Ghosts of bottlenecks past

25 05 2012

© D. Bathory

I’ve just spent the last week at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern NSW coast for my third Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) (see previous post about my last ACEAS workshop).

This workshop is a little different to my last one, and I’m merely a participant (not the organiser) this time. Alan Cooper and members of his Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (Jeremy Austin, Vicki Thomson & Julien Soubrier) combined forces this week with Craig Mortiz, Margaret Byrne, Steve Donnellan, Tania Laity, Leo Joseph, Xander Xue and Gabriele Cybis. Our task was to examine the mounting evidence that many Australian species appear to show a rather shallow genetic pool from a (or several) major past bottlenecks.

What’s a ‘bottleneck’? In reference to the form after which it was named, a genetic bottleneck is the genetic diversity aftermath after a population declines to a small size and then later expands. The history of this reduction and subsequent expansion is written in the DNA, because inevitably gene ‘types’ are lost as most individuals shuffle off this mortal coil. In a way, it’s like losing a large population of people who all speak different languages – inevitably, you’d lose entire languages and the recovering population would grow out of a reduced ‘pool’ of languages, resulting in fewer overall surviving languages.

Our workshop focus started, as many scientific endeavours do, rather serendipitously. Several years ago, Jeremy Austin noticed that devils who had died out on the mainland several thousand years ago had a very low genetic diversity, as do modern-day devils surviving in Tasmania. He thought it was odd because they should have had more on the mainland given that was their principal distribution prior to Europeans arriving. He mentioned this in passing to Steve Donnellan one day and Steve announced that he had seem the same pattern in echidnas. Now, echidnas cover most of Australia’s surface, so that was equally odd. Then they decided to look at another widespread species – tiger snakes, emus, etc. – and found in many of them, the same patterns were there. Read the rest of this entry »

Tentacles of destruction

5 04 2012

This last post before Easter is something I’ve thought more and more about over the last few years. I wouldn’t have given it much time in the past, but I’m now convinced roads are one of the humanity’s most destructive devices. Let me explain.

Before I had a good grasp of extinction dynamics, I wouldn’t have attributed much import to the role of roads in conservation. I mean, really, a little road here and there (ok, even a major motorway) couldn’t possibly be a problem? It’s mostly habitat destruction itself, right?

Not exactly. With our work on extinction synergies, I eventually came to realise that roads are some of the first portals to the devastation to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation catastrophes

22 02 2012

David Reed

The title of this post serves two functions: (1) to introduce the concept of ecological catastrophes in population viability modelling, and (2) to acknowledge the passing of the bloke who came up with a clever way of dealing with that uncertainty.

I’ll start with latter first. It came to my attention late last year that a fellow conservation biologist colleague, Dr. David Reed, died unexpectedly from congestive heart failure. I did not really mourn his passing, for I had never met him in person (I believe it is disingenuous, discourteous, and slightly egocentric to mourn someone who you do not really know personally – but that’s just my opinion), but I did think at the time that the conservation community had lost another clever progenitor of good conservation science. As many CB readers already know, we lost a great conservation thinker and doer last year, Professor Navjot Sodhi (and that, I did take personally). Coincidentally, both Navjot and David died at about the same age (49 and 48, respectively). I hope that the being in one’s late 40s isn’t particularly presaged for people in my line of business!

My friend, colleague and lab co-director, Professor Barry Brook, did, however, work a little with David, and together they published some pretty cool stuff (see References below). David was particularly good at looking for cross-taxa generalities in conservation phenomena, such as minimum viable population sizes, effects of inbreeding depression, applications of population viability analysis and extinction risk. But more on some of that below. Read the rest of this entry »

Not magic, but necessary

18 10 2011

In April this year, some American colleagues of ours wrote a rather detailed, 10-page article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that attacked our concept of generalizing minimum viable population (MVP) size estimates among species. Steve Beissinger of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the paper’s co-authors, has been a particularly vocal adversary of some of the applications of population viability analysis and its child, MVP size, for many years. While there was some interesting points raised in their review, their arguments largely lacked any real punch, and they essentially ended up agreeing with us.

Let me explain. Today, our response to that critique was published online in the same journal: Minimum viable population size: not magic, but necessary. I want to take some time here to summarise the main points of contention and our rebuttal.

