Help the Australian lungfish

I just received a letter from Per Ahlberg, who is working as the international coordinator in a campaign to save the Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri, this magnificent creature:


Unfortunately, this species is threatened, and its situation is getting worse, as its habitat is at risk of destruction. As Dr Ahlberg put it:

Neoceratodus, which is the most tetrapod-like of living fishes and an invaluable source of information about the transition from fish to land vertebrates (particularly from an evo-devo perspective), is native only to the Mary and Burnett Rivers of Queensland. The adults usually live in deep pools, but they breed in shallow areas with lots of underwater vegetation. Because of the way water levels in dams fluctuate, you don’t get such shallow vegetated areas in dams, and accordingly there’s nowhere for the lungfish to breed. Downstream of the dam, reduced flow will lead to the drying out of established breeding areas, and because lungfish are very loyal to their old breeding sites – they often simply cease to breed if their old sites are lost – this is also likely to have a severe long-term impact on the population. On 5 July the Queensland Government approved a major dam on the Mary River. A dam on the Burnett River was approved in 2003 and is already under construction, so the lungfish has its back against the wall. The dam can still be stopped by the Federal government, as Neoceratodus is a protected animal, but they need to be persuaded to act. We have very little time.

I’ve got some contact information I can pass along to anyone who is seriously interested in helping out by putting pressure on Australian politicians or media—just drop me a line, and I can forward your message on or reply back with some names and email addresses.


  1. pastor maker says

    Well, good luck PZ. There isn’t really much of a chance that the Federal government will block the Mary River dam project. It’s supported by the surrounding constituency, as opposed to wind farms that were planned in the Australian state of Victoria, which were opposed by the surrounding consituency.

    In the case of the wind farms, the Federal environment minister invoked his powers to block the development on the entirely specious grounds that it might further endanger the already-endangered yellow-bellied parrot.In fact the impact statement commissioned by the minister stated that possibly one yellow-bellied parrot might be dumb enough to fly into a wind turbine every 100 years.

    The current Australian federal government makes almost all its environmental decisions based on how much political capital it can get out of them.

  2. says

    There isn’t really much of a chance that the Federal government will block the Mary River dam project.

    That’s what I’m talking about

  3. Molly, NYC says

    You realize that there are people who’d probably pay good money to make this invaluable source of information about the transition from fish to land vertebrates and affront to creationism go away?

  4. Michael Geissler says

    This is an issue very much in my backyard and I don’t like the lungfish’s chances much at all. The Mary River dam is to supply water to my city, Brisbane, the Queensland state capital. The dam is basically a panicked response to the current drought and umpteen years of jamming as many people as possible into the south-east corner (that’s good for economic growth, you see) without any thought as to what infrastructure is going to support them. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie (equivalent of a US state governor) has already made it pretty clear that the lungfish is a distant second to supplying water to his suburban voting base. Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper has already congratulated Beattie on telling environmentalists to get stuffed. So there’s a lot of powerful interests who want this dam to go ahead. But please, express your full and frank views to Beattie’s office:

  5. pastor maker says

    In fact I think the last time a dam project was blocked by an Australian federal government was in 1983, when the newly installed Labor government took a sledgehammer to Tasmania’s Franklin Dam plans. Although blocking the dam had been a major plank of its election strategy (to get green groups on board), it was still a shock to see a government actually keep an election promise.

  6. brightmoon says

    per ahlberg ….is he the one in jennie clack’s book gaining ground

    great book, btw but it helps if you know basic human anatomy

    btw pz do you know any genetic info on the evolution of the vertebrate aortic arches …just curious, the comparative chordate anatomy book i got from the library, is pretty detailed for a laymen’s overview but it is 40 years old

    im definitely drop a line about that …ill even use caps and punctuation

  7. the amazing kim says

    Mmmm, lungfish are delicious. It’s a complex issue, no doubt. As Mr Geissler said, there’s a drought, a pretty severe one, and unless someone builds a dam somewhere there’s not going to be any water for the populace. Sure, they should have thought of that earlier, but they didn’t, and the people are there now. Instead of having specific campaigns to save particular species, better planning strategies should be promoted and sustainable urban environments created. Too late for this little fellow, but something to think about.

