Don’t blame it on the dingo

21 08 2013

dingo angelOur postdoc, Tom Prowse, has just had one of the slickest set of reviews I’ve ever seen, followed by a quick acceptance of what I think is a pretty sexy paper. Earlier this year his paper in Journal of Animal Ecology showed that thylacine (the badly named ‘Tasmanian tiger‘) was most likely not the victim of some unobserved mystery disease, but instead succumbed to what many large predators have/will: human beings. His latest effort now online in Ecology shows that the thylacine and devil extinctions on the Australian mainland were similarly the result of humans and not the scapegoat dingo. But I’ll let him explain:

‘Regime shifts’ can occur in ecosystems when sometimes even a single component is added or changed. Such additions, of say a new predator, or changes such as a rise in temperature, can fundamentally alter core ecosystem functions and processes, causing the ecosystem to switch to some alternative stable state.

Some of the most striking examples of ecological regime shifts are the mass extinctions of large mammals (‘megafauna’) during human prehistory. In Australia, human arrival and subsequent hunting pressure is implicated in the rapid extinction of about 50 mammal species by around 45 thousand years ago. The ensuing alternative stable state was comprised of a reduced diversity of predators, dominated by humans and two native marsupial predators ‑ the thylacine (also known as the marsupial ‘tiger’ or ‘wolf’) and the devil (which is now restricted to Tasmania and threatened by a debilitating, infectious cancer).

Both thylacines and devils lasted on mainland Australia for over 40 thousand years following the arrival of humans. However, a second regime shift resulted in the extinction of both these predators by about 3 thousand years ago, which was coincidentally just after dingoes were introduced to Australia. Dingoes are descended from early domestic dogs and were introduced to northern Australia from Asia by ancient traders approximately 4 thousand years ago. Today, they are Australia’s only top predator remaining, other than invasive European foxes and feral cats. Since the earliest days of European settlement, dingoes have been persecuted because they prey on livestock. During the 1880s, 5614 km of ‘dingo fence’ was constructed to protect south-east Australia’s grazing rangelands from dingo incursions. The fence is maintained to this day, and dingoes are poisoned and shot both inside and outside this barrier, despite mounting evidence that these predators play a key role in maintaining native ecosystems, largely by suppressing invasive predators.

Perhaps because the public perception of dingoes as ‘sheep-killers’ is so firmly entrenched, it has been commonly assumed that dingoes killed off the thylacines and devils on mainland Australia. People who support this view also point out that thylacines and devils persisted on the island of Tasmania, which was never colonised by dingoes (although thylacines went extinct there too in the early 1900s). To date, most discussion of the mainland thylacine and devil extinctions has focused on the possibility that dingoes disrupted the system by ‘exploitation competition’ (eating the same prey), ‘interference competition’ (wasting the native predators’ precious munching time), as well as ‘direct predation’ (dingoes actually eating devils and thylacines). Read the rest of this entry »





Want to work with us?

22 03 2013
© Beboy-Fotolia

© Beboy-Fotolia

Today we announced a HEAP of positions in our Global Ecology Lab for hot-shot, up-and-coming ecologists. If you think you’ve got what it takes, I encourage you to apply. The positions are all financed by the Australian Research Council from grants that Barry Brook, Phill Cassey, Damien Fordham and I have all been awarded in the last few years. We decided to do a bulk advertisement so that we maximise the opportunity for good science talent out there.

We’re looking for bright, mathematically adept people in palaeo-ecology, wildlife population modelling, disease modelling, climate change modelling and species distribution modelling.

The positions are self explanatory, but if you want more information, just follow the links and contacts given below. For my own selfish interests, I provide a little more detail for two of the positions for which I’m directly responsible – but please have a look at the lot.

Good luck!

CJA Bradshaw

Job Reference Number: 17986 & 17987

The world-leading Global Ecology Group within the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences currently has multiple academic opportunities. For these two positions, we are seeking a Postdoctoral Research Associate and a Research Associate to work in palaeo-ecological modelling. Read the rest of this entry »





Ecology is a Tower of Babel

17 09 2012

The term ‘ecology’ in 16 different languages overlaid on the oil on board ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

In his song ‘Balada de Babel’, the Spanish artist Luis Eduardo Aute sings several lyrics in unison with the same melody. The effect is a wonderful mess. This is what the scientific literature sounds like when authors generate synonymies (equivalent meaning) and polysemies (multiple meanings), or coin terms to show a point of view. In our recent paper published in Oecologia, we illustrate this problem with regard to ‘density dependence’: a key ecological concept. While the biblical reference is somewhat galling to our atheist dispositions, the analogy is certainly appropriate.

A giant shoal of herring zigzagging in response to a predator; a swarm of social bees tending the multitudinous offspring of their queen; a dense pine forest depriving its own seedlings from light; an over-harvested population of lobsters where individuals can hardly find reproductive mates; pioneering strands of a seaweed colonising a foreign sea after a transoceanic trip attached to the hulk of boat; respiratory parasites spreading in a herd of caribou; or malaria protozoans making their way between mosquitoes and humans – these are all examples of population processes that operate under a density check. The number of individuals within those groups of organisms determines their chances for reproduction, survival or dispersal, which we (ecologists) measure as ‘demographic rates’ (e.g., number of births per mother, number of deaths between consecutive years, or number of immigrants per hectare).

