Remote areas not necessarily safe havens for biodiversity

16 12 2021

The intensity of threats to biodiversity from human endeavour becomes weaker as the distance to them increases.

As you move away from the big city to enjoy the countryside, you’ll notice the obvious increase in biodiversity. Even the data strongly support this otherwise subjective perception — there is a positive correlation between the degree we destroy habitat, harvest species, and pollute the environment, and the distance from big cities.

Remote locations are therefore usually considered safe havens and potential reservoirs for biodiversity. But our new study published recently in Nature Communications shows how this obvious pattern depicts only half of the story, and that global conservation management and actions might benefit from learning more about the missing part.

Communities are not just lists of individual species. Instead, they consist of complex networks of ecological interactions linking interdependent species. The structure of such networks is a fundamental determinant of biodiversity emergence and maintenance. However, it also plays an essential role in the processes of biodiversity loss. The decline or disappearance of some species might have detrimental —often fatal — effects on their associates. For example, a parasite cannot survive without its hosts, as much as a predator will starve without prey, or a plant will not reproduce without pollinators.

Events where a species disappears following the loss of other species on which it depends are known as co-extinctions, and they are now recognised as a primary driver of the ongoing global biodiversity crisis. The potential risk stemming from ecological dependencies is a major concern for all ecological systems.

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Extinct megafauna prone to ancient hunger games

14 12 2021

I’m very chuffed today to signal the publication of what I think is one of the most important contributions to the persistent conundrum surrounding the downfall of Australia’s megafauna many tens of millennia ago.

Diprotodon optimum. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

Sure, I’m obviously biased in that assessment because it’s a paper from our lab and I’m a co-author, but if readers had any inkling of the work that went into this paper, I think they might consider adopting my position. In addition, the injection of some actual ecology into the polemic should be viewed as fresh and exciting.

Having waded into the murky waters of the ‘megafauna debate’ for about a decade now, I’ve become a little sensitive to even a whiff of binary polemic surrounding their disappearance in Australia. Acolytes of the climate-change prophet still beat their drums, screaming for the smoking gun of a spear sticking out of a Diprotodon‘s skull before they even entertain the notion that people might have had something to do with it — but we’ll probably never find one given the antiquity of the event (> 40,000 years ago). On the other side are the blitzkriegers who declaim that human hunting single-handedly wiped out the lot.

Well, as it is for nearly all extinctions, it’s actually much more complicated than that. In the case of Sahul’s megafauna disappearances, both drivers likely contributed, but the degree to which both components played a part depends on where and when you look — Fred Saltré demonstrated that elegantly a few years ago.

Palorchestes. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

So, why does the polemic persist? In my view, it’s because we have largely depended on the crude comparison of relative dates to draw our conclusions. That is, we look to see if some climate-change proxy shifted in any notable way either before or after an inferred extinction date. If a particular study claims evidence that a shift happened before, then it concludes climate change was the sole driver. If a study presents evidence that a shift happened after, then humans did it. Biases in geochronological inference (e.g., spatial, contamination), incorrect application of climate proxies, poor taxonomic resolution, and not accounting for the Signor-Lipps effect all contribute unnecessarily to the debate because small errors or biases can flip relative chronologies on their head and push conclusions toward uncritical binary outcomes. The ‘debate’ has been almost entirely grounded on this simplistically silly notion.

This all means that the actual ecology has been either ignored or merely made up based on whichever pet notion of the day is being proffered. Sure, there are a few good ecological inferences out there from some damn good modellers and ecologists, but these have all been greatly simplified themselves. This is where our new paper finally takes the ecology part of the problem to the next level.

Led by Global Ecology and CABAH postdoctoral fellow, John Llewelyn, and guided by modelling guru Giovanni Strona at University of Helsinki, the paper Sahul’s megafauna were vulnerable to plant-community changes due to their position in the trophic network has just been published online in Ecography. Co-authors include Kathi Peters, Fred Saltré, and me from Flinders Global Ecology, Matt McDowell and Chris Johnson from UTAS, Daniel Stouffer from University of Canterbury (NZ), and Sara de Visser from University of Groningen (Netherlands).

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Animating models of ecological change

6 12 2021

Flinders University Global Ecology postdoc, Dr Farzin Shabani, recently created this astonishing video not only about the results of his models predicting vegetation change in northern Australia as a function of long-term (tens of thousands of years) climate change, but also on the research journey itself!

He provides a brief background to how and why he took up the challenge:

Science would be a lot harder to digest without succinct and meaningful images, graphs, and tables. So, being able to visualise both inputs and outputs of scientific models to cut through the fog of data is an essential element of all science writing and communication. Diagrams help us understand trends and patterns much more quickly than do raw data, and they assist with making comparisons.

During my academic career, I have studied many different topics, including natural hazards (susceptibility & vulnerability risks), GIS-based ensemble modelling, climate-change impacts, environmental modelling at different temporal and spatial scales, species-distribution modelling, and time-series analysis. I use a wide range of graphschartsplotsmaps and tables to transfer the key messages.