But first, let’s recap what we have been arguing all along in several papers over the last few years (i.e., Brook et al. 2006; Traill et al. 2007, 2010; Clements et al. 2011) – a minimum viable population size is the point at which a declining population becomes a small population (sensu Caughley 1994). In other words, it’s the point at which a population becomes susceptible to random (stochastic) events that wouldn’t otherwise matter for a small population.

Consider the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), a formerly widespread and abundant North Atlantic species that was reduced by intensive hunting throughout its range. How did it eventually go extinct? The last remaining population blew up in a volcanic explosion off the coast of Iceland (Halliday 1978). Had the population been large, the small dent in the population due to the loss of those individuals would have been irrelevant.

But what is ‘large’? The empirical evidence, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, is that large = thousands, not hundreds, of individuals.

So this is why we advocate that conservation targets should aim to keep at or recover to the thousands mark. Less than that, and you’re playing Russian roulette with a species’ existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Life, death and Linneaus

9 07 2011

Barry Brook (left) and Lian Pin Koh (right) attacking Fangliang He (centre). © CJA Bradshaw

I’m sitting in the Brisbane airport contemplating how best to describe the last week. If you’ve been following my tweets, you’ll know that I’ve been sequestered in a room with 8 other academics trying to figure out the best ways to estimate the severity of the Anthropocene extinction crisis. Seems like a pretty straight forward task. We know biodiversity in general isn’t doing so well thanks to the 7 billion Homo sapiens on the planet (hence, the Anthropo prefix) – the question though is: how bad?

I blogged back in March that a group of us were awarded a fully funded series of workshops to address that question by the Australian Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis (a Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network facility based at the University of Queensland), and so I am essentially updating you on the progress of the first workshop.

Before I summarise our achievements (and achieve, we did), I just want to describe the venue. Instead of our standard, boring, windowless room in some non-descript building on campus, ACEAS Director, Associate Professor Alison Specht, had the brilliant idea of putting us out away from it all on a beautiful nature-conservation estate on the north coast of New South Wales.

What a beautiful place – Linneaus Estate is a 111-ha property just a few kilometres north of Lennox Head (about 30 minutes by car south of Byron Bay) whose mission is to provide a sustainable living area (for a very lucky few) while protecting and restoring some pretty amazing coastal habitat along an otherwise well-developed bit of Australian coastline. And yes, it’s named after Carl Linnaeus. Read the rest of this entry »

The rarity paradox

22 06 2011

© C. Madden

My friend and colleague at the Centre National de Recherche Scientfique (CNRS), Laboratoire d’Ecologie Systématique & Evolution based at the Université Paris-Sud in France, Dr. Franck ‘Allee EffectCourchamp, has asked me to help him out finding a suitable candidate for what sounds like a very cool job. If you’re in the market for a very interesting and highly relevant conservation post-doctoral fellowship, please read on.

And even if you’re not looking for a position, but are interested in the anthropogenic Allee effect, then by all means, please read on as well.

This two-year fellowship is part of a grant focused on demonstrating the novel rarity paradox, either in new wildlife trade markets (i.e., exotic pets, traditional medicine, et cetera) or in newly exploited species (e.g., tibetan antilope, seahorses, et cetera). Read the rest of this entry »

Classics: Effective population size ratio

27 04 2011

Here’s another concise Conservation Classic highlighted in our upcoming book chapter (see previous entries on this book). Today’s entry comes from a colleague of mine, Dick Frankham, who has literally written the book on conservation genetics. I’ve published with Dick a few times – absolutely lovely chap who really knows his field more than almost any other. It is a great pleasure to include one of his seminal works as a Conservation Classic.

This entry is highly related to our work on minimum viable population size, and the controversial SAFE index (more on that later).

Although it had long been recognized that inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity were accentuated in small, isolated populations (Charlesworth & Charlesworth, 1987), genetic hazards were generally considered to be of less consequence to extinction risk than demographic and environmental stochasticity. Frankham (1995) helped overturn this viewpoint, using a meta-analysis to draw together comprehensive evidence on the ratio of genetically effective to actual population size (Ne:N). Read the rest of this entry »