Promoting diversity in the lab

15 09 2022

My definition of a ‘lab’ is simply a group of people who do the science in question — and people are a varied bunch, indeed. But I wager that most scientists would not necessarily give much dedicated thought to the diversity of the people in their lab, and instead probably focus more on obtaining the most qualified and cleverest people for the jobs that need doing.

For example, I have yet to meet an overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic scientist involved actively in research today (although unfortunately, I am sure some do still exist), so I doubt that lab heads consciously avoid certain types of people when hiring or taking on new students as they once did. The problem here is not that scientists tend to exclude certain types of people deliberately based on negative stereotypes; rather, it concerns more the subconscious biases that might lurk within, and about which unfortunately most of us are blissfully unaware. But all scientists must be aware of, and seek to address, their hidden biases.

It is time to place my cards on the table: I am a middle-aged, Caucasian, male scientist who has lived in socially inclusive and economically fortunate countries his entire life. As such, I am the quintessential golden child of scientific opportunity, and I am therefore also one of the biggest impediments to human diversity in science. I am not able to change my status per se; however, I can change how I perceive, acknowledge, and act to address my biases.

The earlier scientists recognise these challenges in their career, the more effective they will be.

Gender balance

I acknowledge that as a man, I am already on thin ice discussing gender inequality in science today, for it is a massive topic that many, far more qualified people are tackling. But being of the male flavour means that I have to, like an alcoholic, admit that I have a problem, and then take steps to resolve that problem. After all, privilege is generally invisible to those who have it. If you are a male scientist reading this now, then my discussion is most pertinent to you. If you are female, then perhaps you can use some of these pointers to educate your male colleagues and students.

There is now ample evidence that science as a discipline is just as biased against women as most other sectors of professional employment, even though things have improved since the bad old days of scientific old-boys’ clubs. Journals tend to appoint more men than women on their editorial boards, and that editors display what is known as homophily when selecting reviewers for manuscripts: the tendency to select reviewers of the same gender as themselves.

Likewise, experimental evidence demonstrates that scientists in general rate male-authored science writing higher than female-authored works, and that academic scientists tend to favour male applicants over females for student positions. In the United Kingdom, as I suspect is more or less the case almost everywhere else, female academics in science, engineering, and mathematics also tend to have more administrative duties, and hence, less time to do research; they also have fewer opportunities for career development and training, as well as earning a lower salary, holding fewer senior roles, and being less likely to be granted permanent positions.

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Journal ranks 2021

4 07 2022

Now that Clarivate, Google, and Scopus have recently published their respective journal citation scores for 2021, I can now present — for the 14th year running on ConvervationBytes.com — the 2021 conservation/ecology/sustainability journal ranks based on my journal-ranking method.

Like last year, I’ve added a few journals. I’ve also included in the ranking the Journal Citation Indicator (JCI) in addition to the Journal Impact Factor and Immediacy Index from Clarivate ISI, and the CiteScore (CS) in addition to the Source-Normalised Impact Per Paper (SNIP) and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) from Scopus. 

You can access the raw data for 2021 and use my RShiny app to derive your own samples of journal ranks.

I therefore present the new 2021 ranks for: (i) 106 ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals, (ii) 27 open-access (i.e., you have to pay) journals from the previous category, (iii) 64 ‘ecology’ journals, (iv) 32 ‘conservation’ journals, (v) 43 ‘sustainability’ journals (with general and energy-focussed journals included), and (vi) 21 ‘marine & freshwater’ journals.

Remember not to take much notice if a journal boasts about how its Impact Factor has increased this year, because these tend to increase over time anyway What’s important is a journal’s relative (to other journals) rank.

Here are the results:

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A few insights into the inner workings of the Australian Research Council

13 05 2022

I’ve been on the Australian Research Council (ARC) College of Experts now for a little over two and a half years. It has been a time-consuming, yet insightful experience. Without attempting to breach all the confidentiality agreements I signed when I joined up, I would like to explain a few of the internal machinations that go on behind the scenes once a grant application is submitted.

