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 »

Four decades of fragmentation

27 09 2017


I’ve recently read perhaps the most comprehensive treatise of forest fragmentation research ever compiled, and I personally view this rather readable and succinct review by Bill Laurance and colleagues as something every ecology and conservation student should read.

The ‘Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project‘ (BDFFP) is unquestionably one of the most important landscape-scale experiments ever conceived and implemented, now having run 38 years since its inception in 1979. Indeed, it was way ahead of its time.

Experimental studies in ecology are comparatively rare, namely because it is difficult, expensive, and challenging in the extreme to manipulate entire ecosystems to test specific hypotheses relating to the response of biodiversity to environmental change. Thus, we ecologists tend to rely more on mensurative designs that use existing variation in the landscape (or over time) to infer mechanisms of community change. Of course, such experiments have to be large to be meaningful, which is one reason why the 1000 km2 BDFFP has been so successful as the gold standard for determining the effects of forest fragmentation on biodiversity.

And successful it has been. A quick search for ‘BDFFP’ in the Web of Knowledge database identifies > 40 peer-reviewed articles and a slew of books and book chapters arising from the project, some of which are highly cited classics in conservation ecology (e.g., doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01025.x cited > 900 times; doi:10.1073/pnas.2336195100 cited > 200 times; doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.09.021 cited > 400 times; and doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01294.x cited nearly 600 times). In fact, if we are to claim any ecological ‘laws’ at all, our understanding of fragmentation on biodiversity could be labelled as one of the few, thanks principally to the BDFFP. Read the rest of this entry »

The Evidence Strikes Back — What Works 2017

16 01 2017
Bat gantry on the A590, Cumbria, UK. Photo credit: Anna Berthinussen

Bat gantry on the A590, Cumbria, UK. Photo credit: Anna Berthinussen

Tired of living in a world where you’re constrained by inconvenient truths, irritating evidence and incommodious facts? 2016 must have been great for you. But in conservation, the fight against the ‘post-truth’ world is getting a little extra ammunition this year, as the Conservation Evidence project launches its updated book ‘What Works in Conservation 2017’.

Conservation Evidence, as many readers of this blog will know, is the brainchild of conservation heavyweight Professor Bill Sutherland, based at Cambridge University in the UK. Like all the best ideas, the Conservation Evidence project is at once staggeringly simple and breathtakingly ambitious — to list every conservation intervention ever cooked up around the world, and see how well, in the cold light of evidence, they actually worked. The project is ongoing, with new chapters of evidence added every year grouped by taxa, habitat or topic — all available for free on www.conservationevidence.com.

What Works in Conservation’ is a book that summarises the key findings from the Conservation Evidence website, and presents them in a simple, clear format, with links to where more information can be found on each topic. Experts (some of us still listen to them, Michael) review the evidence and score every intervention for its effectiveness, the certainty of the evidence and any harmful side effects, placing each intervention into a colour coded category from ‘beneficial’ to ‘likely to be ineffective or harmful.’ The last ‘What Works’ book included chapters on birds, bats, amphibians, soil fertility, natural pest control, some aspects of freshwater invasives and farmland conservation in Europe; new for 2017 is a chapter on forests and more species added to freshwater invasives. Read the rest of this entry »

Avoiding genetic rescue not justified on genetic grounds

12 03 2015
Genetics to the rescue!

Genetics to the rescue!

I had the pleasure today of reading a new paper by one of the greatest living conservation geneticists, Dick Frankham. As some of CB readers might remember, I’ve also published some papers with Dick over the last few years, with the most recent challenging the very basis for the IUCN Red List category thresholds (i.e., in general, they’re too small).

Dick’s latest paper in Molecular Ecology is a meta-analysis designed to test whether there are any genetic grounds for NOT attempting genetic rescue for inbreeding-depressed populations. I suppose a few definitions are in order here. Genetic rescue is the process, either natural or facilitated, where inbred populations (i.e., in a conservation sense, those comprising too many individuals bonking their close relatives because the population in question is small) receive genes from another population such that their overall genetic diversity increases. In the context of conservation genetics, ‘inbreeding depression‘ simply means reduced biological fitness (fertility, survival, longevity, etc.) resulting from parents being too closely related.

Seems like an important thing to avoid, so why not attempt to facilitate gene flow among populations such that those with inbreeding depression can be ‘rescued’? In applied conservation, there are many reasons given for not attempting genetic rescue: Read the rest of this entry »

High-altitude ecology

28 08 2014
A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau - yakjam

A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau – yakjam

I’ve been out of the social-media loop for a few weeks, hence the abnormally long interval since my last post. As you might recall, I’ve been travelling overseas and most recently blogged from Monterey, California where I was attending a symposium on invasion genetics.

The next phase of my travels couldn’t have been more different.

The reason I couldn’t access the blog was because I was well behind the Great Firewall of China. I was, in fact, in the Tibetan region of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces in western China for most of the last 10 days. While I’ve travelled to China many times before, this was by far the most evocative, interesting and unique experience I’ve ever had in this country. Reflecting on the past 10 days while waiting in Hong Kong for my flight back to Australia, I am still reeling a little from what I saw.

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

What the hell was I doing at 3500-4000 m elevation on the Tibetan Plateau? Good question. I have been most fortunate to be included in a crack team of Chinese ecologists who have designed and implemented a most impressive set of experiments in plant community ecology. The team, led by Professor Shurong Zhou and Dr. Jiajia Lui of Fudan University, has been working relentlessly to put together some of the sexiest plant ecology experiments going in China.

Having now so far published two papers from the some of the experiments (see here and here), my Chinese colleagues thought it was high time I visited the famous site. Situated at 3500 m in the Tibetan region of Gansu Province in western China, the Lanzhou University research station Azi Shi Yan Zhan is about a 20-hectare area of meadow fenced off from the grazing of the ubiquitous domestic yaks herded by the local Tibetans. If that sounds pretty exotic, let me assure you that it is. Read the rest of this entry »

Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »