Fertilisers can make plants sicker

25 01 2017

sick-plantLast year we reported experimental evidence that the dilution effect was the phenomenon by which greater biodiversity imparts disease resistance in plant communities. Our latest paper shows the mechanism underlying this.

In my ongoing collaboration with the crack team of plant community ecologists led by Shurong Zhou at Fudan University in Shanghai, we have now shown that nitrogen-based fertilisers — in addition to causing soil damage and environmental problems from run-off — reduce a plant community’s resistance to fungal diseases.

This means that prolonged use of artificial fertilisers can lead to the extinction of the most resistant plant species in a community, meaning that the remaining species are in fact more susceptible to diseases.

Continuing the experimental field trials in alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau, we tested the biodiversity resilience of an isolated  plant community to increasing concentrations of nitrogenous fertilisers. In this diverse and pristine ecosystem, we have finally established that extended fertilisation of soils not only alters the structure of natural plant communities, it also exacerbates pathogen emergence and transmission. Read the rest of this entry »

Massive yet grossly underestimated global costs of invasive insects

4 10 2016
Portrait of a red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. This species arrived to the southeastern United States from South America in the 1930s. Specimen from Brackenridge Field Laboratory, Austin, Texas, USA. Public domain image by Alex Wild, produced by the University of Texas "Insects Unlocked" program.

Portrait of a red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta. This species arrived to the southeastern USA from South America in the 1930s. Specimen from Brackenridge Field Laboratory, Austin, Texas, USA. Public domain image by Alex Wild, produced by the University of Texas “Insects Unlocked” program.

As many of you already know, I spent a good deal of time in France last year basking in the hospitality of Franck Courchamp and his vibrant Systematic Ecology & Evolution lab at Université Paris-Sud. Of course, I had a wonderful time and was sad to leave in the end, but now I have some hard evidence that I wasn’t just eating cheese and visiting castles. I was actually doing some pretty cool science too.

Financed by BNP-Paribas and Agence Nationale de Recherche, the project InvaCost was designed to look at the global impact of invasive insects, including projections of range dynamics under climate change and shifting trade patterns. The first of hopefully many papers is now out.

Just published in Nature Communications, I am proud that many months of hard work by a brilliant team of ecologists, epidemiologists and economists has culminated in this article entitled Massive yet grossly underestimated costs of invasive insects, which in my opinion is  the first robust analysis of its kind. Despite some previous attempts at estimating the global costs of invasive species1-4 (which have been largely exposed as guesswork and fantasy5-10), our paper rigorously treats the economic cost estimates and categorises them into ‘reproducible’ and ‘irreproducible’ categories.


Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) adult. Dimitri Geystor (France)

What we found was sobering. If we look at just ‘goods and services’ affected by invasive insects, the annual global costs run at about US$70 billion. These include agricultural, forestry and infrastructure damages, as well as many of the direct costs of clean-up and eradication, and the indirect costs of prevention. When you examine that number a little more closely and only include the ‘reproducible’ studies, the total annual costs dip to about US$25 billion, meaning that almost 65% of the costs recorded are without any real empirical support. Scary, especially considering how much credence people put on previously published global ‘estimates’ (for example, see some citation statistics here).


Formosan subterranean termite Coptotermes formosanus by Scott Bauer, US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service

There’s a great example to illustrate this. If you take it at face value, the most expensive invasive insect in the world is the Formosan subterranean termite Coptotermes formosanus estimated at US$30.2 billion/yr globally. However, that irreproducible estimate is based on a single non-sourced value of US$2.2 billion per year for the USA, a personal communication supporting a ratio of 1:4 of control:repair costs in a single US city (New Orleans), and an unvalidated assumption that the US costs represent 50% of the global total.

Read the rest of this entry »

Keeping India’s forests

9 08 2016

I’ve just returned from a short trip to the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, Karnataka, one of India’s elite biological research institutes.

Panorama of a forested landscape (Savandurga monolith in the background) just south of Bangalore, Karnataka (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

Panorama of a forested landscape (Savandurga monolith in the background) just south of Bangalore, Karnataka (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

I was invited to give a series of seminars (you can see the titles here), and hopefully establish some new collaborations. My wonderful hosts, Deepa Agashe & Jayashree Ratnam, made sure I was busy meeting nearly everyone I could in ecology and evolution, and I’m happy to say that collaborations have begun. I also think NCBS will be a wonderful conduit for future students coming to Australia.

It was my first time visiting India1, and I admit that I had many preconceptions about the country that were probably unfounded. Don’t get me wrong — many of them were spot on, such as the glorious food (I particularly liked the southern India cuisine of dhosa, iddly & the various fruit-flavoured semolina concoctions), the insanity of urban traffic, the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and the politeness of Indian society (Indians have to be some of the politest people on the planet).