Given that academics spend A LOT of (i.e., way too much) time writing research grants, I think it’s essential to understand not only how to maximise your probability of success (see this post for some generic tips), but also how your grant is treated once you submit it. I’ve heard from colleagues (and been responsible for myself) many unhappy gripes about the ARC over time, which appear to have increased over the last five years in particular.

There are certainly some very good reasons to be upset about the research-grant environment in Australia. While I will restrict this post to issues concerning the ARC because that’s what I know best, I gather that many of the same issues plague other national agencies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But to dispel the suspicion that the ARC is just out to make our lives hell, I’m going to provide a list of my experiences on what I think they do exceptionally well. I’m definitely not taking sides here, because after the list of pros, I’ll provide a detailed list of cons and some ways I think the ARC can move forward.

Impartiality

The ARC is very, very good at avoiding bias in the assessment process. Even if some potential bias does manage to creep in, the ARC is also extremely efficient at identifying and removing it. First, all assigned ‘carriages’ (College Experts) assigned to grants cannot work at the same institution as the applicants, they cannot have published with any of the applicants, nor can they have any other association with them. All potential conflicts of interest are declared and dealt with immediately up front.

Second, carriages cannot assign assessors with any of the aforementioned conflicts of interest given restrictions in the online applications that we use to identify and assign suitable assessors.

Third, during the actual deliberations, anyone who has any perceived conflict of interest must ‘leave the room’ (done in Zoom these days), nor can those people even see the grants under discussion for which they’ve been deemed conflicted.

Democracy

I have to admit that I’ve been involved in few processes that were more democratic than advisory panel meetings for deciding the fate of ARC grant applications. Any grant under discussion is not only pored over by the ‘detailed assessors’ (those are the comments to which you have to write a rejoinder), it is discussed in gory detail by the carriages. We not only read all of the detailed assessors’ reports and your rejoinder (after already having read the proposal itself many times), we also compare our scores among carriage members, discuss any scoring disparities, argue for or against various elements, and generally come to a consensus. For those grants under discussion, we also vote as an entire panel, with only majority ‘yes’ grants getting through.

Word of advice here — treat your rejoinder very seriously, and be succinct, polite, erudite, and topical. A good rejoinder can make or break any application.

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Bane of the bees

19 04 2022

Bees are essential for pollination, but their critical function can be perturbed by pesticides. The detrimental effects of those chemicals accumulate through a bee’s life, and become stronger if females cannot collect pollen from wildflowers.

Our childhood experiences partly determine our health, personality, and lifestyle when we are adults, and our experiences accumulate over time. Accumulation also occurs in any living being and can explain why some populations and species adapt to their environments better than others.

Migratory birds are a clear example. Thousands can travel to their breeding grounds after wintering elsewhere, and those coming from regions laden with resources (e.g., food, shelter, water) will have a greater reproductive success than those that migrated from resource-poor regions (1). In ecology, these ‘carry-over’ effects can take place between seasons, but also across the different phases of the life cycle of a plant or animal (2).

From larvae to adults

Clara Stuligross and Neal Williams have studied the carry-over effect of pesticides on the blue orchard bee Osmia lignaria in California (3). Instead of the typical hives constructed by the honey bee (Apis mellifera), solitary blue orchard bees make lines of brood cells with mud partitions, glued into holes and crevices of branches and trunks from fallen trees (see videos herehere, & here).

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Can we resurrect the thylacine? Maybe, but it won’t help the global extinction crisis

9 03 2022

NFSA

(published first on The Conversation)

Last week, researchers at the University of Melbourne announced that thylacines or Tasmanian tigers, the Australian marsupial predators extinct since the 1930s, could one day be ushered back to life.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ (it was neither Tasmanian, because it was once common in mainland Australia, nor was it related to the tiger), went extinct in Tasmania in the 1930s from persecution by farmers and habitat loss. Art by Eleanor (Nellie) Pease, University of Queensland.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

The main reason for the optimism was the receipt of a A$5 million philanthropic donation to the research team behind the endeavour.

Advances in mapping the genome of the thylacine and its living relative the numbat have made the prospect of re-animating the species seem real. As an ecologist, I would personally relish the opportunity to see a living specimen.

