We treat our wildlife like vermin

24 09 2014
Just a little of the dog fence's carnage and cruelty at work.

Just a little of the dog fence’s carnage and cruelty at work.

I’ve pointed out in several posts on ConservationBytes.com just how badly Australia is doing in the environmental stakes, with massive deforestation continuing since colonial times, feral predators and herbivores blanketing the continent, inadequate protected areas, piss-weak policies and a government at war with its own environment. Despite a few recent wins in marine conservation, Australia has a dreadful track record.

Now in another monumental demonstration of stupidity, corruption and colonial-era attitudes toward native wildlife, Western Australia has outdone itself by sneaking through legislation to extend its so-called ‘Barrier Fence’ in an effort to isolate its marginal farmland from dingoes, emus and other ‘nuisance’ species.

As I and several others have pointed out before, the mere existence of the record-breaking dingo fence is not only counter-productive, it is expensive and utterly archaic. It should be torn down entirely.

Instead, the Western Australian government wants to extend the national fence, and they’ve approved the plan it without going through any of the appropriate checks in the system. Its environmental impacts have not been adequately assessed, nor has the public been given the opportunity to oppose the plans. In my view, the people responsible for this act should go to gaol.

In a recent paper led by Keith Bradby entitled Ecological connectivity or Barrier Fence? Critical choices on the agricultural margins of Western Australia, we show how the Western Australia state government has not followed any of its own environmental legislation and rushed through these idiotic proposals. If you do not subscribe to Ecological Management and Restoration, you can obtain a copy of the paper by e-mailing Keith or me. 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 »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »

More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Translocations: keep it in the family

31 10 2013
Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) comprise 5 species native to North American grasslands. Rather than a ‘dog’ (‘perrito’ or ‘little dog’ in Spanish), this animal is a squirrel (Sciuridae) adapted to ground life. In particular, black-tailed prairie dogs (C. ludovicianus) inhabit the plains between the Frenchman River in Canada and the Mexican stretches of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Individuals have a maximum length of 40 cm and weigh up to 2 kg. The global population is currently estimated at some 18 million individuals over an area that has waned by 90% relative to historical ranges. The species is IUCN ‘Least Concern’ and shows a global ‘decreasing’ trend as a result of ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban development and farming, and susceptibility to Yersinia pestis – a bacteria that causes plague in prairie dogs and other mammals including humans.Colonies, known as ‘coteries’ (from French), are made of several family clans that live in contiguous territories. Clans include one or two males, and several females and juveniles [7]. Females show strong philopatry, while males are the ones that colonise new territories, or mingle with existing clans. Such dispersion pattern, along with daughters deliberately avoiding incest, minimises inbreeding [8]. Burrows consist of >10-m tunnels in which temperatures remain between 5 and 25 ºC irrespective of above-ground temperatures. Prairie dogs are genuine landscape architects with their network of burrows largely increasing edaphic, botanic and zoological diversity [9]. The pic shows two black prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota, USA) (courtesy of Lisa Savage).

If you have lived in different suburbs, cities or even countries, you will be well aware that changing residence feels very different whether you do it on your own or with someone else. In the latter case, you might have to share tasks, and key decisions have to be made on the basis of everybody’s needs. The situation is analogous when managers decide to move a group of animals or plants from one place to another – so-called translocation.

Translocations involve human-assisted movements of organisms into an area (i) that holds an existing population of the same species (re-stocking), or (ii) where the species has been extirpated (re-introduction) or (iii) is outside its historical distribution (introduction) [1] – this terminology follows 1993 IUCN’s Criteria [1, 3], but is unstable, e.g., see [2]. The rationale behind translocations has obvious merits (e.g., to promote population growth following overharvesting, attenuate human-predator conflicts, rescue endangered species) [2]. However, translocations are complex and have a long record of failed attempts in the history of conservation biology, so the resulting waste of resources has prompted a recent re-appraisal of methods [1-3].

Debra Shier investigated the nuisances of a translocation of a social species such as the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) [4]. Shier tagged, sexed and determined (via capture-recapture and field observations) membership to identified family clans in 973 individuals from Vermejo Park (New Mexico, USA). She then introduced clans to ten dog-free sites with soil quality and vegetation cover akin to the historical distribution of the species. In five of those sites, Shier translocated family clans (4 to 7 individuals per clan) and in the other five sites she freed clans made up of members being picked up randomly (1 male, 2 females, 2 juveniles). During a period of 9-10 months after translocation, Shier monitored the behaviour of females and ultimately re-captured all introduced individuals. She found that 50% of the dogs had survived translocation, and assumed that the remainder had died since individuals rarely disperse more than three km from their natal area, and aerial surveys spotted no dogs in a four-km perimeter around the point of release.

Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation: So easy a child could do it

13 09 2013

child's playI don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.

But I’ve mentioned my daughter before on this blog, and despite a few people insinuating that I am a bad parent because of what I said, I am happy that I made the point that climate change is a scary concept of which our children must at least be cognisant.

My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.

As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).

Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors. Read the rest of this entry »

Shrinking global range projected for the world’s largest fish

7 08 2013
© W. Osborn (AIMS)

© W. Osborn (AIMS)

My recently finished PhD student, Ana Sequeira, has not only just had a superb paper just accepted in Global Change Biology, she’s recently been offered (and accepted) a postdoctoral position based at the University of Western Australia‘s Oceans Institute (in partnership with AIMS and CSIRO). As any supervisor, I’m certainly pleased when a student completes her PhD, but my pride as an academic papa truly soars when she gets her first job. Well done, Ana. This post by Ana is about her latest paper.

Following our previous whale shark work (see herehereherehere, here, here and here), especially the recent review where we inferred global connectivity and suggest possible pathways for their migration, we have now gone a step further and modelled the habitat suitability for the species at at global scale. This paper sets a nice scene regarding current habitat suitability, which also demonstrates the potential connectivity pathways we hypothesised previously. But the paper goes much further; we extend our predictions to a future scenario for 2070 when water temperatures are expected to increase on average by 2 °C.

Sequeira et al_GCB_Figure 3

Global predictions of current seasonal habitat suitability for whale sharks. Black triangles indicate known aggregation locations. Solid line delineates areas where habitat suitability > 0.1 was predicted.

Regarding the current range of whale sharks (i.e., its currently suitable habitat), we already know that whale sharks span latitudes between about 35 º North to South. We also know that this geographical range has been exceeded on several occasions. What we did not know was whether conditions were suitable enough for whale sharks to cross from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean – in other words, whether they could travel between ocean basins south of South Africa. Our global model results demonstrate that suitable habitat in this region does exist at least during the summer, thus supporting our hypotheses regarding global connectivity!

It’s true that the extensive dataset we used (30 years’ worth of whale shark sightings collected by tuna purse seiners in the three major oceans – data provided by the IRD, IOTC and SPC) has many caveats (as do all opportunistically collected data), but we went to great trouble to deal with them in this paper (you can request a copy here or access it directly here). And the overall result: the current global habitat suitability for whale sharks does agree well with current locations of whale shark occurrence, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific for where we did not have enough data to validate. Read the rest of this entry »


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