Neoceratodus update in Nature

The story of the Australian lungfish has made this week’s issue of Nature. Remember, it’s not too late to keep the pressure on.

Dam project threatens living fossil

Lungfish face extinction, say environmentalists.

We are about to lose a key piece of our evolutionary history, warn biologists. They are campaigning to save the Australian lungfish, which they fear could be sent extinct by an enormous dam planned for southeastern Queensland.

The hefty, muddy-brown fish (Neoceratodus forsteri) is thought to have survived virtually unchanged for at least 100 million years, making it one of the oldest known vertebrate species around and earning it the moniker of ‘living fossil’. It is also one of the closest living relatives of the ancestral fish that crawled on to land and eventually gave rise to all land vertebrates, including humans. Being able to study the species is important for understanding how that transition took place.

The lungfish is now largely confined to two river systems in Queensland — among the only places that provide the shallow, running and weedy water in which the fish likes to spawn. A dam in one of these, the Burnett river, was completed last year in order to supply water to the drought-stricken region. The area has the fastest growing population in the country, and delivering water to the inhabitants is likely to be a huge problem in the future. But lungfish researchers say that by flooding or drying them out, the dam will eventually destroy nearly half of the lungfish spawning areas.

On 5 July, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie announced a decision to dam the second river, the Mary. Partly because the Australian lungfish is listed as a threatened species, the dam must pass a federal environmental-impact assessment before the project can proceed. But lungfish supporters believe the second dam could be enough to drive the species to extinction.

The latest decision prompted lungfish expert Jean Joss at Macquarie University in Sydney to step up a campaign to block the dam and persuade the federal government to intervene.

Joss has asked colleagues to e-mail Beattie and federal environment minister Ian Campbell to tell them about the scientific importance of the fish — so far more than 100 scientists have responded to her call. “It would be a calamitous and irreplaceable loss if this animal went extinct,” says Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University, Sweden, who collaborates with Joss and is helping with the campaign.

There are five other species of lungfish living in South America and Africa. But the Australian lungfish, which can live for a century and grow 1.5 metres long, is thought to most closely resemble the last common ancestor of land vertebrates.

Biologists say that living fish can be used for genetic and embryology studies that probe how vertebrates moved from water to land — analyses that would be impossible with preserved specimens. Joss and Ahlberg, for example, are studying the lungfish’s patterns of gene activity, to try to work out how fins became limbs. “These things are amazingly important organisms in the history of the Earth,” says William Bemis who studies vertebrate evolution at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The Queensland government has guaranteed that the dam will include a ‘fish elevator’ to carry lungfish across the dam and says that it will do whatever it takes to meet federal environmental requirements, as it did with the last dam. But Joss says that this is not enough, because the lungfish’s old spawning grounds will still be destroyed. Lungfish lay very few eggs, and return to the same spawning sites year after year.

Should the campaign fail, Joss says she will petition Beattie for money to set up a lungfish breeding centre. But guaranteeing the species’ survival in captivity would be tough. So far Joss is the only researcher who has managed to breed them, using two ponds, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

Pearson H (2006) Dam project threatens living fossil. Nature 442:232-233.


  1. redstripe says

    I’ve been getting my form responses:

    We acknowledge your email to the Hon Desley Boyle MP, Minister for the Environment, Local Government & Planning and Women.

    Your correspondence is important to us and is being dealt with appropriately.

    Thank you for taking the time to write to the Minister.

    Administration Office
    Minister for Environment, Local Government & Planning and Women

    Thank you for your message to the Premier. Your message has been forwarded to his office.

    Thank you for your email to the Hon Henry Palaszczuk MP, Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Water, we confirm receipt, and advise your correspondence is receiving attention.

    Yours sincerely
    Carmen Meshios
    Senior Policy Advisor
    Office of the Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Water


  2. redstripe says

    Got a full response from the Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Water:

    The recent extended drought in eastern Australia is the worst for over 100 years. Compounding the problem of shrinking water supply in South East Queensland (SEQ) is the fact this region is one of the fastest growing in Australia with the population expected to grow by over one million people in the next 20 years and a further million by the middle of the century. Water can no longer be supplied and managed on a local basis so work is under way to develop whole-of-region solutions to the future water needs of SEQ. Managing urban water infrastructure is a very complex issue and over the last decade society has placed increased value on environmental outcomes for water infrastructure.

