Making science matter

14 10 2013
© XKCD

© XKCD

I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »





I fucking love biodiversity

18 06 2013
© G. Gallice

© G. Gallice

A corker of an idea, and post, from Diogo Veríssimo.

I don’t like biodiversity. I like beef lasagna, I like the British museum and I like everything Jules Verne ever wrote. When it comes to biodiversity, it’s different. I think about it all the time, try to be close to it and suffer emotional distress when I think of it going irretrievably away. This is LOVE.

Understanding how to get this passion across effectively has always been one of my main goals. That is why my research has focused on the links between marketing and conservation. But recently I started feeling a bit more empowered to take this mission seriously, and all thanks to the Facebook page I fucking love Science. This page became an internet sensation amassing more than 5 million fans and engaging frequently over 4 million users in any given week. Forget the New York Times and National Geographic, this is the real deal.

So I wondered, why can’t I do the same for biodiversity? The idea lingered in my head until I read a recent paper by McCallum and Bury on Google search patterns, which shows how even during the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity we are failing to mainstream biodiversity and its associated issues. If fact, people seem to be less interested. Whatever we are doing is clearly not working. So why not give this concept a try? And so I fucking love Biodiversity (IFLB) was born.

Read the rest of this entry »





Advice for getting your dream job in conservation science

4 12 2012

people management

A few weeks ago I heard from an early-career researcher in the U.S. who had some intelligent things to say about getting jobs in conservation science based on a recent Conservation Biology paper she co-wrote. Of course, for all the PhDs universities are pumping out into the workforce, there will never be enough positions in academia for them all. Thus, many find their way into non-academic positions. But – does a PhD in science prepare you well enough for the non-academic world? Apparently not.

Many post-graduate students don’t start looking at job advertisements until we are actually ready to apply for a job. How often do we gleam the list of required skills and say, “If only I had done something to acquire project management skills or fundraising skills, then I could apply for this position…”? Many of us start post-graduate degrees assuming that our disciplinary training for that higher degree will prepare us appropriately for the job market. In conservation science, however, many non-disciplinary skills (i.e., beyond those needed to be a good scientist) are required to compete successfully for non-academic positions. What are these skills?

Our recent paper in Conservation Biology (Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers) sifted through U.S. job advertisements and quantified how often different skills are required across three job sectors: nonprofit, government and private. Our analysis revealed that several non-disciplinary skills are particularly critical for job applicants in conservation science. The top five non-disciplinary skills were project management, interpersonal, written communication, program leadership and networking. Approximately 75% of the average job advertisement focused on disciplinary training and these five skills. In addition, the importance of certain skills differed across the different job sectors.

Below, we outline the paper’s major findings with regard to the top five skills, differences among sectors, and advice for how to achieve appropriate training while still in university. Read the rest of this entry »





Why do conservation scientists get out of bed?

1 10 2012

Don’t be distracted © motivatedphotos.com

I have, on many occasions, been faced with a difficult question after giving a public lecture. The question is philosophical in nature (and I was never very good at philosophy – just ask my IB philosophy teacher), hence its unusually complicated implications. The question goes something like this:

Given what you know about the state of the world – the decline in biodiversity, ecosystem services and our own health and welfare – how do you manage to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

Yes, I can be a little, shall we say, ‘gloomy’ when I give a public lecture; I don’t tend to hold back much when it comes to just how much we’ve f%$ked over our only home, or why we continue to shit in our own (or in many cases, someone else’s) kitchen. It’s not that I get some sick-and-twisted pleasure out of seeing people in the front row shake their heads and ‘tsk-tsk’ their way through my presentation, but I do feel that as an ‘expert’ (ascribe whatever meaning to that descriptor you choose), I have a certain duty to inform non-experts about what the data say.

And if you’ve read even a handful of the posts on this site, you’ll understand that picture I paint isn’t full of roses and children’s smiling faces. A quick list of recent posts might remind you:

And so on. I agree – pretty depressing. Read the rest of this entry »





Arguing for scientific socialism in ecology funding

26 06 2012

What makes an ecologist ‘successful’? How do you measure ‘success’? We’d all like to believe that success is measured by our results’ transformation of ecological theory and practice – in a conservation sense, this would ultimately mean our work’s ability to prevent (or at least, slow down) extinctions.

