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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Ecological Network Analysis Workshop

8 04 2019 are most fortunate that Dr Giovanni Strona of the EU Joint Research Centrein Ispra, Italy, will be visiting Flinders University for most of April. As a recipient of the prestigious International Visitor Fellowship, Dr Strona has kindly agreed to give a day-long (and hands-on) workshop in network modelling.

What is network analysis? Well, anything that is connected to other things is ostensibly a ‘network’ — think social-media users, neurones, electric elements in a circuit, or species in an ecological community. It doesn’t really matter what the ‘nodes’ of a network actually represent, because all networks more or less share the same properties. The analysis of network structure and behaviour is what Dr Strona will focus on for the workshop.

Being ecologists, we will of course be primarily interested in ecological networks, but maths and coding is essentially the same for all types of networks. Interested in attending this free and rare opportunity? If so, please register your interest here.

The workshop will be held at the Bedford Park Campus of Flinders University from 09:00-17:00 on 29 April 2019. The outline of the workshop is described in more detail below. Read the rest of this entry »

Global warming causes the worst kind of extinction domino effect

25 11 2018

Dominos_Rough1-500x303Just under two weeks ago, Giovanni Strona and I published a paper in Scientific Reports on measuring the co-extinction effect from climate change. What we found even made me — an acknowledged pessimist — stumble in shock and incredulity.

But a bit of back story is necessary before I launch into describing what we discovered.

Last year, some Oxbridge astrophysicists (David Sloan and colleagues) published a rather sensational paper in Scientific Reports claiming that life on Earth would likely survive in the face of cataclysmic astrophysical events, such as asteroid impacts, supernovae, or gamma-ray bursts. This rather extraordinary conclusion was based primarily on the remarkable physiological adaptations and tolerances to extreme conditions displayed by tardigrades— those gloriously cute, but tiny (most are around 0.5 mm long as adults) ‘water bears’ or ‘moss piglets’ — could you get any cuter names?


Found almost everywhere and always (the first fossils of them date back to the early Cambrian over half a billion years ago), these wonderful little creatures are some of the toughest metazoans (multicellular animals) on the planet. Only a few types of extremophile bacteria are tougher.

So, boil, fry or freeze the Earth, and you’ll still have tardigrades around, concluded Sloan and colleagues.

When Giovanni first read this, and then passed the paper along to me for comment, our knee-jerk reaction as ecologists was a resounding ‘bullshit!’. Even neophyte ecologists know intuitively that because species are all interconnected in vast networks linked by trophic (who eats whom), competitive, and other ecological functions (known collectively as ‘multiplex networks’), they cannot be singled out using mere thermal tolerances to predict the probability of annihilation. Read the rest of this entry »

Our global system-of-systems

28 02 2018


I’ve just read an excellent paper that succinctly, eloquently, and wisely summarised the current predicament of our highly interconnected, global, complex adaptive system (i.e., our environment).

If you are new to the discussions around state shifts, hysteresis, tipping points, and system collapse, there might be a lot in the new paper by Philip Garnett of the University of York that you could find intimidating (and not just because of the complexity of the concepts he discusses). If you are more up-to-date on these discussions, I highly recommend reading this paper for distilling some of the more pertinent questions.

The essence of the paper is that our global environment (Earth) is one giant, complex system made up of interacting sub-systems. We can think of these as a giant, interconnected network of nodes and connections (often called ‘edges’) between them. If you do ecological network theory, then you know what I’m talking about.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is that Philip Garnett is not an environmental scientist; in fact, he’s a a lecturer in Operations Management and Business Analytics (although he does have a background in genetics and biology) who specialises in complex systems theory. In fact, much of his paper uses socio-economic examples of system complexity and collapse, yet the applications to environmentalism in general, and to ecological integrity in particular, are spot on.

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Two new postdoctoral positions in ecological network & vegetation modelling announced

21 07 2017


With the official start of the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in July, I am pleased to announce two new CABAH-funded postdoctoral positions (a.k.a. Research Associates) in my global ecology lab at Flinders University in Adelaide (Flinders Modelling Node).

One of these positions is a little different, and represents something of an experiment. The Research Associate in Palaeo-Vegetation Modelling is being restricted to women candidates; in other words, we’re only accepting applications from women for this one. In a quest to improve the gender balance in my lab and in universities in general, this is a step in the right direction.

The project itself is not overly prescribed, but we would like something along the following lines of inquiry: Read the rest of this entry »

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