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 »





50/500 or 100/1000 debate not about time frame

26 06 2014

Not enough individualsAs you might recall, Dick Frankham, Barry Brook and I recently wrote a review in Biological Conservation challenging the status quo regarding the famous 50/500 ‘rule’ in conservation management (effective population size [Ne] = 50 to avoid inbreeding depression in the short-term, and Ne = 500 to retain the ability to evolve in perpetuity). Well, it inevitably led to some comments arising in the same journal, but we were only permitted by Biological Conservation to respond to one of them. In our opinion, the other comment was just as problematic, and only further muddied the waters, so it too required a response. In a first for me, we have therefore decided to publish our response on the arXiv pre-print server as well as here on ConservationBytes.com.

50/500 or 100/1000 debate is not about the time frame – Reply to Rosenfeld

cite as: Frankham, R, Bradshaw CJA, Brook BW. 2014. 50/500 or 100/1000 debate is not about the time frame – Reply to Rosenfeld. arXiv: 1406.6424 [q-bio.PE] 25 June 2014.

The Letter from Rosenfeld (2014) in response to Jamieson and Allendorf (2012) and Frankham et al. (2014) and related papers is misleading in places and requires clarification and correction, as follows: Read the rest of this entry »





We’re sorry, but 50/500 is still too few

28 01 2014

too fewSome of you who are familiar with my colleagues’ and my work will know that we have been investigating the minimum viable population size concept for years (see references at the end of this post). Little did I know when I started this line of scientific inquiry that it would end up creating more than a few adversaries.

It might be a philosophical perspective that people adopt when refusing to believe that there is any such thing as a ‘minimum’ number of individuals in a population required to guarantee a high (i.e., almost assured) probability of persistence. I’m not sure. For whatever reason though, there have been some fierce opponents to the concept, or any application of it.

Yet a sizeable chunk of quantitative conservation ecology develops – in various forms – population viability analyses to estimate the probability that a population (or entire species) will go extinct. When the probability is unacceptably high, then various management approaches can be employed (and modelled) to improve the population’s fate. The flip side of such an analysis is, of course, seeing at what population size the probability of extinction becomes negligible.

‘Negligible’ is a subjective term in itself, just like the word ‘very‘ can mean different things to different people. This is why we looked into standardising the criteria for ‘negligible’ for minimum viable population sizes, almost exactly what the near universally accepted IUCN Red List attempts to do with its various (categorical) extinction risk categories.

But most reasonable people are likely to agree that < 1 % chance of going extinct over many generations (40, in the case of our suggestion) is an acceptable target. I’d feel pretty safe personally if my own family’s probability of surviving was > 99 % over the next 40 generations.

Some people, however, baulk at the notion of making generalisations in ecology (funny – I was always under the impression that was exactly what we were supposed to be doing as scientists – finding how things worked in most situations, such that the mechanisms become clearer and clearer – call me a dreamer).

So when we were attacked in several high-profile journals, it came as something of a surprise. The latest lashing came in the form of a Trends in Ecology and Evolution article. We wrote a (necessarily short) response to that article, identifying its inaccuracies and contradictions, but we were unable to expand completely on the inadequacies of that article. However, I’m happy to say that now we have, and we have expanded our commentary on that paper into a broader review. Read the rest of this entry »





De-extinction is about as sensible as de-death

15 03 2013

Published simultaneously in The Conversation.


On Friday, March 15 in Washington DC, National Geographic and TEDx are hosting a day-long conference on species-revival science and ethics. In other words, they will be debating whether we can, and should, attempt to bring extinct animals back to life – a concept some call “de-extinction”.

The debate has an interesting line-up of ecologists, geneticists, palaeontologists (including Australia’s own Mike Archer), developmental biologists, journalists, lawyers, ethicists and even artists. I have no doubt it will be very entertaining.

But let’s not mistake entertainment for reality. It disappoints me, a conservation scientist, that this tired fantasy still manages to generate serious interest. I have little doubt what the ecologists at the debate will conclude.

Once again, it’s important to discuss the principal flaws in such proposals.

Put aside for the moment the astounding inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life. The principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective is that it does not address the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction in the first place.

Even if we could solve all the other problems, if there is no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is a complete waste. Habitat loss is the principal driver of species extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning will not create new forests or coral reefs, for example. Read the rest of this entry »





Declining biodiversity in… your filthy mouth

18 02 2013

green teethIt still amazes me that the more we look, the more we realise just how important intact ecosystems are for our own well-being. I guess this is why I’m still a scientist.

Our latest paper that just came out today in Nature Genetics is a bit of a departure for me (again!); I really must not take much credit for this given that it was a huge effort among a big team of people and I played a comparatively minor role. Still, I can definitely say this is one of the more interesting papers I’ve co-authored in a while.

For me the involvement started after Alan Cooper (Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA) asked me for a bit of help with a cool paper he and some of his colleagues were working on. When he told me what the subject was, my initial reaction was (yawn): Dentistry? Teeth? You’ve got to be joking. Why would an ecologist be even remotely interested in that stuff? Then he went into more detail, and I was hooked.

