Population of First Australians grew to millions, much more than previous estimates

30 04 2021

Shutterstock/Jason Benz Bennee

We know it is more than 60,000 years since the first people entered the continent of Sahul — the giant landmass that connected New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania when sea levels were lower than today.

But where the earliest people moved across the landscape, how fast they moved, and how many were involved, have been shrouded in mystery.

Our latest research, published today shows the establishment of populations in every part of this giant continent could have occurred in as little as 5,000 years. And the entire population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people.

This translates to more than 3 million people in the area that is now modern-day Australia, far more than any previous estimate.

Read more: We mapped the ‘super-highways’ the First Australians used to cross the ancient land

The first people could have entered through what is now western New Guinea or from the now-submerged Sahul Shelf off the modern-day Kimberley (or both).

But whichever the route, entire communities of people arrived, adapted to and established deep cultural connections with Country over 11 million square kilometres of land, from northwestern Sahul to Tasmania.

A map showing a much larger landmass as Australia is joined to both Tasmania and New Guinea due to lower sea levels

Map of what Australia looked like for most of the human history of the continent when sea levels were lower than today. Author provided

This equals a rate of population establishment of about 1km per year (based on a maximum straight-line distance of about 5,000km from the introduction point to the farthest point).

That’s doubly impressive when you consider the harshness of the Australian landscape in which people both survived and thrived.

Previous estimates of Indigenous population

Various attempts have been made to calculate the number of people living in Australia before European invasion. Estimates vary from 300,000 to more than 1,200,000 people. Read the rest of this entry »

No, you can’t argue the Medieval warm period is evidence that today’s climate change isn’t all that bad

23 04 2021
As this reconstructed village shows, Vikings made it as far as Newfoundland during the Medieval warm period. Wikimedia/Dylan Kereluk, CC BY-SA

Frédérik Saltré, Flinders University and Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University

What was the Medieval warm period? What caused it, and did carbon dioxide play a role?

We are living in a world that is getting warmer year by year, threatening our environment and way of life.

But what if these climate conditions were not exceptional? What if it had already happened in the past when human influences were not part of the picture?

The often mentioned Medieval warm period seems to fit the bill. This evokes the idea that if natural global warming and all its effects occurred in the past without humans causing them, then perhaps we are not responsible for this one. And it does not really matter because if we survived one in the past, then we can surely survive one now.

But it’s just not that simple.

Read more: 2,000 years of records show it’s getting hotter, faster

The Medieval climate anomaly

This Medieval period of warming, also known as the Medieval climate anomaly, was associated with an unusual temperature rise roughly between 750 and 1350 AD (the European Middle Ages). The available evidence suggests that at times, some regions experienced temperatures exceeding those recorded during the period between 1960 and 1990. Read the rest of this entry »

Attack of the alien invaders: pest plants and animals leave a frightening $1.7 trillion bill

19 04 2021


They’re one of the most damaging environmental forces on Earth. They’ve colonised pretty much every place humans have set foot on the planet. Yet you might not even know they exist.

We’re talking about alien species. Not little green extraterrestrials, but invasive plants and animals not native to an ecosystem and which become pests. They might be plants from South America, starfish from Africa, insects from Europe or birds from Asia.

These species can threaten the health of plants and animals, including humans. And they cause huge economic harm. Our research, recently published in the journal Nature, puts a figure on that damage. We found that globally, invasive species cost US$1.3 trillion (A$1.7 trillion) in money lost or spent between 1970 and 2017.

The cost is increasing exponentially over time. And troublingly, most of the cost relates to the damage and losses invasive species cause. Meanwhile, far cheaper control and prevention measures are often ignored.

Yellow crazy ants attacking a gecko
Yellow crazy ants, such as these attacking a gecko, are among thousands of invasive species causing ecological and economic havoc. Dinakarr, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

An expansive toll

Invasive species have been invading foreign territories for centuries. They hail from habitats as diverse as tropical forests, dry savannas, temperate lakes and cold oceans.

They arrived because we brought them — as pets, ornamental plants or as stowaways on our holidays or via commercial trade.

Read the rest of this entry »

The biggest and slowest don’t always bite it first

13 04 2021

For many years I’ve been interested in modelling the extinction dynamics of megafauna. Apart from co-authoring a few demographically simplified (or largely demographically free) models about how megafauna species could have gone extinct, I have never really tried to capture the full nuances of long-extinct species within a fully structured demographic framework.

That is, until now.

But how do you get the life-history data of an extinct animal that was never directly measured. Surely, things like survival, reproductive output, longevity and even environmental carrying capacity are impossible to discern, and aren’t these necessary for a stage-structured demographic model?

