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 »





Better SAFE than sorry

30 11 2011

Last day of November already – I am now convinced that my suspicions are correct: time is not constant and in fact accelerates as you age (in mathematical terms, a unit of time becomes a progressively smaller proportion of the time elapsed since your birth, so this makes sense). But, I digress…

This short post will act mostly as a spruik for my upcoming talk at the International Congress for Conservation Biology next week in Auckland (10.30 in New Zealand Room 2 on Friday, 9 December) entitled: Species Ability to Forestall Extinction (SAFE) index for IUCN Red Listed species. The post also sets a bit of the backdrop to this paper and why I think people might be interested in attending.

As regular readers of CB will know, we published a paper this year in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment describing a relatively simple metric we called SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) that could enhance the information provided by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for assessing relative extinction threat. I won’t go into all the detail here (you can read more about it in this previous post), but I do want to point out that it ended up being rather controversial.

The journal ended up delaying final publication because there were 3 groups who opposed the metric rather vehemently, including people who are very much in the conservation decision-making space and/or involved directly with the IUCN Red List. The journal ended up publishing our original paper, the 3 critiques, and our collective response in the same issue (you can read these here if you’re subscribed, or email me for a PDF reprint). Again, I won’t go into an detail here because our arguments are clearly outlined in the response.

What I do want to highlight is that even beyond the normal in-print tête-à-tête the original paper elicited, we were emailed by several people behind the critiques who were apparently unsatisfied with our response. We found this slightly odd, because many of the objections just kept getting re-raised. Of particular note were the accusations that: 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 »





Inbreeding does matter

29 03 2010

I’ve been busy with Bill Laurance visiting the University of Adelaide over the last few days, and will be so over the next few as well (and Bill has promised us a guest post shortly), but I wanted to get a post in before the week got away on me.

I’ve come across what is probably the most succinct description of why inbreeding depression is an important aspect of extinctions in free-ranging species (see also previous posts here and here) by Mr. Conservation Genetics himself, Professor Richard Frankham.

Way back in the 1980s (oh, so long ago), Russ Lande produced a landmark paper in Science arguing that population demography was a far more important driver of extinctions than reduced genetic diversity per se. He stated:

“…demography may usually be of more immediate importance than population genetics in determining the minimum viable size of wild populations”

We now know, however, that genetics in fact DO matter, and no one could put it better than Dick Frankham in his latest commentary in Heredity.

I paraphrase some of his main points below:

  • Controversy broke out in the 1970 s when it was suggested that inbreeding was deleterious for captive wildlife, but Ralls and Ballou (1983) reported that 41/44 mammal populations had higher juvenile mortality among inbred than outbred individuals.
  • Crnokrak and Roff (1999) established that inbreeding depression occurred in 90 % of the datasets they examined, and was similarly deleterious across major plant and animal taxa.
  • They estimated that inbreeding depression in the wild has approximately seven times greater impact than in captivity.
  • It is unrealistic to omit inbreeding depression from population viability analysis models.
  • Lande’s contention was rejected when Spielman et al. (2004) found that genetic diversity in 170 threatened taxa was lower than in related non-threatened taxa

Lande might have been incorrect, but his contention spawned the entire modern discipline of conservation genetics. Dick sums up all this so much more eloquently than I’ve done here, so I encourage you to read his article.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgFrankham, R. (2009). Inbreeding in the wild really does matter Heredity, 104 (2), 124-124 DOI: 10.1038/hdy.2009.155

Lande, R. (1988). Genetics and demography in biological conservation Science, 241 (4872), 1455-1460 DOI: 10.1126/science.3420403

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Inbreeding bad for invasives too

18 02 2010

I just came across this little gem of a paper in Molecular Ecology (not, by any stretch, a common forum for biodiversity conservation-related papers). It’s another one of those wonderful little experimental manipulation studies I love so much (see previous examples here and here).

I’ve written a lot before about the loss of genetic diversity as a contributing factor to extinction risk, via things like Allee effects and inbreeding depression. I’ve also posted blurbs about our work and that of others on what makes particular species prone to become extinct or invasive (i.e., the two sides of the same evolutionary coin). Now Crawford and Whitney bring these two themes together in their paper entitled Population genetic diversity influences colonization success.

Yes, the evolved traits of a particular species will set it up either to do well or very badly under rapid environmental change, and invasive species tend to be those with rapid generation times, defence mechanisms, heightened dispersal capacity and rapid growth. However, such traits generally only predict a small amount in the variation in invasion success – the other being of course propagule pressure (a composite measure of the number of individuals of a non-native species [propagule size] introduced to a novel environment and the number of introduction events [propagule number] into the new host environment).

But, that’s not all. It turns out that just as reduced genetic diversity enhances a threatened species’ risk of extinction, so too does it reduce the ‘invasiveness’ of a weed. Using experimentally manipulated populations of the weedy herb Arabidopsis thaliana (mouse-ear cress; see if you get the joke), Crawford & Whitney measured greater population-level seedling emergence rates, biomass production, flowering duration and reproduction in high-diversity populations compared to lower-diversity ones. Maintain a high genetic diversity and your invasive species has a much higher potential to colonise a novel environment and spread throughout it.

Of course, this is related to propagule pressure because the more individuals that invade/are introduced the more times, the higher the likelihood that different genomes will be introduced as well. This is extremely important from a management perspective because it means that well-mixed (outbred) samples of invasive species probably can do a lot more damage to native biodiversity than a few, genetically similar individuals alone. Indeed, most introductions probably don’t result in a successful invasion mainly because they don’t have the genetic diversity to get over the hump of inbreeding depression in the first place.

The higher genetic (and therefore, phenotypic) variation in your pool of introduced individuals, the great the chance that at least a few will survive and proliferate. This is also a good bit of extra proof for our proposal that invasion and extinction are two sides of the same evolutionary coin.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgCrawford, K., & Whitney, K. (2010). Population genetic diversity influences colonization success Molecular Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04550.x

Bradshaw, C., Giam, X., Tan, H., Brook, B., & Sodhi, N. (2008). Threat or invasive status in legumes is related to opposite extremes of the same ecological and life-history attributes Journal of Ecology, 96, 869-883 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01408.x

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Hot inbreeding

22 07 2009
inbreeding

© R. Ballen

Sounds really disgusting a little rude, doesn’t it? Well, if you think losing species because of successive bottlenecks from harvesting, habitat loss and genetic deterioration is rude, then the title of this post is appropriate.

I’m highlighting today a paper recently published in Conservation Biology by Kristensen and colleagues entitled Linking inbreeding effects in captive populations with fitness in the wild: release of replicated Drosophila melanogaster lines under different temperatures.

The debate has been around for years – do inbred populations have lower fitness (e.g., reproductive success, survival, dispersal, etc.) than their ‘outbred’ counterparts? Is one of the reasons small populations (below their minimum viable population size) have a high risk of extinction because genetic deterioration erodes fitness?

While there are many species that seem to defy this assumption, the increasing prevalence of Allee effects, and the demonstration that threatened species have lower genetic diversity than non-threatened species, all seem to support the idea. Kristensen & colleagues’ paper uses that cornerstone of genetic guinea pigs, the Drosophila fruit fly, not only to demonstrate inbreeding depression in the lab, but also the subsequent fate of inbred individuals released into the wild.

What they found was quite amazing. Released inbred flies only did poorly (i.e., weren’t caught as frequently meaning that they probably were less successful in finding food and perished) relative to outbred flies when the temperature was warm (daytime). Cold (i.e., night) releases failed to show any difference between inbred and outbred flies.

Basically this means that the environment interacts strongly with the genetic code that signals for particularly performances. When the going is tough (and if you’re an ectothermic fly, extreme heat can be the killer), then genetically compromised individuals do badly. Another reasons to be worried about runaway global climate warming.

Another important point was that the indices of performance didn’t translate universally to the field conditions, so lab-only results might very well give us some incorrect predictions of animal performance when populations reach small sizes and become inbred.

CJA Bradshaw





Cloning for conservation – stupid and wasteful

5 02 2009
© J. F. Jaramillo

© J. F. Jaramillo

I couldn’t have invented a better example of a Toothless conservation concept.

I just saw an article in the Independent (UK) about cloning for conservation that has rehashed the old idea yet again – while there was some interesting thoughts discussed, let’s just be clear just how stupidly inappropriate and wasteful the mere concept of cloning for biodiversity conservation really is.

1. Never mind the incredible inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life, the principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective (I have no problem considering it for other uses if developed responsibly) is that you are not addressing the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction/endangerment in the first place. Even if you could address all the other problems (see below), if you’ve got no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is an utter waste of time and money. Habitat loss is THE principal driver of extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning won’t create new forests or coral reefs, for example.

I may as well stop here, because all other arguments are minor in comparison to (1), but let’s continue just to show how many different layers of stupidity envelop this issue.

2. The loss of genetic diversity leading to inbreeding depression is a major issue that cloning cannot even begin to address. Without sufficient genetic variability, a population is almost certainly more susceptible to disease, reductions in fitness, weather extremes and over-exploitation. A paper published a few years ago by Spielman and colleagues (Most species are not driven to extinction before genetic factors impact them) showed convincingly that genetic diversity is lower in threatened than in comparable non-threatened species, and there is growing evidence on how serious Allee effects are in determining extinction risk. Populations need to number in the 1000s of genetically distinct individuals to have any chance of persisting. To postulate, even for a moment, that cloning can artificially recreate genetic diversity essential for population persistence is stupidly arrogant and irresponsible.

3. The cost. Cloning is an incredibly costly business – upwards of several millions of dollars for a single animal (see example here). Like the costs associated with most captive breeding programmes, this is a ridiculous waste of finite funds (all in the name of fabricated ‘conservation’). Think of what we could do with that money for real conservation and restoration efforts (buying conservation easements, securing rain forest property, habitat restoration, etc.). Even if we get the costs down over time, cloning will ALWAYS be more expensive than the equivalent investment in habitat restoration and protection. It’s wasteful and irresponsible to consider it otherwise.

So, if you ever read another painfully naïve article about the pros and cons of cloning endangered species, remember the above three points. I’m appalled that this continues to be taken seriously!

CJA Bradshaw

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