The announcement led to some overhyped headlines about the imminent resurrection of the species. But the idea of “de-extinction” faces a variety of technical, ethical and ecological challenges. Critics (like myself) argue it diverts attention and resources from the urgent and achievable task of preventing still-living species from becoming extinct.

The rebirth of the bucardo

The idea of de-extinction goes back at least to the the creation of the San Diego Frozen Zoo in the early 1970s. This project aimed to freeze blood, DNA, tissue, cells, eggs and sperm from exotic and endangered species in the hope of one day recreating them.

The notion gained broad public attention with the first of the Jurassic Park films in 1993. The famous cloning of Dolly the sheep reported in 1996 created a sense that the necessary know-how wasn’t too far off.

The next technological leap came in 2008, with the cloning of a dead mouse that had been frozen at –20℃ for 16 years. If frozen individuals could be cloned, re-animation of a whole species seemed possible.

After this achievement, de-extinction began to look like a potential way to tackle the modern global extinction crisis.

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The integrity battlefield: where science meets policy

4 03 2022

Professor Ross Thompson, University of Canberra


On the whole, I am inclined to conclude that my experience of academia and publishing my work has been largely benign. Despite having published 120-odd peer-reviewed papers, I can count the number of major disputes on one hand. Where there have been disagreements, they have centred on issues of content, and despite the odd grumble, things have rarely escalated to the ad hominem. I have certainly never experienced concerted attacks on my work.

But that changed recently. I work in water science, participating in and leading multi-disciplinary teams that do research directly relevant to water policy and management. My colleagues and I work closely with state and federal governments and are often funded by them through a variety of mechanisms. Our teams are a complex blend of scientists from universities, state and federal research agencies, and private-sector consultancies. Water is big business in Australia, and its management is particularly pertinent as the world’s driest inhabited continent struggles to come to terms with the impacts of climate change.

In the last 10 years, Australia has undergone a AU$16 billion program of water reform that has highlighted the extreme pressure on ecosystems, rural communities, and water-dependent industries. In 2019, two documentaries (Cash Splash and Pumped) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were highly critical of the  outcomes of water reform. A group of scientists involved in working on the Murray-Darling Basin were concerned enough about the accuracy of aspects of those stories to support Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne in drafting an Open Letter in response. I was a co-author on that letter, and something into which I did not enter lightly. We were very concerned about being seen to advocate for any particular policy position, but were simultaneously committed to contributing to an informed public debate. A later investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority also highlighted concerns with the Cash Splash documentary.

Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of a paper by Colloff et al. (2021) in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources. In that paper, the authors were critical of the scientists that had contributed to the Open Letter and claimed they had been subject to “administrative capture” and “issue advocacy”. Administrative capture is defined here as:

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Wondering if you should apply for a DECRA?

7 02 2022

Do you love doing job applications, but wish they were longer and more involved?

If so, applying for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) should be right up your alley.

If, like most people, you answered a resounding NO! to that question, there are still many good reasons to apply for a DECRA. But there are also some completely valid reasons why you might not apply, so it pays to weigh up the pros and cons if you’re thinking about it.

Let’s go through some of these points, plus tips on how to make a competitive application (I just submitted a DECRA application in the last round, so it’s all painfully fresh in my memory). 

What the hell is a DECRA?

The Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards offered by the Australian Research Council are highly competitive, with success rates of between 12% (ouch!) and 20% across years (but expect especially low success rates in the next round/DECRA23, given the bumper crop of applicants). 

DECRAs are restricted to researchers who are (i) less than 5-years out from their PhD conferral, and (ii) who are proposing non-medical projects.

The 5-year eligibility period is based on time spent ‘research active’, to accommodate the different career pathways people follow. This means that people who haven’t been working 100% in research since completing their PhD can tally up career interruptions (which can relate to illnesses or disability, carer responsibilities, parental leave, unemployment, and employment in non-research positions) and extend their eligibility period.

So even if you are well-over 5 years post PhD (as was the case for me), you might still be eligible to apply. If you’re considering a medical science project, then you need to check out the schemes offered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Pros and Cons

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Animating models of ecological change

6 12 2021

Flinders University Global Ecology postdoc, Dr Farzin Shabani, recently created this astonishing video not only about the results of his models predicting vegetation change in northern Australia as a function of long-term (tens of thousands of years) climate change, but also on the research journey itself!

