Tag Archives: biodiversity

Five Stages of Ecological Research

Ecological research falls into five broad classes or stages. Each stage has its strengths and its limitations, and it is important to recognize these since no one stage is more or less important than any other. I suggest a classification of these five stages as follows:

  1. Natural History
  2. Behavioural Ecology
  3. Applied Ecology
  4. Conservation Ecology
  5. Ecosystem Ecology

The Natural History stage is the most popular with the public and in some sense the simplest type of ecological research while at the same time the critical foundation of all subsequent research. Both Bartholomew (1986) and Dayton (2003) made impassioned pleas for the study of natural history as a basis of understanding all the biological sciences. In some sense this stage of biological science has now come into its own in popularity, partly because of influential TV shows like those of David Attenborough but also because of the ability of talented wildlife photographers to capture amazing moments of animals in the natural world. Many scientists still look upon natural history as “stamp-collecting” unworthy of a serious ecologist, but this stage is the foundational element of all ecological research.

Behavioural ecology became popular as one of the early outcomes of natural history observations within the broad framework of asking questions about how individuals in a population behave, and what the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these behaviours are to adaptation and possible future evolution. One great advantage of studying behavioural ecology has been that it is quick, perfectly suited to asking simple questions, devising experimental tests, and then being able to write a report, or a thesis on these results (Davies et al. 2012). Behavioural ecology is one of the strongest research areas of ecological science and provides entertainment for students of natural history and excellent science to understand individual behaviour and how it fits into population studies. It is perhaps the strongest of the ecological approaches for drawing the public into an interest in biodiversity.

Applied ecology is one of the oldest fields of ecology since it arose more than 100 years ago from local problems of how organisms affected human livelihoods. It has subdivided into three important sub-fields – pest management, wildlife management, and fisheries management. Applied ecology relies heavily on the principles of population ecology, one level above the individual studies of behavioural and natural history research. These fields are concerned with population changes, whether to reduce populations to stop damage to crops, or to understand why some species populations become pests. All applied ecology heavily interreacts with human usage of the environment and the economics of farming, fisheries, and wildlife harvesting. In a general sense applied ecology is a step more difficult than behavioural ecology because answering the applied problems or management has a longer time frame than the typical three-year thesis project. Applied ecology has a broad interface with evolutionary ecology because human actions can disrupt natural selection and pest evolution can complicate every management problem.

Conservation ecology is the new kid on the block. It was part of wildlife and fisheries management until about 1985 when it was clear to all that some populations were endangered by human changes to the ecosystems of fisheries, forestry, and agriculture. The essential problems of conservation ecology were described elegantly by Caughley (1994). Conservation issues are the most visible of all issues in population and community ecology, and they are often the most difficult to resolve when science dictates one conservation solution that interferes with the dominant economic view of human society. If species of interest are rare the problem is further confounded by the difficulty of studying rare species in the field. What will become of the earth’s ecosystems in the future depends in large part as to how these conservation conflicts can be resolved.

Ecosystem ecology and community ecology are the important focus at present but are hampered by a lack of a clear vision of what needs to be done and what can be done. The problem is partly that there is much poor theory, coupled with much poor data. The critical questions in ecosystem ecology are currently too vague to be studied in a realistic time period of less than 50 years. Climate change is impacting all our current ideas about community stability and resilience, and what predictions we can make for whole ecosystems in the light of a poor database. Ironically experimental manipulations are being done by companies with an economic focus such as forestry but there are few funds to make use of these large-scale landscape changes. In the long term, ecosystem ecology is the most significant aspect of ecology for humans, but it is the weakest in terms of understanding ecosystem processes. We can all see the negative effects of human changes on landscapes, but we have little in the way of scientific guidance to predict the long-term consequences of these changes and how they can be successfully ameliorated.

All of this is distressing to practical ecologists who wish to make a difference and be able to counteract undesirable changes in populations and ecosystems. It is important for all of us not to give up on reversing negative trends in conservation and land management and we need to do all we can to influence the public in general and politicians in particular to change negative trends to positive ones in our world. An array of good books points this out very forcefully (e.g., Monbiot 2018, Klein 2021). It is the job of every ecologist to gather the data and present ecological science to the community at large so we can contribute to decision making about the future of the Earth.

