Amphibian conservation in a managed world

1 04 2020

Crinia parinsignifera (top) and Limnodynastes tasmaniensis (bottom). Photo: Kate Mason

The amphibian class is diverse, and ranges from worm-like caecilians to tiny frogs that live their entire lives within bromeliads high in the rainforest canopy. Regardless of form or habit, all share the dubious honour of being cited as the world’s most endangered vertebrate taxon, and 41% of the species assessed are threatened with extinction. Rapidly changing climates will further exacerbate this situation as amphibians are expected to be more strongly affected than other vertebrates like birds or mammals.

This peril stems from a physiological dependence on freshwater.

Amphibians breathe (in part) through their skin, so they maintain moist skin surfaces. This sliminess means that most amphibians quickly dry out in dry conditions. Additionally, most amphibian eggs and larvae are fully aquatic. One of the greatest risks to populations are pools that dry too quickly for larval development, which leads to complete reproductive failure.

This need for freshwater all too often places them in direct competition with humans.

To keep pace with population growth, humans have engineered a landscape where the location, and persistence of water is tightly controlled. In seeking water availability for farming and amenity, we all too often remove essential habitats for amphibians and other freshwater fauna.

To protect amphibians from decline and extinction, land managers may need to apply innovative techniques to support vulnerable species. With amphibians’ strong dependence on freshwater, this support can be delivered by intelligently manipulating where and when freshwater appears in the landscape, with an eye to maintaining habitats for breeding, movement and refuge. A range of innovative approaches have been attempted to date, but they are typically developed in isolation and their existence is known only to a cloistered few. A collation of the approaches and their successes (and failures) has not occurred.

In our latest paper, we used a systematic review to classify water-manipulation techniques and to evaluate the support for these approaches. Read the rest of this entry »

Environmental damage kills children

1 10 2019

Yes, childrenairpollutionit’s a provocative title, I agree. But then again, it’s true.

But I don’t just mean in the most obvious ways. We already have good data showing that lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children (especially in developing nations), that air pollution is a nasty killer of young children in particular, and now even climate change is starting to take its toll.

These aspects of child health aren’t very controversial, but when we talk about the larger suite of indicators of environmental ‘damage’, such as deforestation rates, species extinctions, and the overall reduction of ecosystem services, the empirical links to human health, and to children in particular, are far rarer.

This is why I’m proud to report the publication today of a paper on which I and team of wonderful collaborators (Sally Otto, Zia Mehrabi, Alicia Annamalay, Sam Heft-Neal, Zach Wagner, and Peter Le Souëf) have worked for several years.

I won’t lie — the path to publishing this paper was long and hard, I think mainly because it traversed so many different disciplines. But we persevered and today published the paper entitled ‘Testing the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of better child-health outcomes in Africa: a cross-sectional study among nations* in the journal BMJ Open.

Read the rest of this entry »

World’s greatest conservation tragedy you’ve probably never heard of

13 10 2016

oshiwara_riverI admit that I might be stepping out on a bit of a dodgy limb by claiming ‘greatest’ in the title. That’s a big call, and possibly a rather subjective one at that. Regardless, I think it is one of the great conservation tragedies of the Anthropocene, and few people outside of a very specific discipline of conservation ecology seem to be talking about it.

I’m referring to freshwater biodiversity.

I’m no freshwater biodiversity specialist, but I have dabbled from time to time, and my recent readings all suggest that a major crisis is unfolding just beneath our noses. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to give a rat’s shit about it.

Sure, we can get people riled by rhino and elephant poaching, trophy hunting, coral reefs dying and tropical deforestation, but few really seem to appreciate that the stakes are arguably higher in most freshwater systems. Read the rest of this entry »

Australia pisses away the little water it has

9 05 2016

cow_drinking_australia_dryWater, water nowhere, with little left to drink.

Australians are superlative natural resource wasters, but living in the driest inhabited continent on the planet, you’d think we’d be precious about our water use.

You’d be wrong.

On the contrary, Australia has a huge water footprint (defined as “the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the people of the nation”). For internal domestic use (i.e., not including agricultural and industrial uses, or water imported directly or within other goods), Australians use about 341000 litres per person per year (data from 1997–2001), which is six times the global average of 57000 litres per person per year (1).

Agricultural production is one of the chief consumers of freshwater around the world. For example, the global average virtual water content of rice (paddy) is 2.29 million litres/tonne produced, and for wheat it is 1.33 litres/tonne. Growing crops for biofuel in particular has a huge water footprint — depending on the crop in question, it takes an average of 1400–20000 litres of water to produce just one litre of biofuel (2). If an agricultural product comes from livestock — say, meat, leather, or wool — the water content is typically much higher because of the feed required to keep the animal alive. For example, it takes about three years to raise beef cattle to slaughtering age, with an average of 200 kg of boneless beef produced per animal. This requires about 1,300 kg of grains, 7200 kg of pasture or hay, and 31000 litres of water for drinking and cleaning. This means that the total amount of water required to produce 1 kg of beef is about 15340 litres (1). For Australia, which has over 20 million or so cattle at any one moment, the water footprint alone should at least be cause for concern the next time you tuck into a steak dinner. Read the rest of this entry »

Australians: out-of-touch, urban squanderers

23 03 2015

There’s a romantic myth surrounding Australia that is pervasive both overseas and within the national psyche: this sun-scorched continent home to stoic bushmen1 that eek out a frugal, yet satisfying existence in this harsh rural land. Unfortunately that ideal is anathema to almost every Australian alive today.

While some elements of that myth do have a basis in reality – it is indeed a hot, dry, mostly inhospitable place if you count the entire land area (all 7.69 million square kilometres of it), and it does have the dubious honour of being the driest inhabited continent on Earth – most Australians live nowhere near the dry interior or the bush.

Despite our remarkably low average population density (a mere 3.09 people per square kilometre), Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, with nearly 90% of its citizenry living within a major urban centre. As a result, our largely urban/suburban, latte-sipping, supermarket-shopping population has little, if any, connection to the vast landscape that surrounds its comfortable, built-up environs. There should be little wonder then that Australians are so disconnected from their own ecology, and little surprise that our elected officials (who, after all, represent the values of the majority of the citizens they purport to represent), are doing nothing to slow the rapid flushing of our environment down the toilet. Indeed, the current government is in fact actively encouraging the pace of that destruction. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIII

4 04 2014

Here are another 6 biodiversity cartoons for your conservation pleasure/pain (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXII

3 02 2014

Here are another 6 biodiversity cartoons while I prepare for yet another trip overseas (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

Read the rest of this entry »

The lost world – freshwater biodiversity conservation

6 09 2010

Even the most obtuse, right-wing, head-in-the-sand, consumption-driven, anti-environment yob would at least admit that they’ve heard of forest conservation, the plight of whales (more on that little waste of conservation resources later) and climate change. Whether or not they believe these issues are important (or even occurring) is beside the point – the fact that this particular auto-sodomist I’ve described is aware of the issues is at least testament to growing concern among the general populace.

But so many issues in conservation science go unnoticed even by the most environmentally aware. Today’s post covers just one topic (I’ve covered others, such as mangroves and kelp forests) – freshwater biodiversity.

The issue is brought to light by a paper recently published online in Conservation Letters by Thieme and colleagues entitled Exposure of Africa’s freshwater biodiversity to a changing climate.

Sure, many people are starting to get very worried about freshwater availability for human consumption (and this couldn’t be more of an issue in Australia at the moment) – and I fully agree that we should be worried. However, let’s not forget that so many species other than humans depend on healthy freshwater ecosystems to persist, which feed back in turn to human benefits through freshwater filtering, fisheries production and arable soil accumulation.

Just like for the provision of human uses (irrigation, direct water consumption, etc.), a freshwater system’s flow regime is paramount for maintaining its biodiversity. If you stuff up the flow regime too much, then regardless of the amount of total water available, biodiversity will suffer accordingly.

