AceNewsDesk – You are unlikely to have seen one, but wildcats are still clinging on by a claw in Scotland. Most of the cats living in the wild in Scotland are hybrid cats with a mix of wildcat and domestic cat ancestry or feral domestic cats. But my team’s new study showed they lived alongside domestic cats for almost 2,000 years before interbreeding.
One of our rarest and most elusive mammal species, European wildcats have been in decline across across Europe and Britain for the past few hundred years. Wildcats were lost completely from England and Wales by the end of the 19th century and today are only found in the Scottish Highlands.
Habitat loss and hunting are two of the biggest threats facing this species across its range, but in Scotland, hybridisation with domestic cats is now the biggest threat to this population. Interbreeding between the two species is frequent now.
This gradual erosion of the wildcat genome (the DNA instructions for everything that makes a wildcat a wildcat) may lead to the complete extinction of this species in Britain. Among scientists, this is known as genetic swamping.
How long has this been going on?
Although domestic cats and wildcats are different species, genetically more different than dogs and wolves, they look similar. Domestic cats, descended from the African-Asian wildcat, became widespread in Britain in Roman times.
Wildcats in Scotland are a subpopulation of European wildcats, and have been present in Britain since the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago. Our research, which used the genomes of ancient cats from prehistoric Britain (around 6,000BC) until the present, shows that the two species kept themselves separate until very recently.
This may be expected for two species such as these, which have different patterns of behaviour and habitat preference. Wildcats keep away from people and prefer natural, forested areas – unlike domestic cats which thrive in human-modified environments.
My team’s study showed that around 60 years ago, however, there was a sudden shift to increasingly frequent interbreeding, which quickly overwhelmed the remaining wildcats in Scotland.
The recent history of hybridisation between the two species strongly suggests that hybridisation is a symptom, rather than the cause, of wildcat declines in Britain.
Wildcats have been hunted for sport, and are also persecuted as a pest species which keeps their numbers down. Modern land management has involved the felling of large swaths of Scottish forests (often for timber or agriculture), potentially forcing wildcats into more human-dominated environments, where they are more likely to meet a domestic cat.
The 20th century also saw a rise in domestic cat ownership, which is now at an all-time high in the UK. While it can be hard to keep track of feral domestic cat numbers, the population size is likely to significantly outnumber the wildcat population.
Our study compared the genomes of hybrid, wildcat and domestic cats.
The hybrid population showed genetic patterns suggesting they are developing immunity to these diseases, with the help of genes inherited from domestic cat parents. While this may bring short-term protection from cat diseases, it results in domestic cat DNA hitching along for the ride, perhaps accelerating the effect of genetic swamping.
Without intervention, the few wildcats that remain will interbreed with domestic cats and the wildcat genome will contribute a fraction of a percent to the domestic cat genome. The biological and behavioural adaptations that evolved in the European wildcat will be lost.
Does this matter?
Human behaviour (such as transporting species around the world, encroachment on wild habitats and climate change) is driving an increase in hybridisation globally. Conservationists are debating the level of risk this poses to wildlife populations, and the best course of action for conservation management.
In some cases hybridisation can be beneficial, bringing new genetic diversity that can help species survive in increasingly human-dominated environments. However, the consequences of hybridisation are unpredictable, and it is hard to come up with a solution that works for every case.
For the wildcat, hybridisation is a double-edged sword. It brought disease resistance that aided the population’s short-term survival, but at the cost of threatening the genetic adaptations that made the species unique.
What next for wildcats?
My team’s study highlights the value of the captive wildcat population in the UK. First established in 1960, founders of this population largely predate the onset of hybridisation in Scotland. The captive population now provides an important lifeline to reestablish this species in Britain.
A wildcat conservation breeding for release programme is conducted by Saving Wildcats, a partnership led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. The first releases into the wild started this year, with 19 cats released in the Cairngorms Connect area of the Cairngorms National Park.
Monitoring the newly released cats will give us vital insights about how to protect species like the wildcat. The more we understand about the effects and history of hybridisation, the more we’ll understand about how best to manage wildlife conservation in the future.
Workers are frantically trying to contain a leak that’s released 25,000 litres of a light oil called condensate into the sea.
Overhead, a helicopter tracks the spill.
On the water, workers approach a grim sight — three dead dolphins floating upside down, their white bellies reflecting the brilliant morning sun. One is a calf.
Staff member “Alex”, who can’t use his real name for fear of legal repercussions, recalls the moment he was told.
“It was quite a horrific thing for me,” he says.
“I remember thinking, ‘wow, I work somewhere that can kill dolphins’.”
The company involved was Australian energy giant Santos, which operates Varanus Island as well as the surrounding oil platforms and gas fields.
