Seven signs your country has an environmental problem

29 04 2013

1. It’s almost always hazy – and not just in the cities. The particulate matter pollution makes even sunny days appear like it’s about to rain. To add insult to injury, almost every advertisement with anything to do with ‘outside’ pictures a pristinely blue sky and copious sunshine, without the hint of grey. When stepping off the aeroplane, the distinct taste of tar hits the back of your throat.

2. You can’t drink the water from the tap – not anywhere. In fact, you can’t even brush your teeth with it or risk getting some nasty intestinal parasite.

3. You can’t plant trees fast enough because the frequency of landslips kills hundreds of people yearly.

4. While catching a taxi from the airport, the driver plays a continuous loop of birds singing, because most residents never hear those sounds.

5. You have an economy in over-drive, and yet you still think of yourself as ‘developing’.

6. Emerging infectious disease jumping from livestock to humans is now a near-regular occurrence, with new and weird diseases that threaten to become human pandemics and mutating with alarming speed popping up everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Touchy-feely ecologists

18 04 2013

happy scientistOne of the many reasons I started this blog nearly five years ago was to engage both minds and hearts that my (and my colleagues’) scientific journal papers were failing to do. Of course we have emotional attachment to our areas of expertise (I’ve never met a good scientist who wasn’t passionate about what they studied) – but as Alejandro Frid encourages – we just have to transmit that emotional component better to our fellow human beings.

The title is not a joke about sensitive, New Age guys. I am quite serious about it. Though no academic superstar, I have been publishing in ecological and conservation journals for almost twenty years. I love the discipline. I’d hate to see it fail.

What I am talking about is this: ecologists read and write about ‘extinction’, ‘over-exploitation’, ‘climate change’ and so forth as a matter of routine. Yet at the same time, science journals are full of examples of how resources can be used more sustainably, of human behaviours that reduce the greenhouse gases that alter the climate and acidify the oceans, and of alternative economic models that value a healthy biosphere. So why do consumer apathy and political inertia still run the same old show?

I know, I know. Social scientists are working hard on this question (check out, for instance, just about any issue of Nature Climate Change). But what matters is not the rigorous answer that they might produce (we already know that it is 42 – Douglas Adams couldn’t be wrong); it is instead that most non-scientists probably don’t even care about the question. Read the rest of this entry »

Help us restore a forest

12 04 2013

plantingI’m not usually one to promote conservation volunteer opportunities, but this is a little different. First, I’m involved in this one, and second, it’s very near to my home. As you might know, the Mount Lofty Ranges area has had about 90 % of its forests destroyed since European settlement, with a corresponding loss of ecosystem services. We need smart restoration on massive scale, and Monarto is one place where we can develop the best practices to achieve this goal. We really do need some help here, so I encourage anyone in the Adelaide area with an interest in evidence-based forest restoration to lend us a hand.

The Monarto Restoration Project will provide an internationally recognised opportunity to experience and engage with wild Australia as it was.

Our aim is restore and expand habitats at Monarto to represent what used to exist in the region before clearing for agriculture and the introduction of pest species. Monarto used to be teeming with wildlife. The remnant vegetation at Monarto is unique as it is located at the cross-over of two vegetation communities (the Mt Lofty Ranges and Murray Mallee). This means it provides important habitat for a range of threatened bird and plant species. However, there are still a number of species in danger of being lost from the area, so we need to focus on restoring habitat to support them too.

We provide an opportunity to see the bush in a way that is no longer possible in most parts of Australia. We hope to help you see what we have lost and encourage you to participate in conservation. It gives us the opportunity to include everyone in on-ground conservation work and pass on skills that can be applied beyond a day or this project. With your help we can reduce the impacts of pest species on the property and re-introduce some of the native species that are now locally extinct. Read the rest of this entry »

Software tools for conservation biologists

8 04 2013

computer-programmingGiven the popularity of certain prescriptive posts on, I thought it prudent to compile a list of software that my lab and I have found particularly useful over the years. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it will give you a taste for what’s out there. I don’t list the plethora of conservation genetics software that is available (generally given my lack of experience with it), but if this is your chosen area, I’d suggest starting with Dick Frankham‘s excellent book, An Introduction to Conservation Genetics.

1. R: If you haven’t yet loaded the open-source R programming language on your machine, do it now. It is the single-most-useful bit of statistical and programming software available to anyone anywhere in the sciences. Don’t worry if you’re not a fully fledged programmer – there are now enough people using and developing sophisticated ‘libraries’ (packages of functions) that there’s pretty much an application for everything these days. We tend to use R to the exclusion of almost any other statistical software because it makes you learn the technique rather than just blindly pressing the ‘go’ button. You could also stop right here – with R, you can do pretty much everything else that the software listed below does; however, you have to be an exceedingly clever programmer and have a lot of spare time. R can also sometimes get bogged down with too much filled RAM, in which case other, compiled languages such as PYTHON and C# are useful.

2. VORTEX/OUTBREAK/META-MODEL MANAGER, etc.: This suite of individual-based projection software was designed by Bob Lacy & Phil Miller initially to determine the viability of small (usually captive) populations. The original VORTEX has grown into a multi-purpose, powerful and sophisticated population viability analysis package that now links to its cousin applications like OUTBREAK (the only off-the-shelf epidemiological software in existence) via the ‘command centre’ META-MODEL MANAGER (see an examples here and here from our lab). There are other add-ons that make almost any population projection and hindcasting application possible. And it’s all free! (warning: currently unavailable for Mac, although I’ve been pestering Bob to do a Mac version).

3. RAMAS: RAMAS is the go-to application for spatial population modelling. Developed by the extremely clever Resit Akçakaya, this is one of the only tools that incorporates spatial meta-population aspects with formal, cohort-based demographic models. It’s also very useful in a climate-change context when you have projections of changing habitat suitability as the base layer onto which meta-population dynamics can be modelled. It’s not free, but it’s worth purchasing. Read the rest of this entry »

Let the planting begin

3 04 2013
A tough little Eucalyptus porosa - one day soon this entire ex-paddock will be filled with carbon-guzzling natives.

A tough little Eucalyptus porosa – one day soon this entire ex-paddock will be filled with carbon-guzzling natives. Note the plot markers in the background.

I had a great morning today checking out the progress of our carbon-biodiversity planting experiment out at Monarto Zoo. What a fantastic effort! Briony Horner and her team have made some amazing progress.

If you haven’t read about what we’re up to, here’s a brief re-cap:

Late last year we were awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project grant in which we proposed to examine experimentally the cost-benefit trade-off between biodiversity and carbon using a replicated planting regime. The approach is quite simple, but it will take many years to pay off. What we are asking is: how many different species and in what densities are required to restore a native woodland from an over-grazed paddock that provide the biggest long-term biodiversity and carbon benefits simultaneously for the lowest costs?

Read the rest of this entry »