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):

Read the rest of this entry »

Ecophysiological feedbacks under climate change

29 10 2018

Variability in heat tolerance among populations modifies the climate-driven periods of diurnal activity expected for ectotherm species. We illustrate this phenomenon for Iberian lizards in a paper we have just published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (blog post reproduced with permission by the Journal; see related blog).

Common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis, male) and three localities where the species is abundant in Spain, left to right including Valdesquí/Madrid (Central System), Peñagolosa/Castellón (Iberian System) and El Portalet/Huesca (The Pyrenees).

Iberia is a wonderful natural laboratory, with a complex blend of flat/hilly, open/woody and coastal/continental terrain, swept by climatic gradients of temperature and moisture. In 2013, I launched a BES-supported project about the thermal ecology of Iberian lizards and managed to drive over much of the Iberian Peninsula in fairly little time. Not being a reptile specialist myself, I was confronted by the consistent observation that lizard populations occupied very different habitats across the known distribution of each of the ~ 25 known Iberian species belonging to the family Lacertidae.

For instance, the common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis) likes water, rocks and mountains, but you can find this pencil-long reptile at the top of a summit, along the slopes or riversides of shallow and deep ravines, on little stones barely surfacing above peatland grasslands, or among the bricks of buildings. These animals must experience different local climates conditional on where they live, and adapt their thermal physiology accordingly.

Having then started a postdoc in Miguel Araújo’s lab — a world-class site for global change ecology and ‘big’ biodiversity patterns — I reviewed a sizeable body of literature looking into large-scale gradients of thermal tolerance. Most of those papers had collated (mostly) one estimate of tolerance from each of tens to thousands of species, then mapped them against regional and global metrics of climate change through sophisticated mathematical frameworks. But these studies rarely accounted for population-level thermal tolerance.

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Save a jaguar by eating less meat

8 10 2018


My encounter with Kaayana in Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. Her cub was around but cannot be seen in the photo

I was trapped. Or so I thought.

The jaguar came towards me on the dirt road, calmly but attentively in the dusky light, her nearly full grown cub behind her. Nervous and with only a torch as defence, I held the light high above my head as she approached, trying to look taller. But she was merely curious; and, after 20 minutes, they left. I walked home in the thickening darkness, amazed at having come so close to South America’s top predator. We later named this mother jaguar ‘Kaayana’, because she lives inside Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. My fascination with jaguars has only grown since then, but the chances of encountering this incredible animal in the wild have shrunk even since that night.

A few years after that encounter, I’m back to study jaguars in the same forest, only now at the scale of the whole South American Gran Chaco. Jaguars are the third largest cats in the world and the top predators across Latin America. This means that they are essential for keeping ecosystems healthy. However, they are disappearing rapidly in parts of their range.

Understanding how and where the jaguar’s main threats — habitat destruction and hunting — affect them is fundamental to set appropriate strategies to save them. These threats are not only damaging on their own, but they sometimes act simultaneously in an area, potentially having impacts that are larger than their simple sum. For instance, a new road doesn’t only promote deforestation, it also increases hunters’ ability to get into previously inaccessible forests. Similarly, when the forest is cut for cattle ranching, ranchers often kill jaguars for fears of stock loss.

Kaayana & kittens

Kaayana was seen years later by Daniel Alarcón, who took much better photos of her and her new cubs

However, the interactions between these threats are still not fully understood. In our new study, just published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, we developed a new framework to quantify how and where habitat destruction and hunting risk acted together over three decades, at the expense of highly suitable jaguar habitat in the Gran Chaco. We also analyzed how well the different Chaco countries — Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina — and their protected areas maintained key jaguar habitat. Read the rest of this entry »

South Australia doesn’t value its environment

5 09 2018

how we treat our environmentThe South Australian State Budget was released yesterday, and as has been the trend for the last ten years or so, the numbers are not good for the State’s environment.

While it has been reported that the budget includes the loss of 115 full-time staff from the Department of Environment and Water, the overall cuts run much deeper. They also herald a new era of not giving a tinker’s cuss for the sorry state of our environment.

I took the liberty of amassing the budget data with respect to environmental spending in this State since 2002-2003 (the earliest year I could find budget papers), and now I’ve just added the 2018-2019 data.

