Food for sex

18 03 2013
Quercus_KakFeed Photo
Kakapo are unique among the ~ 400 parrot species (Psittaciformes) for being flightless, nocturnal and extremely long-lived (up to 100 years!). Additionally, they are herbivorous (seeds, fruits, polen, plants), males can weigh up to 2-4 kg (40% heavier than females), and females lay their eggs on the ground or cavities – i.e., 3 eggs in a single clutch annually, although 2 clutches might occur if the nest fails at the beginning of the reproductive season or if the eggs are taken for artificial incubation.Native to New Zealand, kakapo once inhabited the subalpine fringes of forest and scrub. Polynesians (1000 years ago) and Europeans (mostly in the XIX Century) arrived in the archipelago accompanied by dogs, cats, rats and mustelids that cornered kakapo populations in the Fiordland region (south-west of the South Island) where it was declared extinct in 1989. In 1977, a population of some 200 individuals was found on Stewart Island – this population was already in decline to the claws and jaws of feral cats. By the 1980s, the failure of captive breeding programs prompted the transfer of 60 individuals from Steward to carnivore-free islands. The global (known) population ‘rocketed’ from 50 individuals in 1999 to 126 in the 2012 censuses and, consequently, the kakapo’s IUCN status changed in 2000 from ‘Extinct in the Wild’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. Under the management of the Kakapo Recovery Programme, kakapo are now present on the islands of CodfishAnchor and Little Barrier.

Inbreeding, system shocks caused by fire or cyclones (for example), or demographic stochasticity (by which two or more outcomes are possible) such as how many males and females will be born in a single year, are all factors that threaten the persistence of small and fragmented populations. They can, however, be reverted by conservation actions.

If you have ever taken dancing classes, you will be familiar with the scarcity of male partners and how this can jeopardize group learning. When reproduction, rather than salsa pirouettes, is at stake, a biased sex ratio can compromise the persistence of species. For instance, when females are unable to find males (or vice versa), fertility rates can collapse as a result – a well-known cause of an Allee effect (1). Curiously, natural selection can promote such bias by favouring a species’ investment in litters dominated by one of the two genders. The evolutionary formulation of such scenario is that females can adjust the sex ratio of their offspring depending on the amount of available resources (2) – see contrasting cross-taxa studies on this subject (3-5). Thus, when resources abound (e.g., food), mothers can afford the offspring’s gender requiring more resources to reach adulthood or once adulthood is reached, is less likely to reproduce successfully (6). This predisposition to one gender or another can be key to the conservation of endangered species (7).

The kakapo case

At the end of the 1990s, the New Zealand Department of Conservation placed dispensers of supplementary food in the territories of some kakapo (a rather enormous, flightless parrot Strigops habroptilus) to encourage their reproduction. Back then, only 60 individuals were left of the entire species . Unfortunately, those females with access to the supplemental food conceived 67% of male chicks (so exacerbating the fact that kakapo populations are naturally male-biased), while those females without extra feeding had 71% of female chicks (8). Something wasn’t working. Read the rest of this entry »





De-extinction is about as sensible as de-death

15 03 2013

Published simultaneously in The Conversation.


On Friday, March 15 in Washington DC, National Geographic and TEDx are hosting a day-long conference on species-revival science and ethics. In other words, they will be debating whether we can, and should, attempt to bring extinct animals back to life – a concept some call “de-extinction”.

The debate has an interesting line-up of ecologists, geneticists, palaeontologists (including Australia’s own Mike Archer), developmental biologists, journalists, lawyers, ethicists and even artists. I have no doubt it will be very entertaining.

But let’s not mistake entertainment for reality. It disappoints me, a conservation scientist, that this tired fantasy still manages to generate serious interest. I have little doubt what the ecologists at the debate will conclude.

Once again, it’s important to discuss the principal flaws in such proposals.

Put aside for the moment the astounding inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life. The principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective is that it does not address the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction in the first place.

