I’ve been meaning to highlight for a while a paper that I’m finding more and more pertinent as a citation in my own work. The general theme is concerned with estimating extinction risk of a particular population, species (or even ecosystem), and more and more we’re finding that different drivers of population decline and eventual extinction often act synergistically to drive populations to that point of no return.
In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In other, other words, extinction risk is usually much higher than we generally appreciate.
This might seem at odds with my previous post about the tendency of the stochastic exponential growth model to over-estimate extinction risk using abundance time series, but it’s really more of a reflection of our under-appreciation of the complexity of the extinction process.
In the early days of ConservationBytes.com I highlighted a paper by Fagan & Holmes that described some of the few time series of population abundances right up until the point of extinction – the reason these datasets are so rare is because it gets bloody hard to find the last few individuals before extinction can be confirmed. Most recently, Melbourne & Hastings described in a paper entitled Extinction risk depends strongly on factors contributing to stochasticity published in Nature last year how an under-appreciated component of variation in abundance leads to under-estimation of extinction risk.
‘Demographic stochasticity’ is a fancy term for variation in the probability of births deaths at the individual level. Basically this means that there will be all sorts of complicating factors that move any individual in a population away from its expected (mean) probability of dying or reproducing. When taken as a mean over a lot of individuals, it has generally been assumed that demographic stochasticity is washed out by other forms of variation in mean (population-level) birth and death probability resulting from vagaries of the environmental context (e.g., droughts, fires, floods, etc.).
‘No, no, no’, say Melbourne & Hastings. Using some relatively simple laboratory experiments where environmental stochasticity was tightly controlled, they showed that demographic stochasticity dominated the overall variance and that environmental variation took a back seat. The upshot of all these experiments and mathematical models is that for most species of conservation concern (i.e., populations already reduced below to their minimum viable populations size), not factoring in the appropriate measures of demographic wobble means that most people are under-estimating extinction risk.
Bloody hell – we’ve been saying this for years; a few hundred individuals in any population is a ridiculous conservation target. People must instead focus on getting their favourite endangered species to number at least in the several thousands if the species is to have any hope of persisting (this is foreshadowing a paper we have coming out shortly in Biological Conservation – stay tuned for a post thereupon).
Melbourne & Hastings have done a grand job in reminding us how truly susceptible small populations are to wobbling over the line and disappearing forever.