Extinction cascades

3 06 2020

A recent online interview I did on the role of extinction cascades in mass extinctions:





Victoria, please don’t aerial-bait dingoes

10 10 2019

Here’s a submission to Victoria’s proposed renewal of special permission from the Commonwealth to poison dingoes:

dingo with bait

08 October 2019

Honourable Lily D’Ambrosio MP
Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change
Level 16, 8 Nicholson Street, East Melbourne, VIC 3002

lily.dambrosio@parliament.vic.gov.au

cc:

The Hon Jaclyn Symes, Minister for Agriculture, Victoria

(jaclyn.symes@parliament.vic.gov.au)

Dr Sally Box, Threatened Species Commissioner

(ThreatenedSpeciesCommissioner@environment.gov.au)

The Hon Sussan Ley MP, Minister for Environment, Australia

(Farrer@aph.gov.au)

RE: RENEWAL OF AERIAL BAITING EXEMPTION IN VICTORIA FOR WILD DOG CONTROL USING 1080

Dear Minister,

The undersigned welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed renewal of special permission from the Commonwealth under Sections 18 and 18A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Commonwealth) to undertake aerial 1080 baiting in six Victorian locations for the management of ‘wild dogs’. This raises serious concerns for two species listed as threatened and protected in Victoria: (1) dingoes and (2) spot-tailed quolls (Dasyurus maculatus).

First, we must clarify that the terminology ‘wild dog’ is not appropriate when discussing wild canids in Australia. One of the main discussion points at the recent Royal Zoological Society of NSW symposium ‘Dingo Dilemma: Cull, Contain or Conserve’ was that the continued use of the terminology ‘wild dog’ is not justified because wild canids in Australia are predominantly dingoes and dingo hybrids, and not, in fact, feral domestic dogs. In Victoria, Stephens et al. (2015) observed that only 5 out of 623 wild canids (0.008%) sampled were feral domestic dogs with no evidence of dingo ancestry. This same study determined that 17.2% of wild canids in Victoria were pure or likely pure dingoes and 64.4% were hybrids with greater than 60% dingo ancestry. Additionally, comparative studies by Jones (1988, 1990 and 2009) observed that dingoes maintained a strong phenotypic identity in the Victorian highlands over time, and perceptively ‘wild dog’ like animals were more dingo than domestic dog.

As prominent researchers in predator ecology, biology, archaeology, cultural heritage, social science, humanities, animal behaviour and genetics, we emphasise the importance of dingoes in Australian, and particularly Victorian, ecosystems. Dingoes are the sole non-human, land-based, top predator on the Australian mainland. Their importance to the ecological health and resilience of Australian ecosystems cannot be overstated, from regulating wild herbivore abundance (e.g., various kangaroo species), to reducing the impacts of feral mesopredators (cats, foxes) on native marsupials (Johnson & VanDerWal 2009; Wallach et al. 2010; Letnic et al. 20122013; Newsome et al. 2015; Morris & Letnic 2017). Their iconic status is important to First Nations people and to the cultural heritage of all Australians. 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?

Read the rest of this entry »





Penguins cheated by ecosystem change

13 03 2018

Jorge Drexler sings “… I was committed not to see what I saw, but sometimes life is more complex than what it looks like …”*. This excerpt by the Oscar-winning Uruguayan singer seems to foretell the theme of this blog: how the ecological complexity of marine ecosystems can elicit false signals to their predators. Indeed, the fidelity of marine predators to certain feeding areas can turn demographically detrimental to themselves when the amount of available food shrinks. A study of jackass penguins illustrates the phenomenon in a context of overfishing and ocean warming.

CB_JackassPenguinsEcologicalTrapPhoto

Adult of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from Robben Island (South Africa) — in the inset, one of the first juveniles released with a satellite transmitter on its back. The species is ‘Endangered’ under IUCN’s criteria (28), following a recent halving of the total population currently estimated at ~ 80,000 adults. Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in Africa, and owe their common name to their vocalisations (you can hear their braying sounds here); adults are ~ 50 cm tall and weigh ~ 3 kg. Photos courtesy of Richard Sherley.

Surface temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity and primary productivity are, by and large, the top four environmental factors driving the functionality of marine ecosystems (1). Growing scientific evidence supports the idea that anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere and the oceans correlates with this quartet (2). For instance, marine primary productivity is enhanced by increased temperatures (3), but a warmer sea surface intensifies stratification, i.e., stacked layers of seawater with contrasting physical and chemical properties.