In ecology, the causal relationship between the size of a population and a demographic rate is known as ‘density dependence’ (DD hereafter). This relationship captures the pace at which a demographic rate changes as population size varies in time and/or space. We use DD measurements to infer the operation of social and trophic interactions (cannibalism, competition, cooperation, disease, herbivory, mutualism, parasitism, parasitoidism, predation, reproductive behaviour and the like) between individuals within a population1,2, because the intensity of these interactions varies with population size. Thus, as a population of caribou expands, respiratory parasites will have an easier job to disperse from one animal to another. As the booming parasites breed, increased infestations will kill the weakest caribou or reduce the fertility of females investing too much energy to counteract the infection (yes, immunity is energetically costly, which is why you get sick when you are run down). In turn, as the caribou population decreases, so does the population of parasites3. In cybernetics, such a toing-and-froing is known as ‘feedback’ (a system that controls itself, like a thermostat controls the temperature of a room) – a ‘density feedback’ (Figure 1) is the kind we are highlighting here. Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation catastrophes

22 02 2012

David Reed

The title of this post serves two functions: (1) to introduce the concept of ecological catastrophes in population viability modelling, and (2) to acknowledge the passing of the bloke who came up with a clever way of dealing with that uncertainty.

I’ll start with latter first. It came to my attention late last year that a fellow conservation biologist colleague, Dr. David Reed, died unexpectedly from congestive heart failure. I did not really mourn his passing, for I had never met him in person (I believe it is disingenuous, discourteous, and slightly egocentric to mourn someone who you do not really know personally – but that’s just my opinion), but I did think at the time that the conservation community had lost another clever progenitor of good conservation science. As many CB readers already know, we lost a great conservation thinker and doer last year, Professor Navjot Sodhi (and that, I did take personally). Coincidentally, both Navjot and David died at about the same age (49 and 48, respectively). I hope that the being in one’s late 40s isn’t particularly presaged for people in my line of business!

My friend, colleague and lab co-director, Professor Barry Brook, did, however, work a little with David, and together they published some pretty cool stuff (see References below). David was particularly good at looking for cross-taxa generalities in conservation phenomena, such as minimum viable population sizes, effects of inbreeding depression, applications of population viability analysis and extinction risk. But more on some of that below. Read the rest of this entry »





Parts a whole do not make

17 02 2012

I’m particularly proud of our latest paper for three main reasons:  (1) Salva Herrando-Pérez, lead author and contributor-extraordinaire to CB, has worked extremely hard to get this one out; (2) it is published in a really good journal; and most importantly, (3) it’s the very first empirical demonstration over hundreds of species that just because you have a density effect on some vital rate (e.g., survival, fertility, dispersal), this in no way means you have any evidence at all for density dependence at the population level. Let us explain.

Quantifying variation in population size is an important element for explaining and predicting population dynamics. In models where a vital (demographic) rate responds to change in population size, those ‘density-dependent’ relationships are ecologically understood as being demographic signals of trophic and social interactions, such as parasitism, predation or competition for shelter, because the intensity of those interactions varies with population size.

In fact, density-dependent effects reflect the theoretical capacity of populations to adjust growth and rebound from low or high numbers – and so this concept has become an important metric in population management and conservation  (Eberhardt et al. 2008). Read the rest of this entry »





Give way to the invader

25 01 2012

By weird coincidence, Salvador Herrando-Pérez (student blogger extra-ordinaire – see his previous posts on evolution, pollination, bird losses, taxonomic inflation, niche conservatism, historical biogeography, ecological traps and ocean giants) has produced a post this week expanding on the problem of roads. Also weirdly coincidental is that both Salva and I are in his home country of Spain this week.

Australia’s > 800,000-km road network would go 60 times around the equator of our planet. Confined to the boundaries of any one country, roads are a conspicuous component of the landscape, and shape the dispersion, survival and reproduction of many plants and animals in urban and remote areas.

Those who drive (or are driven by) will be familiar with the image of a crushed kangaroo on the roadside (a hedgehog in Europe), or the sticky mosaic of insects smashed against the windscreen after a high-speed run. Mortality by collision is one of the many effects that roads can have on the demography of organisms – including humans. Those effects encompass

  • physical alteration of terrestrial and aquatic habitats,
  • chemical pollution leakage during road construction and maintenance, and from asphalt compounds during storms,
  • alteration of animal behaviour (e.g., change in home range, or in patterns of flight or vocalisation),
  • access to remote areas by hunters, fishermen and gatherers in general, and
  • intense habitat fragmentation1-3.

However, some species get around those negative impacts by using the roads as pathways to new territories, thereby eluding barriers like seas, mountains, rivers, dense vegetation, or competition for vital resources with other species. Read the rest of this entry »





Better SAFE than sorry

30 11 2011

Last day of November already – I am now convinced that my suspicions are correct: time is not constant and in fact accelerates as you age (in mathematical terms, a unit of time becomes a progressively smaller proportion of the time elapsed since your birth, so this makes sense). But, I digress…

This short post will act mostly as a spruik for my upcoming talk at the International Congress for Conservation Biology next week in Auckland (10.30 in New Zealand Room 2 on Friday, 9 December) entitled: Species Ability to Forestall Extinction (SAFE) index for IUCN Red Listed species. The post also sets a bit of the backdrop to this paper and why I think people might be interested in attending.

