First Australians arrived in large groups using complex technologies

18 06 2019


One of the most ancient peopling events of the great diaspora of anatomically modern humans out of Africa more than 50,000 years ago — human arrival in the great continent of Sahul (New Guinea, mainland Australia & Tasmania joined during periods of low sea level) — remains mysterious. The entry routes taken, whether migration was directed or accidental, and just how many people were needed to ensure population viability are shrouded by the mists of time. This prompted us to build stochastic, age-structured human population-dynamics models incorporating hunter-gatherer demographic rates and palaeoecological reconstructions of environmental carrying capacity to predict the founding population necessary to survive the initial peopling of late-Pleistocene Sahul.

As ecological modellers, we are often asked by other scientists to attempt to render the highly complex mechanisms of entire ecosystems tractable for virtual manipulation and hypothesis testing through the inevitable simplification that is ‘a model’. When we work with scientists studying long-since-disappeared ecosystems, the challenges multiply.

Add some multidisciplinary data and concepts into the mix, and the complexity can quickly escalate.

We do have, however, some powerful tools in our modelling toolbox, so as the Modelling Node for the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), our role is to link disparate fields like palaeontology, archaeology, geochronology, climatology, and genetics together with mathematical ‘glue’ to answer the big questions regarding Australia’s ancient past.

This is how we tackled one of these big questions: just how did the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens make it to the continent and survive?

At that time, Australia was part of the giant continent of Sahul that connected New Guinea, mainland Australia, and Tasmania at times of lower sea level. In fact, throughout most of last ~ 126,000 years (late Pleistocene and much of the Holocene), Sahul was the dominant landmass in the region (see this handy online tool for how the coastline of Sahul changed over this period).

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Koala extinctions past, present, and future

12 06 2019

Photo by John Llewelyn

Koalas are one of the most recognised symbols of Australian wildlife. But the tree-living marsupial koala is not doing well throughout much of its range in eastern Australia. Ranging as far north as Cairns in Queensland, to as far west as Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the koala’s biggest threats today are undeniably deforestation, road kill, dog attacks, disease, and climate change.

With increasing drought, heatwaves, and fire intensity and frequency arising from the climate emergency, it is likely that koala populations and habitats will continue to decline throughout most of their current range.

But what was the distribution of koalas before humans arrived in Australia? Were they always a zoological feature of only the eastern regions?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’ — the fossil record reveal a much more complicated story.

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Being empathetic for better interdisciplinarity

4 06 2019

Source: published on the

Scientists appear to have mixed feelings when it comes to interdisciplinarity in science — the reaction spans from genuine enthusiasm right through to pure disdain.

I myself have crossed many research fields since my Masters project, but despite the support of my supervisors, I have already had to face some tough gatekeeping from science specialists in conferences and in front of other panels. Several times I was taken aback by some reactions, so I have started to become interested in the topic from a more analytical perspective. How are these fields’ boundaries defined in science?

Although each field’s specific methodology, jargon, and tendency to interpret results could represent communication barriers among them, this can be easily overcome by spending time learning the language of other groups, in the company of specialist collaborators, or by attending workshops.

But what about ideology — a philosophy of science inherent to a specific group of individuals? This is one of the things making us human. It definitely affects our society, and even if it is never assumed, it also affects the generation of scientific knowledge from its production to its transmission. Scientists have that connection to their field, its history, its identity, and its compromises.

For example, historians or philosophers use different ways of thinking than do physicists or biologists. The first group aims to clarify and analyse the reconstruction of past events, while the second group strives for conceptual understanding. While useful withina field, these specific ways of seeing science can generate roadblocks when two fields need to start a conversation.

I will tell you a story based on my own experience. Read the rest of this entry »

How to improve (South Australia’s) biodiversity prospects

9 04 2019

Figure 2 (from the article). Overlaying the South Australia’s Protected Areas boundary data with the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia layer indicates that 73.2% of the total protected area (excluding Indigenous Protected Areas) in South Australia lies in the arid biogeographic regions of Great Victoria Desert (21.1%), Channel Country (15.2%), Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields (14.0%), Nullarbor (9.8%), Stony Plains (6.6%), Gawler (6.0%), and Hampton (0.5%). The total biogeographic-region area covered by the remaining Conservation Reserves amounts to 26.2%. Background blue shading indicates relative average annual rainfall.

If you read regularly, you’ll know that late last year I blogged about the South Australia 2108 State of the Environment Report for which I was commissioned to write an ‘overview‘ of the State’s terrestrial biodiversity.

At the time I whinged that not many people seemed to take notice (something I should be used to by now in the age of extremism and not giving a tinker’s about the future health of the planet — but I digress), but it seems that quietly, quietly, at least people with some policy influence here are starting to listen.

