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 »

Singin’ in the heat

9 03 2017
coqui & forest

Common coqui frog male (Eleutherodactylus coqui, snout-to vent length average ~ 3 cm) camouflaged in the fronds of an epiphyte in the El Yunque National Forest (Puerto Rico), along with an image of the enchanted forest of the Sierra de Luquillo where Narins & Meenderink did their study (4) – photos courtesy of Thomas Fletcher. This species can be found from sea level to the top of the highest peak in Puerto Rico (Cerro Punta = 1338 m). Native to mesic ecosystems, common coquis are well adapted to a terrestrial life, e.g., they lack interdigital webbing that support swimming propulsion in many amphibians, and youngsters hatch directly from the egg without transiting a tadpole stage. The IUCN catalogues the species as ‘Least Concern’ though alerts recent declines in high-altitude populations caused by chytrid fungus – lethal to amphibians at a planetary scale (9). Remarkably, the species has been introduced to Florida, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands where it can become a pest due to high fertility rates (several >20 egg clutches/female/year).

Frog songs are species-specific and highly useful for the study of tropical communities, which host the highest amphibian diversities globally. The auditory system of females and the vocal system of males have co-evolved to facilitate reproductive encounters, but global warming might be disrupting the frequency of sound-based encounters in some species..

It is a rainy night, and Don (Gene Kelly) has just left his love, Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), at home, starting one of the most famous musical movie scenes ever: Singin’ in the rain 

Amphibians (see Amphibians for kids by National Geographic) also love to sing in rainy nights when males call for a partner, but now they have to do it in hotter conditions as local climates become warmer. Vocal behaviour is a critical trait in the life history of many frog species because it mediates recognition between individuals, including sexual selection by females (1).

With few exceptions, every species has a different and unique call, so scientists can use call features to identify species, and this trait is particularly useful in the inventory of diverse tropical communities (2). Differences in call frequency, duration and pitch, and in note, number, and repetition pattern, occur from one species to another. And even within species, songs can vary from individual to individual (as much as there are not two people with the same voice), and be tuned according to body size and environmental temperature (3). Read the rest of this entry »

To feed or to perish in an iceless world

1 02 2017

Emaciated female polar bear on drift ice in Hinlopen Strait (Svalbard, Norway), in July 2015 – courtesy of Kerstin Langenberger (

Evolution has designed polar bears to move, hunt and reproduce on a frozen and dynamic habitat that wanes and grows in thickness seasonally. But the modification of the annual cycle of Arctic ice due to global warming is triggering a trophic cascade, which already links polar bears to marine birds.

Popular and epicurean gastronomy claims that the best recipes should use seasonal veggies and fruits. Once upon a time, when there were no greenhouses, international trade routes, or as much frozen and canned food, our grandparents enjoyed what was available at the time. So in some years we had plenty of cherries, while during others we might have feasted on plums. Read the rest of this entry »

Keeping India’s forests

9 08 2016

I’ve just returned from a short trip to the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, Karnataka, one of India’s elite biological research institutes.

Panorama of a forested landscape (Savandurga monolith in the background) just south of Bangalore, Karnataka (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

Panorama of a forested landscape (Savandurga monolith in the background) just south of Bangalore, Karnataka (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

I was invited to give a series of seminars (you can see the titles here), and hopefully establish some new collaborations. My wonderful hosts, Deepa Agashe & Jayashree Ratnam, made sure I was busy meeting nearly everyone I could in ecology and evolution, and I’m happy to say that collaborations have begun. I also think NCBS will be a wonderful conduit for future students coming to Australia.

It was my first time visiting India1, and I admit that I had many preconceptions about the country that were probably unfounded. Don’t get me wrong — many of them were spot on, such as the glorious food (I particularly liked the southern India cuisine of dhosa, iddly & the various fruit-flavoured semolina concoctions), the insanity of urban traffic, the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and the politeness of Indian society (Indians have to be some of the politest people on the planet).

But where I probably was most at fault of making incorrect assumptions was regarding the state of India’s natural ecosystems, and in particular its native forests and grasslands. Read the rest of this entry »

One-two carbon punch of defaunation

30 04 2016

1-2 punchI’ve just read a well-planned and lateral-thinking paper in Nature Communications that I think readers of ought to appreciate. The study is a simulation of a complex ecosystem service that would be nigh impossible to examine experimentally. Being a self-diagnosed fanatic of simulation studies for just such purposes, I took particular delight in the results.

In many ways, the results of the paper by Osuri and colleagues are intuitive, but that should never be a reason to avoid empirical demonstration of a suspected phenomenon because intuition rarely equals fact. The idea itself is straightforward, but takes more than a few logical steps to describe: Read the rest of this entry »

Shadow of ignorance veiling society despite more science communication

19 04 2016

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing. Read the rest of this entry »


24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »