How buggered are our hairy red cousins?

23 08 2011

Here’s a post from one of our lab’s post-doctoral fellows, Dr. Stephen Gregory. Stephen just got back from Borneo (jammy bastard), and will now regale you with his exploits.

© Danau Girang Field Centre

When asked to name a Bornean animal, I’ll bet the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) would top a public survey. This charismatic animal shares over 95 % of its genome with Homo sapiens, and so it’s little wonder that we find their infants so adorable and their popularity in the pet trade so deplorable.

Yet, I wonder how many people know that the biggest threat to our hairy red cousin is actually human eating and hygiene habits? Palm oil (oil extracted from the kernel of Elaeis spp.) is used in many foods – particularly snack foods – and hygiene products. It is our addiction to these convenient products that is destroying the orangutan’s habitat.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Sabah, the northernmost Malaysian state on Borneo, where I witnessed this distressing truth firsthand. I was meeting with the Sabah Wildlife Department, French NGO Hutan and staff at the Danau Girang Field Centre  to discuss early results from my Sabah orangutan project and seek their expert opinions. Read the rest of this entry »





Recognising differing viewpoints in a rapidly changing world

18 08 2011

Is oil palm bad? Is protecting tropical forests more important than converting them for economic development? Should we spike trees to make sure no one cuts them down?

Answers to these questions depend on which side of the argument you’re on. But often people on either side of debates hardly know what their opponents are thinking.

A recent paper by us in the journal Biotropica, of which parts were published on this blog, points out that the inability to recognise differing viewpoints undermines progress in environmental policy and practice.

The paper in Biotropica takes an unusual approach to get its message across, one rarely applied in science, but nevertheless dating back to 1729. In that year, Jonathan Swift, the first satirist, wrote an essay suggesting the English should eat Irish children, “whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled”, to reduce the growing population of Irish poor.

We similarly use satire to highlight the viewpoint problem. Our paper uses a spoof press release by the Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees, aka “CoFCCLoT”. CoFCCLoT proposes that in return for nor cutting down their tropical rainforests, wealthy countries should reforest at least half their land. This would provide the world with a level playing field, restore the ecological health of wealthy countries, provide job opportunities for their citizens, and even allow lions to thrive in Greece and gorillas in Spain. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XIII

17 08 2011

The latest six cartoons… (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »





Gagging scientists about marine parks

14 08 2011

© Louisa Gouliamaki AFP

Apologies to my readers for the lack of a post this past week – I’ve been attending the Ecological Society of America‘s 96th Annual Meeting in an extremely hot (42 °C) Austin, Texas. As usual, I’ll provide a synopsis of the conference in a little bit, but I have some rather worrisome reports about the marine park process in Australia with which to regale you first.

My last post was the reproduction of a letter cosigned by over 150 marine scientists (mostly from Australia, including me) who are concerned that the a proposed network of marine reserves in the Commonwealth waters of the South West bioregional marine planning region is not based on sound scientific principles, and is instead a mash-up of what amounts to leftovers that industry hasn’t yet found a way to exploit. Not the best way to plan for marine biodiversity conservation in the long run.

After the post went live, I had a few interesting (and frightening) e-mail exchanges with a few colleagues who work for various Australian marine science institutions who complained that they were forbidden to cosign the letter. What? What? What? What? What? Read the rest of this entry »





More than leftovers: getting marine parks right in Australia

7 08 2011
Taken by user Hossen27

Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks back I cosigned a ‘statement of concern’ about the proposal for Australia’s South West Marine Region organised by Hugh Possingham. The support has been overwhelming by Australia’s marine science community (see list of supporting scientists below). I’ve reproduced the letter addressed to the Australian government – distribute far and wide if you give more than a shit about the state of our marine environment (and the economies it supports). Basically, the proposed parks are merely a settlement between government and industry where nothing of importance is really being protected. The parks are just the leftovers industry doesn’t want. No way to ensure the long-term viability of our seas.

On 5 May 2011 the Australian Government released a draft proposal for a network of marine reserves in the Commonwealth waters of the South West bioregional marine planning region.

Australia’s South West is of global significance for marine life because it is a temperate region with an exceptionally high proportion of endemic species – species found nowhere else in the world.

Important industries, such as tourism and fisheries, depend on healthy marine ecosystems and the services they provide. Networks of protected areas, with large fully protected core zones, are essential to maintain healthy ecosystems over the long-term – complemented by responsible fisheries management1.

The selection and establishment of marine reserves should rest on a strong scientific foundation. We are greatly concerned that what is currently proposed in the Draft South West Plan is not based on the three core science principles of reserve network design: comprehensiveness, adequacy and representation. These principles have been adopted by Australia for establishing our National Reserve System and are recognized internationally2.

Specifically, the draft plan fails on the most basic test of protecting a representative selection of habitats within the bioregions of the south-west. There are no highly protected areas proposed at all in three of the seven marine bioregions lying on the continental shelf3. Overall less than 3.5% of the shelf, where resource use and biodiversity values are most intense, is highly protected. Further, six of the seven highly protected areas that are proposed on the shelf are small (< 20 km in width)4 and all are separated by large distances (> 200 km)5. The ability of such small isolated areas to maintain connectivity and fulfil the goal of protecting Australia’s marine biodiversity is limited. Read the rest of this entry »





Pickled niches

2 08 2011

Another fine contribution from Salvador Herrando-Pérez (see previous posts here, here, here and here).

Sometimes evolution fails to shape new species that are able to expand the habitat of their ancestors. This failure does not rein in speciation, but forces it to take place in a habitat that changes little over geological time. Such evolutionary outcomes are important to predict the distribution of groups of phylogenetically related species.

Those who have ever written a novel, a biography, or even a court application, will know that a termite-eaten photo or an old hand-written letter can help rebuild moments of our lives with surgical precision. Likewise, museums of natural sciences store historical biodiversity data of great value for modern research and conservation1.

A notable example is the study of chameleons from Madagascar by Chris Raxworthy and colleagues2. By collating 621 records of 11 species of the tongue-throwing reptiles, these authors subsequently concentrated survey efforts on particular regions where they discovered the impressive figure of seven new species to science, which has continued to expand3 (see figure below). The trick was to characterise the habitat at historical and modern chameleon records on the basis of satellite data describing climate, hydrology, topography, soil and vegetation, then extrapolate over the entire island to predict what land features were most likely to harbour other populations and species. This application of species distribution models4 supports the idea that the phenotypic, morphological and ecological shifts brought about by speciation can take place at slower rates than changes in the habitats where species evolve – the so-called ‘niche conservatism’ (a young concept with already contrasting definitions, e.g.,5-7).

Read the rest of this entry »








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