Can we resurrect the thylacine? Maybe, but it won’t help the global extinction crisis

9 03 2022

NFSA

(published first on The Conversation)

Last week, researchers at the University of Melbourne announced that thylacines or Tasmanian tigers, the Australian marsupial predators extinct since the 1930s, could one day be ushered back to life.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ (it was neither Tasmanian, because it was once common in mainland Australia, nor was it related to the tiger), went extinct in Tasmania in the 1930s from persecution by farmers and habitat loss. Art by Eleanor (Nellie) Pease, University of Queensland.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

The main reason for the optimism was the receipt of a A$5 million philanthropic donation to the research team behind the endeavour.

Advances in mapping the genome of the thylacine and its living relative the numbat have made the prospect of re-animating the species seem real. As an ecologist, I would personally relish the opportunity to see a living specimen.

The announcement led to some overhyped headlines about the imminent resurrection of the species. But the idea of “de-extinction” faces a variety of technical, ethical and ecological challenges. Critics (like myself) argue it diverts attention and resources from the urgent and achievable task of preventing still-living species from becoming extinct.

The rebirth of the bucardo

The idea of de-extinction goes back at least to the the creation of the San Diego Frozen Zoo in the early 1970s. This project aimed to freeze blood, DNA, tissue, cells, eggs and sperm from exotic and endangered species in the hope of one day recreating them.

The notion gained broad public attention with the first of the Jurassic Park films in 1993. The famous cloning of Dolly the sheep reported in 1996 created a sense that the necessary know-how wasn’t too far off.

The next technological leap came in 2008, with the cloning of a dead mouse that had been frozen at –20℃ for 16 years. If frozen individuals could be cloned, re-animation of a whole species seemed possible.

After this achievement, de-extinction began to look like a potential way to tackle the modern global extinction crisis.

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The integrity battlefield: where science meets policy

4 03 2022

Professor Ross Thompson, University of Canberra


On the whole, I am inclined to conclude that my experience of academia and publishing my work has been largely benign. Despite having published 120-odd peer-reviewed papers, I can count the number of major disputes on one hand. Where there have been disagreements, they have centred on issues of content, and despite the odd grumble, things have rarely escalated to the ad hominem. I have certainly never experienced concerted attacks on my work.

But that changed recently. I work in water science, participating in and leading multi-disciplinary teams that do research directly relevant to water policy and management. My colleagues and I work closely with state and federal governments and are often funded by them through a variety of mechanisms. Our teams are a complex blend of scientists from universities, state and federal research agencies, and private-sector consultancies. Water is big business in Australia, and its management is particularly pertinent as the world’s driest inhabited continent struggles to come to terms with the impacts of climate change.

In the last 10 years, Australia has undergone a AU$16 billion program of water reform that has highlighted the extreme pressure on ecosystems, rural communities, and water-dependent industries. In 2019, two documentaries (Cash Splash and Pumped) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were highly critical of the  outcomes of water reform. A group of scientists involved in working on the Murray-Darling Basin were concerned enough about the accuracy of aspects of those stories to support Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne in drafting an Open Letter in response. I was a co-author on that letter, and something into which I did not enter lightly. We were very concerned about being seen to advocate for any particular policy position, but were simultaneously committed to contributing to an informed public debate. A later investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority also highlighted concerns with the Cash Splash documentary.

Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of a paper by Colloff et al. (2021) in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources. In that paper, the authors were critical of the scientists that had contributed to the Open Letter and claimed they had been subject to “administrative capture” and “issue advocacy”. Administrative capture is defined here as:

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The sixth mass extinction is happening now, and it doesn’t look good for us

2 03 2022

Mounting evidence is pointing to the world having entered a sixth mass extinction. If the current rate of extinction continues we could lose most species by 2200. The implication for human health and wellbeing is dire, but not inevitable.

In the timeline of fossil evidence going right back to the first inkling of any life on Earth — over 3.5 billion years ago — almost 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. That means that as species evolve over time — a process known as ‘speciation’ — they replace other species that go extinct.

