More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Shrinking global range projected for the world’s largest fish

7 08 2013
© W. Osborn (AIMS)

© W. Osborn (AIMS)

My recently finished PhD student, Ana Sequeira, has not only just had a superb paper just accepted in Global Change Biology, she’s recently been offered (and accepted) a postdoctoral position based at the University of Western Australia‘s Oceans Institute (in partnership with AIMS and CSIRO). As any supervisor, I’m certainly pleased when a student completes her PhD, but my pride as an academic papa truly soars when she gets her first job. Well done, Ana. This post by Ana is about her latest paper.

Following our previous whale shark work (see herehereherehere, here, here and here), especially the recent review where we inferred global connectivity and suggest possible pathways for their migration, we have now gone a step further and modelled the habitat suitability for the species at at global scale. This paper sets a nice scene regarding current habitat suitability, which also demonstrates the potential connectivity pathways we hypothesised previously. But the paper goes much further; we extend our predictions to a future scenario for 2070 when water temperatures are expected to increase on average by 2 °C.

Sequeira et al_GCB_Figure 3

Global predictions of current seasonal habitat suitability for whale sharks. Black triangles indicate known aggregation locations. Solid line delineates areas where habitat suitability > 0.1 was predicted.

Regarding the current range of whale sharks (i.e., its currently suitable habitat), we already know that whale sharks span latitudes between about 35 º North to South. We also know that this geographical range has been exceeded on several occasions. What we did not know was whether conditions were suitable enough for whale sharks to cross from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean – in other words, whether they could travel between ocean basins south of South Africa. Our global model results demonstrate that suitable habitat in this region does exist at least during the summer, thus supporting our hypotheses regarding global connectivity!

It’s true that the extensive dataset we used (30 years’ worth of whale shark sightings collected by tuna purse seiners in the three major oceans – data provided by the IRD, IOTC and SPC) has many caveats (as do all opportunistically collected data), but we went to great trouble to deal with them in this paper (you can request a copy here or access it directly here). And the overall result: the current global habitat suitability for whale sharks does agree well with current locations of whale shark occurrence, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific for where we did not have enough data to validate. Read the rest of this entry »

Our national parks must be more than playgrounds or paddocks

24 05 2013

Convo TweetsIt’s interesting when a semi-random tweet by a colleague ends up mobilising a small army of scientists to get pissed off enough to co-write an article. Euan Ritchie of Deakin University started it off, and quickly recruited me, Mick McCarthy, David Watson, Ian Lunt, Hugh Possingham, Bill Laurance and Emma Johnston to put together the article. It’s a hugely important topic, so I hope it generates a lot of discussion and finally, some bloody action to stop the rapid destruction of this country’s national parks system.

Note: Published simultaneously on The Conversation.

It’s make or break time for Australia’s national parks.

National parks on land and in the ocean are dying a death of a thousand cuts, in the form of bullets, hooks, hotels, logging concessions and grazing licences. It’s been an extraordinary last few months, with various governments in eastern states proposing new uses for these critically important areas.

Australia’s first “National Park”, established in 1879, was akin to a glorified country club. Now called the “Royal National Park” on the outskirts of Sydney, it was created as a recreational escape for Sydney-siders, with ornamental plantations, a zoo, race courses, artillery ranges, livestock paddocks, deer farms, logging leases and mines.

Australians since realised that national parks should focus on protecting the species and natural landscapes they contain. However, we are now in danger of regressing to the misguided ideals of the 19th Century.

Parks under attack

In Victoria, new rules will allow developers to build hotels and other ventures in national parks. In New South Wales, legislation has been introduced to allow recreational shooting in national parks, and there is pressure to log these areas too. Read the rest of this entry »

Whither goest the biggest fish?

7 02 2013
© W Osborn (AIMS)

© W Osborn (AIMS)

Well, since my own institute beat me to the punch on announcing our latest whale shark paper (really, far too keen, ladies & gents), I thought I’d better follow up with a post of my own.

We’ve mentioned our previous whale shark research before (see here and here for previous posts, and see the end of this post for a full list of our whale shark publications), but this is a lovely extension of that work by my recently completed PhD student, Ana Sequeira.

Her latest contribution, Inferred global connectivity of whale shark Rhincodon typus populations just published online in Journal of Fish Biology, describes what a lot of whale shark punters & researchers alike have suspected for a long time – global connectivity of all the oceans’ whale shark populations. The problem hasn’t been a lack of ‘evidence’ for this per se; there is now sufficient evidence from genetic studies that at least on the generational scale (a single generation could be up to 37 years long), populations among the major ocean basins are connected via migration (Castro et al. 2007Schmidt et al. 2009). The problem instead is that no one has ever observed a shark voyage between ocean basins, nor has anyone really suggested how and over what time scales this (must) happen.

Until now, that is. Read the rest of this entry »

Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »

The climate of climate change

4 09 2012

The primary scientific literature on climate change spawns hundreds of debates on an array of topics. When the technical debate among experts, and the obvious uncertainties, are taken up by the media, they are typically treated as any other topic, which ends up in some people not trusting science and others exploiting the ‘debate’ for their own interests.

Many media debates consist of one moderator and several speakers with two confronting views. When the topic under discussion affects our daily life (e.g., unemployment), the average spectator will often agree with one of the views. When the topic affects people (apparently) in a general fashion (e.g., climate change), the spectator might distrust or simply ignore both views. Thus, the media shapes public opinion such that people’s perception of the news becomes black, white, “I don’t believe it” or “it doesn’t exist”. Public debates on climate change are like a ‘contact sport’ (1), a team has to win in a contest where both parties alternate attack and defence. The participation of speakers without specialised expertise on climate change, especially if they represent short-term political and economic interests, instigates public mistrust and inhibition (2). This situation erodes the informative role that science and scientists must play in the creation of novel environmental policies aiming to improve the present and future wellbeing of our society (3, a Science paper unsurprisingly challenged by US administration’ bastion Fred Singer: 4). Read the rest of this entry »

No more ecology

9 05 2012

To all ecology people who read this blog (students, post-docs, academics), this is an intriguing, provocative and slightly worrying title. As ecology has matured into a full-fledged, hard-core, mathematical science on par with physics, chemistry and genetics (and is arguably today one of the most important sciences given how badly we’ve trashed our own home), its sophistication now threatens to render many of the traditional aspects of ecology redundant.

Let me explain.

As a person who cut his teeth in field ecology (with all the associated dirt, dangers, bites, stings, discomfort, thrills, headaches and disasters), I’ve had my fair share of fun and excitement collecting ecological data. There’s something quaintly Victorian (no, I am not referring to the state next door) about the romantic and obsessive naturalist collecting data to the exclusion of nearly all other aspects of civilised life; the intrepid adventurer in some of us takes over (likely influenced by the likes of David Attenborough) and we convince ourselves that our quest for the lonely datum will heal all of the Earth’s ailments.


As I’ve matured in ecology and embraced its mathematical complexity and beauty, the recurring dilemma is that there are never enough data to answer the really big questions. We have sampled only a fraction of extant species, we know embarrassingly little about how ecosystems respond to disturbance, and we know next to nothing about the complexities of ecosystem services. And let’s not forget our infancy in understanding the synergies of extinctions in the past and projections into the future. Multiply this uncertainty by several orders of magnitude for ocean ecosystems.

Read the rest of this entry »


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