Successful movers responding to climate change

16 06 2020

tropical fishes range shiftsEcologists often rely on measuring certain elements of a species’ characteristics, behaviour, or morphology to determine if these — what we call ‘traits’ — give them certain capacities to exploit their natural environments. While sometimes a bit arbitrarily defined, the traits that can be measured are many indeed, and sometimes they reveal rather interesting elements of a species’ resilience in the face of environmental change.

As we know, climate change is changing the way species are distributed around the planet, for the main (and highly simplified) reason that the environments in which they’ve evolved and to which they have adapted are changing.

In the simplest case, a warming climate means that there is a higher and higher chance you’ll experience temperatures that really don’t suit you that well (think of a koala or a flying fox baking in a tree when the thermometer reads +45° in the shade). Just like you seeking those nice, air-conditioned spaces on a scorcher of a day, species like to move to where conditions are more acceptable to their particular physiologies and behaviours.

When they can’t change fast enough, they go extinct.

Ecologists use life-history traits to predict which species have the highest probability of moving to new areas in response to climate change. Most studies into this phenomenon have largely ignored that range shifts in fact occur in sequential stages: (1) the species arrives in a new place for the first time, (2) its population increases in size (and extent), and (3) it can continue to persist in the new spot. Read the rest of this entry »





Amphibian conservation in a managed world

1 04 2020
FrogBlog2

Crinia parinsignifera (top) and Limnodynastes tasmaniensis (bottom). Photo: Kate Mason

The amphibian class is diverse, and ranges from worm-like caecilians to tiny frogs that live their entire lives within bromeliads high in the rainforest canopy. Regardless of form or habit, all share the dubious honour of being cited as the world’s most endangered vertebrate taxon, and 41% of the species assessed are threatened with extinction. Rapidly changing climates will further exacerbate this situation as amphibians are expected to be more strongly affected than other vertebrates like birds or mammals.

This peril stems from a physiological dependence on freshwater.

Amphibians breathe (in part) through their skin, so they maintain moist skin surfaces. This sliminess means that most amphibians quickly dry out in dry conditions. Additionally, most amphibian eggs and larvae are fully aquatic. One of the greatest risks to populations are pools that dry too quickly for larval development, which leads to complete reproductive failure.

This need for freshwater all too often places them in direct competition with humans.

To keep pace with population growth, humans have engineered a landscape where the location, and persistence of water is tightly controlled. In seeking water availability for farming and amenity, we all too often remove essential habitats for amphibians and other freshwater fauna.

To protect amphibians from decline and extinction, land managers may need to apply innovative techniques to support vulnerable species. With amphibians’ strong dependence on freshwater, this support can be delivered by intelligently manipulating where and when freshwater appears in the landscape, with an eye to maintaining habitats for breeding, movement and refuge. A range of innovative approaches have been attempted to date, but they are typically developed in isolation and their existence is known only to a cloistered few. A collation of the approaches and their successes (and failures) has not occurred.

In our latest paper, we used a systematic review to classify water-manipulation techniques and to evaluate the support for these approaches. Read the rest of this entry »





In pursuit of an ecological resilience in the Anthropocene

3 03 2020

Changing TidesAn excerpt from Alejandro Frid‘s new book, Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene (published first in Sierra, with photos courtesy of New Society Publishers)

The birth of my daughter, in 2004, thrust upon me a dual task: to be scientifically realistic about all the difficult changes that are here to stay, while staying humanly optimistic about the better things that we still have.

By the time my daughter turned eleven, I had jettisoned my nos­talgia for the Earth I was born into in the mid-196os—a planet that, of course, was an ecological shadow of Earth 100 years before, which in turn was an ecological shadow of an earlier Earth. The pragmatist in me had embraced the Anthropocene, in which humans dominate all biophysical processes, and I ended up feeling genuinely good about some of the possible futures in which my daughter’s generation might grow old.

