Who are the healthiest people in the world?

8 05 2017

healthyApologies for the little gap in my regular posts — I am in the fortunate position of having spent the last three weeks in the beautiful Villa Serbelloni in the village of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como (northern Italy) engaged in writing a new book with my good friend and colleague, Professor Paul Ehrlich. Both of us received an invitation to become ‘Bellagio Centre Residents‘ by the Rockefeller Foundation to write the book in, shall we say, rather lush circumstances.

While I can’t yet give away all the juicy details of the book itself (we’ve only written about a third of it so far), I wanted to give you a little taste of some of the interesting results we’ve so far put together.

Today’s topic is on human health, which as I’ve written many times before, is in many ways linked to the quality of the environment in which people live. We are currently looking at which countries have the best human health statistics, as well as the best environmental conditions in which to live. Read the rest of this entry »

InvaCost – estimating the economic damage of invasive insects

7 11 2014

insectinvasionThis is a blosh (rehash of someone else’s blog post) of Franck Courchamp‘s posts on an exciting new initiative of which I am excited to be a part. Incidentally, Franck’s spending the week here in Adelaide.

Don’t forgot to vote for the project to receive 50 000 € public-communication grant!

Climate change will make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, but there are many questions remaining regarding whether such insects will be able to invade other regions as the climate shifts. There are many nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. I hope that we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators:

If bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years.

(we all should remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that most of us understood). The highly invasive red fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion is spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. Tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. We could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonise northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where, when and which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

We’ve proposed to study these and others from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide, and we got selected (i.e., financed!) by the Fondation BNP Paribas. In addition, the Fondation BNP Paribas has selected five scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50,000 € (that’s US$62,000) to the one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost. Read the rest of this entry »

If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of CB.com readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick

14 03 2014

dengueHere’s a (paraphrased) recommendation I did recently for F1000 about a cool avenue of research I’ve been following for a few years now. Very interesting, but much, much more to do.

The core concepts of conservation ecology are well-established: we know that habitat lossfragmentation, invasive species, over-exploitation and of course, climate change, are bad for biodiversity. This well-quantified scientific baseline has led the discipline recently to embark on questions pertaining more to the (a) implications of biodiversity loss for humanity and (b) what we can do to offset these. A recent paper by Morand and colleagues addresses perhaps one of the most compelling reasons that human society should appreciate biodiversity beyond its intrinsic value; as biodiversity degrades, so too does human health.

Some argue that the only way to convince society in general that biodiversity is worth protecting is that we link its loss directly to degrading human health, wealth and well-being. Confirmation of such relationships at a variety of spatial and temporal scales is therefore essential. Morand and colleagues used data from a variety of sources to test two predictions: (1) that the number of infectious disease should increase as overall biodiversity increases and (2) that biodiversity loss, inferred from species threat and deforestation data, should increase the number of infectious disease outbreaks in humans. Using data from 28 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, they confirmed both predictions. Read the rest of this entry »

More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Cleaning up the rubbish: Australian megafauna extinctions

15 11 2013

diprotodonA few weeks ago I wrote a post about how to run the perfect scientific workshop, which most of you thought was a good set of tips (bizarrely, one person was quite upset with the message; I saved him the embarrassment of looking stupid online and refrained from publishing his comment).

As I mentioned at the end of post, the stimulus for the topic was a particularly wonderful workshop 12 of us attended at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern coast of New South Wales (see Point 5 in the ‘workshop tips’ post).

But why did a group of ecological modellers (me, Barry Brook, Salvador Herrando-Pérez, Fréd Saltré, Chris Johnson, Nick Beeton), ancient DNA specialists (Alan Cooper), palaeontologists (Gav Prideaux), fossil dating specialists (Dizzy Gillespie, Bert Roberts, Zenobia Jacobs) and palaeo-climatologists (Michael Bird, Chris Turney [in absentia]) get together in the first place? Hint: it wasn’t just the for the beautiful beach and good wine.

I hate to say it – mainly because it deserves as little attention as possible – but the main reason is that we needed to clean up a bit of rubbish. The rubbish in question being the latest bit of excrescence growing on that accumulating heap produced by a certain team of palaeontologists promulgating their ‘it’s all about the climate or nothing’ broken record.

Read the rest of this entry »

Software tools for conservation biologists

8 04 2013

computer-programmingGiven the popularity of certain prescriptive posts on ConservationBytes.com, I thought it prudent to compile a list of software that my lab and I have found particularly useful over the years. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it will give you a taste for what’s out there. I don’t list the plethora of conservation genetics software that is available (generally given my lack of experience with it), but if this is your chosen area, I’d suggest starting with Dick Frankham‘s excellent book, An Introduction to Conservation Genetics.

1. R: If you haven’t yet loaded the open-source R programming language on your machine, do it now. It is the single-most-useful bit of statistical and programming software available to anyone anywhere in the sciences. Don’t worry if you’re not a fully fledged programmer – there are now enough people using and developing sophisticated ‘libraries’ (packages of functions) that there’s pretty much an application for everything these days. We tend to use R to the exclusion of almost any other statistical software because it makes you learn the technique rather than just blindly pressing the ‘go’ button. You could also stop right here – with R, you can do pretty much everything else that the software listed below does; however, you have to be an exceedingly clever programmer and have a lot of spare time. R can also sometimes get bogged down with too much filled RAM, in which case other, compiled languages such as PYTHON and C# are useful.

2. VORTEX/OUTBREAK/META-MODEL MANAGER, etc.: This suite of individual-based projection software was designed by Bob Lacy & Phil Miller initially to determine the viability of small (usually captive) populations. The original VORTEX has grown into a multi-purpose, powerful and sophisticated population viability analysis package that now links to its cousin applications like OUTBREAK (the only off-the-shelf epidemiological software in existence) via the ‘command centre’ META-MODEL MANAGER (see an examples here and here from our lab). There are other add-ons that make almost any population projection and hindcasting application possible. And it’s all free! (warning: currently unavailable for Mac, although I’ve been pestering Bob to do a Mac version).

3. RAMAS: RAMAS is the go-to application for spatial population modelling. Developed by the extremely clever Resit Akçakaya, this is one of the only tools that incorporates spatial meta-population aspects with formal, cohort-based demographic models. It’s also very useful in a climate-change context when you have projections of changing habitat suitability as the base layer onto which meta-population dynamics can be modelled. It’s not free, but it’s worth purchasing. Read the rest of this entry »