Alas, we’re not that good at quantifying such successes, and if you use the global metric of species threats, deforestation, pollution, invasive species and habitat degradation, we’ve failed utterly.

So instead, we measure scientific ‘success’ via peer-reviewed publications, and the citations (essentially, scientific cross-referencing) that arise from these. These are blunt instruments, to be sure, but they are really the only real metrics we have. If you’re not being cited, no one is reading your work; and if no one is reading you’re work, your cleverness goes unnoticed and you help nothing and no one.

A paper I just read in the latest issue of Oikos goes some way to examine what makes a ‘successful’ ecologist (i.e., in terms of publications, citations and funding), and there are some very interesting results. Read the rest of this entry »





Biodiversity begins at home

20 01 2011

A few months ago I was involved in a panel discussion entitled ‘Biodiversity begins at home’ held at the Royal Institution of Australia in Adelaide and sponsored by the Don Dunstan Foundation.

The main thrust of the evening was to have both academic (me & Andy Lowe) and on-the-ground, local conservationists (Sarah Lance, Craig Gillespie and Matt Turner) talk about what people can do to stem the tide of biodiversity loss. The video is now available, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. We talked about a lot of issues (from global to local scale), so if you have a spare hour, you might get something out of this. I did, but it certainly wasn’t long enough to discuss such big issues.

Warning – this was supposed to be more of a discussion and less of a talkfest; unfortunately, many of the panel members seemed to forget this and instead dominated the session. We really needed 4 hours to do this properly (but then, who would have watched the video?).

Read the rest of this entry »





They always whinge about the maths

18 11 2010

If you don’t know what a differential equation is, you are not a scientist” – Hugh Possingham 2009

At the end of 2009 I highlighted a new book edited by good mates Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich, Conservation Biology for All, in which Barry Brook and I had written a chapter. Now, despite my vested interest, I thought (and still think) that it was one of the best books on conservation biology yet published, and the subsequent reviews appear to be validating my subjective opinion.

I’ve given snippets of the book’s contents, from Paul Ehrlich‘s editorial on the human population’s rising negative influences on biodiversity, to a more detailed synopsis of our chapter, The Conservation Biologist’s Toolbox, and I’ve reproduced a review printed in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The latest review by Nicole Gross-Camp of the University of East Anglia published in Ecology is no less flattering – in fact, it is the most flattering to date. So this is by no means a whinge about a whinge; rather, consider it an academic lament followed by a query. First, the review:

Reaching higher in conservation

If a book could receive a standing ovation—this one is a candidate. Sodhi and Ehrlich have created a comprehensive introduction to conservation biology that is accessible intellectually, and financially, to a broad audience—indeed it is Conservation biology for all. The book is divided into 16 chapters that can stand alone and are complementary when read in sequence. The authors make excellent use of cross citations of chapters, a useful and often overlooked feature in texts of this nature. In the introductory chapter, Sodhi and Ehrlich eloquently summarize the gravity of the conservation crisis and still retain an optimistic outlook that encourages the reader to continue. I particularly found their recognition of population growth, consumption, and ethics in the conservation arena refreshing and a step toward what will likely become the next major issues of discussion and research in the conservation field. Read the rest of this entry »





Make your conservation PhD relevant

23 04 2010

The other day I was approached by two PhD candidates from James Cook University in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies who requested I publish a short article they put together on making conservation PhDs relevant while achieving academic excellence. I’m delighted to say that I found the article very well written and topical, so I am pleased to present it in full here.

© J. Cham

Make your conservation PhD relevant – bridging the research-implementation gap

Duan Biggs & Tom Brewer

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

A recent paper, in Biotropica’s special issue on bridging the research-implementation gap (Duchelle et al. 2009) included examples of postgraduate students in the University of Florida’s Tropical Conservation and Development Program contributing to knowledge exchange with local stakeholders. The authors argue that this experience, during training, enables postgraduate students to develop their skills to confront the elaborate set of management and policy issues that will be present through their careers. We agree with Duchelle and her co-authors’ arguments, but believe that further discussion is required on finding the balance between the requirements of academic training and knowledge sharing with conservation stakeholders at the PhD level specifically.

