National commitment to conservation brings biodiversity benefits

16 06 2015

united-nations-dayWhat makes some conservation endeavours successful where so many fail to protect biodiversity? Or, how long is a piece of string?

Yes, it’s a difficult question because it’s not just about the biology – such as resilience and area relationships – in fact, it’s probably more about the socio-economic setting that will ultimately dictate how the biodiversity in any particular area fares in response to disturbance.

In the case of protected areas (that I’ll just refer to as ‘reserves’ for the remainder of this post), there’s been a lot of work done about the things that make them ‘work’ (or not) in terms of biodiversity preservation. Yes, we can measure investment, how much the community supports and is involved with the reserve, how much emphasis is put on enforcement, the types of management done within (and outside) of the reserves, et ceteraet cetera. All of these things can (and have to some extent) been correlated with indices of the fate of the biodiversity within reserves, such as rates and patterns of deforestation, the amount of illegal hunting, and the survival probability of particular taxa.

But the problem with these indices is that there are just indices – they probably do not encapsulate the overall ‘health’ of the biodiversity within a reserve (be that trends in the overall abundance of organisms, the resilience of the community as a whole to future disturbances, or the combined phylogenetic diversity of the ecosystem). This is because there are few long-term monitoring programmes of sufficient taxonomic and temporal breadth to summarise these components of complex ecosystems (i.e., ecology is complex). It’s no real surprise, and even though we should put a lot more emphasis on targeted, efficient, long-term biodiversity monitoring inside and outside of all major biodiversity reserves, the cold, hard truth of it is that we’ll never manage to get the required systems in place. Humanity just doesn’t value it enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Help Hawaii’s hyper-threatened birds

6 01 2015
Puaiohi or small Kaua'i thrush. Photo by Lucas Behnke

Puaiohi or small Kaua’i thrush. Photo by Lucas Behnke

You wouldn’t want to be a bird in Hawaii. There are more avian species threatened with extinction there than anywhere else in the USA. After humans arrived, some 70+ species have become extinct, and 31 are listed as threatened with extinction. In addition, 43% of 157 species are not native; among land birds, 69% are introduced species.

My friend, Cali Crampton asked me to promote their new crowdfunding project to reduce the threat of feral rats on Hawaiian birds. Please help if you can.

The Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project, a collaborative project of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the University of Hawaii Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, and Garden Island Research and Development, has announced the launch of a crowdfunding and outreach campaign to generate support for protecting the native birds of Kaua’i by controlling rats with humane, self-resetting rat traps.

The campaign, named “Birds, not Rats!” runs through to 31 January 2015, with goals of increasing awareness of the threats that rats pose to birds and native ecosystems, and raising at least $10,000 for rat control through many small, individual donations.

Hawai’i is at the epicentre of the current global extinction crisis. Of the original 130+ native Hawaiian bird species, many have been lost forever, and only 11 are not yet endangered. Today, Kaua’i is home to eight native forest bird species, three of which are federally listed as endangered: the puaiohi or small Kaua’i thrush, the akeke’e or Kaua’i akepa, and the akikiki or Kaua’i creeper. Populations of these birds have plummeted as much as 90% in the last five years; the akikiki and the puaiohi now number fewer than 500 individuals, and the akeke’e numbers fewer than 1000 individuals. The Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project’s goal is to reverse these declines. Read the rest of this entry »

An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

15 12 2014

nuclear biodiversityProfessor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia.

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  2. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  3. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  4. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  5. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA.
  6. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy.
  7. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada.
  8. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  9. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA.
  10. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  11. Professor F. Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA.
  12. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  13. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  14. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.
  15. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France.
  16. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia.
  17. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  18. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia.
  19. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.
  20. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA.
  21. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  22. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia.
  23. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
  24. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland.
  25. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  26. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA.
  27. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China.
  28. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  29. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia.
  30. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  31. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA.
  32. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  33. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  34. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom.
  35. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom.
  36. Dr Menna E. Jones, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  37. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom.
  38. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  39. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada.
  40. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA.
  41. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia.
  42. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  43. Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  44. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA.
  45. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA.
  46. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom.
  47. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia.
  48. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA.
  49. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
  50. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  51. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  52. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia.
  53. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
  54. Professor L. Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA.
  55. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland.
  56. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia.
  57. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada.
  58. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA.
  59. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA.
  60. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India.
  61. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA.
  62. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  63. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.
  64. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
  65. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia.
  66. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA.
  67. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey.
  68. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway.
  69. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  70. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  71. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom.
  72. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  73. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
  74. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  75. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA.

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.


Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. (Accessed 14 March 2014).

Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not all about cats

20 10 2014

Snake+OilIf you follow any of the environment news in Australia, you will most certainly have seen a lot about feral cats in the last few weeks. I’ve come across dozens of articles in the last week alone talking about the horrendous toll feral cats have had on Australian wildlife since European arrival. In principle, this is a good thing because finally Australians are groggily waking to the fact that our house moggies and their descendants have royally buggered our biodiversity. As a result, we have the highest mammal extinction rate of any country.

But I argue that the newfound enthusiasm for killing anything feline is being peddled mainly as a distraction from bigger environmental issues and to camouflage the complete incompetence of the current government and their all-out war on the environment.

Call me cynical, but when I read headlines like “Australia aims to end extinction of native wildlife by 2020” and Environment Minister Hunt’s recent speech that he has “… set a goal of ending the loss of mammal species by 2020“, I get more than just a little sick to the stomach.

What a preposterous load of shite. Moreover, what a blatant wool-pulling-over-the-eyes public stunt. Read the rest of this entry »

Australia should have a more vibrant ecological culture

13 10 2014
Another great social event bringing ecologists together

Another great social event bringing ecologists together

I’ve always had the gut feeling that Australia punched above its weight when it comes to ecology and conservation. For years I’ve been confidently bragging to whomever might listen (mostly at conference pub sessions) that Australians have a vibrant academic and professional community of ecologists who are internationally renowned and respected. However, my bragging was entirely anecdotal and I always qualified the boast with the caveat that I hadn’t actually looked at the numbers.

Well, I finally did look at the numbers – at least superficially. It seems that for the most part, my assertion was true. I will qualify the following results with another caveat – I’ve only looked at the smallest of samples to generate this rank, so take it with a few grains of salt. Looking at the 200 most-cited ecologists in Google Scholar (with some licence as to who qualifies as an ‘ecologist’ – for example, I ditched a few medicos), I calculated the number of ecologists in that range per 100,000 people for each country. Of course, even the country of designation is somewhat fluid and imprecise – I did not know where most had received the bulk of their training and in which country they had spent most of their time, so the numbers are (again) only indicative. Excluding countries with only one highly cited ecologist in the top 200, the sorted list comes out as: 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 »


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