Blog | 12th Jul, 2023

Doomed without a drink: 6 animals at risk of extinction in the Murray-Darling

The Murray-Darling Basin is home to some of Victoria’s most iconic animals, like the Murray cod and the Australasian bittern. But they can’t survive without water!  

We’ve released a shocking report, Doomed Without a Drink, that shows 140 species are at increased risk of extinction if we don’t return more water to the river. That includes 48 species of animals and 92 plants

The worst part? The Victorian government has the power to stop this extinction crisis. But instead, they’re acting as one big roadblock. After years of delays, they’re refusing to support buying vital water to keep the river and its wildlife alive.

Scroll down to meet six of these animals and learn why they need healthy, flowing rivers to survive. Or find a full list of the 48 animals at risk here.

Australasian Bittern

ENDANGERED IN VICTORIA

The Australasian bittern is easier to hear than it is to spot. It’s an expert at camouflage, blending into dense reeds and rushes, and often freezing with its long neck stretched up. But its call is far from shy – the loud growls and booms of males during the mating season travel right across the wetland!

Where does it live?

It lives mainly in freshwater wetlands, where it can find fish, frogs, freshwater crayfish and even small reptiles to eat. In Australia, the Barmah-Millewa wetland is considered the most important habitat for the bird.

Why does it need healthy, flowing rivers? 

The Australasian bittern was once found across southern Australia. Today, it is estimated that only about 1300 remain. The wetlands it used to call home are changing and disappearing altogether: too much water is being diverted away from the river for irrigation, and wetlands are being drained and cut off from the river.

Rice fields can provide emergency habitat on a degraded river, but with less water available for the crop during drought and some farmers making land-use decisions with other priorities in mind, natural wetlands remain vital.

Image credit: Adam Fry

Australian Painted Snipe

CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

Sightings of the Australian painted snipe are so rare that no one has ever recorded their call. Scientists have even described the bird as “near mythical.” Keeping with its elusive reputation, the painted snipe likes to forage at night under the cover of dense vegetation to find worms, molluscs and insects.

Where does it live?

The Australian painted snipe is very picky and needs just the right breeding conditions for its home. That means shallow wetlands with areas of bare wet mud and canopy cover nearby. It nests on the ground among tall grasses, tussocks or reeds.

Like many wetland birds, scientists think painted snipes are migratory or nomadic – but with sightings so rare, we still don’t know exactly where they disappear or why!

Why does it need healthy, flowing rivers? 

The population has declined by more than 90% in the Murray-Darling Basin, with very few remaining wetlands providing a suitable home. Irrigator demand for water is preventing more frequent flooding of wetlands, and a loss of the shallow, swampy habitat usually found on the margins of wetlands.

Image credit: Patrick Kavanagh (flickr CC)

Murray Cod

ENDANGERED

The mighty Murray cod is an icon of the Murray-Darling. It’s the largest freshwater fish in Australia – and one of the largest in the world. It can live for more than 50 years and weigh over 100kg! Unsurprisingly, it’s the river’s apex predator eating smaller fish, freshwater crayfish and frogs.

Where does it live?

The Murray cod is only found in the Murray-Darling Basin, moving hundreds of kilometres across a range of river habitats. In spring, the female lays her eggs on submerged rocks or logs, while the male keeps guard until the fish hatch.

Sadly, fish kills on the Darling-Baaka in 2018 and 2023 saw many Murray cod suffocate and die in NSW. This devastating event means local Victorian populations, and Victorian spawning and nursery habitat, are more important than ever.

Why does it need healthy, flowing rivers? 

The Murray Cod is in decline throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, because of many factors making it harder for them to feed and spawn. That includes a change in the volume, timing and variability of flows down the river, an increase in the area of still water behind impoundments, and barriers in the river inhibiting free movement. Man-made dams and weirs also block migratory routes, meaning that large stretches of rivers no longer provide suitable habitat.

Image credit: Guo Chai Lim (flickr Creative Commons)

Macquarie Perch

ENDANGERED

While not as well-known as the Murray cod, the Macquarie perch has its own dedicated fan base – and the fish are affectionately called ‘Maccas’ by many of the people working to save them. These little fish need clean, clear water to breed, so when they’re thriving it’s a good indicator of a healthy river.

Where does it live?

Macquarie perch used to be one of the most abundant fish species in the Murray-Darling, but there are just a handful of isolated wild populations left. The largest of these is in Lake Dartmouth on Victoria’s Mitta Mitta River.

Macquarie perch like clear, deep water with lots of cover. As the weather gets warmer in spring, they migrate upstream to spawn in small streams.

Why does it need healthy, flowing rivers? 

