Ecology: the most important science of our times

12 07 2013

rocket-scienceThe title of this post is deliberately intended to be provocative, but stay with me – I do have an important point to make.

I’m sure most every scientist in almost any discipline feels that her or his particular knowledge quest is “the most important”. Admittedly, there are some branches of science that are more applied than others – I have yet to be convinced, for example, that string theory has an immediate human application, whereas medical science certainly does provide answers to useful questions regarding human health. But the passion for one’s own particular science discipline likely engenders a sort of tunnel vision about its intrinsic importance.

So it comes down to how one defines ‘important’. I’m not advocating in any way that application or practicality should be the only yardstick to ascertain importance. I think superficially impractical, ‘blue-skies’ theoretical endeavours are essential precursors to all so-called applied sciences. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is fundamentally no such thing as a completely unapplied science discipline or question. As I’ve said many times before, ‘science’ is a brick wall of evidence, where individual studies increase the strength of the wall to a point where we can call it a ‘theory’. Occasionally a study comes along and smashes the wall (paradigm shift), at which point we begin to build a new one. Read the rest of this entry »





Having more tree species makes us wealthier

28 01 2013

money treeAs more and more empirical evidence pours in from all corners of the globe, we can only draw one conclusion about the crude measure of species richness (i.e., number of species) – having more species around makes us richer.

And I’m not talking about the esoteric or ‘spiritual’ richness that the hippies dribble about around the campfire after a few dozen cones pulled off the bong (I’ll let the confused among you try to work the meaning of that one out by yourselves), I’m talking about real money (incorporated into my concept of ‘biowealth‘).

The idea that ‘more is better’ in terms of the number of species has traditionally found some (at times, conflicting) empirical support in the plant ecology literature, the latest evidence about which I wrote last year. This, the so-called ‘diversity-productivity’ relationship (DPR), demonstrates that as a forest or grass ecosystem gains more species, its average or total biomass production increases.

Read the rest of this entry »





Malady of numbers

30 07 2012

Organism abundance is the parameter most often requiring statistical treatment. Statistics turn our field/lab notes into estimates of population density after considering the individuals we can see and those we can’t. Later, statistical analyses will relate our density estimates to other factors (climate, demography, genetics, human impacts), allowing the examination of key issues such as extinction risk, biomonitoring or ecosystem services (humus formation, photosynthesis, pollination, fishing, etc.). Photos – top: a patch of fungi (Lacandon Jungle, Mexico), next down: a palm forest (Belize river, Belize), next down: an aggregation of butterflies (Amazon, Peru), and bottom: a group of river dolphins (Amazon, Colombia). Photos by Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

Another interesting and provocative post from my (now ex-) PhD student, Dr. Salvador Herrando-Pérez. After reading this post, you might be surprised to know that Salva was one of my more quantitative students, and although he struggled to keep up with the maths at times, he eventually become quite an efficient ecological modeller (see for yourself in his recent publications here and here).

When an undergraduate faces the prospect of a postgraduate degree (MSc/PhD), he or she is often presented with an overwhelming contradiction: the host university expects the student to have statistical skills for which he/she might never have received instruction. This void in the education system forges professionals lacking statistical expertise, skills that are mandatory for cutting-edge research!

Universities could provide the best of their societal services if, instead of operating in isolation, they integrated the different phases of academic training students go through until they enter the professional world. Far from such integration in the last 20 years, universities have become a genuine form of business and therefore operate competitively. Thus, they seek public and private funding by means of student fees (lecturing), as well as publications and projects developed by their staff (research). In this kind of market-driven academia, we need indicators of education quality that quantify the degree by which early-career training methods make researchers useful, innovative and cost-effective for our societies, particularly in the long term.

More than a century ago, the geologist and educator Thomas Chamberlin (1) distinguished acquisitive from creative learning methods. The former are “an attempt to follow by close imitation the processes of other thinkers and to acquire the results of their investigation by memorising”. The latter represent “the endeavour… to discover new truth or to make a new combination of truth or at least to develop by one’s own effort an individualised assemblage of truth… to think for one’s self”. From the onset of their academic training, students of many countries are instructed in acquisitive methods of learning that reward the retention of information, much of which falls into oblivion after being regurgitated during an exam. Apart from being a colossal waste of resources (because it yields near null individual or societal benefits), this vicious machinery is reinforced by reward and punishment in convoluted manners. For instance, one of my primary-school teachers had boys seated in class by a ‘ranking of intelligence’; so one could lose the first seat if the classmate in the second seat answered a question correctly, which the up-to-then ‘most intelligent’ had failed to hit. Read the rest of this entry »





Gone with the birds

1 09 2011

ebaumsworld.com

Another great post by Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

Through each new species, evolution assembles a unique combination of genes. Ever since living forms have populated our planet (> 3 billion years), the number of combinations is incalculable. That is why evolution resembles a cocktail shaker. Contemporaneous biogeographers look for order in that shaker to explain the history of life, as much as historians look for monarchs and revolutions in a library to explain the history of humanity.

The ethnic diversity of our suburb, village or city obeys factors of different temporal extent. Recent factors such as wealth, politics (war, segregation), culture (tradition, religion), and technology (airplanes, bridges, tunnels) determine racial migration, mixing and extinction. On the other hand, pre-historical factors express the expansion of the earliest hominids from Africa to the other continents – what makes a bantu ‘bantu’, or an inuit ‘inuit’.

Present ecological conditions and the macro-evolutionary past stock the elements by which biogeography attempts to understand the mechanisms shaping the spatial distribution of species, e.g., why kangaroos are restricted to Oceania, or why you could believe you were in Spain while strolling through a Greek forest. Read the rest of this entry »





Drive the future of biodiversity research

20 07 2011

My colleague, Professor Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, has a few funky PhD positions available in high-tech biodiversity applications.

We are looking for interested graduate students, who are highly motivated and enjoy independent and unusual research in the general areas below. An interest in evolution and natural history are key requirements, and a background in any of the following would be useful: evolution, genetics, molecular biology, chemistry/biochemistry and environmental science.

Environmental Genomics

New genomic approaches for biodiversity studies of environmental samples: a number of PhD positions are available in a large-scale project to apply high throughput sequencing approaches to the analysis of environmental samples and develop a new range of methods to perform biodiversity surveys, taxonomic discovery, and environmental impact reports. The project will employ multiplexed PCR, 2nd/3rd-gen sequencing, bioinformatics and Phylogenetics to develop novel systems for rapid and accurate biodiversity assessment. Key topics within the project are the analysis of natural and re-use water supplies, monitoring presence and abundance of threatened species and Australian native grasses. A strong molecular biology and/or bioinformatics background is required. The project is a AU$1M Australian Research Council-industry partnership. Read the rest of this entry »





Taxonomy in the clouds

4 07 2011

Another post (see previous here, here and here) by my aspiring science-communicator PhD student, Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

Taxonomy uses rigorous rules of nomenclature to classify living beings, so every known species has a given ‘name’ and ‘surname’. The revision of certain taxonomic groups (particularly through genetic analyses) is favouring the proliferation of nominally new species, often propelled by virtue of their charisma and conservation status.

In secondary school, most of my classmates associated the subject ‘Biology’ with unpronounceable Latin taxonomic names, with which all known living beings are branded — ‘Canis lupus’ reads the identity card of humanity’s best friend. When the Swedish monk Carl Linnaeus proposed such binomial nomenclature, he could hardly imagine that, two hundred years later, his terminology would underpin national and transnational budgets for species conservation. Taxonomic nomenclature allows the classification of species into clusters of the same kind (e.g., diatoms, amanitas, polychaetes, skinks), and the calculation of an indispensable figure for conservation purposes: how many species are there at a given location, range, country, continent, or the entire planet?

Traditionally, taxonomists described species by examining their (external and internal) morphological features, the widest consensus being that two individuals of different species could not hybridise. However, a practical objection to that thinking was that if, for instance, an ocean separated two leopard populations, ethics should prevent us from bringing them in contact only to check if they produce fertile offspring, hence justifying a common-species status. Genetics currently provides a sort of ‘remote check’.

New species, new names

Over the last three decades, the boom of genetics and the global modernisation of environmental policies have fostered alternative criteria to differentiate species, populations, and even individuals. As a result, experts have created a colourful lexicon to label management or conservation units or new taxonomical categories such as that of a subspecies1, e.g., Canis lupus dingo for the wild Australian dog (dingo). These changes have shaken the foundations of taxonomy because several definitions of species (biological, phylogenetic, evolutionary) are forced to live under the umbrella of a common nomenclature. Read the rest of this entry »





More rain forest regeneration opportunities

5 10 2010

Last November I wrote about an exciting conservation research endeavour (see ‘How to restore a tropical rain forest‘)  in which I am involved called the Thiaki Rain Forest Regeneration Project taking place as we speak in the hinterland of north Queensland’s Atherton Tableland. I personally have done next to nothing on the project yet (UQ’s Margie Mayfield is leading the charge), so I can’t really update you on all the nitty-gritty of our progress. Regardless, I can say that some of the planting tests have been done, the species have been chosen and are growing happily in the nursery reading for planting in January 2011, and the baseline biodiversity assessments are well under way.

Well, prior to our Supercharge Your Science extravaganza in Cairns and Townsville a few weeks ago, I visited Penny & Noel at Thiaki for a catch up, a discussion of what’s been happening and what’s about to happen. It was a great weekend (the family came along too) with good food, wine, ticks and leeches (biodiversity in action), and I’m getting more and more excited about what this project will deliver over the coming years.

In the meantime, a couple of ‘opportunities’ have arisen; in other words – we need some good PhD students to tackle some outstanding issues with the project. Read the rest of this entry »





The balancing act of conservation

1 10 2010

Image via Wikipedia

Navjot Sodhi & Paul Ehrlich‘s book, Conservation Biology for All, has just been reviewed in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. I’ve blogged about the book before and our contributing chapter (The conservation biologist’s toolbox), so I’ll just copy the very supportive review here by Rosie Trevelyan.

Conservation Biology for All is a textbook that aims to be a one-stop shop for conservation education. The book is packed with information, is wide ranging, and includes most emerging issues that come under the umbrella of conservation biology today. Sodhi and Ehrlich have brought together a total of 75 experts from many disciplines to provide a smorgasbord of up-to-date conservation concepts and case studies. Leading conservation biologists contribute to every chapter either as authors of the main text or of the boxes that give real life examples of the conservation issue being covered. The boxes add hugely to the information included in each chapter, and many are well worth returning to on their own. Read the rest of this entry »





Tropical biology and conservation overview

28 07 2010

Last week I attended the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Sanur, Bali (Indonesia). I only managed one post on the real-world relevance of conservation research (that attracted quite a lot of comment) while there, but I did promise to give a conference overview as I did for the International Congress for Conservation Biology earlier this month. So here goes.

This was my first ATBC meeting despite having co-written ‘the book’ on tropical conservation biology (well, one of very, very many). I no longer live in the tropics but am still managing to keep my hand in many different aspects of tropical research. After all, tropical regions represent ground zero for conservation biology – they have the highest biodiversity (no matter which way you measure it), some of the greatest threats (e.g., most people, most rapid development, most corruption) and some of the most pressing human problems (disease, hunger, socio-political instability). Ironically, most of the world’s conservation ecologists work in temperate realms – it should really be the other way around. Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation jobs at the University of Adelaide

13 04 2010

I’m posting the advertisements for two new conservation jobs in the Global Ecology Group at the University of Adelaide.

This Australian Research Council-funded Discovery Project seeks to determine whether functional forms of spatially explicit population dynamics are generalisable across taxa with similar attributes and range limiting factors. By considering the effects of multiple interacting factors (biotic and abiotic) on the demographic determinants of species’ habitat suitability and geographic distributional limits, the research will provide a foundation on which to develop adaptive conservation strategies in response to the anticipated impacts of global change; examine the complexities and potentially irreducible uncertainties in forecasting and managing biodiversity; and identify limitations associated with different modelling approaches. Read the rest of this entry »





Tropical Conservation Biology

8 09 2008

An obvious personal plug – but I’m allowed to do that on my own blog ;-)

I’d like to introduce a (relatively) new textbook that my colleagues, Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook, and I wrote and published last year with Blackwell (now Wiley-Blackwell) Scientific Publishing – Tropical Conservation Biology.

We’re rather proud of this book because it was a timely summary and assessment of the scientific evidence for the degree of devastation facing tropical biodiversity today and in the future. I’ve summarised some of the main issues in a previous post covering a paper we have ‘in press’ that was born of the text book, but obviously the book is a far more detailed account of the problems facing the tropics.

This introductory textbook examines diminishing terrestrial and aquatic habitats in the tropics, covering a broad range of topics including the fate of the coral reefs; the impact of agriculture, urbanisation, and logging on habitat depletion; and the effects of fire on plants and animal survival.

One of the highlights of the book is that each chapter (see below) Includes case studies and interviews with prominent conservation scientists to help situate key concepts in a real world context: Norman Myers (Chapter 1), Gretchen Daily (Chapter 2), William Laurance (Chapter 3), Mark Cochrane (Chapter 4), Daniel Simberloff (Chapter 5), Bruce Campbell (Chapter 6), Daniel Pauly (Chapter 7), Stephen Schneider (Chapter 8), Stuart Pimm (Chapter 9) and Peter Raven (Chapter 10). These biographies are followed by a brief set of questions and answers that focus on some of the most pertinent and pressing issues in tropical conservation biology today. It is our intention that readers of Tropical Conservation Biology will benefit from the knowledge and be inspired by the passion of these renowned conservation experts.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Chapter 1: Diminishing habitats in regions of high biodiversity. We report on the loss of tropical habitats across the tropics (e.g., deforestation rates). We also highlight the drivers of habitat loss such as human population expansion. Finally, we identify the areas in immediate need of conservation action by elucidating the concept of biodiversity hotspots. Read the rest of this entry »







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