A life of fragmentation

9 05 2018

LauranceWhat do you say to a man whose list of conservation awards reads like a Star Wars film intro, who has introduced terms like the ‘hyperdynamism hypothesis’ to the field of ecology, and whose organisation reaches over one million people each week with updates of the scientific kind?

Interview with Bill Laurance by Joel Howland (originally published in Conjour)

Well, I started by asking what it is that leads him to love the natural world to the extent he does. His answer was disarmingly simple.

“I grew up in the country, on an Oregon cattle ranch, and I think my love of nature just evolved naturally from that. When I was a young kid my dad and I did some fishing and ‘rock-hounding’— searching for rare stones and fossils. As an adolescent and teen I loved heading off into a forest or wilderness, rifle in hand – back in those days you could do that – to see whatever I could find. I watched red foxes hunting, eagles mating, and even heard a mountain lion scream. I got to be a pretty good duck and game-bird hunter.”

He’s quick to point out, however, he realised his taste for guns was not so developed as his love of nature.

“I gave up my rifles for a camera, and enjoyed that even more. I really got into photography for a while. Nature has always just calmed and fascinated me —I guess that’s partly why I became a conservationist.”

Who is Bill Laurance?

William F. Laurance is one of the leading ecology and conservation scientists globally, publishing dozens of papers in journals like Nature and Science, and rewriting the way scientists in the field research the complex interactions between flora and fauna — particularly in rainforests like the Amazon.

He is a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Australia, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has received an Australian Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.

All this for a man from western USA who dreamed of running a zoo. Instead, he has travelled a path of intricate and game-changing research, trailblazing awareness campaigns and inspirational writings that have driven the way many see the environment over the past few decades.

Despite this profile, Laurance gave some time to tell Conjour about his life, his passion and his aims. I asked him what — considering his impressive CV — the future holds.

His response seems a real insight to the man. 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 »

If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of CB.com readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers

11 03 2014

ALERTIf you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter feed over the last few weeks, you’ve surely noticed a few references to A.L.E.R.T. – the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers. You might also have asked yourself, what exactly is ALERT, and is it something I should pay attention to?

Today’s post attempts to explain this new organisation, and hopefully convince you that the answer to the second question is ‘yes’.

Several months ago, a slightly cryptic e-mail from eminent conservation biologist, Bill Laurance, arrived in my inbox. It asked – what do you think of this logo (see associated image)? A few e-mails later and a couple of minor tweaks, and we ended up with what I thought was a pretty cool logo for this new ‘ALERT’ thing. It wasn’t until quite some time later that I finally understood what Bill was attempting to create.

Is ALERT a news aggregator, a blog, an advocacy group, a science-communication resource or a science-policy interface? Why, yes it is!

Read the rest of this entry »

No substitute for primary forest

15 09 2011

© Romulo Fotos http://goo.gl/CrAsE

A little over five years ago, a controversial and spectacularly erroneous paper appeared in the tropical ecology journal Biotropica, the flagship journal of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Now, I’m normally a fan of Biotropica (I have both published there several times and acted as a Subject Editor for several years), but we couldn’t let that paper’s conclusions go unchallenged.

That paper was ‘The future of tropical forest species‘ by Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau, which essentially concluded that the severe deforestation and degradation of tropical forests was not as big a deal as nearly all the rest of the conservation biology community had concluded (remind you of climate change at all?), and that regenerating, degraded and secondary forests would suffice to preserve the enormity and majority of dependent tropical biodiversity.

What rubbish.

Our response, and those of many others (including from Toby Gardner and colleagues and William Laurance), were fast and furious, essentially destroying the argument so utterly that I think most people merely moved on. We know for a fact that tropical biodiversity is waning rapidly, and in many parts of the world, it is absolutely [insert expletive here]. However, the argument has reared its ugly head again and again over the intervening years, so it’s high time we bury this particular nonsense once and for all.

In fact, a few anecdotes are worthy of mention here. Navjot once told me one story about the time when both he and Wright were invited to the same symposium around the time of the initial dust-up in Biotropica. Being Navjot, he tore off strips from Wright in public for his outrageous and unsubstantiated claims – something to which Wright didn’t take too kindly.  On the way home, the two shared the same flight, and apparently Wright refused to acknowledge Navjot’s existence and only glared looks that could kill (hang on – maybe that had something to do with Navjot’s recent and untimely death? Who knows?). Similar public stoushes have been chronicled between Wright and Bill Laurance.

Back to the story. I recall a particular coffee discussion at the National University of Singapore between Navjot Sodhi (may his legacy endure), Barry Brook and me some time later where we planned the idea of a large meta-analysis to compare degraded and ‘primary’ (not overly disturbed) forests. The ideas were fairly fuzzy back then, but Navjot didn’t drop the ball for a moment. He immediately went out and got Tien Ming Lee and his new PhD student, Luke Gibson, to start compiling the necessary studies. It was a thankless job that took several years.

However, the fruits of that labour have now just been published in Nature: ‘Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity‘, led by Luke and Tien Ming, along with Lian Pin Koh, Barry Brook, Toby Gardner, Jos Barlow, Carlos Peres, me, Bill Laurance, Tom Lovejoy and of course, Navjot Sodhi [side note: Navjot died during the review and didn’t survive to hear the good news that the paper was finally accepted].

