Koala extinctions past, present, and future

12 06 2019

Photo by John Llewelyn

Koalas are one of the most recognised symbols of Australian wildlife. But the tree-living marsupial koala is not doing well throughout much of its range in eastern Australia. Ranging as far north as Cairns in Queensland, to as far west as Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the koala’s biggest threats today are undeniably deforestation, road kill, dog attacks, disease, and climate change.

With increasing drought, heatwaves, and fire intensity and frequency arising from the climate emergency, it is likely that koala populations and habitats will continue to decline throughout most of their current range.

But what was the distribution of koalas before humans arrived in Australia? Were they always a zoological feature of only the eastern regions?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’ — the fossil record reveal a much more complicated story.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIV

17 05 2019

The third set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Academics and Indigenous groups unite to stand up for the natural world

26 04 2019

Rain forest gives way to pastures in the Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso. Photo by Thiago Foresti.

More than 600 scientists from every country in the EU and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups have come together for the first time. This is because we see a window of opportunity in the ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Brazil. In a Letter published in Science today, we are asking the EU to stand up for Brazilian Indigenous rights and the natural world. Strong action from the EU is particularly important given Brazil’s recent attempts to dismantle environmental legislation and ‘develop the unproductive Amazon’.

It’s worth clarifying — this isn’t about the EU trying to control Brazil — it’s about making sure our imports aren’t driving violence and deforestation. Foreign white people trying to ‘protect nature’ abroad have a dark and shameful past, where actions done in the name of conservation have led to the eviction of millions of Indigenous people. This has predominantly been to create (what we in the world of conservation would call) ‘protected areas’. The harsh reality is that most protected areas either are or have been ancestral lands of Indigenous people who are closely linked to their land and depend on it for their survival. Clearly, conservationists need to support Indigenous people. This new partnership between European scientists and Brazilian Indigenous groups is doing just that.


Brazil’s forest loss 2001-2013 shown in red. Indigenous lands outlined. By Mike Clark; data from GlobalForestWatch.org

In Brazil, many Indigenous groups still have a right to their land. This land is predominantly found in the Amazon rainforest, where close to a million Indigenous people live and depend on a healthy forest. Indigenous people are some of the best protectors of this vast forest, and are crucial to a future of long-term successful conservation. But Brazilian Indigenous groups and local communities are increasingly under attack. Violence on deforestation frontiers in Brazil has spiked this month, with at least 9 people found dead. The future is particularly scary for Indigenous people when there are quotes such as this from the man who is currently the President It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.

On top of human rights and environmental concerns, there is a strong profit driven case for halting deforestation. For example, ongoing deforestation in the Amazon risks flipping large parts of the rainforest to savanna – posing a serious risk to agricultural productivity, food security, local livelihoods, and the Brazilian economy. Zero-deforestation doesn’t harm agri-business, it allows for its longevity. Read the rest of this entry »

How to improve (South Australia’s) biodiversity prospects

9 04 2019

Figure 2 (from the article). Overlaying the South Australia’s Protected Areas boundary data with the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia layer indicates that 73.2% of the total protected area (excluding Indigenous Protected Areas) in South Australia lies in the arid biogeographic regions of Great Victoria Desert (21.1%), Channel Country (15.2%), Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields (14.0%), Nullarbor (9.8%), Stony Plains (6.6%), Gawler (6.0%), and Hampton (0.5%). The total biogeographic-region area covered by the remaining Conservation Reserves amounts to 26.2%. Background blue shading indicates relative average annual rainfall.

If you read CB.com regularly, you’ll know that late last year I blogged about the South Australia 2108 State of the Environment Report for which I was commissioned to write an ‘overview‘ of the State’s terrestrial biodiversity.

At the time I whinged that not many people seemed to take notice (something I should be used to by now in the age of extremism and not giving a tinker’s about the future health of the planet — but I digress), but it seems that quietly, quietly, at least people with some policy influence here are starting to listen.

Not satisfied with merely having my report sit on the virtual shelves at the SA Environment Protection Authority, I decided that I should probably flesh out the report and turn it into a full, peer-reviewed article.

Well, I’ve just done that, with the article now published online in Rethinking Ecology as a Perspective paper.

The paper is chock-a-block with all the same sorts of points I covered last year, but there’s a lot more, and it’s also a lot better referenced and logically sequenced.

