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 »

We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

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 »

Be a good reviewer, but be a better editor

6 06 2014
© evileditor.blogspot.com.au

© evileditor.blogspot.com.au

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been at this for a while, or maybe it’s a real trend. Regardless, many of my colleagues and I are now of the opinion that the quality of editing in scientific journals is on the downhill slide.

Yes – we (scientists) all complain about negative decisions from journals to which we’ve submitted our work. Being rejected is part of the process. Aiming high is necessary for academic success, but when a negative decision is made on the basis of (often one) appalling review, it’s a little harder to swallow.

I suppose I can accept the inevitability of declining review quality for the simple reason that there are now SO MANY papers to review that finding willing volunteers is difficult. This means that there will always be people who only glance cursorily at the paper, miss the detail and recommend rejection based on their own misunderstanding or bias. It’s far easier to skim a paper and try to find a reason to reject than actually putting in the time to appraise the work critically and fairly.

This means that the traditional model of basing the decision to accept or reject a manuscript on only two reviews is fraught because the probability of receiving poor reviews is rising. For example, a certain undisclosed journal of unquestionably high quality for which I edit does not accept anything less than six recommendations for reviewers per manuscript, and none that I’m aware of is accepted or rejected based on only two reviews. But I think this is the exception rather than the rule – there are simply too many journals now of low to medium quality to be able to get that many reviewers to agree to review.

I won’t spend too much time trying to encourage you to do the best job you can when reviewing – that should go without saying. Remember what goes around comes around. If you are a shit reviewer, you will receive shit reviews. 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 »

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 »

Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers

11 03 2014

ALERTIf you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter feed over the last few weeks, you’ve surely noticed a few references to A.L.E.R.T. – the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers. You might also have asked yourself, what exactly is ALERT, and is it something I should pay attention to?

Today’s post attempts to explain this new organisation, and hopefully convince you that the answer to the second question is ‘yes’.

Several months ago, a slightly cryptic e-mail from eminent conservation biologist, Bill Laurance, arrived in my inbox. It asked – what do you think of this logo (see associated image)? A few e-mails later and a couple of minor tweaks, and we ended up with what I thought was a pretty cool logo for this new ‘ALERT’ thing. It wasn’t until quite some time later that I finally understood what Bill was attempting to create.

Is ALERT a news aggregator, a blog, an advocacy group, a science-communication resource or a science-policy interface? Why, yes it is!

Read the rest of this entry »


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