No evidence climate change is to blame for Australian megafauna extinctions

29 01 2016

bw spear throwingLast July I wrote about a Science paper of ours demonstrating that there was a climate-change signal in the overall extinction pattern of megafauna across the Northern Hemisphere between about 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. In that case, it didn’t have anything to do with ice ages (sorry, Blue Sky Studios); rather, it was abrupt warming periods that exacerbated the extinction pulse instigated by human hunting.

Contrary to some appallingly researched media reports, we never claimed that these extinctions arose only from warming, because the evidence is more than clear that humans were the dominant drivers across North America, Europe and northern Asia; we simply demonstrated that warming periods had a role to play too.

A cursory glance at the title of this post without appreciating the complexity of how extinctions happen might lead you to think that we’re all over the shop with the role of climate change. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Instead, we report what the evidence actually says, instead of making up stories to suit our preconceptions.

So it is with great pleasure that I report our new paper just out in Nature Communications, led by my affable French postdoc, Dr Frédérik SaltréClimate change not to blame for late Quaternary megafauna extinctions in Australia.

Of course, it was a huge collaborative effort by a crack team of ecologists, palaeontologists, geochronologists, paleo-climatologists, archaeologists and geneticists. Only by combining the efforts of this diverse and transdisciplinary team could we have hoped to achieve what we did. Read the rest of this entry »

What makes all that biodiversity possible?

23 09 2015


You can either stop reading now because that’s the answer to the question, or you can continue and find out a little more detail.

I’ve just had an extremely pleasant experience reading John Terborgh‘s latest Perspective in PNAS. You know the kind of paper you read that (a) makes you feel smart, (b) confirms what you already think, yet informs you nonetheless, and (c) doesn’t take three days to digest? That’s one of those.

Toward a trophic theory of species diversity is not only all of those things, it’s also bloody well-written and comes at the question of ‘Why are there so many species on the planet when ecological theory can’t seem to explain how?’ with elegance, style and a lifetime of experience. I just might have to update my essential-ecology-papers list. If I had to introduce someone to 60 years of ecological theory on biodiversity, there’s no better place to start.

Read the rest of this entry »

How things have (not) changed

13 04 2015

The other night I had the pleasure of dining with the former Australian Democrats leader and senator, Dr John Coulter, at the home of Dr Paul Willis (Director of the Royal Institution of Australia). It was an enlightening evening.

While we discussed many things, the 84 year-old Dr Coulter showed me a rather amazing advert that he and several hundred other scientists, technologists and economists constructed to alert the leaders of Australia that it was heading down the wrong path. It was amazing for three reasons: (i) it was written in 1971, (ii) it was published in The Australian, and (iii) it could have, with a few modifications, been written for today’s Australia.

If you’re an Australian and have even a modicum of environmental understanding, you’ll know that The Australian is a Murdochian rag infamous for its war on science and reason. Even I have had a run-in with its outdated, consumerist and blinkered editorial board. You certainly wouldn’t find an article like Dr Coulter’s in today’s Australian.

More importantly, this 44 year-old article has a lot today that is still relevant. While the language is a little outdated (and sexist), the grammar could use a few updates, and there are some predictions that clearly never came true, it’s telling that scientists and others have been worrying about the same things for quite some time.

In reading the article (reproduced below), one could challenge the authors for being naïve about how society can survive and even prosper despite a declining ecological life-support system. As I once queried Paul Ehrlich about some of his particularly doomerist predictions from over 50 years ago, he politely pointed out that much of what he predicted did, in fact, come true. There are over 1 billion people today that are starving, and another billion or so that are malnourished; combined, this is greater than the entire world population when Paul was born.

So while we might have delayed the crises, we certainly haven’t averted them. Technology does potentially play a positive role, but it can also increase our short-term carrying capacity and buffer the system against shocks. We then tend to ignore the indirect causes of failures like wars, famines and political instability because we do not recognise the real drivers: resource scarcity and ecosystem malfunction.

Australia has yet to learn its lesson.

To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny

We believe that western technological society has ignored two vital facts: Read the rest of this entry »

It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go

16 12 2014

This is an article by Barry Brook and mepublished today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.

Should nuclear energy be part of Australia’s (and many other countries’) future energy mix? We think so, particularly as part of a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous climate change.

But there are other reasons for supporting nuclear technology. In a paper recently published in Conservation Biology, we show that an energy mix including nuclear power has lowest impact on wildlife and ecosystems — which is what we need given the dire state of the world’s biodiversity.

