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.

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Give some flair to your scientific presentation

18 11 2014

Smoko3

As the desert spring came to the great Centre Red,
Scores of sandalled folk from tin birds descend-ed.
Alice Town had been invaded,
Bearded alike and unshorn-legged.
 
They sat and stared at words and the odd trend.
Billies boiled to get them through to day’s end
They swapped bush stories that made good sense,
Trying to understand Aussie environments.
 
One bloke‘s tales caught the punters’ attention,
So this bush poet deserves special mention.
To standard rules he would not kowtow,
So his special science verse I present to you now.

If none of that made any sense, then let me help you out. At the last Ecological Society of Australia meeting in Alice Springs, I witnessed a rather unique way to give a scientific presentation – via bush poetry. Dr. Dale Nimmo of Deakin University was particularly engaging, and he agreed to have his presentation poem reproduced here. Who said scientists were boring? Honourable mention too to Simon Watson for another audience-engaging, bush-poetry seminar (but I don’t have that to reproduce here). There also might be a slidecast of Dale’s presentation coming soon. For now, please enjoy the poetic delivery of science in text.

The Old Grey Box of Heathcote Town

Dale Nimmo

Down around old Heathcote town, just east of Bendigo,
A big old grey box tree casts an eye.
The sallee fills the understory bright as sunlights glow,
As the silvereyes and thornbills flitter by.
 
This landscape, bruised and battered from 200 years of change,
Holds the secrets of a time lost somehow.
One of Jaara land, where lowan dug and dingoes howled,
The latter two, here, just distant memories now.
 
The gold rush came like bushfire, ring barked trees fell like boughs
Of the red gums scattered on the old flood plains,
That made way for sheep and cattle, while, fighting a losing battle,
rufous bettongs were never seen again.
 
When a man of English gentry, Professor Bennett was his name,
Found the woodlands to his aristocratic tastes.
Many days he’d venture in, binoculars under his chin,
He never let a single bird call go to waste.
 
While at the old St Arnaud Inn, over a couple pints of gin,
Bennet and a bloke called Radford got to talking.
Stealing horses was his game, but he’d give it all away,
To join Bennett in woodlands, bird walking

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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 »





We treat our wildlife like vermin

24 09 2014
Just a little of the dog fence's carnage and cruelty at work.

Just a little of the dog fence’s carnage and cruelty at work.

I’ve pointed out in several posts on ConservationBytes.com just how badly Australia is doing in the environmental stakes, with massive deforestation continuing since colonial times, feral predators and herbivores blanketing the continent, inadequate protected areas, piss-weak policies and a government at war with its own environment. Despite a few recent wins in marine conservation, Australia has a dreadful track record.

Now in another monumental demonstration of stupidity, corruption and colonial-era attitudes toward native wildlife, Western Australia has outdone itself by sneaking through legislation to extend its so-called ‘Barrier Fence’ in an effort to isolate its marginal farmland from dingoes, emus and other ‘nuisance’ species.

As I and several others have pointed out before, the mere existence of the record-breaking dingo fence is not only counter-productive, it is expensive and utterly archaic. It should be torn down entirely.

Instead, the Western Australian government wants to extend the national fence, and they’ve approved the plan it without going through any of the appropriate checks in the system. Its environmental impacts have not been adequately assessed, nor has the public been given the opportunity to oppose the plans. In my view, the people responsible for this act should go to gaol.

In a recent paper led by Keith Bradby entitled Ecological connectivity or Barrier Fence? Critical choices on the agricultural margins of Western Australia, we show how the Western Australia state government has not followed any of its own environmental legislation and rushed through these idiotic proposals. If you do not subscribe to Ecological Management and Restoration, you can obtain a copy of the paper by e-mailing Keith or me. Read the rest of this entry »





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 »





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 »





Biodiversity Hotspots have nearly burnt out

10 07 2014

dying embersI recently came across a really important paper that might have flown under the radar for many people. For this reason, I’m highlighting it here and will soon write up a F1000 Recommendation. This is news that needs to be heard, understood and appreciated by conservation scientists and environmental policy makers everywhere.

Sean Sloan and colleagues (including conservation guru, Bill Laurance) have just published a paper entitled Remaining natural vegetation in the global biodiversity hotspots in Biological Conservation, and it we are presented with some rather depressing and utterly sobering data.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you’ll have at least heard of the global Biodiversity Hotspots (you can even download GIS layers for them here). From an initial 10, to 25, they increased penultimately to 34; most recently with the addition of the Forests of East Australia, we now have 35 Biodiversity Hotspots across the globe. The idea behind these is to focus conservation attention, investment and intervention in the areas with the most unique species assemblages that are simultaneously experiencing the most human-caused disturbances.

Indeed, today’s 35 Biodiversity Hotspots include 77 % of all mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species (holy shit!). They also harbour about half of all plant species, and 42 % of endemic (not found anywhere else) terrestrial vertebrates. They also have the dubious honour of hosting 75 % of all endangered terrestrial vertebrates (holy, holy shit!). Interestingly, it’s not just amazing biological diversity that typifies the Hotspots – human cultural diversity is also high within them, with about half of the world’s indigenous languages found therein.

Of course, to qualify as a Biodiversity Hotspot, an area needs to be under threat – and under threat they area. There are now over 2 billion people living within Biodiversity Hotspots, so it comes as no surprise that about 85 % of their area is modified by humans in some way.

A key component of the original delimitation of the Hotspots was the amount of ‘natural intact vegetation’ (mainly undisturbed by humans) within an area. While revolutionary 30 years ago, these estimates were based to a large extent on expert opinions, undocumented assessments and poor satellite data. Other independent estimates have been applied to the Hotspots to estimate their natural intact vegetation, but these have rarely been made specifically for Hotspots, and they have tended to discount non-forest or open-forest vegetation formations (e.g., savannas & shrublands).

So with horribly out-of-date vegetation assessments fraught with error and uncertainty, Sloan and colleagues set out to estimate what’s really going on vegetation-wise in the world’s 35 Biodiversity Hotspots. What they found is frightening, to say the least.

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