If I’ve selected the appropriate amounts, — side note: someone desperately needs to teach these budget bean-counters how to standardise, report, itemise, and organise data much, much better than they do (my first-year students could do a better job drunk and blindfolded) — then this is what environmental spending (including environment, biodiversity, water, and the Environment Protection Authority) has looked like since 2002: Read the rest of this entry »

Some scary stats about agriculture and biodiversity

20 07 2018

84438Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming the eminent sustainability scientist, Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, to our humble Ecology and Evolution Seminar Series here at Flinders University. While we couldn’t record the seminar he gave because of some of the unpublished and non-proprietary nature of some of his slides, I thought it would be interesting, useful, and thought-provoking to summarise some of the information he gave.

Andrew started off by telling us some of the environmental implications of farming worldwide. Today, existing agriculture covers more than half of ‘useable’ land (i.e., excluding unproductive deserts, etc.), and it has doubled nitrogen fixation rates from a pre-industrial baseline. Globally, agriculture is responsible for between 19 and 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and it has caused approximately 40% increase in observed sea-level rise (1961-2003). Not surprisingly, agriculture already occupies the regions of highest biodiversity globally, and is subsequently the greatest source of threat to species.

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Why populations can’t be saved by a single breeding pair

3 04 2018


© Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

I published this last week on The Conversation, and now reproducing it here for readers.


Two days ago, the last male northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) died. His passing leaves two surviving members of his subspecies: both females who are unable to bear calves.

Even though it might not be quite the end of the northern white rhino because of the possibility of implanting frozen embryos in their southern cousins (C. simum simum), in practical terms, it nevertheless represents the end of a long decline for the subspecies. It also raises the question: how many individuals does a species need to persist?

Fiction writers have enthusiastically embraced this question, most often in the post-apocalypse genre. It’s a notion with a long past; the Adam and Eve myth is of course based on a single breeding pair populating the entire world, as is the case described in the Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods in Norse mythology.

This idea dovetails neatly with the image of Noah’s animals marching “two by two” into the Ark. But the science of “minimum viable populations” tells us a different story.

No inbreeding, please

The global gold standard used to assess the extinction risk of any species is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Read the rest of this entry »

Penguins cheated by ecosystem change

13 03 2018

Jorge Drexler sings “… I was committed not to see what I saw, but sometimes life is more complex than what it looks like …”*. This excerpt by the Oscar-winning Uruguayan singer seems to foretell the theme of this blog: how the ecological complexity of marine ecosystems can elicit false signals to their predators. Indeed, the fidelity of marine predators to certain feeding areas can turn demographically detrimental to themselves when the amount of available food shrinks. A study of jackass penguins illustrates the phenomenon in a context of overfishing and ocean warming.


Adult of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from Robben Island (South Africa) — in the inset, one of the first juveniles released with a satellite transmitter on its back. The species is ‘Endangered’ under IUCN’s criteria (28), following a recent halving of the total population currently estimated at ~ 80,000 adults. Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in Africa, and owe their common name to their vocalisations (you can hear their braying sounds here); adults are ~ 50 cm tall and weigh ~ 3 kg. Photos courtesy of Richard Sherley.

Surface temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity and primary productivity are, by and large, the top four environmental factors driving the functionality of marine ecosystems (1). Growing scientific evidence supports the idea that anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere and the oceans correlates with this quartet (2). For instance, marine primary productivity is enhanced by increased temperatures (3), but a warmer sea surface intensifies stratification, i.e., stacked layers of seawater with contrasting physical and chemical properties.

In coastal areas experiencing ‘upwelling’ (where winds displace surface water, allowing deep water laden with nutrients to reach the euphotic zone where plankton communities feast), stratification weakens upwelling currents and, in turn, limits the growth of plankton (4) that fuels the entire trophic web, including our fisheries. The study of these complex trophic cascades is particularly cumbersome from the perspective of large marine predators because of their capacity to move long distances, from hundreds to thousands of kilometres (5), with strong implications for their conservation (6).

With those caveats in mind, Richard Sherley and colleagues satellite-tracked the movement of 54 post-fledged, juvenile jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) for 2-3 years (7). All individuals had been hatched in eight colonies (accounting for 80% of the global population), and were equipped with platform terminal transmitters. Jackass penguins currently nest in 28 island and mainland locations between South Africa and Namibia. Juveniles swim up to 2000 km in search of food and, when approaching adulthood, return to their native colonies where they reproduce and reside for the remainder of their lives (watch individuals swimming here).

The natural history of this species is linked to the Southern Hemisphere’s trade winds (‘alisios’ for Spanish speakers), which blow from the southeast to the tropics. In the South Atlantic, trade winds sustain the Benguela Current, the waters of which surface from some 300 m of depth and fertilise the marine ecosystems stretching from the Western coasts of South Africa to Angola (8). Read the rest of this entry »