Bartholomew, G. A. (1986). The role of natural history in contemporary biology. BioScience 36, 324-329. doi: 10.2307/1310237

Caughley, G. (1994). Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology 63, 215-244. doi: 10.2307/5542

Davies, N.B., Krebs, J.R., and West, S.A. (2012) ‘An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology.‘ 4th edn. (Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.). 520 pp.

Dayton, P.K. (2003). The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist 162, 1-13. doi: 10.1086/376572

Klein, Naomi (2021) ‘How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other ‘ (Simon and Schuster: New York.) 336 pp. ISBN: 978-1534474529

Monbiot, George. (2018) ‘Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.’ (Verso.). 224 pp. ISBN: 1786632896

What is the Ratio of Thought to Action in Biodiversity Conservation?

Many ecologists who peruse the conservation literature will come away with a general concern about the amount of effort that goes into thoughts about how conservation should be done and how much action is currently being carried out to achieve these goals in the field. My premise here is that currently the person-power given to thought greatly exceeds the person-power devoted to actually achieving the broad conservation goal of protecting biodiversity. Let me illustrate this with one dilemma in conservation: should we be concerned predominately with the loss of threatened and endangered species, or should we concentrate on the major dominant species in our ecosystems? Of course, this is not a black-or-white dichotomy, and the first answer is that we should do both. But the economist would suggest that resources are limited, and you cannot do both, so the question should be reworded as to what fraction of resources should go to one or the other of these two activities.

Consider the example of threatened and endangered species. Many of these species are rare numerically at present. In the past they may have been abundant but that is not always the case. The ecologist will know as a universal constant that most species in ecosystems are rare, and because they are rare, they are most difficult to study to answer the simple question why are they rare? Pick your favourite rare species and try to answer this question. For some species under persecution by humans the answer is simple; for most it is not, and ecologists fall back on explanations like the resources they require are not abundant, or their niche is specialized, meaningless statements that can be called panchrestons unless we have infinite time and funds to find out exactly what the limiting resources are, or why their niche is specialized. Now let us make a simple thought experiment that asks: what would happen if all these rare and endangered species disappeared from the world’s ecosystems? The first response would be total outrage that anyone would ask such a terrible question, so it is best not to talk about it. The second would be that we would be outraged if our favorite bird or frog disappeared like the passenger pigeon. The third might be that we should consider this question seriously.

Some community and ecosystem ecologists might wager that nothing would happen to ecosystem dynamics if all the rare and endangered species disappeared. No one of course would admit to such a point of view since it would end their career. At the moment we are in the unenviable state of doing the opposite experiment on the world’s coral reefs which are suffering in an ocean that is acidifying and heating up, pollution that is increasing, and overfishing that is common (Fraser et al. 2019, Lebrec et al. 2019, Romero-Torres et al. 2020). Coral reefs are an extreme example of human impacts on areas of high conservation and economic value such that the entire ecosystem will have to reconstruct itself with corals of greater tolerance to current and future conditions, a future with no clear guess of what positive effects will transpire.

Perhaps the message of both coral reef conservation and terrestrial ecosystem conservation is that you cannot destroy the major species without major consequences. Australia provides a good example of the consequences of altering predator abundance in an ecosystem. The dingo (Canis familaris) has been persecuted because of predation on sheep, and at the same time domestic cats (Felis catus) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have been introduced to the continent. The ecological question is whether the reintroduction of the dingo to places where it has been exterminated will reduce the abundance of cats and foxes, and thus save naïve prey species from local extinction (Newsome et al. 2015). The answer to this question is far from clear (Morgan et al. 2017, Hunter and Letnic 2022) and may differ in different ecosystems within Australia.  

The bottom line is that our original question about rare species cannot be answered. There is much literature on introduced predators affecting food webs, following from Estes et al. (2011) important paper. and now there is much research effort on the roles of apex predators and consumers on ecosystem dynamics (Serrouya et al. 2021). Much of this effort concentrates on the common animals rather than the rare ones with which we began this discussion. Much more action in the field is needed on all conservation fronts since in my opinion the amount of thought we have available now will last field workers for the rest of the century.

