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 »





A fairer way to rank conservation and ecology journals in 2014

1 08 2014

Normally I just report the Thomson-Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge Impact Factors for conservation-orientated journals each year, with some commentary on the rankings of other journals that also publish conservation-related material from time to time (see my lists of the 2008200920102011 and 2012 Impact Factor rankings).

This year, however, I’m doing something different given the growing negativity towards Thomson-Reuters’ secretive behaviour (which they’ve promised this year to rectify by being more transparent) and the generally poor indication of quality that the Impact Factor represents. Although the 2013 Impact Factors have just been released (very late this year, for some reason), I’m going to compare them to the increasingly reputable Google Scholar Journal Metrics, which intuitively make more sense to me, are transparent and turn a little of the rankings dogma on its ear.

In addition to providing both the Google metric as well as the Impact Factor rankings, I’ve come up with a composite (average) rank from the two systems. I think ranks are potentially more useful than raw corrected citation metrics because you must first explicitly set your set of journals to compare. I also go one step further and modify the average ranking with a penalty term that is essentially the addition of the coefficient of variation of rank disparity between the two systems.

Read on for the results.

Read the rest of this entry »





Time to put significance out of its misery

28 07 2014

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll be no stranger to my views on what I believe is one of the most abused, and therefore now meaningless, words in scientific writing: ‘significance’ and her adjective sister, ‘significant’. I hold that it should be stricken entirely from the language of science writing.

Most science writing has become burdened with archaic language that perhaps at one time meant something, but now given the ubiquity of certain terms in most walks of life and their subsequent misapplication, many terms no longer have a precise meaning. Given that good scientific writing must ideally strive to employ the language of precision, transparency and simplicity, now-useless terminology should be completely expunged from our vocabulary.

‘Significance’ is just such a term.

Most interviews on radio or television, most lectures by politicians or business leaders, and nearly all presentations by academics at meetings of learned societies invoke ‘significant’ merely to add emphasis to the discourse. Usually it involves some sort of comparison – a ‘significant’ decline, a ‘significant’ change or a ‘significant’ number relative to some other number in the past or in some other place, and so on. Rarely is the word quantified: how much has the trend declined, how much did it change and how many is that ‘number’? What is ‘significant’ to a mouse is rather unimportant to an elephant, so most uses are as entirely subjective qualifiers employed to add some sort of ‘expert’ emphasis to the phenomenon under discussion. To most, ‘significant’ just sounds more authoritative, educated and erudite than ‘a lot’ or ‘big’. This is, of course, complete rubbish because it is the practice of using big words to hide the fact that the speaker isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is.

While I could occasionally forgive non-scientists for not quantifying their use of ‘significance’ because they haven’t necessarily been trained to do so, I utterly condemn scientists who use the word that way. We are specifically trained to quantify, so throwing ‘significant’ around without a very clear quantification (it changed by x amount, it declined by 50 % in two years, etc.) runs counter to the very essence of our discipline. To make matters worse, you can often hear a vocal emphasis placed on the word when uttered, along with a patronising hand gesture, to make that subjectivity even more obvious.

If you are a scientist reading this, then you are surely waiting for my rationale as to why we should also ignore the word’s statistical meaning. While I’ve explained this before, it bears repeating. Read the rest of this entry »





Another 589 scientists speak out against Abbott’s war on the environment

22 07 2014

ATBC_logo_largeI’m currently in Cairns at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation‘s Annual Conference where scientists from all over the world have amassed for get the latest on tropical ecology and conservation. Unfortunately, all of them have arrived in an Australia different to the one they knew or admired from afar. The environmental devastation unleashed by the stupid policies of the Abbottoir government has attracted the attention and ire of some of the world’s top scientists. This is what they have to say about it (with a little help from me):

ASSOCIATION FOR TROPICAL BIOLOGY AND CONSERVATION

RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF STRONGER LAWS FOR CLIMATE-CHANGE MITIGATION AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN AUSTRALIA

Australia has many trees, amphibians, and reptiles that are unique, being found nowhere else on Earth. Northern Australia contains a disproportionate amount of this biodiversity which occurs in little developed areas, parks and reserves, indigenous titled lands, and community-managed lands.

Whilst Australia’s achievements in protecting some of its remaining native forests, wildlife and wilderness are applauded, some 6 million hectares of forest have been lost since 2000. Existing forest protection will be undermined by weak climate change legislation, and poorly regulated agricultural and urban development.

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world’s largest organisation dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems, is concerned about recent changes in Australia’s environmental regulations, reduced funding for scientific and environmental research, and support for governmental and civil society organisations concerned with the environment. 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 »








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