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 CB.com 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 »

50/500 or 100/1000 debate not about time frame

26 06 2014

Not enough individualsAs you might recall, Dick Frankham, Barry Brook and I recently wrote a review in Biological Conservation challenging the status quo regarding the famous 50/500 ‘rule’ in conservation management (effective population size [Ne] = 50 to avoid inbreeding depression in the short-term, and Ne = 500 to retain the ability to evolve in perpetuity). Well, it inevitably led to some comments arising in the same journal, but we were only permitted by Biological Conservation to respond to one of them. In our opinion, the other comment was just as problematic, and only further muddied the waters, so it too required a response. In a first for me, we have therefore decided to publish our response on the arXiv pre-print server as well as here on ConservationBytes.com.

50/500 or 100/1000 debate is not about the time frame – Reply to Rosenfeld

cite as: Frankham, R, Bradshaw CJA, Brook BW. 2014. 50/500 or 100/1000 debate is not about the time frame – Reply to Rosenfeld. arXiv: 1406.6424 [q-bio.PE] 25 June 2014.

The Letter from Rosenfeld (2014) in response to Jamieson and Allendorf (2012) and Frankham et al. (2014) and related papers is misleading in places and requires clarification and correction, as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Too small to avoid catastrophic biodiversity meltdown

27 09 2013
Chiew Larn

Chiew Larn Reservoir is surrounded by Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary and Khao Sok National Park, which together make up part of the largest block of rainforest habitat in southern Thailand (> 3500 km2). Photo: Antony Lynam

One of the perennial and probably most controversial topics in conservation ecology is when is something “too small’. By ‘something’ I mean many things, including population abundance and patch size. We’ve certainly written about the former on many occasions (see here, here, here and here for our work on minimum viable population size), with the associated controversy it elicited.

Now I (sadly) report on the tragedy of the second issue – when is a habitat fragment too small to be of much good to biodiversity?

Published today in the journal Science, Luke Gibson (of No substitute for primary forest fame) and a group of us report disturbing results about the ecological meltdown that has occurred on islands created when the Chiew Larn Reservoir of southern Thailand was flooded nearly 30 years ago by a hydroelectric dam.

As is the case in many parts of the world (e.g., Three Gorges Dam, China), hydroelectric dams can cause major ecological problems merely by flooding vast areas. In the case of Charn Liew, co-author Tony Lynam of Wildlife Conservation Society passed along to me a bit of poignant and emotive history about the local struggle to prevent the disaster.

“As the waters behind the dam were rising in 1987, Seub Nakasathien, the Superintendent of the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary, his staff and conservationist friends, mounted an operation to capture and release animals that were caught in the flood waters.

It turned out to be distressing experience for all involved as you can see from the clips here, with the rescuers having only nets and longtail boats, and many animals dying. Ultimately most of the larger mammals disappeared quickly from the islands, leaving just the smaller fauna.

Later Seub moved to Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and fought an unsuccessful battle with poachers and loggers, which ended in him taking his own life in despair in 1990. A sad story, and his friend, a famous folk singer called Aed Carabao, wrote a song about Seub, the music of which plays in the video. Read the rest of this entry »

Science immortalised in cartoon

1 02 2013

Well, this is a first for me (us).

I’ve never had a paper of ours turned into a cartoon. The illustrious and brilliant ‘First Dog on the Moon‘ (a.k.a. Andrew Marlton) who is chief cartoonist for Australia’s irreverent ‘Crikey‘ online news magazine just parodied our Journal of Animal Ecology paper No need for disease: testing extinction hypotheses for the thylacine using multispecies metamodels that I wrote about a last month here on ConservationBytes.com.

Needless to say, I’m chuffed as a chuffed thing.



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 »

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 »