Barriers like weirs have limited their ability to move freely through the river – which is making it harder for them to migrate to and from the areas they like to spawn. Irrigator demand for water is also pushing huge volumes of water down the river at the wrong time, during summer. These high flows erode the river bank and increase sediment, filling in the deep rocky holes that Macquarie Perch rely on for feeding on the river floor.

Image credit: Arthur Mostead

Sloane's froglet

ENDANGERED

The Sloane’s froglet might look like just any old frog – until you realise it’s a tiny 2cm! Given its size, the best way to find the froglet is to listen for the distinctive “chick, chick, chick” call that males make from autumn to spring.

Where does it live?

It is found only in a small pocket of the Murray-Darling floodplain, living in grasslands and woodlands that get periodically wet. To breed, it needs shallow water and medium sized grasses and reeds where it attaches its eggs, one by one.

Why does it need healthy, flowing rivers? 

Many of the wetlands that the Sloane’s froglet once relied on are disappearing. Too much water is being taken out of the river system, and irrigator demand for water has changed how the river flows and floods.

Image credit: Matt Clancy

Southern bell frog

ENDANGERED

The southern bell frog is also known as the growling grass frog – named after its unusual call that sounds like a revving motorcycle! It likes to bask in the sun at the edge of wetlands, hunting by keeping still and waiting for prey to come within reach.

Where does it live?

It likes to live in still, or slow-flowing bodies of water like wetlands, swamps and lakes. Its breeding season is triggered when there is flooding or a significant rise in water levels.

Why does it need healthy, flowing rivers? 

The southern bell frog needs permanent, freshwater lagoons and particular vegetation to breed. That means its primary threats are wetlands being drained, and river regulation reducing the frequency of floods.

Image credit: Callie Nickolai (flickr CC)

 

The solution?

These critters all depend on flowing, healthy rivers to survive. That means we need to keep enough water in the Murray-Darling so it can flow, and can reach the wetlands, swamps and billabongs that rely on getting a drink from the river when it floods. 

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to address the issue of too much water taken from the river system, and help restore it to health. But after a decade of delay, maladministration and even alleged water theft, we’re way behind on recovering the water that was promised for the river. And our wildlife are paying the price.

In November 2023 the federal government passed new legislation to finally start buying water again for the river. It’s a lifeline for water birds and native fish, but it’s not a cure. We need a bigger, bolder plan in the years ahead and together, we can make it happen. By building our movement, holding our government accountable and pushing for the big changes that rivers, First Nations and regional communities need.

Sign up to join our campaign to save the Murray





48 threatened animals in the Murray

Below is a list of the 48 flow-dependent animals in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, and their status in Victoria. For more information, including the 30 species who are also listed under the Commonwealth EPBC Act, download the full Doomed Without A Drink report here >>

Invertebrates

Murray spiny crayfish – threatened

Frogs

Sloane’s froglet – endangered

Southern bell frog – vulnerable

birds

Australasian bittern – critically endangered

Australian little bittern – endangered

Freckled duck – endangered

Blue-billed duck – vulnerable

Musk duck – vulnerable

Australasian shoveler – vulnerable

Hardhead – vulnerable

Magpie goose – vulnerable

Lewin’s rail – vulnerable

Little egret – endangered

Intermediate egret (plumed) – critically endangered

Brolga – endangered

Caspian tern – vulnerable

Gull-billed tern – endangered

Black-tailed godwit* – critically endangered

Bar-tailed godwit* – vulnerable

Australian painted snipe – critically endangered

Whimbrel* – endangered

Eastern curlew* – critically endangered

Marsh sandpiper* – endangered

Common greenshank* – endangered

Wood sandpiper* – endangered

Terek sandpiper* – endangered

Great knot* – critically endangered

Red knot* – endangered

Common sandpiper* – vulnerable

Ruddy turnstone* – endangered

Curlew sandpiper* – critically endangered

Pacific golden plover* – vulnerable

Grey plover* – vulnerable

Lesser sand plover* – endangered

Greater sand plover* – vulnerable

Inland dotterel – endangered

FISHES

Barred galaxias – critically endangered

Flat-headed galaxias – vulnerable

Freshwater catfish – endangered

Macquarie perch – endangered

Murray cod – endangered

Murray hardhead – critically endangered

Murray-Darling rainbowfish – endangered

Silver perch – endangered

Southern purple spotted gudgeon – critically endangered

Southern pygmy perch – vulnerable

Trout cod – endangered

Yarra pygmy perch – vulnerable

* Migratory shorebird species listed under agreements with Japan, China and Korea that use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. While once considered primarily coastal species, they require wetlands along migratory routes to stop and feed. Loss of wetlands due to river regulation is a significant contributor to the drastic decline in shorebird numbers in Australia