No-extinction targets are destined to fail

21 09 2012

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and now finally I have been given the opportunity to put my ideas ‘down on paper’ (seems like a bit of an old-fashioned expression these days). Now this post might strike some as overly parochial because it concerns the state in which I live, but the concept applies to every jurisdiction that passes laws designed to protect biodiversity. So please look beyond my navel and place the example within your own specific context.

As CB readers will appreciate, I am firmly in support of the application of conservation triage – that is, the intelligent, objective and realistic way of attributing finite resources to minimise extinctions for the greatest number of (‘important’) species. Note that deciding which species are ‘important’ is the only fly in the unguent here, with ‘importance’ being defined inter alia as having a large range (to encompass many other species simultaneously), having an important ecological function or ecosystem service, representing rare genotypes, or being iconic (such that people become interested in investing to offset extinction.

But without getting into the specifics of triage per se, a related issue is how we set environmental policy targets. While it’s a lovely, utopian pipe dream that somehow our consumptive 7-billion-and-growing human population will somehow retract its massive ecological footprint and be able to save all species from extinction, we all know that this is irrevocably  fantastical.

So when legislation is passed that is clearly unattainable, why do we accept it as realistic? My case in point is South Australia’s ‘No Species Loss Strategy‘ (you can download the entire 7.3 Mb document here) that aims to

“…lose no more species in South Australia, whether they be on land, in rivers, creeks, lakes and estuaries or in the sea.”

When I first learned of the Strategy, I instantly thought to myself that while the aims are laudable, and many of the actions proposed are good ones, the entire policy is rendered toothless by the small issue of being impossible. Read the rest of this entry »

Ecology is a Tower of Babel

17 09 2012

The term ‘ecology’ in 16 different languages overlaid on the oil on board ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

In his song ‘Balada de Babel’, the Spanish artist Luis Eduardo Aute sings several lyrics in unison with the same melody. The effect is a wonderful mess. This is what the scientific literature sounds like when authors generate synonymies (equivalent meaning) and polysemies (multiple meanings), or coin terms to show a point of view. In our recent paper published in Oecologia, we illustrate this problem with regard to ‘density dependence’: a key ecological concept. While the biblical reference is somewhat galling to our atheist dispositions, the analogy is certainly appropriate.

A giant shoal of herring zigzagging in response to a predator; a swarm of social bees tending the multitudinous offspring of their queen; a dense pine forest depriving its own seedlings from light; an over-harvested population of lobsters where individuals can hardly find reproductive mates; pioneering strands of a seaweed colonising a foreign sea after a transoceanic trip attached to the hulk of boat; respiratory parasites spreading in a herd of caribou; or malaria protozoans making their way between mosquitoes and humans – these are all examples of population processes that operate under a density check. The number of individuals within those groups of organisms determines their chances for reproduction, survival or dispersal, which we (ecologists) measure as ‘demographic rates’ (e.g., number of births per mother, number of deaths between consecutive years, or number of immigrants per hectare).

In ecology, the causal relationship between the size of a population and a demographic rate is known as ‘density dependence’ (DD hereafter). This relationship captures the pace at which a demographic rate changes as population size varies in time and/or space. We use DD measurements to infer the operation of social and trophic interactions (cannibalism, competition, cooperation, disease, herbivory, mutualism, parasitism, parasitoidism, predation, reproductive behaviour and the like) between individuals within a population1,2, because the intensity of these interactions varies with population size. Thus, as a population of caribou expands, respiratory parasites will have an easier job to disperse from one animal to another. As the booming parasites breed, increased infestations will kill the weakest caribou or reduce the fertility of females investing too much energy to counteract the infection (yes, immunity is energetically costly, which is why you get sick when you are run down). In turn, as the caribou population decreases, so does the population of parasites3. In cybernetics, such a toing-and-froing is known as ‘feedback’ (a system that controls itself, like a thermostat controls the temperature of a room) – a ‘density feedback’ (Figure 1) is the kind we are highlighting here. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XVI

12 09 2012

While in transit between tropical and temperate Australia, here’s the latest batch of 6 biodiversity cartoons (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »

Native invaders divide loyalties

7 09 2012

California sea lion at Bonneville fish ladder. Credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

As if to mimic the weirder and weirder weather human-caused climate disruption is cooking up for us, related science stories seem to come in floods and droughts. Yes, research trends become fashionable too (imagine a science fashion show? – but I digress…).

Only yesterday, the ABC published an opinion piece on the controversies surrounding which species we call ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ (based on a recent paper published in Global Ecology and Biogeography), and in June this year, Salvador Herrando-Pérez wrote a great little article on the topic entitled “The invader’s double edge“.

Then today, I received a request to publish a guest post here on from Lauren Kuehne, a research scientist in Julian Olden‘s lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. The topic? Why, the controversies surrounding invasive species, of course! Lauren’s following article demonstrates yet again that it’s not that simple.

A drawback to the attention garnered by high-profile invasive species is the tendency to infer that every non-native species is bad news, the inverse assumption being that all native species must be ‘good’. While this storyline works well for Hollywood films and faerie tales, in ecology the truth is rarely that simple. A new review article in the September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, describes the challenges and heartbreaks when native species run amok in the sense of having negative ecological impacts we typically associate with non-native species. Examples in the paper range from unchecked expansions of juniper trees in sagebrush ecosystems with wildfire suppression, to overgrazing by elk (wapiti) released from predation following the removal of wolves and mountain lions. Read the rest of this entry »

The climate of climate change

4 09 2012

The primary scientific literature on climate change spawns hundreds of debates on an array of topics. When the technical debate among experts, and the obvious uncertainties, are taken up by the media, they are typically treated as any other topic, which ends up in some people not trusting science and others exploiting the ‘debate’ for their own interests.

Many media debates consist of one moderator and several speakers with two confronting views. When the topic under discussion affects our daily life (e.g., unemployment), the average spectator will often agree with one of the views. When the topic affects people (apparently) in a general fashion (e.g., climate change), the spectator might distrust or simply ignore both views. Thus, the media shapes public opinion such that people’s perception of the news becomes black, white, “I don’t believe it” or “it doesn’t exist”. Public debates on climate change are like a ‘contact sport’ (1), a team has to win in a contest where both parties alternate attack and defence. The participation of speakers without specialised expertise on climate change, especially if they represent short-term political and economic interests, instigates public mistrust and inhibition (2). This situation erodes the informative role that science and scientists must play in the creation of novel environmental policies aiming to improve the present and future wellbeing of our society (3, a Science paper unsurprisingly challenged by US administration’ bastion Fred Singer: 4). Read the rest of this entry »