Mapping the ‘super-highways’ the First Australians used to cross the ancient land

4 05 2021

Author provided/The Conversation, Author provided

There are many hypotheses about where the Indigenous ancestors first settled in Australia tens of thousands of years ago, but evidence is scarce.

Few archaeological sites date to these early times. Sea levels were much lower and Australia was connected to New Guinea and Tasmania in a land known as Sahul that was 30% bigger than Australia is today.

Our latest research advances our knowledge about the most likely routes those early Australians travelled as they peopled this giant continent.

Read more: The First Australians grew to a population of millions, much more than previous estimates

We are beginning to get a picture not only of where those first people landed in Sahul, but how they moved throughout the continent.

Navigating the landscape

Modelling human movement requires understanding how people navigate new terrain. Computers facilitate building models, but they are still far from easy. We reasoned we needed four pieces of information: (1) topography; (2) the visibility of tall landscape features; (3) the presence of freshwater; and (4) demographics of the travellers.

We think people navigated in new territories — much as people do today — by focusing on prominent land features protruding above the relative flatness of the Australian continent. Read the rest of this entry »

Population of First Australians grew to millions, much more than previous estimates

30 04 2021

Shutterstock/Jason Benz Bennee

We know it is more than 60,000 years since the first people entered the continent of Sahul — the giant landmass that connected New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania when sea levels were lower than today.

But where the earliest people moved across the landscape, how fast they moved, and how many were involved, have been shrouded in mystery.

Our latest research, published today shows the establishment of populations in every part of this giant continent could have occurred in as little as 5,000 years. And the entire population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people.

This translates to more than 3 million people in the area that is now modern-day Australia, far more than any previous estimate.

Read more: We mapped the ‘super-highways’ the First Australians used to cross the ancient land

The first people could have entered through what is now western New Guinea or from the now-submerged Sahul Shelf off the modern-day Kimberley (or both).

But whichever the route, entire communities of people arrived, adapted to and established deep cultural connections with Country over 11 million square kilometres of land, from northwestern Sahul to Tasmania.

A map showing a much larger landmass as Australia is joined to both Tasmania and New Guinea due to lower sea levels

Map of what Australia looked like for most of the human history of the continent when sea levels were lower than today. Author provided

This equals a rate of population establishment of about 1km per year (based on a maximum straight-line distance of about 5,000km from the introduction point to the farthest point).

That’s doubly impressive when you consider the harshness of the Australian landscape in which people both survived and thrived.

Previous estimates of Indigenous population

Various attempts have been made to calculate the number of people living in Australia before European invasion. Estimates vary from 300,000 to more than 1,200,000 people. Read the rest of this entry »

No, you can’t argue the Medieval warm period is evidence that today’s climate change isn’t all that bad

23 04 2021
As this reconstructed village shows, Vikings made it as far as Newfoundland during the Medieval warm period. Wikimedia/Dylan Kereluk, CC BY-SA

Frédérik Saltré, Flinders University and Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University

What was the Medieval warm period? What caused it, and did carbon dioxide play a role?

We are living in a world that is getting warmer year by year, threatening our environment and way of life.

But what if these climate conditions were not exceptional? What if it had already happened in the past when human influences were not part of the picture?

The often mentioned Medieval warm period seems to fit the bill. This evokes the idea that if natural global warming and all its effects occurred in the past without humans causing them, then perhaps we are not responsible for this one. And it does not really matter because if we survived one in the past, then we can surely survive one now.

But it’s just not that simple.

Read more: 2,000 years of records show it’s getting hotter, faster

The Medieval climate anomaly

This Medieval period of warming, also known as the Medieval climate anomaly, was associated with an unusual temperature rise roughly between 750 and 1350 AD (the European Middle Ages). The available evidence suggests that at times, some regions experienced temperatures exceeding those recorded during the period between 1960 and 1990. Read the rest of this entry »

Attack of the alien invaders: pest plants and animals leave a frightening $1.7 trillion bill

19 04 2021


They’re one of the most damaging environmental forces on Earth. They’ve colonised pretty much every place humans have set foot on the planet. Yet you might not even know they exist.

