Translocations: keep it in the family

31 10 2013
Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) comprise 5 species native to North American grasslands. Rather than a ‘dog’ (‘perrito’ or ‘little dog’ in Spanish), this animal is a squirrel (Sciuridae) adapted to ground life. In particular, black-tailed prairie dogs (C. ludovicianus) inhabit the plains between the Frenchman River in Canada and the Mexican stretches of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Individuals have a maximum length of 40 cm and weigh up to 2 kg. The global population is currently estimated at some 18 million individuals over an area that has waned by 90% relative to historical ranges. The species is IUCN ‘Least Concern’ and shows a global ‘decreasing’ trend as a result of ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban development and farming, and susceptibility to Yersinia pestis – a bacteria that causes plague in prairie dogs and other mammals including humans.Colonies, known as ‘coteries’ (from French), are made of several family clans that live in contiguous territories. Clans include one or two males, and several females and juveniles [7]. Females show strong philopatry, while males are the ones that colonise new territories, or mingle with existing clans. Such dispersion pattern, along with daughters deliberately avoiding incest, minimises inbreeding [8]. Burrows consist of >10-m tunnels in which temperatures remain between 5 and 25 ºC irrespective of above-ground temperatures. Prairie dogs are genuine landscape architects with their network of burrows largely increasing edaphic, botanic and zoological diversity [9]. The pic shows two black prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota, USA) (courtesy of Lisa Savage).

If you have lived in different suburbs, cities or even countries, you will be well aware that changing residence feels very different whether you do it on your own or with someone else. In the latter case, you might have to share tasks, and key decisions have to be made on the basis of everybody’s needs. The situation is analogous when managers decide to move a group of animals or plants from one place to another – so-called translocation.

Translocations involve human-assisted movements of organisms into an area (i) that holds an existing population of the same species (re-stocking), or (ii) where the species has been extirpated (re-introduction) or (iii) is outside its historical distribution (introduction) [1] – this terminology follows 1993 IUCN’s Criteria [1, 3], but is unstable, e.g., see [2]. The rationale behind translocations has obvious merits (e.g., to promote population growth following overharvesting, attenuate human-predator conflicts, rescue endangered species) [2]. However, translocations are complex and have a long record of failed attempts in the history of conservation biology, so the resulting waste of resources has prompted a recent re-appraisal of methods [1-3].

Debra Shier investigated the nuisances of a translocation of a social species such as the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) [4]. Shier tagged, sexed and determined (via capture-recapture and field observations) membership to identified family clans in 973 individuals from Vermejo Park (New Mexico, USA). She then introduced clans to ten dog-free sites with soil quality and vegetation cover akin to the historical distribution of the species. In five of those sites, Shier translocated family clans (4 to 7 individuals per clan) and in the other five sites she freed clans made up of members being picked up randomly (1 male, 2 females, 2 juveniles). During a period of 9-10 months after translocation, Shier monitored the behaviour of females and ultimately re-captured all introduced individuals. She found that 50% of the dogs had survived translocation, and assumed that the remainder had died since individuals rarely disperse more than three km from their natal area, and aerial surveys spotted no dogs in a four-km perimeter around the point of release.

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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 »

Sharks: the world’s custodians of fisheries

5 05 2012

Today’s post comes from Salvador Herrando-Pérez (who, incidentally, recently submitted his excellent PhD thesis).

Three species co-occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and involved in the trophic cascade examined by Myers et al. (8). [1] Black-tips (Carcharhinus limbatus) are pelagic sharks in warm and tropical waters worldwide; they reach < 3 m in length, 125 kg in weight, with a maximum longevity in the wild of ~ 12 years; a viviparous species, with females delivering up to 10 offspring per parturition. [2] The cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) is a tropical species from the western Atlantic (USA to Brazil); up to 2 m wide, 50 kg in weight, and 18 years of age; gregarious, migratory and viviparous, with one single offspring per litter. [3] The bay scallop (Agropecten irradians) is a protandric (hermaphrodite) mollusc, with sperm being released a few days before the (> 1 million) eggs; commonly associated with seagrasses in the north-western Atlantic; shells can reach up to 10 cm and individuals live for < 2 years. In the photos, a black-tip angled in a bottom long-line off Alabama (USA), a school of cownose rays swimming along Fort Walton Beach (Florida, USA), and a bay scallop among fronds of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) off Hernando County (Florida, USA). Photos by Marcus Drymon, Dorothy Birch and Janessa Cobb, respectively.

The hips of John Travolta, the sword of Luke Skywalker, and the teeth of Jaws marked an era. I still get goose pimples with the movie soundtrack (bass, tuba, orchestra… silence) solemnizing each of the big shark’s attacks. The media and cinema have created the myth of man’s worst friend. This partly explains why shark fishing does not trigger the same societal rejection as the hunting of other colossuses such as whales or elephants. Some authors contend that we currently live in the sixth massive extinction event of planet Earth (1) 75 % of which is strongly driven by one species, humans, and characterized by the systematic disappearance of mega-animals in general (e.g., mammoths, Steller’s seacow), and predators in particular, e.g., sharks (2, 3).

The selective extirpation of apex predators, recently coined as ‘trophic downgrading’, is transforming habitat structure and species composition of many ecosystems worldwide (4). In the marine realm, over the last half a century, the main target of the world’s fisheries has turned from (oft-large body-sized) piscivorous to planctivorous fish and invertebrates, indicating that fishery fleets are exploiting a trophic level down to collapse, then harvesting the next lower trophic level (5-7).

Myers et al. (8) illustrate the problem with the fisheries of apex-predator sharks in the northeastern coast of the USA. Those Atlantic waters are rife with many species of shark (> 2 m), whose main prey are smaller chondrichthyans (skates, rays, catsharks, sharks), which in turn prey on bottom fishes and bivalves. Myers et al. (8) found that, over the last three decades, the abundance of seven species of large sharks declined by ~ 90 %, coinciding with the crash of a centenary fishery of bay scallops (Agropecten irradians). Conversely, the abundance of 12 smaller chondrichthyes increased dramatically over the same period of time. In particular, the cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), the principal predator of bay scallops, might today exceed > 40 million individuals in some bays, and consume up to ~ 840,000 tonnes of scallops annually. The obvious hypothesis is that the reduction of apex sharks triggers the boom of small chondrichthyans, hence leading to the break-down of scallop stocks. 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 »


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