Earning a PhD requires a novel theoretical contribution to a specific field of knowledge, and the practical value or contribution of that knowledge is of secondary importance, or irrelevant. Therefore, finding synergies between the requirements of academia and knowledge sharing can be particularly challenging at the PhD level. Yet, we believe that in an applied science like conservation, the quality of research and training will be enhanced through being more explicit about how to synergise a scientific contribution worthy of a PhD degree with related practical skills like knowledge sharing. In support of our argument, we propose the following six questions that PhD candidates, together with their academic supervisors, can consider during research design to enhance their contribution to knowledge exchange whilst meeting the requirements of academic training: Read the rest of this entry »





Few people, many threats – Australia’s biodiversity shame

31 07 2009

bridled_nailtail_400I bang on a bit about human over-population and how it drives biodiversity extinctions. Yet, it isn’t always hordes of hungry humans descending on the hapless species of this planet  – Australia is a big place, but has few people (just over 20 million), yet it has one of the higher extinction rates in the world. Yes, most of the country is covered in some fairly hard-core desert and most people live in or near the areas containing the most species, but we have an appalling extinction record all the same.

A paper that came out recently in Conservation Biology and was covered a little in the media last week gives some telling figures for the Oceania region, and more importantly, explains that we have more than enough information now to implement sound, evidence-based policy to right the wrongs of the past and the present. Using IUCN Red List data, Michael Kingsford and colleagues (paper entitled Major conservation policy issues for biodiversity in Oceania), showed that of the 370 assessed species in Australia, 80 % of the threatened ones are listed because of habitat loss, 40 % from invasive species and 30 % from pollution. As we know well, it’s mainly habitat loss we have to control if we want to change things around for the better (see previous relevant posts here, here & here).

Kingsford and colleagues proceed to give a good set of policy recommendations for each of the drivers identified:

Habitat loss and degradation

  • Implement legislation, education, and community outreach to stop or reduce land clearing, mining, and unsustainable logging through education, incentives, and compensation for landowners that will encourage private conservation
  • Establish new protected areas for habitats that are absent or poorly represented
  • In threatened ecosystems (e.g., wetlands), establish large-scale restoration projects with local communities that incorporate conservation and connectivity
  • Establish transparent and evidence-based state of environment reporting on biodiversity and manage threats within and outside protected areas.
  • Protect free-flowing river systems (largely unregulated by dams, levees, and diversions) within the framework of the entire river basin and increase environmental flows on regulated rivers

Invasive species

  • Avoid deliberate introduction of exotic species, unless suitable analyses of benefits outweigh risk-weighted costs
  • Implement control of invasive species by assessing effectiveness of control programs and determining invasion potential
  • Establish regulations and enforcement for exchange or treatment of ocean ballast and regularly implement antifouling procedures

Climate change

  • Reduce global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Identify, assess, and protect important climate refugia
  • Ameliorate the impacts of climate change through strategic management of other threatening processes
  • Develop strategic plans for priority translocations and implement when needed

Overexploitation

  • Implement restrictions on harvest of overexploited species to maintain sustainability
  • Implement an ecosystem-based approach for fisheries, based on scientific data, that includes zoning the ocean; banning destructive fishing; adopting precautionary fishing principles that include size limits, quotas, and regulation with sufficient resources based on scientific assessments of stocks and; reducing bycatch through regulation and education
  • Implement international mechanisms to increase sustainability of fisheries by supporting international treaties for fisheries protection in the high seas; avoiding perverse subsidies and improve labelling of sustainable fisheries; and licensing exports of aquarium fish
  • Control unsustainable illegal logging and wildlife harvesting through local incentives and cessation of international trade

Pollution

  • Decrease pollution through incentives and education; reduce and improve treatment of domestic, industrial, and agriculture waste; and rehabilitate polluted areas
  • Strengthen government regulations to stop generation of toxic material from mining efforts that affects freshwater and marine environments
  • Establish legislation and regulations and financial bonds (international) to reinforce polluter-pays principles
  • Establish regulations, education programs, clean ups, labelling, and use of biodegradable packaging to reduce discarded fishing gear and plastics

Disease

  • Establish early-detection programs for pathological diseases and biosecurity controls to reduce translocation
  • Identify causes, risk-assessment methods, and preventative methods for diseases
  • Establish remote communities of organisms (captive) not exposed to disease in severe outbreaks

Implementation

  • Establish regional population policies based on ecologically sustainable human population levels and consumption
  • Ensure that all developments affecting the environment are adequately analysed for impacts over the long term
  • Promote economic and societal benefits from conservation through education
  • Determine biodiversity status and trends with indicators that diagnose and manage declines
  • Invest in taxonomic understanding and provision of resources (scientific and conservation) to increase capacity for conservation
  • Increase the capacity of government conservation agencies
  • Focus efforts of nongovernmental organisations on small island states on building indigenous capacity for conservation
  • Base conservation on risk assessment and decision support
  • Establish the effectiveness of conservation instruments (national and international) and their implementation

A very good set of recommendations that I hope we can continue to develop within our governments.