We’re talking about alien species. Not little green extraterrestrials, but invasive plants and animals not native to an ecosystem and which become pests. They might be plants from South America, starfish from Africa, insects from Europe or birds from Asia.

These species can threaten the health of plants and animals, including humans. And they cause huge economic harm. Our research, recently published in the journal Nature, puts a figure on that damage. We found that globally, invasive species cost US$1.3 trillion (A$1.7 trillion) in money lost or spent between 1970 and 2017.

The cost is increasing exponentially over time. And troublingly, most of the cost relates to the damage and losses invasive species cause. Meanwhile, far cheaper control and prevention measures are often ignored.

Yellow crazy ants attacking a gecko
Yellow crazy ants, such as these attacking a gecko, are among thousands of invasive species causing ecological and economic havoc. Dinakarr, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

An expansive toll

Invasive species have been invading foreign territories for centuries. They hail from habitats as diverse as tropical forests, dry savannas, temperate lakes and cold oceans.

They arrived because we brought them — as pets, ornamental plants or as stowaways on our holidays or via commercial trade.

Read the rest of this entry »

The biggest and slowest don’t always bite it first

13 04 2021

For many years I’ve been interested in modelling the extinction dynamics of megafauna. Apart from co-authoring a few demographically simplified (or largely demographically free) models about how megafauna species could have gone extinct, I have never really tried to capture the full nuances of long-extinct species within a fully structured demographic framework.

That is, until now.

But how do you get the life-history data of an extinct animal that was never directly measured. Surely, things like survival, reproductive output, longevity and even environmental carrying capacity are impossible to discern, and aren’t these necessary for a stage-structured demographic model?

Thylacine mum & joey. Nellie Pease & CABAH

The answer to the first part of that question “it’s possible”, and to the second, it’s “yes”. The most important bit of information we palaeo modellers need to construct something that’s ecologically plausible for an extinct species is an estimate of body mass. Thankfully, palaeontologists are very good at estimating the mass of the things they dig up (with the associated caveats, of course). From such estimates, we can reconstruct everything from equilibrium densities, maximum rate of population growth, age at first breeding, and longevity.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. In Australia anyway, we’re largely dealing with marsupials (and some monotremes), and they have a rather different life-history mode than most placentals. We therefore have to ‘correct’ the life-history estimates derived from living placental species. Thankfully, evolutionary biologists and ecologists have ways to do that too.

The Pleistocene kangaroo Procoptodon goliah, the largest and most heavily built of the  short-faced kangaroos, was the largest and most heavily built kangaroo known. It had an  unusually short, flat face and forwardly directed 
eyes, with a single large toe on each foot  (reduced from the more normal count of four). Each forelimb had two long, clawed fingers  that would have been used to bring leafy branches within reach.

So with a battery of ecological, demographic, and evolutionary tools, we can now create reasonable stochastic-demographic models for long-gone species, like wombat-like creatures as big as cars, birds more than two metres tall, and lizards more than seven metres long that once roamed the Australian continent. 

Ancient clues, in the shape of fossils and archaeological evidence of varying quality scattered across Australia, have formed the basis of several hypotheses about the fate of megafauna that vanished during a peak about 42,000 years ago from the ancient continent of Sahul, comprising mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and neighbouring islands.

There is a growing consensus that multiple factors were at play, including climate change, the impact of people on the environment, and access to freshwater sources.

Just published in the open-access journal eLife, our latest CABAH paper applies these approaches to assess how susceptible different species were to extinction – and what it means for the survival of species today. 

Using various characteristics such as body size, weight, lifespan, survival rate, and fertility, we (Chris Johnson, John Llewelyn, Vera Weisbecker, Giovanni Strona, Frédérik Saltré & me) created population simulation models to predict the likelihood of these species surviving under different types of environmental disturbance.

