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 »





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 »





Ghosts of bottlenecks past

25 05 2012

© D. Bathory

I’ve just spent the last week at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern NSW coast for my third Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) (see previous post about my last ACEAS workshop).

This workshop is a little different to my last one, and I’m merely a participant (not the organiser) this time. Alan Cooper and members of his Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (Jeremy Austin, Vicki Thomson & Julien Soubrier) combined forces this week with Craig Mortiz, Margaret Byrne, Steve Donnellan, Tania Laity, Leo Joseph, Xander Xue and Gabriele Cybis. Our task was to examine the mounting evidence that many Australian species appear to show a rather shallow genetic pool from a (or several) major past bottlenecks.

What’s a ‘bottleneck’? In reference to the form after which it was named, a genetic bottleneck is the genetic diversity aftermath after a population declines to a small size and then later expands. The history of this reduction and subsequent expansion is written in the DNA, because inevitably gene ‘types’ are lost as most individuals shuffle off this mortal coil. In a way, it’s like losing a large population of people who all speak different languages – inevitably, you’d lose entire languages and the recovering population would grow out of a reduced ‘pool’ of languages, resulting in fewer overall surviving languages.

Our workshop focus started, as many scientific endeavours do, rather serendipitously. Several years ago, Jeremy Austin noticed that devils who had died out on the mainland several thousand years ago had a very low genetic diversity, as do modern-day devils surviving in Tasmania. He thought it was odd because they should have had more on the mainland given that was their principal distribution prior to Europeans arriving. He mentioned this in passing to Steve Donnellan one day and Steve announced that he had seem the same pattern in echidnas. Now, echidnas cover most of Australia’s surface, so that was equally odd. Then they decided to look at another widespread species – tiger snakes, emus, etc. – and found in many of them, the same patterns were there. Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation catastrophes

22 02 2012

David Reed

The title of this post serves two functions: (1) to introduce the concept of ecological catastrophes in population viability modelling, and (2) to acknowledge the passing of the bloke who came up with a clever way of dealing with that uncertainty.

I’ll start with latter first. It came to my attention late last year that a fellow conservation biologist colleague, Dr. David Reed, died unexpectedly from congestive heart failure. I did not really mourn his passing, for I had never met him in person (I believe it is disingenuous, discourteous, and slightly egocentric to mourn someone who you do not really know personally – but that’s just my opinion), but I did think at the time that the conservation community had lost another clever progenitor of good conservation science. As many CB readers already know, we lost a great conservation thinker and doer last year, Professor Navjot Sodhi (and that, I did take personally). Coincidentally, both Navjot and David died at about the same age (49 and 48, respectively). I hope that the being in one’s late 40s isn’t particularly presaged for people in my line of business!

My friend, colleague and lab co-director, Professor Barry Brook, did, however, work a little with David, and together they published some pretty cool stuff (see References below). David was particularly good at looking for cross-taxa generalities in conservation phenomena, such as minimum viable population sizes, effects of inbreeding depression, applications of population viability analysis and extinction risk. But more on some of that below. Read the rest of this entry »





Better SAFE than sorry

30 11 2011

Last day of November already – I am now convinced that my suspicions are correct: time is not constant and in fact accelerates as you age (in mathematical terms, a unit of time becomes a progressively smaller proportion of the time elapsed since your birth, so this makes sense). But, I digress…

This short post will act mostly as a spruik for my upcoming talk at the International Congress for Conservation Biology next week in Auckland (10.30 in New Zealand Room 2 on Friday, 9 December) entitled: Species Ability to Forestall Extinction (SAFE) index for IUCN Red Listed species. The post also sets a bit of the backdrop to this paper and why I think people might be interested in attending.

As regular readers of CB will know, we published a paper this year in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment describing a relatively simple metric we called SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) that could enhance the information provided by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for assessing relative extinction threat. I won’t go into all the detail here (you can read more about it in this previous post), but I do want to point out that it ended up being rather controversial.

The journal ended up delaying final publication because there were 3 groups who opposed the metric rather vehemently, including people who are very much in the conservation decision-making space and/or involved directly with the IUCN Red List. The journal ended up publishing our original paper, the 3 critiques, and our collective response in the same issue (you can read these here if you’re subscribed, or email me for a PDF reprint). Again, I won’t go into an detail here because our arguments are clearly outlined in the response.

What I do want to highlight is that even beyond the normal in-print tête-à-tête the original paper elicited, we were emailed by several people behind the critiques who were apparently unsatisfied with our response. We found this slightly odd, because many of the objections just kept getting re-raised. Of particular note were the accusations that: Read the rest of this entry »





Not magic, but necessary

18 10 2011

In April this year, some American colleagues of ours wrote a rather detailed, 10-page article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that attacked our concept of generalizing minimum viable population (MVP) size estimates among species. Steve Beissinger of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the paper’s co-authors, has been a particularly vocal adversary of some of the applications of population viability analysis and its child, MVP size, for many years. While there was some interesting points raised in their review, their arguments largely lacked any real punch, and they essentially ended up agreeing with us.

Let me explain. Today, our response to that critique was published online in the same journal: Minimum viable population size: not magic, but necessary. I want to take some time here to summarise the main points of contention and our rebuttal.

But first, let’s recap what we have been arguing all along in several papers over the last few years (i.e., Brook et al. 2006; Traill et al. 2007, 2010; Clements et al. 2011) – a minimum viable population size is the point at which a declining population becomes a small population (sensu Caughley 1994). In other words, it’s the point at which a population becomes susceptible to random (stochastic) events that wouldn’t otherwise matter for a small population.

Consider the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), a formerly widespread and abundant North Atlantic species that was reduced by intensive hunting throughout its range. How did it eventually go extinct? The last remaining population blew up in a volcanic explosion off the coast of Iceland (Halliday 1978). Had the population been large, the small dent in the population due to the loss of those individuals would have been irrelevant.

But what is ‘large’? The empirical evidence, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, is that large = thousands, not hundreds, of individuals.

So this is why we advocate that conservation targets should aim to keep at or recover to the thousands mark. Less than that, and you’re playing Russian roulette with a species’ existence. Read the rest of this entry »








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