How fast are we losing species anyway?

28 03 2011

© W. Laurance

I’ve indicated over the last few weeks on Twitter that a group of us were recently awarded funding from the Australian Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis – ACEAS – (much like the US version of the same thing – NCEAS) to run a series of analytical workshops to estimate, with a little more precision and less bias than has been done previously, the extinction rates of today’s biota relative to deep-time extinctions.

So what’s the issue? The Earth’s impressive diversity of life has experienced at least five mass extinction events over geological time. Species’ extinctions have kept pace with evolution, with more than 99 % of all species that have ever existed now gone (Bradshaw & Brook 2009). Despite general consensus that biodiversity has entered the sixth mass extinction event because of human-driven degradation of the planet, estimated extinction rates remain highly imprecise (from 100s to 10000s times background rates). This arises partly because the total number of species is unknown for many groups, and most extinctions go unnoticed.

So how are we going to improve on our highly imprecise estimates? One way is to look at the species-area relationship (SAR), which to estimate extinction requires one to extrapolate back to the origin in taxon- and region-specific SARs (e.g., with a time series of deforestation, one can estimate how many species would have been lost if we know how species diversity changes in relation to habitat area). Read the rest of this entry »





Webinar: Modelling water and life

27 08 2010

Another quick one today just to show the webinar of my recent 10-minute ‘Four in 40’ talk sponsored by The Environment Institute and the Department for Water. This seminar series was entitled ‘Modelling as a Tool for Decision Support’ held at the Auditorium, Royal Institution Australia (RiAus).

“Four in 40″ is a collaboration between The University of Adelaide and the Department for Water, where 4 speakers each speak for 10 minutes on their research and its implications for policy. The purpose is to build understanding of how best to work with each other, build new business for both organisations and raise awareness of activity being undertaken in water/natural resource management policy and research.

CJA Bradshaw





Faraway fettered fish fluctuate frequently

27 06 2010

Hello! I am Little Fish

Swimming in the Sea.

I have lots of fishy friends.

Come along with me.

(apologies to Lucy Cousins and Walker Books)

I have to thank my 3-year old daughter and one of her favourite books for that intro. Now to the serious stuff.

I am very proud to announce a new Report in Ecology we’ve just had published online early about a new way of looking at the stability of coral reef fish populations. Driven by one of the hottest young up-and-coming researchers in coral reef ecology, Dr. Camille Mellin (employed through the CERF Marine Biodiversity Hub and co-supervised by me at the University of Adelaide and Julian Caley and Mark Meekan of the Australian Institute of Marine Science), this paper adds a new tool in the design of marine protected areas.

Entitled Reef size and isolation determine the temporal stability of coral reef fish populations, the paper applies a well-known, but little-used mathematical relationship between the logarithms of population abundance and its variance (spatial or temporal) – Taylor’s power law.

Taylor’s power law is pretty straightforward itself – as you raise the abundance of a population by 1 unit on the logarithmic scale, you can expect its associated variance (think variance over time in a fluctuating population to make it easier) to rise by 2 logarithmic units (thus, the slope = 2). Why does this happen? Because a log-log (power) relationship between a vector and its square (remember: variance = standard deviation2) will give a multiplier of 2 (i.e., if xy2, then log10x ~ 2log10y).

Well, thanks for the maths lesson, but what’s the application? It turns out that deviations from the mathematical expectation of a power-law slope = 2 reveal some very interesting ecological dynamics. Famously, Kilpatrick & Ives published a Letter in Nature in 2003 (Species interactions can explain Taylor’s power law for ecological time series) trying to explain why so many real populations have Taylor’s power law slopes < 2. As it turns out, the amount of competition occurring between species reduces the expected fluctuations for a given population size because of a kind of suppression by predators and competitors. Cool.

But that application was more a community-based examination and still largely theoretical. We decided to turn the power law a little on its ear and apply it to a different question – conservation biogeography. Read the rest of this entry »





How to make an effective marine protected area

22 09 2009

Here’s a nice little review from the increasingly impressive Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment which seems to be showcasing a lot of good conservation research lately.

© USGS

© USGS

As we know, the world’s oceans are under huge threat, with predictions of 70 % loss of coral reefs by 2050, decline in kelp forests, loss of seagrasses, over-fishing, pollution and a rapidly warming and acidifying physical environment. Given all these stressors, it is absolutely imperative we spend a good deal of time thinking about the right way to impose restrictions on damage to marine areas – the simplest way to do this is via marine protected areas (MPA).

The science of MPA network design has matured over the last 10-20 years such that there is a decent body of literature now on what we need to do (now the policy makers just have to listen – some  progress there too, but see also here). McLeod and colleagues in the latest issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment have published a review outlining the best, at least for coral reefs, set of recommendations for MPA network design given available information (paper title: Designing marine protected area networks to address the impacts of climate change). Definitely one for the Potential list.