In coastal areas experiencing ‘upwelling’ (where winds displace surface water, allowing deep water laden with nutrients to reach the euphotic zone where plankton communities feast), stratification weakens upwelling currents and, in turn, limits the growth of plankton (4) that fuels the entire trophic web, including our fisheries. The study of these complex trophic cascades is particularly cumbersome from the perspective of large marine predators because of their capacity to move long distances, from hundreds to thousands of kilometres (5), with strong implications for their conservation (6).

With those caveats in mind, Richard Sherley and colleagues satellite-tracked the movement of 54 post-fledged, juvenile jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) for 2-3 years (7). All individuals had been hatched in eight colonies (accounting for 80% of the global population), and were equipped with platform terminal transmitters. Jackass penguins currently nest in 28 island and mainland locations between South Africa and Namibia. Juveniles swim up to 2000 km in search of food and, when approaching adulthood, return to their native colonies where they reproduce and reside for the remainder of their lives (watch individuals swimming here).

The natural history of this species is linked to the Southern Hemisphere’s trade winds (‘alisios’ for Spanish speakers), which blow from the southeast to the tropics. In the South Atlantic, trade winds sustain the Benguela Current, the waters of which surface from some 300 m of depth and fertilise the marine ecosystems stretching from the Western coasts of South Africa to Angola (8). Read the rest of this entry »





Our global system-of-systems

28 02 2018

Complex-systems

I’ve just read an excellent paper that succinctly, eloquently, and wisely summarised the current predicament of our highly interconnected, global, complex adaptive system (i.e., our environment).

If you are new to the discussions around state shifts, hysteresis, tipping points, and system collapse, there might be a lot in the new paper by Philip Garnett of the University of York that you could find intimidating (and not just because of the complexity of the concepts he discusses). If you are more up-to-date on these discussions, I highly recommend reading this paper for distilling some of the more pertinent questions.

The essence of the paper is that our global environment (Earth) is one giant, complex system made up of interacting sub-systems. We can think of these as a giant, interconnected network of nodes and connections (often called ‘edges’) between them. If you do ecological network theory, then you know what I’m talking about.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is that Philip Garnett is not an environmental scientist; in fact, he’s a a lecturer in Operations Management and Business Analytics (although he does have a background in genetics and biology) who specialises in complex systems theory. In fact, much of his paper uses socio-economic examples of system complexity and collapse, yet the applications to environmentalism in general, and to ecological integrity in particular, are spot on.

Read the rest of this entry »





Microclimates: thermal shields against global warming for small herps

22 11 2017

Thermal microhabitats are often uncoupled from above-ground air temperatures. A study focused on small frogs and lizards from the Philippines demonstrates that the structural complexity of tropical forests hosts a diversity of microhabitats that can reduce the exposure of many cold-blooded animals to anthropogenic climate warming.

Luzon forest frogs

Reproductive pair of the Luzon forest frogs Platymantis luzonensis (upper left), a IUCN near-threatened species restricted to < 5000 km2 of habitat. Lower left: the yellow-stripped slender tree lizard Lipinia pulchella, a IUCN least-concerned species. Both species have body lengths < 6 cm, and are native to the tropical forests of the Philippines. Right panels, top to bottom: four microhabitats monitored by Scheffers et al. (2), namely ground vegetation, bird’s nest ferns, phytotelmata, and fallen leaves above ground level. Photos courtesy of Becca Brunner (Platymantis), Gernot Kunz (Lipinia), Stephen Zozaya (ground vegetation) and Brett Scheffers (remaining habitats).

If you have ever entered a cave or an old church, you will be familiar with its coolness even in the dog days of summer. At much finer scales, from centimetres to millimetres, this ‘cooling effect’ occurs in complex ecosystems such as those embodied by tropical forests. The fact is that the life cycle of many plant and animal species depends on the network of microhabitats (e.g., small crevices, burrows, holes) interwoven by vegetation structures, such as the leaves and roots of an orchid epiphyte hanging from a tree branch or the umbrella of leaves and branches of a thick bush.

