Sex on the beach

2 10 2018
Female green turtles (Chelonia mydas) spawning (top) and diving (bottom) on Raine Island (Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia) — photos courtesy of Ian Bell. This species is ‘Endangered’ globally since 1982, mainly from egg harvesting (poaching conflict in Mexico for olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea featured by National Geographic’s video here), despite the success of conservation projects (39). Green turtles inhabit tropical and subtropical seas in all oceans. Adults can grow > 150 kg and live for up to ~ 75 years. Right after birth, juveniles venture into the open sea to recruit ultimately in coastal areas until sexual maturity. They then make their first reproductive migration, often over 1000s of km (see footage of a real dive of a camera-equipped green turtle), to reach their native sandy beaches where pregnant females will lay their eggs. Each female can deposit more than one hundred eggs in her nest, and in several clutches in the same season because they can store the sperm from multiple mating events.

When sex is determined by the thermal environment, males or females might predominate under sustained climatic conditions. A study about marine turtles from the Great Barrier Reef illustrates how feminisation of a population can be partitioned geographically when different reproductive colonies are exposed to contrasting temperatures.

Fortunately, most people in Western societies already perceive that we live in a complex blend of sexual identities, far beyond the kind of genitals we are born with. Those identities start to establish themselves in the embryo before the sixth week of pregnancy. In the commonest scenario, for a human foetus XY with one maternal chromosome (X) and one paternal (Y) chromosome, the activation of the Sry gen (unique to Y) will trigger the differentiation of testicles and, via hormonal pathways, the full set of male characteristics (1).

Absence of that gene in an XX embryo will normally lead to a woman. However, in just one of many exceptions to the rule, Sry-expression failure in XY individuals can result in sterile men or ambiguous genitals — along a full gradient of intermediate sexes and, potentially, gender identities. A 2015 Nature ‘News’ feature echoes two extraordinary cases: (i) a father of four children found to bear a womb during an hernia operation, and (ii) a pregnant mother found to host both XX and XY cells during a genetic test – with her clinical geneticist stating “… that’s the kind of science-fiction material for someone who just came in for an amniocentesis” (2). These real-life stories simply reflect that sex determination is a complex phenomenon.

Three ways of doing it

In nature, there are three main strategies of sex determination (3) — see scheme here: Read the rest of this entry »

Legacy of human migration on the diversity of languages in the Americas

12 09 2018

quechua-foto-ale-glogsterThis might seem a little left-of-centre for subject matter, but hang in there, this does have some pretty important conservation implications.

In our quest to be as transdisciplinary as possible, I’ve team up with a few people outside my discipline to put together a PhD modelling project that could really help us understand how human colonisation shaped not only ancient ecosystems, but also our own ancient cultures.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Dr Frédérik Saltré here in the Global Ecology Laboratory, at Flinders University, and in collaboration with Dr Bastien Llamas (Australian Centre for Ancient DNA), Joshua Birchall (Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Brazil), and Lars Fehren-Schmitz (University of California at Santa Cruz, USA), I think the student could break down a few disciplinary boundaries here and provide real insights into the causes and consequences of human expansion into novel environments.

Interested? See below for more details?

Languages are ‘documents of history’ and historical linguists have developed comparative methods to infer patterns of human prehistory and cultural evolution. The Americas present a more substantive diversity of indigenous language stock than any other continent; however, whether such a diversity arose from initial human migration pathways across the continent is still unknown, because the primary proxy used (i.e., archaeological evidence) to study modern human migration is both too incomplete and biased to inform any regional inference of colonisation trajectories. Read the rest of this entry »

Greater death rates for invasive rabbits from interacting diseases

30 05 2018

When it comes to death rates for invasive European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Australia, it appears that 1 + 1 = 2.1.

Pt tagged rab with RHD+myxo 1 10-08

Tagged European rabbit kitten infected with myxoma virus, but that died from rabbit haemorrhagic virus disease (RHDV). Photo by David Peacock, Biosecurity South Australia.

“Canberra, we have a problem” — Sure, it’s an old problem and much less of one than it used to be back in the 1950s, but invasive rabbits are nonetheless an ecological, conservation, and financial catastrophe across Australia.

relative rabbit abundance South Australia

Semi-schematic diagram, redrawn using data from Saunders and others and extended to include the recent spread of RHDV2, showing changes in rabbit abundance in relation to the introduction of biological control agents into north-eastern South Australia. Dotted lines indicate uncertainty due to lack of continuous annual data. The broken line indicates a level of about 0.5 rabbits ha-1, below which rabbits must be held to ensure recovery of native pastures and shrubs (from B. Cooke 2018 Vet Rec doi:10.1136/vr.k2105)

Rabbits used to reach plague numbers in much of agricultural and outback Australia, but the introduction and clever manipulation of two rather effective rabbit-specific viruses and insect vectors — first, myxoma virus in 1950, European rabbit fleas in the 1960s to help spread the virus, then Spanish rabbit fleas in the 1990s to increase spread into arid areas, and then rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) in 1995 — have been effective in dropping rabbit abundances by an estimated 75-80% in South Australia alone since the 1950s.

