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 »

Australia’s (latest) war on the environment

3 03 2014

monkYes, the signs were there, but they weren’t clandestine messages written in the stars or in the chaos of tea-leaf dregs. We saw this one coming, but Australians chose to ignore the warning signs and opt for the American political model of extremism, religiosity, plutocracy and science denial.

Enter the ‘Tea Party’ of Australia – the ‘new’ Coalition where reigning Rex perditor Prime Minister Tony The Monk Abbott1 has, in just a few short months, turned back the clock on Australian environmental protection some 40 years.

Yes, we saw it coming, but it wasn’t a tautological fait accompli just because it concerned a ‘conservative’ government. It’s difficult to remember, I know, that conservative governments of yesteryear implemented some strikingly powerful and effective environmental legislation. Indeed, it was the former incarnation of the Coalition government that implemented the once-formidable Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act under the direction of then Environment Minister, Robert Hill. A colossus of sorts, the EPBC suffers from many ailments. While it’s the only really bitey environmental legislation we’ve got, that colossus is a lumbering, limping giant missing more than a few teeth – it needs a complete overhaul.

As most Australians are unfortunately aware, The Monk repeatedly and defiantly promised to repeal the Labor-government carbon price implemented in July 2012, despite the absolute necessity to tax the heaviest pollutersWhile somewhat sheepish about his recent climate disruption denialism following his election in 2013, a denialist he remains:

Let us re-familiarise ourselves with some of his historical pearlers: 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 »

Biowealth: all creatures great and small

4 12 2013

Curious Country flyer“So consider the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, the small and the squirmy, the smelly, slimy and scaly. Consider the fanged and the hairy, the ugly and the cute alike. The more we degrade this astonishing diversity of evolved life and all its interactions on our only home, the more we expose ourselves to the ravages of a universe that is inherently hostile to life.”

excerpt from ‘Biowealth: all creatures great and small’ The Curious Country (C.J.A. Bradshaw 2013).

I’ve spent the last few days on the east coast with my science partner-in-crime, Barry Brook, and one of our newest research associates (Marta Rodrigues-Rey Gomez). We first flew into Sydney at sparrow’s on Monday, then drove a hire car down to The ‘Gong to follow up on some Australian megafauna databasing & writing with Bert Roberts & Zenobia Jacobs. On Tuesday morning we then flitted over to Canberra where we had the opportunity to attend the official launch of a new book that Barry and I had co-authored.

The book, The Curious Country, is an interesting experiment in science communication and teaching dreamed up by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Realising that the average Aussie has quite a few questions about ‘how stuff works’, but has little idea how to answer those questions, Ian engaged former Quantum star and science editor, Leigh Dayton, to put together a short, punchy, topical and easily understood book about why science is good for the country.

Yes, intuitive for most of you out there reading this, but science appreciation isn’t always as high as it should be amongst the so-called ‘general public’. Ian thought this might be one way to get more people engaged.

When honoured with the request to write an interesting chapter on biodiversity for the book, I naturally accepted. It turns out Barry was asked to do one on energy provision at the same time (but we didn’t know we had both been asked at the time). Our former lab head, Professor David Bowman, was also asked to write a chapter about fire risk, so it was like a mini-reunion yesterday for the three of us.

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 »

Medieval Canada threatens global biodiversity

25 11 2013

harper_scienceArtists, poets and musicians make us feel, viscerally, how people destroy what they do not understand. Logic and observation led E. O. Wilson to conclude: ‘If people don’t know, they don’t care. If they don’t care, they don’t act.’

Whether you feel it in one of Drew Dillinger’s poems1 or visualise it from the sinuous beauty of mathematical equations, the song remains the same. Scientists are critical to the present and future of the biosphere and humanity, but if — and only if — we are free to communicate our findings to the voting public.

Galileo did not have that right. Scientists in totalitarian regimes of today still lack it. And now, incredibly, some of Canada’s top scientists have lost that right2,3,4.

That is not the Canada I immigrated into. Rewind the tape to 1983. I am a young immigrant, ecstatic that my family has gained entry into the country. We all have mixed feelings; we love our home country of Mexico and are sad to leave it, yet we look forward to being part of Canada’s open-minded and science-loving spirit. The tape runs forward and not all turns out to be as advertised. Still, for the next 23 years Canada remains a damn good place, ruled by governments that, imperfect as they might have been, were not obsessed with burying science.