Much modern biogeographical research addressing the effects of climate change on biodiversity is based on macroclimatic data of temperature and precipitation. Such approaches mostly ignore that microhabitats can warm up or cool down in a fashion different from that of local or regional climates, and so determine how species, particularly ectotherms, thermoregulate (1). To illustrate this phenomenon, Brett Scheffers et al. (2) measured the upper thermal limits (typically known as ‘critical thermal maxima’ or CTmax) of 15 species of frogs and lizards native to the tropical forest of Mount Banahaw, an active volcano on Luzon (The Philippines). The > 7000 islands of this archipelago harbour > 300 species of amphibians and reptiles (see video here), with > 100 occurring in Luzon (3).

Read the rest of this entry »





To feed or to perish in an iceless world

1 02 2017
cb_climatechange2_polarbears_photo2

Emaciated female polar bear on drift ice in Hinlopen Strait (Svalbard, Norway), in July 2015 – courtesy of Kerstin Langenberger (www.arctic-dreams.com)

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 »





Biowealth

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 »





Can Australia afford the dingo fence?

18 05 2012

I wrote this last night with Euan Ritchie of Deakin University in response to some pretty shoddy journalism that misrepresented my comments (and Euan’s work). Our article appeared first in The Conversation this morning (see original article).

We feel we have to set the record straight after some of our (Bradshaw’s) comments were taken grossly out of context, or not considered at all (Ritchie’s). A bubbling kerfuffle in the media over the last week compels us to establish some facts about dingoes in Australia, and more importantly, about how we as a nation choose to manage them.

A small article in the News Ltd. Adelaide Advertiser appeared on 11 May in which one of us (Bradshaw) was quoted as advocating the removal of the dingo fence because it was not “cost effective” (sic). Despite nearly 20 minutes on the telephone explaining to the paper the complexities of feral animal management, the role of dingoes in suppressing feral predators, and the “costs” associated with biodiversity enhancement and feral control, there wasn’t a single mention of any of this background or justification.

Another News Ltd. article denouncing Ritchie’s work on the role of predators in Australian ecosystems appeared in The Weekly Times the day before, to which Ritchie responded in full.

So it’s damage control, and mainly because we want to state categorically that our opinion is ours alone, and not that of our respective universities, schools, institutes or even Biosecurity SA (which some have claimed or insinuated, falsely, that we represent). Biosecurity SA is responsible for, inter alia, the dingo fence in South Australia. Although our opinions differ on its role, we are deeply impressed, grateful and supportive of their work in defending us from biological problems. Read the rest of this entry »





Sharks: the world’s custodians of fisheries

5 05 2012

Today’s post comes from Salvador Herrando-Pérez (who, incidentally, recently submitted his excellent PhD thesis).

Three species co-occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and involved in the trophic cascade examined by Myers et al. (8). [1] Black-tips (Carcharhinus limbatus) are pelagic sharks in warm and tropical waters worldwide; they reach < 3 m in length, 125 kg in weight, with a maximum longevity in the wild of ~ 12 years; a viviparous species, with females delivering up to 10 offspring per parturition. [2] The cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) is a tropical species from the western Atlantic (USA to Brazil); up to 2 m wide, 50 kg in weight, and 18 years of age; gregarious, migratory and viviparous, with one single offspring per litter. [3] The bay scallop (Agropecten irradians) is a protandric (hermaphrodite) mollusc, with sperm being released a few days before the (> 1 million) eggs; commonly associated with seagrasses in the north-western Atlantic; shells can reach up to 10 cm and individuals live for < 2 years. In the photos, a black-tip angled in a bottom long-line off Alabama (USA), a school of cownose rays swimming along Fort Walton Beach (Florida, USA), and a bay scallop among fronds of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) off Hernando County (Florida, USA). Photos by Marcus Drymon, Dorothy Birch and Janessa Cobb, respectively.

The hips of John Travolta, the sword of Luke Skywalker, and the teeth of Jaws marked an era. I still get goose pimples with the movie soundtrack (bass, tuba, orchestra… silence) solemnizing each of the big shark’s attacks. The media and cinema have created the myth of man’s worst friend. This partly explains why shark fishing does not trigger the same societal rejection as the hunting of other colossuses such as whales or elephants. Some authors contend that we currently live in the sixth massive extinction event of planet Earth (1) 75 % of which is strongly driven by one species, humans, and characterized by the systematic disappearance of mega-animals in general (e.g., mammoths, Steller’s seacow), and predators in particular, e.g., sharks (2, 3).

