It's quite a challenge developing a conservation plan for a threatened migratory animal like the loggerhead sea turtle. Their movements may be uncertain and variable, span vast distances, cross international borders and traverse land and sea habitats. The information available to conservation managers to create their plans is often thin, patchy and comes from various sources. Filling in the gaps in that information can be costly and time consuming. And, of course, for a threatened species delays in action can be costly. So, the question is: what degree of spatial information provides sufficient results for directing management actions?
Ecological restoration of modified and degraded landscapes is an important challenge for the 21st century, with potential for major gains in the recovery of biodiversity. However, there is a general lack of agreement between plant- and animal- based approaches to restoration, both in theory and practice.
Here, a team of renouned ecologists, included several CEED researchers review these approaches, identify limitations from failing to effectively integrate their different perspectives, and suggest ways to improve outcomes for biodiversity recovery in agricultural landscapes.
Full paper HERE
A new study by The University of Queensland (UQ) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) shows a dramatic global mismatch between nations producing the most greenhouse gases – including Australia - and those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The study shows that the highest emitting countries are ironically the least vulnerable to climate change effects such as increased frequency of natural disasters, changing habitats, human health impacts, and industry stress.
Those countries emitting the least amount of greenhouse gases are most vulnerable.
Woodland birds are bird species which depend on native woodlands. They are sometimes called woodland-dependent birds. Unfortunately, woodlands have been widely cleared for agriculture and urban development leading to a widespread belief that woodland birds must be declining. Many have studied the decline of woodland birds, most commonly studying the effect of changing tree cover and fragmentation.
With climate change now posing a clear and present danger all around the planet, scientists are calling for more intelligence in the decisions we make about how we adapt, especially in relation to our ecosystems.
In many cases, leaving these ecosystems intact would be the smartest and most cost-effective insurance policy we could have. That's the message in a paper just published in Nature Climate Change by two CEED researchers Tara Martin and James Watson.
In some jurisdictions in Australia and around the world private enterprise has stepped in to build private lodges and other forms of accommodation in National Parks and wilderness areas.
However the idea of built facilities in National Parks is a contentious one in and continually divides opinion. What role can and should tourism play in providing income and where should you draw the line when it comes to what kind of tourism should be allowed?
Image: Jeremy Ringma Flickr
One of the world’s leading restoration ecologists has questioned the way we use the term ‘degraded’. According to CEED Chief Investigator Professor Richard Hobbs this is far more than simple semantics. How we assess whether a system is degraded has major implications for whether restoration is required.
In a paper just published in Restoration Ecology, Richard Hobbs examines the perceptions and values that are associated with term ‘degraded’ and how this affects the decisions we make on whether intervention is appropriate.
“An underlying premise of ecological restoration is that it focuses on the recovery of degraded systems,” says Richard Hobbs, Director of the Ecosystem Restoration and Intervention Ecology (ERIE) centre at the University of Western Australia.
“While this is an apparently straightforward aim, there is in fact considerable variation in how the term ‘degraded’ is defined, used and assessed.”
Hobbs points out that there is a notable subjective component to decisions regarding what is degraded and what is not, and this often relates to the values and goals being considered.
“There is likely to be little argument over highly degraded systems where damage and loss of valued characteristics are evident,” notes Hobbs.
“But where system change is less stark and the changes have mixed benefits and disadvantages, the decision on whether the system is degraded (and hence in need of restoration) becomes more difficult.”
This debate is timely given the many impacts we are witnessing connected to climate change. As systems continue to change in the face of ongoing climate, land use and other environmental changes, decisions become more difficult regarding which systems are degraded and which are merely different from what was there before.
Hobbs examined how degradation is defined in recent textbooks, policy documents, and papers in the literature, and found there is enormous variability. Just as important is how these definitions translate into what happens in practice.
Decisions to ‘restore’ areas to alternative ecosystem types are often taken on the basis of perceptions of what was there, or what ‘should have been’ there, rather than a consideration of the relative value of the existing system and the costs versus benefits of the restoration.
“Difference does not necessarily equate to degradation,” says Hobbs.
“Effective use of scarce management resources relies on an improved ability to openly debate and resolve such issues.”
Reference: Hobbs, R.J. 2016. Degraded or just different? Perceptions and value judgements in restoration decisions. Restoration Ecology doi: 10.1111/rec.12336
Image: This severely eroded farmland is ‘degraded’. There is obvious damage and the land has lost its productivity. In many other cases degradation is not so obvious. In some situations it might be because the system simply looks different to what people expect.
Food webs are a core part of biology – we start learning about them in primary school (this eats this, which eats that, and this is the apex predator and so forth, with lots of lines between species forming the ‘web’).
They are the most common and recognisable representations of ecosystems, and food-web theory is a very large and well-established field. Indeed, insights emerging from food-web theory have given rise to many approaches on which parts of the web we should focus on to keep them functioning, and which species we should make priorities.
Dr Eve McDonald-Madden from the University of Queensland (and CEED) and colleagues have applied environmental decision science to food-web theory to see if we can learn anything new. What they revealed, just published in Nature Communications, could revolutionise the field.
“The vast majority of food web research is about ecosystem conservation and management,” says McDonald-Madden.
“As decision scientists, we specifically investigated how food webs can be used to make decisions about ecosystem management. And what we found represents a major change in the way we think about the importance of individual species in food webs.”
McDonald-Madden and colleagues applied a range of Artificial Intelligence (AI) optimisation techniques to develop optimal management strategies for food webs (using both real and hypothetical food webs as case studies). They then compared these optimal solutions with a range of indices emerging from conventional food-web theory.
