Should we bring back the thylacine? We asked 5 experts

17 08 2022
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Signe Dean, The Conversation

In a newly announced partnership with Texas biotech company Colossal Biosciences, Australian researchers are hoping their dream to bring back the extinct thylacine is a “giant leap” closer to fruition.

Scientists at University of Melbourne’s TIGRR Lab (Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research) believe the new partnership, which brings Colossal’s expertise in CRISPR gene editing on board, could result in the first baby thylacine within a decade.

The genetic engineering firm made headlines in 2021 with the announcement of an ambitious plan to bring back something akin to the woolly mammoth, by producing elephant-mammoth hybrids or “mammophants”.

But de-extinction, as this type of research is known, is a highly controversial field. It’s often criticised for attempts at “playing God” or drawing attention away from the conservation of living species. So, should we bring back the thylacine? We asked five experts.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXXIII

15 07 2022

Welcome to the fourth set of 6 cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Best and worst countries by different environmental indicators

15 06 2022

I’ll preface this post with a caveat — the data herein are a few years old (certainly pre-COVID), so things have likely changed a bit. Still, I think the main message holds.


Many years ago, I compiled seven different national-level measures of environmental degradation to show that countries with the largest human populations, and hence, the largest economies, had done the most environmental damage — not only to their own resources, but to the world’s in general.

That last observation is important because there are really two main ways to quantify a country’s environmental performance. First, there is its relative environmental damage, which essentially means what proportion of its own resources a country has pilfered or damaged. This type of measure standardises the metrics to account for the different areas of countries (e.g., Russia versus Singapore) and how much of, say, forests, they had to start with, and what proportion of them they have thus far destroyed.

Looking at it this way, small countries with few large-scale industries came out in the lead as the least-damaged environmentally — the least environmentally damaged country according this metric is Cape Verde (followed by Central African Republic, Swaziland, Niger, and Djibouti).

However, another way to look at it is how much of the overall contribution to the world’s environmental damage each country is responsible, which of course implies that the countries with the highest amounts of resources damaged in absolute terms (i.e., the biggest, most populous ones) disproportionately contribute more to global environmental damage.

Using this absolute metric, the countries with the greatest overall damage are Brazil (largely due to the destruction of the Amazon and its other forests), the USA (for its greenhouse-gas emissions and conversion of its prairies to farmland), and China (for its water pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions). On the flip side, this means that the smallest countries with the fewest people are ranked ‘better’ because of their lower absolute contribution to the world’s total environmental damage.

Looking more closely at how countries do relative to each other using different and more specific measures of environmental performance, the best-known and most-reported metric is the ecological footprint. This measures the ecological ‘assets’ that any particular population of people requires to produce the natural resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXXII

30 05 2022

Welcome to the third set of 6 cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Can we resurrect the thylacine? Maybe, but it won’t help the global extinction crisis

9 03 2022

NFSA

(published first on The Conversation)

Last week, researchers at the University of Melbourne announced that thylacines or Tasmanian tigers, the Australian marsupial predators extinct since the 1930s, could one day be ushered back to life.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ (it was neither Tasmanian, because it was once common in mainland Australia, nor was it related to the tiger), went extinct in Tasmania in the 1930s from persecution by farmers and habitat loss. Art by Eleanor (Nellie) Pease, University of Queensland.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

The main reason for the optimism was the receipt of a A$5 million philanthropic donation to the research team behind the endeavour.

Advances in mapping the genome of the thylacine and its living relative the numbat have made the prospect of re-animating the species seem real. As an ecologist, I would personally relish the opportunity to see a living specimen.

The announcement led to some overhyped headlines about the imminent resurrection of the species. But the idea of “de-extinction” faces a variety of technical, ethical and ecological challenges. Critics (like myself) argue it diverts attention and resources from the urgent and achievable task of preventing still-living species from becoming extinct.

The rebirth of the bucardo

The idea of de-extinction goes back at least to the the creation of the San Diego Frozen Zoo in the early 1970s. This project aimed to freeze blood, DNA, tissue, cells, eggs and sperm from exotic and endangered species in the hope of one day recreating them.

The notion gained broad public attention with the first of the Jurassic Park films in 1993. The famous cloning of Dolly the sheep reported in 1996 created a sense that the necessary know-how wasn’t too far off.

The next technological leap came in 2008, with the cloning of a dead mouse that had been frozen at –20℃ for 16 years. If frozen individuals could be cloned, re-animation of a whole species seemed possible.