Extinctions and speciations do not happen at uniform rates through time; instead, they tend to occur in large pulses interspersed by long periods of relative stability. These extinction pulses are what scientists refer to as mass extinction events.

The Cambrian explosion was a burst of speciation some 540 million years ago. Since then, at least five mass extinction events have been identified in the fossil record (and probably scores of smaller ones). Arguably the most infamous of these was when a giant asteroid smashed into Earth about 66 million years ago in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The collision vapourised species immediately within the blast zone. Later, species were killed off by climate change arising from pulverised particulates suspended in the atmosphere, as well as intense volcano activity stimulated by the buckling of the Earth’s crust from the asteroid’s impact. Together, about 76 percent of all species around at the time went extinct, of which the disappearance of the dinosaurs is most well-known. But dinosaurs didn’t disappear altogether — the survivors just evolved into birds.

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Need human census data for any of your analyses? Follow these simple steps

25 02 2022

As someone who regularly delves into human demography — often from a conservation perspective — I’m always on the lookout for quick and easy ways to get the latest and greatest datasets. Whether it’s for projection human populations, or just getting country-specific population densities, I’ve found a really nice way to interface great human data with R.

In this particular example, I’m using a api (application programming interface) key to access live data on the US Census Bureau server (don’t worry — they have global data, not just those specific to the US). What’s an ‘api key’? It’s just a code that gives you permission to access the server directly from an application via an internet link.

Step 1. Apply for an api key

This is a straightforward process and just needs to be done via this URL. The approval process doesn’t take long.

Step 2: Install the idbr package in R

This stands for the ‘(US Census Bureau) International Data Base (R)’, and grants access to and queries demographic data, including contemporary, historical, and future projections to 2100 for countries with ≥ 5000 people.

install.packages(“idbr”)

Step 3: Set api key

You need to set your user api using the following commands:

apikey <- “XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX”
idbr::idb_api_key(apikey)

Step 4. Get data

Using the get_idb() command, you can specify all sorts of queries to get various levels of data complexity. All the variable combinations for the international database are described well here.

Example 1. Life expectancy

Let’s say you wanted to plot a map of the world with the shading of a country related to its average life expectancy at birth. First we get the necessary data:

lex.dat <- idbr::get_idb(
country = “all”,
year = 2022,
variables = c(“name”, “e0”),
geometry = T)

The ensuing lex.dat object looks like this:

Simple feature collection with 6 features and 4 fields
Geometry type: MULTIPOLYGON
Dimension: XY
Bounding box: xmin: -73.41544 ymin: -55.25 xmax: 75.15803 ymax: 42.68825
Geodetic CRS: SOURCECRS
code year name e0 geometry
1 AF 2022 Afghanistan 53.65 MULTIPOLYGON (((61.21082 35…
2 AO 2022 Angola 62.11 MULTIPOLYGON (((16.32653 -5…
3 AL 2022 Albania 79.47 MULTIPOLYGON (((20.59025 41…
4 AE 2022 United Arab Emirates 79.56 MULTIPOLYGON (((51.57952 24…
5 AR 2022 Argentina 78.31 MULTIPOLYGON (((-65.5 -55.2…
6 AM 2022 Armenia 76.13 MULTIPOLYGON (((43.58275 41

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXX

16 02 2022

Here is the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Wondering if you should apply for a DECRA?

7 02 2022

Do you love doing job applications, but wish they were longer and more involved?

If so, applying for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) should be right up your alley.

If, like most people, you answered a resounding NO! to that question, there are still many good reasons to apply for a DECRA. But there are also some completely valid reasons why you might not apply, so it pays to weigh up the pros and cons if you’re thinking about it.

Let’s go through some of these points, plus tips on how to make a competitive application (I just submitted a DECRA application in the last round, so it’s all painfully fresh in my memory). 

What the hell is a DECRA?

The Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards offered by the Australian Research Council are highly competitive, with success rates of between 12% (ouch!) and 20% across years (but expect especially low success rates in the next round/DECRA23, given the bumper crop of applicants). 

DECRAs are restricted to researchers who are (i) less than 5-years out from their PhD conferral, and (ii) who are proposing non-medical projects.