As regular readers of CB will know, we published a paper this year in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment describing a relatively simple metric we called SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) that could enhance the information provided by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for assessing relative extinction threat. I won’t go into all the detail here (you can read more about it in this previous post), but I do want to point out that it ended up being rather controversial.

The journal ended up delaying final publication because there were 3 groups who opposed the metric rather vehemently, including people who are very much in the conservation decision-making space and/or involved directly with the IUCN Red List. The journal ended up publishing our original paper, the 3 critiques, and our collective response in the same issue (you can read these here if you’re subscribed, or email me for a PDF reprint). Again, I won’t go into an detail here because our arguments are clearly outlined in the response.

What I do want to highlight is that even beyond the normal in-print tête-à-tête the original paper elicited, we were emailed by several people behind the critiques who were apparently unsatisfied with our response. We found this slightly odd, because many of the objections just kept getting re-raised. Of particular note were the accusations that: Read the rest of this entry »





Not magic, but necessary

18 10 2011

In April this year, some American colleagues of ours wrote a rather detailed, 10-page article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that attacked our concept of generalizing minimum viable population (MVP) size estimates among species. Steve Beissinger of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the paper’s co-authors, has been a particularly vocal adversary of some of the applications of population viability analysis and its child, MVP size, for many years. While there was some interesting points raised in their review, their arguments largely lacked any real punch, and they essentially ended up agreeing with us.

Let me explain. Today, our response to that critique was published online in the same journal: Minimum viable population size: not magic, but necessary. I want to take some time here to summarise the main points of contention and our rebuttal.

But first, let’s recap what we have been arguing all along in several papers over the last few years (i.e., Brook et al. 2006; Traill et al. 2007, 2010; Clements et al. 2011) – a minimum viable population size is the point at which a declining population becomes a small population (sensu Caughley 1994). In other words, it’s the point at which a population becomes susceptible to random (stochastic) events that wouldn’t otherwise matter for a small population.

Consider the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), a formerly widespread and abundant North Atlantic species that was reduced by intensive hunting throughout its range. How did it eventually go extinct? The last remaining population blew up in a volcanic explosion off the coast of Iceland (Halliday 1978). Had the population been large, the small dent in the population due to the loss of those individuals would have been irrelevant.

But what is ‘large’? The empirical evidence, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, is that large = thousands, not hundreds, of individuals.

So this is why we advocate that conservation targets should aim to keep at or recover to the thousands mark. Less than that, and you’re playing Russian roulette with a species’ existence. Read the rest of this entry »





Twenty landmark papers in biodiversity conservation

13 10 2011

While I can’t claim that this is the first time one of my peer-reviewed papers has been inspired by ConservationBytes.com, I can claim that this is the first time a peer-reviewed paper is derived from the blog.

After a bit of a sordid history of review (isn’t it more and more like that these days?), I have the pleasure of announcing that our paper ‘Twenty landmark papers in biodiversity conservation‘ has now been published as an open-access chapter in the new book ‘Research in Biodiversity – Models and Applications‘ (InTech).

Perhaps not the most conventional of venues (at least, not for me), but it is at the very least ‘out there’ now and freely available.

The paper itself was taken, modified, elaborated and over-hauled from text written in this very blog – the ‘Classics‘ section of ConservationBytes.com. Now, if you’re an avid follower of CB, then the chapter won’t probably represent anything terribly new; however, I encourage you to read it anyway given that it is a vetted overview of possibly some of the most important papers written in conservation biology.

If you are new to the field, an active student or merely need a ‘refresher’ regarding the big leaps forward in this discipline, then this chapter is for you.

The paper’s outline is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »





生态学 = ‘Ecology’ in China

13 05 2011

I’m just heading home after a very inspiring workshop organised by Fangliang He at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China (I’m writing this from the Qantas Club in the Hong Kong airport).

Before I proceed to regale you with the salient details of the ‘International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology‘, I am compelled to state publicly that I offer my sincerest condolences to Fangliang and his family; unfortunately Fangliang’s brother passed away while we were at the workshop and so Fangliang wasn’t able to spend much time reaping the fruits of his organisational labour. If you know Fangliang, please send him a supporting email.

That sad note aside, I am delighted to say that the workshop was compelling, challenging and also rather fortuitous. I was one of many overseas invitees, and I must say that I was at times overwhelmed by the size of the brains they managed to pack into the auditorium. Many colleagues I didn’t know attended, and I hope that many will become collaborators. The international invitees were: Read the rest of this entry »





Species’ Ability to Forestall Extinction – AudioBoo

8 04 2011

Here’s a little interview I just did on the SAFE index with ABC AM:

Not a bad job, really.

And here’s another one from Radio New Zealand:

CJA Bradshaw





Classics: demography versus genetics

16 03 2011

Here’s another short, but sweet Conservation Classic highlighted in our upcoming book chapter (see previous entries on this book). Today’s entry comes from long-time quantitative ecology guru, Russ Lande, who is now based at the Silwood Park Campus (Imperial College London).

