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.


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


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

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 »