!