Environmental damage kills children

1 10 2019

Yes, childrenairpollutionit’s a provocative title, I agree. But then again, it’s true.

But I don’t just mean in the most obvious ways. We already have good data showing that lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children (especially in developing nations), that air pollution is a nasty killer of young children in particular, and now even climate change is starting to take its toll.

These aspects of child health aren’t very controversial, but when we talk about the larger suite of indicators of environmental ‘damage’, such as deforestation rates, species extinctions, and the overall reduction of ecosystem services, the empirical links to human health, and to children in particular, are far rarer.

This is why I’m proud to report the publication today of a paper on which I and team of wonderful collaborators (Sally Otto, Zia Mehrabi, Alicia Annamalay, Sam Heft-Neal, Zach Wagner, and Peter Le Souëf) have worked for several years.

I won’t lie — the path to publishing this paper was long and hard, I think mainly because it traversed so many different disciplines. But we persevered and today published the paper entitled ‘Testing the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of better child-health outcomes in Africa: a cross-sectional study among nations* in the journal BMJ Open.

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Nothing like a good forest

31 07 2019

Our history and culture are intimately tied to the planet’s forests and the services they provide to all living beings. In modern times, forests also help combat the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, not only by acting as powerful sinks of the carbon excess resulting from our greenhouse-gas emissions, but also as thermal shields we and many other species can benefit from.


Understory of the laurel forest in Garajonay National Park (La Gomera, Canary Islands) – also part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 2012. The fog, combined with the cloud belt blowing from the Atlantic Ocean against the mountains (Garajonay is the highest peak at 1500 m), creates a mesic microclimate crucial for plant endemism. Forest canopies reinforce humidity and buffer temperature variation for many species. Photo: Paco Rodríguez.

If we were to choose a house to live, most would likely opt for one with water and electricity supply, noiseless nights, nearby leisure and shopping, and easy communication by public transport. Lacking only one of those aspects could be off-putting.

In truth, those who have the privilege of living in a stable household value it by the full set of available commodities. Similarly, the value of an ecosystem rests on its entire repertoire of ecological functions (1). And this is particularly so for forest ecosystems.

The ecological value of a forest relies on the collection of its native characteristics (2): how many autochthonous and mature trees it can host, how much photosynthesis it fuels, how many pollinisers it feeds, how much soil and water it creates and retains, and many more (3). Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LII

2 01 2019

The first set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019 to usher in the New Year. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LI

23 10 2018

The six set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2018. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss L

3 08 2018

The fifth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2018. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Offshore Energy & Marine Spatial Planning

22 02 2018


I have the pleasure (and relief) of announcing a new book that’s nearly ready to buy, and I think many readers of CB.com might be interested in what it describes. I know it might be a bit premature to announce it, but given that we’ve just finished the last few details (e.g., and index) and the book is ready to pre-order online, I don’t think it’s too precocious to advertise now.


A little history is in order. The brilliant and hard-working Katherine Yates (now at the University of Salford in Manchester, UK) approached me back in 2014 to assist her with co-editing the volume that she wanted to propose for the Routledge Earthscan Ocean series. I admit that I reluctantly agreed at the time, knowing full well what was in store (anyone who has already edited a book will know what I mean). Being an active researcher in energy and biodiversity (perhaps not so much on the ‘planning’ side per se) certainly helped in my decision.

And yes, there were ups and downs, and sometimes it was a helluva lot of work, but Katherine certainly made my life easier, and she has finally driven the whole thing to completion. She deserves most of the credit.

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You know you’re screwed when the insects disappear

31 10 2017

dead cicadaLast Friday, ABC 891 here in Adelaide asked me to comment on a conservation paper doing the news rounds last week. While it has been covered extensively in the media (e.g., The Guardian, CNN, and Science), I think it’s probably going to be one of those things that people unfortunately start to forget right away. But this is decidedly something that no one should be forgetting.

While you can listen to me chat about this with the lovely Sonya Feldhoff on the ABC (I start chin-wagging around the 14:30 mark), I thought it prudent to remind CB.com readers just how devastatingly important this study is.

While anyone with a modicum of conservation science under her belt will know that the Earth’s biodiversity is not doing well, the true extent of the ecological tragedy unfolding before our very eyes really came home to us back in 2014 with the publication of WWF’s Living Planet Report. According to a meta-analysis of 10,380 population trends from over 3000 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and fish, the report concluded that the Earth has lost over 50% of the individuals in vertebrate populations since 1970. Subsequent revisions (and more population trends from more species) place the decline at over 60% by 2020 (that’s only a little over two years away). You can also listen to me speak about this on another radio show.

If that little bit of pleasant news didn’t make the pit of your stomach gurgle and a cold sweat break out on the back of your neck, you’re probably not human. But hang on, boys and girls — it gets so much worse! The publication in PLoS One on 18 October about Germany’s insect declines might be enough to tip you over the edge and into the crevasse of mental instabilityRead the rest of this entry »

Fertilisers can make plants sicker

25 01 2017

sick-plantLast year we reported experimental evidence that the dilution effect was the phenomenon by which greater biodiversity imparts disease resistance in plant communities. Our latest paper shows the mechanism underlying this.

In my ongoing collaboration with the crack team of plant community ecologists led by Shurong Zhou at Fudan University in Shanghai, we have now shown that nitrogen-based fertilisers — in addition to causing soil damage and environmental problems from run-off — reduce a plant community’s resistance to fungal diseases.

