South Australia’s tattered environmental remains

16 04 2014
State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

South Australia State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

Yesterday I gave the second keynote address at the South Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) Science Conference at the University of Adelaide (see also a brief synopsis of Day 1 here). Unfortunately, I’m missing today’s talks because of an acute case of man cold, but at least I can stay at home and work while sipping cups of hot tea.

Many people came up afterwards and congratulated me for “being brave enough to tell the truth”, which both encouraged and distressed me – I am encouraged by the positive feedback, but distressed by the lack of action on the part of our natural resource management leaders.

The simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles, yet few seem to appreciate this.

So for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I’ve uploaded my slideshow for general viewing here, and I understand that a podcast might be available in the very near future. I’ve also highlighted some key points from the talk below: Read the rest of this entry »





Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. 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 »





Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation

24 01 2014

farming forestsToday I was shocked, stunned and pleasantly (for a change) surprised. Australia has its first ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon farming project.

It is understandable that this sort of news doesn’t make the Jane & Joe Bloggs of the world stand up and cheer, but it should make conservation biologists jump for bloody joy.

So why exactly am I so excited about the setting aside of a mere 9000 ha (90 km2, or 10 × 9 km) of semi-arid scrub in western New South Wales? It’s simple – nothing can replace the biodiversity or carbon value of primary forest. In other words, forest restoration – while laudable and needed – can never achieve what existing forest already does. We know now from various parts of the world that biodiversity is nearly always much higher in primary forest, and that the carbon structure of the forest (especially below-ground carbon) can take centuries to recover.

Another problem with restoration – and if you’ve ever been involved in any tree planting yourself, you’ll know what I mean – is that it’s incredibly expensive, time-consuming and slow. Wouldn’t it make more financial sense just to save forests instead of trying to rebuild them?

Of course it is, so the logical conclusion from a conservation perspective is to save primary forest first, then worry about restoration next. The problem is, there are few, if any, financial incentives for keeping forests standing in the private sector. The stumbling rise of the carbon economy is a potential resolution to this problem, although neither the Kyoto Protocol nor most national carbon-trading schemes adequately account for the carbon value of existing forests.

Up until today, even Australia didn’t have any examples.

Read the rest of this entry »





King for a day – what conservation policies would you make?

29 11 2013

CrownI have been thinking a lot lately about poor governance and bad choices when it comes to biodiversity conservation policy. Perhaps its all that latent anger arising from blinkered, backward policies recently implemented by conservative state and national governments in Australia and elsewhere that leads me to contemplate: What would I do if I had the power to change policy?

While I am certain I have neither the experience or complete knowledge to balance national budgets, ensure prosperity and maintain the health of an entire country, I do have some ideas about what we’re doing wrong conservation-wise, and how we could potentially fix things. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list – it is more a discussion point where people can suggest their own ideas.

So here are 16 things I’d change or implement (mainly in Australia) if I were king for a day:

Read the rest of this entry »





Translocations: keep it in the family

31 10 2013
CB_Translocations_Photo
Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) comprise 5 species native to North American grasslands. Rather than a ‘dog’ (‘perrito’ or ‘little dog’ in Spanish), this animal is a squirrel (Sciuridae) adapted to ground life. In particular, black-tailed prairie dogs (C. ludovicianus) inhabit the plains between the Frenchman River in Canada and the Mexican stretches of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Individuals have a maximum length of 40 cm and weigh up to 2 kg. The global population is currently estimated at some 18 million individuals over an area that has waned by 90% relative to historical ranges. The species is IUCN ‘Least Concern’ and shows a global ‘decreasing’ trend as a result of ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban development and farming, and susceptibility to Yersinia pestis – a bacteria that causes plague in prairie dogs and other mammals including humans.Colonies, known as ‘coteries’ (from French), are made of several family clans that live in contiguous territories. Clans include one or two males, and several females and juveniles [7]. Females show strong philopatry, while males are the ones that colonise new territories, or mingle with existing clans. Such dispersion pattern, along with daughters deliberately avoiding incest, minimises inbreeding [8]. Burrows consist of >10-m tunnels in which temperatures remain between 5 and 25 ºC irrespective of above-ground temperatures. Prairie dogs are genuine landscape architects with their network of burrows largely increasing edaphic, botanic and zoological diversity [9]. The pic shows two black prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota, USA) (courtesy of Lisa Savage).