He provides a brief background to how and why he took up the challenge:


Science would be a lot harder to digest without succinct and meaningful images, graphs, and tables. So, being able to visualise both inputs and outputs of scientific models to cut through the fog of data is an essential element of all science writing and communication. Diagrams help us understand trends and patterns much more quickly than do raw data, and they assist with making comparisons.

During my academic career, I have studied many different topics, including natural hazards (susceptibility & vulnerability risks), GIS-based ensemble modelling, climate-change impacts, environmental modelling at different temporal and spatial scales, species-distribution modelling, and time-series analysis. I use a wide range of graphschartsplotsmaps and tables to transfer the key messages.

For my latest project, however, I was given the opportunity to make a short animation and visualise my results and the journey itself. I think that my animation inspires a sense of wonder, which is among the most important goals of science education. I also think that my animation draws connections to real-life problems (e.g., ecosystem changes as a product of climate change), and also develops an appreciation of the scientific process itself.

Take a look at let me know what you think!

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An eye on the past: a view to the future

29 11 2021

originally published in Brave Minds, Flinders University’s research-news publication (text by David Sly)

Clues to understanding human interactions with global ecosystems already exist. The challenge is to read them more accurately so we can design the best path forward for a world beset by species extinctions and the repercussions of global warming.


This is the puzzle being solved by Professor Corey Bradshaw, head of the Global Ecology Lab at Flinders University. By developing complex computer modelling and steering a vast international cohort of collaborators, he is developing research that can influence environmental policy — from reconstructing the past to revealing insights of the future.

As an ecologist, he aims both to reconstruct and project how ecosystems adapt, how they are maintained, and how they change. Human intervention is pivotal to this understanding, so Professor Bradshaw casts his gaze back to when humans first entered a landscape – and this has helped construct an entirely fresh view of how Aboriginal people first came to Australia, up to 75,000 years ago.

Two recent papers he co-authored — ‘Stochastic models support rapid peopling of Late Pleistocene Sahul‘, published in Nature Communications, and ‘Landscape rules predict optimal super-highways for the first peopling of Sahul‘ published in Nature Human Behaviour — showed where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, which is the combined mega-continent that joined Australia with New Guinea in the Pleistocene era, when sea levels were lower than today.

Professor Bradshaw and colleagues identified and tested more than 125 billion possible pathways using rigorous computational analysis in the largest movement-simulation project ever attempted, with the pathways compared to the oldest known archaeological sites as a means of distinguishing the most likely routes.

The study revealed that the first Indigenous people not only survived but thrived in harsh environments, providing further evidence of the capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and suggests large, well-organised groups were able to navigate tough terrain.

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And this little piggy went extinct

24 11 2021

Back in June of this year I wrote (whinged) about the disappointment of writing a lot of ecological models that were rarely used to assist real-world wildlife management. However, I did hint that another model I wrote had assistance one government agency with pig management on Kangaroo Island.

Well, now that report has been published online and I’m permitted to talk about it. I’m also very happy to report that, in the words of the Government of South Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA),

Modelling by the Flinders University Global Ecology Laboratory shows the likelihood and feasibility of feral pig eradication under different funding and eradication scenarios. With enough funding, feral pigs could be eradicated from Kangaroo Island in 2 years.

This basically means that because of the model, PIRSA was successful in obtaining enough funding to pretty much ensure that the eradication of feral pigs from Kangaroo Island will be feasible!

Why is this important to get rid of feral pigs? They are a major pest on the Island, causing severe economic and environmental impacts both to farms and native ecosystems. On the agricultural side of things, they prey on newborn lambs, eat crops, and compete with livestock for pasture. Feral pigs damage natural habitats by up-rooting vegetation and fouling waterholes. They can also spread weeds and damage infrastructure, as well as act as hosts of parasites and diseases (e.g., leptospirosis, tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease) that pose serious threats to industry, wildlife, and even humans.

