Losing half of tropical fish species as corals disappear

30 06 2021

When snorkelling in a reef, it’s natural to think of coral colonies as a colourful scenography where fish act in a play. But what would happen to the fish if the stage went suddenly empty, as in Peter Brook’s 1971 Midsummer Night’s Dream? Would the fish still be there acting their roles without a backdrop?

This question is not novel in coral-reef science. Ecologists have often compared reef fish diversity and biomass in selected localities before and after severe events of coral mortality. Even a temporary disappearance of corals might have substantial effects on fish communities, sometimes resulting in a local disappearance of more than half of local fish species.

Considering the multiple, complex ways fish interact with — and depend on — corals, this might appear as an obvious outcome. Still, such complexity of interactions makes it difficult to predict how the loss of corals might affect fish diversity in specific contexts, let alone at the global scale.

Focusing on species-specific fish-coral associations reveals an inconsistent picture with local-scale empirical observations. When looking at the fraction of local fish diversity that strictly depends on corals for food and other more generic habitat requirements (such as shelter and reproduction), the global picture suggests that most fish diversity in reef locality might persist in the absence of corals. 

The mismatch between this result and the empirical evidence of a stronger coral dependence suggests the existence of many hidden ecological paths connecting fish to corals, and that those paths might entrap many fish species for which the association to corals is not apparent.

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Is the IPCC finally catching up with the true severity of climate change?

24 06 2021

I’m not in any way formally involved in either the IPCC or IPBES, although I’ve been involved indirectly in analysing many elements of both the language of the reports and the science underlying their predictions.

Today, The Guardian reported that a leaked copy of an IPCC report scheduled for release soon indicated that, well, the climate-change situation is in fact worse than has been previously reported in IPCC documents.

If you’re a biologist, climatologist, or otherwise-informed person, this won’t come as much of a surprise. Why? Well, the latest report finally recognises that the biosphere is not just some big balloon that slowly inflates or deflates with the whims of long-term climate variation. Instead, climate records over millions of years show that the global climate can and often does shift rapidly between different states.

This is the concept of ‘tipping points’.

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A domesticated planet

15 06 2021

The abundance of wild animals is regressing speedily as the number of domesticated animals and persons keeps escalating. Such demographic contrast signals that we urgently need to modify our model of subsistence and our interaction with Mother Nature.

If we had to choose between a biodiverse landscape and one hosting a monoculture of pine trees with ruminating cattle, many would take the first option. Biodiversity has an aesthetic value to humans, and also gives us free services like pollination, climate regulation, freshwater depuration or soil formation (1, 2). That is why the mounting rates of biodiversity loss have propelled a multi-angled debate about whether the Earth is experiencing the sixth mass extinction (3, 4) and how biodiversity should be managed to secure our access to ecosystem services (5, 6).

Think individuals, not species

A different way of approaching the biodiversity crisis consists of examining trends in the number of wild animals, with not so much emphasis on the variety of species. Thus, the Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund, has compiled thousands of scientific studies about > 21,000 populations of wild vertebrates studied over time (> 4,000 species represented) and concluded that, on average, the number of individuals per population has diminished by 70% since the 1970s (7).

Biomass (birds and mammals) in Planet Earth measured in Giga-tonnes of Carbon (Gt C) (8) for people (red), domesticated animals (blue) and wildlife (green). The pie chart compares those three groups in modern times, and the barplot reports values for mammals from prehistory (~100.000 years ago) to now. Overpopulation of humans and domesticated animals currently outnumbers the biomass of wildlife.

On the other hand, Yinon Bar-On et al. (8) quantified that the biomass of humans and our domesticated mammals currently multiplies the biomass of wild mammals by a factor of 10, and there are 3 kg of humans and poultry for every kg of wild birds (see video featuring this study).

Not only that, during the last 100,000 years through which anatomically modern humans have thrived from a handful of bands of African hunter-gatherers to complex societies living in metropolis, the cattle industry has ended up quadrupling the global biomass of mammals (8).

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… some (models) are useful

8 06 2021

As someone who writes a lot of models — many for applied questions in conservation management (e.g., harvest quotas, eradication targets, minimum viable population sizes, etc.), and supervises people writing even more of them, I’ve had many different experiences with their uptake and implementation by management authorities.

Some of those experiences have involved catastrophic failures to influence any management or policy. One particularly painful memory relates to a model we wrote to assist with optimising approaches to eradicate (or at least, reduce the densities of) feral animals in Kakadu National Park. We even wrote the bloody thing in Visual Basic (horrible coding language) so people could run the module in Excel. As far as I’m aware, no one ever used it.

Others have been accepted more readily, such as a shark-harvest model, which (I think, but have no evidence to support) has been used to justify fishing quotas, and one we’ve done recently for the eradication of feral pigs on Kangaroo Island (as yet unpublished) has led directly to increased funding to the agency responsible for the programme.

According to Altmetrics (and the online tool I developed to get paper-level Altmetric information quickly), only 3 of the 16 of what I’d call my most ‘applied modelling’ papers have been cited in policy documents:

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