But where I probably was most at fault of making incorrect assumptions was regarding the state of India’s natural ecosystems, and in particular its native forests and grasslands. Read the rest of this entry »

One-two carbon punch of defaunation

30 04 2016

1-2 punchI’ve just read a well-planned and lateral-thinking paper in Nature Communications that I think readers of CB.com ought to appreciate. The study is a simulation of a complex ecosystem service that would be nigh impossible to examine experimentally. Being a self-diagnosed fanatic of simulation studies for just such purposes, I took particular delight in the results.

In many ways, the results of the paper by Osuri and colleagues are intuitive, but that should never be a reason to avoid empirical demonstration of a suspected phenomenon because intuition rarely equals fact. The idea itself is straightforward, but takes more than a few logical steps to describe: Read the rest of this entry »

Ice Age? No. Abrupt warmings and hunting together polished off Holarctic megafauna

24 07 2015
Oh shit oh shit oh shit ...

Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

Did ice ages cause the Pleistocene megafauna to go extinct? Contrary to popular opinion, no, they didn’t. But climate change did have something to do with them, only it was global warming events instead.

Just out today in Science, our long-time-coming (9 years in total if you count the time from the original idea to today) paper ‘Abrupt warmings drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover‘ led by Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Chris Turney of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre demonstrates for the first time that abrupt warming periods over the last 60,000 years were at least partially responsible for the collapse of the megafauna in Eurasia and North America.

You might recall that I’ve been a bit sceptical of claims that climate changes had much to do with megafauna extinctions during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, mainly because of the overwhelming evidence that humans had a big part to play in their demise (surprise, surprise). What I’ve rejected though isn’t so much that climate had nothing to do with the extinctions; rather, I took issue with claims that climate change was the dominant driver. I’ve also had problems with blanket claims that it was ‘always this’ or ‘always that’, when the complexity of biogeography and community dynamics means that it was most assuredly more complicated than most people think.

I’m happy to say that our latest paper indeed demonstrates the complexity of megafauna extinctions, and that it took a heap of fairly complex datasets and analyses to demonstrate. Not only were the data varied – the combination of scientists involved was just as eclectic, with ancient DNA specialists, palaeo-climatologists and ecological modellers (including yours truly) assembled to make sense of the complicated story that the data ultimately revealed. Read the rest of this entry »

Human population size: speeding cars can’t stop quickly

28 10 2014

Stop breeding cartoon-Steve Bell 1994Here at ConservationBytes.com, I write about pretty much anything that has anything remotely to do with biodiversity’s prospects. Whether it is something to do with ancient processes, community dynamics or the wider effects of human endeavour, anything is fair game. It’s a little strange then that despite cutting my teeth in population biology, I have never before tackled human demography. Well as of today, I have.

The press embargo has just lifted on our (Barry Brook and my) new paper in PNAS where we examine various future scenarios of the human population trajectory over the coming century. Why is this important? Simple – I’ve argued before that we could essentially stop all conservation research tomorrow and still know enough to deal with most biodiversity problems. If we could only get a handle on the socio-economic components of the threats, then we might be able to make some real progress. In other words, we need to find out how to manage humans much more than we need to know about the particulars of subtle and complex ecological processes to do the most benefit for biodiversity. Ecologists tend to navel-gaze in this arena far too much.

So I called my own bluff and turned my attention to humans. Our question was simple – how quickly could the human population be reduced to a more ‘sustainable’ size (i.e., something substantially smaller than now)? The main reason we posed that simple, yet deceptively loaded question was that both of us have at various times been faced with the question by someone in the audience that we were “ignoring the elephant in the room” of human over-population.

Read the rest of this entry »

High-altitude ecology

28 08 2014
A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau - yakjam

A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau – yakjam

I’ve been out of the social-media loop for a few weeks, hence the abnormally long interval since my last post. As you might recall, I’ve been travelling overseas and most recently blogged from Monterey, California where I was attending a symposium on invasion genetics.

The next phase of my travels couldn’t have been more different.

The reason I couldn’t access the blog was because I was well behind the Great Firewall of China. I was, in fact, in the Tibetan region of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces in western China for most of the last 10 days. While I’ve travelled to China many times before, this was by far the most evocative, interesting and unique experience I’ve ever had in this country. Reflecting on the past 10 days while waiting in Hong Kong for my flight back to Australia, I am still reeling a little from what I saw.

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

What the hell was I doing at 3500-4000 m elevation on the Tibetan Plateau? Good question. I have been most fortunate to be included in a crack team of Chinese ecologists who have designed and implemented a most impressive set of experiments in plant community ecology. The team, led by Professor Shurong Zhou and Dr. Jiajia Lui of Fudan University, has been working relentlessly to put together some of the sexiest plant ecology experiments going in China.

Having now so far published two papers from the some of the experiments (see here and here), my Chinese colleagues thought it was high time I visited the famous site. Situated at 3500 m in the Tibetan region of Gansu Province in western China, the Lanzhou University research station Azi Shi Yan Zhan is about a 20-hectare area of meadow fenced off from the grazing of the ubiquitous domestic yaks herded by the local Tibetans. If that sounds pretty exotic, let me assure you that it is. Read the rest of this entry »