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 »

If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of CB.com readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Seven signs your country has an environmental problem

29 04 2013

1. It’s almost always hazy – and not just in the cities. The particulate matter pollution makes even sunny days appear like it’s about to rain. To add insult to injury, almost every advertisement with anything to do with ‘outside’ pictures a pristinely blue sky and copious sunshine, without the hint of grey. When stepping off the aeroplane, the distinct taste of tar hits the back of your throat.

2. You can’t drink the water from the tap – not anywhere. In fact, you can’t even brush your teeth with it or risk getting some nasty intestinal parasite.

3. You can’t plant trees fast enough because the frequency of landslips kills hundreds of people yearly.

4. While catching a taxi from the airport, the driver plays a continuous loop of birds singing, because most residents never hear those sounds.

5. You have an economy in over-drive, and yet you still think of yourself as ‘developing’.

6. Emerging infectious disease jumping from livestock to humans is now a near-regular occurrence, with new and weird diseases that threaten to become human pandemics and mutating with alarming speed popping up everywhere. 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 »

Empty seas coming to a shore near you

12 07 2012

Last week I had the pleasure of entertaining some old friends and colleagues for a writing workshop in Adelaide (don’t worry – they all came from southern Australia locations, so no massive carbon footprints for overseas travel). I’m happy to report it was a productive (and epicurean) week, but that’s not really the point of today’s post.

One of those participants was long-time colleague, Dr. Rik Buckworth. Rik and I first met in Darwin back in the early 2000s when he was lead fisheries scientist for Northern Territory Fisheries; this collaboration and friendship blossomed into an ARC Linkage Project (with Dr. Mark Meekan of AIMS) on shark fisheries (see some of the scientific outputs from that here, here, here and here). Rik has since moved to CSIRO in Brisbane, but keeps a hand in NT fisheries’ affairs. Incidentally, Rik trained under one of the most well-known fisheries modellers in the world – Carl Walters – when he did his PhD at the University of British Columbia back in the early 1990s.

During our workshop, Rik pointed out a paper he had co-authored back in 2009 in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries that had completely escaped my attention – it’s a frightening and apocalyptic view of the Australasian marine tropics that seems to confirm our predictions about northern Australia’s marine future. Just take a look at the following two figures from their paper (Elasmobranchs in southern Indonesian fisheries: the fisheries, the status of the stocks and management options): Read the rest of this entry »

Rise of the phycologists

22 09 2011

Dead man's fingers (Codium fragile) - © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve had an interesting week. First, it’s been about 6 years since I was last in Japan, and I love coming here; the food is exquisite, the people are fantastic (polite, happy, accommodating), everything works (trains, buses, etc.) and most importantly, it has an almost incredible proportion of its native forests intact.

But it wasn’t for forests that I travelled to Japan (nor the sumo currently showing on the guest-room telly where I’m staying – love the sumo): I was here for a calcareous macroalgae workshop.


First, what are ‘macroalgae’, and why are some ‘calcareous’? And why should anyone in their right mind care?

Good questions. Answers: 1. Seaweeds; 2. Many incorporate calcium carbonate into their structures as added structural support; 3. Read on.

Now, I’m no phycologist (seaweed scientist), but I’m fascinated by this particular taxon. I’ve written a few posts about their vital ecological roles (see here and here), but let me regale you with some other important facts about these amazing species.

Some Japanese macroalgae - © CJA Bradshaw

There are about 12,000 known species of macroalgae described by phycologists, but as I’ve learnt this week, this is obviously a vast underestimate. For most taxa that people are investigating now using molecular techniques, the genetic diversity is so high and so geographically structured that there are obviously a huge number of ‘cryptic’ species within our current taxonomic divisions. This could mean that we’re out by up to a factor of 2 in the number of species in the world.

Another amazing fact – about 50 % of all known seaweed species are found in just two countries – Japan and Australia (hence the workshop between Japanese and Australian phycologists). Southern Australia in particular is an endemism hotspot.

Ok. Cool. So far so good. But so what? Read the rest of this entry »

生态学 = ‘Ecology’ in China

13 05 2011

I’m just heading home after a very inspiring workshop organised by Fangliang He at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China (I’m writing this from the Qantas Club in the Hong Kong airport).

Before I proceed to regale you with the salient details of the ‘International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology‘, I am compelled to state publicly that I offer my sincerest condolences to Fangliang and his family; unfortunately Fangliang’s brother passed away while we were at the workshop and so Fangliang wasn’t able to spend much time reaping the fruits of his organisational labour. If you know Fangliang, please send him a supporting email.

That sad note aside, I am delighted to say that the workshop was compelling, challenging and also rather fortuitous. I was one of many overseas invitees, and I must say that I was at times overwhelmed by the size of the brains they managed to pack into the auditorium. Many colleagues I didn’t know attended, and I hope that many will become collaborators. The international invitees were: Read the rest of this entry »


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