The selective extirpation of apex predators, recently coined as ‘trophic downgrading’, is transforming habitat structure and species composition of many ecosystems worldwide (4). In the marine realm, over the last half a century, the main target of the world’s fisheries has turned from (oft-large body-sized) piscivorous to planctivorous fish and invertebrates, indicating that fishery fleets are exploiting a trophic level down to collapse, then harvesting the next lower trophic level (5-7).

Myers et al. (8) illustrate the problem with the fisheries of apex-predator sharks in the northeastern coast of the USA. Those Atlantic waters are rife with many species of shark (> 2 m), whose main prey are smaller chondrichthyans (skates, rays, catsharks, sharks), which in turn prey on bottom fishes and bivalves. Myers et al. (8) found that, over the last three decades, the abundance of seven species of large sharks declined by ~ 90 %, coinciding with the crash of a centenary fishery of bay scallops (Agropecten irradians). Conversely, the abundance of 12 smaller chondrichthyes increased dramatically over the same period of time. In particular, the cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), the principal predator of bay scallops, might today exceed > 40 million individuals in some bays, and consume up to ~ 840,000 tonnes of scallops annually. The obvious hypothesis is that the reduction of apex sharks triggers the boom of small chondrichthyans, hence leading to the break-down of scallop stocks. Read the rest of this entry »





Classics: Mesopredator Release

17 03 2010

© J. Short

Although popularised by Crooks & Soulé (1999), Soulé et al. (1988) first gave us the term that described how entire ecosystems can become unbalanced by a reduction of a higher trophic-level predator exerting so-called ‘top-down’ control on the abundance of species occupying lower trophic levels.

The idea had theoretical support in ecology (Wright et al. 1994; Litvaitis & Villafuerte 1996), but it was not until Soulé and colleagues described how the decline of dominant predators combines with habitat fragmentation to release top-down pressure on smaller predators, thereby increasing predation rates on prey lower down the trophic web.

Crooks & Soulé (1999) described an example where the decline in coyotes (Canis latrans) in combination with urbanisation-driven habitat fragmentation led to an increase in cat (Felis catus) densities and the subsequent decline in scrub-breeding birds. More recent examples attest to the importance of the mesopredator release phenomenon: Myers et al. (2007) described how the decline in large coastal shark species has allowed mesopredator cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) to increase, leading to a reduction in commercially important shellfish densities; and Johnson et al. (2007) showed how dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) in Australia suppress populations of exotic predators such as cats and foxes, leading to more locally abundant populations of native marsupials (see previous post).

Conservation biologists have benefited from this knowledge because we’ve realised that top-order predators affect far more than their immediate prey. These examples really hit home how a fully functional community is required for ecosystem stability, so we should strive to preserve complete complements of communities, not just our favourite species.

CJA Bradshaw

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The biodiversity extinction numbers game

4 01 2010

© Ferahgo the Assassin

Not an easy task, measuring extinction. For the most part, we must use techniques to estimate extinction rates because, well, it’s just bloody difficult to observe when (and where) the last few individuals in a population finally kark it. Even Fagan & Holmes’ exhaustive search of extinction time series only came up with 12 populations – not really a lot to go on. It’s also nearly impossible to observe species going extinct if they haven’t even been identified yet (and yes, probably still the majority of the world’s species – mainly small, microscopic or subsurface species – have yet to be identified).

So conservation biologists do other things to get a handle on the rates, relying mainly on the species-area relationship (SAR), projecting from threatened species lists, modelling co-extinctions (if a ‘host’ species goes extinct, then its obligate symbiont must also) or projecting declining species distributions from climate envelope models.

But of course, these are all estimates and difficult to validate. Enter a nice little review article recently published online in Biodiversity and Conservation by Nigel Stork entitled Re-assessing current extinction rates which looks at the state of the art and how the predictions mesh with the empirical data. Suffice it to say, there is a mismatch.

Stork writes that the ‘average’ estimate of losing about 100 species per day has hardly any empirical support (not surprising); only about 1200 extinctions have been recorded in the last 400 years. So why is this the case?

As mentioned above, it’s difficult to observe true extinction because of the sampling issue (the rarer the individuals, the more difficult it is to find them). He does cite some other problems too – the ‘living dead‘ concept where species linger on for decades, perhaps longer, even though their essential habitat has been destroyed, forest regrowth buffering some species that would have otherwise been predicted to go extinct under SAR models, and differing extinction proneness among species (I’ve blogged on this before).

