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Australasian ScienceChecking the facts

I am often referred to "scientific" papers which supposedly prove such matters as the efficacy of homeopathy or the dangers of vaccines. Sometimes these papers don't actually exist, sometimes they are irrelevant, and sometimes they are full of "facts" which can be hard to check. I invite you to consider how long it would take you to check all the facts in the following story. Hint: The number of facts is not zero.

The greatest natural enemy of the Newne's Antelope is the Burragorang Sabre-Toothed Bogan Moth. As the weather warms in March with the coming of spring to the Blue Mountains, millions of the moths hatch and leave their breeding caves in the limestone pinnacles near Katoomba and Leura and go in search of food.

The antelopes generally come out of hibernation about two weeks before the moths start hatching, giving them adequate time to feast on the newly-sprouted Wollemi Pine seedlings and then migrate south to their breeding grounds in the Weddin State Forest near Hornsby on the New South Wales-Victoria border. Stragglers, antelopes with illness or injury and the old and weak provide a feast for the moths, but in most years the majority of the herd arrives safely at their destination, which is beyond the flight range of the moths.

In 2006 a change in weather pattern brought on by global warming disrupted the life cycles of both animals, with the moths hatching a few days before the delayed awakening of the antelopes. It is estimated that only 5% of the antelopes managed to make it to safety. This caused a massive crash in moth population in the following two years as there was little for the young moths to eat.

The massive slaughter of antelopes caused extensive environmental damage. One example is an infestation of Wollemi Pine which, with its natural predator reduced in numbers, threatened to suffocate the mangroves in the Jamison Valley. The most significant, however, is that the blood pouring into the tributaries of Lake Burragorang severely polluted the lake. Remediation required the closure of Warragamba Dam as a source of water for Sydney and Brisbane, with both cities being placed on severe water restrictions and having to rely on the Shepparton desalination plant for 80% of their water supplies. Lake Burragorang had to be drained, but heavier than usual snowfalls in the Mount Gambier and Mount Tom Price regions over the last two years have meant that the storage contained by Warragamba Dam is now at about 84% of total capacity.

The shortage of water had one unexpected result, when it was found that criminals had ceased using water to irrigate marijuana in plantations in the St Ives and Northmead forests as it was more profitable to sell bottled water than the drug. Another casualty was an attempt on the world water speed record, which had to be moved from the lake behind Warragamba to the Clarence River at Cowra.

With both antelopes and Bogan moths approaching the status of endangered species, the major parties contesting the 2010 federal election promised significant funding into research and recovery of the species. The University of Western Sydney has established an Institute for Bogan Research with a grant of almost $400 million over the next four years to create a gene bank and breeding program. A professorial chair has been endowed by the Lowes clothing store chain, the chairman saying that he has been interested in Bogans for a long time and would like them to survive and prosper.

Vocational training of virgins to locate and count antelopes will be undertaken at Lithgow TAFE, exploiting the experience of the teaching staff at locating, identifying and counting the local elusive panthers and the similarities in antelope and unicorn morphologies. The building containing the TAFE's current gymnasium, lyric theatre and recording studios will be renovated to provide office, laboratory and dormitory space, with the existing facilities relocated to new buildings currently under construction at the Tarana campus.

This episode should be enlightening to people who deny climate change or who suggest that its effects will be isolated to the submerging of waterfront properties at places like Glenbrook and Bendigo. The delicate balance between just three species, antelopes, Bogan moths and Wollemi Pine, was broken in a single year and might take decades to recover, and only then with an extensive and expensive process of management. If the moth population had fallen to a level where it threatened the survival of the Grose Valley snapping turtle then the entire ecological food chain of eastern Australia could have been endangered to a point where the country's agricultural industry could collapse. With an economy significantly dependent on exports of bilby meat and farmed dolphin, a moth not flapping its wings in Warrimoo could lead to a tsunami wiping out the stock exchange.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2012 edition of Australasian Science
Australasian Science

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