Estes, J.A., Terborgh, J., Brashares, J.S., Power, M.E., Berger, J., et al. (2011). Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333, 301-306. doi: 10.1126/science.1205106.

Fraser, K.A., Adams, V.M., Pressey, R.L., and Pandolfi, J.M. (2019). Impact evaluation and conservation outcomes in marine protected areas: A case study of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Biological Conservation 238, 108185. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.07.030

Hunter, D.O. and Letnic, M. (2022). Dingoes have greater suppressive effect on fox populations than poisoning campaigns. Australian Mammalogy 44. doi: 10.1071/AM21036.

Lebrec, M., Stefanski, S., Gates, R., Acar, S., Golbuu, Y., Claudel-Rusin, A., Kurihara, H., Rehdanz, K., Paugam-Baudoin, D., Tsunoda, T., and Swarzenski, P.W. (2019). Ocean acidification impacts in select Pacific Basin coral reef ecosystems. Regional Studies in Marine Science 28, 100584. doi: 10.1016/j.rsma.2019.100584.

Morgan, H.R., Hunter, J.T., Ballard, G., Reid, N.C.H., and Fleming, P.J.S. (2017). Trophic cascades and dingoes in Australia: Does the Yellowstone wolf–elk–willow model apply? Food Webs 12, 76-87. doi: 10.1016/j.fooweb.2016.09.003.

Newsome, TM., Ballard, G.-A., Crowther, M.S., Dellinger, J.A., Fleming, P.J.S., et al. (2015). Resolving the value of the dingo in ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology 23, 201-208.  doi: 10.1111/rec.12186.

Romero-Torres, M., Acosta, A., Palacio-Castro, A.M., Treml, E.A., Zapata, F.A., Paz-García, D.A., and Porter, J.W. (2020). Coral reef resilience to thermal stress in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Global Change Biology 26, 3880-3890. doi: 10.1111/gcb.15126

Serrouya, R., Dickie, M., Lamb, C., Oort, H. van, Kelly, A.P., DeMars, C., et al. (2021). Trophic consequences of terrestrial eutrophication for a threatened ungulate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 288, 20202811. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2811.

How Do We Decide Controversial Issues in Conservation?

While almost everyone favours conservation of plants and animals around the globe, it is far from clear how this broad goal can be disarticulated into smaller issues. Once we have done this the solution of the conservation problem should be simple. But it is not (Sutherland et al, 2021). Take an example of the koala in Australia, cute mid-size marsupials that live in trees and eat leaves. If koalas are to be protected, you must protect forests, but if you protect forests the companies that survive by logging on both private and crown land will be adversely affected. We have an immediate conflict, so how do we decide what to do. One response which we can label have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too suggests that we use some of our forests for logging and protect some forests for ecological reserves. Everyone is now happy, but things unravel. As the human population grows, we need more wood, so over time we would have to log more and more of the forested areas that could support koalas. Conflict now, jobs for loggers vs. conservation of koalas. The simplest solution is to decide all this in economic terms. Logging produces much money; conservation is largely a drain on the taxpayers. To propose that conservation should win, ecologists will pull out David Attenborough to show all the beauties of the forest and to point out that the forest contains many other animals and plants and not just trees for lumber. Stalemate, and social and economic goals begin to override the ecological issue until some compromise is suggested and accepted.

While this kind of oversimplified scenario is common, the whole issue of conservation decision making is fraught with problems and who is going to decide these issues (Christie et al. 2022)? In a democracy in the good old days, you took a vote or a poll and decided to win/lose at >50% of the vote. But this cannot work for critical problems. We have a good example of this problem now with Covid vaccination requirements, and a vocal minority opposed to vaccinations. This now spills over into the issue of whether to wear a face mask or not. In all these kinds of scenarios science delivers a simple decision about the consequences of decision A vs decision B, but the problem is that society can refuse to recognize the scientific results or just prefer decision B with little visible justification. Science is not always perfect, adding further complications. And in the case of the covid virus, the virus can mutate in unexpected ways, complicating prognoses. In the case of protected conservation areas, we can suffer fires, floods, insect outbreaks and any number of events that affect the balance of decision making.

