Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXXI

11 04 2022

Now that the Australian election has been called for next month, here are a few cartoon reminders of the state of environmental politics in this country (hint: they’re abysmal). I’ve surpassed my normal 6 cartoons/post here in this second set for 2022 because, well, our lives depend on the outcome of 21 May. 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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Citizens meet coral gardening

12 10 2021

It is possible to cultivate corals in the sea like growing a nursery of trees to restore a burned forest. Cultivated corals grow faster than wild corals and can be outplanted to increase the healthy area of damaged reefs. Incorporated in projects of citizen science and ecotourism, this activity promotes environmental awareness about coral reefs, the marine ecosystem that is both the most biodiverse and the most threatened by global change.

When I finished by undergraduate studies in the 1980s, I met several top Spanish marine biologists to prospect my first job ever in academia. In all one-to-one interviews I had, I was asked what my interests were. And when I described that I wanted to study ways of modifying impacted marine ecosystems to restore their biodiversity, a well-known professor judged that my proposition was an inviable form of jardinería marina (marine gardening) ― those words made me feel embarrassed and have remained vivid in my professional imagination since. Neither the expert nor the young researcher knew at the time that we were actually talking about ecological restoration, a discipline that was being formalised exactly then by botanists in their pledge to recover pre-European conditions for North American grasslands (1).

Aspects of coral gardening. The photos show (top) a diver scraping off (with the aid of a toothbrush) algae, sponges and parasites that compete for light and nutrients with the coral fragments under cultivation along suspended ropes (Cousin Island, Seychelles), (middle) coral outplantings in the Gulf of Eliat (Red Sea) hosting a diverse community of fish that clean off the biofouling for free (21), and (bottom) a donor colony farmed off Onna (Okinawa, Japan) (12). Photos courtesy of Luca Saponari (Cousin), Buki Rinkevich (Eliat) and Yoshimi Higa / Onna Village Fishery Cooperative.

Today, the term coral gardening encompasses the suite of methods to cultivate corals (tiny colonial jellyfish with an external skeleton and a carnivorous diet) and to outplant them into the wild to boost the growth of coral reefs following perturbations (2). In the face of the decline of coral reefs globally, due to the combination of climate change, pollution, and overfishing (3), this type of mariculture has gathered momentum in the last three decades and is currently being applied to more than 100 coral species in all the main reefs of our seas and oceans (4-6).

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Losing half of tropical fish species as corals disappear

30 06 2021

When snorkelling in a reef, it’s natural to think of coral colonies as a colourful scenography where fish act in a play. But what would happen to the fish if the stage went suddenly empty, as in Peter Brook’s 1971 Midsummer Night’s Dream? Would the fish still be there acting their roles without a backdrop?

This question is not novel in coral-reef science. Ecologists have often compared reef fish diversity and biomass in selected localities before and after severe events of coral mortality. Even a temporary disappearance of corals might have substantial effects on fish communities, sometimes resulting in a local disappearance of more than half of local fish species.

Considering the multiple, complex ways fish interact with — and depend on — corals, this might appear as an obvious outcome. Still, such complexity of interactions makes it difficult to predict how the loss of corals might affect fish diversity in specific contexts, let alone at the global scale.

Focusing on species-specific fish-coral associations reveals an inconsistent picture with local-scale empirical observations. When looking at the fraction of local fish diversity that strictly depends on corals for food and other more generic habitat requirements (such as shelter and reproduction), the global picture suggests that most fish diversity in reef locality might persist in the absence of corals. 

The mismatch between this result and the empirical evidence of a stronger coral dependence suggests the existence of many hidden ecological paths connecting fish to corals, and that those paths might entrap many fish species for which the association to corals is not apparent.

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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 »

Citizens ask the expert in climate physics

24 11 2020

In the first of two consecutive interviews with climate-change experts, authors, editors and readers of the Spanish magazine Quercus have a chat with Ken Caldeira, a global-ecology researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science (Washington, USA). His responses attest that the climate system is complex, and that we need to be practical in dealing with the planet’s ongoing climate emergency.

PhD in atmospheric sciences and professor at Stanford University (USA), Ken Caldeira has pioneered the study of ocean acidification and its impact on coral reefs (1) and geoengineering solutions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere and reflecting solar radiation (2, 3). He has also been part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) and assessed zero-emissions scenarios (4, 5). To the right, Ken manoeuvers a drone while collecting aerial data from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (6). Source.

SARS-Covid-19 is impacting the world. In our home country, Spain, scientists argue that (i) previous budget cuts in public health have weakened our capacity to tackle the pandemic (7), and (ii) the expert panels providing advice to our government should be independent of political agendas in their membership and decisions (8). Nevertheless, the Spanish national and regional governments’ data lack the periodicity, coherence, and detail to harness an effective medical response (9). Sometimes it feels as if politics partly operate by neglecting the science needed to tackle challenges such as the covid pandemic or climate change.

Having said that, even if a country has cultivated and invested in the best science possible, people have difficulties coming to terms with the idea that scientists work with probabilities of alternative scenarios. As much as there are different ways of managing a pandemic, scientists differ about how to mitigate the ecological, economic, and health impacts of a high-carbon society.

Thus, a more and more common approach is to make collective assessments (elicitations) by weighing different points of view across experts — for instance, to establish links between climate change and armed conflict (10) or to evaluate the role of nuclear energy as we transition to a low-carbon energy-production model (11). The overarching goal is to quantify consensus based on different (evidence-based) opinions.

The questions we here ask Ken Caldeira could well have different answers if asked of other experts. Still, as Ken points out, it is urgent that (of the many options available) we use the immense and certainty-proof knowledge we have already about climate change to take actions that work.

