You’re not even remotely concerned enough

31 08 2012

I’ve just returned from a 6-week trip to the United States and I am now dealing with the intensity of things left undone for so long [sigh]. But that trip was interesting for many reasons. First, and as I’ve already posted, I finished a book with Paul Ehrlich that will be out sometime early in 2013 (but I won’t deal with that here). I also attended an interesting, if slightly confusing, conference on ecosystem services. And finally, I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Barnosky in person, and we decided that we should definitely collaborate on a few things.

Another thing that struck me – and this happens no matter how often I visit the U.S., is just how completely insane that country’s politics are. The extremist, libertarian, plutotheocratic bullshit spewed by the far right to the detriment of the very people who support them is enough to make you vomit. And this startling and thoroughly backward world-view is now starting to penetrate more and more into Australian society and politics. From an environmental perspective, it’s a continuation of a downhill slide that started with Reagan’s destruction of environmentalism in the U.S., and Joh Bjelke-Petersen‘s war on the environment in Australia, and will only continue to get worse.

Of course, the main victim of reason in all these polemic politics is that we are doing next to nothing to mitigate horrendous climate disruption. Only yesterday, George Monbiot was lamenting (nay, pleading) that our governments are doing practically nil to avoid what can only be described as the greatest threat to our way of life since the World War II – in fact, the War and its associated holocaust is small bikkies compared to what awaits us.

And this is the most stressing part – even people who choose to use their brains and accept that we have an immense, global problem on our hands generally are not even remotely concerned enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Restoring doomed fish

24 08 2012

I get called a doomsday merchant a lot, mainly because there’s not a lot of good news out there when it comes to biodiversity these days. However, now and again there is a success story worth shouting from the rooftops. This latest post comes from my PhD student, Jarod Lyon (also of the Arthur Rylah Institute in Victoria), who is working on restoring native freshwater fish in Australia’s largest river system – the Murray-Darling. The M-D also happens to be in a lot of trouble because of poor water management and years of neglect. However, some clever research and restoration proves that we can bring biodiversity back from the brink if done right. Jarod has posted here on Conservation Bytes before describing his work, and this latest post provides some detail on one species in particular.

Trout cod Maccullochella macquariensis were once considered to be widespread in the southern tributaries of the Murray-Darling Basin. However over the past fifty years, their distribution and abundance have declined dramatically, due to a number of disturbances including habitat loss, altered flow and temperature patterns, in-stream sedimentation, population fragmentation due to in-stream barriers and over fishing. Trout cod are listed nationally as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act 1999) and listed under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (FFG Act 1988). Trout cod are often accidentally caught when fishing for Murray cod. However, it is illegal to take a trout cod while angling.

Trout cod were historically abundant in the lower Ovens River system in South-Eastern Australia, however were locally extinct by the 1980s. In an attempt to re-introduce a viable population in the Ovens River, hatchery-reared juvenile trout cod were stocked in the Ovens River system for ten years starting in 1997. Our recent manuscript published in Marine and Freshwater Research assesses the success of this stocking regime (particularly in relation to recovery plan objectives) through a variety of techniques, including fish surveys and analysis of gonads, otoliths and genetic structure of the population.

We found that the Ovens River now holds a naturally self-sustaining population of trout cod – that is, the progeny of stocked fishes are now breeding.  Given that most threatened species re-introduction programs worldwide fail, this is somewhat of a good-news story for management of rare animals. In particular, we found that the length of the stocking program was a major factor in its success, as the long time period overcame the years where the survival of the stocked fingerlings was low. Interestingly, most fish to recruit to an adult size were stocked in 2003 or 2004 – meaning if this had been a five-year program, it would most likely have failed. Read the rest of this entry »

Degraded States of Ausmerica

20 08 2012

You might remember that I’ve been in California for several weeks now. The principal reason for my visit was to finish a book that Paul Ehrlich and I started last year. So, without the major distractions of everyday university life, I’ve spent much of my time lately at Stanford University in a little office next to Paul’s trying to finish (I also attended a conference in Portland, Oregon).

Yesterday, we wrote the last few paragraphs. A giant gorilla has now lumbered its way off my back.

So. What is the book about, you might ask? I can’t give away too many details, but I will give a few teasers. The book is called, at least for now, ‘Oz & US’, which is a bit of a play of words. In the book we contrast the environmental histories, current state of affairs, and likely futures of our respective nations. It’s written in a popular style so that non-specialists can learn a little something about how bad the environment has become in our two countries.

At first glance, one might wonder why we chose to contrast the U.S. and Australia – they are quite different beasts, indeed. Their histories are immensely different, from the aboriginal populations, through to European colonisation (timing and drivers), biological (including agricultural) productivities, carrying capacities, population sizes and politics. But these differences belie too many convergences in the environmental states of each nation – we now both have increasingly degraded environments, we have both pushed the boundaries of our carrying capacities, and our environmental politics are in a shambles. In other words, despite having started with completely different conditions, our toll on nature’s life-support systems is now remarkably similar.