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Ecological Network Analysis Workshop

8 04 2019

network-transformation-optimizednfv-16x9.jpg.rendition.intel.web.480.270We are most fortunate that Dr Giovanni Strona of the EU Joint Research Centrein Ispra, Italy, will be visiting Flinders University for most of April. As a recipient of the prestigious International Visitor Fellowship, Dr Strona has kindly agreed to give a day-long (and hands-on) workshop in network modelling.

What is network analysis? Well, anything that is connected to other things is ostensibly a ‘network’ — think social-media users, neurones, electric elements in a circuit, or species in an ecological community. It doesn’t really matter what the ‘nodes’ of a network actually represent, because all networks more or less share the same properties. The analysis of network structure and behaviour is what Dr Strona will focus on for the workshop.

Being ecologists, we will of course be primarily interested in ecological networks, but maths and coding is essentially the same for all types of networks. Interested in attending this free and rare opportunity? If so, please register your interest here.

The workshop will be held at the Bedford Park Campus of Flinders University from 09:00-17:00 on 29 April 2019. The outline of the workshop is described in more detail below. Read the rest of this entry »

How to fix a broken river

5 04 2019


It seems that most of what I do these days is measure, model, or otherwise quantify environmental damage. While I dabble in restoration, occasionally I’m involved in a project that really can make a positive difference.

If you’re an Australian, you’ll know a thing or two about just how much of a clusterfuck our biggest river system has turned into. From mismanagement, to outright theft, to lobbyist-driven over-exploitation, to climate change itself, the Murray-Darling system is now in a right mess.

So, I’ll pretext this post with a caveat — no amount of ecological restoration can ‘fix’ a compromised river if there’s no water in it. Goes without saying, really.

But, if you do have water, then there are things one can do to promote populations of various creatures living in it, like fish.

Dubbed the ‘honeypot effect’ — we have just shown that providing woody habitat, or ‘snags’, for native fish in the Murray River increases population size. Read the rest of this entry »

Even the IPCC undersells the climate emergency

31 03 2019


Uncertainty is to science what the score is to music. Everything scientists measure is subject to various types of ‘error’ — from measurements to models. And climate change is no exception. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nation’s scientific body informing the political response to the human disruption of our planet’s climate. In a recent paper, we reveal that the IPCC’s language to address climatic uncertainty is overly conservative in its assessment reports.

Uncertainty dominates our lives. We might grumble, but we generally accept the bus arriving late, the risotto being a little colder than we might want, or a blood test unexpectedly announcing higher cholesterol than usual. We even treat uncertainty as an inevitable outcome of many professions: meteorologists might fail to predict rain for our camping weekend, an investor might make back the money today that was lost yesterday, or Messi might fail to score in the last minute of a Champions League final.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that scientific research is suffused with uncertainty. In fact, scientists indulge themselves with uncertainty. For them, acknowledging an uncertain outcome is not enough; instead, a critical component of their work is to quantify the amount of that uncertainty by, say, measuring the degree of variance (uncertainty) in the average height of a tree in a forest, or in the exact number of bees in a hive.

The treatment of uncertainty even gains added value when we deal with themes that directly affect our society — like climate change. But whoever communicates the uncertainty of climate science faces two formidable challenges. First, people often have a flawed understanding of science as a source of statements of fact. Instead, science is, in essence, about asking questions (1) and gradually refining the accuracy of our answers to those questions. Second, people perceive climate change through the lens of their ideology, education, and personal interests (2, 3, 4).

Therefore, what scientists say about the climate is not necessarily what some people will hear, even to the point that what scientists collectively recommend as ‘useful’ for addressing climate change might instead be deemed ‘useless’ by policymakers (5). 

Mathematical jargon

The IPCC evaluates the technical literature about climate change, and publishes such comprehensive evaluations in the form of periodical ‘assessment reports’ (AR). Those reports — which receive vast, global attention — provide policy-relevant, but not policy-prescriptive, advice to national governments and international organizations. The reports also catch the eye of a variety of audiences such as business people, educators, scientists, and the public as a whole.

To date, the IPCC has published five assessment reports in 1990 (AR1), 1995 (AR2), 2001 (AR3), 2007 (A4) and 2014 (AR5), and the next one (see progress updates here) is scheduled for 2022 (AR6) (6). With a focus on climate change, each report comprises three components: (i) the physical basis of climate, (ii) its socio-economic consequences, and (iii) adaptation and mitigation options. Every component is elaborated by a different ‘working group’ in charge of editing, integrating, and synthesizing the inputs of multiple experts. Read the rest of this entry »