CJA Bradshaw

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Conservation Scholars: Paul Ehrlich

4 07 2009

The Conservation Scholars series highlights leaders in conservation science and includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on each person’s particular area of expertise.

paulehrlichOur thirteenth Conservation Scholar could easily be placed on the ‘Grandfather of Conservation Biology’ pedestal – Paul Ehrlich. He really needs little introduction, but I’m honoured to do so here for those few wayward souls who don’t know about him. I had the immense pleasure of having lunch with Paul last week at Stanford University and found him to be immensely entertaining and stimulating. I’ve not yet worked with the ‘Grandfather’ (although I do have a chapter ‘in press’ in a book he has co-edited with Navjot Sodhi due out later this year), but I do hope I get the opportunity soon. Introducing one of the more thought-provoking scientists today, Paul Ehrlich (WARNING: you will probably feel inadequate after reading his bio).

Biography

Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University. He has been a member of the Stanford University faculty since 1959. His research focuses on population biology (including ecology, evolutionary biology, behaviour, and human ecology and cultural evolution). Ehrlich has carried out field, laboratory and theoretical research on a wide array of problems ranging from the dynamics and genetics of insect populations, studies of the ecological and evolutionary interactions of plants and herbivores, and the behavioural ecology of birds and reef fishes, to experimental studies of the effects of crowding on human beings and studies of rates of cultural evolution. He collaborates with colleagues in biology and in the disciplines of economics, psychology, political science, and the law, in policy research on the human predicament.

As a writer, Ehrlich is prolific. He has authored and coauthored some 950 scientific papers and articles in the popular press and over 35 books, including The Population Bomb, The Process of Evolution, Ecoscience, The Machinery of Nature, Extinction, Earth, The Science of Ecology, The Birder’s Handbook, New World/New Mind, The Population Explosion, Healing the Planet, Birds in Jeopardy, The Stork and the Plow, Betrayal of Science and Reason, A World of Wounds, Human Natures, Wild Solutions, On the Wings of Checkerspots, One with Nineveh and The Dominant Animal. Ehrlich is a member of many scientific societies and organisations, serving as director or board member for many; and was President of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He is an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society. Among his many other honours: the First AAAS/Scientific American Prize for Science in the Service of Humanity; the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity (an explicit replacement for the Nobel Prize for disciplines where the Nobel is not given); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship; the Volvo Environment Prize; and the International Center for Tropical Ecology, World Ecology Medal; International Ecology Institute Prize; UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the Heinz Award for the Environment; the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences; the Blue Planet Prize of the Asahi Glass Foundation, Japan; the Eminent Ecologist award of the Ecological Society of America and the Ramon Margalef Prize for Ecology and Environmental Sciences. Ehrlich has appeared as a guest on many hundreds of TV and radio programs including some 20 on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; he also was a correspondent for NBC News. In addition, he has given hundreds of public lectures in the past 40 years.

Major Publications

Questions and Answers

1. There have been many estimates of our changes to ‘background’ extinction rates. How much and in what ways do you believe humanity is changing  biodiversity extinction patterns?

The major ways we are accelerating rates of both population extinctions (most important because they reduce ecosystem services and presage species extinctions) include:

  1. Continuing land-use change, especially in aid of agriculture (including biofuels production), leading to habitat fragmentation and destruction,
  2. Causing ever greater climate disruption,
  3. Dispersing increasing quantities of toxic substances, especially those which are hormone mimics and may have non-linear dose-response curves,
  4. Moving organisms into areas they did not previously occupy.

The drivers of all of this are, of course, human population growth, over-consumption by the rich, and the continuing use of environmentally malign technologies.

2. Your famous 1968 scenarios in The Population Bomb have been highly contentious over the years. The events you envisaged may not have eventuated yet, but we still seem to be headed towards over-population and resource depletion. Since your last major book on this issue, The Population Explosion in 1990, how would you update your views now?