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Avoiding a ghastly future — The Science Show

1 10 2021

Just thought I’d share the audio of an interview I did with the famous Robyn Williams of ABC Radio National‘s The Science Show.

I’d be surprised if any Australians with even a passing interest in science could claim not to have listened to the Science Show before, and I suspect a fair mob of people overseas would be in the same boat.

It was a real privilege to talk with Robyn about our work on the ghastly future, and as always, the production value is outstanding.

Thank you, Robyn and the ABC.

Listen below, or link to the interview directly.





It’s a tough time for young conservation scientists

24 08 2021

Sure, it’s a tough time for everyone, isn’t it? But it’s a lot worse for the already disadvantaged, and it’s only going to go downhill from here. I suppose that most people who read this blog can certainly think of myriad ways they are, in fact, still privileged and very fortunate (I know that I am).

Nonetheless, quite a few of us I suspect are rather ground down by the onslaught of bad news, some of which I’ve been responsible for perpetuating myself. Add lock downs, dwindling job security, and the prospect of dying tragically due to lung infection, many have become exasperated.

I once wrote that being a conservation scientist is a particularly depressing job, because in our case, knowledge is a source of despair. But as I’ve shifted my focus from ‘preventing disaster’ to trying to lessen the degree of future shittyness, I find it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

What can we do in addition to shifting our focus to making the future a little less shitty than it could otherwise be? I have a few tips that you might find useful:

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Journal ranks 2020

23 07 2021

This is the 13th year in a row that I’ve generated journal ranks based on the journal-ranking method we published several years ago.

There are few differences in how I calculated this year’s ranks, as well as some relevant updates:

  1. As always, I’ve added a few new journals (either those who have only recently been scored with the component metrics, or ones I’ve just missed before);
  2. I’ve included the new ‘Journal Citation Indicator’ (JCI) in addition to the Journal Impact Factor and Immediacy Index from Clarivate ISI. JCI “… a field-normalised metric, represents the average category-normalised citation impact for papers published in the prior three-year period.”. In other words, it’s supposed to correct for field-specific citation trends;
  3. While this isn’t my change, the Clarivate metrics are now calculated based on when an article is first published online, rather than just in an issue. You would have thought that this should have been the case for many years, but they’ve only just done it;
  4. I’ve also added the ‘CiteScore’ (CS) in addition to the Source-Normalised Impact Per Paper (SNIP) and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) from Scopus. CS is “the number of citations, received in that year and previous 3 years, for documents published in the journal during that period (four years), divided by the total number of published documents … in the journal during the same four-year period”;
  5. Finally, you can access the raw data for 2020 (I’ve done the hard work for you) and use my RShiny app to derive your own samples of journal ranks (also see the relevant blog post). You can add new journal as well to the list if my sample isn’t comprehensive enough for you.

Since the Google Scholar metrics were just released today, I present the new 2020 ranks for: (i) 101 ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals, and a subset of (ii) 61 ‘ecology’ journals, (iii) 29 ‘conservation’ journals, (iv) 41 ‘sustainability’ journals (with general and energy-focussed journals included), and (v) 20 ‘marine & freshwater’ journals.

One final observation. I’ve noted that several journals are boasting about how their Impact Factors have increased this year, when they fail to mention that this is the norm across most journals. As you’ll see below, relative ranks don’t actually change that much for most journals. In fact, this is a redacted email I received from a journal that I will not identify here:

We’re pleased to let you know that the new Impact Factor for [JOURNAL NAME] marks a remarkable increase, as it now stands at X.XXX, compared to last year’s X.XXX. And what is even more important: [JOURNAL NAME] increased its rank in the relevant disciplines: [DISCIPLINE NAME].

Although the Impact Factor may not be the perfect indicator of success, it remains the most widely recognised one at journal level. Therefore, we’re excited to share this achievement with you, as it wouldn’t have been possible, had it not been for all of your contributions and support as authors, reviewers, editors and readers. A huge ‘THANK YOU’ goes to all of you!

What bullshit.

Anyway, on to the results:

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Losing half of tropical fish species as corals disappear

30 06 2021

When snorkelling in a reef, it’s natural to think of coral colonies as a colourful scenography where fish act in a play. But what would happen to the fish if the stage went suddenly empty, as in Peter Brook’s 1971 Midsummer Night’s Dream? Would the fish still be there acting their roles without a backdrop?


