Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp

14 01 2021

Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container

Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face. Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe. Read the rest of this entry »

Time for a ‘cold shower’ about our ability to avoid a ghastly future

13 01 2021

I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,’ said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Frodo Baggins and Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

Today, 16 high-profile scientists and I published what I describe as a ‘cold shower’ about society’s capacity to avoid a ghastly future of warfare, disease, inequality, persecution, extinction, and suffering.

And it goes way beyond just the plight of biodiversity.

No one who knows me well would mistake me for an optimist, try as I might to use my colleagues’ and my research for good. Instead, I like to describe myself as a ‘realist’. However, this latest paper has made even my gloomier past outputs look downright hopeful.

And before being accused of sensationalism, let me make one thing abundantly clear — I sincerely hope that what we describe in this paper does not come to pass. Not even I am that masochistic.

I am also supportive of every attempt to make the world a better place, to sing about our successes, regroup effectively from our failures, and maintain hope in spite of evidence to the contrary.

But failing to acknowledge the magnitude and the gravity of the problems facing us is not just naïve, it is positively dangerous and potentially fatal.

It is this reason alone that prompted us to write our new paper “Underestimating the challenges of
avoiding a ghastly future
” just published in the new journal, Frontiers in Conservation Science.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIII

26 10 2020

The sixth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Grand Challenges in Global Biodiversity Threats

8 10 2020

Last week I mentioned that the new journal Frontiers in Conservation Science is now open for business. As promised, I wrote a short article outlining our vision for the Global Biodiversity Threats section of the journal. It’s open-access, of course, so I’m also copying here on ConservationBytes.com.

Most conservation research and its applications tend to happen most frequently at reasonably fine spatial and temporal scales — for example, mesocosm experiments, single-species population viability analyses, recovery plans, patch-level restoration approaches, site-specific biodiversity surveys, et cetera. Yet, at the other end of the scale spectrum, there have been many overviews of biodiversity loss and degradation, accompanied by the development of multinational policy recommendations to encourage more sustainable decision making at lower levels of sovereign governance (e.g., national, subnational).

Yet truly global research in conservation science is fact comparatively rare, as poignantly demonstrated by the debates surrounding the evidence for and measurement of planetary tipping points (Barnosky et al., 2012; Brook et al., 2013; Lenton, 2013). Apart from the planetary scale of human-driven disruption to Earth’s climate system (Lenton, 2011), both scientific evidence and policy levers tend to be applied most often at finer, more tractable research and administrative scales. But as the massive ecological footprint of humanity has grown exponentially over the last century (footprintnetwork.org), robust, truly global-scale evidence of our damage to the biosphere is now starting to emerge (Díaz et al., 2019). Consequently, our responses to these planet-wide phenomena must also become more global in scope.

Conservation scientists are adept at chronicling patterns and trends — from the thousands of vertebrate surveys indicating an average reduction of 68% in the numbers of individuals in populations since the 1970s (WWF, 2020), to global estimates of modern extinction rates (Ceballos and Ehrlich, 2002; Pimm et al., 2014; Ceballos et al., 2015; Ceballos et al., 2017), future models of co-extinction cascades (Strona and Bradshaw, 2018), the negative consequences of invasive species across the planet (Simberloff et al., 2013; Diagne et al., 2020), discussions surrounding the evidence for the collapse of insect populations (Goulson, 2019; Komonen et al., 2019; Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, 2019; Cardoso et al., 2020; Crossley et al., 2020), the threats to soil biodiversity (Orgiazzi et al., 2016), and the ubiquity of plastic pollution (Beaumont et al., 2019) and other toxic substances (Cribb, 2014), to name only some of the major themes in global conservation. 

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New journal: Frontiers in Conservation Science

29 09 2020

Several months ago, Daniel Blumstein of UCLA approached me with an offer — fancy leading a Special Section in a new Frontiers journal dedicated to conservation science?

I admit that my gut reaction was a visceral ‘no’, both in terms of the extra time it would require, as well as my autonomous reflex of ‘not another journal, please‘.

