High-altitude ecology

28 08 2014
A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau - yakjam

A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau – yakjam

I’ve been out of the social-media loop for a few weeks, hence the abnormally long interval since my last post. As you might recall, I’ve been travelling overseas and most recently blogged from Monterey, California where I was attending a symposium on invasion genetics.

The next phase of my travels couldn’t have been more different.

The reason I couldn’t access the blog was because I was well behind the Great Firewall of China. I was, in fact, in the Tibetan region of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces in western China for most of the last 10 days. While I’ve travelled to China many times before, this was by far the most evocative, interesting and unique experience I’ve ever had in this country. Reflecting on the past 10 days while waiting in Hong Kong for my flight back to Australia, I am still reeling a little from what I saw.

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

What the hell was I doing at 3500-4000 m elevation on the Tibetan Plateau? Good question. I have been most fortunate to be included in a crack team of Chinese ecologists who have designed and implemented a most impressive set of experiments in plant community ecology. The team, led by Professor Shurong Zhou and Dr. Jiajia Lui of Fudan University, has been working relentlessly to put together some of the sexiest plant ecology experiments going in China.

Having now so far published two papers from the some of the experiments (see here and here), my Chinese colleagues thought it was high time I visited the famous site. Situated at 3500 m in the Tibetan region of Gansu Province in western China, the Lanzhou University research station Azi Shi Yan Zhan is about a 20-hectare area of meadow fenced off from the grazing of the ubiquitous domestic yaks herded by the local Tibetans. If that sounds pretty exotic, let me assure you that it is. Read the rest of this entry »

World Heritage Species

17 08 2014

horseshoe crabHaving just attended the Baker & Stebbins Legacy Symposium on Invasion Genetics in Pacific Grove, California, I have had a rare bit of leisure time between my book-writing commitments and operating in conference mode. It’s summer here in California, so I’ve taken the opportunity to read a bit of The New Yorker in my accommodation. It is indeed a pleasure to have these micro-moments of ‘leisure’ reading. As it turns out though, work subjects are never far from my mind as I do this.

So it interested me greatly when I read another fantastic article in the ‘Yorker about horseshoe crabs, and their precarious state despite having survived half a billion years on this planet. While I was generally interested in the science, biomedical applications, conservation and systematics of the species, what really caught my eye was the proposal to list them as a ‘World Heritage Species’.

A what? Never heard of that classification, you say? Neither had I. Not to worry though – it doesn’t exist yet. Read the rest of this entry »

We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

Read the rest of this entry »

Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Biodiversity Hotspots have nearly burnt out

10 07 2014

dying embersI recently came across a really important paper that might have flown under the radar for many people. For this reason, I’m highlighting it here and will soon write up a F1000 Recommendation. This is news that needs to be heard, understood and appreciated by conservation scientists and environmental policy makers everywhere.

Sean Sloan and colleagues (including conservation guru, Bill Laurance) have just published a paper entitled Remaining natural vegetation in the global biodiversity hotspots in Biological Conservation, and it we are presented with some rather depressing and utterly sobering data.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you’ll have at least heard of the global Biodiversity Hotspots (you can even download GIS layers for them here). From an initial 10, to 25, they increased penultimately to 34; most recently with the addition of the Forests of East Australia, we now have 35 Biodiversity Hotspots across the globe. The idea behind these is to focus conservation attention, investment and intervention in the areas with the most unique species assemblages that are simultaneously experiencing the most human-caused disturbances.

Indeed, today’s 35 Biodiversity Hotspots include 77 % of all mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species (holy shit!). They also harbour about half of all plant species, and 42 % of endemic (not found anywhere else) terrestrial vertebrates. They also have the dubious honour of hosting 75 % of all endangered terrestrial vertebrates (holy, holy shit!). Interestingly, it’s not just amazing biological diversity that typifies the Hotspots – human cultural diversity is also high within them, with about half of the world’s indigenous languages found therein.

Of course, to qualify as a Biodiversity Hotspot, an area needs to be under threat – and under threat they area. There are now over 2 billion people living within Biodiversity Hotspots, so it comes as no surprise that about 85 % of their area is modified by humans in some way.

