Influential conservation papers of 2013

31 12 2013

big-splash1This is a little bit of a bandwagon – the ‘retrospective’ post at the end of the year – but this one is not merely a rehash I’ve stuff I’ve already covered.

I decided that it would be worthwhile to cover some of the ‘big’ conservation papers of 2013 as ranked by F1000 Prime. For copyright reasons, I can’t divulge the entire synopsis of each paper, but I can give you a brief run-down of the papers that caught the eye of fellow F1000 faculty members and me. If you don’t subscribe to F1000, then you’ll have to settle with my briefest of abstracts.

In no particular order then, here are some of the conservation papers that made a splash (positively, negatively or controversially) in 2013:

Read the rest of this entry »

Let the planting begin

3 04 2013
A tough little Eucalyptus porosa - one day soon this entire ex-paddock will be filled with carbon-guzzling natives.

A tough little Eucalyptus porosa – one day soon this entire ex-paddock will be filled with carbon-guzzling natives. Note the plot markers in the background.

I had a great morning today checking out the progress of our carbon-biodiversity planting experiment out at Monarto Zoo. What a fantastic effort! Briony Horner and her team have made some amazing progress.

If you haven’t read about what we’re up to, here’s a brief re-cap:

Late last year we were awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project grant in which we proposed to examine experimentally the cost-benefit trade-off between biodiversity and carbon using a replicated planting regime. The approach is quite simple, but it will take many years to pay off. What we are asking is: how many different species and in what densities are required to restore a native woodland from an over-grazed paddock that provide the biggest long-term biodiversity and carbon benefits simultaneously for the lowest costs?

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 »

Declining biodiversity in… your filthy mouth

18 02 2013

green teethIt still amazes me that the more we look, the more we realise just how important intact ecosystems are for our own well-being. I guess this is why I’m still a scientist.

Our latest paper that just came out today in Nature Genetics is a bit of a departure for me (again!); I really must not take much credit for this given that it was a huge effort among a big team of people and I played a comparatively minor role. Still, I can definitely say this is one of the more interesting papers I’ve co-authored in a while.

For me the involvement started after Alan Cooper (Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA) asked me for a bit of help with a cool paper he and some of his colleagues were working on. When he told me what the subject was, my initial reaction was (yawn): Dentistry? Teeth? You’ve got to be joking. Why would an ecologist be even remotely interested in that stuff? Then he went into more detail, and I was hooked.

Before I get into that detail, I have to tell you a story about a colleague of mine (name withheld, but true story) who recently went to the dentist to have some routine cleaning and maintenance done. There was nothing particularly special about his visit – no local anaesthetic, no extractions, no caps, and certainly no surgery. Two weeks later he was in the hospital theatre getting his chest cracked open for open-heart surgery. Jesus H. Christ!, I said to myself. Read the rest of this entry »

Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »

The invisible hand of ecosystem services

4 08 2012

I’ve just spent nearly an entire week trying to get my head around ecosystem services (ES).

You’d think that would have been a given based on my experience, my research, my writings and the fact that I’ve just spent the last week with 400 ES specialists from around the world at the 5th international Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP) Conference in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Well, prior to this week I thought I knew what ES were, but now I think I’m just a little more confused.

Of course, I’m not talking about the concept of ES or what they are (hell, I’ve written enough about them on this blog and in my papers); my problem is understanding how we as society end up valuing them in a practical, sensible and feasible way.

So I’m going to describe the ESP Conference as I saw it, and not necessarily in chronological order.

First up is the term ‘ecosystem services’ itself – horrible name, and something rammed home again after attending the conference. Most people on the planet that are not scientists (that would be nearly everyone) just might have the most tenuous and ethereal of grasps of ‘ecosystem’ in the first place, and I’d bet that 99 % of most undergraduate students couldn’t provide a comprehensive description. This is because ecosystems are mind-bogglingly, chaotically and awesomely complex. Just ask any ecosystem ecologist.

The second part of the term – services – is particularly offensive in its presumption and arrogance. It’s not like you ring up an ecosystem and get it to clean your carpets, or fill your water tank or gas cylinder. No, the natural world did not evolve to pamper humanity; we are merely part of it (and bloody efficient at modifying it, I might add).

So try to sell this ‘incredibly complex thingy’ that is ‘there to do some (intangible) shit for us’ to the public, policy makers and politicians, and you mostly get a dog’s regurgitated breakfast and some blank, slack-jawed stares. Read the rest of this entry »

Different is better

6 03 2012

I found a nice complement to my More is Better post from January where I reported the results of a new meta-analysis demonstrating how higher species evenness and diversity engendered greater forest productivity – great empirical evidence for the so-called diversity-productivity relationship.

The latest paper adding convincing evidence regarding the important role of species diversity in maintaining ecosystem function comes from Marc Cadotte and colleagues published online early in Ecology. The paper, Phylogenetic diversity promotes ecosystem stability, looks at the problem from a slightly different angle.

If you recall from Zhang and colleagues, forest plots composed of many different species were more productive than single-species stands, and more ‘even’ (i.e., a metric which includes relative abundance of each species in system) stands were more productive, and better at explaining the variance in productivity than species richness alone.

Of course, species richness is considered only a blunt instrument to measure ‘biodiversity’, with evenness providing only a slight improvement. Ideally, we should be talking about genetic diversity considering this is the fundamental unit on which most of evolutionary processes operate (i.e., genes and gene complexes).