If you have lived in different suburbs, cities or even countries, you will be well aware that changing residence feels very different whether you do it on your own or with someone else. In the latter case, you might have to share tasks, and key decisions have to be made on the basis of everybody’s needs. The situation is analogous when managers decide to move a group of animals or plants from one place to another – so-called translocation.

Translocations involve human-assisted movements of organisms into an area (i) that holds an existing population of the same species (re-stocking), or (ii) where the species has been extirpated (re-introduction) or (iii) is outside its historical distribution (introduction) [1] – this terminology follows 1993 IUCN’s Criteria [1, 3], but is unstable, e.g., see [2]. The rationale behind translocations has obvious merits (e.g., to promote population growth following overharvesting, attenuate human-predator conflicts, rescue endangered species) [2]. However, translocations are complex and have a long record of failed attempts in the history of conservation biology, so the resulting waste of resources has prompted a recent re-appraisal of methods [1-3].

Debra Shier investigated the nuisances of a translocation of a social species such as the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) [4]. Shier tagged, sexed and determined (via capture-recapture and field observations) membership to identified family clans in 973 individuals from Vermejo Park (New Mexico, USA). She then introduced clans to ten dog-free sites with soil quality and vegetation cover akin to the historical distribution of the species. In five of those sites, Shier translocated family clans (4 to 7 individuals per clan) and in the other five sites she freed clans made up of members being picked up randomly (1 male, 2 females, 2 juveniles). During a period of 9-10 months after translocation, Shier monitored the behaviour of females and ultimately re-captured all introduced individuals. She found that 50% of the dogs had survived translocation, and assumed that the remainder had died since individuals rarely disperse more than three km from their natal area, and aerial surveys spotted no dogs in a four-km perimeter around the point of release.

Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation: So easy a child could do it

13 09 2013

child's playI don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.

But I’ve mentioned my daughter before on this blog, and despite a few people insinuating that I am a bad parent because of what I said, I am happy that I made the point that climate change is a scary concept of which our children must at least be cognisant.

My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.

As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).

Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors. Read the rest of this entry »





MPs’ ignorance puts national parks in peril

30 08 2013

greedyLed by Bill Laurance, our latest opinion editorial in the Higher Education supplement. Interestingly, it has already spawned a bilious and spittle-flecked response by Queensland’s Acting National Parks Minister, Tim Mander. Given the evidence, who’s side do you take? I’m happy that at least one of the worst culprit state governments is at least now paying some attention to the issue.

LAST week the world was appalled when Ecuador decided to open up one of its iconic national parks for petroleum development, with Leonardo di Caprio being among the chorus of dissenting voices. Yet the world should be even more disappointed in Australia, a far wealthier nation whose parks could be facing even worse threats.

Why is Australia going down this reckless path? It’s all down to the state governments – especially in Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

For the conservative politicians currently holding sway in these States, it seems it’s time to generate some quick cash while cutting park budgets – and never mind the impact on Australia’s imperilled ecosystems and biodiversity.

In Victoria, for instance, land developers are now being allowed to build hotels and other ventures in national parks. In NSW, recreational shooting and possibly logging will be allowed in parks if new legislation is passed. In NSW’s marine parks, bans on shore-based recreational fishing are being lifted [see previous post here].

Other parks in NSW and Queensland are being opened up to livestock grazing. In Morrinya National Park in Queensland, a strip of forest 20 km long was recently cleared for fencing, with new stock-watering tanks being established throughout the park. Read the rest of this entry »





Shrinking global range projected for the world’s largest fish

7 08 2013
© W. Osborn (AIMS)

© W. Osborn (AIMS)

My recently finished PhD student, Ana Sequeira, has not only just had a superb paper just accepted in Global Change Biology, she’s recently been offered (and accepted) a postdoctoral position based at the University of Western Australia‘s Oceans Institute (in partnership with AIMS and CSIRO). As any supervisor, I’m certainly pleased when a student completes her PhD, but my pride as an academic papa truly soars when she gets her first job. Well done, Ana. This post by Ana is about her latest paper.