A key component of the original delimitation of the Hotspots was the amount of ‘natural intact vegetation’ (mainly undisturbed by humans) within an area. While revolutionary 30 years ago, these estimates were based to a large extent on expert opinions, undocumented assessments and poor satellite data. Other independent estimates have been applied to the Hotspots to estimate their natural intact vegetation, but these have rarely been made specifically for Hotspots, and they have tended to discount non-forest or open-forest vegetation formations (e.g., savannas & shrublands).

So with horribly out-of-date vegetation assessments fraught with error and uncertainty, Sloan and colleagues set out to estimate what’s really going on vegetation-wise in the world’s 35 Biodiversity Hotspots. What they found is frightening, to say the least.

Read the rest of this entry »

Western Australia’s moronic shark cull

4 07 2014

another stupid politicianA major media release today coordinated by Jessica Meeuwig in Western Australia makes the (obvious) point that there’s no biological justification to cull sharks.

301 Australian and International Scientists experts have today provided their submission to the Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), rejecting the scientific grounds for the proposed three-year drum-line programme.

Coordinating scientist, Professor Jessica Meeuwig from the University of Western Australia said:

“To have over 300 researchers, including some of the world’s top shark specialists and marine ecologists, all strongly agreeing that there is no scientific basis for the lethal drum-line programme, tells you how unjustified the government’s proposal is. If the EPA and the Federal Minister for the Environment are using science for decisions, the drum-line proposal should not be approved.”

The experts agree that the proposal presents no evidence that the lethal drum-line programme, as implemented, will improve ocean safety. It ignores evidence from other hook-based programs in Hawaii and Queensland that have been shown to be ineffective in reducing shark attacks on humans.

Dr. Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney stated:

“There is no evidence that drum lines reduce shark bites. The Western Australia EPA now faces a question of science versus politics with global implications because it is considering establishing a new international norm that would allow for the killing of protected white sharks.”

The drum lines are ineffective and indiscriminate, with 78% of the sharks captured not considered ‘threatening’ to humans. Yet, scientifically supported, non-lethal alternatives such as the South African ‘Shark Spotter’ and Brazil’s ‘Tag and Remove’ programmes are not adequately assessed as viable options for Western Australia. Read the rest of this entry »

New Threatened Species Commissioner lacks teeth

2 07 2014

This is not Gregory Andrews

Published today on ABC Environment.

Greg Hunt, the Coalition Government’s Minister for the Environment, today announced what appears to be one of the only environmental promises kept from their election campaign in 2013: to appoint a Threatened Species Commissioner.

The appointment is unprecedented for Australia – we have never had anything remotely like it in the past. However, I am also confident that this novelty will turn out to be one of the position’s only positives.

My scepticism is not based on my personal political or philosophical perspectives; rather, it arises from Coalition Government’s other unprecedented policies to destroy Australia’s environment. No other government in the last 50 years has mounted such a breath-taking War on the Environment. In the nine month’s since the Abbott Government took control, there has been a litany of backward and dangerous policies, from the well-known axing of the Climate Commission and their push to dump of 3 million tonnes of dredge on the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef, to their lesser-publicised proposals to remove the non-profit tax status of green organisations and kill the Environmental Defenders Office. The Government’s list of destructive, right-wing, anti-environmental policies is growing weekly, with no signs of abatement.

With this background, it should come as no surprise that considerable cynicism is emerging following the Minister’s announcement. Fears that another powerless pawn of the current government appear to have been realised with the appointment of Gregory Andrews as the Commissioner. Mr Andrews is a public servant (ironically from the now-defunct Department of Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) and former diplomat who has some minor infamy regarding contentious comments he made in 2006 when acting as a senior bureaucrat in Mal Brough’s Department of Indigenous Affairs. Apart from Mr Gregory’s general lack of specific expertise in species recovery, the choice appears to be neutral at best.

More importantly, the major limitation of the Commissioner to realise real benefits for Australian biodiversity is the position’s total lack of political power. Greg Hunt himself confirmed that Mr Andrews will not be able to affect government policy other than ‘encourage’ cooperation between states and environmental groups. The position also comes with a (undisclosed) funding guarantee of only one year, which makes it sound more like an experiment in public relations than effective environmental policy. Read the rest of this entry »


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