Transition from the Anthropocene to the Minicene

24 09 2016
Going, going ...

Going, going … © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve just returned from a life-changing trip to South Africa, not just because it was my first time to the continent, but also because it has redefined my perspective on the megafauna extinctions of the late Quaternary. I was there primarily to attend the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50thAnniversary Celebration conference.

As I reported in my last post, the poaching rates in one of the larger, best-funded national parks in southern Africa (the Kruger) are inconceivably high, such that for at least the two species of rhino there (black and white), their future persistence probability is dwindling with each passing week. African elephants are probably not far behind.

As one who has studied the megafauna extinctions in the Holarctic, Australia and South America over the last 50,000 years, the trip to Kruger was like stepping back into the Pleistocene. I’ve always dreamed of walking up to a grazing herd of mammoths, woolly rhinos or Diprotodon, but of course, that’s impossible. What is entirely possible though is driving up to a herd of 6-tonne elephants and watching them behave naturally. In the Kruger anyway, you become almost blasé about seeing yet another group of these impressive beasts as you try to get that rare glimpse of a leopard, wild dogs or sable antelope (missed the two former, but saw the latter). Read the rest of this entry »

Extinction synergy: deadly combination of human hunting & climate change wrote off Patagonian giants

20 06 2016

MegatheriumHere’s a paper we’ve just had published in Science Advances (Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions during the Last Deglaciation). It’s an excellent demonstration of our concept of extinction synergies that we published back in 2008.

Giant Ice Age species including elephant-sized sloths and powerful sabre-toothed cats that once roamed the windswept plains of Patagonia, southern South America, were finally felled by a perfect storm of a rapidly warming climate and humans, a new study has shown.

Research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, published on Saturday in Science Advances, has revealed that it was only when the climate warmed, long after humans first arrived in Patagonia, did the megafauna suddenly die off around 12,300 years ago.

The timing and cause of rapid extinctions of the megafauna has remained a mystery for centuries.

“Patagonia turns out to be the Rosetta Stone – it shows that human colonisation didn’t immediately result in extinctions, but only as long as it stayed cold,” says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director. “Instead, more than 1000 years of human occupation passed before a rapid warming event occurred, and then the megafauna were extinct within a hundred years.”

The researchers, including from the University of Colorado Boulder, University of New South Wales and University of Magallanes in Patagonia, studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, to trace the genetic history of the populations. Species such as the South American horse, giant jaguar and sabre-toothed cat, and the enormous one-tonne short-faced bear (the largest land-based mammalian carnivore) were found widely across Patagonia, but seemed to disappear shortly after humans arrived. Read the rest of this entry »

If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Cleaning up the rubbish: Australian megafauna extinctions

15 11 2013

diprotodonA few weeks ago I wrote a post about how to run the perfect scientific workshop, which most of you thought was a good set of tips (bizarrely, one person was quite upset with the message; I saved him the embarrassment of looking stupid online and refrained from publishing his comment).

As I mentioned at the end of post, the stimulus for the topic was a particularly wonderful workshop 12 of us attended at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern coast of New South Wales (see Point 5 in the ‘workshop tips’ post).

But why did a group of ecological modellers (me, Barry Brook, Salvador Herrando-Pérez, Fréd Saltré, Chris Johnson, Nick Beeton), ancient DNA specialists (Alan Cooper), palaeontologists (Gav Prideaux), fossil dating specialists (Dizzy Gillespie, Bert Roberts, Zenobia Jacobs) and palaeo-climatologists (Michael Bird, Chris Turney [in absentia]) get together in the first place? Hint: it wasn’t just the for the beautiful beach and good wine.

I hate to say it – mainly because it deserves as little attention as possible – but the main reason is that we needed to clean up a bit of rubbish. The rubbish in question being the latest bit of excrescence growing on that accumulating heap produced by a certain team of palaeontologists promulgating their ‘it’s all about the climate or nothing’ broken record.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning from danger

13 05 2013
Guanaco fleeing
Study vehicle, a group of vicuñas and a guanaco in San Guillermo National Park (San Juan, Argentina) [courtesy of Marco Escudero]. Guanacos and vicuñas are native to South America, and are the ancestors of domesticated llamas and alpacas – which are exploited for their meat, milk and wool. Both species form monotypic genera. They have discontinuous distributions in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, with introduced populations in Paraguay (guanaco) and Ecuador (vicuña). Population estimates are > 500,000 (guanaco) and > 300,000 (vicuña), the latter restricted to high-altitude ecosystems. They are ‘Least Concern’ for the IUCN but, given their low population growth rates (fertility = 1 offspring/female/yr), guanacos and vicuñas are targeted by conservation programs in all their native countries.

Many of us might have stumbled twice on the same stone, yet learnt to be wary of future situations of similar risk. Likewise, wild animals can be predisposed to flee when faced with already known predators (or threats in general). The type and magnitude of their evasive response depends on predator distance, speed and body size (1). Regardless, prey need to assess predation risk in a matter of seconds (or even shorter than that), i.e., balancing the benefits and costs of fleeing.

