Too small to avoid catastrophic biodiversity meltdown

27 09 2013
Chiew Larn

Chiew Larn Reservoir is surrounded by Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary and Khao Sok National Park, which together make up part of the largest block of rainforest habitat in southern Thailand (> 3500 km2). Photo: Antony Lynam

One of the perennial and probably most controversial topics in conservation ecology is when is something “too small’. By ‘something’ I mean many things, including population abundance and patch size. We’ve certainly written about the former on many occasions (see here, here, here and here for our work on minimum viable population size), with the associated controversy it elicited.

Now I (sadly) report on the tragedy of the second issue – when is a habitat fragment too small to be of much good to biodiversity?

Published today in the journal Science, Luke Gibson (of No substitute for primary forest fame) and a group of us report disturbing results about the ecological meltdown that has occurred on islands created when the Chiew Larn Reservoir of southern Thailand was flooded nearly 30 years ago by a hydroelectric dam.

As is the case in many parts of the world (e.g., Three Gorges Dam, China), hydroelectric dams can cause major ecological problems merely by flooding vast areas. In the case of Charn Liew, co-author Tony Lynam of Wildlife Conservation Society passed along to me a bit of poignant and emotive history about the local struggle to prevent the disaster.

“As the waters behind the dam were rising in 1987, Seub Nakasathien, the Superintendent of the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary, his staff and conservationist friends, mounted an operation to capture and release animals that were caught in the flood waters.

It turned out to be distressing experience for all involved as you can see from the clips here, with the rescuers having only nets and longtail boats, and many animals dying. Ultimately most of the larger mammals disappeared quickly from the islands, leaving just the smaller fauna.

Later Seub moved to Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and fought an unsuccessful battle with poachers and loggers, which ended in him taking his own life in despair in 1990. A sad story, and his friend, a famous folk singer called Aed Carabao, wrote a song about Seub, the music of which plays in the video. Read the rest of this entry »

Science immortalised in cartoon Version 2.0

24 09 2013

© Seppo Leinonen

I’m in the middle of participating in a short-course on science communication based at the University of Helsinki‘s Lammi Biological Station (about 1.5 hours north of Helsinki by car). Organised by two fantastic people, Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin, it’s an eclectic mix of instruction for (mainly) PhD students on how to promote yourself and your science in print, in media, in illustration, in citizen science and for policy makers.

While we aren’t yet finished, I wanted to report that I had the immense pleasure of finally meeting the immeasurably talented environmental cartoonist, Seppo Leinonen. Not only is he an extremely talented artist and a dedicated environmentalist, he’s just a top bloke.

If you haven’t checked out and his cartoons yet, you should.

This is just a brief post to spruik his fine work, and show off his parting cartoon gift to me: Read the rest of this entry »

Early to press is best for success

19 09 2013

publishingThis paper is bound to piss off a few people. So be it. This is what we found, regardless of what you want to believe.

Led by the extremely prolific Bill Laurance, we have just published a paper (online early) that looks at the correlates of publication success for biologists.

I have to preface the main message with a little philosophical discussion of that loaded word – ‘success’. What do we mean by scientific ‘success’? There are several bucket loads of studies that have attempted to get at this question, and several more that have lamented the current system that emphasises publication, publication, publication. Some have even argued that the obsession of ever-more-frequent publication has harmed scientific advancement because of our preoccupation with superficial metrics at the expense of in-depth scientific enquiry.

Well, one can argue these points of view, and empirically support the position that publication frequency is a poor metric. I tend to agree. At the same time, I am not aware of a single scientist known for her or his important scientific contributions that doesn’t have a prolific publication output. No, publishing shitloads of papers won’t win you the Nobel Prize, but if you don’t publish, you won’t win either.

So, publication frequency is certainly correlated with success, even if it’s not the perfect indicator. But my post today isn’t really about that issue. If you accept that writing papers is part of a scientist’s job, then read on. If you don’t, well …

So today I report the result of our study published online in BioScience, Predicting publication success for biologists. We asked the question: what makes someone publish more than someone else? Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation: So easy a child could do it

13 09 2013

child's playI don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.

But I’ve mentioned my daughter before on this blog, and despite a few people insinuating that I am a bad parent because of what I said, I am happy that I made the point that climate change is a scary concept of which our children must at least be cognisant.

My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.

As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).

Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors. Read the rest of this entry »

How to make the most of a conference

5 09 2013

conferenceHaving just attended two major international conferences back-to-back (ICCB 2013 in Baltimore, USA and INTECOL 2013 in London, UK), I thought it might be a good idea to proffer some advice for those who are relatively new to the conference carousel. Having attended some larger number raised to the power of another conferences since I started this science gig, I think I’ve figured out a few definitely do-s, and positively don’t-s.

Some might argue that the scientific conference is a thing of the past. Now with super-fast internet, Twitter, open-access, Skype and video conference calls, why would we need to travel half way around the planet to sit day after day in some stuffy room to listen to some boring snippets of half-finished research? Why indeed would I get jet-lagged, spend a sizeable chunk of my research grant and emit a bucket-load of carbon just to listen to some boring old farts tell me the same thing they’ve been doing for the last 20 years?

If that were all conferences were about, I would never attend another for the rest of my career. Thankfully, that’s not why we go.

Yes, it’s easy to go online these days and see what your colleagues are up to (and if they don’t have a good online profile, they almost don’t exist these days). It’s also easier and easier to download important papers from almost anyone and in almost any journal. So clearly conferences are not primarily about finding out what research is being done; in fact, I argue that that’s not their role at all.

The most important aspect of a conference are the social events. Yes, the social events.

That might sound like a joke, but I’m dreadfully serious. Read the rest of this entry »