Interview done 23 January 2020 

We italicise each question and the name of the person asking the question and cite one to three relevant publications per question. For expanding on Ken Caldeira’s views on climate change, see a sample of his public talks here and here and newspaper articles here and here.

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

For the last five years I’ve published a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of the year as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime — so, I’m doing so again for 2018 (interesting side note: six of the twenty papers highlighted here for 2018 appear in Science magazine). See previous years’ posts here: 2017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

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Tiny, symbiotic organisms protect corals from predation and disease

20 12 2017

hydrozoan polyp

Hydrozoan polyps living on the surface of a coral (photo credit: S. Montano)

Corals could have some unexpected allies to cope with the multi-faceted threats posed by climate change.

In a new study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Montano and colleagues show how tiny hydrozoans smaller than 1 mm and commonly found in dense colonies on the surface of hard corals (see above photo) play an important ecological role.

Visually examining ~ 2500 coral colonies in both Maldivian and Saudi Arabian reefs, the scientists searched for signs of predation, temperature-induced stress, and disease. For each colony, they also recorded the presence of symbiotic hydrozoans. They demonstrated that corals living in association with hydrozoans are much less prone to be eaten by corallivorous (i.e., ‘coral-eating’) fish and gastropods than hydrozoan-free corals.

A likely explanation for this pattern could be the deterring action of hydrozoan nematocysts (cells capable of ejecting a venomous organelle, which are the same kinds found in jellyfish tentacles). An individual hydrozoan polyp of less than 1 mm clearly cannot cope with a corallivorous fish that is a billions of times larger, yet hydrozoans can grow at high densities on the surface of corals (sometimes > 50 individuals per cm2). This creates a sort of a continuous, ‘urticating‘ carpet that can discourage fish from foraging. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017


Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

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Limited nursery replenishment in coral reefs

27 03 2017

Haemulon sciurus

blue-striped grunt (Haemulon sciurus)

Coral reef fishes are wonderfully diverse in size, form, and function, as well as their need for different habitats throughout the life cycle. Some species spend all of their life in the same kind of coral habitat, while others need different places to breed and feed.

Fishes requiring different habitats as they progress through life often have what we call ‘nurseries’ in which adults lay eggs and the subsequent juveniles remain, and these places are often dominated by mangroves or seagrasses (i.e., they are not part of the coral reef).

While we’ve known for quite some time that when these nursery habitats are not around, adjacent coral reefs have few, if any, of these nursery-dependent species. What we haven’t known until now is just how far the influence of nurseries extends along a coral reef.

In other words, if a nursery is present, just how many new recruits do different areas of a reef receive from it? Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation ecology papers of 2016

16 12 2016

cheetah_shutterstock_37268149As I have done for the last three years (2015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2016 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

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Influential conservation papers of 2015

25 12 2015

most popularAs I did last year and the year before, here’s another arbitrary, retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2015 as assessed via F1000 Prime.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXVIII

4 02 2015

First batch of six biodiversity cartoons for 2015 (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

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Influential conservation papers of 2014

22 12 2014

splash2Another year, another arbitrary retrospective list – but I’m still going to do it. Based on the popularity of last year’s retrospective list of influential conservation papers as assessed through F1000 Prime, here are 20 conservation papers published in 2014 that impressed the Faculty members.

Once again for copyright reasons, I can’t give the whole text but I’ve given the links to the F1000 assessments (if you’re a subscriber) and of course, to the papers themselves. I did not order these based on any particular criterion.

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Interview with a social (conservation) scientist

22 06 2010

I was contacted recently by Josh Cinner, a self-titled ‘social’ scientist (now working at the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies) who has published rather a lot in the conservation literature. He was recently highlighted in the journal Science for his work, and he thought CB readers would enjoy the coverage. He stated to me:

“…as a social scientist, I have spent the past decade or so working with ecologists and managers trying to integrate social science better in conservation. There are often calls for the importance of integrating social science in conservation and I thought your blog readers might appreciate some high-level recognition of the importance of this. Additionally, as far as I can tell, this is the first of these profiles that has focused on someone working in conservation.”

So, while fully crediting the source of this article and its author, Helen Fields, here is the entire text reproduced for your reading pleasure.

In the late 1980s, things were not going well for the coral reefs at Jamaica’s Montego Bay Marine Park. Overfishing had taken out a lot of the fish that eat algae, and algae were taking over the reef. “It was a classic case of ecosystem decline,” human geographer Joshua Cinner says. He arrived in Jamaica in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a double major in environmental conservation and geography. He was particularly interested in parks and preserves.

He’d landed in the middle of a war. Lobbying by tour operators and others got spearfishing, one of the main culprits in overfishing, banned in the park. The ban did not go over well with local people. “All the park equipment got vandalized. We had park rangers get threatened; their families got threatened at spear point,” Cinner says. Spearfishing equipment is cheap and you don’t need a boat; men who do it are generally poor and are fishing as a last resort. “The cultural lens through which the fishermen viewed this issue was of struggle in a post-slavery society, of the rich, predominantly white expatriates making a law that oppressed the poorest of the poor locals to benefit the wealthy.”

The conflict got Cinner thinking about how conservation really works. “It wasn’t really about the ecology,” he says. “Making conservation work in Jamaica had a lot to do with understanding the local culture and people.” It also opened his eyes to the role oceans play. “The ocean is often viewed as an open-access resource. That extra layer of complexity interested me,” he says. “Land can often be private property,” but “the ocean is typically viewed as free for anyone to fish in, for anyone to swim in and use.” Read the rest of this entry »

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