Following our previous whale shark work (see herehereherehere, here, here and here), especially the recent review where we inferred global connectivity and suggest possible pathways for their migration, we have now gone a step further and modelled the habitat suitability for the species at at global scale. This paper sets a nice scene regarding current habitat suitability, which also demonstrates the potential connectivity pathways we hypothesised previously. But the paper goes much further; we extend our predictions to a future scenario for 2070 when water temperatures are expected to increase on average by 2 °C.

Sequeira et al_GCB_Figure 3

Global predictions of current seasonal habitat suitability for whale sharks. Black triangles indicate known aggregation locations. Solid line delineates areas where habitat suitability > 0.1 was predicted.

Regarding the current range of whale sharks (i.e., its currently suitable habitat), we already know that whale sharks span latitudes between about 35 º North to South. We also know that this geographical range has been exceeded on several occasions. What we did not know was whether conditions were suitable enough for whale sharks to cross from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean – in other words, whether they could travel between ocean basins south of South Africa. Our global model results demonstrate that suitable habitat in this region does exist at least during the summer, thus supporting our hypotheses regarding global connectivity!

It’s true that the extensive dataset we used (30 years’ worth of whale shark sightings collected by tuna purse seiners in the three major oceans – data provided by the IRD, IOTC and SPC) has many caveats (as do all opportunistically collected data), but we went to great trouble to deal with them in this paper (you can request a copy here or access it directly here). And the overall result: the current global habitat suitability for whale sharks does agree well with current locations of whale shark occurrence, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific for where we did not have enough data to validate. Read the rest of this entry »





Saving world’s most threatened cat requires climate adaptation

23 07 2013
© CSIC Andalusia Audiovisual Bank/H. Garrido

© CSIC Andalusia Audiovisual Bank/H. Garrido

The Iberian lynx is the world’s most threatened cat, with recent counts estimating only 250 individuals surviving in the wild. Recent declines of Iberian lynx have been associated with sharp regional reductions in the abundance of its main prey, the European rabbit, caused mainly by myxomatosis virus and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. At present, only two Iberian lynx populations persist in the wild compared with nine in the 1990s.

Over €90 million has been spent since 1994 to mitigate the extinction risk of this charismatic animal, mainly through habitat management, reduction of human-caused mortality and, more recently, translocation. Although lynx abundance might have increased in the last ten years in response to intensive management, a new study published in Nature Climate Change warns that the ongoing conservation strategies could buy just a few decades before the species goes extinct.

The study led by Damien Fordham from The Environment Institute (The University of Adelaide) and Miguel Araújo from the Integrative Biogeography and Global Change Group (Spanish Research Council) shows that climate change could lead to a rapid and severe decrease in lynx abundance in coming decades, and probably result in its extinction in the wild within 50 years. Current management efforts could be futile if they do not take into account the combined effects of climate change, land use and prey abundance on population dynamics of the Iberian Lynx.

Read the rest of this entry »





Relaxed laws imperil Australian wildlife

28 06 2013
Christmas Island pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus murrayi). © M. Schultz

Christmas Island pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus murrayi). © M. Schultz

On the continuing theme of the demise of laws designed to protect Australian biodiversity (see here, here and here), I’m reproducing our latest Nature Correspondence on the issue. I know this might be slightly dodgy to do so, but given that it’s only a Correspondence, I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble. Besides, it’s too important an issue to hide away behind paywalls.

Policy and legislative changes by Australia’s state governments are eroding the vital protection of the country’s unique biodiversity.

Reserves are being opened up to ecologically disruptive activities, such as grazing by domestic livestock, logging, mining, recreational hunting and fishing, and commercial development. Protected habitats on private and leasehold land are imperilled too. Queensland and Victoria, for example, are relaxing hard-won laws that limit vegetation clearance on private land, further accelerating the loss of regional biodiversity.

Collectively, these actions increase the pressure on biodiversity conservation in protected areas, many of which are already showing biodiversity loss (for example, the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia). Ecological connectivity is being lost, which will hamper the dispersal of species and their ability to respond to climate-change effects. Read the rest of this entry »





Australia’s national parks aren’t ‘national’ at all

14 06 2013

Yarra-Ranges-National-Park-AustraliaFollowing our The Conversation article a few weeks ago about the rapid demise of national parks in Australia, a few of us (me, Euan Ritchie & Emma Johnston) wrote a follow-up piece on the Australia’s national park misnomer (published simultaneously on The Conversation).

