Bring it back

13 02 2018

Protea compacta in fynbos, a form of shrubland at Soetanysberg, South Africa. Photo: Brian van Wilgen

Restoration of lost habitats and ecosystems hits all the right notes — conservation optimism, a can-do attitude, and the excitement of seeing biologically impoverished areas teem with life once more.

The Strategic Plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity includes a target to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. This is being enthusiastically taken up in many places, including through initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge, a global aspiration to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030. This is in recognition of the importance of healthy ecosystems in not just conserving biodiversity, but also in combating climate change. Peatlands and forests lock away carbon, while grassland diversity stabilises ecosystem productivity during extreme weather events. So how can we make sure that these restoration efforts are as effective as possible? Read the rest of this entry »

Microclimates: thermal shields against global warming for small herps

22 11 2017

Thermal microhabitats are often uncoupled from above-ground air temperatures. A study focused on small frogs and lizards from the Philippines demonstrates that the structural complexity of tropical forests hosts a diversity of microhabitats that can reduce the exposure of many cold-blooded animals to anthropogenic climate warming.

Luzon forest frogs

Reproductive pair of the Luzon forest frogs Platymantis luzonensis (upper left), a IUCN near-threatened species restricted to < 5000 km2 of habitat. Lower left: the yellow-stripped slender tree lizard Lipinia pulchella, a IUCN least-concerned species. Both species have body lengths < 6 cm, and are native to the tropical forests of the Philippines. Right panels, top to bottom: four microhabitats monitored by Scheffers et al. (2), namely ground vegetation, bird’s nest ferns, phytotelmata, and fallen leaves above ground level. Photos courtesy of Becca Brunner (Platymantis), Gernot Kunz (Lipinia), Stephen Zozaya (ground vegetation) and Brett Scheffers (remaining habitats).

If you have ever entered a cave or an old church, you will be familiar with its coolness even in the dog days of summer. At much finer scales, from centimetres to millimetres, this ‘cooling effect’ occurs in complex ecosystems such as those embodied by tropical forests. The fact is that the life cycle of many plant and animal species depends on the network of microhabitats (e.g., small crevices, burrows, holes) interwoven by vegetation structures, such as the leaves and roots of an orchid epiphyte hanging from a tree branch or the umbrella of leaves and branches of a thick bush.

Much modern biogeographical research addressing the effects of climate change on biodiversity is based on macroclimatic data of temperature and precipitation. Such approaches mostly ignore that microhabitats can warm up or cool down in a fashion different from that of local or regional climates, and so determine how species, particularly ectotherms, thermoregulate (1). To illustrate this phenomenon, Brett Scheffers et al. (2) measured the upper thermal limits (typically known as ‘critical thermal maxima’ or CTmax) of 15 species of frogs and lizards native to the tropical forest of Mount Banahaw, an active volcano on Luzon (The Philippines). The > 7000 islands of this archipelago harbour > 300 species of amphibians and reptiles (see video here), with > 100 occurring in Luzon (3).

Read the rest of this entry »

Four decades of fragmentation

27 09 2017


I’ve recently read perhaps the most comprehensive treatise of forest fragmentation research ever compiled, and I personally view this rather readable and succinct review by Bill Laurance and colleagues as something every ecology and conservation student should read.

The ‘Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project‘ (BDFFP) is unquestionably one of the most important landscape-scale experiments ever conceived and implemented, now having run 38 years since its inception in 1979. Indeed, it was way ahead of its time.

Experimental studies in ecology are comparatively rare, namely because it is difficult, expensive, and challenging in the extreme to manipulate entire ecosystems to test specific hypotheses relating to the response of biodiversity to environmental change. Thus, we ecologists tend to rely more on mensurative designs that use existing variation in the landscape (or over time) to infer mechanisms of community change. Of course, such experiments have to be large to be meaningful, which is one reason why the 1000 km2 BDFFP has been so successful as the gold standard for determining the effects of forest fragmentation on biodiversity.

And successful it has been. A quick search for ‘BDFFP’ in the Web of Knowledge database identifies > 40 peer-reviewed articles and a slew of books and book chapters arising from the project, some of which are highly cited classics in conservation ecology (e.g., doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01025.x cited > 900 times; doi:10.1073/pnas.2336195100 cited > 200 times; doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.09.021 cited > 400 times; and doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01294.x cited nearly 600 times). In fact, if we are to claim any ecological ‘laws’ at all, our understanding of fragmentation on biodiversity could be labelled as one of the few, thanks principally to the BDFFP. Read the rest of this entry »

Noses baffled by ocean acidification

18 04 2017

Clown fish couple (Amphiprion percula) among the tentacles of anemone Heteractis magnifica in Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) – courtesy of Mark McCormick. Clownfish protect anemones from predators and parasites in exchange of shelter and food. The fish tolerates the host’s venom because its skin is protected by a mucus layer some 2-3× thicker than phylogenetically related species (12); clownfish fabricate the mucus themselves and seem to obtain anemone antigens through a period of acclimation (13), but whether protection is acquired or innate is still debated. Clownfish are highly social bony fish, forming groups with one reproductive pair (up to 11 cm in length each) and several smaller, non-reproductive males. Reproduction is protandrous (also known as sequential hermaphroditism), so larvae are born male and, as soon as the reproductive female dies, her widower becomes female and the largest of the subsidiary males becomes the alpha male. The IUCN lists clownfish, generically named ‘anemone fish’, as threatened by the pet-trade industry and habitat degradation, although surprisingly, only 1 species has been assessed (A. sandaracinos). The clown anemone fish A. ocellaris is the species that inspired Nemo in the 2003 Academy-Award fiction movie – contrary to the logical expectation that the Oscars Red Carpet would generate support for conservation on behalf of Hollywood, of the 1568 species represented in the movie, only 16 % of those evaluated are threatened (14).

