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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Recreational hunting, conservation and livelihoods: no clear evidence trail

2 03 2021
Enrico Di Minin, University of Helsinki; Anna Haukka, University of Helsinki; Anna Hausmann, University of Helsinki; Christoph Fink, University of Helsinki; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Gonzalo Cortés-Capano, University of Helsinki; Hayley Clements, Stellenbosch University, and Ricardo A. Correia, University of Helsinki

In some African countries, lion trophy hunting is legal. Riaan van den Berg

In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 1,400,000 km² of land spread across many countries — from Kenya to South Africa — is dedicated to “trophy” (recreational) hunting. This type of hunting can occur on communal, private, and state lands.

The hunters – mainly foreign “tourists” from North America and Europe – target a wide variety of species, including lions, leopards, antelopes, buffalo, elephants, zebras, hippopotamus and giraffes.

Read more: Big game: banning trophy hunting could do more harm than good

Debates centred on the role of recreational hunting in supporting nature conservation and local people’s livelihoods are among the most polarising in conservation today.

On one hand, people argue that recreational hunting generates funding that can support livelihoods and nature conservation. It’s estimated to generate US$200 million annually in sub-Saharan Africa, although others dispute the magnitude of this contribution.

On the other hand, hunting is heavily criticised on ethical and moral grounds and as a potential threat to some species.

Evidence for taking a particular side in the debate is still unfortunately thin. In our recently published research, we reviewed the large body of scientific literature on recreational hunting from around the world, which meant we read and analysed more than 1000 peer-reviewed papers.

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Conservation paradox – the pros and cons of recreational hunting

20 02 2021
The recovery of species such as mountain zebra (Equus zebra) was partly supported by the economic benefits generated by trophy hunting. © Dr Hayley Clements

Through the leadership of my long-time friend and collaborator, Enrico Di Minin of the Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science, as well as the co-leadership of my (now) new colleague, Dr Hayley Clements, I’m pleased to report our new paper in One Earth — ‘Consequences of recreational hunting for biodiversity conservation and livelihoods‘.

My father was a hunter, and by proxy so was I when I was a lad. I wasn’t really a ‘good’ hunter in the sense that I rarely bagged my quarry, but during my childhood not only did I fail to question the morality of recreational hunting, I really thought that in fact it was by and large an important cultural endeavour.

It’s interesting how conditioned we become as children, for I couldn’t possibly conceive of hunting a wild, indigenous species for my own personal satisfaction now. I find the process not only morally and ethically reprehensible, I also think that most species don’t need the extra stress in an already environmentally stressed world.

I admit that I do shoot invasive European rabbits and foxes on my small farm from time to time — to reduce the grazing and browsing pressure on my trees from the former, and the predation pressure on the chooks from the latter. Of course, we eat the rabbits, but I tend just to bury the foxes. My dual perspective on the general issue of hunting in a way mirrors the two sides of the recreational hunting issue we report in our latest paper.

Wild boar (Sus scrofus). Photo: Valentin Panzirsch, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT, via Wikimedia Commons

I want to be clear here that our paper focuses exclusively on recreational hunting, and especially the hunting of charismatic species for their trophies. The activity is more than just a little controversial, for it raises many ethical and moral concerns at the very least. Yet, recreational hunting is frequently suggested as a way to conserve nature and support local people’s livelihoods. 

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Ancient bones — how old?

22 01 2021

Radiocarbon (14C) dating was developed by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Willard Libby, and has become the predominant method to build chronologies of ancient populations and species using the Quaternary fossil record. I have just published a research paper about 14C dating of fossil bone reviewing the four standard chemical pretreatments of bone collagen to avoid sample contamination and generate accurate fossil ages: gelatinization, ultrafiltration, XAD purification and hydroxyproline isolation. Hydroxyproline isolation is perceived as the most accurate pretreatment in a questionnaire survey completed by 132 experts from 25 countries, but remains costly, time-consuming and not widely available. I argue that (1) innovation is urgently required to develop affordable analytical chemistry to date low-mass samples of collagen amino acids, (2) those developments should be overseen by a certification agency, and (3) 14C users should be more conceptually involved in how (much) 14C chemistry determines dating accuracy. Across the board, scientific controversies like the timing of Quaternary extinctions need not be fuelled by inaccurate chronological data.

Megafauna bones from the Quaternary fossil record. Top: excavation of a partial skeleton of a short-faced kangaroo Procoptodon browneorum at Tight Entrance Cave (Western Australia) [1]: these bones are close to the limit of radiocarbon (14C) dating in a geological context 43000 to 49000 years old. Middle: metacarpal of the extinct horse Hippidion cf. devillei from Casa del Diablo (Peru) 14C dated at 11980 ± 100 years before present (BP) (CAMS-175039) following XAD purification of collagen gelatin [2]. Bottom: collection of skeletal remains of (mostly) red deer Cervus elaphus from El Cierro Cave (Spain) 14C dated at 15520 ± 75 years BP on ultrafiltered gelatin (OxA-27869 and OxA-27870 average) [3].

Scientists have widely been interested in the present and future state of biodiversity. Ecologists (the main audience of this blog) have also looked into the past with pioneering investigations addressing the composition of ancient forests and the origins of agriculture in layers of fossil pollen accumulated in lake sediments [4]. But it took us decades to see the fossil record as a useful tool (combining biological, geochemical and molecular techniques) to answer basic ecological questions. Some of those questions are critical for conserving today’s biodiversity [5, 6]: for example, when did human impacts on ecosystems become global or what extinct species have best tolerated past environmental change and what that means to modern species? [7].

The study of (pre)historic biological events relies one way or another on our ability to time when a certain animal, human, or plant occurred and what environmental conditions they experienced, and relies on concepts borrowed from archaeology (past human activity), palaeontology (fossils), palaeocology (species responses to past environments), and geochronology (age of fossils and/or their geological context). Among the range of chronological methods available to date biological and cultural samples [8], radiocarbon (14C) dating has become the most important for dating bones aged modern to late Quaternary (last ~ 50,000 years). Hereafter, ‘bone’ comprises antler, bone, ivory and teeth. 14C dating of bones is appealing at least for four reasons: 

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Influential conservation papers of 2020

19 12 2020

Following my late-December tradition, I present — in no particular order — a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2020 as assessed by experts in Faculty Opinions (formerly known as F1000). See previous years’ lists here: 201920182017201620152014, and 2013.

Life in fluctuating environments — “… it tackles a fundamental problem of bio-ecology (how living beings cope with the fluctuations of the environment) with a narrative that does not make use of the cumbersome formulas and complicated graphs that so often decorate articles of this kind. Instead, the narrative and the illustrations are user-friendly and easy to understand, while being highly informative.

Forest carbon sink neutralized by pervasive growth-lifespan trade-offs — “… deals with a key process in the global carbon cycle: whether climate change (CC) is enhancing the natural sink capacity of ecosystems or not.

Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy — “… explores different scenarios about the consequences of habitat conversion on terrestrial biodiversity.

Rebuilding marine life — “The logic is: leave nature alone, and it will come back. Not necessarily as it was before, but it will come back.

Towards a taxonomically unbiased European Union biodiversity strategy for 2030 — “… states that the emperor has no clothes, providing an estimate of the money dedicated to biodiversity conservation (a lot of money) and then stating that the bulk of biodiversity remains unstudied and unprotected, while efforts are biased towards just a few “popular” species.

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Plan B: COVID-19 challenges for field-based PhD students

8 12 2020

Originally published on the

Blistering heat, pouring rain, finding volunteers, submitting field-trip forms, forgetting equipment, data sheets blowing away in the wind — a field-based research project is hard at the best of times. Add white sharks into the mix and you start to question whether this project is even possible. These were some of my realisations when I started my Honours year studying shark deterrents. 

A specific memory from my first field expedition was setting off on a six-day boat trip with the comfortable sight of land getting smaller and smaller, in an already rough ocean, to find one of the most feared fish in the sea, the white shark. I was intimidated, but also excited. 

Over the next few days reality set in and I experienced the true challenges of working in the field. When there were no sharks around, I had to concentrate on the bait line for hours in anticipation of a sudden ambush. When there were sharks around, it was all systems go and there was no room for error — not with a fish of this size. It didn’t matter how tired or seasick I was, the data had to be collected. 

When I found out that I had been offered a field-based PhD extending my shark-deterrent research from my Honours, other than being over-the-moon, I knew I had a big few years ahead of me. I immediately began preparing mentally for the challenges that came along with my field-based research. Particularly the long periods of time I knew I would spend away from home and my family. 

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Citizens ask the expert in climate physics

24 11 2020

In the first of two consecutive interviews with climate-change experts, authors, editors and readers of the Spanish magazine Quercus have a chat with Ken Caldeira, a global-ecology researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science (Washington, USA). His responses attest that the climate system is complex, and that we need to be practical in dealing with the planet’s ongoing climate emergency.