Australia boasts over 500 national parks covering 28 million hectares of land, or about 3.6% of Australia. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re doing well in the biodiversity-conservation game.

But did you know that of those more than 500 national parks, only six are managed by the Commonwealth Government? For marine parks, it’s a little more: 61 of the 130-plus are managed primarily by the Commonwealth. This means that the majority of our important biodiversity refuges are managed exclusively by state and territory governments. In other words, our national parks aren’t “national” at all.

In a world of perfect governance, this wouldn’t matter. But we’re seeing the rapid “relaxation” of laws designed to protect our “national” and marine parks by many state governments. Would making all of them truly national do more to conserve biodiversity?

One silly decision resulting in a major ecosystem disturbance in a national park can take decades if not hundreds of years to heal. Ecosystems are complex interactions of millions of species that take a long time to evolve – they cannot be easily repaired once the damage is done.

Almost overnight, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have rolled back nearly two centuries of park protection. What’s surprising here is that many of our conservation gains in the last few decades (for example, the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Reserve System, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and anational marine reserve network) originated from Coalition policies. Read the rest of this entry »





Our national parks must be more than playgrounds or paddocks

24 05 2013

Convo TweetsIt’s interesting when a semi-random tweet by a colleague ends up mobilising a small army of scientists to get pissed off enough to co-write an article. Euan Ritchie of Deakin University started it off, and quickly recruited me, Mick McCarthy, David Watson, Ian Lunt, Hugh Possingham, Bill Laurance and Emma Johnston to put together the article. It’s a hugely important topic, so I hope it generates a lot of discussion and finally, some bloody action to stop the rapid destruction of this country’s national parks system.

Note: Published simultaneously on The Conversation.

It’s make or break time for Australia’s national parks.

National parks on land and in the ocean are dying a death of a thousand cuts, in the form of bullets, hooks, hotels, logging concessions and grazing licences. It’s been an extraordinary last few months, with various governments in eastern states proposing new uses for these critically important areas.

Australia’s first “National Park”, established in 1879, was akin to a glorified country club. Now called the “Royal National Park” on the outskirts of Sydney, it was created as a recreational escape for Sydney-siders, with ornamental plantations, a zoo, race courses, artillery ranges, livestock paddocks, deer farms, logging leases and mines.

Australians since realised that national parks should focus on protecting the species and natural landscapes they contain. However, we are now in danger of regressing to the misguided ideals of the 19th Century.

Parks under attack

In Victoria, new rules will allow developers to build hotels and other ventures in national parks. In New South Wales, legislation has been introduced to allow recreational shooting in national parks, and there is pressure to log these areas too. Read the rest of this entry »





Software tools for conservation biologists

8 04 2013

computer-programmingGiven the popularity of certain prescriptive posts on ConservationBytes.com, I thought it prudent to compile a list of software that my lab and I have found particularly useful over the years. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it will give you a taste for what’s out there. I don’t list the plethora of conservation genetics software that is available (generally given my lack of experience with it), but if this is your chosen area, I’d suggest starting with Dick Frankham‘s excellent book, An Introduction to Conservation Genetics.

1. R: If you haven’t yet loaded the open-source R programming language on your machine, do it now. It is the single-most-useful bit of statistical and programming software available to anyone anywhere in the sciences. Don’t worry if you’re not a fully fledged programmer – there are now enough people using and developing sophisticated ‘libraries’ (packages of functions) that there’s pretty much an application for everything these days. We tend to use R to the exclusion of almost any other statistical software because it makes you learn the technique rather than just blindly pressing the ‘go’ button. You could also stop right here – with R, you can do pretty much everything else that the software listed below does; however, you have to be an exceedingly clever programmer and have a lot of spare time. R can also sometimes get bogged down with too much filled RAM, in which case other, compiled languages such as PYTHON and C# are useful.

2. VORTEX/OUTBREAK/META-MODEL MANAGER, etc.: This suite of individual-based projection software was designed by Bob Lacy & Phil Miller initially to determine the viability of small (usually captive) populations. The original VORTEX has grown into a multi-purpose, powerful and sophisticated population viability analysis package that now links to its cousin applications like OUTBREAK (the only off-the-shelf epidemiological software in existence) via the ‘command centre’ META-MODEL MANAGER (see an examples here and here from our lab). There are other add-ons that make almost any population projection and hindcasting application possible. And it’s all free! (warning: currently unavailable for Mac, although I’ve been pestering Bob to do a Mac version).

