With countless animals dead in Australia’s flames, researchers eye ‘carcass composting’

Click to play video: 'Starvation and dehydration after bushfire in Australia causing more animals to need care'
Starvation and dehydration after bushfire in Australia causing more animals to need care
WATCH: (From Jan. 20, 2020) Starvation and dehydration after bushfire in Australia causing more animals to need care – Jan 20, 2020

Australia’s wildfires have killed 29 people and left millions of animals dead over the last several months. 

Now some Australian academics are saying there is potential for research on what to do with animal carcasses in the wake of a mass mortality event.

Thomas Newsome and his colleagues at the University of Sydney — Chris Dickman, a professor, and researcher Emma Spencer — have been keeping an eye on the impact of wildfires on the ecosystem.

Dickman recently estimated that the number of animals left dead this fire season is as high as a billion. The Australian government has already pledged A$50 million for an emergency wildlife recovery program, calling the impact of the fires an “ecological disaster” threatening species such as koalas and rock wallabies.

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Animal charity Humane Society International sent a response team last week to search for wildlife survivors on Kangaroo Island. Their Australian program head Evan Quartermain recounted the scene in a recent statement: “In some places you can’t walk 10 metres without coming across another carcass.”

Newsome says the wildlife death toll will likely rise, as animals that survive the fires might find they have little food left in their razed habitat.

“That itself is going to result in large numbers of carcasses left across the environment,” Newsome told Global News in a recent interview. 

Click to play video: 'Dust storm sweeps through drought-stricken Australia'
Dust storm sweeps through drought-stricken Australia

Carcass cleanup hasn’t exactly made headlines. The Australian Defence Forces are burying dead livestock in mass graves to prevent a biosecurity hazard, Radio New Zealand recently reported

“In many rural areas, [there are] fences to be rebuilt and carcasses of animals to be removed who have been caught in these fires,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the story. “That is a fairly grisly operation, but that needs to be done, and it needs to be done as soon as possible.”
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A defence department briefing from Jan. 13 notes they are burying livestock and wildlife on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. 

Unfortunately the toll for both has been significant,” the briefing said, noting that they feel compelled to move quickly “in terms of the hygiene effects that come as a result of those carcasses rotting.”

Global News contacted Australia’s federal Department of the Environment but did not hear back in time for publication. 

Newsome says he and his colleagues are intrigued by the possible domino effect these carcasses might have on the environment.

Click to play video: 'Australia pledging millions to protect animals from fires'
Australia pledging millions to protect animals from fires

They want to research who and what eats the carcasses — whether the carcasses are supporting native species or invasive species. They also want to know if there are other options for dealing with carcasses, and possibly tap into their nutrients, in the aftermath of a mass die-off. 

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“One option for that is carcass composting,” Newsome says.

Carcass composting means placing carcasses in an environment where microbes build up and break down the soft tissues, releasing nutrients into the “surrounding substrates.”

“It is very similar to the way we compost our own vegetables,” Newsome says. 

Along with her supervisors Newsome and Dickman, PhD student Emma Spencer has been studying what they term “carcass ecology.” 

She points out that with animals dying in the middle of a national park or forest — areas that are hard to reach — the current burial efforts are focused on livestock and animals that have died close to where humans live.

Composting is akin to “recycling” the dead carcasses.

Click to play video: '‘Massive fish kill’ after floods bring Australia bush fire ash into Macleay river'
‘Massive fish kill’ after floods bring Australia bush fire ash into Macleay river

“What we can do with that broken down substrate matter is we can use that in positive ways,” Spencer says. “So we can use that in our farmlands, for example.”

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The academics agree there is more research to be done in Australia.

“Certainly the numbers of animals that built up during this devastating fire season demonstrates that we need to consider alternative options for the use of carcasses,” Newsome says.

“But I think what is really important is that we actually monitor what’s happening to these carcasses. Are they left strewn across the landscape? It is physically not possible to go and pick up all of these carcasses across the landscape, and the carcass build-up is going to only continue.”

Spencer says carcass composting could be a potential option for the future, as bushfires are a “big issue” and Australia has experienced mass die-off events before. 

“These questions aren’t just about the fires, but you can actually tie up to all these other mass mortalities that we’re seeing happening across the country and the world,” she says.

With files by Reuters

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