WPSQ chats with renowned palaeontologist, Professor Mike Archer

27 November 2019


Professor Mike Archer at Riversleigh

Professor Mike Archer at the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site. Image © Nikki Archer

Wildlife Queensland recently caught up with Wildlife Queensland Annual Dinner special guest speaker and renowned palaeontologist, Professor Mike Archer, to chat about his current project to save the Critically Endangered Mountain Pygmy-possum and his thoughts on the role of ‘non-traditional’ ecological approaches in helping to save Australia’s endangered native species.

Q. Please tell me about your choice of the Critically Endangered Mountain Pygmy-possum for your translocation project?

Prof Archer: Focusing on the Mountain Pygmy-possum was an easy choice because we had been tracing it’s ‘deep-time’ story over 25 million years. These possums were particularly abundant in the World Heritage fossil deposits of Riversleigh in North West Queensland. Given that they were occurring in a palaeoenvironment that was radically different than the one in which the only surviving member of this lineage occurs today—the extreme conditions of the alpine areas of NSW and Victoria, we began to wonder if the modern situation might not be an uncomfortable extreme end of environmental tolerance for this species, and that it might be more comfortable if it could get back to a less extreme lowland rainforest environment of the kind it’s ancestors have always called home.

Q. How can we avoid or radically slow the (rate of) extinction of Australia’s endangered species with ‘non-traditional’ ecological approaches?

Prof Archer: There isn’t a single, simple answer to this challenging question. But I think conservation strategies are a bit like the plans one makes before stepping out to play a game of golf. If the golfer takes only one kind of club in the bag, they’re likely to play a far worse game than someone else who takes all kinds of different, complementary types of clubs because of the range of different challenges they’re going to confront. Conservationists need to trial as many complementary ‘clubs’ as possible when they set out to conserve endangered species. Relying on just one strategy increases the risks of catastrophic failure. Our proposal to trial translocating a small group of them into an ancestral home only requires a small founding colony to be established in a breeding facility. The other 99.9% of the 2500 Critically Endangered possums will remain in the alpine zone where other conservation strategies may be trialled. That said, given the predictions of climate change, it’s hard to imagine how these possums will survive the change that’s coming given that it is also anticipated to undermine the foods they now depend on in those extreme environments. These changes are likely to occur far too quickly to allow the alpine populations to evolve adaptations that will enable them to survive.

Q. What do you see might be the role of Palaeoconservation in informing current environment and biodiversity legislation?

Prof Archer: Given that 99% of the existence of most species in the world today involves pre-modern situations, we think that it would be prudent to understand as much as we can about those pre-modern situations in order to develop insights into the potential range of adaptability of the living members of these populations. Palaeoconservation should be formally recognised as one discipline among many that should be consulted when strategies for conserving endangered species are being developed.

Join us for a memorable evening

Join us at the Indooroopilly Golf Club on 7 December 2019 to hear more about Mike’s current research on discovering how the fossil record has vital information about saving critically endangered species and his current project to save the Critically Endangered Mountain Pygmy-possum.

Tickets to the Wildlife Queensland Annual Dinner with Prof Mike Archer are on sale until 10.00am on Wednesday, 4 December 2019 with student and group concessions available. Don’t miss out!


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