It was a choice to engage in a tough situation. An acknowledgement of rapid and uninvited change. A reaffirmed commitment to everything I have learned, and continue to learn, as an ecologist working with Indigenous people on marine conservation. Fundamental to this perspective is the notion of resilience: the ability of someone or something—a culture, an ecosystem, an economy, a person—to absorb shocks yet still maintain their essence.

But what is essence? Read the rest of this entry »





Influential conservation ecology papers of 2019

24 12 2019

Bradshaw-Waves breaking on rocks Macquarie Island
As I’ve done for the last six years, I am publishing a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2109 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime (in no particular order). See previous years’ lists here: 20182017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the rest of this entry »





“Overabundant” wildlife usually isn’t

12 07 2019

koalacrosshairsLate last year (10 December) I was invited to front up to the ‘Overabundant and Pest Species Inquiry’ at the South Australian Parliament to give evidence regarding so-called ‘overabundant’ and ‘pest’ species.

There were the usual five to six Ministers and various aides on the Natural Resources Committee (warning here: the SA Parliament website is one of the most confusing, archaic, badly organised, and generally shitty government sites I’ve yet to visit, so things require a bit of nuanced searching) to whom I addressed on issues ranging from kangaroos, to dingoes, to koalas, to corellas. The other submissions I listened to that day were (mostly) in favour of not taking drastic measures for most of the human-wildlife conflicts that were being investigated.

Forward seven months and the Natural Resources Committee has been reported to have requested the SA Minister for Environment to allow mass culling of any species (wildlife or feral) that they deem to be ‘overabundant’ or a ‘pest’.

So, the first problem is terminological in nature. If you try to wade through the subjectivity, bullshit, vested interests, and general ignorance, you’ll quickly realise that there is no working definition or accepted meaning for the words ‘overabundant’ or ‘pest’ in any legislation. Basically, it comes down to a handful of lobbyists and other squeaky wheels defining anything they deem to be a nuisance as ‘overabundant’, irrespective of its threat status, ecological role, or purported impacts. It is, therefore, entirely subjective, and boils down to this: “If I don’t like it, it’s an overabundant pest”. Read the rest of this entry »





How to fix a broken river

5 04 2019

murraycod

It seems that most of what I do these days is measure, model, or otherwise quantify environmental damage. While I dabble in restoration, occasionally I’m involved in a project that really can make a positive difference.

If you’re an Australian, you’ll know a thing or two about just how much of a clusterfuck our biggest river system has turned into. From mismanagement, to outright theft, to lobbyist-driven over-exploitation, to climate change itself, the Murray-Darling system is now in a right mess.

So, I’ll pretext this post with a caveat — no amount of ecological restoration can ‘fix’ a compromised river if there’s no water in it. Goes without saying, really.

But, if you do have water, then there are things one can do to promote populations of various creatures living in it, like fish.

Dubbed the ‘honeypot effect’ — we have just shown that providing woody habitat, or ‘snags’, for native fish in the Murray River increases population size. Read the rest of this entry »





Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

e35f9ddeada029a053a15cd023abadf5
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.

Read the rest of this entry »





Personal deterrents can reduce the risk of shark bites

19 06 2018
Shak deterrent testing

Photo: Charlie Huveneers

A little over a week ago, shark ecologist, Charlie Huveneers, and I attempted to write an article in The Conversation about a report we co-wrote regarding the effectiveness of personal shark-deterrent devices (see below for more on the report itself). It’s a great little story, with both immediate policy implications for human safety and great, big potential improvements to shark conservation in general (i.e., if sharks kill fewer people, then perhaps governments would be less inclined to invokes stupid laws to kill sharks). Indeed, sharks aren’t doing very well around the world, mainly because of over-harvest and persecution from unfounded fear.