Fast forward the tape to 2006. Stephen Harper’s newly elected and still ruling Conservative Government hits the ground pounding punches in all directions. Almost immediately, the Conservatives begin to implement one of their many Machiavellian tactics that aim to turn Canada into a petro-state6,7: downgrade science as irrelevant to evidence-based decision making. Ever since, Canadian federal scientists have seen their programs slashed or buried. Those who manage to hang on to their jobs are strictly forbidden to speak about their findings to the media or the public8,9,10,11.

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 »

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 »

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 »

Want to work with us?

22 03 2013
© Beboy-Fotolia

© Beboy-Fotolia

Today we announced a HEAP of positions in our Global Ecology Lab for hot-shot, up-and-coming ecologists. If you think you’ve got what it takes, I encourage you to apply. The positions are all financed by the Australian Research Council from grants that Barry Brook, Phill Cassey, Damien Fordham and I have all been awarded in the last few years. We decided to do a bulk advertisement so that we maximise the opportunity for good science talent out there.

We’re looking for bright, mathematically adept people in palaeo-ecology, wildlife population modelling, disease modelling, climate change modelling and species distribution modelling.

The positions are self explanatory, but if you want more information, just follow the links and contacts given below. For my own selfish interests, I provide a little more detail for two of the positions for which I’m directly responsible – but please have a look at the lot.

Good luck!

CJA Bradshaw

Job Reference Number: 17986 & 17987

The world-leading Global Ecology Group within the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences currently has multiple academic opportunities. For these two positions, we are seeking a Postdoctoral Research Associate and a Research Associate to work in palaeo-ecological modelling. 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 »

Crying ‘wolf’ overlooks the foxes: challenging ‘planetary tipping points’

28 02 2013

tipping pointToday, a paper by my colleague, Barry Brook, appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. It’s bound to turn a few heads.

Let’s not get distracted by the title of the post, or the potential for a false controversy. It’s important to be clear that the planet is indeed ill, and it’s largely due to us. Species are going extinct faster than the would have otherwise. The planet’s climate system is being severely disrupted, so is the carbon cycle. Ecosystem services are on the decline.

But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – we have to be wary of claiming the end of the world as we know it or people will shut down and continue blindly with their growth and consumption obsession. We as scientists also have to be extremely careful not to pull concepts and numbers out of our bums without empirical support.

Specifically, I’m referring to the latest ‘craze’ in environmental science writing – the idea of ‘planetary tipping points‘ and the related ‘planetary boundaries‘. It’s really the stuff of Hollywood disaster blockbusters – the world suddenly shifts into a new ‘state’ where some major aspect of how the world functions does an immediate about-face. 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 »

Individuals a population to conserve make

28 11 2012
Unique in its genus, the saiga antelope inhabits the steppes and semi-desert environments in two sub-species split between Kazakhstan (Saiga tatarica tatarica, ~ 80% of the individuals) and Mongolia (Saiga tatarica mongolica). Locals hunt them for their meat and the (attributed) medicinal properties of male horns. Like many ungulates, the population is sensitive to winter severity and summer drought (which signal seasonal migrations of herds up to 1000 individuals). But illegal poaching has reduced the species from > 1 million in the 1970s to ~ 50000 currently (see RT video). The species has gone extinct in China and Ukraine, and has been IUCN “Critically Endangered” from 2002. The photo shows a male in The Centre for Wild Animals, Kalmykia, Russia (courtesy of Pavel Sorokin).

In a planet approaching 7 billion people, individual identity for most of us goes largely unnoticed by the rest. However, individuals are important because each can promote changes at different scales of social organisation, from families through to associations, suburbs and countries. This is not only true for the human species, but for any species (1).

It is less than two decades since many ecologists started pondering the ways of applying the understanding of how individuals behave to the conservation of species (2-9), which some now refer to as ‘conservation behaviour’ (10, 11). The nexus seems straightforward. The decisions a bear or a shrimp make daily to feed, mate, move or shelter (i.e., their behaviour) affect their fitness (survival + fertility). Therefore, the sum of those decisions across all individuals in a population or species matters to the core themes handled by conservation biology for ensuring long-term population viability (12), i.e., counteracting anthropogenic impacts, and (with the distinction introduced by Cawley, 13) reversing population decline and avoiding population extinction.