Signs of potential collapse, environmental and political, seem to be growing, many elements going in the same directions as suggested by The Population Bomb scenarios (which were explicitly stated not to be predictions): famine, disease, resource wars, etc. The pattern remains classic – population grows to the limits of current technologies to support it, followed by technological innovation (e.g., long canals in Mesopotamia, green revolution in India, biofuels in Brazil and U.S.) accompanied by more population growth and environmental deterioration, while politicians and elites fail to recognise the basic situation and focus on expanding their own wealth and power. The current failure to do anything serious about climate disruption is an instructive example.

On the population side, it is clear that avoiding collapse would be a lot easier if humanity could entrain a gradual population decline toward an optimal number. Our group’s analysis of what that optimum population size might be like came up with 1.5 to 2 billion, less than one third of what it is today. We attempted to find a number that would maximise human options – enough people to have large, exciting cities and still maintain substantial tracts of wilderness for the enjoyment of outdoors enthusiasts and hermits. Even more important would be the ability to maintain sustainable agricultural systems and the crucial life support services from natural ecosystems that humanity is so dependent upon. But too many people, especially those in positions of power, remain blissfully unaware of that dependence.

The Population Bomb certainly had its flaws, which is to be expected. Science never produces certainty. Nonetheless, we are all, scientists or not, always attempting to predict the future (will the stock go up or down? Will he be a good husband? Will it rain later?). And when we plan, we do the best we can. One of our personal strategies has always been to have our work reviewed carefully by other scientists, and The Population Bomb and Population Explosion were certainly no exceptions. Both were vetted by a series of scientists, including top leaders in the scientific enterprise. That is one reason that long ago the fundamental message of The Bomb moved from a somewhat heterodox view to a nearly consensus view of the scientific community. Consider the following two 1993 statements. The first was the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (1993) and signed by more than 1500 of the world’s leading scientists, including more than half of all living Nobel Laureates in science. The second was the joint statement by 58 of academies participating in the Population Summit of the World’s Scientific Academies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and the Third World Academy.

The World Scientists’ Warning said in part: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.”

Part of the Academies’ pronouncement read: “the magnitude of the threat… is linked to human population size and resource use per person. Resource use, waste production and environmental degradation are accelerated by population growth. They are further exacerbated by consumption habits.… With current technologies, present levels of consumption by the developed world are likely to lead to serious negative consequences for all countries…. As human numbers further increase, the potential for irreversible changes of far-reaching magnitude also increases.”

These statements recognised that humanity has reached a dangerous turning point in its domination of the planet, a view even more common in the scientific community today. The same genius that allowed us to achieve that dominance now must be harnessed if we are to prevent our very success from sealing our doom. When The Population Bomb was written I was very optimistic about what could be done to avoid collapse and pessimistic about what humanity would do. Now I’m optimistic about what could be done, but very, very pessimistic about what will be done.

3. What would be the best ways to manage human over-population?

Work much harder to give women education, job opportunities, access to safe contraception and back-up abortion, and equal rights — world wide. The most overpopulated nation — third in numbers and first among large countries in per-capita consumption — the United States should recognise its impacts on Earth’s life-support systems and develop a comprehensive population policy.

4. Raising awareness in people to value species intrinsically has failed to curtail extinctions. Economic valuing of biodiversity and ecosystem services is another approach, but we still seem to be a long way off. What else can we do to convince people not to destroy biodiversity?

This is basically a problem of public education and changing the course of cultural evolution. We know more than enough science to know what directions humanity should be moving; the problems is now in the academic ballpark of the social sciences and humanity. A group of scholars is trying to get a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB) going. It is still in a very preliminary stage — among other things to initiate a global discussion among peoples on what people or for and how they can deal with the human predicament.

CJA Bradshaw

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To market, to market, to buy a fat… fish

4 05 2009

An interesting new paper just appeared online (uncorrected proof stage) in Biological Conservation. Brewer and colleagues’ paper entitled Thresholds and multiple scale interaction of environment, resource use, and market proximity on reef fishery resources in the Solomon Islands describes how the proximity of fish markets explains some of the variation in fisheries takes on South Pacific coral reefs. Well, that may seem intuitive, you say – if you can’t access even a local market, chances are your fish will only feed you and your immediate family. Make an economic link to a larger pool of demanding consumers, and you have all the incentive you need to over-exploit your little patch of finned money.