Simulations included everything from increasing droughts to increasing hunting pressure to see which species of 13 extinct megafauna (genera: Diprotodon, Palorchestes, Zygomaturus, Phascolonus, Procoptodon, Sthenurus, Protemnodon, Simosthenurus, Metasthenurus, Genyornis, Thylacoleo, Thylacinus, Megalibgwilia), as well as 8 comparative species still alive today (Vombatus, Osphranter, Notamacropus, Dromaius, Alectura, Sarcophilus, Dasyurus, Tachyglossus), had the highest chances of surviving.

We compared the results to what we know about the timing of extinction for different megafauna species derived from dated fossil records. We expected to confirm that the most extinction-prone species were the first species to go extinct – but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While we did find that slower-growing species with lower fertility, like the rhino-sized wombat relative Diprotodon, were generally more susceptible to extinction than more-fecund species like the marsupial ‘tiger’ thylacine, the relative susceptibility rank across species did not match the timing of their extinctions recorded in the fossil record.

Indeed, we found no clear relationship between a species’ inherent vulnerability to extinction — such as being slower and heavier and/or slower to reproduce — and the timing of its extinction in the fossil record.

In fact, we found that most of the living species used for comparison — such as short-beaked echidnas, emus, brush turkeys, and common wombats — were more susceptible on average than their now-extinct counterparts.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to avoid reduce the probability of being killed by a shark

31 03 2021

Easy. Don’t go swimming/surfing/snorkelling/diving in the ocean.

“Oh, shit”

Sure, that’s true, but if you’re like many Australians, the sea is not just a beautiful thing to look at from the window, it’s a way of life. Trying telling a surfer not to surf, or a diver not to dive. Good luck with that.

A few years ago, I joined a team of super-cool sharkologists led by Charlie ‘Aussie-by-way-of-Belgium shark-scientist extraordinaire Huveneers, and including Maddie ‘Chomp’ Thiele and Lauren ‘Acid’ Meyer — to publish the results of some of the first experimentally tested shark deterrents.

It turns out that many of the deterrents we tested failed to show any reduction in the probability of a shark biting, with only one type of electronic deterrent showing any effect at all (~ 60% reduction).

Great. But what might that mean in terms of how many people could be saved by wearing such electronic deterrents? While the probability of being bitten by a shark is low globally, even in Australia (despite public perceptions), we wondered if the number of lives saved and injuries avoided was substantial.

In a new paper just published today in Royal Society Open Science, we attempted to answer that question.

To predict how many people could avoid shark bites if they were using properly donned electronic deterrents that demonstrate some capacity to dissuade sharks from biting, we examined the century-scale time series of shark bites on humans in Australia. This database — the ‘Australian Shark Attack File‘ — is one of the most comprehensive databases of its kind.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXV

10 03 2021

Here is the second set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIV

7 01 2021

As the pandemic rages globally, and the fragility of the American political system goes on full display, I give you the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate explained: humans have dealt with plenty of climate variability

23 09 2020
© Professor John Long, Flinders University, Author provided

(originally published on The Conversation)


How much climate variability have humans dealt with since we evolved and since we started settling (Neolithic times)? How important was migration to human survival during these periods?


The climate always fluctuates as variation in the Sun’s heat reaching Earth drives glacial-interglacial cycles. Over the past 420,000 years there have been at least four major transitions between ice ages and relatively warmer interglacial periods.

Modern humans emigrated from Africa to populate the rest of the globe between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago, which means our species has had to adapt to many massive climate transitions.


Warming and cooling

The Last Interglacial 129,000–116,000 years ago was a period of intense global warming (from around 2 ℃ higher than today to as much as 11 ℃ higher in the Arctic), leading to a large reduction of the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and a 6–9 m rise in sea level.