Smell is like noise, the more scents we breathe in one sniff, the more difficult it is to distinguish them to the point of olfactory saturation. Experimental work with clownfish reveals that the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater, mimicking ocean acidification, alters olfactory physiology, with potential cascading effects on the demography of species.

Places such as a restaurant, a hospital or a library have a characteristic bouquet, and we can guess the emotional state of other people by their scents. Smell is critical between predators and prey of many species because both have evolved to detect each other without the aid of vision. At sea, the smell of predators dissolves in water during detection, attack, capture, and ingestion of prey, and many fishes use this information to assess the risk of ending up crunched by enemy teeth (1, 2). But predator-prey interactions can be modified by changes in the chemical composition of seawater and are therefore highly sensitive to ongoing ocean acidification (see global measuring network here). Experts regard ocean acidification as the ‘other CO2 problem’ of climate change (3) — just to emphasize that anthropogenic climate-change impacts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems alike. Acidification occurs because the ocean absorbs CO2 at a rate proportional with the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere and, once dissolved, CO2 becomes carbonic acid (H2CO3), which in turn releases protons (H+) — in simple terms, pH is the concentration of protons (see video about ocean acidification): Read the rest of this entry »

Not 100% renewable, but 0% carbon

5 04 2017

635906686103388841-366754148_perfection1Anyone familiar with this blog and our work on energy issues will not be surprised by my sincere support of nuclear power as the only realistic solution to climate change in the electricity (and possibly transport and industrial heat) arena. I’ve laid my cards on the table in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g., see here, here, here, here, here & here) and the standard media, and I’ve even joined the board of a new environmental NGO that supports nuclear.

And there is hope, despite the ever-increasing human population, rising consumerism, dwindling resources, and the ubiquity of ideologically driven and ethically compromised politicians. I am hopeful for several reasons, including rising safety and reliability standards of modern nuclear technology, the continued momentum of building new fission reactors in many countries, and even the beginnings of real conversations about nuclear power (or at least, the first steps toward this) in countries where nuclear energy is currently banned (e.g., Australia). I’m also heartened by the fact that nearly every conservation scientists with whom I speak is generally supportive, or at least non-resistant, to the idea of nuclear power as part of the climate change solution. An open letter by our colleagues attests to this. In fact, every day that passes brings new evidence that we cannot ignore this solution any longer.

Even despite the evidence in support of implementing a strong nuclear component into climate change-mitigation strategies, one of the most frequent arguments for not doing so is that society can achieve all of its energy needs and simultaneously combat climate change by constructing 100% renewable-energy pathways. While it is an easy mantra to repeat because it feels right intrinsically to nearly everyone with an environmental conscience, as a scientist I also had to ask if such a monumental task is even technically feasible. Read the rest of this entry »

Not all wetlands are created equal

13 02 2017

little-guyLast year I wrote what has become a highly viewed post here at about the plight of the world’s freshwater biodiversity. In a word, it’s ‘buggered’.

But there are steps we can take to avoid losing even more of that precious freshwater biodiversity. The first, of course, is to stop sucking all the water out of our streams and wetlands. With a global population of 7.5 billion people and climbing, the competition for freshwater will usually mean that non-human life forms lose that race. However, the more people (and those making the decisions, in particular) realise that intact wetlands do us more good as wetlands rather than carparks, housing developments, or farmland (via freshwater filtering, species protection, carbon storage, etc.), the more we have a chance to save them.

My former MSc student, the very clever David Deane1, has been working tirelessly to examine different scenarios of wetland plant biodiversity change in South Australia, and is now the proud lead author of a corker of a new paper in Biological Conservation. Having already published one paper about how wetland plant biodiversity patterns are driven by rare terrestrial plants, his latest is a very important contribution about how to manage our precious wetlands. Read the rest of this entry »

Boreal forest on the edge of a climate-change tipping point

15 11 2016

As some know, I dabble a bit in the carbon affairs of the boreal zone, and so when writer Christine Ottery interviewed me about the topic, I felt compelled to reproduce her article here (originally published on EnergyDesk).

A view of the Waswanipi-Broadback Forest in the Abitibi region of Northern Quebec, one of the last remaining intact Boreal Forests in the province (source: EnergyDesk).

A view of the Waswanipi-Broadback forest in the Abitibi region of northern Quebec, one of the last remaining intact boreal forests in the Canadian province (source: EnergyDesk).

The boreal forest encircles the Earth around and just below the Arctic Circle like a big carbon-storing hug. It can mostly be found covering large swathes of Russia, Canada and Alaska, and some Scandinavian countries.

In fact, the boreal – sometimes called by its Russian name ‘taiga’ or ‘Great Northern Forest’ – is perhaps the biggest terrestrial carbon store in the world.

So it’s important to protect in a world where we’re aiming for 1.5 or – at worst – under two degrees celsius of global warming.

“Our capacity to limit average global warming to less than 2 degrees is already highly improbable, so every possible mechanism to reduce emissions must be employed as early as possible. Maintaining and recovering our forests is part of that solution,” Professor Corey Bradshaw, a leading researcher into boreal forests based at the University of Adelaide, told Energydesk.

It’s not that tropical rainforests aren’t important, but recent research led by Bradshaw published in Global and Planetary Change shows that that there is more carbon held in the boreal forests than previously realised.

But there’s a problem. Read the rest of this entry »