The 5-year eligibility period is based on time spent ‘research active’, to accommodate the different career pathways people follow. This means that people who haven’t been working 100% in research since completing their PhD can tally up career interruptions (which can relate to illnesses or disability, carer responsibilities, parental leave, unemployment, and employment in non-research positions) and extend their eligibility period.

So even if you are well-over 5 years post PhD (as was the case for me), you might still be eligible to apply. If you’re considering a medical science project, then you need to check out the schemes offered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Pros and Cons

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How to manage your academic stress

31 01 2022

Feeling like the stresses of academic life are getting to you? Here are some handy tips for managing your stress (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)


As professions go, being an research scientist probably doesn’t top the list for most stressful, although if you are drilling ice cores in Greenland, photographing deep-sea life from submersibles, setting up seismography equipment on the slopes of active volcanoes, diving with sharks, or scaling 75-metre trees in the Amazon rain forest to collect beetles, then stress is just part of the job. However, I am not going to discuss that kind of stress; rather, I am referring to the day-to-day stress of a demanding academic environment.

‘Relieving Stress’ © René Campbell renecampbellart.com

The stress of the career scientists is insidious and multifaceted. The cumulative stress of academia grows as one progresses from being a student, through postdoctoral life, to early-career lectureship, and all the way to tenured professorship. Will I be awarded that grant? Will the editors accept my manuscript? Will I be promoted? How long will I have a job? How do I make sure my lab members succeed? Will I be invited to that conference? Do my peers respect me? How do I recover from that critique of my research?

If you do not learn how to deal with these stresses along the way, you are likely setting yourself up for a big crisis somewhere down the track. I will provide some tips that my colleagues and I have found to be useful in that regard.

E-mail

In the day-to-day routine of being a scientist, one activity in particular is simultaneous a blessing and a curse — e-mail. E-mail — rather, the messages delivered by it — can be an immense source of stress. There is the stress associated with pressure to respond quickly to urgent requests, the stress arising from e-mails that you really should have responded to weeks ago, but still haven’t yet, and stress from messages that are nasty, vindictive, or even libel received from angry colleagues or misinformed members of the public.

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Open Letter from Members of the Australian Research Council College of Experts

25 01 2022

People outside Australia might not have heard about the (unfortunately, not unprecedented) intervention of the acting Minister for Education and Youth to deny funding to six Australian Research Council (ARC: Australia’s main scientific funding body) Discovery Grants that had been assessed and recommended for funding by the College of Experts. As an acting College of Expert member, I joined a long list of my fellow members in protest of this political interference, with whom I co-wrote/co-signed this letter published last week (the ARC Laureate fellows wrote an analogous open letter a few weeks before). I have copied the letter here for your viewing displeasure.


(letter originally posted here)

19 January 2022

To: The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Acting Minister for Education and Youth
stuart.robert.mp@aph.gov.au

CC: Professor Sue Thomas
CEO, Australian Research Council
ceo@arc.gov.au

As members of the Australian Research Council‘s (ARC) College of Experts, we write to express our concern over the Acting Minister for Education and Youth’s decision in late 2021 to reject six Discovery Project grants that were recommended for funding by the ARC.

As explained on its website, the ARC engages a College of Experts to play an essential role in identifying research excellence, in order to support the advancement of knowledge and contribute to national innovation. Its members are experts of international standing drawn from the Australian research community: from higher education, industry, and public sector research organisations. Many College of Experts members have extensive industry and community experience in addition to their specialist research expertise.

The quality of grant proposals submitted to the ARC is extremely high. The ARC runs a rigorous, multi-stage selection process. Each grant eventually recommended to the Minister for funding is first assessed by multiple international experts and multiple College members, and then individually discussed and voted on by College members at the Selection Advisory Committee panel meetings. The 19% of submitted proposals recommended for 2022 were therefore considered to be of the highest calibre measured against international standards for research across disciplines. Each was recommended on the strength not only of quality, innovation and feasibility, but also the wider benefit and value of the proposed research.