PhD in atmospheric sciences and professor at Stanford University (USA), Ken Caldeira has pioneered the study of ocean acidification and its impact on coral reefs (1) and geoengineering solutions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere and reflecting solar radiation (2, 3). He has also been part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) and assessed zero-emissions scenarios (4, 5). To the right, Ken manoeuvers a drone while collecting aerial data from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (6). Source.

SARS-Covid-19 is impacting the world. In our home country, Spain, scientists argue that (i) previous budget cuts in public health have weakened our capacity to tackle the pandemic (7), and (ii) the expert panels providing advice to our government should be independent of political agendas in their membership and decisions (8). Nevertheless, the Spanish national and regional governments’ data lack the periodicity, coherence, and detail to harness an effective medical response (9). Sometimes it feels as if politics partly operate by neglecting the science needed to tackle challenges such as the covid pandemic or climate change.

Having said that, even if a country has cultivated and invested in the best science possible, people have difficulties coming to terms with the idea that scientists work with probabilities of alternative scenarios. As much as there are different ways of managing a pandemic, scientists differ about how to mitigate the ecological, economic, and health impacts of a high-carbon society.

Thus, a more and more common approach is to make collective assessments (elicitations) by weighing different points of view across experts — for instance, to establish links between climate change and armed conflict (10) or to evaluate the role of nuclear energy as we transition to a low-carbon energy-production model (11). The overarching goal is to quantify consensus based on different (evidence-based) opinions.

The questions we here ask Ken Caldeira could well have different answers if asked of other experts. Still, as Ken points out, it is urgent that (of the many options available) we use the immense and certainty-proof knowledge we have already about climate change to take actions that work.

Interview done 23 January 2020 

We italicise each question and the name of the person asking the question and cite one to three relevant publications per question. For expanding on Ken Caldeira’s views on climate change, see a sample of his public talks here and here and newspaper articles here and here.

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New journal: Frontiers in Conservation Science

29 09 2020

Several months ago, Daniel Blumstein of UCLA approached me with an offer — fancy leading a Special Section in a new Frontiers journal dedicated to conservation science?

I admit that my gut reaction was a visceral ‘no’, both in terms of the extra time it would require, as well as my autonomous reflex of ‘not another journal, please‘.

I had, for example, spent a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears helping to launch Conservation Letters when I acted as Senior Editor for the first 3.5 years of its existence (I can’t believe that it has been nearly a decade since I left the journal). While certainly an educational and reputational boost, I can’t claim that the experience was always a pleasant one — as has been said many times before, the fastest way to make enemies is to become an editor.

But then Dan explained what he had in mind for Frontiers in Conservation Science, and the more I spoke with him, the more I started to think that it wasn’t a bad idea after all for me to join.

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Many animals won’t cope with climate change without access to ample drinking water

12 08 2020

Climate change implies change in temperature and water, and both factors shape species’ tolerances to thermal stress. In our latest article, we show that lack of drinking water maximises differences in tolerance to high temperatures among populations of Iberian lizard species.


Climate change is a multidimensional phenomenon comprising temporal and spatial shifts in both temperature and precipitation (1). How we perceive climate change depends on whether we measure it as shift in (i) mean conditions (e.g., the mean air temperature or rainfall over a decade within a given territory), (ii) magnitude or frequency of extreme conditions (e.g., the frequency of floods or tornados or the number of days with temperatures or rainfall above or below a given threshold), or (iii) speed at which mean or extreme conditions change in space and/or time.

In aquatic ecosystems, climate change further alters water acidity, oxygen dissolution and melting of ice. However, many people, including some scientists, tend to equate climate change erroneously with increased mean temperatures. Psychologists have made the semantic point that the use of the expressions climate change and global warming as synonyms can give mixed messages to politicians, and society in general, about how serious and complex the climate emergency we are facing really is (2, 3) — see NASA’s simple-worded account on the subject here.

In our latest article (4), we reviewed the ecological literature to determine to what extent ecologists investigating the tolerance of terrestrial animals to high temperatures have looked at thermal effects over water effects. It turns out, they were five times more likely to examine temperature over water.


Frequency of correlations between climate (air temperature versus precipitation) and tolerance to high temperature of terrestrial fauna in 64 papers published in the ecological literature (thickest link = 36, thinnest link = 2) following a systematic literature review in Scopus (4).

This is counterintuitive. Just imagine you have been walking under the sun for several hours on one of those dog days of summer, and you are offered to choose between a sunshade or a bottle of water. I’d bet you’d choose the bottle of water.

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I’m nearing the end of my PhD/postdoc … What the hell am I supposed to do now?