I had, for example, spent a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears helping to launch Conservation Letters when I acted as Senior Editor for the first 3.5 years of its existence (I can’t believe that it has been nearly a decade since I left the journal). While certainly an educational and reputational boost, I can’t claim that the experience was always a pleasant one — as has been said many times before, the fastest way to make enemies is to become an editor.

But then Dan explained what he had in mind for Frontiers in Conservation Science, and the more I spoke with him, the more I started to think that it wasn’t a bad idea after all for me to join.

Read the rest of this entry »

The state of global biodiversity — it’s worse than you probably think

24 01 2020

Chefurka biomass slide

I often find myself in a position explaining to non-professionals just how bad the state of global biodiversity really is. It turns out too that even quite a few ecologists seem to lack an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of damage we’ve done to the planet.

The loss of biodiversity that has occurred over the course of our species’ time on Earth is staggering. This loss is now truly planetary in scale and caused by human actions, albeit the severity of which is unequally distributed across the globe1. While Sandra Díaz and company recently summarised the the extent of the biodiversity crisis unfolding1 well in their recent synopsis of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)2 report, I’m going to repeat some of the salient summary statements here, and add a few others. Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation ecology papers of 2019

24 12 2019

Bradshaw-Waves breaking on rocks Macquarie Island
As I’ve done for the last six years, I am publishing a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2019 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime (in no particular order). See previous years’ lists here: 20182017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

Read the rest of this entry »

Did people or climate kill off the megafauna? Actually, it was both

10 12 2019

When freshwater dried up, so did many megafauna species.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Author provided

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Earth is now firmly in the grips of its sixth “mass extinction event”, and it’s mainly our fault. But the modern era is definitely not the first time humans have been implicated in the extinction of a wide range of species.

In fact, starting about 60,000 years ago, many of the world’s largest animals disappeared forever. These “megafauna” were first lost in Sahul, the supercontinent formed by Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level.

The causes of these extinctions have been debated for decades. Possible culprits include climate change, hunting or habitat modification by the ancestors of Aboriginal people, or a combination of the two.

Read more: What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?

The main way to investigate this question is to build timelines of major events: when species went extinct, when people arrived, and when the climate changed. This approach relies on using dated fossils from extinct species to estimate when they went extinct, and archaeological evidence to determine when people arrived.

Read more: An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose

Comparing these timelines allows us to deduce the likely windows of coexistence between megafauna and people.

We can also compare this window of coexistence to long-term models of climate variation, to see whether the extinctions coincided with or shortly followed abrupt climate shifts.

Data drought

One problem with this approach is the scarcity of reliable data due to the extreme rarity of a dead animal being fossilised, and the low probability of archaeological evidence being preserved in Australia’s harsh conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?

13 11 2019

(reproduced from The Conversation)

For more than 3.5 billion years, living organisms have thrived, multiplied and diversified to occupy every ecosystem on Earth. The flip side to this explosion of new species is that species extinctions have also always been part of the evolutionary life cycle.

But these two processes are not always in step. When the loss of species rapidly outpaces the formation of new species, this balance can be tipped enough to elicit what are known as “mass extinction” events.

Read more: Climate change is killing off Earth’s little creatures

A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

Since at least the Cambrian period that began around 540 million years ago when the diversity of life first exploded into a vast array of forms, only five extinction events have definitively met these mass-extinction criteria.

These so-called “Big Five” have become part of the scientific benchmark to determine whether human beings have today created the conditions for a sixth mass extinction.

An ammonite fossil found on the Jurassic Coast in Devon. The fossil record can help us estimate prehistoric extinction rates. Corey Bradshaw, Author provided

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The politics of environmental destruction

22 10 2019

C_SE 409521698 Paul Ehrlich Lecture Event - Eventbrite2

You’d think I’d get tired of this, wouldn’t you? Alas, the fight does wear me down, but I must persist.

My good friend and colleague, the legendary Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, as well as his equally legendary wife, Anne, will be joining us in Adelaide for a brief visit during their annual southern migration.

Apart from just catching up over a few good bottles of wine (oh, do those two enjoy fine wines!), we have the immense privilege of having Paul appear at two events while he’s in town.

