Category Archives: Charley Krebs’ blogs

On the Dollar Value of Nature

The Dasgupta Report was released last week with great promise. The news outlets were happy: The Guardian newspaper for example reported:

“The world is being put at “extreme risk” by the failure of economics to take account of the rapid depletion of the natural world and needs to find new measures of success to avoid a catastrophic breakdown, a landmark review has concluded.

Prosperity was coming at a “devastating cost” to the ecosystems that provide humanity with food, water and clean air, said Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Cambridge University economist who conducted the review.

The 600-page review was commissioned by the UK Treasury, the first time a national finance ministry has authorised a full assessment of the economic importance of nature.”

What should we make of this scenario? Are ecologists happy that economists now think all the things we have been fighting for are finally recognized? Or are we barking up the wrong tree? The first assumption is that we have surrendered all environmental decision making to economists. A corollary of this assumption might be that we tried having David Attenborough and the many excellent nature presenters convince the world that nature is wonderful and should be kept for all to enjoy, and this has mostly failed to alleviate our environmental problems. Many people do not seem to really care about nature unless it affects their livelihood directly. A second assumption is that economics is king of all, and by rolling out the big guns we will finally get progress in resolving environmental problems. Forget studying ecology and take up economics instead. If these two assumptions are correct, I would propose that we have lost the plot, and if we can deal with our ecological mess only by talking dollars, we really are lost.

Many people believe that we can overcome environmental changes and at the same time carry on much as we are today. The ever-increasing number of sustainability institutes and journals will attest to the reversal of environmental damage. Unfortunately, the correlation is positive rather than negative, and as this and many other reports detail, environmental damages continue to increase and at an increasing rate. What can we do to change this?

The first problem is that the environmental mess accumulates at too slow a rate, so the simplest solution for each person is to live by the maxim “I will pass away soon anyway, so why bother”. That does not help our children, and the next convenient viewpoint is that technology will save us. It is quite clear that technology will entertain us, but there are legitimate doubts that technology can be relied on for environmental salvation.

The nub of our problem is that we live in a world that has no leader. There certainly are leaders good and bad in many countries, but there is no supreme leader who can tell all the world’s peoples to act sustainably, and to be the police chief if they do not (Mearsheimer 2018). So burn coal if you wish, and mine coal even if people complain, and spread pollution as your individual right in spite of the clear rules of sustainable living. And the key is that you can ban mining and burning coal in one advanced country, but you have no power to tell other countries that they must do the same for the good of the Earth.   

When Nicholas Stern in 2006 released his 692-page report on the effect of global warming on the world’s economy, he summarized it this way:

  • there is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take strong action now
  • climate change could have very serious impacts on growth and development
  • the costs of stabilising the climate are significant but manageable; delay would be dangerous and much more costly
  • action on climate change is required across all countries, and it need not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries
  • a range of options exists to cut emissions; strong, deliberate policy action is required to motivate their take-up
  • climate change demands an international response, based on a shared understanding of long-term goals and agreement on frameworks for action.

The comments of some of the reviewers echoed that “the Stern Review was critically important in moving the climate issue from one of science to one of economics”. The Dasgupta Report of 2021 devotes 606 pages to the economics of biodiversity and perhaps will be lauded as moving the biodiversity issue from the realm of science to the realm of economics. The realms of science and of economics are intertwined, as the current Covid epidemic illustrates all too well. But I think it is a mistake to convert human beings into Homo oeconomicus because the world of biodiversity should not be worthy of protection solely because of its economic value to humans. There are many values that are of higher importance than economic values.

It is nevertheless important to align economic policies with biodiversity protection, and there is already an enormous literature discussing this from one extreme (Gray and Milne 2018) to another (Maron et al. 2018). Ecologists have tried mightily to incorporate our ecological world view into the economic realities but with only limited success (Constanza et al. 2017). The history of human treatment of nature is not very inviting to consider, and I do not like to project the past linearly on the future. But even in this pandemic one sees too many people who ignore all reasonable requests to alleviate problems, and the political systems of our day are so weak when it comes to protecting nature that most policy people seem to think that protecting a few small parks and reserves is enough. We certainly value the David Attenborough presentations on our TV but the need for real world responses seems muted and very slow to develop. I fear that economic science will do little better than biodiversity science to stop the juggernaut, but I hope to be wrong. To date the Titanic paradigm fits the facts too closely. If you are optimistic, go back and read the Stern Report of 2006 and then the Dasgupta Report of 2021. Progress?

Costanza, R., et al. (2017). Twenty years of ecosystem services: How far have we come and how far do we still need to go? Ecosystem Services 28, 1-16. doi: 10.1016/j.ecoser.2017.09.008.

Dasgupta, P. (2021) The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. (London: HM Treasury. Available at: www.gov.uk/official-documents.

Gray, R. and Milne, M.J. (2018). Perhaps the Dodo should have accounted for human beings? Accounts of humanity and (its) extinction. Accounting, Auditing, & Accountability 31, 826-848. doi: 10.1108/AAAJ-03-2016-2483.

Maron, M., et al. (2018). The many meanings of No Net Loss in environmental policy. Nature Sustainability 1, 19-27. doi: 10.1038/s41893-017-0007-7.

Mearsheimer, J.J. (2018) ‘The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.’ (Yale University Press: New Haven.). ISBN: 978-0-300-24856-2

Stern, N. (2006). The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. (London: HM Treasury). ISBN number: 0-521-70080-9 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

On the Bonn Challenge: Tree Restoration and the Climate Emergency

“Plant a tree and save the world” is the short version of the Bonn Challenge of 2011 and the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 (Stanturf and Mansourian 2020), and so here we are with a major ecological challenge for the decade we have just started. Planting trees around the world to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land is the goal, and it is a challenge that ecologists must think clearly about to avoid failure of another grand scheme.

Restoring ecosystems is not easy as we have already learned to our dismay. What began as a relatively simple restoration of old fields used in agriculture, a few hectares of ploughed ground surrounded by forest or grassland, has now morphed into very large areas devastated by forest fires, insect outbreaks, or drought. The largest forest fires in Arizona prior to the year 2000 were 20,000 ha, but after prolonged drought by 2020 they have reached nearly 300,000 ha (Falk 2017). The larger and more severe the fire, the greater the distance seed must disperse to recolonize burnt areas, and hence the recovery from large fires differs dramatically from the recovery from small or patchy fires.

I concentrate here on forest restoration, but always with the caveat in mind that the trees are not the forest – there are a plethora of other species involved in the forest ecosystem (Temperton et al. 2019). The restoration of forest landscapes is driven by the estimate that forest originally covered about 5.9 billion ha of the Earth but at the present time there is about 4 billion ha of forest remaining. Restoration of degraded ecosystems has always been a good idea, and this program can now be tied in with the climate emergency. New trees will remove CO2 from the air as they grow so we can score 2 points with every tree we plant (Bernal and Pearson 2018).  

The scale of plans for the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 are challenging and Stanturf and Mansourian (2020) provide current details country by country. For example, Brazil a country of 836 million ha has pledged to restore 12 million ha (1.44%), with some countries like Spain and Russia so far not pledging any Bonn Challenge restoration. The take-up of actual restoration is uneven globally. The USA has committed to restore 12 million ha to the Bonn Challenge, but Canada has made no formal commitment, although the federal government has proposed to plant 2 billion trees during this decade to counteract climate change.  

Many problems arise with every ecological restoration. Not the least is the time frame of the recovery of damaged ecosystems. Forests recover slowly even when carefully tended, and 100 years might be a partial target for temperate forests. For North American west-coast forests a 400+-year time frame might be a target. Most private companies and governments can not even conceive of this scale of time. For those who think everything should work faster than this, Moreno-Mateos et al. (2020) report a large sample of >600 restored wetlands that recovered to only 74% of the target value in 50-100 years. Schmid et al. (2020) found that the microbial community of a lignite mine in Germany had not recovered to the control level even after 52 years. Ecological time does not always conform readily to industrial time.

Other constraints blur the grand global picture. Restoration with trees should not be done on tropical grasslands because of their inherent biodiversity values (c.f. Silveira et al. 2020 for excellent examples), nor can we restore trees on rangeland that is used for agricultural production lest we engage in robbing agricultural Peter to pay forester Paul (Vetter 2020). These important ecological critiques must be incorporated into country-wide plans for reforestation whose primary aim might be CO2 capture. Again the devil is in the details, as Vetter (2020) clearly articulates.  

The Bonn Challenge remains ongoing, waiting for another review after 2030. Who will remember what was promised, and who will be given the awards for achievements reached? What quantitative goals exactly have been promised, and what happens if they slip to 2050 or 2070?  

Bernal, B., Murray, L.T., and Pearson, T.R.H. (2018). Global carbon dioxide removal rates from forest landscape restoration activities. Carbon Balance and Management 13, 22. doi: 10.1186/s13021-018-0110-8.

Bonnesoeur, V., Locatelli, B., Guariguata, M.R., Ochoa-Tocachi, B.F., Vanacker, V. et al. (2019). Impacts of forests and forestation on hydrological services in the Andes: A systematic review. Forest Ecology and Management 433, 569-584. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2018.11.033.

Falk, Donald A. (2017). Restoration ecology, resilience, and the axes of change. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102, 201-216, 216. doi: 10.3417/2017006.

Moreno-Mateos, D., et al. (2020). The long-term restoration of ecosystem complexity. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 676-685. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1154-1.

Silveira, F.A.O., Arruda, A.J., Bond, W., Durigan, G., Fidelis, A., et al. (2020). Myth-busting tropical grassy biome restoration. Restoration Ecology 28, 1067-1073. doi: 10.1111/rec.13202.

Stanturf, J.A. and Mansourian, S. (2020). Forest landscape restoration: state of play.
Royal Society Open Science 7, 201218. doi: 10.1098/rsos.201218.

Temperton, V.M., Buchmann, N., Buisson, E., Durigan, G. and Kazmierczak, L. (2019). Step back from the forest and step up to the Bonn Challenge: how a broad ecological perspective can promote successful landscape restoration. Restoration Ecology 27, 705-719. doi: 10.1111/rec.12989.

Vetter, S. (2020). With Power Comes Responsibility – A rangelands perspective on forest landscape restoration. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 4, 549483. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.549483.

On an Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology

Ecologist A does an experiment and publishes Conclusions G and H. Ecologist B reads this paper and concludes that A’s data support Conclusions M and N and do not support Conclusions G and H. Ecologist B writes to Journal X editor to complain and is told to go get stuffed because Journal X never makes a mistake with so many members of the Editorial Board who have Nobel Prizes. This is an inviting fantasy and I want to examine one possible way to avoid at least some of these confrontations without having to fire all the Nobel Prize winners on the Editorial Board.

We go back to the simple question: Can we agree on what types of data are needed for testing this hypothesis? We now require our graduate students or at least our Nobel colleagues to submit the experimental design for their study to the newly founded Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology (or in French DEME) who will provide a critique of the formulation of the hypotheses to be tested and the actual data that will be collected. The recommendations of the DEME will be nonbinding, and professors and research supervisors will be able to ignore them with no consequences except that the coveted DEME icon will not be able to be published on the front page of the resulting papers.

The easiest part of this review will be the data methods, and this review by the DEME committee will cover the current standards for measuring temperature, doing aerial surveys for elephants, live-trapping small mammals, measuring DBH on trees, determining quadrat size for plant surveys, and other necessary data collection problems. This advice alone should hypothetically remove about 25% of future published papers that use obsolete models or inadequate methods to measure or count ecological items.

The critical part of the review will be the experimental design part of the proposed study. Experimental design is important even if it is designated as undemocratic poppycock by your research committee. First, the DEME committee will require a clear statement of the hypothesis to be tested and the alternative hypotheses. Words which are used too loosely in many ecological works must be defended as having a clear operational meaning, so that idea statements that include ‘stability’ or ‘ecosystem integrity’ may be questioned and their meaning sharpened. Hypotheses that forbid something from occurring or allow only type Y events to occur are to be preferred, and for guidance applicants may be referred to Popper (1963), Platt (1964), Anderson (2008) or Krebs (2019). If there is no alternative hypothesis, your research plan is finished. If you are using statistical methods to test your hypotheses, read Ioannidis (2019).

Once you have done all this, you are ready to go to work. Do not be concerned if your research plan goes off target or you get strange results. Be prepared to give up hypotheses that do not fit the observed facts. That means you are doing creative science.

The DEME committee will have to be refreshed every 5 years or so such that fresh ideas can be recognized. But the principles of doing good science are unlikely to change – good operational definitions, a set of hypotheses with clear predictions, a writing style that does not try to cover up contrary findings, and a forward look to what next? And the ecological world will slowly become a better place with fewer sterile arguments about angels on the head of a pin.

Anderson, D.R. (2008) ‘Model Based Inference in the Life Sciences: A Primer on Evidence.‘ (Springer: New York.) ISBN: 978-0-387-74073-7.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2019). What have we (not) learnt from millions of scientific papers with P values? American Statistician 73, 20-25. doi: 10.1080/00031305.2018.1447512.

Krebs, C.J. (2020). How to ask meaningful ecological questions. In Population Ecology in Practice. (Eds D.L. Murray and B.K. Sandercock.) Chapter 1, pp. 3-16. Wiley-Blackwell: Amsterdam. ISBN: 978-0-470-67414-7

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science 146, 347-353. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3642.347.

Popper, K. R. (1963) ‘Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.). ISBN: 9780415285940

On Logging Old Growth Forests

Old growth forests in western Canada and many parts of the Earth are composed of very large trees whose diameters are measured in meters and whose heights are measured in football field lengths. The trees in these forests are economically valuable for their wood, and this has produced a conflict that almost all governments wish to dodge. I do not want to speak here as a terrestrial ecologist but as a human being to discuss the consequences of logging these old growth forests.

As I write this there are a mob of young people blockading the roads into old-growth forest stands in southwestern British Columbia to prevent the logging of some of the largest trees remaining in coastal western Canada. Their actions are all illegal of course because the government has given permission to companies to log these large trees, the classic case of ‘we need jobs’. We certainly need jobs, and we need wood, but if you ask the citizens of British Columbia if these very large trees should be logged you get a resounding majority of NO votes. The government is adept at ignoring the majority will here, it is called democracy.

My simple thought is this. These trees are 500 to 1000 years old. Cut them all down and your children will never see a big tree, or their children or perhaps 25 generations of children, since the foresters say that this is sustainable logging because, if left alone, the forest will regenerate into large old growth trees again by the year 2900. A splendid program for all except for our children for the nest 800 years.

The other ecological issue of course is that these forests form an ecosystem, so it is not just the loss of large old trees but all the other plants and animals in this ecosystem that will be lost. To be sure you can argue that all this forest management is completely sustainable, and you will be able to see this clearly if you are still alive in 2900. Sustainability has unfortunately become a meaningless term in much of our forest land management. Forest management could become sustainable, as many ecologists have been saying for the last 50 years, but as with agriculture the devil is in the details of what this actually means. And if the forest management plan to retain old growth is to keep 6 very large trees somewhere in coastal British Columbia, each one surrounded by a fence and a ring of high-rise hotels for tourists of the future to see “old growth”, then we are well on our way there.

Guz, J. and Kulakowski, D. (2020). Forests in the Anthropocene. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 110, 1-11. doi: 10.1080/24694452.2020.1813013.

Lindenmayer, D.B., et al. (2020). Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 898-900. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1195-5.

Thorn, S., et al. (2020). The living dead: acknowledging life after tree death to stop forest degradation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18, 505-512. doi: 10.1002/fee.2252.

Watson, J.E.M., et al. (2018). The exceptional value of intact forest ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 599-610. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0490-x.

How Much Evidence is Enough?

The scientific community in general considers a conclusion about a problem resolved if there is enough evidence. There are many excellent books and papers that discuss what “enough evidence” means in terms of sampling design, experimental design, and statistical methods (Platt 1964, Shadish et al. 2002, Johnson 2002, and many others) so I will skip over these technical issues and discuss the nature of evidence we typically see in ecology and management.

An overall judgement one can make is that there is a great diversity among the different sciences about how much evidence is enough. If replication is expensive, typically fewer experiments are deemed sufficient. If human health is involved, as we see with Covid-19, many controlled experiments with massive replication is usually required. For fisheries and wildlife management much less evidence is typically quoted as sufficient. For much of conservation biology the problem arises that no experimental design can be considered if the species or taxa are threatened or endangered. In these cases we have to rely on a general background of accepted principles to guide our management actions. It is these cases that I want to focus on here.

Two guiding lights in the absence of convincing experiments are the Precautionary Principle and the Hippocratic Oath. The simple prescription of the Hippocratic Oath for medical doctors has always been “Do no harm”. The Precautionary Principle has been spread more widely and has various interpretations, most simply “Look before you leap” (Akins et al. 2019). But if applied too strictly some would argue, this principle might stop “green” projects that are in themselves directed toward sustainability. Wind turbine tower effects on birds are one example (Coppes et al. 2020). The conservation of wild bees may impact current agricultural production positively (Drossart and Gerard 2020) or negatively depending on the details of the conservation practices. Trade offs are a killer for many conservation solutions, jobs vs. the environment.

Many decisions about conservation action and wildlife management rest on less than solid empirical evidence. This observation could be tested in any graduate seminar by dissecting a series of papers on explicit conservation problems. Typically, those cases involving declining large bodied species like caribou or northern spotted owls or tigers are affected by a host of interconnected problems involving human usurpation of habitats for forestry, agriculture, or cities, backed up by poaching or direct climate change due to air pollution, or diseases introduced by domestic animals or introduced species. In some fraction of cases the primary cause of decline is well documented but cannot be changed by conservation biologists (e.g. CO2 and coral bleaching). 

Nichols et al. (2019) recommend a model-based approach to answering conservation and management questions as a way to increase the rate of learning about which set of hypotheses best predict ecological changes. The only problem with their approach is the time scale of learning, which for immediate conservation issues may be limiting. But for problems that have a longer time scale for hypothesis testing and decision making they have laid out an important pathway to problem solutions.

In many ecological and conservation publications we are allowed to suggest weak hypotheses for the explanation of pest outbreaks or population declines, and in the worst cases rely on “correlation = causation” arguments. This will not be a problem if we explicitly recognize weak hypotheses and specify a clear path to more rigorous hypotheses and experimental tests. Climate change is the current panchrestron or universal explanation because it shows weak associations with many ecological changes. There is no problem with invoking climate change as an explanatory variable if there are clear biological mechanisms linking this cause to population or community changes.

All of this has been said many times in the conservation and wildlife management literature, but I think needs continual reinforcement. Ask yourself: Is this evidence strong enough to support this conclusion? Weak conclusions are perhaps useful at the start of an investigation but are not a good basis for conservation or wildlife management decision making. Ensuring that our scientific conclusions “Do no harm” is a good principle for ecology as well as medicine.

Akins, A., et al. (2019). The Precautionary Principle in the international arena. Sustainability 11 (8), 2357. doi: 10.3390/su11082357.

Coppes, J., et al. (2020). The impact of wind energy facilities on grouse: a systematic review. Journal of Ornithology 161, 1-15. doi: 10.1007/s10336-019-01696-1.

Drossart, M. and Gerard, M. (2020). Beyond the decline of wild bees: Optimizing conservation measures and bringing together the actors. Insects (Basel, Switzerland) 11, 649. doi: 10.3390/insects11090649.

Johnson, D.H. (2002). The importance of replication in wildlife research. Journal of Wildlife Management 66, 919-932.

Nichols, J.D., Kendall, W.L., and Boomer, G.S. (2019). Accumulating evidence in ecology: Once is not enough. Ecology and Evolution 9, 13991-14004. doi: 10.1002/ece3.5836.

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science 146, 347-353. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3642.347.

Shadish, W.R, Cook, T.D., and Campbell, D.T. (2002) ‘Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference.‘ (Houghton Mifflin Company: New York.)

But It is Complicated in Ecology

Consider two young ecologists both applying for the same position in a university or an NGO. To avoid a legal challenge, I will call one Ecologist C (as short for “conservative”), and the second candidate Ecologist L (as short for “liberal”). Both have just published reviews of conservation ecology. Person L has stated very clearly that the biological world is in rapid, catastrophic collapse with much unrecoverable extinction on the immediate calendar, and that this calls for emergency large-scale funding and action. Person C has reviewed similar parts of the biological world and concluded that some groups of animals and plants are of great concern, but that many other groups show no strong signals of collapse or that the existing data are inadequate to decide if populations are declining or not. Which person will get the job and why?

