Translocations: keep it in the family

31 10 2013
Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) comprise 5 species native to North American grasslands. Rather than a ‘dog’ (‘perrito’ or ‘little dog’ in Spanish), this animal is a squirrel (Sciuridae) adapted to ground life. In particular, black-tailed prairie dogs (C. ludovicianus) inhabit the plains between the Frenchman River in Canada and the Mexican stretches of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Individuals have a maximum length of 40 cm and weigh up to 2 kg. The global population is currently estimated at some 18 million individuals over an area that has waned by 90% relative to historical ranges. The species is IUCN ‘Least Concern’ and shows a global ‘decreasing’ trend as a result of ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban development and farming, and susceptibility to Yersinia pestis – a bacteria that causes plague in prairie dogs and other mammals including humans.Colonies, known as ‘coteries’ (from French), are made of several family clans that live in contiguous territories. Clans include one or two males, and several females and juveniles [7]. Females show strong philopatry, while males are the ones that colonise new territories, or mingle with existing clans. Such dispersion pattern, along with daughters deliberately avoiding incest, minimises inbreeding [8]. Burrows consist of >10-m tunnels in which temperatures remain between 5 and 25 ºC irrespective of above-ground temperatures. Prairie dogs are genuine landscape architects with their network of burrows largely increasing edaphic, botanic and zoological diversity [9]. The pic shows two black prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota, USA) (courtesy of Lisa Savage).

If you have lived in different suburbs, cities or even countries, you will be well aware that changing residence feels very different whether you do it on your own or with someone else. In the latter case, you might have to share tasks, and key decisions have to be made on the basis of everybody’s needs. The situation is analogous when managers decide to move a group of animals or plants from one place to another – so-called translocation.

Translocations involve human-assisted movements of organisms into an area (i) that holds an existing population of the same species (re-stocking), or (ii) where the species has been extirpated (re-introduction) or (iii) is outside its historical distribution (introduction) [1] – this terminology follows 1993 IUCN’s Criteria [1, 3], but is unstable, e.g., see [2]. The rationale behind translocations has obvious merits (e.g., to promote population growth following overharvesting, attenuate human-predator conflicts, rescue endangered species) [2]. However, translocations are complex and have a long record of failed attempts in the history of conservation biology, so the resulting waste of resources has prompted a recent re-appraisal of methods [1-3].

Debra Shier investigated the nuisances of a translocation of a social species such as the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) [4]. Shier tagged, sexed and determined (via capture-recapture and field observations) membership to identified family clans in 973 individuals from Vermejo Park (New Mexico, USA). She then introduced clans to ten dog-free sites with soil quality and vegetation cover akin to the historical distribution of the species. In five of those sites, Shier translocated family clans (4 to 7 individuals per clan) and in the other five sites she freed clans made up of members being picked up randomly (1 male, 2 females, 2 juveniles). During a period of 9-10 months after translocation, Shier monitored the behaviour of females and ultimately re-captured all introduced individuals. She found that 50% of the dogs had survived translocation, and assumed that the remainder had died since individuals rarely disperse more than three km from their natal area, and aerial surveys spotted no dogs in a four-km perimeter around the point of release.

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Making the scientific workshop work

28 10 2013
I don't mean this

I don’t mean this

I’ve been a little delayed in blogging this month, but for a very good reason – I’ve just experienced one of the best workshops of my career. I’d like to share a little of that perfect science recipe with you now.

I’ve said it before, but it can stand being repeated: done right, workshops can be some of the most efficient structures for doing big science.

First, let me define ‘workshop’ for those of you who might have only a vague notion of what it entails. To me, a workshop is a small group of like-minded scientists – all of whom possess different skills and specialities – who are brought together to achieve one goal. That goal is writing the superlative manuscript for publication.

So I don’t mean just a bog-standard chin-wag infected with motherhoods and diatribes. Workshops are not mini-conferences; neither are they soap boxes. It is my personal view that nothing can waste a scientist’s precious time more than an ill-planned and aimless workshop.

But with a little planning and some key ingredients that I’ll list shortly, you can turn a moderately good idea into something that can potentially shake the foundations of an entire discipline. So what are these secret ingredients? Read the rest of this entry »

Making science matter

14 10 2013


I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »

Greenies can be pro-nuclear

7 10 2013

happy-nuclear-powerPublished today on The Conversation by Ben Heard & me.

The IPCC fifth climate change report lays out a carbon budget that we must follow if we’re to keep the world under a temperature rise of 2C over pre-industrial levels – the widely accepted level above which lies catastrophic climate change. According to the report, we can “spend” 1,000 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 in total. We’ve already spent more than half, and at the current rates we are on track to blow the other half in 30 years.

Not only is human society at risk from this unprecedented rate of warming, the ecosystems on which all life is based are also seriously under threat.

So it’s a timely moment to look at how we could avoid burning through our carbon budget, including controversial options such as nuclear energy.

This week marks the beginning of the Australian tour of a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film aims to dispel myths and spark a debate about whether you can be simultaneously “pro-nuclear” and an environmentalist.

Renewable failure

Even with the best of intentions to reduce the magnitude of future climate disruption, decades of focus on carbon pricing and the promotion of renewable energy sources cannot hide our failure to provide scalable, large, reliable sources of clean (low or emissions-free) energy.

Today, wind turbines and solar panels combined deliver only around 3% of total electricity consumption in Australia, with coal providing 70 %, and gas another 20 %. The contribution of renewable energy has decreased over time – in 1960 renewable energy contributed 19% (largely thanks to hydropower) and coal 76 %. Total renewable energy contribution today, including hydro, has shrunk to 9%.

This is thanks, in substantial part, to the mismatch between dispersed, intermittent wind and solar technologies and the large, continuous fossil fuels we need to replace.

These sobering statistics are in no way an argument to abandon renewables, but they are evidence of a serious failure to date and point to near-certain failure in future. Passing the blame to media, fossil fuel interests or other favoured scapegoats makes us feel good and is no doubt deserved. But we must also cease avoiding uncomfortable truths about the inadequacy of the solutions we have advocated to date. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXI

4 10 2013

Interim post following some mind- and body-stressing international travel. I present another 6 biodiversity cartoons (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

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