Even if we could solve all the other problems, if there is no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is a complete waste. Habitat loss is the principal driver of species extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning will not create new forests or coral reefs, for example. Read the rest of this entry »





Individuals a population to conserve make

28 11 2012
Unique in its genus, the saiga antelope inhabits the steppes and semi-desert environments in two sub-species split between Kazakhstan (Saiga tatarica tatarica, ~ 80% of the individuals) and Mongolia (Saiga tatarica mongolica). Locals hunt them for their meat and the (attributed) medicinal properties of male horns. Like many ungulates, the population is sensitive to winter severity and summer drought (which signal seasonal migrations of herds up to 1000 individuals). But illegal poaching has reduced the species from > 1 million in the 1970s to ~ 50000 currently (see RT video). The species has gone extinct in China and Ukraine, and has been IUCN “Critically Endangered” from 2002. The photo shows a male in The Centre for Wild Animals, Kalmykia, Russia (courtesy of Pavel Sorokin).

In a planet approaching 7 billion people, individual identity for most of us goes largely unnoticed by the rest. However, individuals are important because each can promote changes at different scales of social organisation, from families through to associations, suburbs and countries. This is not only true for the human species, but for any species (1).

It is less than two decades since many ecologists started pondering the ways of applying the understanding of how individuals behave to the conservation of species (2-9), which some now refer to as ‘conservation behaviour’ (10, 11). The nexus seems straightforward. The decisions a bear or a shrimp make daily to feed, mate, move or shelter (i.e., their behaviour) affect their fitness (survival + fertility). Therefore, the sum of those decisions across all individuals in a population or species matters to the core themes handled by conservation biology for ensuring long-term population viability (12), i.e., counteracting anthropogenic impacts, and (with the distinction introduced by Cawley, 13) reversing population decline and avoiding population extinction.

To use behaviour in conservation implies that we can modify the behaviour of individuals to their own benefit (and mostly, to the species’ benefit) or define behavioural metrics that can be used as indicators of population threats. A main research area dealing with behavioural modification is that of anti-predator training of captive individuals prior to re-introduction. Laden with nuances, those training programs have yielded contrasting results across species, and have only tested a few instances of ‘success’ after release into the wild (14). For example, captive black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) exposed to stuffed hawks, caged ferrets and rattlesnakes had higher post-release survival than untrained individuals in the grasslands of the North American Great Plains (15). A clear example of a threat metric is aberrant behaviour triggered by hunting. Eleanor Milner-Gulland et al. (16) have reported a 46 % reduction in fertility rates in the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in Russia from 1993-2002. This species forms harems consisting of one alpha male and 12 to 30 females. Local communities have long hunted this species, but illegal poaching for horned males from the early 1990s (17) ultimately led to harems with a female surplus (with an average sex ratio up to 100 females per male!). In them, only a few dominant females seem to reproduce because they engage in aggressive displays that dissuade other females from accessing the males. Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation catastrophes

22 02 2012

David Reed

The title of this post serves two functions: (1) to introduce the concept of ecological catastrophes in population viability modelling, and (2) to acknowledge the passing of the bloke who came up with a clever way of dealing with that uncertainty.

I’ll start with latter first. It came to my attention late last year that a fellow conservation biologist colleague, Dr. David Reed, died unexpectedly from congestive heart failure. I did not really mourn his passing, for I had never met him in person (I believe it is disingenuous, discourteous, and slightly egocentric to mourn someone who you do not really know personally – but that’s just my opinion), but I did think at the time that the conservation community had lost another clever progenitor of good conservation science. As many CB readers already know, we lost a great conservation thinker and doer last year, Professor Navjot Sodhi (and that, I did take personally). Coincidentally, both Navjot and David died at about the same age (49 and 48, respectively). I hope that the being in one’s late 40s isn’t particularly presaged for people in my line of business!

My friend, colleague and lab co-director, Professor Barry Brook, did, however, work a little with David, and together they published some pretty cool stuff (see References below). David was particularly good at looking for cross-taxa generalities in conservation phenomena, such as minimum viable population sizes, effects of inbreeding depression, applications of population viability analysis and extinction risk. But more on some of that below. Read the rest of this entry »





Hot inbreeding

22 07 2009
inbreeding

© R. Ballen

Sounds really disgusting a little rude, doesn’t it? Well, if you think losing species because of successive bottlenecks from harvesting, habitat loss and genetic deterioration is rude, then the title of this post is appropriate.

