Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XII

30 05 2011

The latest six cartoons… (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »





Infinite planet theory

24 05 2011

Rob Dietz over at the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) just e-mailed me and suggested I reproduce a recent post of theirs on ConservationBytes.com. Rob has produced a cracker – very funny, but ‘reality’ usually is. Many thanks, Rob, for a fine piece of writing.

Few people have read the dense volumes published by the economist Milton Mountebank, but his work has affected you, me and every single person on the planet. Dr. Mountebank has revolutionized economic thought, and now he has been recognized for his singular efforts. Yesterday at a gala reception in Stockholm, Sweden, the chairman of Sveriges Riksbank, Peter Norborg, presented Dr. Mountebank with the Nobel Prize in Economics for his lifetime of work on infinite planet theory.

In his presentation of the award, Mr. Norborg stated, “Dr. Mountebank has demonstrated imagination and inventiveness beyond what the rational mind can comprehend.” Indeed, it is because of his theories that we all do what we do economically. Nations strive for continuous GDP growth and endless expansion of consumption thanks to infinite planet theory. Mr. Norborg went on to say, “All of our banks, including Sveriges Riksbank, owe him a huge debt. We finance economic expansion. Our actions and decisions would be morally suspect if we lived on a finite planet.”

In a light-hearted moment during the presentation, Mr. Norborg asserted that Dr. Mountebank had provided an even greater service to humanity by reducing stress on individuals. “Best of all,” he said, “is that we can extract, consume and digest resources guilt-free. Planetary constraints have been conquered. They have gone the way of the dodo, the Roman Empire and the world’s major fisheries.” Read the rest of this entry »





Over-estimating extinction rates

19 05 2011

I meant to get this out yesterday, but was too hamstrung with other commitments. Now the media circus has beat me to the punch. Despite the lateness (in news-time) of my post, my familiarity with the analysis and the people involved gives me a unique insight, I believe.

So a couple of months ago, Fangliang He and I were talking about some new analysis he was working on where he was testing the assumption that back-casted species-area relationships (SAR) gave reasonable estimates of inferred extinction rates. Well, that paper has just been published in today’s issue of Nature  by Fangliang He and Stephen Hubbell entitled: Species–area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss (see also the News & Views piece by Carsten Rahbek and Rob Colwell).

The paper has already stirred up something of a controversy before the ink has barely had time to dry. Predictably, noted conservation biologists like Stuart Pimm and Michael Rosenzweig have already jumped down Fangliang’s throat.

Extinction rates of modern biota in the current biodiversity crisis (Ehrlich & Pringle 2008) are wildly imprecise. Indeed, it has been proposed that extinction rates exceed the deep-time average background rate by 100- to 10000-fold (Lawton & May 2008; May et al. 1995; Pimm & Raven 2000), and no rigorously quantification of these rates globally has ever been accomplished (although there are several taxon- and region-specific estimates of localised extinction rates (Brook et al. 2003; Regan et al. 2001; Hambler et al. 2011; Shaw 2005).

Much of the information used to infer past extinction rate estimates is based on  the species-area relationship (e.g., Brook et al. 2003); this method estimates extinction rates by reversing the species-area accumulation curve, extrapolating backward to smaller areas to calculate expected species loss. The concept is relatively simple, even though the underlying mathematics might not be. Read the rest of this entry »





The evil sextet

18 05 2011

This post doubles as a Conservation Classic and a new take on an old concept. It’s new in the sense that it updates what we believe is an advance on a major milestone in conservation biology, even though some of the add-on concepts themselves have been around for a while.

First, the classic.

The ‘evil quartet’, or ‘four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse’, was probably the first treatment of extinction dynamics as a biological discipline in its own right. Jarod Diamond (1984) took a sweeping historical and contemporary view of extinction, then simplified the problem to four principal mechanisms:

  1. overhunting (or overexploitation),
  2. introduced species,
  3. habitat destruction and
  4. chains of linked extinctions (trophic cascades, or co-extinctions).

