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 »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

When devils and thylacines went extinct

17 01 2018

devil-thylacine-extinctWe’ve just published an analysis of new radiocarbon dates showing that thylacines (Tasmanian ‘tigers’, Thylacinus cynocephalus) and Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisi) went extinct on the Australian mainland at the same time — some 3200 years ago.

For many years, we’ve been uncertain about when thylacines and devils went extinct in mainland Australia (of course, devils are still in Tasmania, and thylacines went extinct there in the 1930s) — a recent age for the devil extinction (500 years before present) has recently been shown to be unreliable. The next youngest reliable devil fossil is 25000 years old.

So, knowing when both species went extinct is essential to be able to determine the drivers of these extinctions, and why they survived in Tasmania. If the two extinctions on the mainland happened at the same time, this would support the hypothesis that a common driver (or set of drivers) caused both species to go extinct. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Giving a monkey’s about primate conservation

12 12 2017
Urban monkey living (Macaque, Gibraltar) small

Concrete jungle. A Barbary macaque sits in a human-dominated landscape in Gibraltar. Photo: Silviu Petrovan

Saving primates is a complicated business. Primates are intelligent, social animals that have complex needs. They come into conflict with humans when they raid rubbish bins and crops, chew power cables, and in some cases become aggressive towards people.

Humans, however, have the upper hand. While 60% of non-human primate species are threatened, humans grow in numbers and power, building roads through forests, hunting and trapping primates, and replacing their habitat with farms and houses.

To help primatologists choose the most effective conservation approaches to resolve these problems, researchers in the Conservation Evidence project teamed up with primate researchers to produce a global database on the effectiveness of primate conservation solutions. This free database, which can also be downloaded as a single pdf, summarizes the evidence for 162 conservation interventions — actions that conservationists might take to conserve primates. The data come from searches of over 170 conservation journals and newsletters, and each study is summarized in a single paragraph in plain English, making it possible for conservationists without access to scientific journals to read the key findings.

Front cover primate synopsisSo what works in primate conservation? Well, the picture is rarely straightforward — partly due to the lack of data — but there are some interesting trends. Reducing hunting is one area where there seem to be a range of potentially effective approaches. Community control of patrolling, banning hunting and removing snares was effective in the three studies in which it was tested, all in African countries.

Further emphasizing the importance of involving local communities, implementing no-hunting community policies or traditional hunting bans also appeared helpful in boosting primate numbers. In other places, a more traditional approach of using rangers to protect primates has proved a winning strategy. Training rangers, providing them with arms, and increasing ranger patrols all worked to protect primates from poachers. Identifying the circumstances in which community led approaches or ranger patrols work will be key to implementing the most appropriate response to each conservation challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

Microclimates: thermal shields against global warming for small herps

22 11 2017

Thermal microhabitats are often uncoupled from above-ground air temperatures. A study focused on small frogs and lizards from the Philippines demonstrates that the structural complexity of tropical forests hosts a diversity of microhabitats that can reduce the exposure of many cold-blooded animals to anthropogenic climate warming.

Luzon forest frogs

Reproductive pair of the Luzon forest frogs Platymantis luzonensis (upper left), a IUCN near-threatened species restricted to < 5000 km2 of habitat. Lower left: the yellow-stripped slender tree lizard Lipinia pulchella, a IUCN least-concerned species. Both species have body lengths < 6 cm, and are native to the tropical forests of the Philippines. Right panels, top to bottom: four microhabitats monitored by Scheffers et al. (2), namely ground vegetation, bird’s nest ferns, phytotelmata, and fallen leaves above ground level. Photos courtesy of Becca Brunner (Platymantis), Gernot Kunz (Lipinia), Stephen Zozaya (ground vegetation) and Brett Scheffers (remaining habitats).

If you have ever entered a cave or an old church, you will be familiar with its coolness even in the dog days of summer. At much finer scales, from centimetres to millimetres, this ‘cooling effect’ occurs in complex ecosystems such as those embodied by tropical forests. The fact is that the life cycle of many plant and animal species depends on the network of microhabitats (e.g., small crevices, burrows, holes) interwoven by vegetation structures, such as the leaves and roots of an orchid epiphyte hanging from a tree branch or the umbrella of leaves and branches of a thick bush.

Much modern biogeographical research addressing the effects of climate change on biodiversity is based on macroclimatic data of temperature and precipitation. Such approaches mostly ignore that microhabitats can warm up or cool down in a fashion different from that of local or regional climates, and so determine how species, particularly ectotherms, thermoregulate (1). To illustrate this phenomenon, Brett Scheffers et al. (2) measured the upper thermal limits (typically known as ‘critical thermal maxima’ or CTmax) of 15 species of frogs and lizards native to the tropical forest of Mount Banahaw, an active volcano on Luzon (The Philippines). The > 7000 islands of this archipelago harbour > 300 species of amphibians and reptiles (see video here), with > 100 occurring in Luzon (3).

Read the rest of this entry »

You know you’re screwed when the insects disappear

31 10 2017

dead cicadaLast Friday, ABC 891 here in Adelaide asked me to comment on a conservation paper doing the news rounds last week. While it has been covered extensively in the media (e.g., The Guardian, CNN, and Science), I think it’s probably going to be one of those things that people unfortunately start to forget right away. But this is decidedly something that no one should be forgetting.

While you can listen to me chat about this with the lovely Sonya Feldhoff on the ABC (I start chin-wagging around the 14:30 mark), I thought it prudent to remind CB.com readers just how devastatingly important this study is.

While anyone with a modicum of conservation science under her belt will know that the Earth’s biodiversity is not doing well, the true extent of the ecological tragedy unfolding before our very eyes really came home to us back in 2014 with the publication of WWF’s Living Planet Report. According to a meta-analysis of 10,380 population trends from over 3000 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and fish, the report concluded that the Earth has lost over 50% of the individuals in vertebrate populations since 1970. Subsequent revisions (and more population trends from more species) place the decline at over 60% by 2020 (that’s only a little over two years away). You can also listen to me speak about this on another radio show.

If that little bit of pleasant news didn’t make the pit of your stomach gurgle and a cold sweat break out on the back of your neck, you’re probably not human. But hang on, boys and girls — it gets so much worse! The publication in PLoS One on 18 October about Germany’s insect declines might be enough to tip you over the edge and into the crevasse of mental instabilityRead the rest of this entry »