Over-estimating extinction rates

19 05 2011

I meant to get this out yesterday, but was too hamstrung with other commitments. Now the media circus has beat me to the punch. Despite the lateness (in news-time) of my post, my familiarity with the analysis and the people involved gives me a unique insight, I believe.

So a couple of months ago, Fangliang He and I were talking about some new analysis he was working on where he was testing the assumption that back-casted species-area relationships (SAR) gave reasonable estimates of inferred extinction rates. Well, that paper has just been published in today’s issue of Nature  by Fangliang He and Stephen Hubbell entitled: Species–area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss (see also the News & Views piece by Carsten Rahbek and Rob Colwell).

The paper has already stirred up something of a controversy before the ink has barely had time to dry. Predictably, noted conservation biologists like Stuart Pimm and Michael Rosenzweig have already jumped down Fangliang’s throat.

Extinction rates of modern biota in the current biodiversity crisis (Ehrlich & Pringle 2008) are wildly imprecise. Indeed, it has been proposed that extinction rates exceed the deep-time average background rate by 100- to 10000-fold (Lawton & May 2008; May et al. 1995; Pimm & Raven 2000), and no rigorously quantification of these rates globally has ever been accomplished (although there are several taxon- and region-specific estimates of localised extinction rates (Brook et al. 2003; Regan et al. 2001; Hambler et al. 2011; Shaw 2005).

Much of the information used to infer past extinction rate estimates is based on  the species-area relationship (e.g., Brook et al. 2003); this method estimates extinction rates by reversing the species-area accumulation curve, extrapolating backward to smaller areas to calculate expected species loss. The concept is relatively simple, even though the underlying mathematics might not be. Read the rest of this entry »

生态学 = ‘Ecology’ in China

13 05 2011

I’m just heading home after a very inspiring workshop organised by Fangliang He at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China (I’m writing this from the Qantas Club in the Hong Kong airport).

Before I proceed to regale you with the salient details of the ‘International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology‘, I am compelled to state publicly that I offer my sincerest condolences to Fangliang and his family; unfortunately Fangliang’s brother passed away while we were at the workshop and so Fangliang wasn’t able to spend much time reaping the fruits of his organisational labour. If you know Fangliang, please send him a supporting email.

That sad note aside, I am delighted to say that the workshop was compelling, challenging and also rather fortuitous. I was one of many overseas invitees, and I must say that I was at times overwhelmed by the size of the brains they managed to pack into the auditorium. Many colleagues I didn’t know attended, and I hope that many will become collaborators. The international invitees were: Read the rest of this entry »

How fast are we losing species anyway?

28 03 2011

© W. Laurance

I’ve indicated over the last few weeks on Twitter that a group of us were recently awarded funding from the Australian Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis – ACEAS – (much like the US version of the same thing – NCEAS) to run a series of analytical workshops to estimate, with a little more precision and less bias than has been done previously, the extinction rates of today’s biota relative to deep-time extinctions.

So what’s the issue? The Earth’s impressive diversity of life has experienced at least five mass extinction events over geological time. Species’ extinctions have kept pace with evolution, with more than 99 % of all species that have ever existed now gone (Bradshaw & Brook 2009). Despite general consensus that biodiversity has entered the sixth mass extinction event because of human-driven degradation of the planet, estimated extinction rates remain highly imprecise (from 100s to 10000s times background rates). This arises partly because the total number of species is unknown for many groups, and most extinctions go unnoticed.

So how are we going to improve on our highly imprecise estimates? One way is to look at the species-area relationship (SAR), which to estimate extinction requires one to extrapolate back to the origin in taxon- and region-specific SARs (e.g., with a time series of deforestation, one can estimate how many species would have been lost if we know how species diversity changes in relation to habitat area). Read the rest of this entry »

International Congress for Conservation Biology 2010 overview

18 07 2010

A few posts ago I promised a brief overview of the 2010 International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) that I attended last week in Edmonton, Canada. Here it is.

While acknowledging that it is impossible for any single individual to attend all talks at a congress of this size given that there were usually around 6-8 concurrent sessions on most days, I can provide only a synopsis of what I saw and what I heard from others.

I’ve been lukewarm about the two SCB conferences I have attended in previous years (Brasilia and Chattanooga), and I expected about this same this time around. However, overall the presentations were generally of a higher quality, the audio-visual was professional and the schedule was humane (I really, really, really like 09.00 starts; I really, really, really hate 08.00 starts).

For me, highlights certainly include Tyrone Hayes‘ plenary on the evils of atrazine, Fangliang He‘s description of the perils of overestimating extinction rates from species-area relationships, Mark Burgman‘s account of the crap performance of ‘experts’ in returning truth, Stuart Pimm‘s advocacy of scientific advocacy, Bastian Bomhard‘s sobering account of our failure to meet the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity targets, Rob EwersBioFrag software, Tom Brook‘s account of vertebrate threat patterns, Rob Dietz‘ presentation on the Centre for Advancement of the Steady State Economy, Guy Pe’er‘s review of population viability analyses, and of course, the Conservation Leadership Programme salsa party! Read the rest of this entry »