Increasing human population density drives environmental degradation in Africa

26 06 2019



Almost a decade ago, I (co-) wrote a paper examining the socio-economic correlates of gross, national-scale indices of environmental performance among the world’s nations. It turned out to be rather popular, and has so far garnered over 180 citations and been cited in three major policy documents.

In addition to the more pedestrian ranking itself, we also tested which of three main socio-economic indicators best explained variation in the environmental rank — a country’s gross ‘wealth’ indicator (gross national income) turned out to explain the most, and there was no evidence to support a non-linear relationship between environmental performance and per capita wealth (the so-called environmental Kuznets curve).

Well, that was then, and this is now. Something that always bothered me about that bit of research was that in some respects, it probably unfairly disadvantaged certain countries that were in more recent phases of the ‘development’ pathway, such that environmental damage long since done in major development pulses many decades or even centuries prior to today (e.g., in much of Europe) probably meant that certain countries got a bit of an unfair advantage. In fact, the more recently developed nations probably copped a lower ranking simply because their damage was fresher

While I defend the overall conclusions of that paper, my intentions have always been since then to improve on the approach. That desire finally got the better of me, and so I (some might say unwisely) decided to focus on a particular region of the planet where some of the biggest biodiversity crunches will happen over the next few decades — Africa.

Africa is an important region to re-examine these national-scale relationships for many reasons. The first is that it’s really the only place left on the planet where there’s a semi-intact megafauna assemblage. Yes, the great Late Pleistocene megafauna extinction event did hit Africa too, but compared to all other continents, it got through that period relatively unscathed. So now we (still) have elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, etc. It’s a pretty bloody special place from that perspective alone.


Elephants in the Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

Then there’s the sheer size of the continent. Unfortunately, most mercator projections of the Earth show a rather quaint continent nuzzled comfortably in the middle of the map, when in reality, it’s a real whopper. If you don’t believe me, go to and drag any country of interest over the African continent (it turns out that its can more or less fit all of China, Australia, USA, and India within its greater borders).

Third, most countries in Africa (barring a few rare exceptions), are still in the so-called ‘development’ phase, although some are much farther along the economic road than others. For this reason, an African nation-to-nation comparison is probably a lot fairer than comparing, say, Bolivia to Germany, or Mongolia to Canada.

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First Australians arrived in large groups using complex technologies

18 06 2019


One of the most ancient peopling events of the great diaspora of anatomically modern humans out of Africa more than 50,000 years ago — human arrival in the great continent of Sahul (New Guinea, mainland Australia & Tasmania joined during periods of low sea level) — remains mysterious. The entry routes taken, whether migration was directed or accidental, and just how many people were needed to ensure population viability are shrouded by the mists of time. This prompted us to build stochastic, age-structured human population-dynamics models incorporating hunter-gatherer demographic rates and palaeoecological reconstructions of environmental carrying capacity to predict the founding population necessary to survive the initial peopling of late-Pleistocene Sahul.

As ecological modellers, we are often asked by other scientists to attempt to render the highly complex mechanisms of entire ecosystems tractable for virtual manipulation and hypothesis testing through the inevitable simplification that is ‘a model’. When we work with scientists studying long-since-disappeared ecosystems, the challenges multiply.

Add some multidisciplinary data and concepts into the mix, and the complexity can quickly escalate.

We do have, however, some powerful tools in our modelling toolbox, so as the Modelling Node for the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), our role is to link disparate fields like palaeontology, archaeology, geochronology, climatology, and genetics together with mathematical ‘glue’ to answer the big questions regarding Australia’s ancient past.

This is how we tackled one of these big questions: just how did the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens make it to the continent and survive?

At that time, Australia was part of the giant continent of Sahul that connected New Guinea, mainland Australia, and Tasmania at times of lower sea level. In fact, throughout most of last ~ 126,000 years (late Pleistocene and much of the Holocene), Sahul was the dominant landmass in the region (see this handy online tool for how the coastline of Sahul changed over this period).

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Koala extinctions past, present, and future

12 06 2019

Photo by John Llewelyn

Koalas are one of the most recognised symbols of Australian wildlife. But the tree-living marsupial koala is not doing well throughout much of its range in eastern Australia. Ranging as far north as Cairns in Queensland, to as far west as Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the koala’s biggest threats today are undeniably deforestation, road kill, dog attacks, disease, and climate change.