  8. says

    People can move. The fish can’t.

    Well, they can, I mean, introduced as an exotic to other watercourses, as it has been introduced to other Australian rivers. But people’s convenience shouldn’t automatically trump the existence of a species. ‘The people are there now” is not a reason to give up.

  9. the amazing kim says

    People can move. The fish can’t.
    Oh yes they can. Or, at least, that’s what the Qld governemnt is planning if there’s enough fuss about the fish.

    I’m not arguing at all that housing developments should take precedence over ecosystems, just suggesting that reactionary gestures aren’t the best way to go in the future. Environmentalists (and there aren’t enough of them in government, especially in Queensland) aren’t going to achieve much if we take it on a case-by-case basis. There needs to be a pre-emptive emphasis on sustainable housing, not just reactions when one species is threatened.

    For the lungfish I guess that’s all people can do, but whatever the result here someone’s going to be unhappy.

  10. JMG says

    Hmm. Start an international boycott their agricultural exports. Agricultural exports in the form of wheat, beef, wool, cotton, alchoholic beverages, milk and cream and cheese are by far Australia’s biggest exports and likely appear in the importing country with labels indicating origins in Australia. Thus, individual consumers can make choices, particularly those in the more environmentally conscious countries that are their major trading partners (UK, Germany and so on).

    Individual consumers likely cannot make consumption choices on coal and mineral ores.

    Let the Australian agricultural commodity groups (farmers) know that an international boycott is being organized against their products (their national groups likely have websites through which they can be contacted). The export market is absolutely critical to the farmers raising commodities. For example:

    Dairy overview,,0_s2-1_CLNTXID0019-2_-3_PWB1105616-4_-5_-6_-7_,00.html

    In 2001-2002, Australian dairy exports were valued at over $3250 million, an increase of six per cent on the previous year. This represented a volume of 950,000 tonnes of product, compared with 919,000 tonnes in the previous year.

    Record production of 11.3 billion litres was achieved by the industry in 2001-2002 (an increase of 6.9 per cent) over the previous year. The 2001-2002 year was also the first year in which the industry broke the 11 billion litre barrier.

    The dairy industry is an important rural industry in Australia and a major rural employer. There are over 11,000 dairy farms in Australia that employ approximately 30,000 people at farm-level. Milk production is concentrated in the south-east corner of Australia, with the state of Victoria accounting for around 66 per cent of total national output. Australian herds are predominantly Friesian Holstein (70 per cent). Jersey and Illawarra breeds are also significant. Milk production is concentrated in south-eastern Australia, with Victoria producing 65 per cent of milk (Australian Dairy Corporation, 2002 – *projected figures).

    The Australian dairy industry has approximately 130 processors and manufacturers. Three of the largest dairy cooperatives account for 60 per cent of milk intake, and over 70 per cent of all manufactured milk. The other processors and manufacturers range from publicly listed companies to small farmhouse cheese manufacturers.

    Eighteen per cent of annual milk production goes to the domestic fresh milk market. The rest is manufactured and processed for both the domestic and export markets.,,0_s2-1_CLNTXID0019-2_-3_PWB1105616-4_-5_-6_-7_,00.html

    Because the supply/demand relationship of ag commodities is fairly inelastic, a 10% drop in demand will have a huge impact on price received by the farmers.

    Get the word out – kill off the lungfish and your commodity group will suffer for a long time.

  11. T.Rex says

    JMG: Victoria, and S.E. Australia, is nowhere near the Mary River, the Dam, any lung fish, or indeed any part of the State of Queensland. It is a thousand miles away. Queensland is not a big dairy producer, compared to Victoria and NSW. Queensland, however, produces a lot of Beef. Talk about fact-based.