The front of a glacier breaking away and falling into the sea.
Arctic glaciers have melted before. Flickr/Kimberly Vardeman, CC BY

The Last Glacial Maximum from 26,500–19,000 years ago coincided with a large drop in atmospheric CO₂ and a 4.3 ℃ cooling globally.

Read more: Climate explained: will the tropics eventually become uninhabitable?


Low temperatures turned much of the world’s water into ice and expanded glaciers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Australia: the world’s unsustainable ‘mine’

16 09 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has finally woken a few people up in this country. The closure of our automotive industry, the volatility of the mining sector, the deteriorating relations with our largest trading partner (China) — all these have seem to have acted like smelling salts for our semi-conscious leaders.

Australia has an abysmal manufacturing capacity, and I know that trying to fix this is very much on the table now at the highest levels. Australia is for the most part a 7.7 million km2 ‘mine’ to the world — we of course dig up our minerals and ship them overseas, and we export shit-tonnes of coal.

But much of our agricultural produce goes overseas too, including the very poorly valued live-export industry that takes the little water and minerals already in Australian soils and turns them inefficiently into livestock that is then sold overseas whole and living. Even putting aside the woeful animal-welfare issues this entails, it’s not much of a value-add and really a poor business model.

Read the rest of this entry »

The only constant is change

27 07 2020

I just wrote a piece for the Flinders University alumnus magazine — Encounter — and I thought I’d share it here.


As an ecologist concerned with how life changes and adapts to the vagaries of climate and pervasive biological shuffling, ‘constant change’ is more than just a mantra — it is, in fact, the mathematical foundation of our entire discipline.

But if change is inevitable, how can we ensure it is in the right direction?

Take climate change for example. Since the Earth first formed it has experienced abrupt climate shifts many times, both to the detriment of most species in existence at any given time, and to the advantage of those species evolving from the ashes.

For more than 3.5 billion years, species have evolved and gone extinct, such that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now confined, permanently, to the vaults of the past.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’m nearing the end of my PhD/postdoc … What the hell am I supposed to do now?

13 07 2020

Originally published on the

What do you want to be when you grow up?


Unicorns, like job security, used to exist (actually, it’s an Elasmotherium)

The term ‘job security’ seems a fanciful idea to budding biologists — you may as well be studying unicorns (and no, narwhal don’t count …)! Now, you’re a fully fledged adult, your thoughts are likely filled with adult questions like ‘where will I live’ and ‘how will I scrape some money together?’. Not knowing where to go next can be very stressful.

A change in profession might help with job security, but if you’ve made it this far in biology, its highly likely that you (like me) have been obsessed with biology since early childhood, and it’s not something you’re willing to give up easily. On top of that, you now have years of research experience and skill development behind you — it would be better if that experience didn’t go to waste. How, then, can we keep funding our biology addiction? I don’t want to sound like a snake-oil salesman here, so let’s be straight-up about this: there are no easy options. But, importantly, there are options — in research, the university sector, and wider afield.

So, down to the serious business. Your options (depending on your personal preferences) are:

1. Research or bust!

In-house postdoctoral fellowships

Research bodies in Australia, including many universities, the CSIRO and the Australian Museum, offer in-house postdoctoral fellowships for early-career researchers. Applying for one of these postdocs usually involves the candidate developing a research proposal and initiating collaboration with researchers in the institute offering the fellowship. Read the rest of this entry »

A brief history of environmentalism in Australia since European invasion

29 06 2020

A (heavily) modified and updated excerpt from our 2015 book Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

The Australian awakening to its environmental dilemmas was a little more sluggish than elsewhere in the New World. Not only did Europeans arrive in Australia en masse only about 250 years ago, they had a more limited view of their new landscape, and were, at least initially, constrained by the harshness of their new home. Those mostly British settlers brought with them the fully formed ideas of development and progress shaped by centuries of land use in the Motherland. That ideal of conquering wilderness and transforming it into the bucolic landscape typical of the English countryside was their driving force.