Here’s what they recommend:

Size

  • bigger is always better
  • minimum diameter of an MPA should be 10-20 km to ensure exchange of propagules among protected benthic populations

Shape

  • simple shapes best (squares, rectangles)
  • avoid convoluted shapes to minimise edge effects

Representation

  • protect at least 20-30 % of each habitat

Replication

  • protect at least 3 examples of each marine habitat

Spread

  • select MPA in a variety of temperature regimes to avoid risk of all protected reefs succumbing to future climate changes

Critical Areas

  • protect nursery areas, spawning aggregations, and areas of high species diversity
  • protect areas demonstrating natural resilience or rapid recovery from previous disturbances

Connectivity

  • measure connectivity between MPA to ensure replenishment
  • space maximum distance of 15-20 km apart
  • include whole ecological units
  • buffer core areas
  • protect adjacent areas such as outlying reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves

Ecosystem Function

  • maintain key functional groups of species (e.g., herbivorous fishes)

Ecosystem Management

  • embed MPA in broader management frameworks addressing other threats
  • address and rectify sources of pollution
  • monitor changes

Of course, this is just a quick-and-dirty list as presented here – I highly recommend reading the review for specifics.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgMcLeod, E., Salm, R., Green, A., & Almany, J. (2009). Designing marine protected area networks to address the impacts of climate change Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (7), 362-370 DOI: 10.1890/070211





Save the biggest (and closest) ones

12 11 2008

© somapsychedelica

© somapsychedelica

A paper we recently wrote and published in Biological Conservation entitled Using biogeographical patterns of endemic land snails to improve conservation planning for limestone karsts lead by my colleague Reuben Clements of WWF has recently been highlighted at Mongabay.com. Our main result was that following the basic tenets of the theory of island biogeography, the largest, least-isolated limestone karsts in South East Asia (biologically rich limestone outcrops formed millions of years ago by the deposition of calcareous marine organisms) have the greatest proportion of endemic land snails (a surrogate taxon for uniqueness among other species). I’ll let Rhett at Mongabay.com do the rest (see original post):

Researchers have devised a scientific methodology for prioritizing conservation of limestone karsts, biologically-rich outcroppings found in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. The findings are significant because karsts – formed millions of years ago by sea life – are increasingly threatened by mining and other development.

Using data from 43 karsts across Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, authors led by Reuben Clements of WWF-Malaysia reported that larger karsts support greater numbers of endemic snails – a proxy for biological uniqueness among other species – making them a priority for protection.

“Larger areas tend to have greater habitat diversity, which enables them so support a higher number of unique species.” said Clements, species conservation manager for WWF-Malaysia.

With a variety of habitats including sinkholes, caves, cliffs, and underground rivers, and separated from other outcroppings by lowland areas, karsts support high levels of endemism among insects, snails, fish, plants, bats and other small mammals. Animals that inhabit karsts provide humans with important services including pest control, pollination, and a sustainable source of income (swiftlet nests used for bird nest soup, a Chinese delicacy, are found in karst caves). But karsts are increasingly under threat, especially from mining for cement and marble. An earlier study by Clements showed that limestone quarrying is increasing in Southeast Asia by 5.7 percent a year – the highest rate in the world – to fuel the region’s construction boom. The biodiversity of karsts – especially among animals that move to surrounding areas to feed – is also at risk from destruction of adjacent ecosystems, often by loggers or for agriculture.

Clements says the new study, which is published in the November issue of the journal Biological Conservation, will help set conservation priorities for karsts.

“The protection of karsts has been mainly ad hoc and they are usually spared from quarrying by virtue of being situated within state and national parks, or if they possess some form of aesthetic or cultural value,” he said. “Taking Peninsular Malaysia for example, our results suggest that we should set aside larger karsts on both sides of the Titiwangsa mountain range for protection if we want to maximize the conservation of endemic species. Protecting karsts on one side of the mountain chain is not enough.”

“With our findings, we hope that governments would reconsider issuing mining concessions for larger karsts as they tend to be more biologically important,” Clements said.





Classics: Fragmentation

3 10 2008
Figure 2 from Brook et al. (2008): Synergies among threatening processes relative to habitat loss and fragmentation. a) A large population within unmodified, contiguous habitat occupies all available niches so that long-term abundance fluctuates near full carrying capacity (K). b) When habitat is reduced (e.g. 50 % area loss), total abundance declines accordingly. c) However, this simple habitat-abundance relationship is complicated by the spatial configuration of habitat loss. In this example, all remaining fragmented subpopulations might fall below their minimum viable population (MVP) sizes even though total abundance is the same proportion of K as in panel B. As such, limited connectivity between subpopulations implies much greater extinction risk than that predicted for the same habitat loss in less fragmented landscapes. Further synergies (positive feedbacks among threatening processes; black arrows) might accompany high fragmentation, such as enhanced penetration of predators, invasive species or wildfire, micro-habitat edge effects, and reduced resistance to drought with climate change.

