The biggest and slowest don’t always bite it first

13 04 2021

For many years I’ve been interested in modelling the extinction dynamics of megafauna. Apart from co-authoring a few demographically simplified (or largely demographically free) models about how megafauna species could have gone extinct, I have never really tried to capture the full nuances of long-extinct species within a fully structured demographic framework.

That is, until now.

But how do you get the life-history data of an extinct animal that was never directly measured. Surely, things like survival, reproductive output, longevity and even environmental carrying capacity are impossible to discern, and aren’t these necessary for a stage-structured demographic model?

Thylacine mum & joey. Nellie Pease & CABAH

The answer to the first part of that question “it’s possible”, and to the second, it’s “yes”. The most important bit of information we palaeo modellers need to construct something that’s ecologically plausible for an extinct species is an estimate of body mass. Thankfully, palaeontologists are very good at estimating the mass of the things they dig up (with the associated caveats, of course). From such estimates, we can reconstruct everything from equilibrium densities, maximum rate of population growth, age at first breeding, and longevity.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. In Australia anyway, we’re largely dealing with marsupials (and some monotremes), and they have a rather different life-history mode than most placentals. We therefore have to ‘correct’ the life-history estimates derived from living placental species. Thankfully, evolutionary biologists and ecologists have ways to do that too.

The Pleistocene kangaroo Procoptodon goliah, the largest and most heavily built of the  short-faced kangaroos, was the largest and most heavily built kangaroo known. It had an  unusually short, flat face and forwardly directed 
eyes, with a single large toe on each foot  (reduced from the more normal count of four). Each forelimb had two long, clawed fingers  that would have been used to bring leafy branches within reach.

So with a battery of ecological, demographic, and evolutionary tools, we can now create reasonable stochastic-demographic models for long-gone species, like wombat-like creatures as big as cars, birds more than two metres tall, and lizards more than seven metres long that once roamed the Australian continent. 

Ancient clues, in the shape of fossils and archaeological evidence of varying quality scattered across Australia, have formed the basis of several hypotheses about the fate of megafauna that vanished during a peak about 42,000 years ago from the ancient continent of Sahul, comprising mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and neighbouring islands.

There is a growing consensus that multiple factors were at play, including climate change, the impact of people on the environment, and access to freshwater sources.

Just published in the open-access journal eLife, our latest CABAH paper applies these approaches to assess how susceptible different species were to extinction – and what it means for the survival of species today. 

Using various characteristics such as body size, weight, lifespan, survival rate, and fertility, we (Chris Johnson, John Llewelyn, Vera Weisbecker, Giovanni Strona, Frédérik Saltré & me) created population simulation models to predict the likelihood of these species surviving under different types of environmental disturbance.

Simulations included everything from increasing droughts to increasing hunting pressure to see which species of 13 extinct megafauna (genera: Diprotodon, Palorchestes, Zygomaturus, Phascolonus, Procoptodon, Sthenurus, Protemnodon, Simosthenurus, Metasthenurus, Genyornis, Thylacoleo, Thylacinus, Megalibgwilia), as well as 8 comparative species still alive today (Vombatus, Osphranter, Notamacropus, Dromaius, Alectura, Sarcophilus, Dasyurus, Tachyglossus), had the highest chances of surviving.

We compared the results to what we know about the timing of extinction for different megafauna species derived from dated fossil records. We expected to confirm that the most extinction-prone species were the first species to go extinct – but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While we did find that slower-growing species with lower fertility, like the rhino-sized wombat relative Diprotodon, were generally more susceptible to extinction than more-fecund species like the marsupial ‘tiger’ thylacine, the relative susceptibility rank across species did not match the timing of their extinctions recorded in the fossil record.

Indeed, we found no clear relationship between a species’ inherent vulnerability to extinction — such as being slower and heavier and/or slower to reproduce — and the timing of its extinction in the fossil record.

In fact, we found that most of the living species used for comparison — such as short-beaked echidnas, emus, brush turkeys, and common wombats — were more susceptible on average than their now-extinct counterparts.

Read the rest of this entry »

No need for disease

7 01 2013

dead or alive thylacineIt’s human nature to abhor admitting an error, and I’d wager that it’s even harder for the average person (psycho- and sociopaths perhaps excepted) to admit being a bastard responsible for the demise of someone, or something else. Examples abound. Think of much of society’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for global climate disruption (how could my trips to work and occasional holiday flight be killing people on the other side of the planet?). Or, how about fishers refusing to believe that they could be responsible for reductions in fish stocks? After all, killing fish couldn’t possibly …er, kill fish? Another one is that bastion of reverse racism maintaining that ancient or traditionally living peoples (‘noble savages’) could never have wiped out other species.

If you’re a rational person driven by evidence rather than hearsay, vested interest or faith, then the above examples probably sound ridiculous. But rest assured, millions of people adhere to these points of view because of the phenomenon mentioned in the first sentence above. With this background then, I introduce a paper that’s almost available online (i.e., we have the DOI, but the online version is yet to appear). Produced by our extremely clever post-doc, Tom Prowse, the paper is entitled: No need for disease: testing extinction hypotheses for the thylacine using multispecies metamodels, and will soon appear in Journal of Animal Ecology.

Of course, I am biased being a co-author, but I think this paper really demonstrates the amazing power of retrospective multi-species systems modelling to provide insight into phenomena that are impossible to test empirically – i.e., questions of prehistoric (and in some cases, even data-poor historic) ecological change. The megafauna die-off controversy is one we’ve covered before here on, and this is a related issue with respect to a charismatic extinction in Australia’s recent history – the loss of the Tasmanian thylacine (‘tiger’, ‘wolf’ or whatever inappropriate eutherian epithet one unfortunately chooses to apply). Read the rest of this entry »

Sustainable kangaroo harvests

10 11 2011

When I first started this blog back in 2008, I extolled the conservation virtues of eating kangaroos over cattle and sheep. Now I want to put my academic money where my mouth is, and do some kangaroo harvest research.

Thanks to the South Australia Department of Environment and Natural Resources  (DENR) and the commercial kangaroo harvest industry, in conjunction with the University of Adelaide, I’m pleased to announce a new scholarship for a PhD candidate to work on a project entitled Optimal survey and harvest models for South Australian macropods based at the University of Adelaide’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

DENR is custodian of a long-term macropod database derived from the State’s management of the commercial kangaroo harvest industry. The dataset entails aerial survey data for most of the State from 1978 to present, annual population estimates, quotas and harvests for three species: red kangaroo (Macropus rufus), western grey kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus), and the euro (Macropus robustus erubescens). Read the rest of this entry »