After this achievement, de-extinction began to look like a potential way to tackle the modern global extinction crisis.

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The integrity battlefield: where science meets policy

4 03 2022

Professor Ross Thompson, University of Canberra


On the whole, I am inclined to conclude that my experience of academia and publishing my work has been largely benign. Despite having published 120-odd peer-reviewed papers, I can count the number of major disputes on one hand. Where there have been disagreements, they have centred on issues of content, and despite the odd grumble, things have rarely escalated to the ad hominem. I have certainly never experienced concerted attacks on my work.

But that changed recently. I work in water science, participating in and leading multi-disciplinary teams that do research directly relevant to water policy and management. My colleagues and I work closely with state and federal governments and are often funded by them through a variety of mechanisms. Our teams are a complex blend of scientists from universities, state and federal research agencies, and private-sector consultancies. Water is big business in Australia, and its management is particularly pertinent as the world’s driest inhabited continent struggles to come to terms with the impacts of climate change.

In the last 10 years, Australia has undergone a AU$16 billion program of water reform that has highlighted the extreme pressure on ecosystems, rural communities, and water-dependent industries. In 2019, two documentaries (Cash Splash and Pumped) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were highly critical of the  outcomes of water reform. A group of scientists involved in working on the Murray-Darling Basin were concerned enough about the accuracy of aspects of those stories to support Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne in drafting an Open Letter in response. I was a co-author on that letter, and something into which I did not enter lightly. We were very concerned about being seen to advocate for any particular policy position, but were simultaneously committed to contributing to an informed public debate. A later investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority also highlighted concerns with the Cash Splash documentary.

Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of a paper by Colloff et al. (2021) in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources. In that paper, the authors were critical of the scientists that had contributed to the Open Letter and claimed they had been subject to “administrative capture” and “issue advocacy”. Administrative capture is defined here as:

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXX

16 02 2022

Here is the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2022. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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And this little piggy went extinct

24 11 2021

Back in June of this year I wrote (whinged) about the disappointment of writing a lot of ecological models that were rarely used to assist real-world wildlife management. However, I did hint that another model I wrote had assistance one government agency with pig management on Kangaroo Island.

Well, now that report has been published online and I’m permitted to talk about it. I’m also very happy to report that, in the words of the Government of South Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA),

Modelling by the Flinders University Global Ecology Laboratory shows the likelihood and feasibility of feral pig eradication under different funding and eradication scenarios. With enough funding, feral pigs could be eradicated from Kangaroo Island in 2 years.

This basically means that because of the model, PIRSA was successful in obtaining enough funding to pretty much ensure that the eradication of feral pigs from Kangaroo Island will be feasible!

Why is this important to get rid of feral pigs? They are a major pest on the Island, causing severe economic and environmental impacts both to farms and native ecosystems. On the agricultural side of things, they prey on newborn lambs, eat crops, and compete with livestock for pasture. Feral pigs damage natural habitats by up-rooting vegetation and fouling waterholes. They can also spread weeds and damage infrastructure, as well as act as hosts of parasites and diseases (e.g., leptospirosis, tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease) that pose serious threats to industry, wildlife, and even humans.

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Video explainer — nasty alien species in Australia

15 09 2021

You know you’ve made it to the big time in Australia when Behind The News does a story on your research. Practically every kid in Australia watches the show at some point during their school years.

Although this was produced last month, I thought I’d post the entire 4-minute video here for your viewing pleasure.

When you popularise your research story for kids, it really gets the message across well.

Thank you, Natasha and BTN for this opportunity.






A domesticated planet

15 06 2021

The abundance of wild animals is regressing speedily as the number of domesticated animals and persons keeps escalating. Such demographic contrast signals that we urgently need to modify our model of subsistence and our interaction with Mother Nature.


If we had to choose between a biodiverse landscape and one hosting a monoculture of pine trees with ruminating cattle, many would take the first option. Biodiversity has an aesthetic value to humans, and also gives us free services like pollination, climate regulation, freshwater depuration or soil formation (1, 2). That is why the mounting rates of biodiversity loss have propelled a multi-angled debate about whether the Earth is experiencing the sixth mass extinction (3, 4) and how biodiversity should be managed to secure our access to ecosystem services (5, 6).