Anyway, all was going swimmingly until our editor at The Conversation suddenly decided that they wouldn’t publish the piece based on the following funding disclaimer that we had submitted with the article:

This project was funded by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Shark Management Strategy Competitive Annual Grants Program, the Government of South Australia, Ocean Guardian Pty Ltd, and the Neiser Foundation. We openly and transparently declare that Ocean Guardian contributed financially to the study, but that Ocean Guardian was not involved in the study design or implementation, nor did they have access to the data post-collection. Nor did Ocean Guardian provide input into data analysis, interpretation, writing of the report, or the conclusions drawn. The study design followed a protocol developed for a previous study, which was not funded by Ocean Guardian. In summary, Ocean Guardian had no opportunity to influence any aspect of the study or its conclusions, apart from providing some financial support to realise the field project (e.g., boat hire, equipment purchase, etc.) in the same manner as the other funding agencies. The South Australian cage-diving industry provided logistical support during the testing of the deterrents.

The long and short of The Conversation‘s negative decision was that one of the companies contributed financially to project. However, as we stated above, they had absolutely no influence in the subsequent experimental design, data collection, analysis, interpretation or report writing.

While normally I’m a big fan of The Conversation, I really think they dropped the ball with this one. Their decision was illogical and unsupported for five main reasons:

  1. There were many funding partners involved, and the Ocean Freedom contribution was in no way the major or even majority share of funding.
  2. Other companies with devices tested could have contributed, but only Ocean Freedom offered.
  3. The study was commissioned by a state government agency (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries), which is not a commercial entity.
  4. As stated in our disclosure, there was no opportunity for manipulating experimental design, data ownership, or post-collection analysis or writing that could have influenced the results, by any funders or contributors.
  5. The disclosure is open, honest, comprehensive and in every way truthful.

So, I’m more than just a little disappointed — and my opinion of the organisation has dropped considerably. That, with the constant barrage of donation requests they send makes me think twice about their journalistic integrity. I challenge others to think carefully before giving them any money.

Regardless, let’s move on to the article itself (which I can publish freely here without the Draconian oversight of The Conversation):

Many things might explain why the number of shark bites appear to be increasing. However, the infrequent occurrence of such events makes it nearly impossible to determine why. Recently, an atypically high rate of shark bites occurred in Western Australia in 2010-2011 and on the north coast of New South Wales in 2015-2016. These highly publicised events — often sensationalised in both traditional and social media — have pressured governments to implement new measures to reduce the risk of shark bites.

The rising pressure to do something to reduce shark bites has prompted the recent development or commercial release of many new personal shark deterrents. Yet, most of these devices lack any rigorous scientific assessment of their effectiveness, meaning that some manufacturers have made unfounded claims about how much their devices dissuade sharks from attacking humans.

However, if a particular type of commercially available shark deterrent happens to be less effective (or completely ineffective) as advertised, it can give users a false sense of security, potentially encouraging some to put themselves at greater risk than is necessary. For example, some surfers and spearfishers probably ignore other mitigation measures, such as beach closures, because they ‘feel safe’ when wearing these products.

Read the rest of this entry »





What Works in Conservation 2018

23 05 2018
P1230308

Do you have a copy of this book? If not, why not?

 

This book is free to download. This book contains the evidence for the effectiveness of over 1200 things you might do for conservation. If you don’t have a copy, go and download yourself a free one here, right now, before you even finish reading this article. Seriously. Go. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life.

Why you’ll laugh

OK, I may have exaggerated the laughing part. ‘What Works in Conservation 2018’ is a serious and weighty tome, 660 pages of the evidence for 1277 conservation interventions (anything you might do to conserve a species or habitat), assessed by experts and graded into colour-coded categories of effectiveness. This is pretty nerdy stuff, and probably not something you’ll lay down with on the beach or dip into as you enjoy a large glass of scotch (although I don’t know your life, maybe it is).

But that’s not really what it’s meant for. This is intended as a reference book for conservation managers and policymakers, a way to scan through your possible solutions and get a feel for those that are most likely to be effective. Once you have a few ideas in mind, you can follow the links to see the full evidence base for each study at conservationevidence.com, where over 5000 studies have been summarised into digestible paragraphs.