Using data from 138 studies from Asia, South America and Africa comprising 2220 pair-wise comparisons of biodiversity ‘values’ between forests that had undergone some sort of disturbance (everything from selective logging through to regenerating pasture) and adjacent primary forests, we can now hammer the final nails into the coffin containing the putrid remains of Wright and Muller-Landau’s assertion – there is no substitute for primary forest. Read the rest of this entry »

Global rates of forest loss – everyone’s a bastard

29 04 2010

© A. Hesse

I’ve written rather a lot about rates of forest loss around the world, including accumulated estimates of tropical forest loss and increasing fragmentation/loss in the boreal forest (see Bradshaw et al. 2009 Front Ecol Evol & Bradshaw et al. 2009 Trends Ecol Evol). For the tropics in particular, we used the index that an area of rain forest about the size of Bangladesh (> 15 million hectares) was disappearing each year, and in Russia alone, annual decline in forest area averaged 1.1 million hectares between 1988 and 1993. Mind boggling, really.

But some of these estimates were a bit old, relied on some imprecise satellite data, and didn’t differentiate forest types well. In addition, many have questioned whether the rates are continuing and which countries are being naughty or nice with respect to forest conservation.

It was great therefore when I came across a new paper in PNAS by Hansen & colleagues entitled Quantification of global gross forest cover loss because it answered many of the latter questions.

Part of the problem in assessing worldwide forest cover loss in the past was the expense of satellite imagery, access problems, data storage and processing issues. Happily, new satellite streams and easing of access has rectified many of these limitations. Hansen & colleagues took advantage of data from the MODIS sensor to create a stratification for forest cover loss. They then used the Landsat ETM+ sensor as the primary data for quantifying gross forest cover loss for the entire planet from 2000 to 2005. They defined ‘forest cover’ as “… 25% or greater canopy closure at the Landsat pixel scale (30-m × 30-m spatial resolution) for trees > 5 m in height”.

For your reading pleasure (and conservation horror), the salient features were: Read the rest of this entry »

Bill Laurance coming to Adelaide

13 03 2010

We’ve got a real treat for biodiversity buffs scheduled for the end of March. Eminent (Distinguished, Famous, Respected… the list goes on) Professor William (Bill) Laurance is briefly leaving his tropical world and coming south to the temperate climes of Adelaide to regale us with his fascinating biodiversity research career.

Bill is a leading conservation biologist who has worked internationally on many high-profile threats to tropical forests—in the Amazon, Central America, Africa, and Australasia. A highly prolific scientist, to date he has published five books and over 300 scientific articles. Bill has recently commenced a position as Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University and is involved with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He also happens to be the bloke that blew the lid open on the devastating effects of tropical fragmentation in the Amazon with some of the best long-term experiments ever done in conservation biology.

I’m personally very pleased for several reasons: (1) Although I have never met Bill in person yet, I’ve recently co-authored two papers with him (Wash and spin cycle threats to tropical biodiversity and Improving the performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for nature conservation) and I’m keen to meet the man behind the pen; (2) we have had many email discussions (some of them rather heated!), so I’m keen to flesh some of these out over a nice glass of South Australian Shiraz; (3) he’s been a keen supporter of my work for years, and has given me many opportunities to get my research noticed; and (4) it’s high time to met one of ConservationBytes.com Conservation Scholars.

Bill has recently shifted shop from Panama (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) to Australia’s own James Cook University, and so we at the Environment Institute thought we should take advantage of his geographical disorientation and bring him down south for a while. But he’s going to have to sing for his supper, so he’s kindly agreed to give three talks in 3 days from 29-31 March 2010.

His first talk (on Monday 29 March) will be an in-house Environment Institute seminar, but the second two will be public events that I urge anyone remotely interested in biodiversity conservation research to attend. In fact, his Tuesday 30 March presentation (18.00-20.00 Napier G03, University of Adelaide) is even more generic than that, and word on the street is it is highly entertaining and extremely well attended wherever Bill’s is gracious enough to give it:

Amplify Your Voice: Keys to Having a Prolific Scientific Career (and Bill would know).

This will include (1) How to be more prolific: strategies for writing and publishing scientific papers and (2) Further ways to maximise your scientific impact – interacting with the popular media and how to promote yourself. Each topic will run for 50 minutes and will include 10 minutes for audience questions. A tea and coffee break will be held between sessions. Book here.

His second public talk on Wednesday 31 March (18.00-19.30 Napier 102, University of Adelaide) will be:

Diagnosis Critical | The lungs of our Planet

Here he will be discussing how the forests of our world are in crisis. Our drive for continued economic growth has had devastating consequences for the world’s ecosystems that provide critical human services. Our forests are a haven for countless plant and animal species that form the basis of ecological services, these services are the biological mechanisms that make the world our home. Book here.

So, if you have a couple of free nights at the end of the month and are in Adelaide, I strongly recommend you come out and see Bill do his thing.

CJA Bradshaw

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