In response, we have gathered signatures of 70 leading conservation scientists from 14 countries in an open letter asking that the environmental community:

weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Energy demand is rising

Modern society is a ceaseless consumer of energy, and growing demand won’t stop any time soon, even under the most optimistic energy-efficiency scenario.

Although it goes without saying that we must continue to improve energy efficiency in the developed world, the momentum of population growth and rising living standards, particularly in the developing world, means we will continue to need more energy for decades to come. No amount of wishful thinking for reduced demand will change that.

But which are the best forms of energy to supply the world, and not add to the biodiversity crisis?

Assessing our energy options

In short, the argument goes like this.

To avoid the worst ravages of climate change, we have to decarbonise fully (eliminate net carbon emissions from) the global electricity sector. Wildlife and ecosystems are threatened by this climate disruption, largely caused by fossil-fuel derived emissions.

But they are also imperilled by land transformation (i.e., habitat loss) caused in part by other energy sources, such as flooded areas (usually forests) for hydro-electricity and all the associated road development this entails, agricultural areas needed for biofuels, and large spaces needed for wind and solar farms.

Energy density of different fuels. This infographic shows the amount of energy embodied in uranium, coal, natural gas and a chemical battery, scaled to provide enough energy for a lifetime of use in the developed world. Shown are the amount of each source needed to provide same amount of energy, equivalent to 220 kWh of energy per day for 80 years.

Read the rest of this entry »

An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

15 12 2014

nuclear biodiversityProfessor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia.

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  2. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  3. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  4. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  5. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA.
  6. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy.
  7. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada.
  8. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  9. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA.
  10. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  11. Professor F. Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA.
  12. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  13. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  14. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.
  15. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France.
  16. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia.
  17. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  18. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia.
  19. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.
  20. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA.
  21. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  22. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia.
  23. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
  24. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland.
  25. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  26. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA.
  27. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China.
  28. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  29. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia.
  30. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  31. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA.
  32. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  33. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  34. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom.
  35. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom.
  36. Dr Menna E. Jones, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  37. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom.
  38. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  39. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada.
  40. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA.
  41. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia.
  42. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  43. Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  44. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA.
  45. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA.
  46. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom.
  47. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia.
  48. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA.
  49. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
  50. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  51. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  52. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia.
  53. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
  54. Professor L. Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA.
  55. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland.
  56. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia.
  57. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada.
  58. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA.
  59. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA.
  60. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India.
  61. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA.
  62. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  63. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.
  64. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
  65. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia.
  66. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA.
  67. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey.
  68. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway.
  69. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  70. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  71. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom.
  72. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  73. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
  74. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  75. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA.

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.


Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. (Accessed 14 March 2014).

Give some flair to your scientific presentation

18 11 2014


As the desert spring came to the great Centre Red,
Scores of sandalled folk from tin birds descend-ed.
Alice Town had been invaded,
Bearded alike and unshorn-legged.
They sat and stared at words and the odd trend.
Billies boiled to get them through to day’s end
They swapped bush stories that made good sense,
Trying to understand Aussie environments.
One bloke‘s tales caught the punters’ attention,
So this bush poet deserves special mention.
To standard rules he would not kowtow,
So his special science verse I present to you now.

If none of that made any sense, then let me help you out. At the last Ecological Society of Australia meeting in Alice Springs, I witnessed a rather unique way to give a scientific presentation – via bush poetry. Dr. Dale Nimmo of Deakin University was particularly engaging, and he agreed to have his presentation poem reproduced here. Who said scientists were boring? Honourable mention too to Simon Watson for another audience-engaging, bush-poetry seminar (but I don’t have that to reproduce here). There also might be a slidecast of Dale’s presentation coming soon. For now, please enjoy the poetic delivery of science in text.

The Old Grey Box of Heathcote Town

Dale Nimmo

Down around old Heathcote town, just east of Bendigo,
A big old grey box tree casts an eye.
The sallee fills the understory bright as sunlights glow,
As the silvereyes and thornbills flitter by.
This landscape, bruised and battered from 200 years of change,
Holds the secrets of a time lost somehow.
One of Jaara land, where lowan dug and dingoes howled,
The latter two, here, just distant memories now.
The gold rush came like bushfire, ring barked trees fell like boughs
Of the red gums scattered on the old flood plains,
That made way for sheep and cattle, while, fighting a losing battle,
rufous bettongs were never seen again.
When a man of English gentry, Professor Bennett was his name,
Found the woodlands to his aristocratic tastes.
Many days he’d venture in, binoculars under his chin,
He never let a single bird call go to waste.
While at the old St Arnaud Inn, over a couple pints of gin,
Bennet and a bloke called Radford got to talking.
Stealing horses was his game, but he’d give it all away,
To join Bennett in woodlands, bird walking

