To feed or to perish in an iceless world

1 02 2017

Emaciated female polar bear on drift ice in Hinlopen Strait (Svalbard, Norway), in July 2015 – courtesy of Kerstin Langenberger (

Evolution has designed polar bears to move, hunt and reproduce on a frozen and dynamic habitat that wanes and grows in thickness seasonally. But the modification of the annual cycle of Arctic ice due to global warming is triggering a trophic cascade, which already links polar bears to marine birds.

Popular and epicurean gastronomy claims that the best recipes should use seasonal veggies and fruits. Once upon a time, when there were no greenhouses, international trade routes, or as much frozen and canned food, our grandparents enjoyed what was available at the time. So in some years we had plenty of cherries, while during others we might have feasted on plums. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »


24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s in a name? The dingo’s sorry saga

30 01 2015

bad dingoThe more I delve into the science of predator management, the more I realise that the science itself takes a distant back seat to the politics. It would be naïve to think that the management of dingoes in Australia is any more politically charged than elsewhere, but once you start scratching beneath the surface, you quickly realise that there’s something rotten in Dubbo.

My latest contribution to this saga is a co-authored paper led by Dale Nimmo of Deakin University (along with Simon Watson of La Trobe and Dave Forsyth of Arthur Rylah) that came out just the other day. It was a response to a rather dismissive paper by Matt Hayward and Nicky Marlow claiming that all the accumulated evidence demonstrating that dingoes benefit native biodiversity was somehow incorrect.

Their two arguments were that: (1) dingoes don’t eradicate the main culprits of biodiversity decline in Australia (cats & foxes), so they cannot benefit native species; (2) proxy indices of relative dingo abundance are flawed and not related to actual abundance, so all the previous experiments and surveys are wrong.

Some strong accusations, for sure. Unfortunately, they hold no water at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t blame it on the dingo

21 08 2013

dingo angelOur postdoc, Tom Prowse, has just had one of the slickest set of reviews I’ve ever seen, followed by a quick acceptance of what I think is a pretty sexy paper. Earlier this year his paper in Journal of Animal Ecology showed that thylacine (the badly named ‘Tasmanian tiger‘) was most likely not the victim of some unobserved mystery disease, but instead succumbed to what many large predators have/will: human beings. His latest effort now online in Ecology shows that the thylacine and devil extinctions on the Australian mainland were similarly the result of humans and not the scapegoat dingo. But I’ll let him explain:

‘Regime shifts’ can occur in ecosystems when sometimes even a single component is added or changed. Such additions, of say a new predator, or changes such as a rise in temperature, can fundamentally alter core ecosystem functions and processes, causing the ecosystem to switch to some alternative stable state.

Some of the most striking examples of ecological regime shifts are the mass extinctions of large mammals (‘megafauna’) during human prehistory. In Australia, human arrival and subsequent hunting pressure is implicated in the rapid extinction of about 50 mammal species by around 45 thousand years ago. The ensuing alternative stable state was comprised of a reduced diversity of predators, dominated by humans and two native marsupial predators ‑ the thylacine (also known as the marsupial ‘tiger’ or ‘wolf’) and the devil (which is now restricted to Tasmania and threatened by a debilitating, infectious cancer).

Both thylacines and devils lasted on mainland Australia for over 40 thousand years following the arrival of humans. However, a second regime shift resulted in the extinction of both these predators by about 3 thousand years ago, which was coincidentally just after dingoes were introduced to Australia. Dingoes are descended from early domestic dogs and were introduced to northern Australia from Asia by ancient traders approximately 4 thousand years ago. Today, they are Australia’s only top predator remaining, other than invasive European foxes and feral cats. Since the earliest days of European settlement, dingoes have been persecuted because they prey on livestock. During the 1880s, 5614 km of ‘dingo fence’ was constructed to protect south-east Australia’s grazing rangelands from dingo incursions. The fence is maintained to this day, and dingoes are poisoned and shot both inside and outside this barrier, despite mounting evidence that these predators play a key role in maintaining native ecosystems, largely by suppressing invasive predators.

Perhaps because the public perception of dingoes as ‘sheep-killers’ is so firmly entrenched, it has been commonly assumed that dingoes killed off the thylacines and devils on mainland Australia. People who support this view also point out that thylacines and devils persisted on the island of Tasmania, which was never colonised by dingoes (although thylacines went extinct there too in the early 1900s). To date, most discussion of the mainland thylacine and devil extinctions has focused on the possibility that dingoes disrupted the system by ‘exploitation competition’ (eating the same prey), ‘interference competition’ (wasting the native predators’ precious munching time), as well as ‘direct predation’ (dingoes actually eating devils and thylacines). Read the rest of this entry »

Fast-lane mesopredators

29 07 2013

Another post from Alejandro Frid (a modified excerpt from a chapter of his forthcoming book).

