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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Global warming causes the worst kind of extinction domino effect

25 11 2018

Dominos_Rough1-500x303Just under two weeks ago, Giovanni Strona and I published a paper in Scientific Reports on measuring the co-extinction effect from climate change. What we found even made me — an acknowledged pessimist — stumble in shock and incredulity.

But a bit of back story is necessary before I launch into describing what we discovered.

Last year, some Oxbridge astrophysicists (David Sloan and colleagues) published a rather sensational paper in Scientific Reports claiming that life on Earth would likely survive in the face of cataclysmic astrophysical events, such as asteroid impacts, supernovae, or gamma-ray bursts. This rather extraordinary conclusion was based primarily on the remarkable physiological adaptations and tolerances to extreme conditions displayed by tardigrades— those gloriously cute, but tiny (most are around 0.5 mm long as adults) ‘water bears’ or ‘moss piglets’ — could you get any cuter names?


Found almost everywhere and always (the first fossils of them date back to the early Cambrian over half a billion years ago), these wonderful little creatures are some of the toughest metazoans (multicellular animals) on the planet. Only a few types of extremophile bacteria are tougher.

So, boil, fry or freeze the Earth, and you’ll still have tardigrades around, concluded Sloan and colleagues.

When Giovanni first read this, and then passed the paper along to me for comment, our knee-jerk reaction as ecologists was a resounding ‘bullshit!’. Even neophyte ecologists know intuitively that because species are all interconnected in vast networks linked by trophic (who eats whom), competitive, and other ecological functions (known collectively as ‘multiplex networks’), they cannot be singled out using mere thermal tolerances to predict the probability of annihilation. Read the rest of this entry »

Biodiversity is everyone’s responsibility

13 07 2018

Workspace: Team Of Diverse Workers Put Hands TogetherI’m not sure if many South Australians are aware of this, but the Parliamentary Inquiry into Biodiversity by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee presented a report to the 53rd Parliament of South Australia in March 2017. I thought it worthwhile reproducing their executive summary here on (I’ve highlighted the text that I deem to be rather insightful and simultaneously damning from our own elected government representatives):

This report summarises the findings and recommendations of the South Australian Parliament’s Environment, Resources and Development Committee’s inquiry into biodiversity in South Australia. Specifically, the inquiry investigated the regulatory and policy framework to determine whether it appropriately supports terrestrial and marine ecological processes, biodiversity values and abates species extinction.

The Committee found that in spite of the efforts of the State and Federal governments, industry and private landholders in South Australia, the condition of biodiversity in the State continues to decline. Species extinctions have occurred in the past and a further “extinction debt” still exists. There is no reason to believe that this trend will improve without a change to the way we approach biodiversity conservation.

A key theme to emerge from the Inquiry is that biodiversity conservation needs to be everyone’s responsibility; State and Federal government, industry, the broader community, and private landholders.

This also means that biodiversity conservation needs to occur across both public and private land, with actions coordinated at a landscape scale.

Making biodiversity conservation everyone’s responsibility requires a range of measures, including legislative reform, improved management of threats and greater involvement of the community. The provision of greater resources would yield faster results.

This report has focused on several key themes that emerged from submissions to the Inquiry.

Regulating for better biodiversity – South Australia’s legislative framework

South Australia’s current legislative framework does not provide for optimum biodiversity outcomes.

Three key issues contribute to this –

  • an out-of-date suite of environmental legislation that lacks cohesion and consistency, particularly regarding enforcement and compliance provisions;
  • inadequate and incomplete processes for identifying and protecting at-risk elements that need special measures (e.g. for protection of specific threatened species and ecological communities); and
  • inadequate consideration of biodiversity conservation in legislation that regulates human activities. In particular, there is a lack of cohesion between the environmental legislative and policy framework and land use planning, assessment and approval.
  • Statutory fragmentation of biodiversity considerations – that is, consideration of different aspects of biodiversity under different pieces of legislation – results in lack of cohesion and consistency, duplication and inefficiency, and makes it difficult to implement a landscape approach or to identify strategic opportunities and risks.

Taken as a whole, current enforcement provisions do not provide for effective and proportionate compliance action. Enforcement and compliance provisions across the relevant legislation are uneven in their approach. For example, penalties appear to be disproportionate and not risk-based (although there are some exceptions). Modern enforcement tools such as compliance orders, civil remedies and alternative penalties (such as administrative penalties, payment of damages including exemplary damages, remediation orders etc) are not included in all relevant legislation. There is some duplication in offences and inconsistency in the types of sanctions and penalty ranges.

There is an urgent need to amend the legislative framework to support any attempt to improve biodiversity outcomes.

The best approach will be based on clear, shared responsibility for biodiversity outcomes, supported by individual accountability. However, such a change will require policy development and drive.

To ensure forward momentum and improvements in the short term while developing the policy settings to support such a step-change, a staged approach could be implemented. There are various ways this could be achieved.

