1 million hectares annually – the forest destruction of Indonesia

30 09 2011

© A. Kenyon http://goo.gl/UpG3m

Bill Laurance wrote a compelling and very dour piece in The Conversation this week. He asked for some ‘link love’, so I decided to reproduce the article here for ConservationBytes.com readers. Full credit to Bill and The Conversation, of course.

What comes to mind when you think of Indonesia?

For biologists like myself, Australia’s northern neighbour provokes visions of ancient rainforests being razed by slash-and-burn farmers, and endangered tigers and orangutans fleeing from growling bulldozers.

This reality is true, but there is also hope on the horizon.

Indonesia is a vast, sprawling nation, spanning some 17,000 islands. Among these are Java, Sumatra, half of New Guinea and much of Borneo.

Some of the planet’s most biologically rich and most endangered real estate is found on this archipelago.

Today, Indonesia is losing around 1.1 million hectares of forest annually. That’s an area a third the size of Belgium, bigger than Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

With forest loss now slowing in Brazil, Indonesia has the dubious distinction of being the world’s deforestation “leader”. No nation is destroying its forests faster.

In Sumatra, where I visited recently, the world’s biggest paper-pulp corporations are chopping down hundreds of thousands of hectares of native rainforest to make paper and cardboard.

Some of these corporations also fund aggressive lobbyists, such as World Growth in Washington DC [CJA Bradshaw’s note: see our piece on one particular patron of WG – Alan Oxley], to combat their critics and dissuade major retail chains from dropping their products. Read the rest of this entry »

All that glitters is not gold – ecological traps

27 09 2011

Another corker from Salvador Herrando-Pérez:

Cinema fans know that choosing a movie by the newspaper’s commentary or the promotional poster might be a lottery. In the movie of nature, to confuse ‘the attractive’ with ‘the appropriate’ can compromise the life of an individual and its offspring, even to the extent of anticipating the extinction of an entire population or species.

Animals make daily choices about when, where or with whom to engage in basic activities like eating, hibernating, mating, migrating or resting. Those choices are often strongly tied to highly specific cues – e.g., air temperature, tree density, location of water, or smell of other individuals. And it happens to hair lice jumping from head to head among school kids, or to caribou forming their winter herds prior to the seasonal migration. All species, without exception, persist in nature because those ‘choices’ translate into survival or successful reproduction more often than do not. They are a kind of evolutionary memory imprinted in an organism’s genes and behaviour. However, sometimes the right choice (‘right’ meaning perceiving a cue for the role it actually has in the life cycle) places an individual in the worst of all possible situations. The environment cheats, ‘the attractive’ merely mimics ‘the appropriate’, and the individual fails to reproduce, starves, sickens, or even dies.

Figure 1. Water reservoirs tainted with fuel (see dark contours) in Kuwait following the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Overlaid pictures show the silhouettes of trapped odonates (right), vertebrates (top left) and invertebrates (bottom left) (Photos courtesy of Jochen Zeil).

At the mercy of mirages

During the Gulf War, the destruction of infrastructure for crude exploitation spilled large amounts of fuel in many water reservoirs over the desert landscape of Kuwait. A little later, Horváth and Zeil1 found agglomerations of dead insects (and a range of vertebrates) along the shores of these polluted reservoirs, and observed dragonflies drowning in their kamikaze attempt to spawn on the oily surface (Figure 1). This work stimulated further research whereby Horváth and his team in Budapest showed that odonates are attracted by light polarization at the surface of oiled water2 – hence ‘polarized light pollution’3. Not only that, they recorded insects struggling to spawn on or mate with riveting surfaces such as solar panels, asphalted roads, plastic bags or (creepy enough!) cemetery crypts4. It goes without saying: these insects are victims of a mirage.

Those habitats or features of the habitat that mislead an animal’s choice, often hampering the completion of its life cycle, are known as ‘ecological traps’ – in other words, the environmental cue is decoupled from the quality of the habitat it is meant to signal. Ecological traps were first described in the 1970s by Dwernychuk and Boag5. They found that ducks on the islands of Miquelon lake located their nests among those of seagulls despite the latter happily devoured their ducklings and eggs. When these islands emerged in the middle of last century, they were first colonized by common terns (Sterna hirundo). By defending their own nests ferociously from predators (mainly crows and magpies), the terns inadvertently shielded the nests of their ducky comrades. The Canadians hypothesized that when seagulls subsequently replace terns, the ducks continued to sense their new neighbours as a (now misleading) sign of protection. Read the rest of this entry »

Rise of the phycologists

22 09 2011

Dead man's fingers (Codium fragile) - © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve had an interesting week. First, it’s been about 6 years since I was last in Japan, and I love coming here; the food is exquisite, the people are fantastic (polite, happy, accommodating), everything works (trains, buses, etc.) and most importantly, it has an almost incredible proportion of its native forests intact.

But it wasn’t for forests that I travelled to Japan (nor the sumo currently showing on the guest-room telly where I’m staying – love the sumo): I was here for a calcareous macroalgae workshop.


First, what are ‘macroalgae’, and why are some ‘calcareous’? And why should anyone in their right mind care?

Good questions. Answers: 1. Seaweeds; 2. Many incorporate calcium carbonate into their structures as added structural support; 3. Read on.

Now, I’m no phycologist (seaweed scientist), but I’m fascinated by this particular taxon. I’ve written a few posts about their vital ecological roles (see here and here), but let me regale you with some other important facts about these amazing species.

Some Japanese macroalgae - © CJA Bradshaw

There are about 12,000 known species of macroalgae described by phycologists, but as I’ve learnt this week, this is obviously a vast underestimate. For most taxa that people are investigating now using molecular techniques, the genetic diversity is so high and so geographically structured that there are obviously a huge number of ‘cryptic’ species within our current taxonomic divisions. This could mean that we’re out by up to a factor of 2 in the number of species in the world.

Another amazing fact – about 50 % of all known seaweed species are found in just two countries – Japan and Australia (hence the workshop between Japanese and Australian phycologists). Southern Australia in particular is an endemism hotspot.

Ok. Cool. So far so good. But so what? Read the rest of this entry »

No substitute for primary forest

15 09 2011

© Romulo Fotos http://goo.gl/CrAsE

A little over five years ago, a controversial and spectacularly erroneous paper appeared in the tropical ecology journal Biotropica, the flagship journal of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Now, I’m normally a fan of Biotropica (I have both published there several times and acted as a Subject Editor for several years), but we couldn’t let that paper’s conclusions go unchallenged.

That paper was ‘The future of tropical forest species‘ by Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau, which essentially concluded that the severe deforestation and degradation of tropical forests was not as big a deal as nearly all the rest of the conservation biology community had concluded (remind you of climate change at all?), and that regenerating, degraded and secondary forests would suffice to preserve the enormity and majority of dependent tropical biodiversity.

What rubbish.

Our response, and those of many others (including from Toby Gardner and colleagues and William Laurance), were fast and furious, essentially destroying the argument so utterly that I think most people merely moved on. We know for a fact that tropical biodiversity is waning rapidly, and in many parts of the world, it is absolutely [insert expletive here]. However, the argument has reared its ugly head again and again over the intervening years, so it’s high time we bury this particular nonsense once and for all.

In fact, a few anecdotes are worthy of mention here. Navjot once told me one story about the time when both he and Wright were invited to the same symposium around the time of the initial dust-up in Biotropica. Being Navjot, he tore off strips from Wright in public for his outrageous and unsubstantiated claims – something to which Wright didn’t take too kindly.  On the way home, the two shared the same flight, and apparently Wright refused to acknowledge Navjot’s existence and only glared looks that could kill (hang on – maybe that had something to do with Navjot’s recent and untimely death? Who knows?). Similar public stoushes have been chronicled between Wright and Bill Laurance.