I fall in love easy. Must be my Latino upbringing. Whatever it is, I have no choice on the matter. So for five years and counting, I have been passionate about lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) and rockfish (Sebastes spp.), upper- and mid-level predatory fishes on rocky reefs of the Northeast Pacific.

Lingcod are beautiful and fierce. Rockfish are cosmic. Both taste mighty good and—surprise, surprise—have been overfished to smithereens throughout much of their range. Howe Sound, my field site near Vancouver, British Columbia, is no exception, although new protective legislation might be starting to give them some slack.

Our dive surveys1 and earlier studies, in combination, have pieced together a story of ecosystem change. In the Howe Sound of today, lingcod rarely exceed body lengths of 80 cm. But up to 30 years ago, when overfishing had yet to inflict the full extent of its current damage, lingcod with lengths of 90 to 100 cm had been common in the area. There is nothing unique about this; most fisheries target the biggest individuals, ultimately reducing maximum body size within each species of predatory fish.

As predators shrink, the vibrant tension of predation risk slips away. The mechanism of change has a lot to do with mouth size. Predatory fishes swallow prey whole, usually head or tail first, so it is impossible for them to eat prey bigger than the width and height of their open jaws. And bigger fishes have bigger jaws, which makes them capable not only of consuming larger prey, but also of scaring bigger prey into using antipredator behaviours, such as hiding in rocky crevices. As predators shrink, big prey enter a size refuge and only small prey remain at risk, which can alter trophic cascades and other indirect species interactions. Read the rest of this entry »

Toothed conflict

1 11 2012

Left: An Anatolian shepherd (a Turkish breed improved in the USA) guiding a herd of boer goats whose flesh is much appreciated by people in Namibia and South Africa. Right: A cheetah carrying a radio-transmitter, within a project assessing range movements of this feline for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetahs refrain from moving close to the herds when the latter are looked after by the guardian dogs. Photos courtesy of Laurie Marker.

Another corker from Salva. He’s chosen a topic this week that’s near and dear to my brain – the conservation of higher-order predators. As ConBytes readers will know, we’ve talked a lot about human-predator conflict and the inevitable losers in that battle – the (non-human) predators. From dingos to sharks, predator xenophobia is just another way we weaken ecosystems and ultimately harm ourselves.

Rural areas devoted to livestock are part of the natural landscape, so it is inevitable (as well as natural) that predators, livestock and humans interact in such a mosaic of bordering habitats. However, their coexistence remains an unresolved conservation problem. 

When two species, people, political parties, enterprises… want the same thing, they either share it (if possible) or one side eliminates the competitor. The fact that proteins are part of the diet of humans and other carnivore species has resulted in a trophic drama that goes back millennia. Nowadays, predators like eagles, coyotes, lions, wolves and raccoons are credited for attacks on cattle and poultry (and people!) in all continents. This global problem is not only economic, but interlaces culture, emotion, policy and sanitation (1-4). For instance, some carnivores are reservoirs of cattle diseases and contribute to pathogen dispersal (5, 6).

Management options

Managers of natural resources have implemented three strategies to handle these sorts of issues for livestock breeders in general (7). Those strategies can be complementary or exclusive on a case-by-case basis, and are chosen following cost-benefit assessments and depending on the conservation status of the predator species involved. (i) ‘Eradication’ aims to eliminate the predator, which is regarded as noxious and worthless. (ii) ‘Regulation’ allows controlled takes under quota schemes, normally for pre-defined locations, dates and killing methods. ‘Preservation’ is applied in protected areas and/or for rare or endangered species, and often requires monitoring and measures set to prevent illegal harvest or trade. Additionally, many livestock breeders receive money to compensate losses to predators (8).

Many experts now advocate non-lethal (preventive) measures that modify the behaviour of people, livestock or predators (2, 7). The use of livestock-guarding dogs is one of those preventive measures (9). As an example, Laurie Marker (director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund) et al. (10) studied the use of 117 Anatolian shepherds adopted by Namibian rangers between 1995 and 2002 (Fig. 1). In this African country, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) selectively forage on small-sized cattle and juveniles. Despite this feline being protected nationally, Namibian laws authorise rangers to shoot cheetahs in situations of risk to people and their properties, with more than 6,000 cheetahs having been killed in the 1980s alone (11). Through face-to-face interviews, Marker found that since the arrival of the Anatolian shepherds, > 70 % of the rangers perceived a pronounced reduction in cattle mortality (10). Although, the use of livestock-guarding dogs has worked out fine in many places worldwide, it is no panacea. In many other instances, the dogs dissuade some predator species and not others from harassing the livestock, or are only effective in combination with other measures (7, 9). Read the rest of this entry »