Of course, the advent of better, more efficient transport (including refrigerated transport) and the development of local markets (i.e., tapping into larger ones in more populated areas) has inevitably caused fish depletions across the globe. Brewer and colleagues’ work provides a quantitative link between human demand and biodiversity decline (including ‘fishing down the web‘), and suggests that our best way to manage fisheries is to target the source of this demand – the markets and patterns of consumption. Ultimately, it’s the consumer that will dictate what does and what does not go extinct (see also previous post on consumer preferences for rare species). After all, if there’s a demand, someone will step in to provide the resource (provided it’s still there). Better education, smarter consumption and regulation along the entire chain will be far more effective in the long run than just attempting to control the fishers’ behaviour.

CJA Bradshaw

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E.O. Wilson inspires the next generation of biodiversity experts

6 03 2009

Something to ponder over the long weekend. The venerable E.O. Wilson inspires us to continue the scientific and sociological revolution he started decades ago.

more about “E.O. Wilson inspires the next generat…“, posted with vodpod




Get serious about understanding biodiversity

3 03 2009

Sometimes I realise I live inside something of a bubble where most of my immediate human contacts have a higher-than-average comprehension of basic life science (after all, I work at a university). I often find myself surprised when I overhear so-called ‘lay’ people discussing whether or not penguins are fish, or that environmental awareness is just a pre-occupation of deluded greenies with nothing better to do.

If only it were so innocuous.

I found a great little article in the Canberra Times that laments the populace’s general ignorance of natural and environmental sciences. In my view, we must be as ecologically literate as we are in economics, maths and literature (and as the rapidly changing climate stresses even our most resilient resources and systems, I argue it will become THE most important thing to teach the young).

I’ve reproduced the Canberra Times article by Rossyln Beeby below:

“You don’t have to look, you don’t have to see, you can feel it in your olfactory,” sang Loudon Wainwright in a chirpy song about skunk roadkill back in the 1970s.

Likewise, it could be argued that if, as claimed, 5000 eastern grey kangaroos have died of starvation “in one season” at a Federal department of defence training site in Canberra, our noses would know about it. Do the maths. Even if 5000 kangaroos had died in one year, that’s roughly 14 animals a day, building to 98 carcasses a week. There would be, as one kangaroo ecologist dryly observed, “a murder of crows” descending on the site. If we interpret “one season” as three months, the carcass count would be over 1600 a month – which would amount to a serious health hazard for any troops using the training site as well as a unique waste disposal problem. Let’s be blunt here, as well as a murder of crows, the decaying corpses would also attract a buzz of blowflies and a heave of maggots.

Can this estimate be accurate? Or does it simply reveal the usual flaw in using walked ground surveys, or line transects, to estimate kangaroo numbers? This accuracy of this method, and the correction factors required, have been debated since the mid-1980s. These issues were the subject of a paper published in the “Australian Zoologist” almost a decade ago, which argues a case for aerial surveys to gain a better estimate of kangaroo numbers.

And are kangaroos starving at the site? If such large numbers are dying over such a short period, then are we in fact looking at a fatal virus – similar to outbreaks recently reported in northern NSW – which attacks the brain and eyes of kangaroos. Or a macropod alphaherpes virus – similar to that now attacking the immune system of koalas – which was identified in nasal swabs taken from eastern grey kangaroos that died in captivity in Queensland. Has someone done the necessary pathology?

Research in universities across Australia is revealing that macropod biology – that’s the biology of more than 50 species of creatures that are usually lumped, by the unobservant, into the generic category of “kangaroo” – is far more complex than previously thought. Recent developments include the revelation that climate change is affecting the breeding patterns of red kangaroos. Heat stress is killing young animals, because they need to work harder – an increased rate of shallow panting and bigger breaths – to cool their bodies. The late Alan Newsome, a senior CSIRO researcher, also did pioneering research that found high temperatures reduced the fertility of male red kangaroos. Has anyone looked at the impact of temperature extremes on mortality rates in eastern greys? Is there a link between drought and increased gut parasite burdens?

