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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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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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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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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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.


Read the rest of this entry »




Video explainer — nasty alien species in Australia

15 09 2021

You know you’ve made it to the big time in Australia when Behind The News does a story on your research. Practically every kid in Australia watches the show at some point during their school years.

Although this was produced last month, I thought I’d post the entire 4-minute video here for your viewing pleasure.

When you popularise your research story for kids, it really gets the message across well.

Thank you, Natasha and BTN for this opportunity.






A domesticated planet

15 06 2021

The abundance of wild animals is regressing speedily as the number of domesticated animals and persons keeps escalating. Such demographic contrast signals that we urgently need to modify our model of subsistence and our interaction with Mother Nature.


If we had to choose between a biodiverse landscape and one hosting a monoculture of pine trees with ruminating cattle, many would take the first option. Biodiversity has an aesthetic value to humans, and also gives us free services like pollination, climate regulation, freshwater depuration or soil formation (1, 2). That is why the mounting rates of biodiversity loss have propelled a multi-angled debate about whether the Earth is experiencing the sixth mass extinction (3, 4) and how biodiversity should be managed to secure our access to ecosystem services (5, 6).

Think individuals, not species

A different way of approaching the biodiversity crisis consists of examining trends in the number of wild animals, with not so much emphasis on the variety of species. Thus, the Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund, has compiled thousands of scientific studies about > 21,000 populations of wild vertebrates studied over time (> 4,000 species represented) and concluded that, on average, the number of individuals per population has diminished by 70% since the 1970s (7).

Biomass (birds and mammals) in Planet Earth measured in Giga-tonnes of Carbon (Gt C) (8) for people (red), domesticated animals (blue) and wildlife (green). The pie chart compares those three groups in modern times, and the barplot reports values for mammals from prehistory (~100.000 years ago) to now. Overpopulation of humans and domesticated animals currently outnumbers the biomass of wildlife.

On the other hand, Yinon Bar-On et al. (8) quantified that the biomass of humans and our domesticated mammals currently multiplies the biomass of wild mammals by a factor of 10, and there are 3 kg of humans and poultry for every kg of wild birds (see video featuring this study).

Not only that, during the last 100,000 years through which anatomically modern humans have thrived from a handful of bands of African hunter-gatherers to complex societies living in metropolis, the cattle industry has ended up quadrupling the global biomass of mammals (8).

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Everything you always wanted to know about conservation (but were afraid to ask)

14 05 2021

While some of us still might imagine the conservationist as a fancy explorer discovering new species in a remote corner of the world, or collecting samples while drowning in mud, a growing portion of conservation science nowadays consists of asking people about their ideas and behaviours.

Needless to say, this approach produces a fair share of awkward, if not dangerous, situations. After all, who likes the idea of completing a questionnaire from the fisheries office, asking about compliance with harvest limitations or licence fees? Or, even worse, who fancies being asked about the possession of illegally traded wildlife? 

Many conservationists would really like to have this valuable information, but at the same time it is clear that these questions put people at great discomfort. This leads to biased estimates of important behaviours affecting conservation. This is where specialised questioning techniques can help.

Specialised questioning techniques aim to prevent researchers, or anyone else, to trace back individual answers. Many do so by adding noise with a known distribution to individual answers. Then, when all answers are pooled, this noise is ruled out with statistical approaches. Noise can come from a randomising device (e.g. a die), like in the randomised response technique:

Individual answers can also be masked by asking respondents not to indicate if they engaged in a certain behaviour, but by asking them, out of a list of sensitive and non-sensitive behaviours, to indicate the number in which they engaged. This is the case of the unmatched count technique (a.k.a list experiments):

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Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp

14 01 2021

Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container

Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face. Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIII

26 10 2020

The sixth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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New journal: Frontiers in Conservation Science

29 09 2020

Several months ago, Daniel Blumstein of UCLA approached me with an offer — fancy leading a Special Section in a new Frontiers journal dedicated to conservation science?

I admit that my gut reaction was a visceral ‘no’, both in terms of the extra time it would require, as well as my autonomous reflex of ‘not another journal, please‘.

I had, for example, spent a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears helping to launch Conservation Letters when I acted as Senior Editor for the first 3.5 years of its existence (I can’t believe that it has been nearly a decade since I left the journal). While certainly an educational and reputational boost, I can’t claim that the experience was always a pleasant one — as has been said many times before, the fastest way to make enemies is to become an editor.

But then Dan explained what he had in mind for Frontiers in Conservation Science, and the more I spoke with him, the more I started to think that it wasn’t a bad idea after all for me to join.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXII

2 09 2020

The fifth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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The only constant is change

27 07 2020

I just wrote a piece for the Flinders University alumnus magazine — Encounter — and I thought I’d share it here.

encounter-2020_Page_01

As an ecologist concerned with how life changes and adapts to the vagaries of climate and pervasive biological shuffling, ‘constant change’ is more than just a mantra — it is, in fact, the mathematical foundation of our entire discipline.

But if change is inevitable, how can we ensure it is in the right direction?