With increasing drought, heatwaves, and fire intensity and frequency arising from the climate emergency, it is likely that koala populations and habitats will continue to decline throughout most of their current range.

But what was the distribution of koalas before humans arrived in Australia? Were they always a zoological feature of only the eastern regions?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’ — the fossil record reveal a much more complicated story.

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Ecological Network Analysis Workshop

8 04 2019 are most fortunate that Dr Giovanni Strona of the EU Joint Research Centrein Ispra, Italy, will be visiting Flinders University for most of April. As a recipient of the prestigious International Visitor Fellowship, Dr Strona has kindly agreed to give a day-long (and hands-on) workshop in network modelling.

What is network analysis? Well, anything that is connected to other things is ostensibly a ‘network’ — think social-media users, neurones, electric elements in a circuit, or species in an ecological community. It doesn’t really matter what the ‘nodes’ of a network actually represent, because all networks more or less share the same properties. The analysis of network structure and behaviour is what Dr Strona will focus on for the workshop.

Being ecologists, we will of course be primarily interested in ecological networks, but maths and coding is essentially the same for all types of networks. Interested in attending this free and rare opportunity? If so, please register your interest here.

The workshop will be held at the Bedford Park Campus of Flinders University from 09:00-17:00 on 29 April 2019. The outline of the workshop is described in more detail below. Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

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.

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Global warming causes the worst kind of extinction domino effect

25 11 2018

Dominos_Rough1-500x303Just under two weeks ago, Giovanni Strona and I published a paper in Scientific Reports on measuring the co-extinction effect from climate change. What we found even made me — an acknowledged pessimist — stumble in shock and incredulity.

But a bit of back story is necessary before I launch into describing what we discovered.

Last year, some Oxbridge astrophysicists (David Sloan and colleagues) published a rather sensational paper in Scientific Reports claiming that life on Earth would likely survive in the face of cataclysmic astrophysical events, such as asteroid impacts, supernovae, or gamma-ray bursts. This rather extraordinary conclusion was based primarily on the remarkable physiological adaptations and tolerances to extreme conditions displayed by tardigrades— those gloriously cute, but tiny (most are around 0.5 mm long as adults) ‘water bears’ or ‘moss piglets’ — could you get any cuter names?


Found almost everywhere and always (the first fossils of them date back to the early Cambrian over half a billion years ago), these wonderful little creatures are some of the toughest metazoans (multicellular animals) on the planet. Only a few types of extremophile bacteria are tougher.

So, boil, fry or freeze the Earth, and you’ll still have tardigrades around, concluded Sloan and colleagues.

When Giovanni first read this, and then passed the paper along to me for comment, our knee-jerk reaction as ecologists was a resounding ‘bullshit!’. Even neophyte ecologists know intuitively that because species are all interconnected in vast networks linked by trophic (who eats whom), competitive, and other ecological functions (known collectively as ‘multiplex networks’), they cannot be singled out using mere thermal tolerances to predict the probability of annihilation. Read the rest of this entry »

Legacy of human migration on the diversity of languages in the Americas

12 09 2018

quechua-foto-ale-glogsterThis might seem a little left-of-centre for subject matter, but hang in there, this does have some pretty important conservation implications.

In our quest to be as transdisciplinary as possible, I’ve team up with a few people outside my discipline to put together a PhD modelling project that could really help us understand how human colonisation shaped not only ancient ecosystems, but also our own ancient cultures.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Dr Frédérik Saltré here in the Global Ecology Laboratory, at Flinders University, and in collaboration with Dr Bastien Llamas (Australian Centre for Ancient DNA), Joshua Birchall (Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Brazil), and Lars Fehren-Schmitz (University of California at Santa Cruz, USA), I think the student could break down a few disciplinary boundaries here and provide real insights into the causes and consequences of human expansion into novel environments.

Interested? See below for more details?

Languages are ‘documents of history’ and historical linguists have developed comparative methods to infer patterns of human prehistory and cultural evolution. The Americas present a more substantive diversity of indigenous language stock than any other continent; however, whether such a diversity arose from initial human migration pathways across the continent is still unknown, because the primary proxy used (i.e., archaeological evidence) to study modern human migration is both too incomplete and biased to inform any regional inference of colonisation trajectories. Read the rest of this entry »