Of course, we could just all be just a pack of doomsday wankers vainly predicting the end of the world ;-)

Well, I think not – if anything, Stork concludes that it’s all probably worse than we currently predict because of extinction synergies (see previous post about this concept) and the mounting impact of rapid global climate change. If anything, the “100 species/day” estimate could look like a utopian ideal in a few hundred years. I do disagree with Stork on one issue though – he claims that deforestation isn’t probably as bad as we make it out. I’d say the opposite (see here, here & here) – we know so little of how tropical forests in particular function that I dare say we’ve only just started measuring the tip of the iceberg.

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgStork, N. (2009). Re-assessing current extinction rates Biodiversity and Conservation DOI: 10.1007/s10531-009-9761-9





Scoping the future threats and solutions to biodiversity conservation

4 12 2009

Way back in 1989, Jared Diamond defined the ‘evil quartet’ of habitat destruction, over-exploitation, introduced species and extinction cascades as the principal drivers of modern extinctions. I think we could easily update this to the ‘evil quintet’ that includes climate change, and I would even go so far as to add extinction synergies as a the sixth member of the ‘evil sextet’.

But the future could hold quite a few more latent threats to biodiversity, and a corresponding number of potential solutions to its degradation. That’s why Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University recently got together with some other well-known scientists and technology leaders to do a ‘horizon scanning’ exercise to define what these threats and solutions might be in the immediate future. It’s an interesting, eclectic and somewhat enigmatic list, so I thought I’d summarise it here. The paper is entitled A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 and was recently published online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

In no particular order or relative rank, Sutherland and colleagues list the following 15 ‘issues’ that I’ve broadly divided into ‘Emerging Threats’ and ‘Potential Solutions’:

Emerging Threats

  1. Microplastic pollution – The massive increase in plastics found in the world’s waterways and oceans really doesn’t have much focus right now in conservation research, but it should. We really don’t know how much we’re potentially threatening species with this source of pollution.
  2. Nanosilver in wastewater – The ubiquity of antimicrobial silver oxide or ions in products these days needs careful consideration for what the waste might be doing to our microbial communities that keep ecosystems alive and functioning.
  3. Stratospheric aerosols – A simultaneous solution and threat. Creating what would in effect be an artificial global cooling by injecting particles like sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere might work to cool the planet down somewhat. However, it would not reduce carbon dioxide, ocean acidification or other greenhouse gas-related changes. This strikes me as a potential for serious mucking up of the global climate and only a band-aid solution to the real problem.
  4. Deoxygenation of the oceans – Very scary. Ironically today I was listening to a talk by Martin Kennedy on the deep-time past of ocean hypoxia and he suggests we’re well on our way to a situation where our shelf waters could essentially become too anoxic for marine life to persist. It’s happened before, and rapid climate change makes the prospect plausible within less than a century. And you thought acidification was scary.
  5. Changes in denitrifying bacteria – Just like we’re changing the carbon cycle, we’re buggering up the nitrogen cycle as well. Changing our water bodies to nitrogen sources rather than sinks could fundamentally change marine ecosystems for the worse.
  6. High-latitude volcanism – One of these horrible positive feedback ideas. Reducing high-latitude ice cover exposes all these slumbering volcanoes that once ‘released’, start increasing atmospheric gas concentrations and contributing to faster ice melt and sea level rise.
  7. Trans-Arctic dispersal and colonisation – Warming polar seas and less ice mean fewer barriers to species movements. Expect Arctic ecosystems to be a hotbed of invasion, regime shifts and community reshuffling as a result.
  8. Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish – Not one I would have focussed on, but interesting. These spiny, venomous fish like to eat a lot of other species, and so represent a potentially important invasive species in the marine realm.
  9. REDD and non-forested ecosystems – Heralded as a great potential coup for forest preservation and climate change mitigation, focussing on maintaining forests for their carbon sequestration value might divert pressure toward non-forested habitats and ironically, threaten a whole new sphere of species.
  10. International land acquisition – Global financial crises and dwindling food supplies mean that governments are acquiring more and more huge tracts of land for agricultural development. While this might solve some immediate issues, it could potentially threaten a lot more undeveloped land in the long run, putting even more pressure on habitats.