The early settlers viewed the Australian bush as ugly and monotonous, features that could only be overcome by human occupation and cultivation. This neo-classical view, homesickness and the Romantic desire to transform their homes and farms into an image of those from their homeland, were defining forces in early Australian history. Unlike in Europe, though, where there were cultural taboos associated with forest degradation — bound in mysticism, spirituality, folklore and politics — no such restrictions applied to the unfamiliar Australian bush.

In fact, the Australian government passed the Crown Lands Alienation Act in 1861, which was designed to ‘open up’ the colony to settlement, and penalized landholders for not clearing the land (via a forfeit of the land back to the Crown). That single Act guaranteed the deforestation wave would continue for over a 100 years. That, and the persistent desire to make the new land look as much as possible as the old, has ensured that continuing demise of Australia’s biodiversity.

Figure 3.3-Clearing for Agriculture

Clearing for agriculture in early settlement. Anonymous, Government Farm at Castle Hill, circa 1803. Watercolour, 24×35 cm. Permission to reproduce courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Interestingly, clashes over land use between the settlers and Indigenous peoples were probably some of the first demonstrations of what today we would call ‘environmentalism’ in Australia. Aboriginal nations were intent on preserving their way of life (and indeed, their lives) in the face of the settlers’ onslaught. But this was seen, at most, as a mild inconvenience for the new Australians who in response invoked the idea of terra nullius — that no one owned the land, making it available to anyone (white) who wished to ‘improve’ (clear) it. Read the rest of this entry »

Successful movers responding to climate change

16 06 2020

tropical fishes range shiftsEcologists often rely on measuring certain elements of a species’ characteristics, behaviour, or morphology to determine if these — what we call ‘traits’ — give them certain capacities to exploit their natural environments. While sometimes a bit arbitrarily defined, the traits that can be measured are many indeed, and sometimes they reveal rather interesting elements of a species’ resilience in the face of environmental change.

As we know, climate change is changing the way species are distributed around the planet, for the main (and highly simplified) reason that the environments in which they’ve evolved and to which they have adapted are changing.

In the simplest case, a warming climate means that there is a higher and higher chance you’ll experience temperatures that really don’t suit you that well (think of a koala or a flying fox baking in a tree when the thermometer reads +45° in the shade). Just like you seeking those nice, air-conditioned spaces on a scorcher of a day, species like to move to where conditions are more acceptable to their particular physiologies and behaviours.

When they can’t change fast enough, they go extinct.

Ecologists use life-history traits to predict which species have the highest probability of moving to new areas in response to climate change. Most studies into this phenomenon have largely ignored that range shifts in fact occur in sequential stages: (1) the species arrives in a new place for the first time, (2) its population increases in size (and extent), and (3) it can continue to persist in the new spot. Read the rest of this entry »

Never let a good crisis go to waste

11 05 2020


First published in the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere Blog on 5 May 2020.

by Professor Dan Blumstein (University of California at Los Angeles), Professor Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University), and Corey Bradshaw (Flinders University)

Winston Churchill’s words have never been more important than today as we experience the society- and life-changing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The extent and severity of the disease is a result of ignoring decades of warnings by scientists about the general deterioration of humanity’s epidemiological environment, and specific warnings about confining live, wild animals in markets. The situation was made even more lethal by ignoring the warnings from epidemiologists and disease ecologists once it became clear that an imminent pandemic most likely arose from this practice. Many countries, including the United States, are still ignoring those warnings and the required actions to lessen the impact.

Accordingly, we should ask ourselves, “what else are we missing?” What other huge problems are hiding in plain sight where science could guide policy to avoid catastrophic future failures? For instance, there are two principal health threats that must be addressed immediately, and we must strike while the iron is hot.