The book takes the form of discrete chapters on taxa, habitats or topics (such as ‘control of freshwater invasives’). Each chapter is split into IUCN threat categories such as ‘Agriculture’ or ‘Energy production and mining’. For each threat there are a series of interventions that could be used to tackle it, and for each of these interventions the evidence has been collated. Experts have then graded the body of the evidence over three rounds of Delphi scoring, looking at the effectiveness, certainty in the evidence (i.e., the quality and quantity of evidence available), and any harms to the target taxa. These scores combine to place each intervention in a category from ‘Beneficial’ to ‘Likely to be ineffective or harmful’. Read the rest of this entry »





Predicting sustainable shark harvests when stock assessments are lacking

26 03 2018
srb 1

© Andrew Fox

I love it when a good collaboration bears fruit, and our latest paper is a good demonstration of that principle.

It all started a few years ago with an ARC Linkage Project grant we received to examine how the whaler shark fishing industry in Australia might manage its stocks better.

As I’m sure many are aware, sharks around the world aren’t doing terribly well (surprise, surprise — yet another taxon suffering at the hands of humankind). And while some populations (‘stocks’, in the dissociative parlance of the fishing industry) are doing better than others, and some countries have a better track record in managing these stocks than others, the overall outlook is grim.

One of the main reasons sharks tend to fair worse than bony fishes (teleosts) for the same fishing effort is their ‘slow’ life histories. It doesn’t take an advanced quantitative ecology degree to understand that growing slowly, breeding late, and producing few offspring is a good indication that a species can’t handle too much killing before populations start to dwindle. As is the case for most large shark species, I tend to think of them in a life-history sense as similar to large terrestrial mammals.

Now, you’d figure that a taxon with intrinsic susceptibility to fishing would have heaps of good data with which managers could monitor catches and quotas so that declines could be avoided. However, the reality is generally the inverse, with many populations having poor information regarding vital rates (e.g., survival, fertility), age structure, density feedback characteristics, and even simple estimates of abundance. Without such key information, management tends to be ad hoc and often not very effective. Read the rest of this entry »





Penguins cheated by ecosystem change

13 03 2018

Jorge Drexler sings “… I was committed not to see what I saw, but sometimes life is more complex than what it looks like …”*. This excerpt by the Oscar-winning Uruguayan singer seems to foretell the theme of this blog: how the ecological complexity of marine ecosystems can elicit false signals to their predators. Indeed, the fidelity of marine predators to certain feeding areas can turn demographically detrimental to themselves when the amount of available food shrinks. A study of jackass penguins illustrates the phenomenon in a context of overfishing and ocean warming.

CB_JackassPenguinsEcologicalTrapPhoto

Adult of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from Robben Island (South Africa) — in the inset, one of the first juveniles released with a satellite transmitter on its back. The species is ‘Endangered’ under IUCN’s criteria (28), following a recent halving of the total population currently estimated at ~ 80,000 adults. Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in Africa, and owe their common name to their vocalisations (you can hear their braying sounds here); adults are ~ 50 cm tall and weigh ~ 3 kg. Photos courtesy of Richard Sherley.

Surface temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity and primary productivity are, by and large, the top four environmental factors driving the functionality of marine ecosystems (1). Growing scientific evidence supports the idea that anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere and the oceans correlates with this quartet (2). For instance, marine primary productivity is enhanced by increased temperatures (3), but a warmer sea surface intensifies stratification, i.e., stacked layers of seawater with contrasting physical and chemical properties.

In coastal areas experiencing ‘upwelling’ (where winds displace surface water, allowing deep water laden with nutrients to reach the euphotic zone where plankton communities feast), stratification weakens upwelling currents and, in turn, limits the growth of plankton (4) that fuels the entire trophic web, including our fisheries. The study of these complex trophic cascades is particularly cumbersome from the perspective of large marine predators because of their capacity to move long distances, from hundreds to thousands of kilometres (5), with strong implications for their conservation (6).