I’m highlighting today a paper recently published in Conservation Biology by Kristensen and colleagues entitled Linking inbreeding effects in captive populations with fitness in the wild: release of replicated Drosophila melanogaster lines under different temperatures.

The debate has been around for years – do inbred populations have lower fitness (e.g., reproductive success, survival, dispersal, etc.) than their ‘outbred’ counterparts? Is one of the reasons small populations (below their minimum viable population size) have a high risk of extinction because genetic deterioration erodes fitness?

While there are many species that seem to defy this assumption, the increasing prevalence of Allee effects, and the demonstration that threatened species have lower genetic diversity than non-threatened species, all seem to support the idea. Kristensen & colleagues’ paper uses that cornerstone of genetic guinea pigs, the Drosophila fruit fly, not only to demonstrate inbreeding depression in the lab, but also the subsequent fate of inbred individuals released into the wild.

What they found was quite amazing. Released inbred flies only did poorly (i.e., weren’t caught as frequently meaning that they probably were less successful in finding food and perished) relative to outbred flies when the temperature was warm (daytime). Cold (i.e., night) releases failed to show any difference between inbred and outbred flies.

Basically this means that the environment interacts strongly with the genetic code that signals for particularly performances. When the going is tough (and if you’re an ectothermic fly, extreme heat can be the killer), then genetically compromised individuals do badly. Another reasons to be worried about runaway global climate warming.

Another important point was that the indices of performance didn’t translate universally to the field conditions, so lab-only results might very well give us some incorrect predictions of animal performance when populations reach small sizes and become inbred.

CJA Bradshaw





Rare just tastes better

11 02 2009

I had written this a while ago for publication, but my timing was out and no one had room to publish it. So, I’m reproducing it here as an extension to a previous post (That looks rare – I’ll kill that one).

As the international market for luxury goods expands in value, extent and diversity of items (Nueno & Quelch 1998), the world’s burgeoning pool of already threatened species stands to worsen. Economic theory predicts that harvested species should eventually find refuge from over-exploitation because it simply becomes too costly to find the last remaining wild individuals (Koford & Tschoegl 1998). However, the self-reinforcing cycle of human greed (Brook & Sodhi 2006) can make rare species increasingly valuable to a few select consumers such that mounting financial incentives drive species to extinction (Courchamp et al. 2006). The economic and ecological arguments are compelling, but to date there has been little emphasis on how the phenomenon arises in the human thought process, nor how apparently irrational behaviour can persist. Gault and colleagues (2008) have addressed this gap in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters by examining consumer preferences for arguably one of the most stereotypical luxury food items, caviar from the 200-million-year-old sturgeon (Acipenser spp.).

Sturgeon (6 genera) populations worldwide are in trouble, with all but two of the 27 known species threatened with extinction (either Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered) according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Despite all 27 species also having strict international trade restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (Gault et al. 2008), intense commercial pressure persists for 15 of these at an estimated global value exceeding US$200 million annually (Pikitch et al. 2005). The very existence of the industry itself and the luxury good it produces are therefore, at least for some regions, unlikely to endure over the next decade (Pala 2007). What drives such irrational behaviour and why can we not seem to prevent such coveted species from spiralling down the extinction vortex?

Gault and colleagues addressed this question specifically in an elegantly simple set of preference experiments targeting the very end-consumers of the caviar production line – French connoisseurs. Some particularly remarkable results were derived from presentations of identical caviar; 86 % of attendees of luxury receptions not only preferred falsely labelled ‘rarer’ Siberian caviar (A. baeri) after blind tasting experiments, they also scored what they believed was caviar from the rarer species as having a higher ‘gustative quality’. These high-brow results were compared to more modest consumers in French supermarkets, with similar conclusions. Not only were unsuspecting gourmands fooled into believing the experimental propaganda, subjects in both cases stated a preference for seemingly rarer caviar even prior to tasting.