Back to the story. I recall a particular coffee discussion at the National University of Singapore between Navjot Sodhi (may his legacy endure), Barry Brook and me some time later where we planned the idea of a large meta-analysis to compare degraded and ‘primary’ (not overly disturbed) forests. The ideas were fairly fuzzy back then, but Navjot didn’t drop the ball for a moment. He immediately went out and got Tien Ming Lee and his new PhD student, Luke Gibson, to start compiling the necessary studies. It was a thankless job that took several years.

However, the fruits of that labour have now just been published in Nature: ‘Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity‘, led by Luke and Tien Ming, along with Lian Pin Koh, Barry Brook, Toby Gardner, Jos Barlow, Carlos Peres, me, Bill Laurance, Tom Lovejoy and of course, Navjot Sodhi [side note: Navjot died during the review and didn’t survive to hear the good news that the paper was finally accepted].

Using data from 138 studies from Asia, South America and Africa comprising 2220 pair-wise comparisons of biodiversity ‘values’ between forests that had undergone some sort of disturbance (everything from selective logging through to regenerating pasture) and adjacent primary forests, we can now hammer the final nails into the coffin containing the putrid remains of Wright and Muller-Landau’s assertion – there is no substitute for primary forest. Read the rest of this entry »

When you have no idea, you should shut up

12 09 2011

© Taren McCallan-Moore

Last week, The Conversation published a particularly wonderful example of uninformed drivel that requires a little bit of a reality injection.

Like our good friend, the Destroyer of Forests (a.k.a. Alan Oxley), a new pro-deforestation, pro-development cheerleader on the scene, a certain Phillip Lawrence apparently undertaking a PhD entitled ‘Ecological Modernization of the Indonesian Economy: A Political, Cultural and Historical Economic Study‘ at Macquarie University in Sydney (The Conversation mistakenly attributes him to the University of Sydney, unless of course, he’s moved recently), has royally stuck his foot in it with respect to the dangers of oil palm in South-East Asia.

Mr. Lawrence runs an interestingly titled blog ‘Eco Logical Strategies‘, especially considering there is nothing whatsoever regarding ‘ecology’ on the site, and this ignorance comes forth in a wonderful array of verbal spew in his latest Conversation piece. He’s also a consultant for one of the most destructive forces in Indonesia – Asia Pulp and Paper – a company with a more depressive environmental track record than the likes of Monsanto, General Electric and BP combined. That preface of conflict of interest now explained, I will now expose Mr. Lawrence for the wolf in sheep’s clothing he really is.

Banging the development and anti-poverty drum like Oxley, albeit with much less panache and linguistic flourish, Mr. Lawrence boldly claims, without a shred of evidence, that “There is ample peer-reviewed research that is supportive of the palm oil industry in Indonesia.”

Excuse me? Supportive of just what component of the palm oil industry, Mr. Lawrence? Would that be that it makes a shit-load of cash for a preciously small component of Indonesian (and foreign) society? Let’s just look at the peer-reviewed literature, shall we? Read the rest of this entry »

A supervisor’s lament

5 09 2011

© hradcanska http://ow.ly/6lCAO

Time for a little supervisory whinge. I’ve lamented these very issues over many a beer at many a conference, so I thought I’d solidify those hazy arguments into a blog post.

I’m by no means the most burdened academic when it comes to student load. We tend to be very picky in our lab when engaging post-graduate student prospects, and even pickier when hiring post-doctoral fellows (because the latter require little things like salaries that unfortunately, do not grow on trees). We also endeavour to share the load – most of our post-docs have at least one primary PhD student responsibility which reduces some of my burden and gives the post-doc in question the requisite experience in supervising. In my opinion, it’s a good way to run a lab, and allows for a high number of productive students, yet is not overly onerous for any one person.

That said, I make sure I read EVERYTHING my students produce, and I take a certain amount of pride in providing as much of my intellectual input as possible: from study design right through to proof correction. If my name is going to be on a paper, I had better bloody well earn my co-authorship. Read the rest of this entry »

Gone with the birds

1 09 2011


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 »