With those caveats in mind, Richard Sherley and colleagues satellite-tracked the movement of 54 post-fledged, juvenile jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) for 2-3 years (7). All individuals had been hatched in eight colonies (accounting for 80% of the global population), and were equipped with platform terminal transmitters. Jackass penguins currently nest in 28 island and mainland locations between South Africa and Namibia. Juveniles swim up to 2000 km in search of food and, when approaching adulthood, return to their native colonies where they reproduce and reside for the remainder of their lives (watch individuals swimming here).

The natural history of this species is linked to the Southern Hemisphere’s trade winds (‘alisios’ for Spanish speakers), which blow from the southeast to the tropics. In the South Atlantic, trade winds sustain the Benguela Current, the waters of which surface from some 300 m of depth and fertilise the marine ecosystems stretching from the Western coasts of South Africa to Angola (8). Read the rest of this entry »





Offshore Energy & Marine Spatial Planning

22 02 2018

FishingOffshoreWind

I have the pleasure (and relief) of announcing a new book that’s nearly ready to buy, and I think many readers of CB.com might be interested in what it describes. I know it might be a bit premature to announce it, but given that we’ve just finished the last few details (e.g., and index) and the book is ready to pre-order online, I don’t think it’s too precocious to advertise now.

9781138954533-2

A little history is in order. The brilliant and hard-working Katherine Yates (now at the University of Salford in Manchester, UK) approached me back in 2014 to assist her with co-editing the volume that she wanted to propose for the Routledge Earthscan Ocean series. I admit that I reluctantly agreed at the time, knowing full well what was in store (anyone who has already edited a book will know what I mean). Being an active researcher in energy and biodiversity (perhaps not so much on the ‘planning’ side per se) certainly helped in my decision.

And yes, there were ups and downs, and sometimes it was a helluva lot of work, but Katherine certainly made my life easier, and she has finally driven the whole thing to completion. She deserves most of the credit.

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 »





Tiny, symbiotic organisms protect corals from predation and disease

20 12 2017
hydrozoan polyp

Hydrozoan polyps living on the surface of a coral (photo credit: S. Montano)

Corals could have some unexpected allies to cope with the multi-faceted threats posed by climate change.

In a new study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Montano and colleagues show how tiny hydrozoans smaller than 1 mm and commonly found in dense colonies on the surface of hard corals (see above photo) play an important ecological role.

Visually examining ~ 2500 coral colonies in both Maldivian and Saudi Arabian reefs, the scientists searched for signs of predation, temperature-induced stress, and disease. For each colony, they also recorded the presence of symbiotic hydrozoans. They demonstrated that corals living in association with hydrozoans are much less prone to be eaten by corallivorous (i.e., ‘coral-eating’) fish and gastropods than hydrozoan-free corals.

A likely explanation for this pattern could be the deterring action of hydrozoan nematocysts (cells capable of ejecting a venomous organelle, which are the same kinds found in jellyfish tentacles). An individual hydrozoan polyp of less than 1 mm clearly cannot cope with a corallivorous fish that is a billions of times larger, yet hydrozoans can grow at high densities on the surface of corals (sometimes > 50 individuals per cm2). This creates a sort of a continuous, ‘urticating‘ carpet that can discourage fish from foraging. Read the rest of this entry »