This means that prolonged use of artificial fertilisers can lead to the extinction of the most resistant plant species in a community, meaning that the remaining species are in fact more susceptible to diseases.

Continuing the experimental field trials in alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau, we tested the biodiversity resilience of an isolated  plant community to increasing concentrations of nitrogenous fertilisers. In this diverse and pristine ecosystem, we have finally established that extended fertilisation of soils not only alters the structure of natural plant communities, it also exacerbates pathogen emergence and transmission. 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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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXIX

20 10 2016

Six more biodiversity cartoons coming to you all the way from Sweden (where I’ve been all week). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Massive yet grossly underestimated global costs of invasive insects

4 10 2016
Portrait of a red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. This species arrived to the southeastern United States from South America in the 1930s. Specimen from Brackenridge Field Laboratory, Austin, Texas, USA. Public domain image by Alex Wild, produced by the University of Texas "Insects Unlocked" program.

Portrait of a red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta. This species arrived to the southeastern USA from South America in the 1930s. Specimen from Brackenridge Field Laboratory, Austin, Texas, USA. Public domain image by Alex Wild, produced by the University of Texas “Insects Unlocked” program.

As many of you already know, I spent a good deal of time in France last year basking in the hospitality of Franck Courchamp and his vibrant Systematic Ecology & Evolution lab at Université Paris-Sud. Of course, I had a wonderful time and was sad to leave in the end, but now I have some hard evidence that I wasn’t just eating cheese and visiting castles. I was actually doing some pretty cool science too.

Financed by BNP-Paribas and Agence Nationale de Recherche, the project InvaCost was designed to look at the global impact of invasive insects, including projections of range dynamics under climate change and shifting trade patterns. The first of hopefully many papers is now out.

Just published in Nature Communications, I am proud that many months of hard work by a brilliant team of ecologists, epidemiologists and economists has culminated in this article entitled Massive yet grossly underestimated costs of invasive insects, which in my opinion is  the first robust analysis of its kind. Despite some previous attempts at estimating the global costs of invasive species1-4 (which have been largely exposed as guesswork and fantasy5-10), our paper rigorously treats the economic cost estimates and categorises them into ‘reproducible’ and ‘irreproducible’ categories.


Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) adult. Dimitri Geystor (France)

What we found was sobering. If we look at just ‘goods and services’ affected by invasive insects, the annual global costs run at about US$70 billion. These include agricultural, forestry and infrastructure damages, as well as many of the direct costs of clean-up and eradication, and the indirect costs of prevention. When you examine that number a little more closely and only include the ‘reproducible’ studies, the total annual costs dip to about US$25 billion, meaning that almost 65% of the costs recorded are without any real empirical support. Scary, especially considering how much credence people put on previously published global ‘estimates’ (for example, see some citation statistics here).


Formosan subterranean termite Coptotermes formosanus by Scott Bauer, US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service

There’s a great example to illustrate this. If you take it at face value, the most expensive invasive insect in the world is the Formosan subterranean termite Coptotermes formosanus estimated at US$30.2 billion/yr globally. However, that irreproducible estimate is based on a single non-sourced value of US$2.2 billion per year for the USA, a personal communication supporting a ratio of 1:4 of control:repair costs in a single US city (New Orleans), and an unvalidated assumption that the US costs represent 50% of the global total.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXVIII

25 08 2016

Another six biodiversity cartoons for your midday chuckle & groan. There’s even one in there that takes the mickey out of some of my own research (see if you can figure out which one). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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One-two carbon punch of defaunation

30 04 2016

1-2 punchI’ve just read a well-planned and lateral-thinking paper in Nature Communications that I think readers of CB.com ought to appreciate. The study is a simulation of a complex ecosystem service that would be nigh impossible to examine experimentally. Being a self-diagnosed fanatic of simulation studies for just such purposes, I took particular delight in the results.

In many ways, the results of the paper by Osuri and colleagues are intuitive, but that should never be a reason to avoid empirical demonstration of a suspected phenomenon because intuition rarely equals fact. The idea itself is straightforward, but takes more than a few logical steps to describe: Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXV

8 03 2016

Another six biodiversity cartoons for you this week (see here for why I provide six each time). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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 »

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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Farewell to an environmental hero: Tony McMichael

26 09 2014

120927: ANU Reporter Magazine Portraits. PIcture by Belinda PrattenI had some sad news today – a visionary in human health and environmental integrity, Professor Tony McMichael, passed away last night from advanced influenza complications. Many people in the conservation field might not have heard of Tony, but rest assured he was one of the foremost thinkers and visionaries in the relationship between environment and human health.

I first met Tony on a World Health Organization-sponsored trip to China in 2008, where I was the ‘token’ ecologist on a panel of experts examining the nexus between environment, agriculture and the infectious diseases of poverty. Tony’s intellect and experience were daunting, to say the least, but a man who had served on several IPCC panels and countless international specialist committees was approachable and always listened. I was impressed and humbled from the outset.

A powerhouse in the general and multidisciplinary approach to the drivers of declining human health, Tony researched everything from classic human epidemiology to the sociological aspects of declining human health in the face of climate disruption. A little home-grown pride was present too in the fact that Tony did his medical degree at the University of Adelaide where I am now based.

If you are not familiar with Tony’s work and have even the slightest interest in the human-environment relationship, I encourage you to read his classic and innovative works. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »