Human population size: speeding cars can’t stop quickly

28 10 2014

Stop breeding cartoon-Steve Bell 1994Here at ConservationBytes.com, I write about pretty much anything that has anything remotely to do with biodiversity’s prospects. Whether it is something to do with ancient processes, community dynamics or the wider effects of human endeavour, anything is fair game. It’s a little strange then that despite cutting my teeth in population biology, I have never before tackled human demography. Well as of today, I have.

The press embargo has just lifted on our (Barry Brook and my) new paper in PNAS where we examine various future scenarios of the human population trajectory over the coming century. Why is this important? Simple – I’ve argued before that we could essentially stop all conservation research tomorrow and still know enough to deal with most biodiversity problems. If we could only get a handle on the socio-economic components of the threats, then we might be able to make some real progress. In other words, we need to find out how to manage humans much more than we need to know about the particulars of subtle and complex ecological processes to do the most benefit for biodiversity. Ecologists tend to navel-gaze in this arena far too much.

So I called my own bluff and turned my attention to humans. Our question was simple – how quickly could the human population be reduced to a more ‘sustainable’ size (i.e., something substantially smaller than now)? The main reason we posed that simple, yet deceptively loaded question was that both of us have at various times been faced with the question by someone in the audience that we were “ignoring the elephant in the room” of human over-population.

Read the rest of this entry »





Western Australia’s moronic shark cull

4 07 2014

another stupid politicianA major media release today coordinated by Jessica Meeuwig in Western Australia makes the (obvious) point that there’s no biological justification to cull sharks.

301 Australian and International Scientists experts have today provided their submission to the Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), rejecting the scientific grounds for the proposed three-year drum-line programme.

Coordinating scientist, Professor Jessica Meeuwig from the University of Western Australia said:

“To have over 300 researchers, including some of the world’s top shark specialists and marine ecologists, all strongly agreeing that there is no scientific basis for the lethal drum-line programme, tells you how unjustified the government’s proposal is. If the EPA and the Federal Minister for the Environment are using science for decisions, the drum-line proposal should not be approved.”

The experts agree that the proposal presents no evidence that the lethal drum-line programme, as implemented, will improve ocean safety. It ignores evidence from other hook-based programs in Hawaii and Queensland that have been shown to be ineffective in reducing shark attacks on humans.

Dr. Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney stated:

“There is no evidence that drum lines reduce shark bites. The Western Australia EPA now faces a question of science versus politics with global implications because it is considering establishing a new international norm that would allow for the killing of protected white sharks.”

The drum lines are ineffective and indiscriminate, with 78% of the sharks captured not considered ‘threatening’ to humans. Yet, scientifically supported, non-lethal alternatives such as the South African ‘Shark Spotter’ and Brazil’s ‘Tag and Remove’ programmes are not adequately assessed as viable options for Western Australia. Read the rest of this entry »





School finishers and undergraduates ill-prepared for research careers

22 05 2014

bad mathsHaving been for years now at the pointy end of the educational pathway training the next generation of scientists, I’d like to share some of my observations regarding how well we’re doing. At least in Australia, my realistic assessment of science education is: not well at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but only now decided to put my thoughts into words as the train wreck of our current government lurches toward a future guaranteeing an even stupider society. Charging postgraduate students to do PhDs for the first time, encouraging a US-style system of wealth-based educational privilege, slashing education budgets and de-investing in science while promoting the belief in invisible spaghetti monsters from space, are all the latest in the Fiberal future nightmare that will change our motto to “Australia – the stupid country”.

As you can appreciate, I’m not filled with a lot of hope that the worrying trends I’ve observed over the past 10 years or so are going to get any better any time soon. To be fair though, the problems go beyond the latest stupidities of the Fiberal government.

My realisation that there was a problem has crystallised only recently as I began to notice that most of my lab members were not Australian. In fact, the percentage of Australian PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab usually hovers around 20%. Another sign of a problem was that even when we advertised for several well-paid postdoctoral positions, not a single Australian made the interview list (in fact, few Australians applied at all). I’ve also talked to many of my colleagues around Australia in the field of quantitative ecology, and many lament the same general trend.