Potential Solutions

  1. Synthetic meat – Ever thought about eating a sausage grown in a vat rather than cut from a dead pig? It could become the norm and a way of reducing the huge pressure on terrestrial and aquatic systems for the production of livestock and fish for human protein provision.
  2. Artificial life – Both a risk and a potential solution. While I’ve commented before on the pointlessness of cloning technology for conservation, the ability to create genomes and reinvigorate species on the brink is an exciting prospect. It’s also frightening as hell because we don’t know how all these custom-made genomes might react and transform naturally evolved ones.
  3. Biochar – Burn organic material (e.g., plant matter) in the absence of oxygen, you get biochar. This essentially sequesters a lot of carbon that can then be put underground. The upshot is that agricultural yields can also increase. Would there be a trade-off though between land available for biochar sequestration and natural habitats?
  4. Mobile-sensing technology – Not so much a solution per se, but the rapid acceleration of remote technology will make our ability to measure and predict the subtleties of ecosystem and climate change much more precise. A lot more work and application required here.
  5. Assisted colonisationI’ve blogged about this before. With such rapid shifts in climate, we might be obliged to move species around so that they can keep up with rapidly changing conditions. Many pros and cons here, not least of which is exacerbating the invasive species problems around the globe.

Certainly some interesting ideas here and worth a thought or two. I wonder if the discipline of ‘conservation biology’ might even exist in 50-100 years – we might all end up being climate or agricultural engineers with a focus on biodiversity-friendly technology. Who knows?

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgSutherland, W., Clout, M., Côté, I., Daszak, P., Depledge, M., Fellman, L., Fleishman, E., Garthwaite, R., Gibbons, D., & De Lurio, J. (2009). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003





Value of a good enemy

25 10 2009

alienpredatorI love these sorts of experiments. Ecology (and considering conservation ecology a special subset of the larger discipline) is a messy business, mainly because ecosystems are complex, non-linear, emergent, interactive, stochastic and meta-stable entities that are just plain difficult to manipulate experimentally. Therefore, making inference of complex ecological processes tends to be enhanced when the simplest components are isolated.

Enter the ‘mini-ecosystem-in-a-box’ approach to ecological research. I’ve blogged before about some clever experiments to examine the role of connectivity among populations in mitigating (or failing to mitigate) extinction risk, and alluded to others indicating how harvest reserves work to maximise population persistence. This latest microcosm experiment is another little gem and has huge implications for conservation.

A fairly long-standing controversy in conservation biology, and in invasive species biology in particular, is whether intact ecosystems are in any way more ‘resilient’ to invasion by alien species (the latter most often being deliberately or inadvertently introduced by humans – think of Australia’s appalling feral species problems; e.g., buffalo, foxes and cats, weeds). Many believe by default that more ‘pristine’ (i.e., less disturbed by humans) communities will naturally provide more ecological checks against invasives because there are more competitors, more specialists and more predators. However, considering the ubiquity of invasives around the world, this assumption has been challenged vehemently.

The paper I’m highlighting today uses the microcosm experimental approach to show how native predators, when abundant, can reduce the severity of an invasion. Using a system of two mosquito species (one ‘native’ – what’s ‘native’ in a microcosm? [another subject] – and one ‘invasive’) and a native midge predator, Juliano and colleagues demonstrate in their paper Your worst enemy could be your best friend: predator contributions to invasion resistance and persistence of natives that predators are something you want to keep around.

In short, they found little evidence of direct competition between the two mosquitoes in terms of abundance when placed together without predators, but when the midges were added, the persistence of the invasive mosquito was reduced substantially. Of course, the midge predators did do their share of damage on the native mosquitoes in terms of reducing the latter’s abundance, but through a type of competitive release from their invasive counterparts, the midges’ reduction of the invasive species left the native mosquito free to develop faster (i.e., more per capita resources).

Such a seemingly academic result has huge conservation implications. In most systems, predators are some of the largest and slowest-reproducing species, so they are characteristically the first to feel the hammer of human damage. From bears to sharks, and tigers to wolves, big, charismatic predators are on the wane worldwide. Juliano and colleagues’ nice experimental work with insects reminds us that keeping functioning native ecosystems intact from all trophic perspectives is imperative.

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgJuliano, S., Lounibos, L., Nishimura, N., & Greene, K. (2009). Your worst enemy could be your best friend: predator contributions to invasion resistance and persistence of natives Oecologia DOI: 10.1007/s00442-009-1475-x





Eastern Seaboard Climate Change Initiative

30 04 2009
© A. Perkins
© A. Perkins

I’ve just spent the last few days in Sydney attending a workshop on the Eastern Seaboard Climate Change Initiative which is trying to come to grips with assessing the rising impact of climate change in the marine environment (both from biodiversity and coastal geomorphology perspectives).

