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 »





Rocking the scientific boat

14 12 2012
© C. Simpson

© C. Simpson

One thing that has simultaneously amused, disheartened, angered and outraged me over the past decade or so is how anyone in their right mind could even suggest that scientists band together into some sort of conspiracy to dupe the masses. While this tired accusation is most commonly made about climate scientists, it applies across nearly every facet of the environmental sciences whenever someone doesn’t like what one of us says.

First, it is essential to recognise that we’re just not that organised. While I have yet to forget to wear my trousers to work (I’m inclined to think that it will happen eventually), I’m still far, far away from anything that could be described as ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’. I can barely keep it together as it is. Such is the life of the academic.

More importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress – dissension. And hell, can we dissent!

Yes, the scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. If the rule of thumb stands against the scrutiny of countless studies (i.e., ‘challenges’ in the form of poison-tipped, flaming literary arrows), then it might eventually become a ‘theory’. Some theories even make it to become the hallowed ‘law’, but that is very rare indeed. In the environmental sciences (I’m including ecology here), one could argue that there is no such thing as a ‘law’.

Well-informed non-scientists might understand, or at least, appreciate that process. But few people outside the sciences have even the remotest clue about what a real pack of bastards we can be to each other. Use any cliché or descriptor you want – it applies: dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, jugular-slicing ninjas, or brain-eating zombies in lab coats.

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 »





Classics: Effective population size ratio

27 04 2011

Here’s another concise Conservation Classic highlighted in our upcoming book chapter (see previous entries on this book). Today’s entry comes from a colleague of mine, Dick Frankham, who has literally written the book on conservation genetics. I’ve published with Dick a few times – absolutely lovely chap who really knows his field more than almost any other. It is a great pleasure to include one of his seminal works as a Conservation Classic.

This entry is highly related to our work on minimum viable population size, and the controversial SAFE index (more on that later).

Although it had long been recognized that inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity were accentuated in small, isolated populations (Charlesworth & Charlesworth, 1987), genetic hazards were generally considered to be of less consequence to extinction risk than demographic and environmental stochasticity. Frankham (1995) helped overturn this viewpoint, using a meta-analysis to draw together comprehensive evidence on the ratio of genetically effective to actual population size (Ne:N). Read the rest of this entry »





Species’ Ability to Forestall Extinction – AudioBoo

8 04 2011

Here’s a little interview I just did on the SAFE index with ABC AM:

Not a bad job, really.

And here’s another one from Radio New Zealand:

CJA Bradshaw








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