A cascade of otters

4 04 2022

Carnivores are essential components of trophic webs, and ecosystem functions crumble with their loss. Novel data show the connection between calcareous reefs and sea otters under climate change.

Trophic cascade on the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA) linking sea otters (Enhydra lutris) with sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus) and calcareous reefs (Clathromorphum nereostratum). With males weighting up to 50 kg, sea otters have been IUCN-catalogued as Endangered since 2000. The top photo shows a male in a typical, belly-up floating position. The bottom photo shows live (pinkish) and dead (whitish) tissue on the reef surface as a result of grazing of sea urchins at a depth of 10 m. Sea otters are mesopredators, typically foraging on small prey like sea urchins, but their historical decline due to overhunting unleashed the proliferation of the echinoderms. At the same time, acidification and sea-water warming have softened the skeleton of the reefs, allowing for deeper grazing by sea urchins that eliminate the growth layer of living tissue that give the reefs their pinkish hue. Large extents of dead reefs stop fixing the excess in carbonic acid, whose carbon atoms sea water sequesters from the atmosphere enriched in carbon by our burning of fossil fuels. Photos courtesy of Joe Tomoleoni taken in Moss Landing – California, USA (otter), and on the Near Islands – Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska (reef).

For most, the decisions made by people we have never met affect our daily lives. Other species experience the same phenomenon because they are linked to one another through a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade occurs when a predator limits the abundance or behaviour of its prey, in turn affecting the survival of a third species in lower trophic levels that have nothing directly to do with the predator in question (1).

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) represent a text-book example of a trophic cascade. These mustelids (see video footage here and here) hunt and control the populations of sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus), hence favouring kelp forests  — the fronds of which are eaten by the sea urchins.

Removing the predator from the equation should lead to more sea urchins and less kelp, and this chain of events is exactly what happened along the coasts of the North Pacific (2, 3). The historical distribution of sea otters once ranged from Japan to Baja California through the Aleutian Islands (see NASA’s photo from space, and documentary on the island of Unimak), a sub-Arctic, arc-shaped archipelago including > 300 islands between Alaska (USA) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia), extending ~ 2000 kilometres, and having a land area of ~ 18,000 km2.

But the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the species to the brink of extinction, down to < 2000 surviving individuals (4). Without otters, sea urchins boomed and deforested kelp ecosystems during the 20th Century (5). Now we also know that this trophic cascade has climate-related implications in other parts of the marine ecosystem.

Underwater bites

Doug Rasher and collaborators have studied the phenomenon on the Aleutian Islands (6). The seabed of this archipelago is a mix of sandy beds, kelp forests, and calcareous reefs made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates fixed by the red algae Clathromorphum nereostratum. These reefs have grown at a rate of 3 cm annually for centuries as the fine film of living tissue covering the reef takes the carbonates from the seawater (7).

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Remote areas not necessarily safe havens for biodiversity

16 12 2021

The intensity of threats to biodiversity from human endeavour becomes weaker as the distance to them increases.

As you move away from the big city to enjoy the countryside, you’ll notice the obvious increase in biodiversity. Even the data strongly support this otherwise subjective perception — there is a positive correlation between the degree we destroy habitat, harvest species, and pollute the environment, and the distance from big cities.

Remote locations are therefore usually considered safe havens and potential reservoirs for biodiversity. But our new study published recently in Nature Communications shows how this obvious pattern depicts only half of the story, and that global conservation management and actions might benefit from learning more about the missing part.

Communities are not just lists of individual species. Instead, they consist of complex networks of ecological interactions linking interdependent species. The structure of such networks is a fundamental determinant of biodiversity emergence and maintenance. However, it also plays an essential role in the processes of biodiversity loss. The decline or disappearance of some species might have detrimental —often fatal — effects on their associates. For example, a parasite cannot survive without its hosts, as much as a predator will starve without prey, or a plant will not reproduce without pollinators.

Events where a species disappears following the loss of other species on which it depends are known as co-extinctions, and they are now recognised as a primary driver of the ongoing global biodiversity crisis. The potential risk stemming from ecological dependencies is a major concern for all ecological systems.

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Extinct megafauna prone to ancient hunger games

14 12 2021

I’m very chuffed today to signal the publication of what I think is one of the most important contributions to the persistent conundrum surrounding the downfall of Australia’s megafauna many tens of millennia ago.

Diprotodon optimum. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

Sure, I’m obviously biased in that assessment because it’s a paper from our lab and I’m a co-author, but if readers had any inkling of the work that went into this paper, I think they might consider adopting my position. In addition, the injection of some actual ecology into the polemic should be viewed as fresh and exciting.

Having waded into the murky waters of the ‘megafauna debate’ for about a decade now, I’ve become a little sensitive to even a whiff of binary polemic surrounding their disappearance in Australia. Acolytes of the climate-change prophet still beat their drums, screaming for the smoking gun of a spear sticking out of a Diprotodon‘s skull before they even entertain the notion that people might have had something to do with it — but we’ll probably never find one given the antiquity of the event (> 40,000 years ago). On the other side are the blitzkriegers who declaim that human hunting single-handedly wiped out the lot.

Well, as it is for nearly all extinctions, it’s actually much more complicated than that. In the case of Sahul’s megafauna disappearances, both drivers likely contributed, but the degree to which both components played a part depends on where and when you look — Fred Saltré demonstrated that elegantly a few years ago.