3. RAMAS: RAMAS is the go-to application for spatial population modelling. Developed by the extremely clever Resit Akçakaya, this is one of the only tools that incorporates spatial meta-population aspects with formal, cohort-based demographic models. It’s also very useful in a climate-change context when you have projections of changing habitat suitability as the base layer onto which meta-population dynamics can be modelled. It’s not free, but it’s worth purchasing. Read the rest of this entry »





Food for sex

18 03 2013
Quercus_KakFeed Photo
Kakapo are unique among the ~ 400 parrot species (Psittaciformes) for being flightless, nocturnal and extremely long-lived (up to 100 years!). Additionally, they are herbivorous (seeds, fruits, polen, plants), males can weigh up to 2-4 kg (40% heavier than females), and females lay their eggs on the ground or cavities – i.e., 3 eggs in a single clutch annually, although 2 clutches might occur if the nest fails at the beginning of the reproductive season or if the eggs are taken for artificial incubation.Native to New Zealand, kakapo once inhabited the subalpine fringes of forest and scrub. Polynesians (1000 years ago) and Europeans (mostly in the XIX Century) arrived in the archipelago accompanied by dogs, cats, rats and mustelids that cornered kakapo populations in the Fiordland region (south-west of the South Island) where it was declared extinct in 1989. In 1977, a population of some 200 individuals was found on Stewart Island - this population was already in decline to the claws and jaws of feral cats. By the 1980s, the failure of captive breeding programs prompted the transfer of 60 individuals from Steward to carnivore-free islands. The global (known) population ‘rocketed’ from 50 individuals in 1999 to 126 in the 2012 censuses and, consequently, the kakapo’s IUCN status changed in 2000 from ‘Extinct in the Wild’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. Under the management of the Kakapo Recovery Programme, kakapo are now present on the islands of CodfishAnchor and Little Barrier.

Inbreeding, system shocks caused by fire or cyclones (for example), or demographic stochasticity (by which two or more outcomes are possible) such as how many males and females will be born in a single year, are all factors that threaten the persistence of small and fragmented populations. They can, however, be reverted by conservation actions.

If you have ever taken dancing classes, you will be familiar with the scarcity of male partners and how this can jeopardize group learning. When reproduction, rather than salsa pirouettes, is at stake, a biased sex ratio can compromise the persistence of species. For instance, when females are unable to find males (or vice versa), fertility rates can collapse as a result – a well-known cause of an Allee effect (1). Curiously, natural selection can promote such bias by favouring a species’ investment in litters dominated by one of the two genders. The evolutionary formulation of such scenario is that females can adjust the sex ratio of their offspring depending on the amount of available resources (2) – see contrasting cross-taxa studies on this subject (3-5). Thus, when resources abound (e.g., food), mothers can afford the offspring’s gender requiring more resources to reach adulthood or once adulthood is reached, is less likely to reproduce successfully (6). This predisposition to one gender or another can be key to the conservation of endangered species (7).

The kakapo case

At the end of the 1990s, the New Zealand Department of Conservation placed dispensers of supplementary food in the territories of some kakapo (a rather enormous, flightless parrot Strigops habroptilus) to encourage their reproduction. Back then, only 60 individuals were left of the entire species . Unfortunately, those females with access to the supplemental food conceived 67% of male chicks (so exacerbating the fact that kakapo populations are naturally male-biased), while those females without extra feeding had 71% of female chicks (8). Something wasn’t working. Read the rest of this entry »





Brave new green world: biodiversity’s response to Australia’s carbon economy

12 03 2013

carbon farming 2I’ve had a busy weekend entertaining visiting colleagues and participating in WOMADelaide‘s first-ever ‘The Planet Talks‘. If you haven’t heard of WOMADelaide, you’re truly missing out in one of the best music festivals going (and this is from a decidedly non-festival-going sort). Planet Talks this year was a bit of an experiment after the only partially successful Earth Station festival held last year (it was well-attended, but apparently wasn’t as financially successful as they had hoped). So this year they mixed a bit of science with a bit of music – hence ‘Planet Talks’. Paul Ehrlich was one of the star attractions, and I had the honour of going onstage with him yesterday to discuss a little bit about human population growth and sustainability. It was also great to see Robyn Williams again. All the Talks were packed out – indeed, I was surprised they were so popular, especially in the 39-degree heat. Rob Brookman, WOMADelaide’s founder and principal organiser, told me afterward that they’d definitely be doing it again.