13 07 2020

Originally published on the

What do you want to be when you grow up?


Unicorns, like job security, used to exist (actually, it’s an Elasmotherium)

The term ‘job security’ seems a fanciful idea to budding biologists — you may as well be studying unicorns (and no, narwhal don’t count …)! Now, you’re a fully fledged adult, your thoughts are likely filled with adult questions like ‘where will I live’ and ‘how will I scrape some money together?’. Not knowing where to go next can be very stressful.

A change in profession might help with job security, but if you’ve made it this far in biology, its highly likely that you (like me) have been obsessed with biology since early childhood, and it’s not something you’re willing to give up easily. On top of that, you now have years of research experience and skill development behind you — it would be better if that experience didn’t go to waste. How, then, can we keep funding our biology addiction? I don’t want to sound like a snake-oil salesman here, so let’s be straight-up about this: there are no easy options. But, importantly, there are options — in research, the university sector, and wider afield.

So, down to the serious business. Your options (depending on your personal preferences) are:

1. Research or bust!

In-house postdoctoral fellowships

Research bodies in Australia, including many universities, the CSIRO and the Australian Museum, offer in-house postdoctoral fellowships for early-career researchers. Applying for one of these postdocs usually involves the candidate developing a research proposal and initiating collaboration with researchers in the institute offering the fellowship. Read the rest of this entry »

Journal ranks 2019

8 07 2020


For the last 12 years and running, I’ve been generating journal ranks based on the journal-ranking method we published several years ago. Since the Google journal h-indices were just released, here are the new 2019 ranks for: (i) 99 ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals, and a subset of (ii) 61 ‘ecology’ journals, (iii) 27 ‘conservation’ journals, (iv) 41 ‘sustainability’ journals (with general and energy-focussed journals included), and (v) 20 ‘marine & freshwater’ journals.

See also the previous years’ rankings (2018, 20172016201520142013, 2012, 20112010, 2009, 2008).

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A plant’s adaptive traits don’t follow climate conditions as you might expect

27 03 2020


Just a quick post today, my last one for March. Like probably most of you, I’ve been trying to pretend to be as normal as possible despite the COVID-19 surrealism all around me. But even COVID-19 has shifted my research to a small degree.

But I’m not going to talk about the global pandemic right now (I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief). Instead, I’m going to go back to topic and discuss a paper that I’ve just co-authored.

Last year I went to China’s Yunnan Province where I met some fantastic colleagues at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden who were doing some very cool stuff with the variation in plant functional traits across environmental gradients.

Well, those colleagues invited me to participate in one those research projects, and I’m happy to say that the result has just been published in Forests.

Measuring the functional traits of different alpine trees species in the Changbai Mountains of far north-eastern China (no, I didn’t get to go there), the research set out to test how these varied among species and elevation.

Of course, one expects that different trees use different combinations of traits to survive the rigours of mountain life (high variation in temperature, freezing, wind, etc.), but generally speaking, you might expect things like xylem vessel diameter and density to change more or less monotonically (i.e., changing in a consistent manner as elevation rises or falls). This is because trees should adapt their traits to the local conditions as best they can. Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

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University rankings are questionable at best

23 09 2019

university-rankingMeasuring educational performance is difficult at any stage, especially since most school-level performance indicators are based on ‘standardised’ tests of a few select students in particular years. But if you think that is questionable, you can rest assured that it is a hell of a lot more objective and better quantified than how we rank our universities.

In fact, it is rather stunning how superficial the criteria are for ranking universities, for there are no standardised exams or measures of teaching quality that have been applied to a large-enough section of universities across the world to make any meaningful comparisons. Instead, we tend to rely on brute metrics like the number of high-level academic prizes that employees of a university have won, how many citations they received for their academic papers, and other, highly subjective survey questions regarding the perceived ‘reputation’ of an institution.

As a result, a sceptic might in fact think that all the existing metrics are utter nonsense, especially considering how much advertising from universities appears to be incorporated in the online literature (one could be justified in being concerned about the possibility of undue influence and corruption in this regard 🤔).

While there are many types of university rankings, possibly the three most-recognised and reported are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the (Shanghai) Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) University Rankings. The first purports to Read the rest of this entry »

10 things I wish I knew before doing an Honours degree

19 08 2019



In 2018 I started my Honours degree in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University. I had completed my Bachelor of Science in 2017, after being accepted in the Honours stream through my Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

I will not sugar-coat it — I was a bad Bachelor student. I scarcely attended classes and at times submitted sub-par work. I believed that as long as I didn’t fail anything I would still be able to do my Honours, so I did the bare minimum and just got by. However in the last semester I discovered I needed an average GPA of 5.0 to secure my Honours position, regardless of what stream I was doing. Panic ensued, I was already too deep in my final semester of not achieving to pull my grades around. Thankfully, I was eventually accepted, after having to plead my case with the Honours board.

