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Australia's Biodiversity - A Summary

Updated:

Only seventeen 'megadiversity' countries - countries with extraordinarily high levels of biodiversity - are recognised on Earth (Conservation International (CI) 1998). These countries collectively hold around two thirds of the world's biodiversity (CI 1998, McNeely et al. 1990, Groombridge 1992). Australia is one of these countries. Further, it is one of only two developed nations of the 17 megadiversity countries in the world (along with the USA) (CI 1998), and is the only one with a low population density (see Common and Norton 1992). Previous work consistently recognised Australia as being one of 12 megadiversity nations (McNeely et al. 1990, Common and Norton 1992, Bridgewater and Walker 1992, Beattie 1995), and as being the only developed (high income per capita) megadiversity nation (Common and Norton 1992).

Australia - the only country in the world which spans an entire continent and its biota - has an unparalleled opportunity for conserving a significant part of the world's biodiversity. Australia is the only megadiversity nation on Earth which is a developed nation with a low population density - the only country in the world with a high level of economic ability for biodiversity protection, without the population pressures that could compete with biodiversity protection for land use.

We have more species of higher (vascular) plants than 94% of countries on Earth, and more non-fish vertebrate animals (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) than 95% of the world's countries. We have more species of mammals than 93% of countries, more birds than 79% of countries, more amphibians than 95% of countries, and more reptiles than any other country on Earth.

Even more telling are the number of endemic species in Australia - species which occur nowhere else on Earth. Endemic species in a country show unique biodiversity, which is shared by no other country in the world, and thus is an equally important measure of biodiversity to total species numbers. Australia has more endemic plants than 98% of the world's countries, and more endemic non-fish vertebrates than any other country on Earth. We have more endemic mammals than any other country, more endemic birds than 99% of the world's countries, more endemic reptiles by far than any other country, and more endemic amphibians than 97% of the world's countries.

92% of our vascular plants are endemic. About 83% of our mammals also occur nowhere else, as well as 45% of our birds, 89% of our reptiles and 93% of our frogs.

Our record on protecting this biodiversity is not good. Since European settlement, 83 species of higher plants have become extinct (ANBG 1998) - we have the worst record for higher plant extinctions of any country on Earth (Kirkpatrick 1994). We have also sent extinct 43 animal species (see Commonwealth 1998a and Bridgewater and Walker 1992). With 19 mammal extinctions (Commonwealth 1998a) we have the worst record of mammal extinctions on Earth - more than any other country (Commonwealth 1996b) or continent (Burbidge 1995). We have also sent 21 species of birds (Commonwealth 1998a) and 3 frogs (Bridgewater and Walker 1992) extinct. In total, we have sent 126 species of plants and animals out of existence in just 200 years.

Further, according to the Commonwealth (1998a) we have 1072 nationally threatened vascular plants (or 6.8% of our vascular plants), and 219 threatened non-fish vertebrates (11% of our non-fish vertebrate species, or 0.9% of the world's total non-fish vertebrate species). Australia has 54 threatened mammals (20%, or one fifth, of our mammals), 98 threatened birds (13% of our birds), 52 threatened reptiles (6.5% of our reptiles) and 15 threatened amphibians (7% of our amphibians). We also have 21 threatened fish, 3 threatened invertebrates, and 1 threatened non-vascular plant, for a total of 1316 nationally threatened species, according to the Commonwealth (1998a). According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (1996), we rank fifth in the world for total numbers of threatened non-fish vertebrates - we have more threatened non-fish vertebrate species than 98% of the world's countries. We also have more threatened reptile and amphibian species than any other country on Earth (IUCN 1996).

Considering that we are one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, does our protected area system hold up as one of the best in the world? Australia has 60,110,000 ha in its terrestrial protected area system, considering IUCN protected area categories I-VI (Thackway 1998). This is 7.8% of Australia's 7,690,150 square kilometre land mass. In IUCN categories I-IV (a level of protection consistent with national park or nature reserve status), Australia has 48,073,000 ha (Thackway 1998), or 6.3% of the continent.

