School of BioSciences - Theses

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    Triple jeopardy in the tropics: assessing extinction risk in Australia's freshwater biodiversity hotspot
    Le Feuvre, Matthew Charles ( 2017)
    Freshwaters are the most degraded and imperiled ecosystem globally. Despite this high vulnerability, conservation efforts in freshwaters often lag behind those in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In Australia this is particularly evident; despite high levels of river degradation, few freshwater fishes have had their conservation status assessed and only 14% of fishes are listed. Most listed species are restricted to southern Australia where rivers are particularly degraded. Northern Australia’s rivers are very diverse with many highly range restricted fishes. Yet almost no species are listed, despite potential vulnerability and an increasing number of threats across the north. Nowhere is this more evident than the Kimberley region in the north-west, where 49% of species are restricted to three or fewer rivers, and 10% are restricted to an area of <20 km2. Very little is known about the ecology of the region’s endemic fishes, so their vulnerability cannot be assessed. In my thesis I assess extinction risk in the freshwater fishes of the Kimberley using the triple jeopardy framework, that is whether they have small geographic ranges, low abundances and/or narrow ecological niches. Specifically I aim to (1) determine the relationships between range size, body size and abundance in all Australian freshwater fishes and (2) whether these relationships can be used to identify species at risk of extinction. I then determine whether (3) small ranged Kimberley endemics have narrow habitat, dietary or thermal niches compared to closely related widespread species and (4) synthesize these results to identify the fishes most at risk of extinction in the Kimberley. First, I test for a relationship between geographic range size and body size in all Australian freshwater fishes. I then investigate how this relationship varies with conservation status. I identify currently unlisted freshwater fishes that share traits with listed species and map their distribution, along with freshwater fish research effort, across Australia. I found a positive relationship between range size and body size. For a given body size, conservation listed species have a range less than one tenth the size of unlisted species. Based on this relationship, I identified 55 additional species that may be vulnerable to extinction. Most of these species are restricted to northern Australia where freshwater fishes are poorly known due to low research effort. Second, I test for abundance-geographic range size and abundance-body size relationships in Australian freshwater fishes and investigate how these relationships vary with conservation status. I identify and map currently unlisted freshwater fishes that are numerically rare, and combined with the results outlined above, map species with a double jeopardy risk of extinction. I found a negative body size-abundance relationship and no correlation between range size and abundance. Although relative abundance was a poor predictor of current conservation listing, I identified 59 consistently rare species. Twenty of these species (34%) currently suffer a double jeopardy risk of extinction and all were restricted to northern Australia. Third, using closely related widespread and endemic congeneric pairings of Kimberley freshwater fishes, I investigate whether endemic species have narrow dietary niches at any stage during their development. Using qualitative measures of habitat and presence/absence data, I also assess habitat specialization. Most range-restricted species have narrower ecological niches making them more vulnerable to extinction. Fourth I test the thermal performance of two pairs of congeneric species that are sympatric in the Drysdale River, with one widely distributed species and one range restricted species in each pair. In the Syncomistes pair, resting metabolic rate (RMR) was similar between species at low temperature but at higher temperatures the RMR of the widespread species was lower due to the onset of anaerobiosis. The range-restricted Syncomistes also has a higher critical thermal limit (CTL). In the Melanotaenia pair, the results were the opposite, with the widespread species having a higher CTL and RMR. The thermal performance of each species was related to their distribution within the catchment rather than their geographic range size, with the thermally sensitive species dominating the cooler, perennial downstream reaches, and the hardier species being more abundant in the hotter, more ephemeral upper catchment. Finally, I use the above information to assess the triple jeopardy extinction risk in the fishes of the Kimberley. Seventy-nine per cent of Kimberley endemic fishes are vulnerable on one or more axis, and two species had a triple jeopardy risk of extinction. The majority of vulnerable species are found in the remote rivers of the north-western Kimberley, but the most imperiled species (Hypseleotris kimberleyensis) is restricted to the heavily degraded Fitzroy River. My thesis shows that, despite fundamentally different environments, life histories and dispersal capacity, Australian freshwater fishes exhibit range size, body size and abundance relationships largely similar to terrestrial fauna. By identifying northern Australia as a hotspot of unrecognized vulnerable species, I provide an important context for guiding targeted research and informing future conservation management of Australia’s freshwater fishes. Combined with their small ranges and/or low abundance, the narrower niches of most Kimberley endemic species makes the region’s fishes particularly extinction prone. By identifying which endemic species are most vulnerable, my study provides specific information for targeting conservation efforts in the region. As the Kimberley and northern Australia more broadly are earmarked for major development, substantial effort is needed to effectively manage fish populations, design and manage developments with the environment as a major stakeholder and preserve remote rivers with high endemism and extinction risk. However, as northern Australia’s rivers are in good condition, with planning and research there is an excellent opportunity for proactive, properly informed freshwater conservation across the region.