Figure 2 from Brook et al. (2008): Synergies among threatening processes relative to habitat loss and fragmentation. a) A large population within unmodified, contiguous habitat occupies all available niches so that long-term abundance fluctuates near full carrying capacity (K). b) When habitat is reduced (e.g., 50 % area loss), total abundance declines accordingly. c) However, this simple habitat-abundance relationship is complicated by the spatial configuration of habitat loss. In this example, all remaining fragmented subpopulations might fall below their minimum viable population (MVP) sizes even though total abundance is the same proportion of K as in panel B. As such, limited connectivity between subpopulations implies much greater extinction risk than that predicted for the same habitat loss in less fragmented landscapes. Further synergies (positive feedbacks among threatening processes; black arrows) might accompany high fragmentation, such as enhanced penetration of predators, invasive species or wildfire, micro-habitat edge effects, and reduced resistance to drought with climate change.

This is, perhaps, one of the most important concepts that the field of conservation biology has identified as a major driver of extinction. It may appear on the surface a rather simple notion that the more ‘habitat’ you remove, the fewer species (and individuals) there will be (see MacArthur & Wilson’s Classic contribution: The Theory of Island Biogeography), but it took us decades (yes, embarrassingly – decades) to work out that fragmentation is bad (very, very bad).

Habitat fragmentation occurs when a large expanse of a particular, broadly defined habitat ‘type’ is reduced to smaller patches that are isolated by surrounding, but different habitats. The surrounding habitat is typically defined a ‘matrix’, and in the case of forest fragmentation, generally means ‘degraded’ habitat (fewer native species, urban/rural/agricultural development, etc.).

Fragmentation is bad for many reasons: it (1) reduces patch area, (2) increases isolation among populations associated with fragments, and (3) creates ‘edges’ where unmodified habitat abuts matrix habitat. Each of these has dire implications for species, for we now know that (1) the smaller an area, the fewer individuals and species in can contain, (2) the more isolated a population, the less chance immigrants will ‘rescue’ it from catastrophes, and (3) edges allow the invasion of alien species, make the microclimate intolerable, increase access to bad humans and lead to cascading ecological events (e.g., fire penetration). Make no mistake, the more fragmented an environment, the worse will be the extinction rates of species therein.

What’s particularly sad about all this is that fragmentation was actually seen as a potentially GOOD thing by conservation biologists for many long years. The so-called SLOSS (Single Large or Several Small) debate pervaded the early days of conservation literature. The debate was basically the argument that several small reserves would provide more types of habitat juxtapositions and more different species complexes, making overall diversity (species richness) higher, than one large reserve. It was an interesting, if not deluded, intellectual debate because both sides presented some rather clever theoretical and empirical arguments. Part of the attraction of the ‘Several Small’ idea was that it was generally easier to find series of small habitat fragments to preserve than one giant no-go area.

However, we now know that the ‘Several Small’ idea is completely inferior because of the myriad synergistic effects of fragmentation. It actually took Bruce Wilcox and Dennis Murphy until 1985 to bring this to everyone’s attention in their classic paper The effects of fragmentation on extinction to show how silly the SLOSS debate really was. It wasn’t, however, until the mid- to late 1990s that people finally started to accept the idea that fragmentation really was one of the biggest conservation evils. Subsequent work (that I’ll showcase soon on ConservationBytes.com) finally put the nail in the SLOSS debate coffin, and indeed, we haven’t heard a whisper of it for over a decade.

For more general information, I invite you to read the third chapter in our book Tropical Conservation Biology entitled Broken homes: tropical biotas in fragmented landscapes, and our recent paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution entitled Synergies among extinction drivers under global change.

CJA Bradshaw

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Classics: The Living Dead

30 08 2008

‘Classics’ is a category of posts highlighting research that has made a real difference to biodiversity conservation. All posts in this category will be permanently displayed on the Classics page of ConservationBytes.com

Zombie_ElephantTilman, D., May, R.M., Lehman, C.L., Nowak, M.A. (1994) Habitat destruction and the extinction debt. Nature 371, 65-66

In my opinion, this is truly a conservation classic because it shatters optimistic notions that extinction is something only rarely the consequence of human activities (see relevant post here). The concept of ‘extinction debt‘ is pretty simple – as habitats become increasingly fragmented, long-lived species that are reproductively isolated from conspecifics may take generations to die off (e.g., large trees in forest fragments). This gives rise to a higher number of species than would be otherwise expected for the size of the fragment, and the false impression that many species can persist in habitat patches that are too small to sustain minimum viable populations.

These ‘living dead‘ or ‘zombie‘ species are therefore committed to extinction regardless of whether habitat loss is arrested or reversed. Only by assisted dispersal and/or reproduction can such species survive (an extremely rare event).

Why has this been important? Well, neglecting the extinction debt is one reason why some people have over-estimated the value of fragmented and secondary forests in guarding species against extinction (see relevant example here for the tropics and Brook et al. 2006). It basically means that biological communities are much less resilient to fragmentation than would otherwise be expected given data on species presence collected shortly after the main habitat degradation or destruction event. To appreciate fully the extent of expected extinctions may take generations (e.g., hundreds of years) to come to light, giving us yet another tool in the quest to minimise habitat loss and fragmentation.

CJA Bradshaw

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