For my latest project, however, I was given the opportunity to make a short animation and visualise my results and the journey itself. I think that my animation inspires a sense of wonder, which is among the most important goals of science education. I also think that my animation draws connections to real-life problems (e.g., ecosystem changes as a product of climate change), and also develops an appreciation of the scientific process itself.

Take a look at let me know what you think!

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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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Global warming causes the worst kind of extinction domino effect

25 11 2018

Dominos_Rough1-500x303Just under two weeks ago, Giovanni Strona and I published a paper in Scientific Reports on measuring the co-extinction effect from climate change. What we found even made me — an acknowledged pessimist — stumble in shock and incredulity.

But a bit of back story is necessary before I launch into describing what we discovered.

Last year, some Oxbridge astrophysicists (David Sloan and colleagues) published a rather sensational paper in Scientific Reports claiming that life on Earth would likely survive in the face of cataclysmic astrophysical events, such as asteroid impacts, supernovae, or gamma-ray bursts. This rather extraordinary conclusion was based primarily on the remarkable physiological adaptations and tolerances to extreme conditions displayed by tardigrades— those gloriously cute, but tiny (most are around 0.5 mm long as adults) ‘water bears’ or ‘moss piglets’ — could you get any cuter names?


Found almost everywhere and always (the first fossils of them date back to the early Cambrian over half a billion years ago), these wonderful little creatures are some of the toughest metazoans (multicellular animals) on the planet. Only a few types of extremophile bacteria are tougher.

So, boil, fry or freeze the Earth, and you’ll still have tardigrades around, concluded Sloan and colleagues.

When Giovanni first read this, and then passed the paper along to me for comment, our knee-jerk reaction as ecologists was a resounding ‘bullshit!’. Even neophyte ecologists know intuitively that because species are all interconnected in vast networks linked by trophic (who eats whom), competitive, and other ecological functions (known collectively as ‘multiplex networks’), they cannot be singled out using mere thermal tolerances to predict the probability of annihilation. Read the rest of this entry »

Tiny, symbiotic organisms protect corals from predation and disease

20 12 2017

hydrozoan polyp

Hydrozoan polyps living on the surface of a coral (photo credit: S. Montano)

Corals could have some unexpected allies to cope with the multi-faceted threats posed by climate change.

In a new study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Montano and colleagues show how tiny hydrozoans smaller than 1 mm and commonly found in dense colonies on the surface of hard corals (see above photo) play an important ecological role.

Visually examining ~ 2500 coral colonies in both Maldivian and Saudi Arabian reefs, the scientists searched for signs of predation, temperature-induced stress, and disease. For each colony, they also recorded the presence of symbiotic hydrozoans. They demonstrated that corals living in association with hydrozoans are much less prone to be eaten by corallivorous (i.e., ‘coral-eating’) fish and gastropods than hydrozoan-free corals.

A likely explanation for this pattern could be the deterring action of hydrozoan nematocysts (cells capable of ejecting a venomous organelle, which are the same kinds found in jellyfish tentacles). An individual hydrozoan polyp of less than 1 mm clearly cannot cope with a corallivorous fish that is a billions of times larger, yet hydrozoans can grow at high densities on the surface of corals (sometimes > 50 individuals per cm2). This creates a sort of a continuous, ‘urticating‘ carpet that can discourage fish from foraging. Read the rest of this entry »

Postdoctoral position re-opened in Global Ecology

18 10 2017

women-are-better-codersI believe it is important to clarify a few things about the job advertisement that we are re-opening.

As many of you might recall, we advertised two positions in paleo-ecological modelling back in July — one in ecological networks, and the other in vegetation modelling.

We decided to do something a little unusual with the vegetation modelling position by only accepting applications from women. We did this expressly to increase the probability of attracting excellent women candidates, and to increase the number of women scientists in our lab.

I’m happy to say that we received many great applications for both positions, and whether or not it was related, most of the applicants for both positions were women (83%). As it turned out, we ended up offering the network position to a woman applicant, but we were unable to find an ideal candidate for the vegetation modelling job (i.e., the one that was originally targeting women only).

Our decision not to appoint anyone in the first round of applicants for the vegetation modelling position was clearly not related to the fact that it a woman-only position, mainly because we had so many excellent women candidates for both positions (and ended up hiring a woman for the position that was open to both genders). In other words, it seems to be a just one of those random things.

That said, we are still in need of a great vegetation modeller (or at least, someone who has the capacity to learn this knowledge), and so we have decided to re-open the announcement to both genders. However, it should go without saying that we particularly encourage women to apply.

The full details of the position, essential and desired criteria, and application process are available here (Vacancy Reference Number 17115). Note that the application closing date is 15 November 2017.

Please distribute this widely among your networks.

CJA Bradshaw

Two new postdoctoral positions in ecological network & vegetation modelling announced

21 07 2017


With the official start of the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in July, I am pleased to announce two new CABAH-funded postdoctoral positions (a.k.a. Research Associates) in my global ecology lab at Flinders University in Adelaide (Flinders Modelling Node).

One of these positions is a little different, and represents something of an experiment. The Research Associate in Palaeo-Vegetation Modelling is being restricted to women candidates; in other words, we’re only accepting applications from women for this one. In a quest to improve the gender balance in my lab and in universities in general, this is a step in the right direction.