The overuse of antibiotics in agriculture will cause widespread deaths from formerly treatable bacterial diseases because of the evolution of antibiotic resistance in microbes. The evolution of resistance is well-known, predictable, and obvious — not in retrospect, but now. By feeding antibiotics to otherwise healthy livestock, animals can be housed in higher densities and they grow faster. Read the rest of this entry »

South Australia is still killing dingoes

14 04 2020

As we did for Victoria, here’s our submission to South Australia’s proposed changes to its ‘wild dog’ and dingo policy (organised again by the relentless and venerable Dr Kylie Cairns):


© Jason Edwards Photography

14 April 2020

The Honourable Tim Whetstone MP, Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development, South Australia


Dear Minister,

The undersigned welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the South Australian (SA) Government’s ‘Wild dog and Dingo’ declared animal policy under section 10 (1)(b) of the Natural Resources Management Act 2004. The proposed changes raise serious concerns for dingoes in SA because it:

1. Requires all landholders to follow minimum baiting standards, including organic producers or those not experiencing stock predation.

  • Requires dingoes within Ngarkat Conservation Park (Region 4) to be destroyed, with ground baiting to occur every 3 months.
  • Requires ground baiting on land irrespective of whether stock predation is occurring or not, or evidence of dingo (wild dog) presence.

2. Allows aerial baiting of dingoes (aka wild dogs) in all NRM regions – including within National Parks.

3. Uses inappropriate and misleading language to label dingoes as “wild dogs”

We strongly urge the PIRSA to reject the proposed amendments to the SA wild dog and dingo policy. Instead the PIRSA should seek consultation with scientific experts in ecology, biodiversity and wildlife-conflict to develop a policy which considers the important ecological and cultural identity of the dingo whilst seeking to minimise their impact on livestock using best-practice and evidence-based guidelines. Key to this aim, livestock producers should be assisted with the help of PIRSA to seek alternative stock protection methodology and avoid lethal control wherever possible. On the balance of scientific evidence, protection of dingoes should be enhanced rather than diminished. Widespread aerial baiting programs are not compatible with the continued persistence of genetically intact and distinct dingoes in SA.

In this context, we strongly emphasise the following points: Read the rest of this entry »

How I feel now about climate change

10 03 2020


‘Bleak No. 2’ by David Vogler

Five years ago I was asked by a researcher at the Australia National University, Joe Duggan, how I ‘felt’ about climate change.

This was part of an original initiative that put a human face on the scientists working on elements of one of society’s greatest existential threats.

Thus, Is This How You Feel? became a massive success in terms of bringing to the world the idea that scientists are also deeply affected by what they see happening around them.

Five years later, Joe asked me and all the other scientists who participated to provide an update on how we feel.

Here’s what I wrote: Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIX

24 02 2020

The second set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVIII

4 01 2020

The first set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. This special, Australia-is-burning-down-themed set is dedicated to Scott Morrison and his ilk. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Did people or climate kill off the megafauna? Actually, it was both

10 12 2019

When freshwater dried up, so did many megafauna species.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Author provided

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Earth is now firmly in the grips of its sixth “mass extinction event”, and it’s mainly our fault. But the modern era is definitely not the first time humans have been implicated in the extinction of a wide range of species.

In fact, starting about 60,000 years ago, many of the world’s largest animals disappeared forever. These “megafauna” were first lost in Sahul, the supercontinent formed by Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level.

The causes of these extinctions have been debated for decades. Possible culprits include climate change, hunting or habitat modification by the ancestors of Aboriginal people, or a combination of the two.

Read more: What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?

The main way to investigate this question is to build timelines of major events: when species went extinct, when people arrived, and when the climate changed. This approach relies on using dated fossils from extinct species to estimate when they went extinct, and archaeological evidence to determine when people arrived.

Read more: An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose

Comparing these timelines allows us to deduce the likely windows of coexistence between megafauna and people.

We can also compare this window of coexistence to long-term models of climate variation, to see whether the extinctions coincided with or shortly followed abrupt climate shifts.

Data drought

One problem with this approach is the scarcity of reliable data due to the extreme rarity of a dead animal being fossilised, and the low probability of archaeological evidence being preserved in Australia’s harsh conditions. Read the rest of this entry »