But my post really isn’t about WOMADelaide or The Planet Talks (even though I got the bonus of meeting one of my favourite latin bands, Novalima, creators of one of my favourite songs). It’s instead about a paper I heralded last year that’s finally been accepted.

In early 2012 at the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) symposium in Adelaide, the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) put on what they called the ‘Grand Challenges’ workshop. I really didn’t get the joke at the time, but apparently the ‘grand challenge’ was locking 30 scientists with completely different backgrounds in a room for two days to see if they could do anything other than argue and bullshit. Well, we rose to that challenge and produced something that I think is rather useful.

I therefore proudly introduce the paper entitled Brave new green world: consequences of a carbon economy for the conservation of Australian biodiversity just accepted in Biological Conservation. The online version isn’t quite ready yet (should be in the next few weeks), but you are welcome to request a preprint from me now. If you attended (the surprisingly excellent) TERN symposium in Canberra last month, you might have seen me give a brief synopsis of our results.

The paper is a rather  in-depth review of how we, 30 fire, animal, plant, soil, landscape, agricultural and freshwater biologists, believe Australia’s new carbon-influenced economy (i.e., carbon price) will impact the country’s biodiversity. 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 »





Protected areas work, but only when you put in the effort

15 11 2012

Apologies for the delay in getting this latest post out. If you read my last one, you’ll know that I’ve been in the United Kingdom for the last week. I’m writing this entry in the train down from York to Heathrow, from which I’ll shortly begin the gruelling 30-hour trip home to Adelaide.

Eight days on the other side of the planet is a bit of a cyclonic trip, but I can honestly say that it was entirely worth it. My first port of call was London where I attended the Zoological Society of London’s Protected Areas Symposium, which is the main topic on which I’ll elaborate shortly.

But I also visited my friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Parr at the University of Liverpool, where I also had the pleasure of talking with Rob Marrs and Mike Begon. Liverpool was also where I first observed the habits of a peculiar, yet extremely common species – the greater flabby, orange-skinned, mini-skirted, black-eyed scouser. Fascinating.

I then had the privilege and serendipitous indulgence of visiting the beautiful and quaint city of York where I gave another talk to the Environment Department at the University of York. My host, Dr. Kate Arnold was simply lovely, and I got to speak with a host of other very clever people including Callum Roberts, Phil Platts, Andy Marshall and Murray Rudd. Between the chats and real ales, mushy peas, pork pies and visits to the Minster, I was in north English heaven.

Enough of the cultural compliments – the title of this post was the take-home message of the ZSL symposium. There I gave a 25-minute talk summarising our recent paper on the performance of tropical protected areas around the globe, and added a few extra analyses in the process. One interesting result that was missing from the original paper was the country-level characteristics that explain variation in protected area ‘health’ (as we defined it in the Nature paper). After looking at a number of potential drives, including per-capita wealth, governance quality, environmental performance, human population density and the proportion of high conservation-value protected areas (IUCN Ia, Ib, II and IV categories), it came out that at least at that coarse country scale that only the proportion of high conservation-value protected areas explained any additional variation in health. In other words, the more category Ia, Ib, II and IV protected areas a country has (relative to the total), the better their protected areas do on average (and remember, we’re talking largely about developing and tropical nations here). Read the rest of this entry »





Toothed conflict

1 11 2012

Left: An Anatolian shepherd (a Turkish breed improved in the USA) guiding a herd of boer goats whose flesh is much appreciated by people in Namibia and South Africa. Right: A cheetah carrying a radio-transmitter, within a project assessing range movements of this feline for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetahs refrain from moving close to the herds when the latter are looked after by the guardian dogs. Photos courtesy of Laurie Marker.

Another corker from Salva. He’s chosen a topic this week that’s near and dear to my brain – the conservation of higher-order predators. As ConBytes readers will know, we’ve talked a lot about human-predator conflict and the inevitable losers in that battle – the (non-human) predators. From dingos to sharks, predator xenophobia is just another way we weaken ecosystems and ultimately harm ourselves.