Noses baffled by ocean acidification

18 04 2017

Clown fish couple (Amphiprion percula) among the tentacles of anemone Heteractis magnifica in Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) – courtesy of Mark McCormick. Clownfish protect anemones from predators and parasites in exchange of shelter and food. The fish tolerates the host’s venom because its skin is protected by a mucus layer some 2-3× thicker than phylogenetically related species (12); clownfish fabricate the mucus themselves and seem to obtain anemone antigens through a period of acclimation (13), but whether protection is acquired or innate is still debated. Clownfish are highly social bony fish, forming groups with one reproductive pair (up to 11 cm in length each) and several smaller, non-reproductive males. Reproduction is protandrous (also known as sequential hermaphroditism), so larvae are born male and, as soon as the reproductive female dies, her widower becomes female and the largest of the subsidiary males becomes the alpha male. The IUCN lists clownfish, generically named ‘anemone fish’, as threatened by the pet-trade industry and habitat degradation, although surprisingly, only 1 species has been assessed (A. sandaracinos). The clown anemone fish A. ocellaris is the species that inspired Nemo in the 2003 Academy-Award fiction movie – contrary to the logical expectation that the Oscars Red Carpet would generate support for conservation on behalf of Hollywood, of the 1568 species represented in the movie, only 16 % of those evaluated are threatened (14).

Smell is like noise, the more scents we breathe in one sniff, the more difficult it is to distinguish them to the point of olfactory saturation. Experimental work with clownfish reveals that the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater, mimicking ocean acidification, alters olfactory physiology, with potential cascading effects on the demography of species.

Places such as a restaurant, a hospital or a library have a characteristic bouquet, and we can guess the emotional state of other people by their scents. Smell is critical between predators and prey of many species because both have evolved to detect each other without the aid of vision. At sea, the smell of predators dissolves in water during detection, attack, capture, and ingestion of prey, and many fishes use this information to assess the risk of ending up crunched by enemy teeth (1, 2). But predator-prey interactions can be modified by changes in the chemical composition of seawater and are therefore highly sensitive to ongoing ocean acidification (see global measuring network here). Experts regard ocean acidification as the ‘other CO2 problem’ of climate change (3) — just to emphasize that anthropogenic climate-change impacts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems alike. Acidification occurs because the ocean absorbs CO2 at a rate proportional with the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere and, once dissolved, CO2 becomes carbonic acid (H2CO3), which in turn releases protons (H+) — in simple terms, pH is the concentration of protons (see video about ocean acidification): Read the rest of this entry »





Limited nursery replenishment in coral reefs

27 03 2017
Haemulon sciurus

blue-striped grunt (Haemulon sciurus)

Coral reef fishes are wonderfully diverse in size, form, and function, as well as their need for different habitats throughout the life cycle. Some species spend all of their life in the same kind of coral habitat, while others need different places to breed and feed.

Fishes requiring different habitats as they progress through life often have what we call ‘nurseries’ in which adults lay eggs and the subsequent juveniles remain, and these places are often dominated by mangroves or seagrasses (i.e., they are not part of the coral reef).

While we’ve known for quite some time that when these nursery habitats are not around, adjacent coral reefs have few, if any, of these nursery-dependent species. What we haven’t known until now is just how far the influence of nurseries extends along a coral reef.

In other words, if a nursery is present, just how many new recruits do different areas of a reef receive from it? Read the rest of this entry »





The Evidence Strikes Back — What Works 2017

16 01 2017
Bat gantry on the A590, Cumbria, UK. Photo credit: Anna Berthinussen

Bat gantry on the A590, Cumbria, UK. Photo credit: Anna Berthinussen

Tired of living in a world where you’re constrained by inconvenient truths, irritating evidence and incommodious facts? 2016 must have been great for you. But in conservation, the fight against the ‘post-truth’ world is getting a little extra ammunition this year, as the Conservation Evidence project launches its updated book ‘What Works in Conservation 2017’.

Conservation Evidence, as many readers of this blog will know, is the brainchild of conservation heavyweight Professor Bill Sutherland, based at Cambridge University in the UK. Like all the best ideas, the Conservation Evidence project is at once staggeringly simple and breathtakingly ambitious — to list every conservation intervention ever cooked up around the world, and see how well, in the cold light of evidence, they actually worked. The project is ongoing, with new chapters of evidence added every year grouped by taxa, habitat or topic — all available for free on www.conservationevidence.com.