Is it just poor mathematical training? Yes and no. Australian universities have generally lowered their entry-level requirements for basic maths, thereby perpetuating the already poor skill base of school leavers. Why? Bums (that pay) on seats. This means that people like me struggle to find Australian candidates that can do the quantitative research we need done. We are therefore forced to look overseas. Read the rest of this entry »





Ecological processes depend on …

14 05 2014
© Cagan Sekercioglu

© Cagan Sekercioglu

I have been known to say (ok – I say it all the time) that ecologists should never equivocate when speaking to the public. Whether it’s in a media release, blog post, television presentation or newspaper article, just stick to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In other words, don’t qualify your answer with some horrid statistical statement (i.e., in 95% of cases …) or say something like “… but it really depends on …”. People don’t understand uncertainty – to most people, ‘uncertainty’ means “I don’t know” or worse, “I made it all up”.

But that’s only in the movies.

In real ‘ecological’ life, things are vastly different. It’s never as straightforward as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because ecology is complex. There are times that I forget this important aspect when testing a new hypothesis with what seem like unequivocal data, but then reality always hits.

Our latest paper is the epitome of this emergent complexity from what started out as a fairly simple question using some amazing data. What makes birds change their range1? We looked at this question from a slightly different angle than had been done before because we had access to climate data, life-history data and most importantly, actual range change data. It’s that latter titbit that is typically missing from studies aiming to understand what drives species toward a particular fate; whether it’s a species distribution model predicting the future habitat suitability of some species as a function of climate change, or the past dynamics of some species related to its life history pace, most often the combined dynamics are missing. Read the rest of this entry »





Putting the ‘science’ in citizen science

30 04 2014
How to tell if a koala has been in your garden. © Great Koala Count

How to tell if a koala has been in your garden. © Great Koala Count

When I was in Finland last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Tomas Roslin and hearing him describe his Finland-wide citizen-science project on dung beetles. What impressed me most was that it completely flipped my general opinion about citizen science and showed me that the process can be useful.

I’m not trying to sound arrogant or scientifically elitist here – I’m merely stating that it was my opinion that most citizen-science endeavours fail to provide truly novel, useful and rigorous data for scientific hypothesis testing. Well, I must admit that I still believe that ‘most’ citizen-science data meet that description (although there are exceptions – see here for an example), but Tomas’ success showed me just how good they can be.

So what’s the problem with citizen science? Nothing, in principle; in fact, it’s a great idea. Convince keen amateur naturalists over a wide area to observe (as objectively) as possible some ecological phenomenon or function, record the data, and submit it to a scientist to test some brilliant hypothesis. If it works, chances are the data are of much broader coverage and more intensively sampled than could ever be done (or afforded) by a single scientific team alone. So why don’t we do this all the time?

If you’re a scientist, I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to design a good experimental sampling regime, how even more difficult it is to ensure objectivity and precision when sampling, and the fastidiousness with which the data must be recorded and organised digitally for final analysis. And that’s just for trained scientists! Imagine an army of well-intentioned, but largely inexperienced samplers, you can quickly visualise how the errors might accumulate exponentially in a dataset so that it eventually becomes too unreliable for any real scientific application.

So for these reasons, I’ve been largely reluctant to engage with large-scale citizen-science endeavours. However, I’m proud to say that I have now published my first paper based entirely on citizen science data! Call me a hypocrite (or a slow learner). 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 »





Cleaning up the rubbish: Australian megafauna extinctions

15 11 2013

diprotodonA few weeks ago I wrote a post about how to run the perfect scientific workshop, which most of you thought was a good set of tips (bizarrely, one person was quite upset with the message; I saved him the embarrassment of looking stupid online and refrained from publishing his comment).

As I mentioned at the end of post, the stimulus for the topic was a particularly wonderful workshop 12 of us attended at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern coast of New South Wales (see Point 5 in the ‘workshop tips’ post).

But why did a group of ecological modellers (me, Barry Brook, Salvador Herrando-Pérez, Fréd Saltré, Chris Johnson, Nick Beeton), ancient DNA specialists (Alan Cooper), palaeontologists (Gav Prideaux), fossil dating specialists (Dizzy Gillespie, Bert Roberts, Zenobia Jacobs) and palaeo-climatologists (Michael Bird, Chris Turney [in absentia]) get together in the first place? Hint: it wasn’t just the for the beautiful beach and good wine.

I hate to say it – mainly because it deserves as little attention as possible – but the main reason is that we needed to clean up a bit of rubbish. The rubbish in question being the latest bit of excrescence growing on that accumulating heap produced by a certain team of palaeontologists promulgating their ‘it’s all about the climate or nothing’ broken record.

Read the rest of this entry »








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