It’s not always best to be the big fish

3 02 2016

obrien_fish_2Loosely following the theme of last week’s post, it’s now fairly well established that humans tend to pick on the big species first.

From fewer big trees, declines of big carnivores, elephant & rhino poaching, to fishing down the web, big species tend to cop it hardest when it comes to human-caused ecological disturbance.

While there are a lot of different combinations of traits that make some species more vulnerable to extinction than others (see examples for legumes, amphibians, sharks & teleosts, and mammals), one of the main ones is species size.

Generally speaking, larger species tend to produce fewer offspring and breed later in life than smaller species. This means that despite larger species tending to live longer than their smaller counterparts, their ‘slow’ reproductive output means that they are generally more susceptible to rapid environmental change (mainly via human intervention). In other words, their capacity for self-replacement is often too low to counteract the offtake from direct exploitation or habitat loss.

Despite a reasonable scientific understanding of this extinction-risk principle, the degree to which human disturbance affects species’ distributions is much less well quantified, and this is especially true for marine species.

I’m proud to announce another fascinating paper led by my postdoc, Camille Mellin, that has just come out online in Nature CommunicationsHumans and seasonal climate variability threaten large-bodied coral reef fish with small ranges.

With the world’s largest combined dataset of coral reef fish surveys for the entire Indo-Pacific (including the coral reef fish biodiversity hotspot — the Coral Triangle), we examined which conditions best described the distribution of fishes over a range of body sizes. Read the rest of this entry »





More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »





Influential conservation papers of 2013

31 12 2013

big-splash1This is a little bit of a bandwagon – the ‘retrospective’ post at the end of the year – but this one is not merely a rehash I’ve stuff I’ve already covered.

I decided that it would be worthwhile to cover some of the ‘big’ conservation papers of 2013 as ranked by F1000 Prime. For copyright reasons, I can’t divulge the entire synopsis of each paper, but I can give you a brief run-down of the papers that caught the eye of fellow F1000 faculty members and me. If you don’t subscribe to F1000, then you’ll have to settle with my briefest of abstracts.

In no particular order then, here are some of the conservation papers that made a splash (positively, negatively or controversially) in 2013:

Read the rest of this entry »





No more ecology

9 05 2012

To all ecology people who read this blog (students, post-docs, academics), this is an intriguing, provocative and slightly worrying title. As ecology has matured into a full-fledged, hard-core, mathematical science on par with physics, chemistry and genetics (and is arguably today one of the most important sciences given how badly we’ve trashed our own home), its sophistication now threatens to render many of the traditional aspects of ecology redundant.

Let me explain.

As a person who cut his teeth in field ecology (with all the associated dirt, dangers, bites, stings, discomfort, thrills, headaches and disasters), I’ve had my fair share of fun and excitement collecting ecological data. There’s something quaintly Victorian (no, I am not referring to the state next door) about the romantic and obsessive naturalist collecting data to the exclusion of nearly all other aspects of civilised life; the intrepid adventurer in some of us takes over (likely influenced by the likes of David Attenborough) and we convince ourselves that our quest for the lonely datum will heal all of the Earth’s ailments.

Bollocks.

As I’ve matured in ecology and embraced its mathematical complexity and beauty, the recurring dilemma is that there are never enough data to answer the really big questions. We have sampled only a fraction of extant species, we know embarrassingly little about how ecosystems respond to disturbance, and we know next to nothing about the complexities of ecosystem services. And let’s not forget our infancy in understanding the synergies of extinctions in the past and projections into the future. Multiply this uncertainty by several orders of magnitude for ocean ecosystems.

Read the rest of this entry »





Rise of the phycologists

22 09 2011

Dead man's fingers (Codium fragile) - © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve had an interesting week. First, it’s been about 6 years since I was last in Japan, and I love coming here; the food is exquisite, the people are fantastic (polite, happy, accommodating), everything works (trains, buses, etc.) and most importantly, it has an almost incredible proportion of its native forests intact.

But it wasn’t for forests that I travelled to Japan (nor the sumo currently showing on the guest-room telly where I’m staying – love the sumo): I was here for a calcareous macroalgae workshop.