I’m really only going to be talking about the second of the two events (the first is a Science Meets Parliament gig with me and many others at the South Australia Parliament on 12 November): a grand, public lecture and Q&A session held at Flinders University on Wednesday, 13 November.

Haven’t heard of Paul? Where have you been hiding? If by some miracle you haven’t, here’s a brief bio:

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University and Adjunct Professor, University of Technology, Sydney. He does research in population biology (includes ecology, evolutionary biology, behavior, and human ecology and cultural evolution). Ehrlich has carried out field, laboratory and theoretical research on a wide array of problems ranging from the dynamics and genetics of insect populations, studies of the ecological and evolutionary interactions of plants and herbivores, and the behavioral ecology of birds and reef fishes, to experimental studies of the effects of crowding on human beings and studies of cultural evolution, especially the evolution of norms. He is President of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere and is author and coauthor of more than 1100 scientific papers and articles in the popular press and over 40 books. He is best known to his efforts to alert the public to the many intertwined drivers that are pushing humanity toward a collapse of civilization – especially overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and lack of economic, racial, and gender equity. Ehrlich is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Entomological Society and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  Among his many other honours are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity (an explicit replacement for the Nobel Prize); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship; the Volvo Environment Prize; UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the Heinz Award for the Environment; the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences; the Blue Planet Prize;  the Eminent Ecologist award of the Ecological Society of America, the Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Prof Ehrlich has appeared as a guest on more than 1000 TV and radio programs; he also was a correspondent for NBC News. He has given many hundreds of public lectures in the past 50 years.

I hope your jaw just dropped.

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Victoria, please don’t aerial-bait dingoes

10 10 2019

Here’s a submission to Victoria’s proposed renewal of special permission from the Commonwealth to poison dingoes:

dingo with bait

08 October 2019

Honourable Lily D’Ambrosio MP
Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change
Level 16, 8 Nicholson Street, East Melbourne, VIC 3002



The Hon Jaclyn Symes, Minister for Agriculture, Victoria


Dr Sally Box, Threatened Species Commissioner


The Hon Sussan Ley MP, Minister for Environment, Australia



Dear Minister,

The undersigned welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed renewal of special permission from the Commonwealth under Sections 18 and 18A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Commonwealth) to undertake aerial 1080 baiting in six Victorian locations for the management of ‘wild dogs’. This raises serious concerns for two species listed as threatened and protected in Victoria: (1) dingoes and (2) spot-tailed quolls (Dasyurus maculatus).

First, we must clarify that the terminology ‘wild dog’ is not appropriate when discussing wild canids in Australia. One of the main discussion points at the recent Royal Zoological Society of NSW symposium ‘Dingo Dilemma: Cull, Contain or Conserve’ was that the continued use of the terminology ‘wild dog’ is not justified because wild canids in Australia are predominantly dingoes and dingo hybrids, and not, in fact, feral domestic dogs. In Victoria, Stephens et al. (2015) observed that only 5 out of 623 wild canids (0.008%) sampled were feral domestic dogs with no evidence of dingo ancestry. This same study determined that 17.2% of wild canids in Victoria were pure or likely pure dingoes and 64.4% were hybrids with greater than 60% dingo ancestry. Additionally, comparative studies by Jones (1988, 1990 and 2009) observed that dingoes maintained a strong phenotypic identity in the Victorian highlands over time, and perceptively ‘wild dog’ like animals were more dingo than domestic dog.

As prominent researchers in predator ecology, biology, archaeology, cultural heritage, social science, humanities, animal behaviour and genetics, we emphasise the importance of dingoes in Australian, and particularly Victorian, ecosystems. Dingoes are the sole non-human, land-based, top predator on the Australian mainland. Their importance to the ecological health and resilience of Australian ecosystems cannot be overstated, from regulating wild herbivore abundance (e.g., various kangaroo species), to reducing the impacts of feral mesopredators (cats, foxes) on native marsupials (Johnson & VanDerWal 2009; Wallach et al. 2010; Letnic et al. 20122013; Newsome et al. 2015; Morris & Letnic 2017). Their iconic status is important to First Nations people and to the cultural heritage of all Australians. Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

Read the rest of this entry »

“Overabundant” wildlife usually isn’t

12 07 2019

koalacrosshairsLate last year (10 December) I was invited to front up to the ‘Overabundant and Pest Species Inquiry’ at the South Australian Parliament to give evidence regarding so-called ‘overabundant’ and ‘pest’ species.