Palorchestes. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

So, why does the polemic persist? In my view, it’s because we have largely depended on the crude comparison of relative dates to draw our conclusions. That is, we look to see if some climate-change proxy shifted in any notable way either before or after an inferred extinction date. If a particular study claims evidence that a shift happened before, then it concludes climate change was the sole driver. If a study presents evidence that a shift happened after, then humans did it. Biases in geochronological inference (e.g., spatial, contamination), incorrect application of climate proxies, poor taxonomic resolution, and not accounting for the Signor-Lipps effect all contribute unnecessarily to the debate because small errors or biases can flip relative chronologies on their head and push conclusions toward uncritical binary outcomes. The ‘debate’ has been almost entirely grounded on this simplistically silly notion.

This all means that the actual ecology has been either ignored or merely made up based on whichever pet notion of the day is being proffered. Sure, there are a few good ecological inferences out there from some damn good modellers and ecologists, but these have all been greatly simplified themselves. This is where our new paper finally takes the ecology part of the problem to the next level.

Led by Global Ecology and CABAH postdoctoral fellow, John Llewelyn, and guided by modelling guru Giovanni Strona at University of Helsinki, the paper Sahul’s megafauna were vulnerable to plant-community changes due to their position in the trophic network has just been published online in Ecography. Co-authors include Kathi Peters, Fred Saltré, and me from Flinders Global Ecology, Matt McDowell and Chris Johnson from UTAS, Daniel Stouffer from University of Canterbury (NZ), and Sara de Visser from University of Groningen (Netherlands).

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What makes all that biodiversity possible?

23 09 2015


You can either stop reading now because that’s the answer to the question, or you can continue and find out a little more detail.

I’ve just had an extremely pleasant experience reading John Terborgh‘s latest Perspective in PNAS. You know the kind of paper you read that (a) makes you feel smart, (b) confirms what you already think, yet informs you nonetheless, and (c) doesn’t take three days to digest? That’s one of those.

Toward a trophic theory of species diversity is not only all of those things, it’s also bloody well-written and comes at the question of ‘Why are there so many species on the planet when ecological theory can’t seem to explain how?’ with elegance, style and a lifetime of experience. I just might have to update my essential-ecology-papers list. If I had to introduce someone to 60 years of ecological theory on biodiversity, there’s no better place to start.

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Sharks: the world’s custodians of fisheries

5 05 2012

Today’s post comes from Salvador Herrando-Pérez (who, incidentally, recently submitted his excellent PhD thesis).

Three species co-occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and involved in the trophic cascade examined by Myers et al. (8). [1] Black-tips (Carcharhinus limbatus) are pelagic sharks in warm and tropical waters worldwide; they reach < 3 m in length, 125 kg in weight, with a maximum longevity in the wild of ~ 12 years; a viviparous species, with females delivering up to 10 offspring per parturition. [2] The cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) is a tropical species from the western Atlantic (USA to Brazil); up to 2 m wide, 50 kg in weight, and 18 years of age; gregarious, migratory and viviparous, with one single offspring per litter. [3] The bay scallop (Agropecten irradians) is a protandric (hermaphrodite) mollusc, with sperm being released a few days before the (> 1 million) eggs; commonly associated with seagrasses in the north-western Atlantic; shells can reach up to 10 cm and individuals live for < 2 years. In the photos, a black-tip angled in a bottom long-line off Alabama (USA), a school of cownose rays swimming along Fort Walton Beach (Florida, USA), and a bay scallop among fronds of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) off Hernando County (Florida, USA). Photos by Marcus Drymon, Dorothy Birch and Janessa Cobb, respectively.

The hips of John Travolta, the sword of Luke Skywalker, and the teeth of Jaws marked an era. I still get goose pimples with the movie soundtrack (bass, tuba, orchestra… silence) solemnizing each of the big shark’s attacks. The media and cinema have created the myth of man’s worst friend. This partly explains why shark fishing does not trigger the same societal rejection as the hunting of other colossuses such as whales or elephants. Some authors contend that we currently live in the sixth massive extinction event of planet Earth (1) 75 % of which is strongly driven by one species, humans, and characterized by the systematic disappearance of mega-animals in general (e.g., mammoths, Steller’s seacow), and predators in particular, e.g., sharks (2, 3).

The selective extirpation of apex predators, recently coined as ‘trophic downgrading’, is transforming habitat structure and species composition of many ecosystems worldwide (4). In the marine realm, over the last half a century, the main target of the world’s fisheries has turned from (oft-large body-sized) piscivorous to planctivorous fish and invertebrates, indicating that fishery fleets are exploiting a trophic level down to collapse, then harvesting the next lower trophic level (5-7).

Myers et al. (8) illustrate the problem with the fisheries of apex-predator sharks in the northeastern coast of the USA. Those Atlantic waters are rife with many species of shark (> 2 m), whose main prey are smaller chondrichthyans (skates, rays, catsharks, sharks), which in turn prey on bottom fishes and bivalves. Myers et al. (8) found that, over the last three decades, the abundance of seven species of large sharks declined by ~ 90 %, coinciding with the crash of a centenary fishery of bay scallops (Agropecten irradians). Conversely, the abundance of 12 smaller chondrichthyes increased dramatically over the same period of time. In particular, the cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), the principal predator of bay scallops, might today exceed > 40 million individuals in some bays, and consume up to ~ 840,000 tonnes of scallops annually. The obvious hypothesis is that the reduction of apex sharks triggers the boom of small chondrichthyans, hence leading to the break-down of scallop stocks. Read the rest of this entry »

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