Australia's bogong moths hit IUCN endangered list: 'Sudden decline'

  • Bogong moths added to the IUCN Red List

  • Billions once migrated across Australia

  • Pesticides and climate change are contributing to their demise

  • They are one of 40,084 species threatened with extinction

Once labelled an abundant “pest”, Australia’s iconic bogong moth is now on the path to extinction.

A decade after swarms of the brown, dusty insects strayed inside Parliament House and set off smoke alarms, their rapid disappearance is triggering “warning bells” amongst concerned scientists.

The once maligned creatures which migrated in their billions across Australia have today been listed as endangered.

A young girl sits on a mound in silhouette as bogong moths fly around.
Bogong moths have been added to the IUCN Red List. Source: Sarah Rees

This follows an assessment by the globally renowned International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which added them to its Red List – an inventory that has topped more than 40,000 threatened species for the first time ever.

The demise of the bogong moth has been swift, occurring within living memory of most Australians.

As the species disappears, it is likely to have a cascading impact on the country’s biodiversity, and The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) warns this must “concern every Australian”.

“We all depend on the interconnected web of nature, which gives us drinkable water, pollinated crops and clean air,” the charity's nature campaigner Jess Abrahams said.

‘Moths that ate Sydney’

Looking back to 2007, Sydneysiders were horrified when millions of bogong moths were blown off-course and into the city by strong westerly winds.

A fluttering of headlines, including ‘Moths that ate Sydney’ and ‘Moths swarm into Sydney’, reflected the community's concern.

The Daily Telegraph reported tourists were "disgusted" by them, adding there were rumours the "marauding moths" had "infested" the set of Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster film Australia.

A bogong moth next to a fire alarm in Parliament House in 2013.
Bogong moths set off fire alarms in 2013 when then swarmed inside Parliament House. Source: AAP

Some adventurous restaurateurs even advocated plating up the “pests” as a delicacy; the Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline “Chuck another bogong on the barbie” .

"They have a nutty, crisp, popcorn flavour, like buttered hazelnut,” a chef told the newspaper.

Time to put down the Mortein to save moths, conservationist warns

Even 10 years after the moth swarm departed Sydney, their numbers continued to appear reasonably strong.

Video shot in 2017 by environmentalist Sarah Rees shows thousands migrating eastward through Victoria’s Mount Torbreck to the Australian Alps.

In 2019, she took to Twitter to mourn their declining numbers.

“In memory of the magical migration of the Bogong moth who has all but disappeared from the Australian Alps in the last two years,” she wrote.

“At home in the Yarra Ranges I’ve seen one moth in two years, normally many.”

Speaking with Yahoo News on Thursday, Ms Rees said there is rising global concern about the loss of insects from the landscape.

“We all love our Mortein and Raid, but I think the idea that you go outside and the garden is silent is deeply concerning for everyone,” she said.

Loss of bogong moths impacting critically endangered possum

Bogong moths have migrated across the country for thousands of years and are an Indigenous delicacy, meaning their loss could impact tradition.

The demise of the bogong moth will also harm wildlife which feasts on them.

They are the major food source of the critically endangered pygmy possum, of which fewer than 2000 survive on the Australian Alps.

A mountain pygmy possum on a person's hand.
Mountain pygmy possum number less than 2000 individuals in the wild. Source: AAP

Hibernating for seven months of the year under snow, ordinarily the tiny creatures wake to feast on the migrating moths which give them the energy to raise their young.

Already under pressure due to habitat loss, climate change and feral predators, the decline of their primary food source is a major blow and researchers are feeding the possums a supplementary diet to help ensure their survival.

What’s causing the demise of the bogong moth

Toxic levels of arsenic were found in the bodies of bogong moths in 2001 and researchers linked this to pesticide use.

Large numbers of moths were found dead outside across Snowy Mountains caves and poison in their carcasses was observed causing foliage die-off.

There are a handful of other factors identified by the IUCN as contributing to the sudden decline of the species.

The head of their Red List unit told Yahoo News that although bogong moths were once “common”, their numbers “declined dramatically” during the drought of 2017 to 2019.

Two images of bogong moths clustering on Parliament House in 2017.
Bogong moths clustering together in 2017 on Parliament House. Source: AAP

While the species is known to have the ability to “bounce back quickly” there are concerns the 2019 / 2020 Black Summer bushfires resulted in a second substantial die-off.

Changes in agricultural practices including the impact of pesticides associated with cotton monocultures are adding further pressure.

Light pollution is another known factor impacting the moths, and Zoos Victoria have been campaigning to help create dark corridors around their migratory paths.

Weighing up this fist-full of stressors, the IUCN has singled out one major action to help protect the ailing moth.

“Global action to address climate change is what is most needed for this species,” Mr Hilton-Taylor told Yahoo News.

IUCN assesses over 150 Aussie species for Red List

Bogong moths are just one of 142,547 species which have been assessed by the IUCN.

During the current period, 151 Australian species were examined, of which 124 were first-time Australian assessments.

Two species were up-listed into higher categories, five were down-listed and 20 remain unchanged.

One of those that remain unchanged is the grey-headed flying fox, which was last examined in 2008, and continues to be listed as vulnerable.

Although the species numbers around 10,000 mature individuals and occurs across a 20,000 square kilometre range, they have suffered massive declines.

In the last 21 years their numbers are believed to have dropped by 30 to 35 per cent as a result of habitat loss caused by land clearing and bushfire, compounded by mass die-off events caused by extreme heat.

Electrocution from power lines and entanglement in barbed wire and agricultural netting were also identified as contributing factors.

Disturbingly the Arcadia velvet gecko has been listed as critically endangered just two years after it was first described in 2019.

The tiny lizard is known to exist in just two patches of Brigalow forest in Queensland that total nine square kilometres.

Their fragmented habitat is set amongst what the IUCN describes as an “intensively cleared pastoral landscape” and is at risk of future fire events.

Australia urged to do more to combat extinction crisis

Across the world, the IUCN now lists a total of 40,084 species threatened with extinction.

This includes 8722 listed as critically endangered, 15,403 endangered, 15,959 as vulnerable.

There are also 897 categorised as extinct and 79 extinct in the wild, while another 8488 have been assessed as near threatened.

While this global data may seem overwhelming, ACF are highlighting the direct impact government policy is having close to home

They have warned that Australia has a “terrible record” when it comes to extinction.

The Commonwealth currently lists more than 310 animals and 1180 plants at risk of disappearing across the country.

Twelve more animals were officially recognised as being extinct in Australia this year, and iconic species including koalas and platypus continue to suffer dramatic declines.

Mr Abrahams said the Federal Government must increase funding to help fight the extinction crisis, and that stronger national environment standards must be adopted.

“Let’s not let the Bogong moth and the Mountain pygmy possum join the growing list of extinctions,” he said.

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