According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC 1998) the world average is 6.29% (out of 169 listed countries), including IUCN categories I-VI. Australia's figure of 7.8% is just above average, but far from world-leading.

According to the WCMC (1998 and Groombridge 1992), there are at least 46 countries (out of 169 countries listed by WCMC 1998) which have a greater proportion of their land area in a terrestrial protected areas system than Australia (in IUCN categories I-VI). This is 27.2% of the 169 countries listed - over a quarter of the world's countries have a more comprehensive terrestrial protected areas system than Australia.

The following are some examples of comparisons with other countries. Australia and Botswana have the same population density (2.4 people per square kilometre), and yet the southern African country has more than double our percentage of land area protected. Australia and Sri Lanka have approximately the same population (18.7 and 18.9 million respectively), and yet Sri Lanka's land area is less than 1% of Australia's, and its population density is 120 times that of Australia, and yet it still has a higher proportion of its land area protected than Australia (over one and a half times our figure). Australia and the United States have a similar land area (the US is 1.2 times the size of Australia), and yet the US has a population of 270 million compared to our 18.7 million, and still has a higher proportion of its land area protected (11.2%, or 1.4 times our figure).

Clearly many other countries, including ones much less developed or much more populated (or both) than us, are making a greater effort than Australia in setting aside land for reserves - even though we have a greater economic ability, far less population pressure for land use, and/or far greater biodiversity.

 

 

 

AUSTRALIAN BIODIVERSITY FACT TABLE:

 

 

AUSTRALIA'S BIODIVERSITY - PLANTS

The Australian Native Botanic Gardens (ANBG 1998) states that Australia has 15, 638 native vascular (higher) plants. Conservation International (CI 1998) states that 14,458 of these are endemic to Australia (they occur in no other country on Earth). This makes 92% of our vascular plants endemic. 85% of our flowering plants (angiosperms) are also endemic (Commonwealth of Australia (CoA) 1996b, p.1; CoA 1994, p.15).

According to CI (1998) we are ranked 13 in the world for higher plant diversity (total number of species), and 5 in the world for higher plant endemism (number of endemic species). Therefore, out of 229 countries listed in the world by the IUCN (1996) (including some country's external territories, considered as individual 'countries'), we have more higher plants than 94% of the world's countries, and more endemic higher plants than 98% of the world's countries.

As examples of our higher plant diversity, Australia has more vascular plants than all of Europe (which has 12,500 species) (Groombridge 1992, p.66). The States of Queensland and Western Australia contain 7,535 and 7,463 native vascular plants respectively (ANBG 1998) - this is two and a half times as many as all of Canada (3,018 species) (Groombridge 1992), even though Canada is 5.7 times the size of Queensland, four times the size of Western Australia, and one and a third times the size of Australia. The Sydney region contains more species of vascular plants (2000+ species) than all of Great Britain (1600 species) (Flannery 1994, p.75), as does the State of Tasmania (1,627 species) (ANBG 1998). With 1,165 species in 6,300 square kilometres within the wet tropics of north Queensland (Kennedy 1990, p.12), this area has more plant species than Finland (1,102 species) (Groombridge 1992, p.80) which is over 50 times its size, and about as many species as Niger in northern Africa (1,178 species) which is over 188 times its size. The internationally recognised plant 'hot spot' of South-west Western Australia (Myers 1990; Groombridge 1992, p.155) (the Southwest Botanical Province), with 5,500 higher plants (Groombridge 1992, p. 169; also see CoA 1996a, p.4-4), has more higher plants than Bangladesh (5,000 species), Canada (3,018 species), Uganda (5,406 species), the Central African Republic (3,602 species), and French Guiana (5,318 species), and almost twice as many as New Zealand (2,371 species) (Groombridge 1992). The Australian Alps has more species of higher plants (700) than either the Caymen Islands (539 species) or Western Samoa (693 species) (Groombridge 1992). Victoria has around 270 species of orchid, while the entire North American continent has only 165 and Europe 116 species (CoA 1996b, p.45).

An estimated 5.8%, or more than one twentieth, of the world's higher plants exist only in Australia, according to the figures of CI (1998) on Australia's endemic plants.

According to the Commonwealth of Australia Threatened Species Protection Act 1992 (revised 1998) (CoA 1998a), we have 372 endangered and 700 vulnerable higher plants, or 1072 threatened nationally. This is 6.85% of our vascular plants. CoA (1998a) also states we have 68 vascular plants presumed extinct, and 83 species are presumed extinct according to the ANBG (1998).

 

 

AUSTRALIA'S BIODIVERSITY - NON-FISH VERTEBRATE ANIMALS

(MAMMALS, BIRDS, REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS)

We have 2009 non-fish vertebrate species (see separate sections for detail). It is calculated that we have approximately 1489 endemic non-fish vertebrate animals (see separate sections for detail). This means 74% of Australia's non-fish vertebrates are endemic.

On the figures in Groombridge (1992), we are ranked 11th in the world for numbers of non-fish vertebrate species, and 1st in the world for endemics - we have over one and a half times the number of endemic species as the next-ranked country (Indonesia, with 848 endemic species). We have more non-fish vertebrates than 95% of the world's countries. Our endemic non-fish vertebrates make up 6.2% of the world total of 23,852 described species (see McNeely et al. 1990).

According to the CoA (1998), Australia has 92 endangered non-fish vertebrates, and 127 vulnerable non-fish vertebrate species, or 219 threatened nationally. This equals 0.9% of the world's total non-fish vertebrate species. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (1996) we have 165 threatened non-fish vertebrates, which on their list ranks us 5th in the world - we have more threatened non-fish vertebrate species than 98% of the world's countries (out of 229 countries and territories listed by IUCN 1996).

 

AUSTRALIA'S BIODIVERSITY - MAMMALS

Strahan (1995) lists 312 mammals for Australia, of which 25 are naturalised (introduced) (CoA 1996a) and 19 are presumed extinct (CoA 1998). This leaves Australia with 268 extant (still living) native mammals.

The CoA (1994, p.25) states that we have 210 endemic mammals in Australia, meaning that about 78% of our extant native mammals are endemic. The CoA (1996b) states that about 82% of our mammals are endemic, and the CoA (1996a) states that 84% are endemic. Australia is ranked 1st in the world for numbers of endemic mammals (CI 1998, Groombridge 1992) - more mammals occur only in Australia than occur only in any other country on Earth. According to Groombridge (1992), Australia is ranked 16th in the world for numbers of mammal species - we have more species of mammals than 93% of the world's countries (out of 229 countries and territories listed by IUCN, 1996). The 210 endemic mammals listed by the CoA (1994) are 5% of the 4170 described mammal species in the world (McNeely et al. 1990) - one twentieth of the world's mammal species occur only in Australia.

According to the CoA (1998), we have 33 endangered mammals and 21 vulnerable mammals, or a total of 54 nationally threatened mammals. This is 20% of our extant native species. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (1996) we have 58 threatened mammals, which ranks us 6th in the world - we have more threatened mammals than 97% of the world's countries. We also have 19 extinct mammals (CoA 1998) - more than any other country (CoA 1996a) or continent (Strahan 1995) on Earth. In the arid zone, about 33% of mammal species in the sandy and stony desert ecosystems are known to be regionally extinct and 90% of mammal species weighing between 35 grams (mouse size) and 5,500 grams (small wallaby size) are either extinct or endangered (NSW Government 1997, p.328).

AUSTRALIA'S BIODIVERSITY - BIRDS

The Royal Australian Ornithologists Union (RAOU 1994) lists Australia as having 793 birds, of which 32 are naturalised (introduced) (CoA 1996a) and 21 are presumed extinct (CoA 1998), leaving Australia with 740 extant (still living) native birds.