Read the rest of this entry »

Four decades of fragmentation

27 09 2017


I’ve recently read perhaps the most comprehensive treatise of forest fragmentation research ever compiled, and I personally view this rather readable and succinct review by Bill Laurance and colleagues as something every ecology and conservation student should read.

The ‘Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project‘ (BDFFP) is unquestionably one of the most important landscape-scale experiments ever conceived and implemented, now having run 38 years since its inception in 1979. Indeed, it was way ahead of its time.

Experimental studies in ecology are comparatively rare, namely because it is difficult, expensive, and challenging in the extreme to manipulate entire ecosystems to test specific hypotheses relating to the response of biodiversity to environmental change. Thus, we ecologists tend to rely more on mensurative designs that use existing variation in the landscape (or over time) to infer mechanisms of community change. Of course, such experiments have to be large to be meaningful, which is one reason why the 1000 km2 BDFFP has been so successful as the gold standard for determining the effects of forest fragmentation on biodiversity.

And successful it has been. A quick search for ‘BDFFP’ in the Web of Knowledge database identifies > 40 peer-reviewed articles and a slew of books and book chapters arising from the project, some of which are highly cited classics in conservation ecology (e.g., doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01025.x cited > 900 times; doi:10.1073/pnas.2336195100 cited > 200 times; doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.09.021 cited > 400 times; and doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01294.x cited nearly 600 times). In fact, if we are to claim any ecological ‘laws’ at all, our understanding of fragmentation on biodiversity could be labelled as one of the few, thanks principally to the BDFFP. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Job: Research Fellow in Palaeo-Ecological Modelling

13 04 2017


I have another postdoctoral fellowship to advertise! All the details you need for applying are below.


Scientific data such as fossil and archaeological records used as proxy to reconstruct past environments and biological communities (including humans) are sparse, often ambiguous or contradictory when establishing any consensus on timing or routes of initial human arrival and subsequent spread, the timing or extent of major changes in climate and other environmental perturbations, or the timing or regional pattern of biological extinctions.

The Research Fellow (Palaeo-Ecological Modelling) will assist in addressing these problems by developing state-of-the-art analytical and simulation tools to infer regional pattern of both the timing of human colonisation and megafauna extinction based on incomplete and sparse dataset, and investigating past environmental changes and human responses to identify their underlying causes and consequences on Australia’s landscapes, biodiversity and cultural history.


The position will be based in the School of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science & Engineering at Flinders University. Flinders University boasts a world-class Palaeontology Research Group (PRG) and the new Global Ecology Research Laboratory that have close association with the research-intensive South Australian Museum. These research groups contribute to building a dynamic research environment that explores the continuum of environmental and evolutionary research from the ancient to modern molecular ecology and phylogeography. The School of Biological Sciences is an integrated community researching and teaching biology, and has a long history of science innovation. The appointee will join an interdisciplinary school of approximately 45 academic staff. The teaching and research activities of the School are supported by a range of technical and administrative infrastructure services.


The key responsibilities and selection criteria identified for this position should be read in conjunction with the Flinders University Academic Profiles for the relevant academic classification (scroll down to Academic Profiles).

The Research Fellow (Palaeo-Ecological Modelling) will work under the direction of the Project Chief Investigator, and will be required to: Read the rest of this entry »

Limited nursery replenishment in coral reefs

27 03 2017
Haemulon sciurus

blue-striped grunt (Haemulon sciurus)

Coral reef fishes are wonderfully diverse in size, form, and function, as well as their need for different habitats throughout the life cycle. Some species spend all of their life in the same kind of coral habitat, while others need different places to breed and feed.

Fishes requiring different habitats as they progress through life often have what we call ‘nurseries’ in which adults lay eggs and the subsequent juveniles remain, and these places are often dominated by mangroves or seagrasses (i.e., they are not part of the coral reef).

While we’ve known for quite some time that when these nursery habitats are not around, adjacent coral reefs have few, if any, of these nursery-dependent species. What we haven’t known until now is just how far the influence of nurseries extends along a coral reef.

In other words, if a nursery is present, just how many new recruits do different areas of a reef receive from it? Read the rest of this entry »