There is no answer to this hypothetical question, but it is worth pondering the potential reasons for these rather different perceptions of the conservation biology world. First, it is clear that candidate L’s catastrophic statements will be on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow, while much less publicity will accrue to candidate C’s statements. This is a natural response to the ‘This Is It!” approach so much admired by thrill seekers in contrast to the “Maybe Yes, Maybe No”, and “It Is Complicated” approach. But rather than get into a discussion of personality types, it may be useful to dig a bit deeper into what this question reveals about contemporary conservation ecology.

Good scientists attempting to answer this dichotomy of opinion in conservation ecology would seek data on several questions.
(1) Are there sufficient data available to reach a conclusion on this important topic?
(2) If there are not sufficient data, should we err on the side of being careful about our conclusion and risk “crying wolf”?
(3) Can we agree on what types of data are needed and admissible in this discussion?

On all these simple questions ecologists will argue very strongly. For question (1) we might assume that a 20-year study of a dominant species might be sufficient to determine trend (e.g. Plaza and Lambertucci 2020). Others will be happy with 5 years of data on several species. Can we substitute space for time? Can we simply use genetic data to answer all conservation questions (Hoffmann et al. 2017)? If the habitat we are studying contains 75 species of plants or invertebrates, on how many species must we have accurate data to support Ecologist L? Or do we need any data at all if we are convinced about climate change? Alfonzetti et al, (2020) and Wang et al. (2020) give two good examples of data problems with plants and butterflies with respect to conservation status. 

For question (2) there will be much more disagreement because this is not about the science involved but is a personal judgement about the future consequences of projected trends in species numbers. These judgements are typically based loosely on past observations of similar ecological populations or communities, some of which have declined in abundance and disappeared (the Passenger Pigeon Paradigm) or conversely those species that have recovered from minimal abundance to become common again (the Kirtland’s Warbler Paradigm). The problem revolves back to the question of what are ‘sufficient data’ to decide conservation policies.

Fortunately, most policy-oriented NGO conservation groups concentrate on the larger conservation issues of finding and protecting large areas of habitat from development and pushing strongly for policies that rein in climate change and reduce pollution produced by poor business and government practices.

In the current political and social climate, I suspect Ecologist L would get the job rather than Ecologist C. I can think of only one university hiring in my career that was sealed by a very assured candidate like person L who said to the departmental head and the search committee “Hire me and I will put this university on the MAP!”. We decided in this case we did not want to be on that particular MAP.

At present you can see all these questions are common in any science dealing with an urgent problem, as illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic discussions, although much more money is being thrown at that disease issue than we ever expect to see for conservation or ecological science in general. It really is complicated in all science that is important to us.

Alfonzetti, M., et al. (2020). Shortfalls in extinction risk assessments for plants. Australian Journal of Botany 68, 466-471. doi: 10.1071/BT20106.

Hoffmann, A.A., Sgro, C.M., and Kristensen, T.N. (2017). Revisiting adaptive potential, population size, and conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 32, 506-517. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.03.012.

Plaza, P.I. and Lambertucci, S.A. (2020). Ecology and conservation of a rare species: What do we know and what may we do to preserve Andean condors? Biological Conservation 251, 108782. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108782.

Wang, W.-L., Suman, D.O., Zhang, H.-H., Xu, Z.-B., Ma, F.-Z., and Hu, S.-J. (2020). Butterfly conservation in China: From science to action. Insects (Basel, Switzerland) 11, 661. doi: 10.3390/insects11100661.

On Citations and Scientific Research in Ecology

Begin with a few common assumptions in science.
(1) Higher citation rates define more valuable science
(2) Recent references are more valuable than older references
(3) Retracted scientific research is rapidly recognized and dropped from discussion
(4) The vast majority of scientific research reported in papers is read by other scientists.
(5) Results cited in scientific papers are cited correctly in subsequent references.

The number of publications in ecological science is growing rapidly world-wide, and a corollary of this must be that the total number of citations is growing even more rapidly (e.g. Westgate et al. 2020). It is well recognized that citations are unevenly spread among published papers, and reports that nearly 50% of published papers never receive any citations at all are commonly cited. I have not been able to validate this for papers in the ecological sciences. The more important question is whether the most highly cited papers are the most significant for progress in ecological understanding. If this is the case, you can simply ignore the vast majority of the published literature and save reading time. But this seems unlikely to be correct for ecological science.

The issue of scientific importance is a time bomb partly because ‘importance’ may be redefined over time as sciences mature, and this redefinition may occur in years or tens of years. A classic example is the citation history of Charles Elton’s (1958) book on invasions (Richardson and Pyšek 2008). Published in 1958, this book had almost no citations until the 1990s. Citations have become more and more important in the ranking of individual scholars as well as university departments during the last 20 years (Keville et al. 2017). This has occurred despite continuous warnings that citations are not valid for comparing individuals of different age or departments in different academic fields (Patience et al. 2017). If you publish in Covid-19 research this year, you are likely to get more citations than the person working in earthworm taxonomy.

Most published papers confirm the general belief that citing the most recent papers is more successful than citing older papers. If this belief could be tested, it would simplify education of graduate students and facilitate teaching. But the simple fact is that in ecology often (but not always) older papers have better perspectives than more recent papers or indicate paths of research that have failed to lead to ecological wisdom. 

Newspapers revel in stories of retracted research, if only to show that scientists are human. Of some interest are studies that show that research which is retracted continues to be cited. Hagberg (2020) cites a case in which a paper was retracted but continued to be cited as much after retraction as before. Fortunately, retracted research is rare in the ecological sciences but not absent, but the various conflicting ways in which scientific journals deal with papers with fraudulent results discovered after they are published leave much to be desired. 

A final comment on references is a warning to anyone reading the discussion or conclusions of a paper. Smith and Cumberledge (2020) have reported a random sample of references in a variety of scientific papers indicated a 25% error rate in ‘quotation’ errors. Quotation errors are distinct from ‘citation errors’ which are minor mistakes in the year of publication, page numbers or names in citations given in papers. Quotation errors are examples of “original paper authors say XX, citing paper says YY, a contradiction to what was originally reported. They used 250 citations from the 5 most highly cited scientific publications of today to determine how many papers contained ‘quotation errors’ and found a 25% error rate. About 33% of these errors could be called ‘Unsubstantiated’ and about 50% of the remaining quotation errors were ‘Impossible to substantiate” category. Their study reinforced early work by Todd et al. (2007) and pointed out to readers a weakness in the current use of references in scientific writing that is often missed by reviewers.

On a more positive note, on how to increase your citation rate, Murphy et al. (2019) surveyed the titles of 3562 papers and their subsequent citation rate from four ecology and entomology journals. They found that papers that did not include the Latin name of species in the title of the paper were cited 47% more often than papers with Latin names in the title. The number of words in the title of the paper had almost no effect on citation rates. They were unable to determine whether the injection of humor in the title of the paper had any effect on citation rates because too few papers attempted humor in the title.   

Elton, C.S. (1958) ‘The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants.’ (Methuen: London.) ISBN: 978-3-030-34721-5

Hagberg, J.M. (2020). The unfortunately long life of some retracted biomedical research publications. Journal of Applied Physiology 128, 1381-1391. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00003.2020.

Keville, M.P., Nelson, C.R., and Hauer, F.R. (2017). Academic productivity in the field of ecology. Ecosphere 8, e01620. doi: 10.1002/ecs2.1620.

Murphy, S.M., Vidal, M.C., Hallagan, C.J., Broder, E.D., and Barnes, E.E. (2019). Does this title bug (Hemiptera) you? How to write a title that increases your citations. Ecological Entomology 44, 593-600. doi: 10.1111/een.12740.

Patience, G.S., Patience, C.A., Blais, B., and Bertrand, F. (2017). Citation analysis of scientific categories. Heliyon 3, e00300. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2017.e00300.

Richardson, D.M. and Pyšek, P. (2008). Fifty years of invasion ecology – the legacy of Charles Elton. Diversity and Distributions 14, 161-168. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-4642.2007.00464.x.

Smith, N. and Cumberledge, A. (2020). Quotation errors in general science journals. Proceedings of the Royal Society. A, 476, 20200538. doi: 10.1098/rspa.2020.0538.

Todd, P.A., Yeo, D.C.J., Li, D., and Ladle, R.J. (2007). Citing practices in ecology: can we believe our own words? Oikos 116, 1599-1601. doi: 10.1111/j.2007.0030-1299.15992.x

Westgate, M.J., Barton, P.S., Lindenmayer, D.B., and Andrew., N.R. (2020). Quantifying shifts in topic popularity over 44 years of Austral Ecology. Austral Ecology 45, 663-671. doi: 10.1111/aec.12938.

On Writing an Abstract for an Ecological Presentation

There is abundant good general advice for writing an abstract for your thesis, research talk or published paper from the web but it is perhaps useful to add a few points specific to ecological studies. I suggest five points for a good abstract as a condensed version of the traditional writing advice: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.  

  1. What is the problem, question, or controversy? You must grab the reader in the first sentence or two.
  2. What is your contribution to answering, testing, or changing the question? In a few sentences you should explain what you did, where and when you did it if a field study. If you are testing a hypothesis, you should state the alternative hypotheses as well.
  3. How did you reach your conclusions, what methods did you use? The design of your study should include what species or group of species you included, some general points about sample sizes.
  4. Rotate back to match your conclusions to your prior hypotheses, or the new hypothesis you present.
  5. Finally, state what needs to be done next to further these ecological issues.

The trick is to do all of this in concise sentences, to state clearly your advances in understanding, and equally to state clearly what failed to work the way you had originally postulated.

So, if you can do all of this in 200-300 words, you win the prize. A good abstract is like gold and worth the work.

There is much literature on writing well. Sayer (2019) gives a concise statement of writing for ecological journals. Pollock (2020) emphasizes the responsibility scientists bear for their writing, and Mammola (2020) makes a plea for reducing superlatives in over-selling our conclusions,

If you would like an exercise in a seminar or lab meeting, go through your favourite journal and rank the abstracts in an issue on a scale of 1-10 for both clarity and for enticing you the reader to read the complete details of the rest of the paper.

And go through this same writing routine if you are giving a seminar or lecture and must present a short abstract. We may all be attracted to hear an address on whatever from the Prime Minister or the President, but alas that is not always the case for we mere mortals who must attract an audience to our talks on the basis of our abstract. 

Mammola, S. (2020). On deepest caves, extreme habitats, and ecological superlatives. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 35, 469-472. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2020.02.011.

Pollock, N.W. (2020). The responsibility of scientific writing. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine 31, 129-130. doi: 10.1016/j.wem.2020.04.005.

Sayer, E.J. (2019). The essentials of effective scientific writing – A revised alternative guide for authors. Functional Ecology 33, 1576-1579. doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.13391.

On a Department of Monitoring Biology

Begin with the current university structure in North America. Long ago it was simple: a Department of Biology, a Department of Microbiology, a Department of Forestry, and possibly a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Management. We could always justify a Department of Microbiology because people get sick, a Department of Forestry because people buy wood to build houses, and a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Management because people fish and hunt. But what are we going to do with a Department of Biology? It rarely deals with anything that will make money, so we divide it into interest groups, a Department of Botany, and a Department of Zoology. All is well. But now a new kid appears on the block, Molecular Biology, and it claims to be able to solve all the issues that were formerly considered the focus of Botany and Zoology and probably several other departments. Give us all the money, the molecular world shouted, and we will solve all your problems and do it quickly. So now we get a complete hassle for money, buildings and prestige, and the world turns on which of the bevy of bureaucrats races to the top to make all the major decisions. If you wish to have proof of concept, ask anyone you can find who teaches at a university if he or she was ever consulted about what direction the university should take.

At this point we begin to proceed based on ‘follow the money’. So, for example if the Department of Forestry gets the most money from whomever, it must get the biggest buildings, the largest salaries, and the newest appointments. So soon you have a system of intrigue that would rival the Vatican. The winners of late are those departments that have most to do with people, health, and profit. So Medical Schools march on, practical matters like economics and engineering do well, and molecular biology rises rapidly.

What has happened to the old Departments of Botany and Zoology? They make no profit; their only goal is to enrich our lives and our understanding of the world around us. How can we make them profitable? A new program races to the rescue, a Department of Biodiversity, which will include everyone in plant, animal and microbe science who cannot get into one of the more practical, rich, existing departments. The program now is to convince the public and the governments that biodiversity is important and must be funded more. David Attenborough to the fore, and we are all abandoning the old botany and zoology and moving to biodiversity.

Now the problem arises for ecologists. Biodiversity includes everything, so where do we start? If we have so far described and named only about 15% of the life on Earth, should we put all our money into descriptive taxonomy? Should we do more biogeography, more ecology, more modelling, or more taxonomy, or a bit of all? So, the final question of our quest arrives: what should we be doing in a Department of Biodiversity if indeed we get one?

If you have ever been involved in herding cats, or even sheep without a dog you can imagine what happens if you attempt to set a priority in any scientific discipline. The less developed the science, the more the arguments about where to put our money and people. Ecology is a good example because it has factions with no agreement at all about what should be done to hasten progress. The result is that we fall back on the Pied Pipers of the day, form bandwagons, and move either forward, sideways, or backwards depending on who is in charge.

So, let us step back and think amid all this fighting for science funding. The two major crises of our time are human population growth and the climate change emergency. In fact, there is only one major crisis, climate change, because as it apparently progresses, everything will be overwhelmed in a way only few can try to guess (Wallace-Wells 2019, Lynas 2020). After some discussion you might suggest that we do two things in biology: first, get a good grip on what we have now on Earth, and second, keep monitoring life on Earth as the climate emergency unravels so that we can respond with mitigation as required. This is not to say we should stop doing other things. We should be more than unifactorial scientists, and it may be a small recommendation to the world of thinkers that we consider endowing at least some universities with a Department of Monitoring Biology and endow it with enough funding to do the job well. (Lindenmayer 2018; Lindenmayer et al. 2018; Nichols et al. 2019). It might be our best investment in the future of biology.

Lindenmayer, D. (2018). Why is long-term ecological research and monitoring so hard to do? (And what can be done about it). Australian Zoologist 39: 576-580. doi: 10.7882/az.2017.018.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Likens, G.E., and Franklin, J.F. (2018). Earth Observation Networks (EONs): Finding the Right Balance. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 1-3. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.10.008.

Lynas, Mark (2020) ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’. 4th Estate, Harper Collins, London. E book ISBN: 978-0008308582

Nichols, J.D., Kendall, W.L., and Boomer, G.S. (2019). Accumulating evidence in ecology: Once is not enough. Ecology and Evolution 9, 13991-14004. doi: 10.1002/ece3.5836.

Wallace-Wells, David (2019) ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming ‘ Tim Duggan Books: New York. 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-525-57670-9.  

How should biodiversity research be directed?