  12. wpd says

    Please, there are already is a dam on the Mary River. And i know from personal experience that lungfish have survived.

    Another Kim, if you have eaten a lungfish, you are in a tiny minority, indeed an obscene minority. The lungfish has been protected for many years, as it should be. After all,the population is under severe stress.

    The Mary River catchment area covers 7 000 sq kms. It is enormous. Google ‘Mary River Queensland’ and then click on the ‘Catchment MaP’ twice.

    if you are honest you can see, that if a dam is built, future populations of lungfish might have even more habitats to populate.

    But I would be interested in expert views.

  13. Neo's friend says

    As far as I know there are a couple of dams on tributaries to the Mary River, Borumba and Baroon Pocket but not the Mary proper.

    In the area around the watershed of the Mary are National Parks and the mouth of the Mary feeds the Ramsar wetlands of the Great Sandy Straits and the World Heritage listed sand island, Fraser Island.

    The rainforests in the National Parks are home to great biodiversity, similar to that of the World Heritage CERRA area to the south. The mountain ranges from CERRA to the start of the Mary, as I understand it, all sprang from the Mt Warning volcano 125m years ago (which the lungfish survived). In my opinion the lungfish habitat and spawning grounds should be world heritage listed and the whole Mary valley should be the subject of much more research before any decision to interfere with it further.

    Yes there are farms but, as far as I know, they are not big business farms and probably only need to make relatively minor, if any, adjustments to operations in terms of their impact on the river. (One or two of the farms that produce the best ginger in the world are in the Mary Valley).

    The river floods occasionally, every six-seven years and floods the town of Gympie and the main highway north. I’m sure there is a better solution to mitigate flooding than building a dam. Any bright ideas for diverting flood water into storage?

  14. says

    I do not know for sure if the lungfish would survive the dam even if it is done properly, but its not my area of expertise. Personally my biggest concerns are for the turtles. This river system has species of turtles that rely on rifle zones and constant flowing water. Dam’s effect rainfall, water temperatures availablity of nesting banks and cause habitat segregation. One of the turtles there is already listed as Endangered by the IUCN the other major species of turtle there is in process for this.

    I doubt threatening to boycott Australian products will help much, unless it was tourism, that would hurt. Australian Governments are remaredly short sighted to most threats.

    Dam’s do not necessarilly provide more suitable habitat for aquatic organisms, stating that is quite a naive view of aquatic systems. In the case of species that are river specialists the dam tends to cause extinction, because river specialists are dependant on flowing water.

    Dam’s are not the solution to drought, never have been, the ability for a dam to be functional depends on the type of river. The Mary will silt up and be useless within a few years. It will likely never hold much water.

  15. Darren E says

    Pastor maker: Ummm, no, the proposed dam is not supported by the surrounding constituency, it is strongly opposed. It is supported by a State Premier who is trying to dupe the people of Brisbane (200km away) that it will solve their supposed water shortages.

    Amazing Kim: “Building a dam somewhere” is not going to help anyone. The nearby Paradise Dam, completed a few years ago, is just 18% full. If the Mary River dam had been built 10 years ago, flow modelling shows that it would currently be empty. Responsible water use, stormwater recycling, and urban rainwater tanks are all solutions which are more technically and economically feasible.

    JMG: farmer’s aren’t the problem here – they’re actually against the dam. A dam which, by the way, will inundate nearly 10% of Queensland’s dairy industry (in terms of production).

    wpd: The only flow restriction on the Mary River is a barrage, quite near to the River mouth. It is not a dam. Since you are familiar with “Google”, you should be able to easily find the expert opinions you seek. A dam (or more accurately a swamp with receding mudflats) is not going to help the lungfish, or the Mary River Turtle, or the Mary River Cod, or any of the other species reliant on the Mary River.