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 »





An appeal to extinction chronologists

2 06 2015

u7Pi3Extinction is forever, right? Yes, it’s true that once the last individual of a species dies (apart from insane notions that de-extinction will do anything to resurrect a species in perpetuity), the species is extinct. However, the answer can also be ‘no’ when you are limited by poor sampling. In other words, when you think something went extinct when in reality you just missed it.

Most of you are familiar with the concept of Lazarus1 species – when we’ve thought of something long extinct that suddenly gets re-discovered by a wandering naturalist or a wayward fisher. In paleontological (and modern conservation biological) terms, the problem is formally described as the ‘Signor-Lipps’ effect, named2 after two American palaeontologists, Phil Signor3 and Jere Lipps. It’s a fairly simple concept, but it’s unfortunately ignored in most palaeontological, and to a lesser extent, conservation studies.

The Signor-Lipps effect arises because the last (or first) evidence (fossil or sighting) of a species presence has a nearly zero chance of heralding its actual timing of extinction (or appearance). In paleontological terms, it’s easy to see why. Fossilisation is in fact a nearly impossible phenomenon – all the right conditions have to be in place for a once-living biological organism to be fossilised: it either has to be buried quickly, in a place where nothing can decompose it (usually, an anoxic environment), and then turned to rock by the process of mineral replacement. It then has to resist transformation by not undergoing metamorphosis (e.g., vulcanism, extensive crushing, etc.). For more recent specimens, preservation can occur without the mineralisation process itself (e.g., bones or flesh in an anoxic bog). Then the bloody things have to be found by a diligent geologist or palaeontologist! In other words, the chances that any one organism is preserved as a fossil after it dies are extremely small. In more modern terms, individuals can go undetected if they are extremely rare or remote, such that sighting records alone are usually insufficient to establish the true timing of extinction. The dodo is a great example of this problem. Remember too that all this works in reverse – the first fossil or observation is very much unlikely to be the first time that the species was there. Read the rest of this entry »





Statistical explainer: average temperature increases can be deceiving

12 05 2015

Beating-the-Heat-Without-PowerOver the years I’ve used a simple graphic from the IPCC 2007 Report to explain to people without a strong background in statistics just why average temperature increases can be deceiving. If you’re not well-versed in probability theory (i.e., most people), it’s perhaps understandable why so few of us appear to be up-in-arms about climate change. I posit that if people had a better appreciation of mathematics, there would be far less inertia in dealing with the problem.

Instead of using the same image, I’ve done up a few basic graphs that explain the concept of why average increases in temperature can be deceiving; in other words, I explain why focussing on the ‘average’ projected increases will not enable you to appreciate the most dangerous aspects of a disrupted climate – the frequency of extreme events. Please forgive me if you find this little explainer too basic – if you have a modicum of probability theory tucked away in your educational past, then this will be of little insight. However, you may wish to use these graphs to explain the problem to others who are less up-to-speed than you.

Let’s take, for example, all the maximum daily temperature data from a single location compiled over the last 100 years. We’ll assume for the moment that there has been no upward trend in the data over this time. If you plot the frequency of these temperatures in, say, 2-degree bins over those 100 years, you might get something like this:

ClimateVarFig0.1

This is simply an illustration, but here the long-term annual average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius, and the standard deviation is 5 degrees. In other words, over those 100 years, the average daily maximum temperature is 25 degrees, but there were a few days when the maximum was < 10 degrees, and a few others where it was > 40 degrees. This could represent a lot of different places in the world.

We can now fit what’s known as a ‘probability density function’ to this histogram to obtain a curve of expected probability of any temperature within that range:

ClimateVarFig0.2

If you’ve got some background in statistics, then you’ll know that this is simply a normal (Gaussian) distribution. With this density function, we can now calculate the probability of any particular day’s maximum temperature being above or below any particular threshold we choose. In the case of the mean (25 degrees), we know that exactly half (p = 0.50) of the days will have a maximum temperature below it, and exactly half above it. In other words, this is simply the area under the density function itself (the total area under the entire curve = 1). Read the rest of this entry »





How things have (not) changed

13 04 2015

The other night I had the pleasure of dining with the former Australian Democrats leader and senator, Dr John Coulter, at the home of Dr Paul Willis (Director of the Royal Institution of Australia). It was an enlightening evening.

While we discussed many things, the 84 year-old Dr Coulter showed me a rather amazing advert that he and several hundred other scientists, technologists and economists constructed to alert the leaders of Australia that it was heading down the wrong path. It was amazing for three reasons: (i) it was written in 1971, (ii) it was published in The Australian, and (iii) it could have, with a few modifications, been written for today’s Australia.

If you’re an Australian and have even a modicum of environmental understanding, you’ll know that The Australian is a Murdochian rag infamous for its war on science and reason. Even I have had a run-in with its outdated, consumerist and blinkered editorial board. You certainly wouldn’t find an article like Dr Coulter’s in today’s Australian.

More importantly, this 44 year-old article has a lot today that is still relevant. While the language is a little outdated (and sexist), the grammar could use a few updates, and there are some predictions that clearly never came true, it’s telling that scientists and others have been worrying about the same things for quite some time.

In reading the article (reproduced below), one could challenge the authors for being naïve about how society can survive and even prosper despite a declining ecological life-support system. As I once queried Paul Ehrlich about some of his particularly doomerist predictions from over 50 years ago, he politely pointed out that much of what he predicted did, in fact, come true. There are over 1 billion people today that are starving, and another billion or so that are malnourished; combined, this is greater than the entire world population when Paul was born.

So while we might have delayed the crises, we certainly haven’t averted them. Technology does potentially play a positive role, but it can also increase our short-term carrying capacity and buffer the system against shocks. We then tend to ignore the indirect causes of failures like wars, famines and political instability because we do not recognise the real drivers: resource scarcity and ecosystem malfunction.

Australia has yet to learn its lesson.

To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny

We believe that western technological society has ignored two vital facts: Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIX

9 04 2015

Second batch of six biodiversity cartoons for 2015 (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »





How to contact a potential PhD supervisor

1 04 2015

It’s probably fair to say that most university-based academics regularly receive requests from people around the world wishing to be considered as prospective postgraduate students (mostly PhD). I probably receive an average of 3-4 such requests per week via e-mail, as do many of my collaborators. Unfortunately for those making the inquiry, I trash most of them almost immediately.

It’s not that I’m a (complete) bastard; rather, it seems that few of these people have given very much thought to their requests, or how they might be perceived. Indeed, I’d say that about 90% of them are one-liners that go something like this:

Dear Professor,

I wish to write you to seek for supervision towards PhD degree. If you not intersted, assist me to get other supervisor.

XX

Yes, with all the bad English, impoliteness and lack of any detail, these types of requests get deleted even before I get to the close. One recent e-mail even addressed me as “Dear Sir Hubert Wilkins …”. Sometimes, you really must wonder how some people have enough common sense even to turn on the computer.

I’m not naïve enough to think that most of these are serious requests for supervision; indeed, many of them seem to be desperate cries for help to assist people to quit their country of origin, for reasons that have nothing to do with academic pursuits.

So for those people who are genuinely seeking academic supervision, and in a vain attempt to stem the number of pointless e-mails I receive (yeah, right), I offer some tips on how to contact a potential PhD supervisor: Read the rest of this entry »





Australians: out-of-touch, urban squanderers

23 03 2015

There’s a romantic myth surrounding Australia that is pervasive both overseas and within the national psyche: this sun-scorched continent home to stoic bushmen1 that eek out a frugal, yet satisfying existence in this harsh rural land. Unfortunately that ideal is anathema to almost every Australian alive today.

While some elements of that myth do have a basis in reality – it is indeed a hot, dry, mostly inhospitable place if you count the entire land area (all 7.69 million square kilometres of it), and it does have the dubious honour of being the driest inhabited continent on Earth – most Australians live nowhere near the dry interior or the bush.

Despite our remarkably low average population density (a mere 3.09 people per square kilometre), Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, with nearly 90% of its citizenry living within a major urban centre. As a result, our largely urban/suburban, latte-sipping, supermarket-shopping population has little, if any, connection to the vast landscape that surrounds its comfortable, built-up environs. There should be little wonder then that Australians are so disconnected from their own ecology, and little surprise that our elected officials (who, after all, represent the values of the majority of the citizens they purport to represent), are doing nothing to slow the rapid flushing of our environment down the toilet. Indeed, the current government is in fact actively encouraging the pace of that destruction. Read the rest of this entry »








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