LEWISBURG, Pa. — Most of us have seen the pictures of bushfires burning in Australia. More than two dozen people have been killed, along with an estimated half a billion animals.
“One of the things that jumps out to me, aside from all the stuff that’s affecting the people of Australia, is what’s happening to those natural areas. There’s a good chance that what we’re seeing is the extinction of a lot of different organisms,” Chris Martine said.
Chris Martine is a biology professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg. He studies plant diversity. He has been to Australia six times and plans to go again in July for a research expedition. As a botanist, Martine is especially concerned about the plants during these fires.
“When those sites are burned to the ground, quite literally, and the plants are gone, that also means that all those animals are not going to have places to live and things where they can get their food sources,” Martine said.
At Bucknell University, Martine and his students study all kinds of plants. But right now, their focus is on Australian species, in particular, a species of bush tomato Martine helped discover in 2018. The plants are growing in the Bucknell University greenhouses, and there is a large supply of seeds in the lab. If the species in Australia were lost to fire, the group is confident it would not go entirely extinct.
“It could eradicate a lot of natural area where the plants grow and could make them go extinct in those areas, but we having done work on them have a large seed bank,” Jonathan Hayes said.
Even so, Martine worries that only the most extremely adapted plants in Australia will be able to come back from the fires.
“I can’t help but think that there are all these things disappearing that we don’t even know are there,” Martine said.
Martine believes it could take decades or even centuries for Australia to bounce back from the devastation.