Read the rest of this entry »

Australia should have a more vibrant ecological culture

13 10 2014
Another great social event bringing ecologists together

Another great social event bringing ecologists together

I’ve always had the gut feeling that Australia punched above its weight when it comes to ecology and conservation. For years I’ve been confidently bragging to whomever might listen (mostly at conference pub sessions) that Australians have a vibrant academic and professional community of ecologists who are internationally renowned and respected. However, my bragging was entirely anecdotal and I always qualified the boast with the caveat that I hadn’t actually looked at the numbers.

Well, I finally did look at the numbers – at least superficially. It seems that for the most part, my assertion was true. I will qualify the following results with another caveat – I’ve only looked at the smallest of samples to generate this rank, so take it with a few grains of salt. Looking at the 200 most-cited ecologists in Google Scholar (with some licence as to who qualifies as an ‘ecologist’ – for example, I ditched a few medicos), I calculated the number of ecologists in that range per 100,000 people for each country. Of course, even the country of designation is somewhat fluid and imprecise – I did not know where most had received the bulk of their training and in which country they had spent most of their time, so the numbers are (again) only indicative. Excluding countries with only one highly cited ecologist in the top 200, the sorted list comes out as: Read the rest of this entry »

Attention Ecologists: Journal Ranking Survey

16 09 2014

journal rankingIn the interest of providing greater transparency when ranking the ‘quality’ of scientific journals, we are interested in collecting ecologists’ views on the relative impact of different ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals. If you’re a publishing ecologist, we want your personal opinion on a journal’s relative rank from this sample of 25 peer-reviewed journals. Please do not consult Impact Factors or other journal rankings to decide – just go with your ‘gut’ feeling.

We chose a sample of 25 authoritative journals in the field (listed below alphabetically). Use the drop-down menus to select a categorical rank. Make sure you’ve allocated categories 1 through to 4 at least once in the sample of 25. Category 5 (‘Other’) is optional.

The survey should take you only a few minutes to complete. Thanks for your time!

We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

Read the rest of this entry »

A fairer way to rank conservation and ecology journals in 2014

1 08 2014

Normally I just report the Thomson-Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge Impact Factors for conservation-orientated journals each year, with some commentary on the rankings of other journals that also publish conservation-related material from time to time (see my lists of the 2008200920102011 and 2012 Impact Factor rankings).

This year, however, I’m doing something different given the growing negativity towards Thomson-Reuters’ secretive behaviour (which they’ve promised this year to rectify by being more transparent) and the generally poor indication of quality that the Impact Factor represents. Although the 2013 Impact Factors have just been released (very late this year, for some reason), I’m going to compare them to the increasingly reputable Google Scholar Journal Metrics, which intuitively make more sense to me, are transparent and turn a little of the rankings dogma on its ear.

In addition to providing both the Google metric as well as the Impact Factor rankings, I’ve come up with a composite (average) rank from the two systems. I think ranks are potentially more useful than raw corrected citation metrics because you must first explicitly set your set of journals to compare. I also go one step further and modify the average ranking with a penalty term that is essentially the addition of the coefficient of variation of rank disparity between the two systems.

Read on for the results.

Read the rest of this entry »

Another 589 scientists speak out against Abbott’s war on the environment

22 07 2014

ATBC_logo_largeI’m currently in Cairns at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation‘s Annual Conference where scientists from all over the world have amassed for get the latest on tropical ecology and conservation. Unfortunately, all of them have arrived in an Australia different to the one they knew or admired from afar. The environmental devastation unleashed by the stupid policies of the Abbottoir government has attracted the attention and ire of some of the world’s top scientists. This is what they have to say about it (with a little help from me):



Australia has many trees, amphibians, and reptiles that are unique, being found nowhere else on Earth. Northern Australia contains a disproportionate amount of this biodiversity which occurs in little developed areas, parks and reserves, indigenous titled lands, and community-managed lands.

Whilst Australia’s achievements in protecting some of its remaining native forests, wildlife and wilderness are applauded, some 6 million hectares of forest have been lost since 2000. Existing forest protection will be undermined by weak climate change legislation, and poorly regulated agricultural and urban development.