There were the usual five to six Ministers and various aides on the Natural Resources Committee (warning here: the SA Parliament website is one of the most confusing, archaic, badly organised, and generally shitty government sites I’ve yet to visit, so things require a bit of nuanced searching) to whom I addressed on issues ranging from kangaroos, to dingoes, to koalas, to corellas. The other submissions I listened to that day were (mostly) in favour of not taking drastic measures for most of the human-wildlife conflicts that were being investigated.

Forward seven months and the Natural Resources Committee has been reported to have requested the SA Minister for Environment to allow mass culling of any species (wildlife or feral) that they deem to be ‘overabundant’ or a ‘pest’.

So, the first problem is terminological in nature. If you try to wade through the subjectivity, bullshit, vested interests, and general ignorance, you’ll quickly realise that there is no working definition or accepted meaning for the words ‘overabundant’ or ‘pest’ in any legislation. Basically, it comes down to a handful of lobbyists and other squeaky wheels defining anything they deem to be a nuisance as ‘overabundant’, irrespective of its threat status, ecological role, or purported impacts. It is, therefore, entirely subjective, and boils down to this: “If I don’t like it, it’s an overabundant pest”. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Politics matter: undoing conservation progress in the land of the dodo

4 02 2019

The island of Mauritius is known, particularly in conservation circles, for the ill-fated extinction of the dodo, but also for its many conservation success stories. These include the recovery of emblematic birds such as the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) and the pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) that narrowly avoided extinction several decades ago. 

Mauritius (greater Mascarene) flying fox Pteropus niger

Behind this veil of achievements, however, local political realities are increasingly making the protection and management of Mauritian biodiversity more complex and challenging as new conservation issues emerge.

Emergence of human-wildlife conflict

In the midst of the third government-led mass cull of the Endangered Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus niger) in 2018, a paper published in the Journal for Nature Conservation shed light on the events that led to the government’s choice to do the first two mass culls of the Mauritian flying fox in 2015 and 2016. Documentation of human-wildlife conflict in Mauritius is relatively new, as noted by the authors, but provides a unique case study.

Given that the mass-culling opted for did not increase fruit growers’ profits (in fact, fruit production dropped substantially after the mass-culls) and that the flying fox, a keystone species for the native biodiversity, became more threatened with extinction following the mass culls, it appears that Mauritius provides a rare opportunity to study what precisely should be avoided when trying to resolve such a HWC [Human-wildlife conflict],

Florens & Bader (2019)

Indeed, to mitigate rising conflicts between fruit farmers and the Mauritian flying fox, the Mauritian government opted in 2006 to cull this threatened species (only six individuals were culled at the time). Despite disputes over the population size of the Mauritian flying fox and the extent of damage it caused to commercial fruit growers, as well as scientific arguments against the cull, culling continues to be the preferred approach. 

The law that kills threatened wildlife 

This focus on culling as a solution contributed to a legal amendment in October 2015 that now facilitates the population control of any species of wildlife, irrespective of its origin and its conservation status. The Native Terrestrial Biodiversity and National Parks Bill was passed on 20 October 2015, just two weeks after the government announced its plan to cull 18,000 threatened native bats.

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Thirsty forests

1 02 2019

Climate change is one ingredient of a cocktail of factors driving the ongoing destruction of pristine forests on Earth. We here highlight the main physiological challenges trees must face to deal with increasing drought and heat.

Forests experiencing embolism after a hot drought. The upper-left pic shows Scots (Pinus sylvestris) and black (P. nigra) pines in Montaña de Salvador (Espuñola, Barcelona, Spain) during a hot Autumn in 2015 favouring a massive infestation by pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) and tree mortality the following year (Lluís Brotons/CSIC in InForest-CREAF-CTFC). To the right, an individual holm oak (Quercus ilex) bearing necrotic branches in Plasencia (Extremadura, Spain) during extreme climates from 2016 to 2017, impacting more than a third of the local oak forests (Alicia Forner/CSIC). The lower-left pic shows widespread die-off of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) from ‘Aspen Parkland’ (Saskatchewan, Canada) in 2004 following extreme climates in western North America from 2001 to 2002 (Mike Michaelian/Canadian Forest Service). To the right, several dead aspens near Mancos (Colorado, USA) where the same events hit forests up to one-century old (William Anderegg).

A common scene when we return from a long trip overseas is to find our indoor plants wilting if no one has watered them in our absence. But … what does a thirsty plant experience internally?

Like animals, plants have their own circulatory system and a kind of plant blood known as sap. Unlike the phloem (peripheral tissue underneath the bark of trunks and branches, and made up of arteries layered by live cells that transport sap laden with the products of photosynthesis, along with hormones and minerals — see videos here and here), the xylem is a network of conduits flanked by dead cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves through the core of the trunk of a tree (see animation here). They are like the pipes of a building within which small pressure differences make water move from a collective reservoir to every neighbours’ kitchen tap.

Water relations in tree physiology have been subject to a wealth of research in the last half a decade due to the ongoing die-off of trees in all continents in response to episodes of drought associated with temperature extremes, which are gradually becoming more frequent and lasting longer at a planetary scale (1). 

Embolised trees

During a hot drought, trees must cope with a sequence of two major physiological challenges (2, 3, 4). More heat and less internal water increase sap tension within the xylem and force trees to close their stomata (5). Stomata are small holes scattered over the green parts of a plant through which gas and water exchanges take place. Closing stomata means that a tree is able to reduce water losses by transpiration by two to three orders of magnitude. However, this happens at the expense of halting photosynthesis, because the main photosynthetic substrate, carbon dioxide (CO2), uses the same path as water vapour to enter and leave the tissues of a tree.

If drought and heat persist, sap tension reaches a threshold leading to cavitation or formation of air bubbles (6). Those bubbles block the conduits of the xylem such that a severe cavitation will ultimately cause overall hydraulic failure. Under those conditions, the sap does not flow, many parts of the tree dry out gradually, structural tissues loose turgor and functionality, and their cells end up dying. Thus, the aerial photographs showing a leafy blanket of forest canopies profusely coloured with greys and yellows are in fact capturing a Dantesque situation: trees in photosynthetic arrest suffering from embolism (the plant counterpart of a blood clot leading to brain, heart or pulmonary infarction), which affects the peripheral parts of the trees in the first place (forest dieback).

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

For the last five years I’ve published a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of the year as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime — so, I’m doing so again for 2018 (interesting side note: six of the twenty papers highlighted here for 2018 appear in Science magazine). See previous years’ posts here: 2017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

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Better Prospects for the Future of South Australia’s Biodiversity

21 11 2018


A major environmental event quietly slipped through the major news outlets in South Australia this week without much of a mention at all. Yet, I argue it’s one of the most important collective assessments of the state of South Australia’s environment to date. 

Yes, it’s been exactly five years since the last State of the Environment Report released by the South Australia Environment Protection Authority (EPA), and on Monday this week they released the 2018 Report. What’s perhaps even sadder than the poor performance of our state’s environmental performance is that it barely got a mention, nor does seem to have been noticed by many South Australians at all. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, when major protests like the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement hardly got a mention at all last week, it’s no wonder that the release of the Report fails to raise the interest of average citizens in South Australia.

Full disclosure here — I contributed to this year’s State of the Environment Report as one of several independent ‘experts’ commenting on particular aspects of our environment. Yes, this year’s report has made a major leap in this regard by not merely reporting the trends of various indicators (and with rather unconvincing conclusions in many cases because of a lack of monitoring data), but by also including independent overviews of Aquatic Ecosystems, Biodiversity, and Coastal Protection. I was the one asked to write the Biodiversity Issues paper.

While you can download the full report here, I thought it best to summarise the key findings in this blog post (supporting references can be found in the report itself):

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