So Cadotte and colleagues measured genetic diversity within experimental plots of grassland savanna species established in Minnesota, USA (i.e., consisting of C3 grasses, C4 grasses, legumes, non-legume herbaceous forbs and two woody species) and compared this to ecosystem ‘stability’ (i.e., above-ground biomass divided by inter-annual standard deviation). They measured genetic diversity using four different metrics:

  1. the sum of the phylogenetic branch lengths represented by a set of co-occurring species
  2. the mean nearest taxon distance = the average of the shortest phylogenetic distance for each species to its closest relative
  3. the mean pairwise distance = the average of all phylogenetic distances connecting species in the sample; and
  4. an entropic measure based on the relative distribution of evolutionary distinctiveness, measured as the amount of a species’ evolutionary history that is not shared with other species Read the rest of this entry »

More is better

18 01 2012

In one of those rare moments of perusing the latest ecological literature, I stumbled across an absolute gem, and one that has huge conservation implications. Now, I’m really no expert in this particular area of ecology, but I dare say the paper I’m about to introduce should have been published in Nature or Science (I suspect it was submitted to at least one of these journals first). It was still published in an extremely high-impact journal in ecology though – the Journal of Ecology produced by the British Ecological Society (and one in which I too have had the honour of publishing an article).

Before I get into specifics, I have to say that one thing we conservation biologists tend to bang on about is that MORE SPECIES = BETTER, regardless of the ecosystem in question. We tend to value species richness as the gold standard of ecosystem ‘health’ and ‘resilience’, whether or not there is strong empirical evidence in support. It’s as if the more-is-better mantra strikes an intuitive chord and must, by all that’s ecologically right in the world, be true.

Of course, measuring what is ‘better’ is a difficult task, especially when we are talking about complex ecosystems comprising thousands, if not millions, of species. Does ‘better’ refer to the most temporally stable, the most genetically diverse, the most resilient to perturbation, or the provider of the greatest number of functions and hence, ecosystem services?

It’s up to you, but all these things tend to be difficult to measure for a large number of species and over time scales of sufficient duration to measure change. So the default for plants (i.e., the structural framework of almost all ecosystems) I guess has come down to a simpler measure of success – ‘productivity’. This essentially means how much biomass is produced per unit area/volume per time step. It’s not a great metric, but it’s probably one of the more readily quantifiable indices.

Enter the so-called ‘diversity-productivity relationship’, or ‘DPR’, which predicts that higher plant species diversity should engender higher net productivity (otherwise known as the ‘net biodiversity effect’). 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 »

The lost world – freshwater biodiversity conservation

6 09 2010

Even the most obtuse, right-wing, head-in-the-sand, consumption-driven, anti-environment yob would at least admit that they’ve heard of forest conservation, the plight of whales (more on that little waste of conservation resources later) and climate change. Whether or not they believe these issues are important (or even occurring) is beside the point – the fact that this particular auto-sodomist I’ve described is aware of the issues is at least testament to growing concern among the general populace.

But so many issues in conservation science go unnoticed even by the most environmentally aware. Today’s post covers just one topic (I’ve covered others, such as mangroves and kelp forests) – freshwater biodiversity.

The issue is brought to light by a paper recently published online in Conservation Letters by Thieme and colleagues entitled Exposure of Africa’s freshwater biodiversity to a changing climate.

Sure, many people are starting to get very worried about freshwater availability for human consumption (and this couldn’t be more of an issue in Australia at the moment) – and I fully agree that we should be worried. However, let’s not forget that so many species other than humans depend on healthy freshwater ecosystems to persist, which feed back in turn to human benefits through freshwater filtering, fisheries production and arable soil accumulation.

Just like for the provision of human uses (irrigation, direct water consumption, etc.), a freshwater system’s flow regime is paramount for maintaining its biodiversity. If you stuff up the flow regime too much, then regardless of the amount of total water available, biodiversity will suffer accordingly.

Glen Canyon Dam

Image by James Marvin Phelps (mandj98) via Flickr

Thieme and colleagues focus specifically on African freshwater systems, but the same problems are being seen worldwide (e.g., Australia’s Murray-Darling system, North America’s Colorado River system). And this is only going to get worse as climate change robs certain areas of historical rainfall. To address the gap in knowledge, the authors used modelled changes in mean annual runoff and discharge to determine fish species affected by 2050.

The discharge/runoff results were: Read the rest of this entry »

Simple educational tool to explain biodiversity

26 08 2010

I just came across this little educational video explaining what biodiversity is, what it does, and what we’re doing to it. If you’re looking to explain biodiversity and its importance to someone, this is a good place to start. Not a bad tool for school children either.

CJA Bradshaw

100 actions to slow biodiversity loss

19 08 2010

I received an email a few days ago from Guillaume Chapron of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet) asking me to promote his ‘Biodiversity 100‘ campaign on I think it’s an interesting initiative, and so I’ll gladly spread the word.

Teaming up with George Monbiot of The Guardian, the Biodiversity 100 campaign seeks to encourage scientists and others to compile a list of 100 tasks that G20 governments should undertake to prove their commitment to tackling the biodiversity crisis.

Dr. Chapron writes: Read the rest of this entry »


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