This question is not novel in coral-reef science. Ecologists have often compared reef fish diversity and biomass in selected localities before and after severe events of coral mortality. Even a temporary disappearance of corals might have substantial effects on fish communities, sometimes resulting in a local disappearance of more than half of local fish species.

Considering the multiple, complex ways fish interact with — and depend on — corals, this might appear as an obvious outcome. Still, such complexity of interactions makes it difficult to predict how the loss of corals might affect fish diversity in specific contexts, let alone at the global scale.

Focusing on species-specific fish-coral associations reveals an inconsistent picture with local-scale empirical observations. When looking at the fraction of local fish diversity that strictly depends on corals for food and other more generic habitat requirements (such as shelter and reproduction), the global picture suggests that most fish diversity in reef locality might persist in the absence of corals. 

The mismatch between this result and the empirical evidence of a stronger coral dependence suggests the existence of many hidden ecological paths connecting fish to corals, and that those paths might entrap many fish species for which the association to corals is not apparent.

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… some (models) are useful

8 06 2021

As someone who writes a lot of models — many for applied questions in conservation management (e.g., harvest quotas, eradication targets, minimum viable population sizes, etc.), and supervises people writing even more of them, I’ve had many different experiences with their uptake and implementation by management authorities.

Some of those experiences have involved catastrophic failures to influence any management or policy. One particularly painful memory relates to a model we wrote to assist with optimising approaches to eradicate (or at least, reduce the densities of) feral animals in Kakadu National Park. We even wrote the bloody thing in Visual Basic (horrible coding language) so people could run the module in Excel. As far as I’m aware, no one ever used it.

Others have been accepted more readily, such as a shark-harvest model, which (I think, but have no evidence to support) has been used to justify fishing quotas, and one we’ve done recently for the eradication of feral pigs on Kangaroo Island (as yet unpublished) has led directly to increased funding to the agency responsible for the programme.

According to Altmetrics (and the online tool I developed to get paper-level Altmetric information quickly), only 3 of the 16 of what I’d call my most ‘applied modelling’ papers have been cited in policy documents:

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Killing (feral) cats quickly (and efficiently)

20 05 2021

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a paper led by Kathryn Venning (KV) that was derived from her Honours work in the lab. Although she’s well into her PhD on an entirely different topic, I’m overjoyed that she persevered and saw this work to publication.

Here, killa, killa, killa, killa …

As you probably already know, feral cats are a huge problem in Australia. The are probably the primary reason Australia leads the world in mammal extinctions in particular, and largely the reason so many re-introduction attempts of threatened marsupials fail miserably only after a few years.

Feral cats occupy every habitat in the country, from the high tropics to the deserts, and from the mountains to the sea. They adapt to the cold just as easily as they adapt to the extreme heat, and they can eat just about anything that moves, from invertebrates to the carcases of much larger animals that they scavenge.

Cats are Australia’s bane, but you can’t help but be at least a little impressed with their resilience.

Still, we have to try our best to get rid of them where we can, or at least reduce their densities to the point where their ecological damage is limited.

Typically, the only efficient and cost-effective way to do that is via lethal control, but by using various means. These can include direct shooting, trapping, aerial poison-baiting, and a new ‘smart’ method of targeted poison delivery via a prototype device known as a Felixer™️. The latter are particularly useful for passive control in areas where ground-shooting access is difficult.

A live Felixer™️ deployed on Kangaroo Island (photo: CJA Bradshaw 2020)

A few years back the federal government committed what might seem like a sizeable amount of money to ‘eradicate’ cats from Australia. Yeah, good luck with that, although the money has been allocated to several places where cat reduction and perhaps even eradication is feasible. Namely, on islands.

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Everything you always wanted to know about conservation (but were afraid to ask)

14 05 2021

While some of us still might imagine the conservationist as a fancy explorer discovering new species in a remote corner of the world, or collecting samples while drowning in mud, a growing portion of conservation science nowadays consists of asking people about their ideas and behaviours.

