Taxonomic revision reveals potential impacts of Black Summer megafires on a cryptic species

  • Chris Jolly (Creator)
  • Harry Moore (Creator)
  • Mitchell Cowan (Creator)
  • Teigan Cremona (Creator)
  • Judy Dunlop (Creator)
  • Sarah M Legge (Creator)
  • Grant Linley (Creator)
  • Vivianna Miritis (Creator)
  • John Woinarski (Creator)
  • Dale Nimmo (Creator)


Description of Data

Context: Sound taxonomy is the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation. Without a fundamental understanding of species delimitations, as well as their distributions and ecological requirements, our ability to conserve them is drastically impeded. Cryptic species – two or more distinct species currently classified as a single species – present a significant challenge to biodiversity conservation. How do we assess the conservation status and address potential drivers of extinction if we are unaware of a species' existence? Here, we present a case where the reclassification of a species formerly considered widespread and secure – the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) – has dramatically increased our understanding of the potential impacts of the catastrophic 2019–20 Australian megafires to this species. Methods: We modelled and mapped the distribution of the former and reclassified sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps). We then compared the proportional overlap of fire severity classes between the former and reclassified distribution, and intersect habitat suitability and fire severity to help identify areas of important habitat following the 2019–20 fires. Key Results: Taxonomic revision means that the distribution of this iconic species appears to have been reduced to 8% of its formerly accepted range. Whereas the 2019–20 Australian megafires overlapped with 8% of the formerly accepted range, they overlapped with 33% of the proposed range of the redefined Petaurus breviceps. Conclusions: Our study serves as a sombre example of the substantial risk of underestimating impacts of mega-disturbance on cryptic species, and hence the urgent need for cataloguing Earth's biodiversity in the age of megafire.
Date made available06 Jan 2022

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