Think individuals, not species

A different way of approaching the biodiversity crisis consists of examining trends in the number of wild animals, with not so much emphasis on the variety of species. Thus, the Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund, has compiled thousands of scientific studies about > 21,000 populations of wild vertebrates studied over time (> 4,000 species represented) and concluded that, on average, the number of individuals per population has diminished by 70% since the 1970s (7).

Biomass (birds and mammals) in Planet Earth measured in Giga-tonnes of Carbon (Gt C) (8) for people (red), domesticated animals (blue) and wildlife (green). The pie chart compares those three groups in modern times, and the barplot reports values for mammals from prehistory (~100.000 years ago) to now. Overpopulation of humans and domesticated animals currently outnumbers the biomass of wildlife.

On the other hand, Yinon Bar-On et al. (8) quantified that the biomass of humans and our domesticated mammals currently multiplies the biomass of wild mammals by a factor of 10, and there are 3 kg of humans and poultry for every kg of wild birds (see video featuring this study).

Not only that, during the last 100,000 years through which anatomically modern humans have thrived from a handful of bands of African hunter-gatherers to complex societies living in metropolis, the cattle industry has ended up quadrupling the global biomass of mammals (8).

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… some (models) are useful

8 06 2021

As someone who writes a lot of models — many for applied questions in conservation management (e.g., harvest quotas, eradication targets, minimum viable population sizes, etc.), and supervises people writing even more of them, I’ve had many different experiences with their uptake and implementation by management authorities.

Some of those experiences have involved catastrophic failures to influence any management or policy. One particularly painful memory relates to a model we wrote to assist with optimising approaches to eradicate (or at least, reduce the densities of) feral animals in Kakadu National Park. We even wrote the bloody thing in Visual Basic (horrible coding language) so people could run the module in Excel. As far as I’m aware, no one ever used it.

Others have been accepted more readily, such as a shark-harvest model, which (I think, but have no evidence to support) has been used to justify fishing quotas, and one we’ve done recently for the eradication of feral pigs on Kangaroo Island (as yet unpublished) has led directly to increased funding to the agency responsible for the programme.

According to Altmetrics (and the online tool I developed to get paper-level Altmetric information quickly), only 3 of the 16 of what I’d call my most ‘applied modelling’ papers have been cited in policy documents:

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXV

10 03 2021

Here is the second set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIV

7 01 2021

As the pandemic rages globally, and the fragility of the American political system goes on full display, I give you the first set of biodiversity cartoons for 2021. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXIII

26 10 2020

The sixth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXII

2 09 2020

The fifth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Double standards: climate change vs. COVID-19

3 08 2020

Both anthropogenic climate change and the coronavirus pandemic entail serious health risks. Why then do climatologists lack the public credibility and political repercussions that doctors have? Preventing the aggravation of the climate emergency is possible if we react to it in the same way we are reacting to the pandemic, essentially, following the advice of the scientific community.

 

We have as much uncertainty regarding the coronavirus COVID-19 that causes acute respiratory failure (SARS-CoV-2) as we do about human-made greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Both problems are currently costing (and will cost) trillions to national economies. But the main difference between the two when it comes to public perception is not economic but temporal. The virus has changed our lives in days to months whereas climate change is taking years to decades to do so. This short-termism about how we respond to the pace of an emergency has been sculped in our genes by evolution (1) and contaminates politics.

Early this year, after deriding the onset of the pandemic, many climate change-denialist leaders (the obvious picks are Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson [note that Johnson modified his public views on climate change when becoming UK foreign secretary in 2016]) had to swallow their own words and honour their political profession when human corpses started to pile up in their hospitals. Read the rest of this entry »





The only constant is change

27 07 2020

I just wrote a piece for the Flinders University alumnus magazine — Encounter — and I thought I’d share it here.

encounter-2020_Page_01

As an ecologist concerned with how life changes and adapts to the vagaries of climate and pervasive biological shuffling, ‘constant change’ is more than just a mantra — it is, in fact, the mathematical foundation of our entire discipline.

But if change is inevitable, how can we ensure it is in the right direction?

Take climate change for example. Since the Earth first formed it has experienced abrupt climate shifts many times, both to the detriment of most species in existence at any given time, and to the advantage of those species evolving from the ashes.

For more than 3.5 billion years, species have evolved and gone extinct, such that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now confined, permanently, to the vaults of the past.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXI

31 05 2020

The fourth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LX

8 04 2020

The third set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020 (plus a video treat). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIX

24 02 2020

The second set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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