What Works in Conservation’ is a book that summarises the key findings from the Conservation Evidence website, and presents them in a simple, clear format, with links to where more information can be found on each topic. Experts (some of us still listen to them, Michael) review the evidence and score every intervention for its effectiveness, the certainty of the evidence and any harmful side effects, placing each intervention into a colour coded category from ‘beneficial’ to ‘likely to be ineffective or harmful.’ The last ‘What Works’ book included chapters on birds, bats, amphibians, soil fertility, natural pest control, some aspects of freshwater invasives and farmland conservation in Europe; new for 2017 is a chapter on forests and more species added to freshwater invasives. Read the rest of this entry »





Biowealth

24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »





It’s not always best to be the big fish

3 02 2016

obrien_fish_2Loosely following the theme of last week’s post, it’s now fairly well established that humans tend to pick on the big species first.

From fewer big trees, declines of big carnivores, elephant & rhino poaching, to fishing down the web, big species tend to cop it hardest when it comes to human-caused ecological disturbance.

While there are a lot of different combinations of traits that make some species more vulnerable to extinction than others (see examples for legumes, amphibians, sharks & teleosts, and mammals), one of the main ones is species size.

Generally speaking, larger species tend to produce fewer offspring and breed later in life than smaller species. This means that despite larger species tending to live longer than their smaller counterparts, their ‘slow’ reproductive output means that they are generally more susceptible to rapid environmental change (mainly via human intervention). In other words, their capacity for self-replacement is often too low to counteract the offtake from direct exploitation or habitat loss.

Despite a reasonable scientific understanding of this extinction-risk principle, the degree to which human disturbance affects species’ distributions is much less well quantified, and this is especially true for marine species.

I’m proud to announce another fascinating paper led by my postdoc, Camille Mellin, that has just come out online in Nature CommunicationsHumans and seasonal climate variability threaten large-bodied coral reef fish with small ranges.

With the world’s largest combined dataset of coral reef fish surveys for the entire Indo-Pacific (including the coral reef fish biodiversity hotspot — the Coral Triangle), we examined which conditions best described the distribution of fishes over a range of body sizes. Read the rest of this entry »





Grim tale of global shark declines

25 06 2015
Please don't eat me

Please don’t eat me

How do you prevent declines of species you cannot even see? This is (and has always been) the dilemma for fisheries because, well, humans don’t live underwater. Even when we strap on a metal tank full of air and a pair of fins, we’re still more or less like wounded astronauts peering through a narrow window of glass at the huge, largely empty, ocean space. It’s little wonder then that we have a fairly crap system of estimating fish abundance, and an even worse track record of managing them sustainably.

But humans love to eat fish – the total world estimate of legal fisheries landings is something in the vicinity of 190 million tonnes in 2013, up from 18 million tonnes in 1950 (according to FAO). We’re probably familiar with some of the losers of that massive harvest, with species like tunas, bill fishes and orange roughy making the news for catastrophic declines in abundance over the last 30-40 years. And we’re not even talking about the estimated tragedy that is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Back in 1999, the FAO started to report that sharks – the new-ish target of many world fisheries resulting from the commercial extinction of many other fin fish fisheries – we’re starting to take the hit. Once generally ignored by fishing industries, sharks soon became popular target species. Then in 2003, Julia Baum and colleagues famously (and somewhat controversially) sounded the alarm for sharks in the Gulf of Mexico by some claims of major and catastrophic declines of large, predatory sharks. While some of the subsequent to-ing and fro-ing in the literature challenged these claims, Baum’s excellent work was ultimately vindicated.

Since then, more and more evidence that sharks are in trouble has surfaced, including the assessment of the reported (again, only legal) catch indicated heavy depletion of coastal sharks even by 1975, and the estimate that 25% of all shark and ray species have an elevated extinction risk, mainly resulting from overfishing. Now even the direct fisheries landings statistics are confirming this grim tale. Read the rest of this entry »