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Neo-colonialist attitudes ignoring poachernomics will ensure more extinctions

14 01 2022

No matter most people’s best intentions, poaching of species in Sub-Saharan Africa for horn and ivory continues unabated. Despite decades of policies, restrictions, interventions, protections, and incentives, many species of elephant and rhino are still hurtling toward extinction primarily because of poaching.

Clearly, we’re doing something heinously wrong.

Collectively, we have to take a long, hard look in the conservation mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why haven’t we been able to put any real dent in the illegal trade of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn? How many millions (billions?) of dollars have we spent seemingly to little avail? Why haven’t trade bans and intensive security measures done the trick?

The reasons are many, but they boil down to two main culprits:

  1. neo-colonialist sentiments driven by the best intentions of mainly overseas NGOs have inadvertently created the ideal conditions for the poaching economy — what we term poachernomics — to thrive by ensuring the continued restriction of legal supply of wildlife products; and
  2. shutting off conservation areas to local people and directing the bulk of ecotourism profits away from source communities have maintained steady poaching incentives in the absence of other non-destructive livelihoods.

In our new paper — Dismantling the poachernomics of the illegal wildlife trade (led by Enrico Di Minin of the Universities of Helsinki and KwaZulu-Natal, and co-authored by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes of the University of Oxford, Jeanetta Selier of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, Maxi Louis of the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resources Management Support Organizations, and me) — published quietly in late 2021, we describe how poachernomics works, and why our efforts to incapacitate it have been so ineffectual.

First, what is poachernomics?

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Influential conservation papers of 2021

5 01 2022

Following my annual tradition, I present the retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2021 as assessed by experts in Faculty Opinions (formerly known as F1000). These are in no particular order. See previous years’ lists here: 2020, 201920182017201620152014, and 2013.


Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change — “… confirms what the sparse forest inventory has suggested, that climate change and land-use change is driving Amazonian ecosystems toward carbon sinks. … the research team provides a robust estimate of the carbon dynamics of one of the world’s most important ecosystems and provides insights into the role of land use change and potentials for mitigating direct carbon losses in the future.

Organic and conservation agriculture promote ecosystem multifunctionality — “… a very clear insight into the trade-offs between the different ecosystem services and indicate that yield and product quality are lower in organic systems compared to conventional systems, yet organic systems have higher economic performance due to higher product prices and subsidies.

Biodiversity of coral reef cryptobiota shuffles but does not decline under the combined stressors of ocean warming and acidification — “… even with similar richness, community function is very likely to be perturbed by ocean warming/acidification with unpredictable impacts on economically important species such as fish and corals.

Local conditions magnify coral loss after marine heatwaves — “… show that climate-induced coral loss is greater in areas with elevated seaweed abundance and elevated sea urchin densities, both of which commonly result from local overfishing … effective local management can synergize with global efforts to mitigate climate change and help coral reefs survive the Anthropocene.

Large ecosystem-scale effects of restoration fail to mitigate impacts of land-use legacies in longleaf pine savannas — “… while restoration can have major benefits in longleaf savannas, land-use legacies have clear effects on many aspects of the ecosystem.

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Fancy a pangolin infected with coronavirus? Apparently, many people do

30 12 2021

The logic of money contradicts the logic of species conservation and human health. As illegal trade has driven pangolins to near extinction, their hunting and market value has kept increasing ― even when we have known that they act as coronavirus reservoirs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in a monsoon forest (Sumba Island, Indonesia). With adult weights up to 10 kg and body lengths around half a metre, these animals are mostly solitary and nocturnal, feed on ants and termites, and love tree climbing using bark hollows to shelter and give birth to singletons. The species occurs across mainland and islands of South East Asia, and became ‘Endangered’ in 2008 and ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2014, following a 80% decline in the last 20 years due to hunting and poaching. It has been the most heavily trafficked Asian species, and the IUCN’s assessment states: “… the incentives for harvesting and illegally trading in the species are universally high based on the high financial value of pangolin parts and derivatives”. Captive breeding is unlikely to deter wild collection because (among other reasons) farming costs are high (more so on a large scale) and, even if the species could be traded legally, wild versus farmed pangolin products and individuals are difficult to distinguish (23). Photo courtesy of Michael Pitts

Urbanites are attracted to exotic species, materials, and places. Our purchasing power seems to give us the right to buy any ‘object’ that we can pay for, no matter how exotic the object might be. In such a capitalist rationale, it is no surprise that > 150 thousand illegal cargos with wild animals and plants have been confiscated in 149 countries over the last two decades, moving some 6000 species from one place of the planet to another (1).