The project itself is not overly prescribed, but we would like something along the following lines of inquiry: Read the rest of this entry »

Palaeo-ecology PhD scholarships

1 03 2017

scholarshipWith my new position as Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology at Flinders University, I am in the agreeable position to be able to offer two PhD scholarships to the best candidates from around the world. If you feel that you’re up to the challenge, I look forward to hearing from you.

These projects will be in the following palaeo-ecology topics:

PhD Project #1. Ecological networks to examine community cascades of Late Quaternary megafauna extinctions Read the rest of this entry »

Rich and stable communities most vulnerable to change

16 08 2016

networkI’ve just read an interesting new study that was sent to me by the lead author, Giovanni Strona. Published the other day in Nature Communications, Strona & Lafferty’s article entitled Environmental change makes robust ecological networks fragile describes how ecological communities (≈ networks) become more susceptible to rapid environmental changes depending on how long they’ve had to evolve and develop under stable conditions.

Using the Avida Digital Evolution Platform (a free, open-source scientific software platform for doing virtual experiments with self-replicating and evolving computer programs), they programmed evolving host-parasite pairs in a virtual community to examine how co-extinction rate (i.e., extinctions arising in dependent species — in this case, parasites living off of hosts) varied as a function of the complexity of the interactions between species.

Starting from a single ancestor digital organism, the authors let evolve several artificial life communities for hundred thousands generation under different, stable environmental settings. Such communities included both free-living digital organisms and ‘parasite’ programs capable of stealing their hosts’ memory. Throughout generations, both hosts and parasites diversified, and their interactions became more complex. Read the rest of this entry »

Sensitive numbers

22 03 2016

A sensitive parameter

You couldn’t really do ecology if you didn’t know how to construct even the most basic mathematical model — even a simple regression is a model (the non-random relationship of some variable to another). The good thing about even these simple models is that it is fairly straightforward to interpret the ‘strength’ of the relationship, in other words, how much variation in one thing can be explained by variation in another. Provided the relationship is real (not random), and provided there is at least some indirect causation implied (i.e., it is not just a spurious coincidence), then there are many simple statistics that quantify this strength — in the case of our simple regression, the coefficient of determination (R2) statistic is a usually a good approximation of this.

In the case of more complex multivariate correlation models, then sometimes the coefficient of determination is insufficient, in which case you might need to rely on statistics such as the proportion of deviance explained, or the marginal and/or conditional variance explained.

When you go beyond this correlative model approach and start constructing more mechanistic models that emulate ecological phenomena from the bottom-up, things get a little more complicated when it comes to quantifying the strength of relationships. Perhaps the most well-known category of such mechanistic models is the humble population viability analysis, abbreviated to PVA§.

Let’s take the simple case of a four-parameter population model we could use to project population size over the next 10 years for an endangered species that we’re introducing to a new habitat. We’ll assume that we have the following information: the size of the founding (introduced) population (n), the juvenile survival rate (Sj, proportion juveniles surviving from birth to the first year), the adult survival rate (Sa, the annual rate of surviving adults to year 1 to maximum longevity), and the fertility rate of mature females (m, number of offspring born per female per reproductive cycle). Each one of these parameters has an associated uncertainty (ε) that combines both measurement error and environmental variation.

If we just took the mean value of each of these three demographic rates (survivals and fertility) and project a founding population of = 10 individuals for 1o years into the future, we would have a single, deterministic estimate of the average outcome of introducing 10 individuals. As we already know, however, the variability, or stochasticity, is more important than the average outcome, because uncertainty in the parameter values (ε) will mean that a non-negligible number of model iterations will result in the extinction of the introduced population. This is something that most conservationists will obviously want to minimise.

So each time we run an iteration of the model, and generally for each breeding interval (most often 1 year at a time), we choose (based on some random-sampling regime) a different value for each parameter. This will give us a distribution of outcomes after the 10-year projection. Let’s say we did 1000 iterations like this; taking the number of times that the population went extinct over these iterations would provide us with an estimate of the population’s extinction probability over that interval. Of course, we would probably also vary the size of the founding population (say, between 10 and 100), to see at what point the extinction probability became acceptably low for managers (i.e., as close to zero as possible), but not unacceptably high that it would be too laborious or expensive to introduce that many individuals. Read the rest of this entry »

What makes all that biodiversity possible?

23 09 2015


You can either stop reading now because that’s the answer to the question, or you can continue and find out a little more detail.

I’ve just had an extremely pleasant experience reading John Terborgh‘s latest Perspective in PNAS. You know the kind of paper you read that (a) makes you feel smart, (b) confirms what you already think, yet informs you nonetheless, and (c) doesn’t take three days to digest? That’s one of those.

Toward a trophic theory of species diversity is not only all of those things, it’s also bloody well-written and comes at the question of ‘Why are there so many species on the planet when ecological theory can’t seem to explain how?’ with elegance, style and a lifetime of experience. I just might have to update my essential-ecology-papers list. If I had to introduce someone to 60 years of ecological theory on biodiversity, there’s no better place to start.

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