The benefits all boil down to survival, but the costs might include moving away from offspring, loss of access to fresh and abundant food, or spending precious metabolic energy (2). The methods ecologists use to study animal flight behaviour in the wild are rife with nuisances (3), yet they represent a tool for quantifying wildlife stress resulting from a variety of human activities.

Equipped with our modern technological kit (weapons, vehicles, GPS, etc.), humans behave like genuine predators and can trigger the range of flight behaviours displayed by their potential prey. In that context, Emiliano Donadio and Steve Burskirk (4) studied flight behaviour of guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) in the Argentinean open plains (‘llanos’). They monitored 2 protected areas under weak surveillance and subject to illegal hunting: the Laguna Brava Provincial Reserve and the San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve (treatment = H); and one area free of hunting and only exposed to guided visits with strict entry/exit times: the San Guillermo National Park (treatment = NH). The ecologists did 3 transects per study area. When they encountered a group of camelids, they classified three types of flight behaviour (alert without fleeing, walking away, galloping away), and measured flight time (between vehicle detection and initiation of flight behaviour) and flight distance (between the vehicle and the individuals when initiating flight behaviour). Read the rest of this entry »

Tropical protected areas still in trouble

8 10 2012

© P. Harris

There’s nothing like a bit of good, intelligent and respectful debate in science.

After the publication in Nature of our paper on tropical protected areas (Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas), some interesting discussion has ensued regarding some of our assumptions and validations.

As is their wont, Nature declined to publish these comments (and our responses) in the journal itself, but the new commenting feature at allowed the exchange to be published online with the paper. Cognisant that probably few people will read this exchange, Bill Laurance and I decided to reproduce them here in full for your intellectual pleasure. Any further comments? We’d be keen to hear them.

COMMENT #1 (by Hari Sridhar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore)

In this paper, Laurance and co-authors have tapped the expert opinions of ‘veteran field biologists and environmental scientists’ to understand the health of protected areas in the tropics worldwide. This is a novel and interesting approach and the dataset they have gathered is very impressive. Given that expert opinion can be subject to all kinds of biases and errors, it is crucial to demonstrate that expert opinion matches empirical reality. While the authors have tried to do this by comparing their results with empirical time-series datasets, I argue that their comparison does not serve the purpose of an independent validation.

Using 59 available time-series datasets from 37 sources (journal papers, books, reports etc.), the authors find a fairly good match between expert opinion and empirical data (in 51/59 cases, expert opinion matched empirically-derived trend). For this comparison to serve as an independent validation, it is crucial that the experts were unaware of the empirical trends at the time of the interviews. However, this is unlikely to be true because, in most cases, the experts themselves were involved in the collection of the time-series datasets (at least 43/59 to my knowledge, from a scan of references in Supplementary Table 1). In other words, the same experts whose opinions were being validated were involved in collection of the data used for validation.

OUR RESPONSE (William F. Laurance, Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Susan G. Laurance)

Sridhar raises a relevant point but one that, on careful examination, does not weaken our validation analysis. Read the rest of this entry »

Threats to biodiversity insurance from protected areas

26 07 2012

A red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) from Barro Colorado Island in Panama. This small island, just 1500 ha (3700 acres) in area, is one of the tropical protected areas evaluated in this study (photo © Christian Ziegler <>, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Note: It is prohibited for any third party or agency to use or license this image; any use other then described above shall be subject to usage fees as determined solely by the photographer.

Much of conservation science boils down to good decision making: when, where and how we ‘set aside’ terrestrial or marine areas for specific protection against the ravages of human endeavour. This is the basis for the entire sub-discipline of conservation planning and prioritisation, and features prominantly in most aspects of applied conservation and restoration.

In other words, we do all this science to determine where we should emplace protected areas, lobby for getting more land and sea set aside so that we have ‘representative’ amounts (i.e., to prevent extinctions), and argue over the best way to manage these areas once established.

But what if this pinnacle of conservation achievement is itself under threat? What if many of our protected areas are struggling to insure biodiversity against human consumption? Well, it’d be a scary prospect, to say the least.

Think of it this way. We buy insurance policies to buffer our investments against tragedy; this applies to everything from our houses, worldly possessions, cars, livestock, health, to forest carbon stores. We buy the policies to give us peace of mind that in the event of a disaster, we’ll be bailed out of the mess with a much-needed cash injection. But what if following the disaster we learn that the policy is no good? What if there isn’t enough pay-out to fix the mess?

In biodiversity conservation, our ‘insurance’ is largely provided by protected areas. We believe that come what may, at least in these (relatively) rare places, biodiversity will persist despite our relentless consumerism.

Unfortunately, what we believe isn’t necessarily true.

Today I’m both proud and alarmed to present our latest research on the performance of tropical protected areas around the world. Published online in Nature this morning (evening, for you Europeans) is the 216-author (yes, that is correct – 216 of us) paper entitled “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas” led by Bill Laurance. Read the rest of this entry »

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