© IBL

In an influential review, Lande (1988) argued that

“…demography may usually be of more immediate importance than population genetics in determining the minimum viable size of wild populations”.

It was a well-reasoned case, and was widely interpreted to mean that demographic and ecological threats would provide the ‘killer blow’ to threatened species before genetic factors such as inbreeding and fitness effects of loss of genetic diversity had time to exert a major influence on small population dynamics.

Read the rest of this entry »





S.A.F.E. = Species Ability to Forestall Extinction

8 01 2011

Note: I’ve just rehashed this post (30/03/2011) because the paper is now available online (see comment stream). Stay tuned for the media release next week. – CJAB

I’ve been more or less underground for the last 3 weeks. It has been a wonderful break (mostly) from the normally hectic pace of academic life. Thanks for all those who remain despite the recent silence.

© Ezprezzo.com

But I’m back now with a post about a paper we’ve just had accepted in Frontiers in Ecology and Environment. In my opinion it’s a leap forward in how we measure relative threat risk among species, despite some criticism.

I’ve written in past posts about the ‘magic’ minimum number of individuals that should be in a population to reduce the chance of extinction from random events. The so-called ‘minimum viable population (MVP) size’ is basically the abundance of a (connected) population below which random events take over from factors causing sustained declines (Caughley’s distinction between the ‘declining’ and ‘small’ population paradigms).

Up until the last few years, the MVP size was considered to be a population- or species-specific value, and it required very detailed demographic, genetic and biogeographical data to estimate – not something that biologists tend to have at their fingertips for most high-risk species. However, several papers published by our group (Minimum viable population size and global extinction risk are unrelated, Minimum viable population size: a meta-analysis of 30 years of published estimates and Pragmatic population viability targets in a rapidly changing world) have shown that there is in fact little variation in this number among the best-studied species; both demographic and genetic data support a number of around 5000 to avoid crossing the deadly threshold.

Now the fourth paper in this series has just been accepted (sorry, no link yet, but I’ll let you all know as soon as it is available), and it was organised and led by Reuben Clements, and co-written by me, Barry Brook and Bill Laurance.

The idea is fairly simple and it somewhat amazes me that it hasn’t been implemented before. The SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) index is simply the distance a population is (in terms of abundance) from its MVP. In the absence of a species-specific value, we used the 5000-individual threshold. Thus, Read the rest of this entry »





Linking disease, demography and climate

1 08 2010

Last week I mentioned that a group of us from Australia were travelling to Chicago to work with Bob Lacy, Phil Miller, JP Pollak and Resit Akcakaya to make some pretty exciting developments in next-generation conservation ecology and management software. Also attending were Barry Brook, our postdocs: Damien Fordham, Thomas Prowse and Mike Watts, our colleague (and former postdoc) Clive McMahon, and a student of Phil’s, Michelle Verant. At the closing of the week-long workshop, I thought I’d share my thoughts on how it all went.

In a word, it was ‘productive’. It’s not often that you can spend 1 week locked in a tiny room with 10 other geeks and produce so many good and state-of-the-art models, but we certainly achieved more than we had anticipated.

Let me explain in brief why it’s so exciting. First, I must say that even the semi-quantitative among you should be ready for the appearance of ‘Meta-Model Manager (MMM)’ in the coming months. This clever piece of software was devised by JP, Bob and Phil to make disparate models ‘talk’ to each other during a population projection run. We had dabbled with MMM a little last year, but its value really came to light this week.

We used MMM to combine several different models that individually fail to capture the full behaviour of a population. Most of you will be familiar with the individual-based population viability (PVA) software Vortex that allows relatively easy PVA model building and is particular useful for predicting extinction risk of small populations. What you most likely don’t know exists is what Phil, Bob and JP call Outbreak – an epidemiological modelling software based on the classic susceptible-exposed-infectious-recovered framework. Outbreak is also an individual-based model that can talk directly to Vortex, but only through MMM. Read the rest of this entry »





Fanciful mathematics and ecological fantasy

3 05 2010

© flickr/themadlolscientist

Bear with me here, dear reader – this one’s a bit of a stretch for conservation relevance at first glance, but it is important. Also, it’s one of my own papers so I have the prerogative :-)

As some of you probably know, I dabble quite a bit in population dynamics theory, which basically means examining the mathematics people use to decipher ecological patterns. Why is this important? Well, most models predicting extinction risk, estimating optimal harvest rates, determining minimum viable population size and metapopulation dynamics for species’ persistence rely on good mathematical abstraction to be realistic. Get the maths wrong, and you could end up overharvesting a species (e.g., 99.99 % of fisheries management), underestimating extinction risk from habitat degradation, and getting your predictions wrong about the effects of invasive species. Expressed as an equation itself, (conservation) ecology = mathematics.