    Future water planning requires the assessment of the magnitude of gains through demand management so that new water supply arrangements to meet any shortfalls can be implemented as the need arises. The South East Queensland Regional Water Supply Strategy (SEQRWSS) involves an assessment of a range of options to increase supply and reduce demand, including:

    ·managing demand (for example, targets for reducing consumption, water-sensitive urban design, rainwater tanks, targets for recycling);

    ·managing wastage (for example, reducing mains pressure and fixing leaks);

    ·additional storage infrastructure (new storages and/or raising existing storages);


    ·potential groundwater sources; and

    ·water recycling for urban, industrial and rural purposes.

    Across the region current residential water use averages almost 300 litres of water per person per day.

    The South East Queensland Regional Plan has set targets for significant reductions in residential reticulated potable water use of:

    ·270 litres per person per day by 2010;

    ·250 litres per person per day by 2015; and

    ·230 litres per person per day by 2020.

    However even if these targets are met, a growing population means that demand will still need to be met by supply from new dams. New dams therefore are essential to securing the future water needs for the State’s south-east. The SEQRWSS has been investigating numerous bulk water supply options for the region. Upgrading and implementing new dams is part of the long term vision to the region’s water supply. Determining an appropriate dam site is dependent on local topography, catchment area and runoff leading to the available yield. To support the demands of a growing population and associated industries there is a need to supply large quantities of reliable water.

    The Traveston Crossing Dam site has been identified as the only site in the region where a large capacity dam could be constructed. In the Mary Valley, at least four extra storages would need to be built to provide up to a similar annual quantity of water as the Traveston Crossing proposal.

    Traveston Crossing is SEQs largest undeveloped dam site. It is proposed to build the Mary River project in three phases to progressively meet demand and to reduce immediate landholder and road relocation impacts:

    ·Phase 1-2011 Traveston Crossing Dam built with an operating capacity of 180,000 megalitres (ML) and a yield of 70,000 ML per annum;

    ·Phase 2-2025 raising of Borumba Dam by about 30 metres to a 350,000 ML capacity to deliver an extra 40,000 ML per annum; and

    ·Phase 3-2035 full operation of Traveston Crossing Dam with a total system yield of 150,000 ML per annum.

    The three phase process will more than halve the land area required for the dam from 7,600 hectares down to 2,900 hectares and will reduce the estimated number of properties that need to be acquired from approximately 1,000 down to less than 500 by 2011. This three phase process would ensure yield targets required to meet the water needs of population growth in south east Queensland by 2050 are met.

    A range of detailed investigations on the Wyaralong and Traveston Dam sites are currently underway to confirm the preliminary information. Although the dams, if they proceed, would create significant economic and social benefits for the SEQ region, it is well recognised that they also affect people living in the area, the local economy and environment. Therefore, the decision to build major storage infrastructure is not taken lightly, and substantial resources are put in place to mitigate adverse impacts as much as possible.

    Assessments conducted by the Technical Advisory Panel which advised on the draft Mary River Water Resource Plan concluded that while there may be major impacts close to the dam, substantial recovery is expected further downstream, with limited change in the estuarine and receiving waters, including those associated with the RAMSAR Wetland and the Great Sandy Strait.

    Preliminary assessment has indicated that three endangered species exist in the area that will be affected by the dam. These include the Mary River Cod, the Mary River Turtle and the Lungfish. Mitigation strategies such as fish passage devices will be the subject of detailed environmental impact studies as they were for the Burnett River Dam, where lungfish, for example, have thrived.

    For your information a summary of the key points of an Environmental Assessment of the dam options for the Logan and Mary Basins can be found in Water for South East Queensland- A long term solution available on the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Water’s website at

    If you require any further information regarding this matter, please do not hesitate to contact Mr Scott Smith of the Department on telephone 3406 2510.

  3. Gordon Hides says

    Jean Joss supposedly breeds the lungfish in ponds (read dams) and is wrong when she says that they lay few aggs unless she calls up to 10,000 each female only a few.She is definately not the only researcher to breed lungfish. Why would she want a breeding facility set up for her with Govt funds when we have been breeding lungfish and exporting them world wide for the last 5 years with no Govt assistance. There is also talk of a breeding facility beeing set up by DPI with funding from Sunwater. There is no way this dam or any other dam will send the lungfish to extinction. We breed the lungfish in concrete ponds, a lot smaller than dams.Check out our webpage

  4. Neo's friend says

    So you’d be advocating, Gordon, that if we can breed a thing in captivity we shouldn’t worry about preserving habitat?