Wildlife ecology should not be the domain of popular myth, casual speculation or media manipulation. It is a serious science, requiring mathematically based field work, an understanding of environmental complexities and a formidable intellect. At its best, it’s an enthralling, exhilarating science that’s right up there with the best of astronomy and quantum physics. It’s not about patting critters and taking a stroll through the bush.

As a nation, our politicians are mostly woefully uninformed about our biodiversity, and as a recent Australian Audit office report pointed out, our policy makers often are not fully across the complexities of environmental issues. Does anyone remember that episode of “The West Wing” (it’s in the second series) where the White House deputy chief of staff (Josh Lyman) and the communications director (the usually erudite Toby Ziegler) are describing one of America’s 12 subspecies of lynx as “a kind of possum’” when briefing the president on an emerging environmental issue? There’s also an episode where Josh (a character with a formidable knowledge of political systems) is struggling to establish the difference between a panda and a koala.

Given Australia’s vulnerability to climate change, we can’t afford this kind of muddle-headed confusion among our environmental policy makers.





The yob factor in conservation

29 09 2008

I believe that I am like most people when I say that I am generally annoyed by, but can live with, the yob (a.k.a. bogan, booner, westie, bevan, chigger, chav) culture pervading our society. I can live with the hooning (Why do they believe that pressing the foot 1 cm closer to the floor increases their perceived virility? I extend my curled little finger in response), bad music, mullets (indeed, those are just plain entertainment), their appalling diet, smoking and fashion statements (even more entertaining), and I can even live with their conservative political perspectives. After all, we live in an open and democratic society where one can choose to live anywhere within the yob-wanker spectrum (apologies to T.I.S.M.).

What I find more problematic is the overt anti-environmentalism the yob culture embraces. Sure, every time the petrol price notches up, I smile inside just a little bit at every unheard curse emanating from yobs around the country as they painfully fill their petrol-sucking yob cars with the latest in potential GHG emissions (small justices are hard won). But the real problem lies in the over-exploitation of our already stressed environments from some of our less-than-conscientious fisher friends. Not all recreational fishers are the kind that sport the classic ‘I Fish and I Vote’ stickers (also very amusing1) on the back of their utes, nor are they all convinced that fishing is an inalienable right granted by Poseidon himself. But a lot are.

Case in point, I found this little nugget in a certain state government’s ‘Recreational Fishing Guide‘ by a prominent producer of those petrol-guzzling yob cars:

Excuse me? Yes, you read correctly, the STATE GOVERNMENT’S Recreational Fishing Guide.

Is this really the kind of mentality that the state government is trying to promote amongst its recreational fishing community? Do we really believe that recreational fishing is so innocuous that plainly ridiculous acts that flout even the state’s own regulations are to be encouraged? I’d like to think otherwise, but I am clearly aware that there is high probability that I’ve hit the nail on the head.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fished many times myself and grew up with a father who would avoid any lake where another person was fishing just to have another lake to himself. I like fish and enjoy eating freshly caught ones when I can (which is not very often because I do not own a boat or fishing gear).

So, what’s the problem? This brings me to the core of this post and the reason I started with the uncharacteristic rant. Most fisheries around the world are already in big trouble (see previous post on this subject here), so when the number of intense-use recreational fishers is high, we have recipe for disaster.

A paper by Cooke & Cowx that appeared in 2004 entitled The role of recreational fishing in global fish crises gets my vote for the Potential list here at ConservationBytes.com. This paper identified that recreational fishing could account for as much as 12 % of the global fish harvest and lead to severe declines in fish populations, especially where participation is high and commercial fisheries operate in tandem. Again, a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Lewin and colleagues in 2006 reiterated the point and demonstrated that recreational fishing must be tightly managed and good practices encouraged to avoid localised depletions and population declines.

So when state agencies encourage yobs to behave in ways our little advert implies (I can hear the ‘YEAHS and ‘WOOHOOS’ too clearly), we are failing to manage our tragic common goods correctly and to promote good practice. Indeed, for the very reason that good behaviour ensures a longer and more fulfilling future of angling for everyone, shouldn’t we be promoting the ‘less-is-more’ mantra more aggressively?

CJA Bradshaw

1I’ve always wondered about how people who put ‘I XXXX and I Vote’ stickers on their cars work through the logic. I eat toast and I vote, and I like rugby and I vote, and I detest listening to country music and I vote. I just ‘vote’ for the least idiotic of the choices presented before me at each election.

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