To use behaviour in conservation implies that we can modify the behaviour of individuals to their own benefit (and mostly, to the species’ benefit) or define behavioural metrics that can be used as indicators of population threats. A main research area dealing with behavioural modification is that of anti-predator training of captive individuals prior to re-introduction. Laden with nuances, those training programs have yielded contrasting results across species, and have only tested a few instances of ‘success’ after release into the wild (14). For example, captive black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) exposed to stuffed hawks, caged ferrets and rattlesnakes had higher post-release survival than untrained individuals in the grasslands of the North American Great Plains (15). A clear example of a threat metric is aberrant behaviour triggered by hunting. Eleanor Milner-Gulland et al. (16) have reported a 46 % reduction in fertility rates in the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in Russia from 1993-2002. This species forms harems consisting of one alpha male and 12 to 30 females. Local communities have long hunted this species, but illegal poaching for horned males from the early 1990s (17) ultimately led to harems with a female surplus (with an average sex ratio up to 100 females per male!). In them, only a few dominant females seem to reproduce because they engage in aggressive displays that dissuade other females from accessing the males. Read the rest of this entry »

The Biodiversity Club

11 10 2012

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species uses 5 quantitative criteria to allocate species to 9 categories of extinction risk. The criteria are based on ecological theory (1, 2), and are therefore subject to modification and critique. With pros and cons (3-6), and intrigues (7, 8), the list has established itself as an important tool for assessing the state of biodiversity globally and, more recently, regionally.

We all carry codes of some sort; that is, unique alphanumeric labels identifying our membership in a collectivity. Some of those codes (e.g., a videoclub customer number) make sense only locally, some do internationally (e.g., passport number). Species are also members of the club of biodiversity and, by virtue of our modern concern for their conservation, the status of many taxa has been allocated to alphanumeric categories under different rationales such as extinction risk or trading schemes (5, 9-13). Contradiction emerges when taxa might be threatened locally but not internationally, or vice versa.

In the journal Biological Conservation, a recent paper (14) has echoed the problem for the seagrass Zostera muelleri. This marine phanerogam occurs in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and is listed as “Least Concern” (LC) with “Stable” population trend by the IUCN. Matheson et al. (14) stated that such status neglects the “substantial loss” of seagrass habitats in New Zealand, and that the attribution of “prolific seed production” to the species reflects the IUCN assessment bias towards Australian populations. The IUCN Seagrass Red List Authority, Fred Short, responded (15) that IUCN species ratings indicate global status (i.e., not representative for individual countries) and that, based on available quantitative data and expert opinion, the declines of Z. muelleri are localised and offset by stable or expanding populations throughout its range. 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 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 »

Hades, fossilised fat-parrot shit and threatened bats

4 10 2012

WTF? © P. Bendle

Sounds like a Monty Python sketch, doesn’t it? But no, it’s about the wonderful complexity of ecology.

An interesting, and very weird paper just came out in Conservation Biology co-authored by my friend and colleague, Prof. Alan Cooper at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD).

Here’s what they have to say about it.

Ancient dung from a cave in the South Island of New Zealand has revealed a previously unsuspected relationship between two of the country’s most unusual threatened species.

Fossilised dung (coprolites) of a now rare parrot, the nocturnal flightless kakapo, contained large amounts of pollen of a rare parasitic plant, Dactylanthus, which lives underground and has no roots or leaves itself. The pollen suggests the kakapo was formerly an important pollinator for the threatened species, known as the Hades flower or wood rose. Researchers from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at The University of Adelaide, and Landcare Research and the Department of Conservation in New Zealand report the discovery in the journal Conservation Biology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Native invaders divide loyalties

7 09 2012

California sea lion at Bonneville fish ladder. Credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

As if to mimic the weirder and weirder weather human-caused climate disruption is cooking up for us, related science stories seem to come in floods and droughts. Yes, research trends become fashionable too (imagine a science fashion show? – but I digress…).

Only yesterday, the ABC published an opinion piece on the controversies surrounding which species we call ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ (based on a recent paper published in Global Ecology and Biogeography), and in June this year, Salvador Herrando-Pérez wrote a great little article on the topic entitled “The invader’s double edge“.

Then today, I received a request to publish a guest post here on from Lauren Kuehne, a research scientist in Julian Olden‘s lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. The topic? Why, the controversies surrounding invasive species, of course! Lauren’s following article demonstrates yet again that it’s not that simple.

A drawback to the attention garnered by high-profile invasive species is the tendency to infer that every non-native species is bad news, the inverse assumption being that all native species must be ‘good’. While this storyline works well for Hollywood films and faerie tales, in ecology the truth is rarely that simple. A new review article in the September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, describes the challenges and heartbreaks when native species run amok in the sense of having negative ecological impacts we typically associate with non-native species. Examples in the paper range from unchecked expansions of juniper trees in sagebrush ecosystems with wildfire suppression, to overgrazing by elk (wapiti) released from predation following the removal of wolves and mountain lions. 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 »


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