Social networks show people interacting with all kinds of fauna, creating the illusion that any animal can become a pet (2). And there’s a multi-$billion market of wildlife for a diverse array of uses including collecting, food, ornamentation, leisure, clothing and medicine (3-5). The paradox is that the rarer a species is, the higher its market value runs and the more lucrative selling it turns out to be, leading to more exploitation and rocketing extinction risk (6).

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIX

23 12 2021

Here is the final set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021, with some à propos seasonal content. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Remote areas not necessarily safe havens for biodiversity

16 12 2021

The intensity of threats to biodiversity from human endeavour becomes weaker as the distance to them increases.


As you move away from the big city to enjoy the countryside, you’ll notice the obvious increase in biodiversity. Even the data strongly support this otherwise subjective perception — there is a positive correlation between the degree we destroy habitat, harvest species, and pollute the environment, and the distance from big cities.

Remote locations are therefore usually considered safe havens and potential reservoirs for biodiversity. But our new study published recently in Nature Communications shows how this obvious pattern depicts only half of the story, and that global conservation management and actions might benefit from learning more about the missing part.

Communities are not just lists of individual species. Instead, they consist of complex networks of ecological interactions linking interdependent species. The structure of such networks is a fundamental determinant of biodiversity emergence and maintenance. However, it also plays an essential role in the processes of biodiversity loss. The decline or disappearance of some species might have detrimental —often fatal — effects on their associates. For example, a parasite cannot survive without its hosts, as much as a predator will starve without prey, or a plant will not reproduce without pollinators.

Events where a species disappears following the loss of other species on which it depends are known as co-extinctions, and they are now recognised as a primary driver of the ongoing global biodiversity crisis. The potential risk stemming from ecological dependencies is a major concern for all ecological systems.

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Extinct megafauna prone to ancient hunger games

14 12 2021

I’m very chuffed today to signal the publication of what I think is one of the most important contributions to the persistent conundrum surrounding the downfall of Australia’s megafauna many tens of millennia ago.

Diprotodon optimum. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

Sure, I’m obviously biased in that assessment because it’s a paper from our lab and I’m a co-author, but if readers had any inkling of the work that went into this paper, I think they might consider adopting my position. In addition, the injection of some actual ecology into the polemic should be viewed as fresh and exciting.

Having waded into the murky waters of the ‘megafauna debate’ for about a decade now, I’ve become a little sensitive to even a whiff of binary polemic surrounding their disappearance in Australia. Acolytes of the climate-change prophet still beat their drums, screaming for the smoking gun of a spear sticking out of a Diprotodon‘s skull before they even entertain the notion that people might have had something to do with it — but we’ll probably never find one given the antiquity of the event (> 40,000 years ago). On the other side are the blitzkriegers who declaim that human hunting single-handedly wiped out the lot.

Well, as it is for nearly all extinctions, it’s actually much more complicated than that. In the case of Sahul’s megafauna disappearances, both drivers likely contributed, but the degree to which both components played a part depends on where and when you look — Fred Saltré demonstrated that elegantly a few years ago.

Palorchestes. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

So, why does the polemic persist? In my view, it’s because we have largely depended on the crude comparison of relative dates to draw our conclusions. That is, we look to see if some climate-change proxy shifted in any notable way either before or after an inferred extinction date. If a particular study claims evidence that a shift happened before, then it concludes climate change was the sole driver. If a study presents evidence that a shift happened after, then humans did it. Biases in geochronological inference (e.g., spatial, contamination), incorrect application of climate proxies, poor taxonomic resolution, and not accounting for the Signor-Lipps effect all contribute unnecessarily to the debate because small errors or biases can flip relative chronologies on their head and push conclusions toward uncritical binary outcomes. The ‘debate’ has been almost entirely grounded on this simplistically silly notion.