There is a large literature on decision making in conservation (e.g., Bower et al. 2018) and even good advice from the field of psychology about this problem of making decisions (Papworth 2017). The best systematic decision tree I have found is that in Sutherland et al. 2021). Sutherland et al. (2021) compiled a framework that can be used profitably in deciding on the level of evidence assessment (see Table 1 and Figure 1 below from their paper).

Table 1 and Figure 1 from Sutherland et al. (2021)

The Strategic Evidence Assessment Framework. Seven levels of evidence assessment, how to apply them.

Assessment LevelApproach UsedGeneral Database ApplicationApproximate Time to reflect on the evidence
1 No consideration of evidenceContinue with existing practice or make decisions without considering scientific evidencenone
2 Assertion but no independent consideration of evidenceConsultation with others (including experts) that affect decision but are not verified e.g. “we normally do this”, “accepted best practice is to do this”minutes
3Papers reviewed, looking at: Read the title and/or summary points to determine whether action described in the paper is likely to be effective or not. Review effectiveness category e.g. “likely to be beneficial” on action page to decide whether action is likely to be effective or notminutes
4 Read abstract to assess the evidence described in the paper in relation to the local problemTens of minutes- hours
5  Read abstract, key results and conclusion assessing each paper in relation to the decision being madeHours
6 Read the full underlying paper/s. This is likely to affect decisions on study quality, relevance and modificationsHours to days
7Comprehensive assessmentA systematic review of all available literature. Assessed papers summarised as part of new reviewMonths to a year

Figure 1. A framework for considering the appropriate level of effort in decision making. Numbers refer to assessment level (Table 1). For a given decision about an action identify the column with the relevant level of consequence, start at the lowest level (1) and decide whether it would benefit from examining higher levels of evidence. Keep moving up until either the uncertainty in the effectiveness of the action is resolved from examining the evidence (from any platform) or the arrows end. This final number is the level at which the evidence assessment should occur. (From Sutherland et al. 2021 with permission).

Clearly conservation ecologists cannot use the highest assessment level for all issues that arise and must result to triage in many cases (Hayward and Castley 2018). But triage and assessment levels 1 and 2 should be rare in making judgement on what program to adopt. We need to get the science right for all conservation problems.

But this is not enough to get thoughtful political decisions. Some native species can be pests, yet nothing is done to reduce their damage (e.g. horses in North America and Australia, camels and goats in Australia, feral pigs in North America) and the list goes on. Nothing is done because of budget limitations or political concerns about “cute species”. The science of conservation is difficult enough, the social science of conservation is too often out of our control.

Bower, S.D., Brownscombe, J.W., Birnie-Gauvin, K. Ford, M.I. et al. (2018). Making Tough Choices: Picking the appropriate conservation decision-making tool. Conservation Letters 11, e12418. doi: 10.1111/conl.12418.

Christie, A.P., Downey, H., Bretagnolle, V., Brick, C., Bulman, C.R., et al. (2022). Principles for the production of evidence-based guidance for conservation actions. Conservation Science and Practice 4, e579. doi: 10.1111/csp2.12663.

Hayward, M.W. and Castley, J.G. (2018). Triage in Conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 5, 168. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2017.00168.

Papworth, Sarah (2017). Decision-making psychology can bolster conservation. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1217-1218. doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0281-9.

Sutherland, W.J., Downey, H., Frick, W.F., Tinsley-Marshall, P., and McPherson, T. (2021). Planning practical evidence-based decision making in conservation within time constraints: the Strategic Evidence Assessment Framework. Journal for Nature Conservation 60, 125975. doi: 10.1016/j.jnc.2021.125975.

On How Genomics will not solve Ecological Problems

I am responding to this statement in an article in the Conversation by Anne Murgai on April 19, 2022 (https://phys.org/news/2022-04-african-scientists-genes-species.html#google_vignette) : The opening sentence of her article on genomics encapsulates one of the problems of conservation biology today:

“DNA is the blueprint of life. All the information that an organism needs to survive, reproduce, adapt to environments or survive a disease is in its DNA. That is why genomics is so important.”

If this is literally correct, almost all of ecological science should disappear, and our efforts to analyse changes in geographic distributions, abundance, survival and reproductive rates, competition with other organisms, wildlife diseases, conservation of rare species and all things that we discuss in our ecology journals are epiphenomena, and thus our slow progress in sorting out these ecological issues is solely because we have not yet sequenced all our species to find the answers to everything in their DNA.

This is of course not correct, and the statement quoted above is a great exaggeration. But, if it is believed to be correct, it has some important consequences for scientific funding. I will confine my remarks to the fields of conservation and ecology. The first and most important is that belief in this view of genetic determinism is having large effects on where conservation funding is going. Genomics has been a rising star in biological science for the past 2 decades because of technological advances in sequencing DNA. As such, given a fixed budget, it is taking money away from the more traditional approaches to conservation such as setting up protected areas and understanding the demography of declining populations. Hausdorf (2021) explores these conflicting problems in an excellent review, and he concludes that often more cost-effective methods of conservation should be prioritized over genomic analyses. Examples abound of conservation problems that are immediate and typically underfunded (e.g., Turner et al. 2021, Silva et al, 2021).   

What is the resolution of these issues? I can recommend only that those in charge of dispensing funding for conservation science examine the hypotheses being tested and avoid endless funding for descriptive genomics that claim to have a potential and immediate outcome that will forward the main objectives of conservation. Certainly, some genomic projects will fit into this desirable science category, but many will not, and the money should be directed elsewhere.  

The Genomics Paradigm listed above is used in the literature on medicine and social science, and a good critique of this view from a human perspective is given in a review by Feldman and Riskin (2022). Scientists dealing with human breast cancer or schizophrenia show the partial but limited importance of DNA in determining the cause or onset of these complex conditions (e.g., Hilker et al 2018, Manobharathi et al. 2021). Conservation problems are equally complex, and in the climate emergency have a short time frame for action. I suspect that genomics for all its strengths will have only a minor part to play in the resolution of ecological problems and conservation crises in the coming years.

Feldman, Marcus W. and Riskin, Jessica (2022). Why Biology is not Destiny. The New York Review of Books 69 (April 21, 2022), 43-46.

Hausdorf, Bernhard (2021). A holistic perspective on species conservation. Biological Conservation 264, 109375. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109375.

Hilker, R., Helenius, D., Fagerlund, B., Skytthe, A., Christensen, K., Werge, T.M., Nordentoft, M., and Glenthøj, B. (2018). Heritability of Schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Spectrum based on the Nationwide Danish Twin Register. Biological Psychiatry 83, 492-498. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.017.

Manobharathi, V., Kalaiyarasi, D., and Mirunalini, S. (2021). A concise critique on breast cancer: A historical and scientific perspective. Research Journal of Biotechnology 16, 220-230.

Samuel, G. N. and Farsides, B. (2018). Public trust and ‘ethics review’ as a commodity: the case of Genomics England Limited and the UK’s 100,000 genomes project. Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy 21, 159-168. doi: 10.1007/s11019-017-9810-1.

Silva, F., Kalapothakis, E., Silva, L., and Pelicice, F. (2021). The sum of multiple human stressors and weak management as a threat for migratory fish. Biological Conservation 264, 109392. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109392.

Turner, A., Wassens, S., and Heard, G. (2021). Chytrid infection dynamics in frog populations from climatically disparate regions. Biological Conservation 264, 109391. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109391.

More on Old Growth Forests and Conservation

This is a short blog to alert you to a well written plea for saving old growth forests in British Columbia by Karen Price. Karen works with Dave Daust and Rachel Holt, three of our ecological heroes pushing the provincial government to recognize the value of old growth forests. This problem is world-wide but the scientific data alone will not capture the general public as much as this article might.

https://northernbeat.ca/opinion/old-growth-complexity-in-a-sound-bite/ 

These ecologists have reported their detailed analysis in a report that you can access through the Sierra Club of BC if you want more information on the struggle here in Canada (https://sierraclub.bc.ca/laststand/ ). At present there is nothing but denial from the government and from the industry that there is a problem – the forestry industry is not overharvesting or if it is, we need the jobs. As one person told me, it is not a problem “because we plant one tree seedling for every thousand-year-old tree that we log”.

So please keep up the pressure on governments around the world. Scientists have pushed a strong agenda on sustainable logging for many years with success now looking possible because ordinary citizens demand a change, understanding that forests are more than wood. We must continue the push for sustainable forestry and old growth forest protection.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Kooyman, R.M., Taylor, C., Ward, M., and Watson, J.E.M. (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.

Price, Karen, Holt, Rachel F., and Daust, Dave (2021). Conflicting portrayals of remaining old growth: the British Columbia case. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 51, 1-11. doi: 10.1139/cjfr-2020-0453.

On Replication in Ecology

All statistics books recommend replication in scientific studies. I suggest that this recommendation has been carried to extreme in current ecological studies. In approximately 50% of ecological papers I read in our best journals (a biased sample to be sure) the results of the study are not new and have been replicated many times in the past, often in papers not cited in ‘new’ papers. There is no harm in this happening, but it does not lead to progress in our understanding of populations, communities or ecosystems or lead to new ecological theory. We do need replication examining the major ideas in ecology, and this is good. On the other hand, we do not need more and more studies of what we might call ecological truths. An analogy would be to test in 2022 the Flat Earth Hypothesis to examine its predictions. It is time to move on.

There is an extensive literature on hypothesis testing which can be crudely summarized by “Observations of X” which can be explained by hypothesis A, B, or C each of which have unique predictions associated with them. A series of experiments are carried out to test these predictions and the most strongly supported hypothesis, call it B*, is accepted as current knowledge. Explanation B* is useful scientifically only if it leads to a new set of predictions D, E, and F which are then tested. This chain of explanation is never simple. There can be much disagreement which may mean sharpening the hypotheses following from Explanation B*. At the same time there will be some scientists who despite all the accumulated data still accept the Flat Earth Hypothesis. If you think this is nonsense, you have not been reading the news about the Covid epidemic.

Further complications arise from two streams of thought. The first is that the way forward is via simple mathematical models to represent the system. There is much literature on modelling in ecology which is most useful when it is based on good field data, but for too many ecological problems the model is believed more than the data, and the assumptions of the models are not stated or tested. If you think that models lead directly to progress, examine again the Covid modelling situation in the past 2 years. The second stream of thought that complicates ecological science is that of descriptive ecology. Many of the papers in the current literature describe a current set of data or events with no hypothesis in mind. The major offenders are the biodiversity scientists and the ‘measure everything’ scientists. The basis of this approach seems to be that all our data will be of major use in 50, 100 or whatever years, so we must collect major archives of ecological data. Biodiversity is the bandwagon of the present time, and it is a most useful endeavour to classify and categorise species. As such it leads to much natural history that is interesting and important for many non-scientists. And almost everyone would agree that we should protect biodiversity. But while biodiversity studies are a necessary background to ecological studies, they do not lead to progress in the scientific understanding of the ecosphere.

Conservation biology is closely associated with biodiversity science, but it suffers even more from the problems outlined above. Conservation is important for everyone, but the current cascade of papers in conservation biology are too often of little use. We do not need opinion pieces; we need clear thinking and concrete data to solve conservation issues. This is not easy since once a species is endangered there are typically too few of them to study properly. And like the rest of ecological science, funding is so poor that reliable data cannot be achieved, and we are left with more unvalidated indices or opinions on species changes. Climate change puts an enormous kink in any conservation recommendations, but on the other hand serves as a panchrestron, a universal explanation for every possible change that occurs in ecosystems and thus can be used to justify every research agenda, good or poor with spurious correlations.

We could advance our ecological understanding more rapidly by demanding a coherent theoretical framework for all proposed programs of research. Grace (2019) argues that plant ecology has made much progress during the last 80 years, in contrast to the less positive overview of Peters (1991) or my observations outlined above. Prosser (2020) provides a critique for microbial ecology that echoes what Peters argued in 1991. All these divergences of opinion would be worthy of a graduate seminar discussion.

If you think all my observations are nonsense, then you should read the perceptive book by Peters (1991) written 30 years ago on the state of ecological science as well as the insightful evaluation of this book by Grace (2019) and the excellent overview of these questions in Currie (2019).  I suggest that many of the issues Peters (1991) raised are with us in 2022, and his general conclusion that ecology is a weak science rather than a strong one still stands. We should celebrate the increases in ecological understanding that have been achieved, but we could advance the science more rapidly by demanding more rigor in what we publish.

Currie, D.J. (2019). Where Newton might have taken ecology. Global Ecology and Biogeography 28, 18-27. doi: 10.1111/geb.12842.

Grace, John (2019). Has ecology grown up? Plant Ecology & Diversity 12, 387-405. doi: 10.1080/17550874.2019.1638464.

Peters, R.H. (1991) ‘A Critique for Ecology.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.). 366 pages. ISBN: 0521400171

Prosser, J.I. (2020). Putting science back into microbial ecology: a question of approach. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Biological sciences 375, 20190240. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0240.

On the Canadian Biodiversity Observation Network (CAN BON)

I have been reading the report of an exploratory workshop from July 2021 on designing a biodiversity monitoring network across Canada to address priority monitoring gaps and engage Indigenous people across Canada. The 34 pages of their workshop report can be accessed here, and I recommend you might read it before reading my comments on the report:

https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Media-Media/NewsDetail-DetailNouvelles_eng.asp?ID=1310

I have a few comments on this report that are my opinion only. I think the Report on this workshop outlines a plan so grand and misguided that it could not be achieved in this century, even with a military budget. The report is a statement of wisdom put together with platitudes. Why is this and what are the details that I believe to be unachievable?

The major goal of the proposed network is to bring together everyone to improve biodiversity monitoring and address the highest priority gaps to support biodiversity conservation. I think most of the people of Canada would support these objectives, but what does it mean? Let us do a thought experiment. Suppose at this instant in time we knew the distribution and the exact abundance of every species in Canada. What would we know, what could we manage, what good would all these data be except as a list taking up terabytes of data? If we had these data for several years and the numbers or biomass were changing, what could we do? Is all well in our ecosystems or not? What are we trying to maximize when we have no idea of the mechanisms of change? Contrast these concerns about biodiversity with the energy and resources applied in medicine to the mortality of humans infected with Covid viruses in the last 3 years. A monumental effort to examine the mechanisms of infection and ways of preventing illness, with a clear goal and clear measures of progress toward that goal.

There is no difficulty in putting out “dream” reports, and biologists as well as physicists and astronomers, and social scientists have been doing this for years. But in my opinion this report is a dream too far and I give you a few reasons why.

First, we have no clear definition of biodiversity except that it includes everything living, so if we are going to monitor biodiversity what exactly should we do? For some of us monitoring caribou and wolves would be a sufficient program, or whales in the arctic, or plant species in peat bogs. So, to begin with we have to say what operationally we would define as the biodiversity we wish to monitor. We could put all our energy into a single group of species like birds and claim that these are the signal species to monitor for ecosystem integrity. Or should we consider only the COSEWIC list of Threatened or Endangered Species in Canada as our major monitoring concern? So, the first job of CAN BON must be to make a list of what the observation network is supposed to observe (Lindenmayer 2018). There is absolutely no agreement on that simple question within Canada now, and without it we cannot move forward to make an effective network.

The second issue that I take with the existing report is that the emphasis is on observations, and then the question is what problems will be solved by observation alone. The advance of ecological science has been based on observation and experiment directed to specific questions either of ecological interest or of economic interest. In the Pacific salmon fishery for example the objective of observation is to predict escapement and thus allowable harvest quotas. Despite years of high-quality observations and experiments, we are still a long way from understanding the ecosystem dynamics that drive Pacific salmon reproduction and survival.

