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 »

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 »

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 »

Two new postdoctoral positions in ecological network & vegetation modelling announced

21 07 2017


With the official start of the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in July, I am pleased to announce two new CABAH-funded postdoctoral positions (a.k.a. Research Associates) in my global ecology lab at Flinders University in Adelaide (Flinders Modelling Node).

One of these positions is a little different, and represents something of an experiment. The Research Associate in Palaeo-Vegetation Modelling is being restricted to women candidates; in other words, we’re only accepting applications from women for this one. In a quest to improve the gender balance in my lab and in universities in general, this is a step in the right direction.

The project itself is not overly prescribed, but we would like something along the following lines of inquiry: Read the rest of this entry »

Protecting one of the world’s marine wonders

17 06 2017

© CJA Bradshaw

While I’m in transit (yet a-bloody-gain) to Helsinki, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on one of the most inspiring eco-tourism experiences I recently had in South Australia.

If you are South Australian and have even the slightest interest in wildlife, you will have of course at least heard of the awe-inspiring mass breeding aggregation of giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) that occur in May-July every year in upper Spencer Gulf near the small town of Whyalla. If you have been lucky enough to go there and see these amazing creatures themselves, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t yet been there, take it from me that it is so very much worth it to attempt the voyage.


Father-daughter giant-cuttlefish-snorkelling selfie. © CJA Bradshaw

Despite having lived in South Australia for nearly a decade now, I only got my chance to see these wonderful creatures when a father at my daughter’s school organised a school trip. After driving for five hours from Adelaide to Whyalla, we hired our snorkelling gear and got into the water the very next morning. Read the rest of this entry »

Genetic Management of Fragmented Animal and Plant Populations

10 12 2016

logoThat is the title of a new textbook that will be available mid-2017.

After almost 6 years work, authors Dick Frankham, Jonathan Ballou, Katherine Ralls, Mark Eldridge, Michele Dudash, Charles Fenster, Bob Lacy & Paul Sunnucks have produced an advanced textbook/research monograph that aims to provoke a paradigm shift in the management of small, isolated population fragments of animals and plants.

One of the greatest unmet challenges in conservation biology is the genetic management of fragmented populations of threatened animal and plant species. More than a million small, isolated, population fragments of threatened species are likely suffering inbreeding depression, loss of evolutionary potential, and elevated extinction risks (genetic erosion). Re-establishing gene flow between populations is required to reverse these effects, but managers very rarely do this. On the contrary, molecular genetic methods are mainly being used to document genetic differentiation among populations, with most studies concluding that genetically differentiated populations should be managed separately (i.e., kept isolated), thereby dooming many populations to eventual extinction.

The need for a paradigm shift in genetic management of fragmented populations has been highlighted as a major issue in conservation. The rapidly advancing field of molecular genetics is continually providing new tools to measure the extent of population fragmentation and its genetic consequences. However, adequate guidance on how to use these data for effective conservation is still lacking, and many populations are going extinct principally for genetic reasons. Consequently, there is now urgent need for an authoritative textbook on the subject.

Read the rest of this entry »

Extinction synergy: deadly combination of human hunting & climate change wrote off Patagonian giants

20 06 2016

MegatheriumHere’s a paper we’ve just had published in Science Advances (Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions during the Last Deglaciation). It’s an excellent demonstration of our concept of extinction synergies that we published back in 2008.

Giant Ice Age species including elephant-sized sloths and powerful sabre-toothed cats that once roamed the windswept plains of Patagonia, southern South America, were finally felled by a perfect storm of a rapidly warming climate and humans, a new study has shown.

Research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, published on Saturday in Science Advances, has revealed that it was only when the climate warmed, long after humans first arrived in Patagonia, did the megafauna suddenly die off around 12,300 years ago.

The timing and cause of rapid extinctions of the megafauna has remained a mystery for centuries.

“Patagonia turns out to be the Rosetta Stone – it shows that human colonisation didn’t immediately result in extinctions, but only as long as it stayed cold,” says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director. “Instead, more than 1000 years of human occupation passed before a rapid warming event occurred, and then the megafauna were extinct within a hundred years.”

The researchers, including from the University of Colorado Boulder, University of New South Wales and University of Magallanes in Patagonia, studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, to trace the genetic history of the populations. Species such as the South American horse, giant jaguar and sabre-toothed cat, and the enormous one-tonne short-faced bear (the largest land-based mammalian carnivore) were found widely across Patagonia, but seemed to disappear shortly after humans arrived. Read the rest of this entry »