This all means that the actual ecology has been either ignored or merely made up based on whichever pet notion of the day is being proffered. Sure, there are a few good ecological inferences out there from some damn good modellers and ecologists, but these have all been greatly simplified themselves. This is where our new paper finally takes the ecology part of the problem to the next level.

Led by Global Ecology and CABAH postdoctoral fellow, John Llewelyn, and guided by modelling guru Giovanni Strona at University of Helsinki, the paper Sahul’s megafauna were vulnerable to plant-community changes due to their position in the trophic network has just been published online in Ecography. Co-authors include Kathi Peters, Fred Saltré, and me from Flinders Global Ecology, Matt McDowell and Chris Johnson from UTAS, Daniel Stouffer from University of Canterbury (NZ), and Sara de Visser from University of Groningen (Netherlands).

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Animating models of ecological change

6 12 2021

Flinders University Global Ecology postdoc, Dr Farzin Shabani, recently created this astonishing video not only about the results of his models predicting vegetation change in northern Australia as a function of long-term (tens of thousands of years) climate change, but also on the research journey itself!

He provides a brief background to how and why he took up the challenge:


Science would be a lot harder to digest without succinct and meaningful images, graphs, and tables. So, being able to visualise both inputs and outputs of scientific models to cut through the fog of data is an essential element of all science writing and communication. Diagrams help us understand trends and patterns much more quickly than do raw data, and they assist with making comparisons.

During my academic career, I have studied many different topics, including natural hazards (susceptibility & vulnerability risks), GIS-based ensemble modelling, climate-change impacts, environmental modelling at different temporal and spatial scales, species-distribution modelling, and time-series analysis. I use a wide range of graphschartsplotsmaps and tables to transfer the key messages.

For my latest project, however, I was given the opportunity to make a short animation and visualise my results and the journey itself. I think that my animation inspires a sense of wonder, which is among the most important goals of science education. I also think that my animation draws connections to real-life problems (e.g., ecosystem changes as a product of climate change), and also develops an appreciation of the scientific process itself.

Take a look at let me know what you think!

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An eye on the past: a view to the future

29 11 2021

originally published in Brave Minds, Flinders University’s research-news publication (text by David Sly)

Clues to understanding human interactions with global ecosystems already exist. The challenge is to read them more accurately so we can design the best path forward for a world beset by species extinctions and the repercussions of global warming.


This is the puzzle being solved by Professor Corey Bradshaw, head of the Global Ecology Lab at Flinders University. By developing complex computer modelling and steering a vast international cohort of collaborators, he is developing research that can influence environmental policy — from reconstructing the past to revealing insights of the future.

As an ecologist, he aims both to reconstruct and project how ecosystems adapt, how they are maintained, and how they change. Human intervention is pivotal to this understanding, so Professor Bradshaw casts his gaze back to when humans first entered a landscape – and this has helped construct an entirely fresh view of how Aboriginal people first came to Australia, up to 75,000 years ago.

Two recent papers he co-authored — ‘Stochastic models support rapid peopling of Late Pleistocene Sahul‘, published in Nature Communications, and ‘Landscape rules predict optimal super-highways for the first peopling of Sahul‘ published in Nature Human Behaviour — showed where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, which is the combined mega-continent that joined Australia with New Guinea in the Pleistocene era, when sea levels were lower than today.

Professor Bradshaw and colleagues identified and tested more than 125 billion possible pathways using rigorous computational analysis in the largest movement-simulation project ever attempted, with the pathways compared to the oldest known archaeological sites as a means of distinguishing the most likely routes.

The study revealed that the first Indigenous people not only survived but thrived in harsh environments, providing further evidence of the capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and suggests large, well-organised groups were able to navigate tough terrain.

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And this little piggy went extinct

24 11 2021

Back in June of this year I wrote (whinged) about the disappointment of writing a lot of ecological models that were rarely used to assist real-world wildlife management. However, I did hint that another model I wrote had assistance one government agency with pig management on Kangaroo Island.