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world’s largest organisation dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems, is concerned about recent changes in Australia’s environmental regulations, reduced funding for scientific and environmental research, and support for governmental and civil society organisations concerned with the environment. Read the rest of this entry »

Ecological processes depend on …

14 05 2014
© Cagan Sekercioglu

© Cagan Sekercioglu

I have been known to say (ok – I say it all the time) that ecologists should never equivocate when speaking to the public. Whether it’s in a media release, blog post, television presentation or newspaper article, just stick to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In other words, don’t qualify your answer with some horrid statistical statement (i.e., in 95% of cases …) or say something like “… but it really depends on …”. People don’t understand uncertainty – to most people, ‘uncertainty’ means “I don’t know” or worse, “I made it all up”.

But that’s only in the movies.

In real ‘ecological’ life, things are vastly different. It’s never as straightforward as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because ecology is complex. There are times that I forget this important aspect when testing a new hypothesis with what seem like unequivocal data, but then reality always hits.

Our latest paper is the epitome of this emergent complexity from what started out as a fairly simple question using some amazing data. What makes birds change their range1? We looked at this question from a slightly different angle than had been done before because we had access to climate data, life-history data and most importantly, actual range change data. It’s that latter titbit that is typically missing from studies aiming to understand what drives species toward a particular fate; whether it’s a species distribution model predicting the future habitat suitability of some species as a function of climate change, or the past dynamics of some species related to its life history pace, most often the combined dynamics are missing. Read the rest of this entry »

Upcoming conservation, ecology and modelling conferences

7 03 2014

IMG_34271Our lab just put together a handy list of upcoming ecology, conservation and modelling conferences around the world in 2014. Others might also find it useful. Some of the abstract submission deadlines have already passed, but it still might be useful to know what’s on the immediate horizon if attendance only is an option.

Conference Dates Venue Call for Abstracts Deadline
Queensland Ornithological Conference 31 May Brisbane, Australia Open 10 Mar
Spatial Ecology and Conservation 17 Jun Birmingham, UK Closed 21 Feb
Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium 23 Jun Taiwan Closed 5 Feb
International Statistical Ecology Conference 1 Jul Montpellier, France Closed 13 Jan
International Institute of Fisheries Economics & Trade 2014 7 Jul Brisbane Closed 31 Jan
World Conference on Natural Resource Modeling 8 Jul Vilnius, Lithuania Open 31 Mar
Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Section 9 Jul Suva, Fiji Open 7 Mar 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 »

Hate journal impact factors? Try Google rankings instead

18 11 2013

pecking orderA lot of people hate journal impact factors (IF). The hatred arises for many reasons, some of which are logical. For example, Thomson Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge® keeps the process fairly opaque, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell if journals are fairly ranked. Others hate IF because it does not adequately rank papers within or among sub disciplines. Still others hate the idea that citations should have anything to do with science quality (debatable, in my view). Whatever your reason though, IF are more or less here to stay.

Yes, individual scientists shouldn’t be ranked based only on the IF of the journals in which they publish; there are decent alternatives such as the h-index (which can grow even after you die), or even better, the m-index (or m-quotient; think of the latter as a rate of citation accumulation). Others would rather ditch the whole citation thing altogether and measure some element of ‘impact’, although that elusive little beast has yet to be captured and applied objectively.

So just in case you haven’t already seen it, Google has recently put its journal-ranking hat in the ring with its journal metrics. Having firmly wrested the cumbersome (and expensive) personal citation accumulators from ISI and Scopus (for example) with their very popular (and free!) Google Scholar (which, as I’ve said before, all researchers should set-up and make available), they now seem poised to do the same for journal rankings.

So for your viewing and arguing pleasure, here are the ‘top’ 20 journals in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology according to Google’s h5-index (the h-index for articles published in that journal in the last 5 complete years; it is the largest number h such that h articles published in 2008-2012 have at least h citations each):

Read the rest of this entry »

Biogeography comes of age

22 08 2013

penguin biogeographyThis week has been all about biogeography for me. While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘biogeographer’, I certainly do apply a lot of the discipline’s techniques.

This week I’m attending the 2013 Association of Ecology’s (INTECOL) and British Ecological Society’s joint Congress of Ecology in London, and I have purposefully sought out more of the biogeographical talks than pretty much anything else because the speakers were engaging and the topics fascinating. As it happens, even my own presentation had a strong biogeographical flavour this year.

Although the species-area relationship (SAR) is only one small aspect of biogeography, I’ve been slightly amazed that after more than 50 years since MacArthur & Wilson’s famous book, our discipline is still obsessed with SAR.

I’ve blogged about SAR issues before – what makes it so engaging and controversial is that SAR is the principal tool to estimate overall extinction rates, even though it is perhaps one of the bluntest tools in the ecological toolbox. I suppose its popularity stems from its superficial simplicity – as the area of an (classically oceanic) island increases, so too does the total number of species it can hold. The controversies surrounding such as basic relationship centre on describing the rate of that species richness increase with area – in other words, just how nonlinear the SAR itself is.

Even a cursory understanding of maths reveals the importance of estimating this curve correctly. As the area of an ‘island’ (habitat fragment) decreases due to human disturbance, estimating how many species end up going extinct as a result depends entirely on the shape of the SAR. Get the SAR wrong, and you can over- or under-estimate the extinction rate. This was the crux of the palaver over Fangliang He (not attending INTECOL) & Stephen Hubbell’s (attending INTECOL) paper in Nature in 2011.

The first real engagement of SAR happened with John Harte’s maximum entropy talk in the process macroecology session on Tuesday. What was notable to me was his adamant claim that the power-law form of SAR should never be used, despite its commonness in the literature. I took this with a grain of salt because I know all about how messy area-richness data can be, and why one needs to consider alternate models (see an example here). But then yesterday I listened to one of the greats of biogeography – Robert Whittaker – who said pretty much the complete opposite of Harte’s contention. Whittaker showed results from one of his papers last year that the power law was in fact the most commonly supported SAR among many datasets (granted, there was substantial variability in overall model performance). My conclusion remains firm – make sure you use multiple models for each individual dataset and try to infer the SAR from model-averaging. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t blame it on the dingo

21 08 2013

dingo angelOur postdoc, Tom Prowse, has just had one of the slickest set of reviews I’ve ever seen, followed by a quick acceptance of what I think is a pretty sexy paper. Earlier this year his paper in Journal of Animal Ecology showed that thylacine (the badly named ‘Tasmanian tiger‘) was most likely not the victim of some unobserved mystery disease, but instead succumbed to what many large predators have/will: human beings. His latest effort now online in Ecology shows that the thylacine and devil extinctions on the Australian mainland were similarly the result of humans and not the scapegoat dingo. But I’ll let him explain:

‘Regime shifts’ can occur in ecosystems when sometimes even a single component is added or changed. Such additions, of say a new predator, or changes such as a rise in temperature, can fundamentally alter core ecosystem functions and processes, causing the ecosystem to switch to some alternative stable state.

Some of the most striking examples of ecological regime shifts are the mass extinctions of large mammals (‘megafauna’) during human prehistory. In Australia, human arrival and subsequent hunting pressure is implicated in the rapid extinction of about 50 mammal species by around 45 thousand years ago. The ensuing alternative stable state was comprised of a reduced diversity of predators, dominated by humans and two native marsupial predators ‑ the thylacine (also known as the marsupial ‘tiger’ or ‘wolf’) and the devil (which is now restricted to Tasmania and threatened by a debilitating, infectious cancer).

Both thylacines and devils lasted on mainland Australia for over 40 thousand years following the arrival of humans. However, a second regime shift resulted in the extinction of both these predators by about 3 thousand years ago, which was coincidentally just after dingoes were introduced to Australia. Dingoes are descended from early domestic dogs and were introduced to northern Australia from Asia by ancient traders approximately 4 thousand years ago. Today, they are Australia’s only top predator remaining, other than invasive European foxes and feral cats. Since the earliest days of European settlement, dingoes have been persecuted because they prey on livestock. During the 1880s, 5614 km of ‘dingo fence’ was constructed to protect south-east Australia’s grazing rangelands from dingo incursions. The fence is maintained to this day, and dingoes are poisoned and shot both inside and outside this barrier, despite mounting evidence that these predators play a key role in maintaining native ecosystems, largely by suppressing invasive predators.

Perhaps because the public perception of dingoes as ‘sheep-killers’ is so firmly entrenched, it has been commonly assumed that dingoes killed off the thylacines and devils on mainland Australia. People who support this view also point out that thylacines and devils persisted on the island of Tasmania, which was never colonised by dingoes (although thylacines went extinct there too in the early 1900s). To date, most discussion of the mainland thylacine and devil extinctions has focused on the possibility that dingoes disrupted the system by ‘exploitation competition’ (eating the same prey), ‘interference competition’ (wasting the native predators’ precious munching time), as well as ‘direct predation’ (dingoes actually eating devils and thylacines). Read the rest of this entry »

Ecologists: join F1000Research’s open science ecosystem

8 08 2013

f1000researchlogoThe people at the new open-access journal F1000Research (a Faculty of 1000 publication) have asked me to help them announce their new deal for ecologists – no processing fees until 2014! Might have to give it a go myself…

F1000Research covers all areas of life sciences, but we know that different fields each have their own unique characteristics, and some features of our journal are of particular interest to certain disciplines.

For the coming months, one area we’ll be focussing on is ecology. To encourage ecologists to try F1000Research, we’re waiving the article processing charge for all first submissions of an ecology paper until 2014. (Use code ECOL15 when submitting).

F1000Research is an ideal venue for publishing an ecology paper. Research, which includes full datasets, is openly available and its speed of publication and transparency in reviews makes it a refreshing alternative to traditional publishing.” Gary Luck, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Australia

Three good reasons to send your ecology papers to F1000Research:

1.     Quickly reach a wide audience

All articles are fully open access and include all data, and with our post-publication peer review model, your article can be online within a week (find out more about our speedy publication process). Read the rest of this entry »

Shrinking global range projected for the world’s largest fish

7 08 2013
© W. Osborn (AIMS)

© W. Osborn (AIMS)

My recently finished PhD student, Ana Sequeira, has not only just had a superb paper just accepted in Global Change Biology, she’s recently been offered (and accepted) a postdoctoral position based at the University of Western Australia‘s Oceans Institute (in partnership with AIMS and CSIRO). As any supervisor, I’m certainly pleased when a student completes her PhD, but my pride as an academic papa truly soars when she gets her first job. Well done, Ana. This post by Ana is about her latest paper.

Following our previous whale shark work (see herehereherehere, here, here and here), especially the recent review where we inferred global connectivity and suggest possible pathways for their migration, we have now gone a step further and modelled the habitat suitability for the species at at global scale. This paper sets a nice scene regarding current habitat suitability, which also demonstrates the potential connectivity pathways we hypothesised previously. But the paper goes much further; we extend our predictions to a future scenario for 2070 when water temperatures are expected to increase on average by 2 °C.

Sequeira et al_GCB_Figure 3

Global predictions of current seasonal habitat suitability for whale sharks. Black triangles indicate known aggregation locations. Solid line delineates areas where habitat suitability > 0.1 was predicted.

Regarding the current range of whale sharks (i.e., its currently suitable habitat), we already know that whale sharks span latitudes between about 35 º North to South. We also know that this geographical range has been exceeded on several occasions. What we did not know was whether conditions were suitable enough for whale sharks to cross from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean – in other words, whether they could travel between ocean basins south of South Africa. Our global model results demonstrate that suitable habitat in this region does exist at least during the summer, thus supporting our hypotheses regarding global connectivity!

It’s true that the extensive dataset we used (30 years’ worth of whale shark sightings collected by tuna purse seiners in the three major oceans – data provided by the IRD, IOTC and SPC) has many caveats (as do all opportunistically collected data), but we went to great trouble to deal with them in this paper (you can request a copy here or access it directly here). And the overall result: the current global habitat suitability for whale sharks does agree well with current locations of whale shark occurrence, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific for where we did not have enough data to validate. Read the rest of this entry »

Ecology: the most important science of our times

12 07 2013

rocket-scienceThe title of this post is deliberately intended to be provocative, but stay with me – I do have an important point to make.

I’m sure most every scientist in almost any discipline feels that her or his particular knowledge quest is “the most important”. Admittedly, there are some branches of science that are more applied than others – I have yet to be convinced, for example, that string theory has an immediate human application, whereas medical science certainly does provide answers to useful questions regarding human health. But the passion for one’s own particular science discipline likely engenders a sort of tunnel vision about its intrinsic importance.

So it comes down to how one defines ‘important’. I’m not advocating in any way that application or practicality should be the only yardstick to ascertain importance. I think superficially impractical, ‘blue-skies’ theoretical endeavours are essential precursors to all so-called applied sciences. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is fundamentally no such thing as a completely unapplied science discipline or question. As I’ve said many times before, ‘science’ is a brick wall of evidence, where individual studies increase the strength of the wall to a point where we can call it a ‘theory’. Occasionally a study comes along and smashes the wall (paradigm shift), at which point we begin to build a new one. Read the rest of this entry »

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