Needless to say, this approach produces a fair share of awkward, if not dangerous, situations. After all, who likes the idea of completing a questionnaire from the fisheries office, asking about compliance with harvest limitations or licence fees? Or, even worse, who fancies being asked about the possession of illegally traded wildlife? 

Many conservationists would really like to have this valuable information, but at the same time it is clear that these questions put people at great discomfort. This leads to biased estimates of important behaviours affecting conservation. This is where specialised questioning techniques can help.

Specialised questioning techniques aim to prevent researchers, or anyone else, to trace back individual answers. Many do so by adding noise with a known distribution to individual answers. Then, when all answers are pooled, this noise is ruled out with statistical approaches. Noise can come from a randomising device (e.g. a die), like in the randomised response technique:

Individual answers can also be masked by asking respondents not to indicate if they engaged in a certain behaviour, but by asking them, out of a list of sensitive and non-sensitive behaviours, to indicate the number in which they engaged. This is the case of the unmatched count technique (a.k.a list experiments):

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The biggest and slowest don’t always bite it first

13 04 2021

For many years I’ve been interested in modelling the extinction dynamics of megafauna. Apart from co-authoring a few demographically simplified (or largely demographically free) models about how megafauna species could have gone extinct, I have never really tried to capture the full nuances of long-extinct species within a fully structured demographic framework.

That is, until now.

But how do you get the life-history data of an extinct animal that was never directly measured. Surely, things like survival, reproductive output, longevity and even environmental carrying capacity are impossible to discern, and aren’t these necessary for a stage-structured demographic model?

Thylacine mum & joey. Nellie Pease & CABAH

The answer to the first part of that question “it’s possible”, and to the second, it’s “yes”. The most important bit of information we palaeo modellers need to construct something that’s ecologically plausible for an extinct species is an estimate of body mass. Thankfully, palaeontologists are very good at estimating the mass of the things they dig up (with the associated caveats, of course). From such estimates, we can reconstruct everything from equilibrium densities, maximum rate of population growth, age at first breeding, and longevity.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. In Australia anyway, we’re largely dealing with marsupials (and some monotremes), and they have a rather different life-history mode than most placentals. We therefore have to ‘correct’ the life-history estimates derived from living placental species. Thankfully, evolutionary biologists and ecologists have ways to do that too.

The Pleistocene kangaroo Procoptodon goliah, the largest and most heavily built of the  short-faced kangaroos, was the largest and most heavily built kangaroo known. It had an  unusually short, flat face and forwardly directed 
eyes, with a single large toe on each foot  (reduced from the more normal count of four). Each forelimb had two long, clawed fingers  that would have been used to bring leafy branches within reach.

So with a battery of ecological, demographic, and evolutionary tools, we can now create reasonable stochastic-demographic models for long-gone species, like wombat-like creatures as big as cars, birds more than two metres tall, and lizards more than seven metres long that once roamed the Australian continent. 

Ancient clues, in the shape of fossils and archaeological evidence of varying quality scattered across Australia, have formed the basis of several hypotheses about the fate of megafauna that vanished during a peak about 42,000 years ago from the ancient continent of Sahul, comprising mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and neighbouring islands.

There is a growing consensus that multiple factors were at play, including climate change, the impact of people on the environment, and access to freshwater sources.

Just published in the open-access journal eLife, our latest CABAH paper applies these approaches to assess how susceptible different species were to extinction – and what it means for the survival of species today. 

Using various characteristics such as body size, weight, lifespan, survival rate, and fertility, we (Chris Johnson, John Llewelyn, Vera Weisbecker, Giovanni Strona, Frédérik Saltré & me) created population simulation models to predict the likelihood of these species surviving under different types of environmental disturbance.

Simulations included everything from increasing droughts to increasing hunting pressure to see which species of 13 extinct megafauna (genera: Diprotodon, Palorchestes, Zygomaturus, Phascolonus, Procoptodon, Sthenurus, Protemnodon, Simosthenurus, Metasthenurus, Genyornis, Thylacoleo, Thylacinus, Megalibgwilia), as well as 8 comparative species still alive today (Vombatus, Osphranter, Notamacropus, Dromaius, Alectura, Sarcophilus, Dasyurus, Tachyglossus), had the highest chances of surviving.