Glen Canyon Dam

Image by James Marvin Phelps (mandj98) via Flickr

Thieme and colleagues focus specifically on African freshwater systems, but the same problems are being seen worldwide (e.g., Australia’s Murray-Darling system, North America’s Colorado River system). And this is only going to get worse as climate change robs certain areas of historical rainfall. To address the gap in knowledge, the authors used modelled changes in mean annual runoff and discharge to determine fish species affected by 2050.

The discharge/runoff results were: Read the rest of this entry »

Toilet Torrens II: The Plot Sickens

14 02 2009
© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

A few days into the Torrens ‘River’ disaster, and we see very little in the way of a truly dedicated, organised clean-up. With some token efforts to clean up the more obvious rubbish in the lake section itself (i.e., cars, fridges, etc.), there is nothing suggesting the true problems are going to be addressed. Indeed, the authorities are desperately trying to ‘find’ water to cover the problem up rather than deal with it.

Instead of a catchment-wide mass clean-up, the removal of the water-sucking invasive plants that line the river’s edge (see photos below), the implementation of a water neutrality scheme, and the removal of hundreds of untreated drainage pipes, they are willing to spend over $1 million to pipe in water from elsewhere.

I can’t believe it.

This is the best opportunity Adelaide has ever had to rectify the problem and clean the mess up once and for all; instead, the investment is going toward a cosmetic cover-up that will effectively fix nothing. Toothless. Some images I took today while cycling along the Torrens path follow:

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

© CJA Bradshaw

CJA Bradshaw

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Adelaide’s shame – the ‘River’ (toilet) Torrens

12 02 2009

I’ve put this post off for too long as it is, but after today’s ridiculous dereliction of dutymalfunction‘, I can no longer hold my tongue (as it were).

I’ve been living in Adelaide for about a year now, and it’s been slowly dawning on me just how badly managed, for decades, the Torrens River has been. I cycle or run to work along the Torrens cycle path and see and smell the amazing neglect that has accumulated over the years.

The river literally stinks of rot and filth. What am I saying? The Torrens is about as much a river as a trickle in public urinal. Actually, most urinals are a hell of a lot cleaner.

It’s not just the rubbish, the unregulated and ubiquitous pipes of untreated run-off entering every 100 m or so, the almost complete lack of flows during the summer, the terribly regulated flows during the infrequent winter rains, the toxic build-up of blue-green algae, or the choking invasive alien plants lining its entire course, it’s the unbelievable neglect, cover-up and blind ignorance that has lead to one of the most polluted, unnatural and degraded streams in Australia.

And it’s in the middle of Adelaide.

This is how some would rather you think of the Torrens:

But scratch just a little under the surface and you find this:

and this:

Yes, today’s mishap exposed decades of bad management to the press and the public in general; the authorities can’t wait for a little rain to cover up the ’embarrassment’, but they’ll have to wait a long time. This isn’t “embarrasing“, it’s shameful, disgusting, neglectful, irresponsible and naïve.

Of course, a few people have some partially right approaches to address the problem – indeed, Tourism Minister Jane Lomax-Smith suggests we take advantage of the low water levels and clean up the mess. I couldn’t agree more. However, apart from a few derelict cars pulled out, I’ve not seen a single attempt to get out there and do the job properly. We need to remove every last scrap of rubbish from the Adelaide Hills to Henley beach – this means the trolleys, oil drums, bicycles, wheelie bins and other assorted crap (I think I even saw a fridge today). I’m willing to help.

We need a major overhaul, clean-up and rethink about this so-called ‘river’.

The ‘drought’ that Australia seems convinced will some day end will not go away – climate change will ensure that, along with the persistence of some very bad urban water policies. We need to get used to the idea that we’ll have less and less water, not suddenly more when the ‘drought’ ends. Sorry, the drought won’t end.

So, what can we do? There are some very obvious improvements that can be made:

1. Undeniably, a massive, catchment-wide, get-your-hands-dirty clean-up is required to remove the astounding array of rubbish.

2. Yes, we have reduced flows and will continue to have in this state for a long time to come. So, we need to minimise waste. A paper I recently covered in detailed how a water neutrality programme would benefit water supply AND biodiversity. The idea is relatively simple – the water allocated to industry, residents, etc. is taxed according to total use. The monies received are then invested in removing all those invasive reeds, rushes, palms, bamboo, etc. that line the water course (all of these are water-hungry pests that have no business being there in the first place). In one fell swoop you have an employment program, an incentive to use less water, a ‘water-neutrality’ scheme that makes water-intensive products (e.g., fruits and vegetables) more attractive to environmentally conscious consumers, removal of alien species that consume too much water and prevent native species from proliferating, and importantly, a functioning ecosystem that provides water more regularly.

3. Get rid or divert all those untreated storm pipes from all and sundry lining the Torrens along its path. I’ve seen campground drainages with all sorts of filth flow into the river, car park drainages and inappropriate garden waste ooze into the river right along its course.

4. Let’s get rid of the horses grazing on the denuded banks of the river near Henley Beach. What the hell is livestock doing grazing in the middle of a city?

5. Remove golf courses lining the river.

6. Debunk the myth that bore water used to keep artificially lush gardens in the wealthier neighbourhoods lining the Torrens is somehow not subject to the same problems as rainfall-sourced water. 72 % of the Torrens’ water use is residential. We waste far too much of the underground water on these ridiculous gardens in our desert city – I’m sorry, the prominent display of ‘Bore Water in Use’ in so many gardens around Adelaide is contemptuous and ignorant.

Can we mend the Torrens? Yes, yes we can. A lot of rivers is much worse shape have been brought back to life over the years (see examples here, here and here), so we can do it too. It just takes a little political will, some intelligent policy, a bit of money and public commitment.

CJA Bradshaw

P.S. I recommend you avoid swimming anywhere near Henley Beach for the next few weeks.

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Water neutrality and its biodiversity benefits

5 11 2008

blog-water-balance-200x200The world’s freshwater ecosystems are in trouble. We’ve extracted, poisoned, polluted, damned and diverted a large proportion of the finite (and rather small!) amount of freshwater on the planet. Now, most people might immediately see the problem here from a selfish perspective – no clean, abundant water source = human disease, suffering and death. Definitely something to avoid, and a problem that all Australians are facing (i.e., it’s not just restricted to developing nations). Just look at the Murray-Darling problem.

In addition to affecting our own personal well-being, freshwater ecosystems are thought to support over 10000 fish species worldwide, and the majority of amphibians and aquatic reptiles. Current estimates suggest that about 1/3 of all vertebrate biodiversity (in this case, number of species) is confined to freshwater. As an example, the Mekong River system alone is thought to support up to 1700 different species of fish.

So, what are some of the ways forward? The concept of ‘water neutrality’ is essentially the wet version of carbon neutrality. It basically means that water usage can be offset by interventions to improve freshwater habitats and supply.

A great new paper by Nel and colleagues published online in Conservation Letters entitled Water neutrality: a first quantitative framework for investing in water in South Africa (definitely one for the Potential list) gives us a good model for how water neutrality should work. Using a South African example, they describe a scheme where investors are required to (1) review their water use, (2) implement a reduction strategy and (3) replenish water to hydrological systems through the investment in catchment services equivalent to their water use. It’s in this last act that the ‘neutrality’ can be achieved for the betterment of biodiversity – in the South African example, participants replenish their water use through investment in clearing of water-intensive invasive alien plants that choke freshwater systems and otherwise use much of the available water. And we all know how destructive invasive species can be (see previous post on this subject).

Not only does the scheme produce more water, it restores fragile freshwater ecosystems and does so within the economic framework that allows schemes like carbon trading to operate. We desperately need something like this in Australia. Imagine, more water for everyone AND healthy river systems (again, think Murray-Darling) – all paid for by previously water-intensive, but now ‘water-neutral’ firms. Imagine seeing labels on Australian produce that say ‘This is a Water Neutral product that supports freshwater ecosystem health’.

CJA Bradshaw

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