A long-standing family of models known as ‘phenomenological’ models (i.e., because they deal with the phenomenon of population size which is an emergent property of the mechanisms of birth, death and immigration) has been used to estimate everything from maximum sustainable yield targets, temporal abundance patterns, wildlife management interventions, extinction risk to epidemiological patterns. The basic form of the model describes the growth response, or the relationship between the population’s rate of change (growth) and its size. The simplest form (known as the Ricker), assumes a linear decline in population growth rate (r) as the number of individuals increases, which basically means that populations can’t grow indefinitely (i.e., they fluctuate around some carrying capacity if unperturbed). Read the rest of this entry »





Computer-assisted killing for conservation

12 01 2010

Many non-Australians might not know it, but Australia is overrun with feral vertebrates (not to mention weeds and invertebrates). We have millions of pigs, dogs, camels, goats, buffalo, deer, rabbits, cats, foxes and toads (to name a few). In a continent that separated from Gondwana about 80 million years ago, this allowed a fairly unique biota to evolve, such that when Aboriginals and later, Europeans, started introducing all these non-native species, it quickly became an ecological disaster. One of my first posts here on ConservationBytes.com was in fact about feral animals. Since then, I’ve written quite a bit on invasive species, especially with respect to mammal declines (see Few people, many threats – Australia’s biodiversity shame, Shocking continued loss of Australian mammals, Can we solve Australia’s mammal extinction crisis?).

So you can imagine that we do try to find the best ways to reduce the damage these species cause; unfortunately, we tend to waste a lot of money because density reduction culling programmes aren’t usually done with much forethought, organisation or associated research. A case in point – swamp buffalo were killed in vast numbers in northern Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, but now they’re back with a vengeance.

Enter S.T.A.R. – the clumsily named ‘Spatio-Temporal Animal Reduction’ [model] that we’ve just published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution (title: Spatially explicit spreadsheet modelling for optimising the efficiency of reducing invasive animal density by CR McMahon and colleagues).

This little Excel-based spreadsheet model is designed specifically to optimise the culling strategies for feral pigs, buffalo and horses in Kakadu National Park (northern Australia), but our aim was to make it easy enough to use and modify so that it could be applied to any invasive species anywhere (ok, admittedly it would work best for macro-vertebrates).

The application works on a grid of habitat types, each with their own carrying capacities for each species. We then assume some fairly basic density-feedback population models and allow animals to move among cells. We then hit them virtually with a proportional culling rate (which includes a hunting-efficiency feedback), and estimate the costs associated with each level of kill. The final outputs give density maps and graphs of the population trajectory.

We’ve added a lot of little features to maximise flexibility, including adjusting carrying capacities, movement rates, operating costs and overheads, and proportional harvest rates. The user can also get some basic sensitivity analyses done, or do district-specific culls. Finally, we’ve included three optimisation routines that estimate the best allocation of killing effort, for both maximising density reduction or working to a specific budget, and within a spatial or non-spatial context.

Our hope is that wildlife managers responsible for safeguarding the biodiversity of places like Kakadu National Park actually use this tool to maximise their efficiency. Kakadu has a particularly nasty set of invasive species, so it’s important those in charge get it right. So far, they haven’t been doing too well.

You can download the Excel program itself here (click here for the raw VBA code), and the User Manual is available here. Happy virtual killing!

CJA Bradshaw

P.S. If you’re concerned about animal welfare issues associated with all this, I invite you to read one of our recent papers on the subject: Convergence of culture, ecology and ethics: management of feral swamp buffalo in northern Australia.

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ResearchBlogging.orgC.R. McMahon, B.W. Brook,, N. Collier, & C.J.A. Bradshaw (2010). Spatially explicit spreadsheet modelling for optimising the efficiency of reducing invasive animal density Methods in Ecology and Evolution : 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2009.00002.x

Albrecht, G., McMahon, C., Bowman, D., & Bradshaw, C. (2009). Convergence of Culture, Ecology, and Ethics: Management of Feral Swamp Buffalo in Northern Australia Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 22 (4), 361-378 DOI: 10.1007/s10806-009-9158-5

Bradshaw, C., Field, I., Bowman, D., Haynes, C., & Brook, B. (2007). Current and future threats from non-indigenous animal species in northern Australia: a spotlight on World Heritage Area Kakadu National Park Wildlife Research, 34 (6) DOI: 10.1071/WR06056





A magic conservation number

15 12 2009

Although I’ve already blogged about our recent paper in Biological Conservation on minimum viable population sizes, American Scientist just did a great little article on the paper and concept that I’ll share with you here:

Imagine how useful it would be if someone calculated the minimum population needed to preserve each threatened organism on Earth, especially in this age of accelerated extinctions.

A group of Australian researchers say they have nailed the best figure achievable with the available data: 5,000 adults. That’s right, that many, for mammals, amphibians, insects, plants and the rest.

Their goal wasn’t a target for temporary survival. Instead they set the bar much higher, aiming for a census that would allow a species to pursue a standard evolutionary lifespan, which can vary from one to 10 million years.

That sort of longevity requires abundance sufficient for a species to thrive despite significant obstacles, including random variation in sex ratios or birth and death rates, natural catastrophes and habitat decline. It also requires enough genetic variation to allow adequate amounts of beneficial mutations to emerge and spread within a populace.

“We have suggested that a major rethink is required on how we assign relative risk to a species,” says conservation biologist Lochran Traill of the University of Adelaide, lead author of a Biological Conservation paper describing the projection.

Conservation biologists already have plenty on their minds these days. Many have concluded that if current rates of species loss continue worldwide, Earth will face a mass extinction comparable to the five big extinction events documented in the past. This one would differ, however, because it would be driven by the destructive growth of one species: us.

More than 17,000 of the 47,677 species assessed for vulnerability of extinction are threatened, according to the latest Red List of Threatened Species prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That includes 21 percent of known mammals, 30 percent of known amphibians, 12 percent of known birds and 70 percent of known plants. The populations of some critically endangered species number in the hundreds, not thousands.

In an effort to help guide rescue efforts, Traill and colleagues, who include conservation biologists and a geneticist, have been exploring minimum viable population size over the past few years. Previously they completed a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies considering such estimates and concluded that a minimum head count of more than a few thousand individuals would be needed to achieve a viable population.

“We don’t have the time and resources to attend to finding thresholds for all threatened species, thus the need for a generalization that can be implemented across taxa to prevent extinction,” Traill says.

In their most recent research they used computer models to simulate what population numbers would be required to achieve long-term persistence for 1,198 different species. A minimum population of 500 could guard against inbreeding, they conclude. But for a shot at truly long-term, evolutionary success, 5,000 is the most parsimonious number, with some species likely to hit the sweet spot with slightly less or slightly more.

“The practical implications are simply that we’re not doing enough, and that many existing targets will not suffice,” Traill says, noting that many conservation programs may inadvertently be managing protected populations for extinction by settling for lower population goals.

The prospect that one number, give or take a few, would equal the minimum viable population across taxa doesn’t seem likely to Steven Beissinger, a conservation biologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I can’t imagine 5,000 being a meaningful number for both Alabama beach mice and the California condors. They are such different organisms,” Beissinger says.

Many variables must be considered when assessing the population needs of a given threatened species, he says. “This issue really has to do with threats more than stochastic demography. Take the same rates of reproduction and survival and put them in a healthy environment and your minimum population would be different than in an environment of excess predation, loss of habitat or effects from invasive species.”

But, Beissinger says, Traill’s group is correct for thinking that conservation biologists don’t always have enough empirically based standards to guide conservation efforts or to obtain support for those efforts from policy makers.

“One of the positive things here is that we do need some clear standards. It might not be establishing a required number of individuals. But it could be clearer policy guidelines for acceptable risks and for how many years into the future can we accept a level of risk,” Beissinger says. “Policy people do want that kind of guidance.”

Traill sees policy implications in his group’s conclusions. Having a numerical threshold could add more precision to specific conservation efforts, he says, including stabs at reversing the habitat decline or human harvesting that threaten a given species.

“We need to restore once-abundant populations to the minimum threshold,” Traill says. “In many cases it will make more economic and conservation sense to abandon hopeless-case species in favor of greater returns elsewhere.





Life and death on Earth: the Cronus hypothesis

13 10 2009
Cronus

Cronus

Bit of a strange one for you today, but here’s a post I hope you’ll enjoy.

My colleague, Barry Brook, and I recently published a paper in the very new and perhaps controversial online journal , the Journal of Cosmology. Cosmology? According to the journal, ‘cosmology’ is:

“the study and understanding of existence in its totality, encompassing the infinite and eternal, and the origins and evolution of the cosmos, galaxies, stars, planets, earth, life, woman and man”.

The journal publishes papers dealing with ‘cosmology’ and is a vehicle for those who wish to publish on subjects devoted to the study of existence in its totality.

Ok. Quite an aim.

Our paper is part of the November (second ever) issue of the journal entitled Asteroids, Meteors, Comets, Climate and Mass Extinctions, and because we were the first to submit, we managed to secure the first paper in the issue.

Our paper, entitled The Cronus hypothesis – extinction as a necessary and dynamic balance to evolutionary diversification, introduces a new idea in the quest to find that perfect analogy for understanding the mechanisms dictating how life on our planet has waxed and waned over the billions of years since it first appeared.

Gaia

Gaia

In the 1960s, James Lovelock conceived the novel idea of Gaia – that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organism where life itself interacts with the physical environment to maintain conditions favourable for life (Gaia was the ancient Greeks’ Earth mother goddess). Embraced, contested, denounced and recently re-invigorated, the idea has evolved substantially since it first appeared. More recently (this year, in fact), Peter Ward countered the Gaia hypothesis with his own Greek metaphor – the Medea hypothesis. Essentially this view holds that life instead ‘seeks’ to destroy itself in an anti-Gaia manner (Medea was the siblicidal wife of Jason of the Argonauts). Ward described his Medea hypothesis as “Gaia’s evil twin”.

One can marvel at the incredible diversity of life on Earth (e.g., conservatively, > 4 million protists, 16600 protozoa, 75000-300000 helminth parasites, 1.5 million fungi, 320000 plants, 4-6 million arthropods, > 6500 amphibians, 10000 birds and > 5000 mammals) and wonder that there might be something in the ‘life makes it easier for life’ idea underlying Gaia. However, when one considers that over 99 % of all species that have ever existed are today extinct, then a Medea perspective might dominate.

Medea

Medea

Enter Cronus. Here we posit a new way of looking at the tumultuous history of life and death on Earth that effectively relegates Gaia and Medea to opposite ends of a spectrum. Cronus (patricidal son of Gaia overthrown by his own son, Zeus, and banished to Hades) treats speciation and extinction as birth and death in a ‘metapopulation’ of species assemblages split into biogeographic realms. Catastrophic extinction events can be brought about via species engineering their surroundings by passively modifying the delicate balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane – indeed, humans might be the next species to fall victim to our own Medean tendencies. But extinction opens up new niches that eventually elicit speciation, and under conditions of relative environmental stability, specialists evolve because they are (at least temporarily) competitive under those conditions. When conditions change again, extinction ensues because not all can adapt quickly enough. Just as all individuals born in a population must eventually die, extinction is a necessary termination.

We think the Cronus metaphor has a lot of advantages over Gaia and Medea. The notion of a community of species as a population of selfish individuals retains the Darwinian view of contestation; self-regulation in Cronus occurs naturally as a result of extinction modifying the course of future evolution. Cronus also makes existing mathematical tools developed for metapopulation theory amenable to broader lines of inquiry.

For example, species as individuals with particular ‘mortality’ (extinction) rates, and lineages with particular ‘birth’ (speciation) rates, could interact and disperse among ‘habitats’ (biogeographical realms). ‘Density’ feedback could be represented as competitive exclusion or symbioses. As species dwindle, feedbacks such as reduced community resilience that further exacerbate extinction risk (Medea-like phase), and stochastic fluctuation around a ‘carrying capacity’ (niche saturation) arising when environmental conditions are relatively stable is the Gaia-like phase. Our Cronus framework is also scale-invariant – it could be applied to microbial diversity on another organism right up to inter-planetary exchange of life (panspermia).

What’s the relevance to conservation? We’re struggling to prevent extinction, so understanding how it works is an essential first step. Without the realisation that extinction is necessary (albeit, at rates preferably slower than they are currently), we cannot properly implement conservation triage, i.e., where do we invest in conservation and why?

We had fun with this, and I hope you enjoy it too.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgBradshaw, C.J.A., & Brook, B.W. (2009). The Cronus Hypothesis – extinction as a necessary and dynamic balance to evolutionary diversification Journal of Cosmology, 2, 201-209 Other: http://journalofcosmology.com/Extinction100.html

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Connectivity paradigm in extinction biology

6 10 2009

networkI’m going to do a double review here of two papers currently online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. I’m lumping them together because they both more or less challenge the pervasive conservation/restoration paradigm that connectivity is the key to reducing extinction risk. It’s just interesting (and slightly amusing) that the two were published in the same journal and at about the same time, but by two different groups.

From our own work looking at the correlates of extinction risk (measured mainly by proxy as threat risk), the range of a population (i.e., the amount of area and number of habitats it covers) is the principal determinant of risk – the smaller your range, the greater your chance of shuffling off this mortal coil (see also here). This is, of course, because a large range usually means that you have some phenotypic plasticity in your habitat requirements, you can probably disperse well, and your not going to succumb to localised ‘catastrophes’ as often. It also probably means (but not always) that your population size increases as your range size increases; as we all know, populations must be beyond their minimum viable population size to have a good chance of persisting random demographic and environmental vagaries.

Well, the two papers in question, ‘Both population size and patch quality affect local extinctions and colonizations‘ by Franzén & Nilssen and ‘Environment, but not migration rate, influences extinction risk in experimental metapopulations‘ by Griffen & Drake, show that connectivity (i.e., the probability that populations are connected via migration) are probably the least important components in the extinction-persistence game.

Using a solitary bee (Andrena hattorfiana) metapopulation in Sweden, Franzén & Nilssen show that population size and food patch quality (measured by number of pollen-producing plants) were directly (but independently) correlated with extinction risk. Bigger populations in stable, high-quality patches persisted more readily. However, connectivity between patches was uncorrelated with risk.

Griffen & Drake took quite a different approach and stacked experimental aquaria full of daphnia (Daphnia magna) on top of one another to influence the amount of light (and hence, amount of food from algal growth) to which the populations had access (it’s interesting to note here that this was unplanned in the experiment – the different algal growth rates related to the changing exposure to light was a serendipitous discovery that allowed them to test the ‘food’ hypothesis!). They also controlled the migration rate between populations by varying the size of holes connecting the aquaria. In short, they found that environmentally influenced (i.e., food-influenced) variation was far more important at dictating population size and fluctuation than migration, showing again that conditions promoting large population size and reducing temporal variability are essential for reducing extinction risk.

So what’s the upshot for conservation? Well, many depressed populations are thought to be recoverable by making existing and fragmented habitat patches more connected via ‘corridors’ of suitable habitat. The research highlighted here suggests that more emphasis should be placed instead on building up existing population sizes and ensuring food availability is relatively constant instead of worrying about how many trickling migrants might be moving back and forth. This essentially means that a few skinny corridors connecting population fragments will probably be insufficient to save our imperilled species.

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.org

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Franzen, M., & Nilsson, S. (2009). Both population size and patch quality affect local extinctions and colonizations Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1584

Griffen, B., & Drake, J. (2009). Environment, but not migration rate, influences extinction risk in experimental metapopulations Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1153





Coming to grips with the buffalo problem

7 09 2009

Clive McMahon (left) & colleaguesA good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Clive McMahon, is visiting Adelaide for the next few weeks from Darwin. We’re attacking a few overdue manuscripts and sampling a few of Adelaide’s better drops of value-added grape juice, so I asked him to do a guest post on ConservationBytes.com about his work. So here it is, something perhaps even few Australians know much about, let alone overseas folks. If you can recall that very strange scene in the film Crocodile Dundee where the old croc hunter casts a gestured spell over a horned beast, then you’ll probably appreciate this post.

Yes, there are plenty of them in northern Australia

Invasive and feral species can be important drivers of biodiversity loss. Australia, like many other isolated islands has developed an ancient, unique and diverse ecosystem. This unique ecosystem has been under extreme pressure ever since humans arrived around 40000-60000 years ago. One of the more damaging and economically important introduced species in Australia is the Asian swamp buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Ironically, swamp buffalo are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, and current estimates suggest that there are probably less than 4000 in their native habitats in Asia.

© B. Salu, Kakadu National Park

© B. Salau, Kakadu National Park

The first 16 buffalo were introduced to Australia in 1826 on Melville Island, and then to the mainland at Cobourg Peninsula a year later from Kupang (now West Timor, Indonesia). Another 18 buffalo were obtained from Kisar Island (northeast of modern Timor-Leste) and introduced to the Cobourg. In 1843, another 49 were introduced. When the first Cobourg settlement was abandoned in 1849, all the buffalo were released, and the population spread rapidly throughout the Northern Territory. Over the next 65 years, numbers and distribution increased to an estimated 350000 in the 1960s and 1970s and densities exceeded 25 km-2 in ‘prime’ habitat. However, the population was severely reduced during the 1980s and 1990s in parts of its range under the Brucellosis-Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC). Although largely successful in eradicating buffalo from pastoral lands in the short term, there was no ongoing broad-scale management of numbers and the present-day population of free-ranging buffalo has recovered to former densities in some areas.

© C. Speed

© C. Speed

Buffalo were then and still are major problem in Australia due mainly to the environmental damage they cause, such as saltwater intrusion of wetlands and trampling of sensitive habitats, their potential threat to Australia’s livestock industry as hosts for disease, and the danger they pose to human safety. Given these ecological, economic and social impacts, there is an urgent need to manage buffalo numbers.

An important step to inform management of introduced and invasive species is to determine the history of introduction and quantify the rate of spread from introduction sites. Contemporary genetic techniques in conjunction with demographic and life history information are useful tools for understanding the dynamics, population structure, biology and colonisation dynamics of plants and animals, including invasive species such as buffalo.

We are currently in the final stages of providing the first detailed analysis of the buffalo population structure (demographic and genetic) to (1) establish the rate and most probable history of spread using detailed genetic information sampled from 8 sub-populations, (2) quantify the genetic distance and mixing rates between populations and (3) describe the age structure and therefore the demographic performance of this very successful invasive species.

Firstly to get an idea of genetic structure and relatedness, we collected a total of 430 small skin biopsies from buffalo across the Northern Territory, representing eight geographically distinct populations. To determine what has made the buffalo such a successful invader it is important to know the survival and breeding performance; we also constructed seven life tables based on culled samples at different densities and in different environments to work out what are the critical components of the population – i.e., where management intervention would be most successful.

As expected from a bottlenecked population, genetic variation is low compared to the that found in swamp buffalo from India and South East Asia. Despite this reduced genetic variation, the Australian population has thrived and spread outwards from introduction sites and into culled sites at high rates over the last 160 years (covering ~ 224 000 km2 in that time).

Although buffalo in Australia experienced two major periods of population reduction since their introduction, a small proportion (estimated at ~ 20 %) escaped the BTEC reduction in the eastern part of its north Australian range. BTEC did not operate with uniformity across the entire range of buffalo, concentrating its destocking efforts in a general area from the western coast of the Northern Territory to west of the Mann River in Arnhem Land, and south roughly to Kakadu National Park’s southern border. Coincidently and not surprisingly, it is in this area that we observe most migration activity.

The subpopulation structure detected here suggests that each population, while connected over generational time scales, generally remains in its immediate vicinity over the course of management-tractable periods. Therefore, management aimed at protecting Australia’s lucrative livestock industry trading under Australia’s disease-free status will benefit directly from this knowledge. For example, the localised introduction and subsequent rapid detection of disease could be efficiently managed from local culls because short-term movements of long-distance are less likely. Our results showcase how management of animals for disease control can be effectively informed via genetic studies and so avoid the need for expensive broad-scale intervention.

Our analyses of the age structure of buffalo reveals that buffalo have the capacity to recover swiftly after control because of high survival and fertility rates. Survival in the juvenile age classes was consistently the most important modifier of population growth. In populations where juvenile animals are harvested annually, fertility determined rebound potential. Thus, management aimed at long-term control of densities should focus primarily on the sustained culling of adult females and their offspring.

Given that numbers of buffalo are increasing and that buffalo are extremely well-adapted to the monsoonal tropics (unlike cattle, buffalo can maintain body condition and positive growth during times of food shortages), they are vulnerable to extended periods of harsh conditions. Climate change predictions herald increasing rainfall in the region, thereby potentially reducing the pressure on juvenile survival. As such, buffalo population growth could conceivably increase, making future management much more difficult. In essence, we need a large, evidence-based density reduction programme in place soon to prevent the worst ecological damage to Australia’s sensitive and unique ecosystems.

Check back here for announcements of upcoming publications arising from our work.

Clive McMahon & CJA Bradshaw

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