Not satisfied with merely having my report sit on the virtual shelves at the SA Environment Protection Authority, I decided that I should probably flesh out the report and turn it into a full, peer-reviewed article.

Well, I’ve just done that, with the article now published online in Rethinking Ecology as a Perspective paper.

The paper is chock-a-block with all the same sorts of points I covered last year, but there’s a lot more, and it’s also a lot better referenced and logically sequenced.

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Ecological Network Analysis Workshop

8 04 2019 are most fortunate that Dr Giovanni Strona of the EU Joint Research Centrein Ispra, Italy, will be visiting Flinders University for most of April. As a recipient of the prestigious International Visitor Fellowship, Dr Strona has kindly agreed to give a day-long (and hands-on) workshop in network modelling.

What is network analysis? Well, anything that is connected to other things is ostensibly a ‘network’ — think social-media users, neurones, electric elements in a circuit, or species in an ecological community. It doesn’t really matter what the ‘nodes’ of a network actually represent, because all networks more or less share the same properties. The analysis of network structure and behaviour is what Dr Strona will focus on for the workshop.

Being ecologists, we will of course be primarily interested in ecological networks, but maths and coding is essentially the same for all types of networks. Interested in attending this free and rare opportunity? If so, please register your interest here.

The workshop will be held at the Bedford Park Campus of Flinders University from 09:00-17:00 on 29 April 2019. The outline of the workshop is described in more detail below. Read the rest of this entry »

Thirsty forests

1 02 2019

Climate change is one ingredient of a cocktail of factors driving the ongoing destruction of pristine forests on Earth. We here highlight the main physiological challenges trees must face to deal with increasing drought and heat.

Forests experiencing embolism after a hot drought. The upper-left pic shows Scots (Pinus sylvestris) and black (P. nigra) pines in Montaña de Salvador (Espuñola, Barcelona, Spain) during a hot Autumn in 2015 favouring a massive infestation by pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) and tree mortality the following year (Lluís Brotons/CSIC in InForest-CREAF-CTFC). To the right, an individual holm oak (Quercus ilex) bearing necrotic branches in Plasencia (Extremadura, Spain) during extreme climates from 2016 to 2017, impacting more than a third of the local oak forests (Alicia Forner/CSIC). The lower-left pic shows widespread die-off of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) from ‘Aspen Parkland’ (Saskatchewan, Canada) in 2004 following extreme climates in western North America from 2001 to 2002 (Mike Michaelian/Canadian Forest Service). To the right, several dead aspens near Mancos (Colorado, USA) where the same events hit forests up to one-century old (William Anderegg).

A common scene when we return from a long trip overseas is to find our indoor plants wilting if no one has watered them in our absence. But … what does a thirsty plant experience internally?

Like animals, plants have their own circulatory system and a kind of plant blood known as sap. Unlike the phloem (peripheral tissue underneath the bark of trunks and branches, and made up of arteries layered by live cells that transport sap laden with the products of photosynthesis, along with hormones and minerals — see videos here and here), the xylem is a network of conduits flanked by dead cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves through the core of the trunk of a tree (see animation here). They are like the pipes of a building within which small pressure differences make water move from a collective reservoir to every neighbours’ kitchen tap.

Water relations in tree physiology have been subject to a wealth of research in the last half a decade due to the ongoing die-off of trees in all continents in response to episodes of drought associated with temperature extremes, which are gradually becoming more frequent and lasting longer at a planetary scale (1). 

Embolised trees

During a hot drought, trees must cope with a sequence of two major physiological challenges (2, 3, 4). More heat and less internal water increase sap tension within the xylem and force trees to close their stomata (5). Stomata are small holes scattered over the green parts of a plant through which gas and water exchanges take place. Closing stomata means that a tree is able to reduce water losses by transpiration by two to three orders of magnitude. However, this happens at the expense of halting photosynthesis, because the main photosynthetic substrate, carbon dioxide (CO2), uses the same path as water vapour to enter and leave the tissues of a tree.

If drought and heat persist, sap tension reaches a threshold leading to cavitation or formation of air bubbles (6). Those bubbles block the conduits of the xylem such that a severe cavitation will ultimately cause overall hydraulic failure. Under those conditions, the sap does not flow, many parts of the tree dry out gradually, structural tissues loose turgor and functionality, and their cells end up dying. Thus, the aerial photographs showing a leafy blanket of forest canopies profusely coloured with greys and yellows are in fact capturing a Dantesque situation: trees in photosynthetic arrest suffering from embolism (the plant counterpart of a blood clot leading to brain, heart or pulmonary infarction), which affects the peripheral parts of the trees in the first place (forest dieback).

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

For the last five years I’ve published a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of the year as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime — so, I’m doing so again for 2018 (interesting side note: six of the twenty papers highlighted here for 2018 appear in Science magazine). See previous years’ posts here: 2017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

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