“We made the surprising discovery that species identified as important for food web persistence using a variety of popular indices frequently represent poor choices for conservation management of those food webs,” says McDonald-Madden. “Interestingly, a modified version of Google PageRank gives the ‘least-worst’ performance for the management of a large number of food webs.”
The Google PageRank algorithm is used by Google to rank websites in their search engine (and ‘Page’ doesn’t refer to web page, it’s actually named after Larry Page, one of Google’s founders). PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.
PageRank is a relatively simple way of cutting through the enormous complexity of the internet and it was first used to address the importance of species in food webs a few years ago by Stephano Allesina from University of Chicago. McDonald-Madden and colleagues were able to demonstrate its potential for informing risk-averse conservation decisions for managing species in food webs.
“Our work provides a robust methodology to extend past and future food-web research from simple assertions of conservation utility to actual tests,” says McDonald-Madden. “Further, this work provides a novel interdisciplinary link between network theory, artificial intelligence and conservation.
“Trying something novel in a well-established and enormous field such as food-web theory is a daunting challenge. However, our results have demonstrated there’s still much we can learn. Hopefully these studies will change the way people investigate food webs and produce tangible conservation outcomes.”
McDonald-Madden E, R Sabbadin, ET Game, PWJ Baxter, I Chade`s & HP Possingham (2016). Using food-web theory to conserve ecosystems. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10245.
As human populations grow, our impact on natural areas beyond urban centres is rapidly increasing. There’s a need to estimate not only where people live and work, but also where humans are found in the more remote and natural areas which are often the targets of protection efforts.
“Apart from a few well-monitored national parks, spatial patterns of human recreational activity remain largely unknown,” says Associate Professor Noam Levin from CEED and the University of Queensland.
“This lack of accurate data about human presence in more natural and remote areas handicaps conservation, management, policy, and investment decisions.”
Remote sensing provides a useful tool for mapping land-cover changes such as deforestation, however it doesn’t help us map people moving through the landscape. Levin and colleagues have attempted to fill this gap through an innovative analysis that combines information from social media with remote sensing.
“We combined an analysis of ‘big data’ coming out of Flickr, a social media site where people load up their geo-tagged photos, with remote sensing data that records artificial night lights,” explains Levin.
“We used data from the Flickr photo-sharing website as a surrogate for identifying spatial variation in global visitation, and complemented this estimate with spatially-explicit information on stable night lights between 2004 and 2012. The night lights help us identify urban and industrial centers.”
Natural and semi-natural areas attracting visitors were defined as areas both highly photographed and non-lit. The researchers confirmed that the number of Flickr photographers within protected areas was a reliable surrogate for estimating visitor numbers by comparing the information with local authority censuses.
While most photos are taken by people outside protected areas, the millions of Flickr photos uploaded to the internet combined with night-light imagery allows researchers to map and quantify, for the first time, worldwide visitation of both protected and unprotected areas. This enables the identification of visitation hotspots (and coldspots) for multiple countries and ecoregions across the world.
“The technique we have developed has many applications,” says Levin. “It can be useful for assessing the gaps of future protected areas, help in devising strategies, and enhance the effectiveness of protected area management in relation to pressures created by visitors.”
Their analysis also tells us what the most popular national parks in the world are.
“The most photographed protected areas globally included Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks in the United States and the Lake and Peak Districts in the United Kingdom,” says Levin.
“Two of the most photographed but largely unprotected sites are Brazil’s Pantanal and Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.”
The study is now available in the journal Ecological Applications.
Levin N, S Kark & D Crandall (2015). Where have all the people gone? Enhancing global conservation using night lights and social media. Ecological Applications 25: 2153–2167. doi:10.1890/15-0113.1
TOP: Holiday photo from the Lake District, UK, posted onto Flickr (by rockabilly_girl, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0).
FOLLOWING: Photos and night lights. Satellite-derived night lights averaged between 2004 and 2012 (in purple) and Flickr photographers (in green). Areas with both Flickr photos and night lights are shown in white, unlit areas with Flickr photos are shown in green, lit areas with few or no Flickr photos are shown in magenta, and unlit areas with no Flickr photos are shown in black.
Here’s a sobering thought: most marine species are not well represented within marine protected areas and several hundred species are not covered at all. We’re not talking about Australia here, that’s marine animals around the globe. This is the finding of a new analysis led by CEED associate Dr Carissa Klein.
Klein led a team that assessed the overlap of marine protected areas with the ranges of 17,348 marine species (fishes, mammals, invertebrates). They found a full 97 percent of those species have less than 10 percent of their ranges represented in marine protected areas established with conservation in mind. Countries with the largest number of “gap species,” whose ranges lie entirely outside of protected areas, include developed nations like the U.S., Canada, and Brazil.
Klein, along with coauthors James Watson, Ben Halpern and Jennifer McGowan have just discussed these results of their analysis in a National Geographic blog. They point out that while marine protected areas have grown nearly four-fold in extent in the past decade, they are still failing to provide protection to the overwhelming majority of marine species.
“The good news is that our findings contain a silver lining,” say Klein and colleagues. “The majority of species that are very poorly represented live in waters under national jurisdictions (approximately 200 nautical miles from shore). Thus, nations have the ability and authority to better protect biodiversity.”
Their analysis, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, provides the first global baseline on what marine protected areas are actually protecting. This will help nations to measure their own conservation progress and effectively plan for future protected areas.
You can read the CEED press release on this study here. James Watson is also a CEED Associate and Jennifer McGowan is a CEED Member.
Image: Small reef fish find shelter from predators in coral thickets. ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.