Often these sorts of get-togethers end up doing little more than identifying what we don’t know, but in this case, the ESCCI (love that acronym) participants identified some very good and necessary ways forward in terms of marine research. Being a biologist, and given this is a conservation blog, I’ll focus here on the biological aspects I found interesting.

The first part of the workshop was devoted to kelp. Kelp? Why is this important?

As it turns out, kelp forests (e.g., species such as Ecklonia, Macrocystis, Durvillaea and Phyllospora) are possibly THE most important habitat-forming group of species in temperate Australia (corals and calcareous macroalgae being more important in the tropics). Without kelp, there are a whole host of species (invertebrates and fish) that cannot persist. The Australian marine environment is worth something in the vicinity of $26.8 billion to our economy each year, so it’s pretty important we maintain our major habitats. Unfortunately, kelp is starting to disappear around the country, with southern contractions of Durvillaea, Ecklonia and Hormosira on the east coast linked to the increasing southward penetration of the East Australia Current (i.e., the big current that brings warm tropical water south from Queensland to NSW, Victoria and now, Tasmania). Pollution around the country at major urban centres is also causing the loss or degradation of Phyllospora and Ecklonia (e.g., see recent paper by Connell et al. in Marine Ecology Progress Series). There is even some evidence that disease causing bleaching in some species is exacerbated by rising temperatures.

Some of the key kelp research recommendations coming out of the workshop were:

  1. Estimating the value of kelp to Australians (direct harvesting; fishing; diving)
  2. Physical drivers of change: understanding how variation in the East Australian Current (temperature, nutrients) affects kelp distribution; understanding how urban and agricultural run-off (nutrients, pollutants, sedimentation) affects distribution and health; understanding how major storm events (e.g., East Coast Lows and El Niño-Southern Oscillation) affects long-term persistence
  3. Monitoring: what is the distribution and physical limits of kelp species?; how do we detect declines in ‘health’?; what is the associated biodiversity in kelp forests?
  4. Experimental: manipulations of temperature/nutrients/pathogens in the lab and in situ to determine sensitivities; sensitivity of different life stages; latitudinal transplants to determine localised adaption
  5. Adaptation (management): reseeding; managing run-off; managing fisheries to maintain a good balance of grazers and predators; inform marine protected area zoning; understanding trophic cascades

The second part of the discussion centred on ocean acidification and increasing CO2 content in the marine environment. As you might know, increasing atmospheric CO2 is taken up partially by ocean water, which lowers the availability of carbonate and increases the concentration of hydrogen ions (thus lowering pH or ‘acidifying’). It’s a pretty worrying trend – we’ve seen a drop in pH already, with conservative predictions of another 0.3 pH drop by the end of this century (equating to a doubling of hydrogen ions in the water). What does all this mean for marine biodiversity? Well, many species will simply not be able to maintain carbonate shells (e.g., coccolithophore phytoplankton, corals, echinoderms, etc.), many will suffer reproductive failure through physiological stress and embryological malfunction, and still many more will be physiologically stressed via hypercapnia (overdose of CO2, the waste product of animal respiration).

Many good studies have come out in the last few years demonstrating the sensitivity of certain species to reductions in pH (some simultaneous with increases in temperature), but some big gaps remain in our understanding of what higher CO2 content in the marine environment will mean for biota. Some of the key research questions in this area identified were therefore:

  1. What is the adaptation (evolutionary) potential of sensitive species? Will many (any) be able to evolve higher resistance quickly enough?
  2. In situ experiments outside the lab that mimic pH and pCO2 variation in space and time are needed to expose species to more realistic conditions.
  3. What are the population consequences (e.g., change in extinction risk) of higher individual susceptibility?
  4. Which species are most at risk, and what does this mean for ecosystem function (e.g., trophic cascades)?

As you can imagine, the conversation was complex, varied and stimulating. I thank the people at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science for hosting the fascinating discussion and I sincerely hope that even a fraction of the research identified gets realised. We need to know how our marine systems will respond – the possibilities are indeed frightening. Ignorance will leave us ill-prepared.

CJA Bradshaw

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