We compared the results to what we know about the timing of extinction for different megafauna species derived from dated fossil records. We expected to confirm that the most extinction-prone species were the first species to go extinct – but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While we did find that slower-growing species with lower fertility, like the rhino-sized wombat relative Diprotodon, were generally more susceptible to extinction than more-fecund species like the marsupial ‘tiger’ thylacine, the relative susceptibility rank across species did not match the timing of their extinctions recorded in the fossil record.

Indeed, we found no clear relationship between a species’ inherent vulnerability to extinction — such as being slower and heavier and/or slower to reproduce — and the timing of its extinction in the fossil record.

In fact, we found that most of the living species used for comparison — such as short-beaked echidnas, emus, brush turkeys, and common wombats — were more susceptible on average than their now-extinct counterparts.

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One trillion dollars!

1 04 2021

Or thereabouts.

Let’s step back to 2015. In a former life when I was at another institution, I had the immense fortune and pleasure to spend six months on sabbatical in a little village just south of Paris working with my friend and colleague, Franck Courchamp, at Université Paris-Sud (now Université Paris-Saclay).

Sure, I felt a bit jammy living there with my daughter in a beautiful house just down the street from two mouth-watering pâtisseries and three different open marchés. We ate well. We picked mushrooms on the weekends or visited local châteaux. We went into the city and visited overwhelmingly beautiful museums at our leisure. We drank good champagne (well, I did, not my eight-year old). We had communal raclettes.

But of course, I was primarily there to do research with Franck and his lab, despite the obvious perks.

While I busied myself with several tasks while there, one of our main outputs was to put together the world’s first global database of the costs of invasive insects, which we subsequently published in 2016.

But that was only the beginning. With funding that started off the process with insects, Franck persevered and hired postdocs and took on more students to build the most comprehensive database of all invasive species ever compiled — InvaCost.

I cannot stress enough how massive an undertaking this was. It’s not simply a big list of all the cost estimates in existence, it’s also a detailed assessment of cost reliability, standardisation, and contextualisation. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do this myself.

While the database itself has already been published, today we are pleased to announce the publication in Nature of the main results — High and rising economic costs of biological invasions worldwide — led by Christophe Diagne (one of the nicest people I’ve ever met), and co-authored by Boris Leroy, Anne-Charlotte Vaissière, Rodolphe Gozlan, David Roiz, Ivan Jarić, Jean-Michel Salles, me, and Franck Courchamp (of course).

Herein we described how the economic costs of invasive alien species accumulated since 1970 are tremendous, and that they have been steadily increasing over time.

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How to avoid reduce the probability of being killed by a shark

31 03 2021

Easy. Don’t go swimming/surfing/snorkelling/diving in the ocean.


“Oh, shit”

Sure, that’s true, but if you’re like many Australians, the sea is not just a beautiful thing to look at from the window, it’s a way of life. Trying telling a surfer not to surf, or a diver not to dive. Good luck with that.

A few years ago, I joined a team of super-cool sharkologists led by Charlie ‘Aussie-by-way-of-Belgium shark-scientist extraordinaire Huveneers, and including Maddie ‘Chomp’ Thiele and Lauren ‘Acid’ Meyer — to publish the results of some of the first experimentally tested shark deterrents.

It turns out that many of the deterrents we tested failed to show any reduction in the probability of a shark biting, with only one type of electronic deterrent showing any effect at all (~ 60% reduction).

Great. But what might that mean in terms of how many people could be saved by wearing such electronic deterrents? While the probability of being bitten by a shark is low globally, even in Australia (despite public perceptions), we wondered if the number of lives saved and injuries avoided was substantial.

In a new paper just published today in Royal Society Open Science, we attempted to answer that question.

To predict how many people could avoid shark bites if they were using properly donned electronic deterrents that demonstrate some capacity to dissuade sharks from biting, we examined the century-scale time series of shark bites on humans in Australia. This database — the ‘Australian Shark Attack File‘ — is one of the most comprehensive databases of its kind.

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