The CoA (1994, p.25) lists Australia as having 357 endemic birds, or 46% of the extant total (native plus naturalised), and 48% of the total extant native species. The CoA (1996a and 1996b) states that 45% of our birds are endemic. According to CI (1998) Australia is ranked 2nd in the world for numbers of endemic birds, and according to Groombridge (1992) we are ranked 47th in the world for numbers of species. We therefore have more species of birds than 79% of the 229 countries and territories in the world which are listed by the IUCN (1996). Australia's 357 endemic birds are approximately 3.9% of the world's total described bird species of 9,198 (McNeely et al. 1990).

According to the CoA (1998) we have 35 endangered birds and 63 vulnerable ones, or 98 nationally threatened species. This is 13% of our extant native birds. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (1996) we have 58 threatened birds, which ranks us equal 11th in the world - we have more threatened birds than 95% of the world's countries. Australia's 21 extinct birds plus 98 nationally threatened species mean that 119 species are extinct, endangered or vulnerable, or over 15% of our original (pre-European) native birds.

 

 

AUSTRALIA'S BIODIVERSITY - REPTILES

Cogger (1995) lists Australia as having 796 species of reptiles, of which two are naturalised (CoA 1996a) and none are extinct (CoA 1998), leaving Australia with 794 extant (still living) native species of reptile. A new species of snake (the False King Brown Snake, Pailsus pailsei) was discovered in 1998 (identified by Raymond Hoser, Melbourne). This gives Australia 795 extant native reptile species.

The CoA (1996a and 1996b) states that 89% of our reptiles are endemic. This would give Australia approximately 708 endemic reptiles (actual number not found). Australia has more species of reptiles than any other country (CI 1998, Groombridge 1992), and more endemic reptiles than any other country (CI 1998). Australia has the highest reptile biodiversity in the world. Australia's approximately 708 endemic reptiles form 11% of the world's total described reptile species of 6,300 (McNeely et al. 1990) - over a tenth of the world's reptiles live only in Australia.

According to the CoA (1998) we have 12 endangered and 40 vulnerable reptiles, or 52 nationally threatened species. This is 6.5% of our extant native reptiles. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (1996) we have 37 threatened reptiles - more than any other country on Earth.

 

 

 

AUSTRALIA'S BIODIVERSITY - AMPHIBIANS

Cogger (1995) lists Australia as having 208 amphibians, with one naturalised (the Cane Toad), and none extinct (CoA 1998), leaving Australia with 207 native amphibians (all frogs). According to Bridgewater and Walker (1992) at least 3 frog species seem to have become extinct.

The CoA (1996a and 1996b) states that 93% of our frogs are endemic - this would mean that around 193 species are endemic (actual number not found). According to CI (1998), Australia is ranked 11th in the world for number of species, and equal 5th for number of endemics. Thus we have more amphibians than 95% of the world's countries and more endemic amphibians than 97% of the world's countries. Amphibians occurring only in Australia (endemics) form 4% of the world's total described species of 4,184 (McNeely et al. 1990).

According to the CoA (1998a), we have 12 endangered and 3 vulnerable frogs, or 15 nationally threatened. This is 7% of our native amphibians. According to IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (1996) we have 25 threatened amphibians - more than any other country on Earth.

 

AUSTRALIA'S PROTECTED AREAS

Australia has 60,110,000 ha in its terrestrial protected area system according to Thackway (1998) and 59,752,783 ha according to CoA (1998b). If marine protected areas are included, Australia has 93,545,457 ha (WCMC 1998). These figures include areas covered by IUCN protected areas categories I-VI (a broad interpretation of "protection" that may allow mining and other disturbances).

This terrestrial protected area figure equals 7.8% of the Australian land area. However, within IUCN protected area categories I-IV (a level of protection consistent with national park or nature reserve status), there is only 48,073,000 ha, which equals 6.3% of the Australian land area (see Thackway 1998).

According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC 1998) the world average for proportion of land area protected is 6.29% (out of 169 listed countries), considering all IUCN protected area categories. Australia's figure of 7.8% is just above average, but far from world-leading. According to the WCMC (1998 and Groombridge 1992), there are at least 46 countries (out of 169 countries listed by WCMC 1998) which have a greater proportion of their land area in a terrestrial protected areas system (IUCN categories I-VI) than Australia. This is 27.2% of the 169 countries listed - over a quarter of the world's countries have a more comprehensive terrestrial protected areas system than Australia. These countries are:

  1. Antigua and Barbuda
  2. Austria
  3. Bahamas
  4. Belize
  5. Bhutan
  6. Bolivia
  7. Botswana
  8. Brunei Darussalam
  9. Burkina Faso
  10. Central African Republic
  11. Chile
  12. Colombia
  13. Costa Rica
  14. Cyprus
  15. Czech Republic
  16. Denmark
  17. Dominica
  18. Dominican Republic
  19. France
  20. Germany (Federal Republic of Germany)
  21. Greenland
  22. Iceland
  23. Indonesia
  24. Israel
  25. Liechtenstein
  26. Malawi
  27. Namibia
  28. New Zealand
  29. Norway
  30. Panama
  31. Rwanda
  32. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  33. Senegal
  34. Seychelles
  35. Sri Lanka
  36. Switzerland
  37. Taiwan
  38. Tanzania
  39. Thailand
  40. Togo
  41. Uganda
  42. United Kingdom
  43. United States
  44. Venezuela
  45. Zambia
  46. Zimbabwe

(A number of other countries may also have a higher level of land protection than Australia, but could not be confirmed due to inclusion of marine areas in WCMC data.)

Further statistics for comparison between Australia and 12 other countries:


COUNTRY

%
PROTECTED

LAND
AREA
(km2)

AREA
PROTECTED
(ha)

POPULATION
(million)

POPULATION
DENSITY
(per km2)

Australia

7.8 %

7,682,300

60,110,000

18.7

2.4

Austria

23.92 %

83,855

2,005,475

8.1

96.6

Botswana

18.54 %

575,000

10,663,280

1.4

2.4

Denmark

32.34 %

43,075

1,388,750

5.3

123.0

France

10.3 %

543,965

5,601,486

58.8

108.1

Indonesia

8.91 %

1,919,445

18,565,292

207.4

108.1

Rwanda

12.42 %

26,330

327,000

8.0

303.8

Sri Lanka

12.13 %

65,610

795,953

18.9

288.1

Switzerland

17.7 %

41,285

730,707

7.1

172.0

Tanzania

14.78 %

939,760

13,889,975

30.6

32.6

United Kingdom

20.94 %

244,880

5,127,966

59.1

241.3

United States

11.12 %

9,372,614

104,238,016

270.2

28.8

Venezuela

28.86 %

912,045

26,322,306

23.3

25.4

From the above table it can be seen that:

Australia and Botswana have the same population density (2.4 people per square kilometre), and yet Botswana has more than twice (2.38 times) our percentage of land area protected. Australia and Sri Lanka have approximately the same population (18.7 and 18.9 million respectively), and yet Sri Lanka's land area is less than 1% (0.85%) of ours, and its population density is 120 times ours, and yet it still has a higher proportion of its land area protected than Australia (over one and a half times our figure). Australia and the United States have a similar land area (the US is 1.2 times the size of Australia), and yet the US has a population of 270 million to our 18.7 million, and still has a higher proportion of its land area protected (11.2%, or 1.4 times our figure). Rwanda is one third of one percent the size of Australia and has a population density 127 times ours; it has 2446 people per square kilometer of protected area, compared to Australia's 31, and yet a higher proportion of its land area is protected than ours (1.6 times ours).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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