The psycho-sociological implications of perceived rarity are disturbing themselves; but Gault and colleagues extended their results with a mathematical game theory model demonstrating how irrational choices drive just such a harvested species to extinction. The economic implications of attempting to curb exploitation as species become rarer when the irrationality of perceived rarity was taken into consideration were telling – there is no payoff in delaying exploitation as more and more consumers are capable of entering the market. In other words, the assumption that consumers apply a positive temporal discount rate to their payoff (Olson & Bailey 1981) is wrong, with the demographic corollary that total depletion of the resource ensues. The authors contend that such artificial value may drive the entire luxury goods market based mainly on the self-consciousness and social status of consumers able to afford these symbols of affluence.

The poor record of species over-exploitation by humans arising from the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) is compounded by this new information. This anthropogenic Allee effect (Courchamp et al. 2006) provides a novel example mechanism for how small populations are driven ever-downward because low densities ensure declining fitness. Many species may follow the same general rules, from bluefin tuna, Napoleon wrasse lips and shark fins, to reptile skins and Tibetan antelope woollen shawls. Gault and colleagues warn that as the human population continues to expand and more people enter the luxury-goods market, more wildlife species will succumb to this Allee effect-driven extinction vortex.

The authors suggest that a combination of consumer education and the encouragement of farmed substitute caviar will be more effective than potentially counter-productive trading bans that ultimately encourage illegal trade. However, the preference results suggest that education might not promote positive action given that reluctance of affluent consumers to self-limit. I believe that the way forward instead requires a combination of international trade bans, certification schemes for ‘sustainable’ goods that flood markets to increase supply and reduce price, better controls on point-of-origin labelling, and even state-controlled ‘warning’ systems to alert prospective consumers that they are enhancing the extinction risk of the very products they enjoy. A better architecture for trading schemes and market systems that embrace long-term persistence can surely counteract the irrationality of the human-induced destruction of global ecosystem services. We just need to put our minds and pocketbooks to the task.

CJA Bradshaw

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Cloning for conservation – stupid and wasteful

5 02 2009
© J. F. Jaramillo

© J. F. Jaramillo

I couldn’t have invented a better example of a Toothless conservation concept.

I just saw an article in the Independent (UK) about cloning for conservation that has rehashed the old idea yet again – while there was some interesting thoughts discussed, let’s just be clear just how stupidly inappropriate and wasteful the mere concept of cloning for biodiversity conservation really is.

1. Never mind the incredible inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life, the principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective (I have no problem considering it for other uses if developed responsibly) is that you are not addressing the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction/endangerment in the first place. Even if you could address all the other problems (see below), if you’ve got no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is an utter waste of time and money. Habitat loss is THE principal driver of extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning won’t create new forests or coral reefs, for example.

I may as well stop here, because all other arguments are minor in comparison to (1), but let’s continue just to show how many different layers of stupidity envelop this issue.

2. The loss of genetic diversity leading to inbreeding depression is a major issue that cloning cannot even begin to address. Without sufficient genetic variability, a population is almost certainly more susceptible to disease, reductions in fitness, weather extremes and over-exploitation. A paper published a few years ago by Spielman and colleagues (Most species are not driven to extinction before genetic factors impact them) showed convincingly that genetic diversity is lower in threatened than in comparable non-threatened species, and there is growing evidence on how serious Allee effects are in determining extinction risk. Populations need to number in the 1000s of genetically distinct individuals to have any chance of persisting. To postulate, even for a moment, that cloning can artificially recreate genetic diversity essential for population persistence is stupidly arrogant and irresponsible.

3. The cost. Cloning is an incredibly costly business – upwards of several millions of dollars for a single animal (see example here). Like the costs associated with most captive breeding programmes, this is a ridiculous waste of finite funds (all in the name of fabricated ‘conservation’). Think of what we could do with that money for real conservation and restoration efforts (buying conservation easements, securing rain forest property, habitat restoration, etc.). Even if we get the costs down over time, cloning will ALWAYS be more expensive than the equivalent investment in habitat restoration and protection. It’s wasteful and irresponsible to consider it otherwise.

So, if you ever read another painfully naïve article about the pros and cons of cloning endangered species, remember the above three points. I’m appalled that this continues to be taken seriously!

CJA Bradshaw

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