Well, now that report has been published online and I’m permitted to talk about it. I’m also very happy to report that, in the words of the Government of South Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA),

Modelling by the Flinders University Global Ecology Laboratory shows the likelihood and feasibility of feral pig eradication under different funding and eradication scenarios. With enough funding, feral pigs could be eradicated from Kangaroo Island in 2 years.

This basically means that because of the model, PIRSA was successful in obtaining enough funding to pretty much ensure that the eradication of feral pigs from Kangaroo Island will be feasible!

Why is this important to get rid of feral pigs? They are a major pest on the Island, causing severe economic and environmental impacts both to farms and native ecosystems. On the agricultural side of things, they prey on newborn lambs, eat crops, and compete with livestock for pasture. Feral pigs damage natural habitats by up-rooting vegetation and fouling waterholes. They can also spread weeds and damage infrastructure, as well as act as hosts of parasites and diseases (e.g., leptospirosis, tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease) that pose serious threats to industry, wildlife, and even humans.

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Free resources for learning (and getting better with) R

15 11 2021

While I’m currently in Github mode (see previous post), I thought I’d share a list of resources I started putting together for learning and upskilling in the R programming language.

If you don’t know what R is, this probably won’t be of much use to you. But if you are a novice user, want to improve your skills, or just have access to a kick-arse list of cheatsheets, then this Github repository should be useful.

I started putting this list together for members of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, but I see no reason why it should be limited to that particular group of people.

I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive, nor do I vouch for the quality of any of the listed resources. Some of them are deprecated and fairly old too, so be warned.

The first section includes online resources such as short courses, reference guides, analysis demos, tips for more-efficient programming, better plotting guidelines, as well as some R-related mini-universes like markdown, ggplot, Shiny, and tidyverse.

The section following is a list of popular online communities, list-servers, and blogs that help R users track down advice for solving niggly coding and statistical problems.

The next section is a whopping-great archive of R cheatsheets, covering everything from the basics, plotting, cartography, databasing, applications, time series analysis, machine learning, time & date, building packages, parallel computing, resampling methods, markdown, and more.

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Want a permanent DOI assigned to your data and code? Follow this simple recipe

2 11 2021

These days with data and code often required to be designated as open-source, licenced, and fully trackable for most manuscript submissions to a peer-reviewed journal, it’s easy to get lost in the multitude of platforms and options available. In most cases, we no longer have much of a choice to do so, even if you are reticent (although the benefits of posting your data and code online immediately far outweigh any potential disadvantages).

But do you post your data and code on the Open Science Framework (free), Github (free), Figshare (free), Zenodo (free, but donations encouraged), Dryad ($), or Harvard Dataverse (free) (and so on, and so on, …)? Pick your favourite. Another issue that arises is that even if you have solved the first dilemma, how do you obtain a digital object identifier (DOI) for your data and/or code?

Again, there are many ways to do this, and some methods are more automated than other. That said, I do have a preference that is rather easy to implement that I’d thought I’d share with you here.

The first requirement is getting yourself a (free) Github account. What’s Github? Github is one of the world’s largest communities of developers, where code for all manner of types and uses can be developed, shared, updated, collaborated, shipped, and maintained. It might seem a bit overwhelming for non-developers, but if you strip it down to its basics, it’s straightforward to use as a simple repository for your code and data. Of course, Github is designed for so much more than just this (software development collaboration being one of the main ones), but you don’t need to worry about that for now.

Step 1

Once you create an account, you can start creating ‘repositories’, which are essentially just sections of your account dedicated to specific code (and data). I mostly code in R, so I upload my R code text files and associated datasets to these repositories, and spend a good deal of effort on making the Readme.md file highly explanatory and easy to follow. You can check out some of mine here.

Ok. So, you have a repository with some code and data, you’ve explained what’s going on and how the code works in the Readme file, and now you want a permanent DOI that will point to the repository (and any updates) for all time.

Github doesn’t do this by itself, but it integrates seamlessly with another platform — Zenodo — that does. Oh no! Not another platform! Yes, I’m afraid so, but it’s not as painful as you might expect.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXVIII

19 10 2021

Here is the fifth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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