Genetic Management of Fragmented Animal and Plant Populations

10 12 2016

logoThat is the title of a new textbook that will be available mid-2017.

After almost 6 years work, authors Dick Frankham, Jonathan Ballou, Katherine Ralls, Mark Eldridge, Michele Dudash, Charles Fenster, Bob Lacy & Paul Sunnucks have produced an advanced textbook/research monograph that aims to provoke a paradigm shift in the management of small, isolated population fragments of animals and plants.

One of the greatest unmet challenges in conservation biology is the genetic management of fragmented populations of threatened animal and plant species. More than a million small, isolated, population fragments of threatened species are likely suffering inbreeding depression, loss of evolutionary potential, and elevated extinction risks (genetic erosion). Re-establishing gene flow between populations is required to reverse these effects, but managers very rarely do this. On the contrary, molecular genetic methods are mainly being used to document genetic differentiation among populations, with most studies concluding that genetically differentiated populations should be managed separately (i.e., kept isolated), thereby dooming many populations to eventual extinction.

The need for a paradigm shift in genetic management of fragmented populations has been highlighted as a major issue in conservation. The rapidly advancing field of molecular genetics is continually providing new tools to measure the extent of population fragmentation and its genetic consequences. However, adequate guidance on how to use these data for effective conservation is still lacking, and many populations are going extinct principally for genetic reasons. Consequently, there is now urgent need for an authoritative textbook on the subject.

Read the rest of this entry »

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 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 »

What conservationists should recommend to philanthropists

24 08 2015

business-people-forest-sqIt probably won’t come as too much of a surprise that most of the people I know reasonably well (mates included) are also scientists of some description. I therefore think that I fall into the extremely normal and mundane category of associating the most with people at work. Sure, I’ve also got very good mates who are et alia plumbers, chefs, winemakers (I do live in South Australia, after all), mechanics, coffee roasters and farmers (I also live on a small farm), so at least a get out of the office a bit. In summary, I tend to befriend and hang around people who are for the most part making ends meet, but who are by no means in a position to spend oodles of cash on anything remotely related to the conservation of biodiversity.

From time to time, however, I do meet extremely wealthy people, but we generally do not operate in the same social circles (I know, another big surprise). Nonetheless, I keep finding myself in conversations with such people that start along the lines of the following question:

“What’s the most effective way to invest money to save species from going extinct?”

As the Australian saying goes: “How long is a piece of string” – in other words, it’s a difficult, multi-dimensional answer at best, or a confused non sequitur one at worst.

Those reading this might be thinking right now, “Oh, I know exactly what I’d spend it on if I had that kind of money”, but after a few moments of contemplation, you might not be so sure. This is the dilemma in which I’ve found myself now on more than a few occasions.

So, with the benefit of a little contemplation, here are a few of my thoughts on the subject. 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 »

Tentacles of destruction

5 04 2012

This last post before Easter is something I’ve thought more and more about over the last few years. I wouldn’t have given it much time in the past, but I’m now convinced roads are one of the humanity’s most destructive devices. Let me explain.

Before I had a good grasp of extinction dynamics, I wouldn’t have attributed much import to the role of roads in conservation. I mean, really, a little road here and there (ok, even a major motorway) couldn’t possibly be a problem? It’s mostly habitat destruction itself, right?

Not exactly. With our work on extinction synergies, I eventually came to realise that roads are some of the first portals to the devastation to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Sink to source – the loss of biodiversity’s greatest ecosystem service

29 02 2012

I’ve mentioned this idea before, but it’s nice when some real data support a prediction (no matter how gloomy that prediction might have been). It’s what drives scientists toward discovery (or at least, it’s what I find particularly appealing about my job).

Several years ago, my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi† and Ian Warkentin) and I wrote a major review in TREE about the fate of the world’s ‘second’ lung of the planet, the great boreal forests of Russia, Canada & Scandinavia. We discussed how fragmentation was increasing at an alarming rate, and that although most species there are still relatively intact, we stand to lose a lot of its biodiversity if we don’t halt the fragmenting processes soon. We wrote more on the subject in a paper to appear imminently in Biological Conservation.

Another component though that we raised in the TREE paper was the boreal forests were very much in danger of turning into a net carbon producer. You see, the ‘lung’ analogy is very pertinent because on average, the growth of the massive expanse of the vegetation in the forest generally takes up much more atmospheric carbon that it exudes through decay and burning (for as we all know, plants take up carbon dioxide to produce sugars during photosynthesis, and produce oxygen as a ‘waste’ product). However, as we fragment, cut down and burn the forest, it can end up producing more than it takes up (i.e., turning from a ‘sink’ to a ‘source’). We highlighted several studies indicating how insect outbreaks and human-exacerbated fire intensities and frequencies could conceivably do this.

Now Zhihai Ma and colleagues have just compiled a paper in PNAS indicating that the danger is well on the way to becoming reality in Canada. The paper entitled Regional drought-induced reduction in the biomass carbon sink of Canada’s boreal forests reports the results from 96 long-term permanent sampling plots spread right across southern Canada – from British Columbia in the far west, to Newfoundland in the far east. Read the rest of this entry »

Slicing the second ‘lung of the planet’

12 12 2011


Apologies for the slow-down in postings this past week – as many of you know, I was attending the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Auckland. I’ll blog about the conference later (and the stoush that didn’t really occur), but suffice it to say it was very much worthwhile.

This post doesn’t have a lot to do per se with the conference, but it was stimulated by a talk I attended by Conservation Scholar Stuart Pimm. Now, Stuart is known mainly as a tropical conservation biologist, but as it turns out, he also is a champion of temperate forests – he even sits on the science panel of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign.

I too have dabbled in boreal issues over my career, and most recently with a review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution on the knife-edge plight of boreal biodiversity and carbon stores. That paper was in fact the result of a brain-storming session Navjot Sodhi and I had one day during my visit to Singapore sometime in 2007. We thought, “It doesn’t really seem that people are focussing their conservation attention on the boreal forest; how bad is it really?”.

Well, it turns out that the boreal forest is still a vast expanse and that there aren’t too many species in imminent danger of extinction; however, that’s where the good news ends. The forest itself is becoming more and more fragmented from industrial development (namely, forestry, mining, petroleum surveying and road-building) and the fire regime has changed irrevocably from a combination of climate change and intensified human presence. You can read all these salient features here.

So, back to my original thread – Stuart gave a great talk on the patterns of deforestation worldwide, with particular emphasis on how satellite imagery hides much of the fine-scale damage that we humans do to the world’s great forests. It was when he said (paraphrased) that “50,000 km2 of boreal forest is lost each year, but even that statistic hides a major checkerboard effect” that my interest was peaked. Read the rest of this entry »