It will later reject that the dolphin deaths were connected to the spill.
What really happened that day is still being investigated by a West Australian regulator 20 months later.
A Background Briefing investigation, however, can reveal that mistakes were made during Santos’ response to the spill.
Alex, who went on to blow the whistle, is speaking out for the first time. He’s convinced that Santos misled the public and sought to cover up the incident — a claim Santos denies.
The magic of Varanus Island
In the technical language of Santos’ environmental documents, Varanus Island is surrounded by “high species richness”.
But for Alex, it’s a place “full of magic”.
“The greatest sunsets you’ve ever seen, full of all this marine life, all this bird life, beautiful lizards,” he says.
He spent his lunch breaks snorkelling through the pristine waters.
“For anyone who loves nature and the environment, this place was an absolute haven.”
The island lies 75 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia, just west of Karratha.
“It was always quite weird to me going out there and being like, ‘Wow, [there] is just this great big giant gas plant in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Alex says.
Alex loved the environment, and the longer he worked in the fossil fuel extraction industry, the more conflicted he felt.
In 2021, the International Energy Agency released a landmark report outlining how the world could get to net zero emissions by 2050. In that report it found there was no need for new investment in oil and gas fields beyond those already approved.
Alex says he thought it would be a turning point for the company but from what he could see, it wasn’t.
“I was very conflicted about being part of an organisation which was contributing possibly to the decline of the planet,” he says.
But that frustration would turn to anger in March 2022, on the day of the Varanus Island spill.
In the hours that followed the spill, Santos employees traced its cause underwater to a torn hose carrying condensate onto a tanker floating around 4km offshore from the island.
On the water, samples were being collected and regular updates were being sent to multiple government departments.
At one point during the operation, Santos staff pulled up next to one of the dolphins — close enough to touch it.
At 2pm, Santos notified the WA Department of Biodiversity about the dead dolphins.
About an hour later, departmental officials asked Santos to collect the dolphins — which had been sighted 200m from the tanker.
But when Santos workers went out again to look for them the carcasses couldn’t be found.
A ‘minor’ incident
At first, the company said nothing about the dolphins publicly.
Two weeks after the incident, Santos referred to it as a “minor spill” with a “negligible” impact on the environment.
An image from the day of the spill showing a dead dolphin floating on the water. The photo was later tabled in parliament. (Supplied)
It was only eight months after the spill that a Santos spokesperson publicly acknowledged the dead dolphins, telling news website WA Today: “These sightings were a couple of hours after the incident, in which time no harm would have resulted from this incident.”
When Alex saw the statement he was shocked. He says the spill response was still in full swing when the dolphins were seen and he insists they were found amid the condensate.
“Until Santos’ articles came out denying responsibility for the dolphin deaths, I’m fairly confident that everybody on the island, supervisors included, would have believed what happened that day had something to do with the deaths,” he says.
Another Santos worker told Background Briefing: “Internally, it is believed and well understood the spill caused the death of the dolphins.”
A US expert told the ABC it is possible a spill of this nature could kill a dolphin.
Kathleen Colegrove, a clinical professor at the University of Illinois, has worked on a number of papers examining the impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on dolphins.
When asked if a 25,000-litre condensate spill could kill a dolphin, she said: “Most certainly yes, based on what we know about oil spills and potential health effects.”
The problem is, nobody knows for sure.
A range of experts told the ABC the only way to answer the question is to conduct a post-mortem on the dolphins.
Collecting dolphins was ‘commonsense’
One expert, referenced in Santos’ own environmental documents, believes the bodies should have been collected.
James Watson is a professor of conservation science at the University of Queensland and his work is cited in Santos’ own Oil Pollution Emergency Plan.
He told the ABC it would have been “commonsense” for the company to pick up the dolphins.
“If you found dead species in the oil, you need to make sure what the cause of death was,” he says.
Alex doesn’t think the decision not to get the dolphins was a conspiracy.
“It’s not that easy to pick a dolphin up and get it onto a boat in the middle of an oil spill,” he says.
“I also believe that there was concern about where we were going to put a dolphin.”
But he agrees the decision proved to be a mistake.
He says it wasn’t the only mistake in Santos’ response.
In a statement later tabled in parliament by senator David Pocock, Alex accused the company of failing to get environmental monitors to Varanus Island fast enough.
That criticism is supported by an internal Santos report seen by Background Briefing.
It says a scientific monitoring team which was supposed to arrive within four days failed to reach Varanus Island until eight days after the spill.
The report says the failure constitutes a breach of Santos’ performance standards outlined in its own oil spill response plans for Varanus Island.
“They simply could not have known the real scale of the impact,” Alex says.