Take climate change for example. Since the Earth first formed it has experienced abrupt climate shifts many times, both to the detriment of most species in existence at any given time, and to the advantage of those species evolving from the ashes.

For more than 3.5 billion years, species have evolved and gone extinct, such that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now confined, permanently, to the vaults of the past.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXI

31 05 2020

The fourth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Extinction Anxiety

21 05 2020

Earlier this week, the SBS show The Feed did a short segment called ‘Extinction Anxiety’ where I talked with host Alice Matthews about biodiversity extinctions. Given that it has so far only been available in Australia, I made a copy here for others to view.

For more information on the state of global biodiversity, see this previous post.

 

 

CJA Bradshaw





Shifting from prevention to damage control

5 05 2020

timeBack in March this year before much of the world morphed into the weirdness that now dictates all facets of life, I wrote an update for the Is This How You Feel project led by Joe Duggan.

It was an exercise in emotional expression not necessarily grounded in empiricism. But in that particular piece, I had written the following line:

Few scientists in my field are still seriously considering avoidance of environmental collapse; instead, the dominant discourse is centred on damage control.

But is this correct? Is this how most scientists in conservation feel today? In a way, this post serves both as a rationale for my expectation, and as a question for the wider community.

My rationale for that contention is that it is undeniable that biodiversity is going down the toilet faster than even some of the most pessimistic of us could have predicted. We are without doubt within the sixth mass extinction event every experienced on the Earth for at least the last 600 million years.

Yet, there have never been more conservation biologists and practitioners. There have never been more international treaties and accords that expressly aim to protect biodiversity.

To assert that we have failed is unhelpful fatalism, yet it cannot be ignored that biodiversity’s predicament and those charged with turning around its fate are not exactly replete with successes. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LX

8 04 2020

The third set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020 (plus a video treat). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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In pursuit of an ecological resilience in the Anthropocene

3 03 2020

Changing TidesAn excerpt from Alejandro Frid‘s new book, Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene (published first in Sierra, with photos courtesy of New Society Publishers)

The birth of my daughter, in 2004, thrust upon me a dual task: to be scientifically realistic about all the difficult changes that are here to stay, while staying humanly optimistic about the better things that we still have.

By the time my daughter turned eleven, I had jettisoned my nos­talgia for the Earth I was born into in the mid-196os—a planet that, of course, was an ecological shadow of Earth 100 years before, which in turn was an ecological shadow of an earlier Earth. The pragmatist in me had embraced the Anthropocene, in which humans dominate all biophysical processes, and I ended up feeling genuinely good about some of the possible futures in which my daughter’s generation might grow old.

It was a choice to engage in a tough situation. An acknowledgement of rapid and uninvited change. A reaffirmed commitment to everything I have learned, and continue to learn, as an ecologist working with Indigenous people on marine conservation. Fundamental to this perspective is the notion of resilience: the ability of someone or something—a culture, an ecosystem, an economy, a person—to absorb shocks yet still maintain their essence.

But what is essence? Read the rest of this entry »





Unlikely the biodiversity crisis will improve any time soon

6 02 2020

hopelessAround a fortnight ago I wrote a hastily penned post about the precarious state of biodiversity — it turned out to be one of the most-read posts in ConservationBytes‘ history (nearly 22,000 views in less than two weeks).

Now, let’s examine whether this dreadful history is likely to get any better any time soon.

Even if extinction rates decline substantially over the next century, I argue that we are committed to an intensifying biodiversity extinction crisis. The aggregate footprint from the growing human population notwithstanding, we can expect decades, if not centuries, of continued extinctions from lag effects alone (extinction debts arising from previous environmental damage engendering extinctions in the future)1.

Global vegetation cover and production are also likely to decline even in the absence of continued habitat clearing — the potential benefit of higher CO2 concentrations for plant photosynthesis is more than offset by lower availability of water in the soil, heat stress, and the frequency of disturbances such as droughts2. Higher frequencies and intensities of disturbance events like catastrophic bushfire will also exacerbate extinction rates3.

However, perhaps the least-appreciated element of potential extinctions arising from climate change is that they are vastly underestimated when only considering a species’ thermal tolerance4. In fact, climate disruption-driven extinction rates could be up to ten times higher than currently predicted4 when extinction cascades are taken into account5. Read the rest of this entry »





The state of global biodiversity — it’s worse than you probably think

24 01 2020

Chefurka biomass slide

I often find myself in a position explaining to non-professionals just how bad the state of global biodiversity really is. It turns out too that even quite a few ecologists seem to lack an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of damage we’ve done to the planet.

The loss of biodiversity that has occurred over the course of our species’ time on Earth is staggering. This loss is now truly planetary in scale and caused by human actions, albeit the severity of which is unequally distributed across the globe1. While Sandra Díaz and company recently summarised the the extent of the biodiversity crisis unfolding1 well in their recent synopsis of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)2 report, I’m going to repeat some of the salient summary statements here, and add a few others. Read the rest of this entry »








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