What?

First, what are ‘macroalgae’, and why are some ‘calcareous’? And why should anyone in their right mind care?

Good questions. Answers: 1. Seaweeds; 2. Many incorporate calcium carbonate into their structures as added structural support; 3. Read on.

Now, I’m no phycologist (seaweed scientist), but I’m fascinated by this particular taxon. I’ve written a few posts about their vital ecological roles (see here and here), but let me regale you with some other important facts about these amazing species.

Some Japanese macroalgae - © CJA Bradshaw

There are about 12,000 known species of macroalgae described by phycologists, but as I’ve learnt this week, this is obviously a vast underestimate. For most taxa that people are investigating now using molecular techniques, the genetic diversity is so high and so geographically structured that there are obviously a huge number of ‘cryptic’ species within our current taxonomic divisions. This could mean that we’re out by up to a factor of 2 in the number of species in the world.

Another amazing fact – about 50 % of all known seaweed species are found in just two countries – Japan and Australia (hence the workshop between Japanese and Australian phycologists). Southern Australia in particular is an endemism hotspot.

Ok. Cool. So far so good. But so what? Read the rest of this entry »





How to predict marine biodiversity

26 07 2011

One of the most important components of conservation ecology is arguably the focus on robust methods to predict ‘biodiversity’. This covers everything from detection issues (whether or not a species is in a particular area), species distribution models (to predict where a species should be given habitat and/or physical attributes), climate change predictions, to reserve design algorithms (to assess whether we are protecting what we think we are protecting).

It might seem a bit strange to the uninitiated that we have to spend so much time trying to figure out what’s there. Surely, one just goes to the area of interest and does a few quick surveys? Wouldn’t that be lovely; the truth is that most species are, in fact, rare, and the massive areas we must usually survey tend to preclude complete coverage. This is why experimental design and statistical techniques are so advanced in our discipline – to account for the probability of missing what’s actually there, and to estimate what should be in areas we haven’t even looked in.

Read the rest of this entry »





Faraway fettered fish fluctuate frequently

27 06 2010

Hello! I am Little Fish

Swimming in the Sea.

I have lots of fishy friends.

Come along with me.

(apologies to Lucy Cousins and Walker Books)

I have to thank my 3-year old daughter and one of her favourite books for that intro. Now to the serious stuff.

I am very proud to announce a new Report in Ecology we’ve just had published online early about a new way of looking at the stability of coral reef fish populations. Driven by one of the hottest young up-and-coming researchers in coral reef ecology, Dr. Camille Mellin (employed through the CERF Marine Biodiversity Hub and co-supervised by me at the University of Adelaide and Julian Caley and Mark Meekan of the Australian Institute of Marine Science), this paper adds a new tool in the design of marine protected areas.

Entitled Reef size and isolation determine the temporal stability of coral reef fish populations, the paper applies a well-known, but little-used mathematical relationship between the logarithms of population abundance and its variance (spatial or temporal) – Taylor’s power law.

Taylor’s power law is pretty straightforward itself – as you raise the abundance of a population by 1 unit on the logarithmic scale, you can expect its associated variance (think variance over time in a fluctuating population to make it easier) to rise by 2 logarithmic units (thus, the slope = 2). Why does this happen? Because a log-log (power) relationship between a vector and its square (remember: variance = standard deviation2) will give a multiplier of 2 (i.e., if xy2, then log10x ~ 2log10y).

Well, thanks for the maths lesson, but what’s the application? It turns out that deviations from the mathematical expectation of a power-law slope = 2 reveal some very interesting ecological dynamics. Famously, Kilpatrick & Ives published a Letter in Nature in 2003 (Species interactions can explain Taylor’s power law for ecological time series) trying to explain why so many real populations have Taylor’s power law slopes < 2. As it turns out, the amount of competition occurring between species reduces the expected fluctuations for a given population size because of a kind of suppression by predators and competitors. Cool.

But that application was more a community-based examination and still largely theoretical. We decided to turn the power law a little on its ear and apply it to a different question – conservation biogeography. Read the rest of this entry »