The Committee suggests a 3-stage approach to reforming the legislative framework. The Committee recommends the creation of a Biodiversity Expert Panel that is responsible for advancing this 3-stage approach.

  1. The first stage will involve amendments to improve operation and effectiveness of the regulatory regime within current policy settings, acknowledging that as a result of Stage 3, provisions may be altered or moved into different pieces of legislation. Amendments generally would be to the existing ‘environmental’ Acts, and primarily to the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 and Native Vegetation Act 1991. They would include many of the specific areas for amendment identified in EDO submissions (2011 & 2015) as well as in the SA Government submission, for example, beginning with amendments to improve current environmental legislation.
  2. Stage 2 would progress to amendments to improve integration between Acts and improve support for landholders and community participation.
  3. Stage 3 would implement a system whereby all resource use and management would be managed by one piece of legislation, with protection of biodiversity and sustainable development at its core. Provisions for protected area management, and for the scientific work involved in identifying threatened species and communities, may be contained in separate legislation.

Threats, ecological resilience and restoration

The State’s native biodiversity is facing myriad of current threats, including habitat loss and fragmentation (due to development and changing land-use), pest plants and animals, and control burn regimes. There is a need for more stringent vegetation protection, better informed and enacted control and management strategies of known pest plants and animals, and a revision of burning regimes.

Future threats to the State’s biodiversity will be largely driven by climate change impacts and the interaction with existing major threats (e.g. urbanisation and changing land use). Adequately preparing for and managing such future threats will require knowledge of projected changes and pro-active preparation for such changes.

Working with the community

Involvement of the community is an essential part of any biodiversity conservation strategy for the State. It is a foundation stone for moving to a point where biodiversity conservation is everyone’s business.

Community engagement will become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation, especially given the growing role of volunteers to support works on public land as well as the voluntary conservation efforts of private landholders. The expanding role of volunteers reenforces that biodiversity conservation is everyone’s business.

South Australia’s approach to biodiversity conversation on private land needs to be reinvigorated.

Cross cutting themes

There were several cross cutting themes identified in submissions to the Inquiry. There was broad recognition of the strong cultural and historic significance of elements of biodiversity to Aboriginal people, and that this is often poorly understood outside those communities. Continuing to identify ways for Aboriginal people to contribute to land and water management in South Australia remains a priority.

With respect to knowledge generation, critical knowledge gaps exist that need to be filled and existing knowledge is not being adequately understood, communicated or applied. From a resourcing perspective, there is concern that insufficient funds are being allocated to biodiversity conservation, which is affecting work on public and private lands.

The management of over-abundant species in South Australia remains a challenge, noting the recent impacts of long-nose fur seals in the Lower Lakes and Coorong, and ongoing concerns regarding the impact of animals such as little corellas and some species of kangaroos on negative vegetation.


Why populations can’t be saved by a single breeding pair

3 04 2018


© Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

I published this last week on The Conversation, and now reproducing it here for readers.


Two days ago, the last male northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) died. His passing leaves two surviving members of his subspecies: both females who are unable to bear calves.

Even though it might not be quite the end of the northern white rhino because of the possibility of implanting frozen embryos in their southern cousins (C. simum simum), in practical terms, it nevertheless represents the end of a long decline for the subspecies. It also raises the question: how many individuals does a species need to persist?

Fiction writers have enthusiastically embraced this question, most often in the post-apocalypse genre. It’s a notion with a long past; the Adam and Eve myth is of course based on a single breeding pair populating the entire world, as is the case described in the Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods in Norse mythology.

This idea dovetails neatly with the image of Noah’s animals marching “two by two” into the Ark. But the science of “minimum viable populations” tells us a different story.

No inbreeding, please

The global gold standard used to assess the extinction risk of any species is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Read the rest of this entry »

Our global system-of-systems

28 02 2018


I’ve just read an excellent paper that succinctly, eloquently, and wisely summarised the current predicament of our highly interconnected, global, complex adaptive system (i.e., our environment).

If you are new to the discussions around state shifts, hysteresis, tipping points, and system collapse, there might be a lot in the new paper by Philip Garnett of the University of York that you could find intimidating (and not just because of the complexity of the concepts he discusses). If you are more up-to-date on these discussions, I highly recommend reading this paper for distilling some of the more pertinent questions.

The essence of the paper is that our global environment (Earth) is one giant, complex system made up of interacting sub-systems. We can think of these as a giant, interconnected network of nodes and connections (often called ‘edges’) between them. If you do ecological network theory, then you know what I’m talking about.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is that Philip Garnett is not an environmental scientist; in fact, he’s a a lecturer in Operations Management and Business Analytics (although he does have a background in genetics and biology) who specialises in complex systems theory. In fact, much of his paper uses socio-economic examples of system complexity and collapse, yet the applications to environmentalism in general, and to ecological integrity in particular, are spot on.

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2017

27 12 2017

Gannet Shallow Diving 03
As I have done for the last four years (20162015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2017 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

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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 »