Before I get into that detail, I have to tell you a story about a colleague of mine (name withheld, but true story) who recently went to the dentist to have some routine cleaning and maintenance done. There was nothing particularly special about his visit – no local anaesthetic, no extractions, no caps, and certainly no surgery. Two weeks later he was in the hospital theatre getting his chest cracked open for open-heart surgery. Jesus H. Christ!, I said to myself. Read the rest of this entry »





Translocations: the genetic rescue paradox

14 01 2013

helphindranceHarvesting and habitat alteration reduce many populations to just a few individuals, and then often extinction. A widely recommended conservation action is to supplement those populations with new individuals translocated from other regions. However, crossing local and foreign genes can worsen the prospects of recovery.

We are all hybrids or combinations of other people, experiences and things. Let’s think of teams (e.g., engineers, athletes, mushroom collectors). In team work, isolation from other team members might limit the appearance of innovative ideas, but the arrival of new (conflictive) individuals might in fact destroy group dynamics altogether. Chromosomes work much like this – too little or too much genetic variability among parents can break down the fitness of their descendants. These pernicious effects are known as ‘inbreeding depression‘ when they result from reproduction among related individuals, and ‘outbreeding depression‘ when parents are too genetically distant.

CB_OutbreedingDepression Photo
Location of the two USA sites providing spawners of largemouth bass for the experiments by Goldberg et al. (3): the Kaskaskia River (Mississipi Basin, Illinois) and the Big Cedar Lake (Great Lakes Basin, Wisconsin). Next to the map is shown an array of three of the 72-litre aquaria in an indoor environment under constant ambient temperature (25 ◦C), humidity (60%), and photoperiod (alternate 12 hours of light and darkness). Photo courtesy of T. Goldberg.

Recent studies have revised outbreeding depression in a variety of plants, invertebrates and vertebrates (1, 2). An example is Tony Goldberg’s experiments on largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), a freshwater fish native to North America. Since the 1990s, the USA populations have been hit by disease from a Ranavirus. Goldberg et al. (3) sampled healthy individuals from two freshwater bodies: the Mississipi River and the Great Lakes, and created two genetic lineages by having both populations isolated and reproducing in experimental ponds. Then, they inoculated the Ranavirus in a group of parents from each freshwater basin (generation P), and in the first (G1) and second (G2) generations of hybrids crossed from both basins. After 3 weeks in experimental aquaria, the proportion of survivors declined to nearly 30% in G2, and exceeded 80% in G1 and P. Clearly, crossing of different genetic lineages increased the susceptibility of this species to a pathogen, and the impact was most deleterious in G2. This investigation indicates that translocation of foreign individuals into a self-reproducing population can not only import diseases, but also weaken its descendants’ resistance to future epidemics.

A mechanism causing outbreeding depression occurs when hybridisation alters a gene that is only functional in combination with other genes. Immune systems are often regulated by these complexes of co-adapted genes (‘supergenes’) and their disruption is a potential candidate for the outbreeding depression reported by Goldberg et al. (3). Along with accentuating susceptibility to disease, outbreeding depression in animals and plants can cause a variety of deleterious effects such as dwarfism, low fertility, or shortened life span. Dick Frankham (one of our collaborators) has quantified that the probability of outbreeding depression increases when mixing takes place between (i) different species, (ii) conspecifics adapted to different habitats, (iii) conspecifics with fixed chromosomal differences, and (iv) populations free of genetic flow with other populations for more than 500 years (2).

A striking example supporting (some of) those criteria is the pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) from Auke Creek near Juneau (Alaska). The adults migrate from the Pacific to their native river where they spawn two years after birth, with the particularity that there are two strict broodlines that spawn in either even or odd year – that is, the same species in the same river, but with a lack of genetic flow between populations. In vitro mixture of the two broodlines and later release of hybrids in the wild have shown that the second generation of hybrids had nearly 50% higher mortality rates (i.e., failure to return to spawn following release) when born from crossings of parents from different broodlines than when broodlines were not mixed (4).

Read the rest of this entry »





The biggest go first

11 12 2012
© James Cameron

© James Cameron

The saying “it isn’t rocket science” is a common cliché in English to state, rather sarcastically, that something isn’t that difficult (with the implication that the person complaining about it, well, shouldn’t). But I really think we should change the saying to “it isn’t ecology”, for ecology is perhaps one of the most complex disciplines in science (whereas rocket science is just ‘complicated’). One of our main goals is to predict how ecosystems will respond to change, yet what we’re trying to simplify when predicting is the interactions of millions of species and individuals, all responding to each other and to their outside environment. It becomes quickly evident that we’re dealing with a system of chaos. Rocket science is following recipes in comparison.

Because of this complexity, ecology is a discipline plagued by a lack of generalities. Few, if any, ecological laws exist. However, we do have an abundance of rules of thumb that mostly apply in most systems. I’ve written about a few of them here on ConservationBytes.com, such as the effect of habitat patch size on species diversity, the importance of predators for maintaining ecosystem stability, and that low genetic diversity doesn’t exactly help your chances of persisting. Another big one is, of course, that in an era of rapid change, big things tend to (but not always – there’s that lovely complexity again) drop off the perch before smaller things do.

The prevailing wisdom is that big species have slower life history rates (reproduction, age at first breeding, growth, etc.), and so cannot replace themselves fast enough when the pace of their environment’s change is too high. Small, rapidly reproducing species, on the other hand, can compensate for higher mortality rates and hold on (better) through the disturbance. Read the rest of this entry »








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