Thylacine mum & joey. Nellie Pease & CABAH

The answer to the first part of that question “it’s possible”, and to the second, it’s “yes”. The most important bit of information we palaeo modellers need to construct something that’s ecologically plausible for an extinct species is an estimate of body mass. Thankfully, palaeontologists are very good at estimating the mass of the things they dig up (with the associated caveats, of course). From such estimates, we can reconstruct everything from equilibrium densities, maximum rate of population growth, age at first breeding, and longevity.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. In Australia anyway, we’re largely dealing with marsupials (and some monotremes), and they have a rather different life-history mode than most placentals. We therefore have to ‘correct’ the life-history estimates derived from living placental species. Thankfully, evolutionary biologists and ecologists have ways to do that too.

The Pleistocene kangaroo Procoptodon goliah, the largest and most heavily built of the  short-faced kangaroos, was the largest and most heavily built kangaroo known. It had an  unusually short, flat face and forwardly directed 
eyes, with a single large toe on each foot  (reduced from the more normal count of four). Each forelimb had two long, clawed fingers  that would have been used to bring leafy branches within reach.

So with a battery of ecological, demographic, and evolutionary tools, we can now create reasonable stochastic-demographic models for long-gone species, like wombat-like creatures as big as cars, birds more than two metres tall, and lizards more than seven metres long that once roamed the Australian continent. 

Ancient clues, in the shape of fossils and archaeological evidence of varying quality scattered across Australia, have formed the basis of several hypotheses about the fate of megafauna that vanished during a peak about 42,000 years ago from the ancient continent of Sahul, comprising mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and neighbouring islands.

There is a growing consensus that multiple factors were at play, including climate change, the impact of people on the environment, and access to freshwater sources.

Just published in the open-access journal eLife, our latest CABAH paper applies these approaches to assess how susceptible different species were to extinction – and what it means for the survival of species today. 

Using various characteristics such as body size, weight, lifespan, survival rate, and fertility, we (Chris Johnson, John Llewelyn, Vera Weisbecker, Giovanni Strona, Frédérik Saltré & me) created population simulation models to predict the likelihood of these species surviving under different types of environmental disturbance.

Simulations included everything from increasing droughts to increasing hunting pressure to see which species of 13 extinct megafauna (genera: Diprotodon, Palorchestes, Zygomaturus, Phascolonus, Procoptodon, Sthenurus, Protemnodon, Simosthenurus, Metasthenurus, Genyornis, Thylacoleo, Thylacinus, Megalibgwilia), as well as 8 comparative species still alive today (Vombatus, Osphranter, Notamacropus, Dromaius, Alectura, Sarcophilus, Dasyurus, Tachyglossus), had the highest chances of surviving.

We compared the results to what we know about the timing of extinction for different megafauna species derived from dated fossil records. We expected to confirm that the most extinction-prone species were the first species to go extinct – but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While we did find that slower-growing species with lower fertility, like the rhino-sized wombat relative Diprotodon, were generally more susceptible to extinction than more-fecund species like the marsupial ‘tiger’ thylacine, the relative susceptibility rank across species did not match the timing of their extinctions recorded in the fossil record.

Indeed, we found no clear relationship between a species’ inherent vulnerability to extinction — such as being slower and heavier and/or slower to reproduce — and the timing of its extinction in the fossil record.

In fact, we found that most of the living species used for comparison — such as short-beaked echidnas, emus, brush turkeys, and common wombats — were more susceptible on average than their now-extinct counterparts.

Read the rest of this entry »

One trillion dollars!

1 04 2021

Or thereabouts.

Let’s step back to 2015. In a former life when I was at another institution, I had the immense fortune and pleasure to spend six months on sabbatical in a little village just south of Paris working with my friend and colleague, Franck Courchamp, at Université Paris-Sud (now Université Paris-Saclay).

Sure, I felt a bit jammy living there with my daughter in a beautiful house just down the street from two mouth-watering pâtisseries and three different open marchés. We ate well. We picked mushrooms on the weekends or visited local châteaux. We went into the city and visited overwhelmingly beautiful museums at our leisure. We drank good champagne (well, I did, not my eight-year old). We had communal raclettes.

But of course, I was primarily there to do research with Franck and his lab, despite the obvious perks.

While I busied myself with several tasks while there, one of our main outputs was to put together the world’s first global database of the costs of invasive insects, which we subsequently published in 2016.

But that was only the beginning. With funding that started off the process with insects, Franck persevered and hired postdocs and took on more students to build the most comprehensive database of all invasive species ever compiled — InvaCost.

I cannot stress enough how massive an undertaking this was. It’s not simply a big list of all the cost estimates in existence, it’s also a detailed assessment of cost reliability, standardisation, and contextualisation. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do this myself.

While the database itself has already been published, today we are pleased to announce the publication in Nature of the main results — High and rising economic costs of biological invasions worldwide — led by Christophe Diagne (one of the nicest people I’ve ever met), and co-authored by Boris Leroy, Anne-Charlotte Vaissière, Rodolphe Gozlan, David Roiz, Ivan Jarić, Jean-Michel Salles, me, and Franck Courchamp (of course).

Herein we described how the economic costs of invasive alien species accumulated since 1970 are tremendous, and that they have been steadily increasing over time.

Read the rest of this entry »