And anyone who knows Paul and me will appreciate that the book is completely irreverent. We have taken off the gloves in preparation for a bare-knuckle fight with the plutocrats and theocrats now threatening the lives of our grandchildren. We pull no punches here. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Ecology postgraduate opportunities

12 08 2012

I should have published these ages ago, but like many things I have should have done earlier, I didn’t.

I also apologise for a bit of silence over the past week. After coming back from the ESP Conference in Portland, I’m now back at Stanford University working with Paul Ehrlich trying to finish our book (no sneak peaks yet, I’m afraid). I have to report that we’ve completed about about 75 % it, and I’m starting to feel like the end is in sight. We hope to have it published early in 2013.

So here they are – the latest 9 PhD offerings from us at the Global Ecology Laboratory. If you want to get more information, contact the first person listed as the first supervisor at the end of each project’s description.

1. Optimal survey and harvest models for South Australian macropods (I’ve advertised this before, but so far, no takers):

The South Australia Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) is custodian of a long-term macropod database derived from the State’s management of the commercial kangaroo harvest industry. The dataset entails aerial survey data for most of the State from 1978 to present, annual population estimates, quotas and harvests for three species: red kangaroo (Macropus rufus), western grey kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus), and the euro (Macropus robustus erubescens).

DEWNR wishes to improve the efficiency of surveys and increase the precision of population estimates, as well as provide a more quantitative basis for setting harvest quotas.

We envisage that the PhD candidate will design and construct population models:

  • to predict population size/densities with associated uncertainty, linking fluctuations to environmental variability (including future climate change projections)
  • to evaluate the efficiency of spatially explicit aerial surveys
  • to estimate demographic parameters (e.g., survival rate) from life tables and
  • to estimate spatially explicit sustainable harvest quotas

 Supervisors: me, A/Prof. Phill Cassey, Dr Damien Fordham, Dr Brad Page (DEWNR), Professor Michelle Waycott (DEWNR).

2. Correcting for the Signor-Lipps effect

The ‘Signor-Lipps effect’ in palaeontology is the notion that the last organism of a given species will never be recorded as a fossil given the incomplete nature of the fossil record (the mirror problem is the ‘Jaanusson effect’, where the first occurrence is delayed past the true time of origination). This problem makes inference about the timing and speed of mass extinctions (and evolutionary diversification events) elusive. The problem is further complicated by the concept known as the ‘pull of the recent’, which states that the more time since an event occurred, the greater the probability that evidence of that event will have disappeared (e.g., erased by erosion, hidden by deep burial, etc.).

In a deep-time context, these problems confound the patterns of mass extinctions – i.e., the abruptness of extinction and the dynamics of recovery and speciation. This PhD project will apply a simulation approach to marine fossil time series (for genera and families, and some individual species) covering the Phanerozoic Aeon, as well as other taxa straddling the K-T boundary (Cretaceous mass extinction). The project will seek to correct for taphonomic biases and assess the degree to which extinction events for different major taxa were synchronous.

The results will also have implications for the famous Sepkoski curve, which describes the apparent logistic increase in marine species diversity over geological time with an approximate ‘carrying capacity’ reached during the Cenozoic. Despite recent demonstration that this increase is partially a taphonomic artefact, a far greater development and validation/sensitivity analysis of underlying statistical models is needed to resolve the true patterns of extinction and speciation over this period.

The approach will be to develop a series of models describing the interaction of the processes of speciation, local extinction and taphonomic ‘erasure’ (pull of the recent) to simulate how these processes interact to create the appearance of growth in numbers of taxa over time (Sepkoski curve) and the abruptness of mass extinction events. The candidate will estimate key parameters in the model to test whether the taphonomic effect is strong enough to be the sole explanation of the apparent temporal increase in species diversity, or whether true diversification accounts for this.

Supervisors: me, Prof. Barry Brook

3. Genotypic relationships of Australian rabbit populations and consequences for disease dynamics

Historical evidence suggests that there were multiple introduction events of European rabbits into Australia. In non-animal model weed systems it is clear that biocontrol efficacy is strongly influenced by the degree of genetic diversity and number of breed variants in the population.

The PhD candidate will build phylogenetic relationships for Australian rabbit populations and develop landscape genetic models for exploring the influence of myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) on rabbit vital rates (survival, reproduction and dispersal) at regional and local scales. Multi-model synthesis will be used to quantify the relative roles of environment (including climate) and genotype on disease prevalence and virulence in rabbit populations.

Supervisors: A/Prof Phill Cassey, Dr Damien Fordham, Prof Barry Brook 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 »