Santos did not comment when asked about this but said in a statement: “Results of environmental monitoring conducted on birds, other marine life, water and sediment after the event did not identify any impact.”
‘No good option’ for speaking out
Alex says concerns about the spill were raised internally at Santos but to no avail.
His time working for Santos also made him distrustful of the key WA department investigating the spill — the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, known as DMIRS.
“To me, it seemed all a very self-report and accepted culture,” Alex says.
“Santos self-reported, said, ‘Yeah, look, this is what we did wrong. This is what we’re going to do about it.’
A number of current and former Santos staff and industry insiders told Background Briefing they didn’t see DMIRS as a tough regulator.
That view is also supported by a December 2022 review of DMIRS by WA’s Office of the Auditor General.
It found DMIRS is “not fully effective” at ensuring mining projects limit environmental harm. It also said the department’s monitoring and enforcement “does little to deter operators from breaching conditions”.
A spokesperson for DMIRS said it accepted the report and has been implementing the recommendations.
Its investigation into the spill is ongoing.
The spokesperson added the department is taking the incident seriously and “actively progressing its lines of enquiry and is speaking with relevant persons”.
In the months after the spill, Alex didn’t know what to do. He didn’t trust the regulator. He didn’t trust Santos. He wanted people to know what happened.
“There was essentially just no good option,” he says.
Frustrated, he prepared to take images and videos of the spill to independent federal senator David Pocock, alongside a statement in which he accused the company of a “cover-up”.
Alex hoped Pocock would tender the documents in parliament so they would become public.
Doing it this way would mean Alex could remain anonymous and his statement could not be used against him in a possible court case.
Alex decided this was his least-worst option.
But while the risk was significantly lowered, it wasn’t eliminated.
A whistleblower goes to Canberra
Pocock had been an environmental campaigner before entering parliament.
He’d also played international rugby for the Wallabies, a team currently sponsored by Santos.
Pocock’s staff vetted Alex and then invited him to Canberra to meet the senator.
The two of them began planning how to get the documents into the public realm.
It was unclear if it was technically possible to have a video covered by parliamentary privilege.
But once that was confirmed, Pocock faced a bigger hurdle.
To have Alex’s statement and the images covered by privilege, he needed to convince other senators to let him table the documents at a Senate estimates hearing.
“It was that balancing act of trying to give them enough information to deal with some of the concerns or fears about the political ramifications,” Pocock says.
“But not give enough that you revealed the source before it’s actually tabled and covered by privilege.”
It was only after a last-minute, behind-closed-doors discussion between Pocock and the other committee members that he was given the green light to table the documents.
Nearly a year after the oil spill, Alex’s testimony, eight pictures, and two videos of the accident had finally been put on the public record.
Santos rejects cover-up
In the wake of the estimates hearing, international media picked up the story.
Less than a week later, Santos released its annual report. It revealed the company had commissioned an investigation into the Varanus Island oil spill.
It also revealed that, while the report was being prepared, executives would have part of their bonuses withheld.
In a statement, it said the “independent investigation did not support claims of a cover-up, and found the incident was appropriately reported and did not find evidence the condensate spill caused the death of the dolphins”.
Santos said this was consistent with the findings of the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).
However, a spokesperson for DBCA said that without a dolphin carcass being recovered and tested, “a cause of death was unable to be determined”.
They added: “Questions relating to the search for carcasses should be directed to Santos.”
If Santos is prosecuted, it’s unlikely to face a maximum fine of more than $10,000 per offence.
A Freedom of Information request to DBCA, seeking documents submitted by Santos was declined.
Among its reasons, it said handing over the documents might cause “irreparable damage to [Santos’s] reputation and market position”.
Alex’s future unclear
In the wake of the documents being made public, Pocock received a letter from Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher.
In the letter Gallagher concedes that Santos, in its public comments, used technical language “which was not appropriate for use in public communications and insensitive to reasonable public concerns”.
It was a very small win for Alex. More than a year and half after the spill, the company had walked back comments that initially provoked him to blow the whistle.
Santos has not said whether it intends to pursue whistleblowers like Alex.
It means there remains a risk his decision to blow the whistle could result in legal action.
“I am probably a little bit worried. I don’t know what could happen,” he says.
“[I’ve got] a little bit of a f*** you attitude to Santos as well to say, ‘I think I’ve got a much better story than you do.’ And I’ve tried to do everything right.”
He hopes what he’s done will encourage others to speak out.
“I’m sure that the Australian public would be on my side for just trying to tell the truth.”
AceBreakingNews – University of New England researchers were looking for turtles in a northern NSW river when one of Australia’s rarest wildlife phenomena popped up in front of them and had them gaping in amazement.
It was a white platypus and it seemed just as keen to observe the researchers going about their work on the Gwydir River, near Armidale in the Northern Tablelands, as they were excited to see it.
Nicknamed Bloop, the platypus has become a frequently seen feature of the waterway since that first sighting in 2021.
Until then, white platypus sightings had been documented just over a dozen times in about 200 years.
Now, photos of Bloop have been published in a research paper by the CSIRO, which has found the animal is not albino, instead attributing its white fur to the genetic abnormality leucism.
The paper’s co-author, Zoology PHD student student Lou Streeting, is familiar with wildlife in the creeks of the Northern Tablelands, particularly from her integral role in the Bells Turtles repopulation project at UNE.
But even she was shocked to spot the platypus in 2021.
“It was totally unexpected, this amazing platypus just emerging beside us,” Ms Streeting said.
“It was incredible, we all just erupted with excitement when [we] saw it.”
The research states albinism usually occurs in an absence of an essential melanin production enzyme, but leucism arises from a defective pigment transfer process.
Ms Streeting and her team scoured historical and scientific records to get an idea of how rare the white platypus actually was.
Since 2021, Bloop has been seen in the Gwydir River on 10 occasions across a 28-month period.
Before that, there had only been 12 documented instances of white platypuses around Australia since 1835.
Ms Streeting said platypuses’ dark fur usually helped them blend in to the river environment, allowing them to hide from predators, but Bloop’s white fur was easy to spot.
“It’s a genetic abnormality, but it is not albino,” she said.
“It has some black pigmentation around its bill, its feet and a little bit of colour in its beak.”
The researchers have been able to photograph Bloop multiple times.
“We call it ‘Bloop’, because you only get to see it for a few seconds at a time,” Ms Streeting said.
Is Bloop alone?
Ms Streeting said it was miraculous Bloop had managed to survive this long.
“It’s fantastic to see such a conspicuous animal survive that long, albino animals stand out to predators usually,” she said.
She said the Gwydir River’s thriving ecosystem made it an attraction habitat for platypuses, which often foraged at the bottom for food, with snails, molluscs, crustaceans and worms on the menu.
The big question now on researchers’ minds is whether there are more leucistic platypuses like Bloop in the river.
Ms Streeting said it was possible.
“If they survive long enough to breed, it’s likely they will pass those genes on to their offspring,” she said.
“There is absolutely the potential for more white platypuses across Australia.”
AceBreakingNews – A Senate inquiry tasked with developing a national approach to tackle one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems in south-eastern Australia has called for a $55-million investment over five years.
The long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) is native to NSW, but an explosion in their numbers in recent decades has seen them transform up to half the state’s shallow reef habitat into underwater deserts as they overgraze kelp and destroy habitat for other marine life.
According to the Win-win under our oceans: Climate-related marine invasive species report released today, rapidly warming ocean temperatures and a strengthening East Australian Current has enabled the “Pac-Man of the ocean” to infiltrate Victorian and Tasmanian coastline with devastating results.
A ‘window into the future’
The inquiry is believed to be the federal government’s first into the overabundance of a native species and Greens senator for Tasmania and inquiry chairperson Peter Whish-Wilson says it is a sign of changing times.
“Our ocean is changing. The spread of the urchin is being caused by climate change … and we are going to see a lot more of it,” he said.
“This report is a window into the future.”
The Senate committee investigating the impacts of the urchins and methods to combat their spread recommend a national taskforce established in February continue and oversee the development of a national sea urchin industry.
Sea urchins are considered a delicacy in Asian cuisine, and the report’s authors believe growing the Australian sea urchin industry is a “win-win solution” for the environment and the economy.
“ We need to do what we can to adapt to a changing world … and we can do it in a way that helps create jobs and economic opportunities,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.
He said more than 150 different stakeholder submissions to the inquiry were clear that a national approach was needed.
“Most people don’t look under the oceans, but those who do … have been ringing the bell for decades that marine pests are causing significant economic and ecological damage,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.
‘Don’t leave us out of the equation’
Walbunja community leader Wally Stewart has witnessed the decline of traditional fishing grounds on NSW’s far south coast over the past 30 years as urchins stripped the reefs.
“If there’s no kelp, there’s no oysters, no abalone, no grouper or snapper,” Mr Stewart said.
He says any investment in the commercial urchin industry must be done in collaboration with traditional owners. The committee’s report recommends that Aboriginal representatives be included in a national advisory group.
“If they’re going to throw money out there and invest in this industry, they need to come and talk to us,” Mr Stewart said.
“Don’t leave us out of the equation this time, like they did with the abalone industry.
“ We want to have a say in management, and if they’re going to make an industry of this, we want a share of that as well.