Rural areas devoted to livestock are part of the natural landscape, so it is inevitable (as well as natural) that predators, livestock and humans interact in such a mosaic of bordering habitats. However, their coexistence remains an unresolved conservation problem. 

When two species, people, political parties, enterprises… want the same thing, they either share it (if possible) or one side eliminates the competitor. The fact that proteins are part of the diet of humans and other carnivore species has resulted in a trophic drama that goes back millennia. Nowadays, predators like eagles, coyotes, lions, wolves and raccoons are credited for attacks on cattle and poultry (and people!) in all continents. This global problem is not only economic, but interlaces culture, emotion, policy and sanitation (1-4). For instance, some carnivores are reservoirs of cattle diseases and contribute to pathogen dispersal (5, 6).

Management options

Managers of natural resources have implemented three strategies to handle these sorts of issues for livestock breeders in general (7). Those strategies can be complementary or exclusive on a case-by-case basis, and are chosen following cost-benefit assessments and depending on the conservation status of the predator species involved. (i) ‘Eradication’ aims to eliminate the predator, which is regarded as noxious and worthless. (ii) ‘Regulation’ allows controlled takes under quota schemes, normally for pre-defined locations, dates and killing methods. ‘Preservation’ is applied in protected areas and/or for rare or endangered species, and often requires monitoring and measures set to prevent illegal harvest or trade. Additionally, many livestock breeders receive money to compensate losses to predators (8).

Many experts now advocate non-lethal (preventive) measures that modify the behaviour of people, livestock or predators (2, 7). The use of livestock-guarding dogs is one of those preventive measures (9). As an example, Laurie Marker (director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund) et al. (10) studied the use of 117 Anatolian shepherds adopted by Namibian rangers between 1995 and 2002 (Fig. 1). In this African country, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) selectively forage on small-sized cattle and juveniles. Despite this feline being protected nationally, Namibian laws authorise rangers to shoot cheetahs in situations of risk to people and their properties, with more than 6,000 cheetahs having been killed in the 1980s alone (11). Through face-to-face interviews, Marker found that since the arrival of the Anatolian shepherds, > 70 % of the rangers perceived a pronounced reduction in cattle mortality (10). Although, the use of livestock-guarding dogs has worked out fine in many places worldwide, it is no panacea. In many other instances, the dogs dissuade some predator species and not others from harassing the livestock, or are only effective in combination with other measures (7, 9). Read the rest of this entry »





Tropical protected areas still in trouble

8 10 2012

© P. Harris

There’s nothing like a bit of good, intelligent and respectful debate in science.

After the publication in Nature of our paper on tropical protected areas (Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas), some interesting discussion has ensued regarding some of our assumptions and validations.

As is their wont, Nature declined to publish these comments (and our responses) in the journal itself, but the new commenting feature at Nature.com allowed the exchange to be published online with the paper. Cognisant that probably few people will read this exchange, Bill Laurance and I decided to reproduce them here in full for your intellectual pleasure. Any further comments? We’d be keen to hear them.

COMMENT #1 (by Hari Sridhar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore)

In this paper, Laurance and co-authors have tapped the expert opinions of ‘veteran field biologists and environmental scientists’ to understand the health of protected areas in the tropics worldwide. This is a novel and interesting approach and the dataset they have gathered is very impressive. Given that expert opinion can be subject to all kinds of biases and errors, it is crucial to demonstrate that expert opinion matches empirical reality. While the authors have tried to do this by comparing their results with empirical time-series datasets, I argue that their comparison does not serve the purpose of an independent validation.

Using 59 available time-series datasets from 37 sources (journal papers, books, reports etc.), the authors find a fairly good match between expert opinion and empirical data (in 51/59 cases, expert opinion matched empirically-derived trend). For this comparison to serve as an independent validation, it is crucial that the experts were unaware of the empirical trends at the time of the interviews. However, this is unlikely to be true because, in most cases, the experts themselves were involved in the collection of the time-series datasets (at least 43/59 to my knowledge, from a scan of references in Supplementary Table 1). In other words, the same experts whose opinions were being validated were involved in collection of the data used for validation.

OUR RESPONSE (William F. Laurance, Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Susan G. Laurance)

Sridhar raises a relevant point but one that, on careful examination, does not weaken our validation analysis. Read the rest of this entry »








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