There are many scientific papers and news reports currently that state that biodiversity is in rapid decline on Earth. No evidence is usually cited for this statement – it is considered to be self evident. What follows from that is typically a panic request for more work on declining populations, more money for conservation NGOs and national parks. Political ecology statements that request more money for ecological research are certainly on the right track if we are to understand how to achieve conservation of our biota. But the question I want to raise here is how to proceed on this broad issue in a logical manner. To do this I will not discuss political ecology or how to gain more donors for conservation agencies, valuable services to be sure. But behind all this advertising is a scientific agenda which needs careful consideration.    

Problem #1 is to determine if there is a problem. In some areas of conservation ecology there is much agreement on principles – we all agree that we are losing natural areas for urban and agricultural development, that we need more protected areas, that most protected areas are not large enough, that there are serious problems with poaching of wildlife and lumber in some protected areas, and that global pollution is affecting much of our biodiversity. In other areas of conservation ecology there is much controversy about details. Is global biodiversity in rapid decline (Vellend et al. 2017, Cardinale et al. 2018)? How can we best identify species at risk, and once we identify them, what can we do to prevent population collapse?

The answer to Problem #1 is that there are problems in some areas but not in others, in some taxonomic groups, but not in others, but overall the data are completely inadequate for a clear statement that overall biodiversity is in global decline (Dornelas et al. 2019). The problems of biodiversity conservation are local and group specific, which leads us to Problem #2.

Problem # 2 is to go back to the ecological details, concentrating on local and specific problems, exactly what should we do, and what can we do? The problems here relate almost entirely to ecological methods – how do we estimate species abundances particularly for rare species? How do we deal with year to year changes in communities? How long should a monitoring program continue until it has reliable conclusions about biodiversity change? None of these questions are simple to answer and require much discussion which is currently under way. How long is a long-term study? It might be something like 30 generations for vertebrate species or even longer, but what is it for earthworms or bark beetles? How can we best sample the variety of insects in an ecosystem in which they might be in decline (Habel et al. 2019)?

We need to scale our conservation studies for particular species, and this has led us into the Species-At-Risk dilemma. We can gather data for a specific geographical area like Canada on the species that we deem at risk. Typically, these are vertebrates, and we ignore the insects, microbes, and the rest of the community. We try to identify threatening processes for each species and write a detailed report (Bird and Hodges 2017). The action plan specified can rarely be carried out because it is multi-year and expensive, so the matter rests. For many of these species at risk and for almost all that are ignored the central problem is action – what could you do about a declining species-at-risk, given funds and person-power? We do what we can on a local scale on the principle that it is better to do something than nothing (Westwood et al. 2019). But too often even if we have a good ecological understanding of declines, for example in mountain caribou in Canada, little or nothing is done (Palm et al. 2020). Conservation collides with economics.

I will try to draw a few possible conclusions out of this general discussion.

  1. It is far from clear that global biodiversity is declining rapidly.
  2. On a local level we can do careful evaluations for some species at risk and take possible action if funding is available.
  3. Setting aside large areas of habitat is currently the best immediate conservation strategy. Managing land use is critical.
  4. Designing strong monitoring programs is essential to discover population and community trends so that, if action can be taken, it is not too late.
  5. Climate change will have profound biodiversity effects in the long run, and conservation scientists must work short-term but plan long-term.

As we take actions for conservation, we ought to keep in mind the central question: What will this ecosystem look like in 100 or 200 years? Perhaps that could be a t-shirt slogan.

Bird, S.C., and Hodges, K.E. (2017). Critical habitat designation for Canadian listed species: Slow, biased, and incomplete. Environmental Science & Policy 71, 1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2017.01.007.

Cardinale, B.J., Gonzalez, A., Allington, G.R.H., and Loreau, M. (2018). Is local biodiversity declining or not? A summary of the debate over analysis of species richness time trends. Biological Conservation 219, 175-183. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.12.021.

Dornelas, M., Gotelli, N.J., Shimadzu, H., Moyes, F., Magurran, A.E., and McGill, B.J. (2019). A balance of winners and losers in the Anthropocene. Ecology Letters 22, 847-854. doi: 10.1111/ele.13242.

Habel, J.C., Samways, M.J., and Schmitt, T. (2019). Mitigating the precipitous decline of terrestrial European insects: Requirements for a new strategy. Biodiversity and Conservation 28, 1343-1360. doi: 10.1007/s10531-019-01741-8.

Palm, E.C., Fluker, S., Nesbitt, H.K., Jacob, A.L., and Hebblewhite, M. (2020). The long road to protecting critical habitat for species at risk: The case of southern mountain woodland caribou. Conservation Science and Practice 2 (7). doi: 10.1111/csp2.219.

Vellend, M., Dornelas, M., Baeten, L., Beauséjour, R., Brown, C.D., De Frenne, P., Elmendorf, S.C., et. al. (2017). Estimates of local biodiversity change over time stand up to scrutiny. Ecology 98, 583-590. doi: 10.1002/ecy.1660.

Westwood, A.R., Otto, S.P., Mooers, A., Darimont, C., Hodges, K.E., Johnson, C., Starzomski, B. et al. (2019). Protecting biodiversity in British Columbia: Recommendations for developing species at risk legislation. FACETS 4, 136-160. doi: 10.1139/facets-2018-0042.