Far from a mere review or list of unrelated mechanisms, Diamond’s evil quartet crystallized conservation biologists’ thinking about key mechanisms and, more importantly, directed attention towards those factors likely to drive extinctions in the future. The unique combination of prehistorical through to modern examples gave conservation biologists a holistic view of extinction dynamics and helped spawn many of the papers described hereafter. Read the rest of this entry »





生态学 = ‘Ecology’ in China

13 05 2011

I’m just heading home after a very inspiring workshop organised by Fangliang He at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China (I’m writing this from the Qantas Club in the Hong Kong airport).

Before I proceed to regale you with the salient details of the ‘International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology‘, I am compelled to state publicly that I offer my sincerest condolences to Fangliang and his family; unfortunately Fangliang’s brother passed away while we were at the workshop and so Fangliang wasn’t able to spend much time reaping the fruits of his organisational labour. If you know Fangliang, please send him a supporting email.

That sad note aside, I am delighted to say that the workshop was compelling, challenging and also rather fortuitous. I was one of many overseas invitees, and I must say that I was at times overwhelmed by the size of the brains they managed to pack into the auditorium. Many colleagues I didn’t know attended, and I hope that many will become collaborators. The international invitees were: Read the rest of this entry »





Tropical forests cooking their biodiversity

5 05 2011

Another ‘hot’ essay by Bill Laurance recently published online by Yale Environment 360 (a publication of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies). Bill asked me to relay it on ConservationBytes.com, so here it is in full:

Much attention has been paid to how global warming is affecting the world’s polar regions and glaciers. But a leading authority on tropical forests [that would be Bill] warns that rising temperatures could have an equally profound impact on rainforests and are already taking a toll on some tropical species.

On Jan. 12, 2002, in the Australian state of New South Wales, biologist Justin Welbergen was observing a colony of flying foxes for his Ph.D. research. The temperatures that day on Australia’s subtropical, eastern coast reached record highs, soaring to 42.9 ° C (109 ° F) at the weather station closest to Welbergen’s study site — nearly 8 ° C higher than the average summer maximum temperature.

The flying foxes, or giant fruit bats, normally just doze in the treetops through the day, but on this afternoon they were fanning themselves, panting frantically, jostling for shady spots, and licking their wrists in a desperate effort to cool down. Suddenly, when the thermometer hit 42 ° C, the bats began falling from the trees. Most quickly died. Welbergen and his colleagues counted 1,453 flying foxes that died from the heat in one colony alone. The scorching heat that day killed at least 2,200 additional flying foxes in eight other colonies along a 250-kilometre stretch of coastline. All the deaths occurred in colonies where temperatures soared above 41.7 ° C. Read the rest of this entry »





Silence of the birds

2 05 2011

Yet another contribution from my PhD student, Salvador Herrando-Pérez (see his previous ConservationBytes.com posts on micro-evolution and pollination).

In the 1960s, Rachel Carson preoccupied (to put it mildly) the political and economic powers of the United States with the publication of her book, Silent Spring, an overwhelming essay highlighting the environmental impacts caused by the pesticide industry. Half a century later, the metaphor of that book – a spring devoid of bird song – stands in force as farmland birds keep declining worldwide at the mercy of agricultural practices insensitive to the ecosystem services biodiversity procures. The problem has been best studied in Europe where non-government organisations, such as the British Trust for Ornithology or the Sociedad Española de Ornitología, have been monitoring bird populations for decades, and the European Union has sumptuously financed research and management actions.

Sparrows are the commonest among common birds. Worldwide we see them wherever humans live, travel and take leisure, from mountains and beaches to stadiums and underground trains. These feathery dwarfs snick even through security checks and sliding doors at airports and shopping malls, and it is no one’s surprise to be overflown by one of them carrying a chip from the leftovers of a nearby food court. However, the deterioration of their populations has sown alarm among European politicians, society, and the scientific community. Read the rest of this entry »