Ghosts of bottlenecks past

25 05 2012

© D. Bathory

I’ve just spent the last week at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern NSW coast for my third Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) (see previous post about my last ACEAS workshop).

This workshop is a little different to my last one, and I’m merely a participant (not the organiser) this time. Alan Cooper and members of his Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (Jeremy Austin, Vicki Thomson & Julien Soubrier) combined forces this week with Craig Mortiz, Margaret Byrne, Steve Donnellan, Tania Laity, Leo Joseph, Xander Xue and Gabriele Cybis. Our task was to examine the mounting evidence that many Australian species appear to show a rather shallow genetic pool from a (or several) major past bottlenecks.

What’s a ‘bottleneck’? In reference to the form after which it was named, a genetic bottleneck is the genetic diversity aftermath after a population declines to a small size and then later expands. The history of this reduction and subsequent expansion is written in the DNA, because inevitably gene ‘types’ are lost as most individuals shuffle off this mortal coil. In a way, it’s like losing a large population of people who all speak different languages – inevitably, you’d lose entire languages and the recovering population would grow out of a reduced ‘pool’ of languages, resulting in fewer overall surviving languages.

Our workshop focus started, as many scientific endeavours do, rather serendipitously. Several years ago, Jeremy Austin noticed that devils who had died out on the mainland several thousand years ago had a very low genetic diversity, as do modern-day devils surviving in Tasmania. He thought it was odd because they should have had more on the mainland given that was their principal distribution prior to Europeans arriving. He mentioned this in passing to Steve Donnellan one day and Steve announced that he had seem the same pattern in echidnas. Now, echidnas cover most of Australia’s surface, so that was equally odd. Then they decided to look at another widespread species – tiger snakes, emus, etc. – and found in many of them, the same patterns were there. Read the rest of this entry »





Life, death and Linneaus

9 07 2011

Barry Brook (left) and Lian Pin Koh (right) attacking Fangliang He (centre). © CJA Bradshaw

I’m sitting in the Brisbane airport contemplating how best to describe the last week. If you’ve been following my tweets, you’ll know that I’ve been sequestered in a room with 8 other academics trying to figure out the best ways to estimate the severity of the Anthropocene extinction crisis. Seems like a pretty straight forward task. We know biodiversity in general isn’t doing so well thanks to the 7 billion Homo sapiens on the planet (hence, the Anthropo prefix) – the question though is: how bad?

I blogged back in March that a group of us were awarded a fully funded series of workshops to address that question by the Australian Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis (a Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network facility based at the University of Queensland), and so I am essentially updating you on the progress of the first workshop.

Before I summarise our achievements (and achieve, we did), I just want to describe the venue. Instead of our standard, boring, windowless room in some non-descript building on campus, ACEAS Director, Associate Professor Alison Specht, had the brilliant idea of putting us out away from it all on a beautiful nature-conservation estate on the north coast of New South Wales.

What a beautiful place – Linneaus Estate is a 111-ha property just a few kilometres north of Lennox Head (about 30 minutes by car south of Byron Bay) whose mission is to provide a sustainable living area (for a very lucky few) while protecting and restoring some pretty amazing coastal habitat along an otherwise well-developed bit of Australian coastline. And yes, it’s named after Carl Linnaeus. Read the rest of this entry »





How fast are we losing species anyway?

28 03 2011

© W. Laurance

I’ve indicated over the last few weeks on Twitter that a group of us were recently awarded funding from the Australian Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis – ACEAS – (much like the US version of the same thing – NCEAS) to run a series of analytical workshops to estimate, with a little more precision and less bias than has been done previously, the extinction rates of today’s biota relative to deep-time extinctions.

So what’s the issue? The Earth’s impressive diversity of life has experienced at least five mass extinction events over geological time. Species’ extinctions have kept pace with evolution, with more than 99 % of all species that have ever existed now gone (Bradshaw & Brook 2009). Despite general consensus that biodiversity has entered the sixth mass extinction event because of human-driven degradation of the planet, estimated extinction rates remain highly imprecise (from 100s to 10000s times background rates). This arises partly because the total number of species is unknown for many groups, and most extinctions go unnoticed.

So how are we going to improve on our highly imprecise estimates? One way is to look at the species-area relationship (SAR), which to estimate extinction requires one to extrapolate back to the origin in taxon- and region-specific SARs (e.g., with a time series of deforestation, one can estimate how many species would have been lost if we know how species diversity changes in relation to habitat area). Read the rest of this entry »