In the end I managed to score myself a First Class Honours and a PhD candidature (and hopefully soon a publication). Honours was definitely a struggle, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. I just wish I had known these 10 things before I started …

1. You will fail

Not the brightest note to start on, but don’t fear, everyone fails. Honours is full of ups and downs, and at some point, somewhere along the line, something in your project will go wrong. But it’s okay! It happens to every person that has ever done an Honours or a PhD. Whether the failing is small or catastrophic, remember this happens all the time.

More importantly your supervisor or co-ordinator sees it all the time. The best thing to do is tell your supervisor and your co-ordinator early on. It may be a simple case of steering your research in a slightly new direction, changing the scope of your project, or even taking some extra time. It’s okay to fail, just keep pushing. Read the rest of this entry »

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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11 things academic research and surfing have in common

2 05 2019


Our very own surfing scientist, Dr Katharina Peters

(originally published on the

The last time I went surfing the waves were very slow and between sets I had a lot of time to contemplate life. This was when it occurred to me that the pursuit of a career in academic research was similar, in many ways, to trying to catch waves. Here are 11 surprising things surfing and academic research have in common:

1. It’s a constant struggle and a long, hard slog to get past the white water

Paddling out through the white water, having wave after wave come crushing down on you while trying to turtle-roll through the biggest ones, can be a real challenge. Likewise, in science it takes most people years of study, work (often unpaid), long hours in the lab, the field, and at the desk, to establish themselves and potentially secure employment for a period longer than a year or two. You find yourself working late finishing papers from research you did years ago (again, usually unpaid), or volunteering to get more hands-on experience because you know how important these things are. But you power on, always trusting that, just like paddling through the white water will help get you the stamina and shoulder muscles you need to catch waves, all this work will lay the foundation for your career and make you a better scientist.


2. Women are underrepresented and often treated badly (but it’s changing!)

Whether you look around you in the line-up at your surf spot or at a scientific conference, women are underrepresented. Many women I know have experienced discrimination related to their gender, as women are often not assessed based purely on their ability to shred or do high-quality research. Indeed, reviewers have an unconscious bias against women in science, and in surf competitions men get to compete when conditions are optimal whilst women are relegated to whatever is left. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, things are changing for women. It will still take many years to reach an equilibrium (if there is such a thing), but people are becoming more and more aware of the gap, and female researchers and surfers are pushing that glass ceiling.

3. Others always seem to be performing better than you

This is probably true for many areas in life! It always looks so much easier when others do it, and we tend to only see those who do better than us (also, imposter syndrome, anyone??). I guess it’s a lifelong task to learn not to compare yourself to others, to stay focused on your path and try to take inspiration from the achievements of others, rather than letting them demotivate you. Read the rest of this entry »

How to improve (South Australia’s) biodiversity prospects

9 04 2019


Figure 2 (from the article). Overlaying the South Australia’s Protected Areas boundary data with the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia layer indicates that 73.2% of the total protected area (excluding Indigenous Protected Areas) in South Australia lies in the arid biogeographic regions of Great Victoria Desert (21.1%), Channel Country (15.2%), Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields (14.0%), Nullarbor (9.8%), Stony Plains (6.6%), Gawler (6.0%), and Hampton (0.5%). The total biogeographic-region area covered by the remaining Conservation Reserves amounts to 26.2%. Background blue shading indicates relative average annual rainfall.

If you read regularly, you’ll know that late last year I blogged about the South Australia 2108 State of the Environment Report for which I was commissioned to write an ‘overview‘ of the State’s terrestrial biodiversity.

At the time I whinged that not many people seemed to take notice (something I should be used to by now in the age of extremism and not giving a tinker’s about the future health of the planet — but I digress), but it seems that quietly, quietly, at least people with some policy influence here are starting to listen.

Not satisfied with merely having my report sit on the virtual shelves at the SA Environment Protection Authority, I decided that I should probably flesh out the report and turn it into a full, peer-reviewed article.

Well, I’ve just done that, with the article now published online in Rethinking Ecology as a Perspective paper.

The paper is chock-a-block with all the same sorts of points I covered last year, but there’s a lot more, and it’s also a lot better referenced and logically sequenced.

Read the rest of this entry »