Contrast the salmon problem with the caribou problem. We have a reasonably good understanding of why caribou populations are declining or not, based on many studies of predator-prey dynamics, harvesting, and habitat management. At present the southern populations of caribou are disappearing because of a loss of habitat because of land use for forestry and mining, and the interacting nexus of factors is well understood. What we do not do as a society is put these ideas into practice for conservation; for example, forestry must have priority over land use for economic reasons and the caribou populations at risk suffer. Once ecological knowledge is well defined, it does not lead automatically to action that biodiversity scientists would like. Climate change is the elephant in the room for many of our ecological problems but it is simultaneously easy to blame and yet uneven in its effects.

The third problem is funding, and this overwhelms the objectives of the Network. Ecological funding in general in Canada is a disgrace, yet we achieve much with little money. If this ever changes it will require major public input and changed governmental objectives, neither is under our immediate control. One way to press this objective forward is to produce a list of the most serious biodiversity problems facing Canada now along with suggestions for their resolution. There is no simple way to develop this list. A by-product of the current funding system in Canada is the shelling out of peanuts in funding to a wide range of investigators whose main job becomes how to jockey for the limited funds by overpromising results. Coordination is rare partly because funding is low. So (for example) I can work only on the tree ecology of the boreal forest because I am not able to expand my studies to include the shrubs, the ground vegetation, the herbivores, and the insect pests, not to mention the moose and the caribou.  

For these reasons and many more that could be addressed from the CAN BON report, I would suggest that to proceed further here is a plan:

  1. Make a list of the 10 or 15 most important questions for biodiversity science in Canada. This alone would be a major achievement.
  2. Establish subgroups organized around each of these questions who can then self-organize to discuss plans for observations and experiments designed to answer the question. Vague objectives are not sufficient. An established measure of progress is essential.
  3. Request a realistic budget and a time frame for achieving these goals from each group.  Find out what the physicists, astronomers, and medical programs deem to be suitable budgets for achieving their goals.
  4. Organize a second CAN BON conference of a small number of scientists to discuss these specific proposals. Any subgroup can participate at this level, but some decisions must be made for the overall objectives of biodiversity conservation in Canada.

These general ideas are not particularly new (Likens 1989, Lindenmayer et al. 2018). They have evolved from the setting up of the LTER Program in the USA (Hobbie 2003), and they are standard operating procedures for astronomers who need to come together with big ideas asking for big money. None of this will be easy to achieve for biodiversity conservation because it requires the wisdom of Solomon and the determination of Vladimir Putin.

Hobbie, J.E., Carpenter, S.R., Grimm, N.B., Gosz, J.R., and Seastedt, T.R. (2003). The US Long Term Ecological Research Program. BioScience 53, 21-32. doi: 10.1016/j.oneear.2021.12.008

Likens, G. E. (Ed.) (1989). ‘Long-term Studies in Ecology: Approaches and Alternatives.’ (Springer Verlag: New York.) ISBN: 0387967435

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.

Ecology for Now or the Future

With the general belief that the climate is changing and that these changes must continue for at least 100 years due to the atmospheric physics of greenhouse gases, ecologists of all stripes face a difficult decision. The optimist says to continue with current studies, with due analysis of data from the past getting published, with the assumption that the future will be like the past. We know that the future will not be like the past so our belief in the future is a projection not a prediction. Does this mean that ecologists today should really be in the History Department of the Faculty of Arts?

Well, no one would allow this to happen, since we are scientists not the connivers of untestable stories of past events that masquerade as history, a caricature of the scientific method. The general problem is applicable to all the sciences. The physical sciences of physics and chemistry are fixed for all eternity, so physicists do not have to worry. The geological sciences are a mix of history and applied physics with hypotheses that are partly testable in the current time but with an overall view of future predictions that have a time scale of hundreds to thousands of years. One way to look at this problem is to imagine what a textbook of Physics would look like in 100 years, compared to a textbook of Geology or Biology or Ecology.

Ecological science is burdened by the assumption of equilibrium systems which we all know to be false since we have the long-term evidence of evolution staring at us as well as the short-term evidence of climate change. Ecologists have only two options under these constraints: assume equilibrium conditions over short time-frames or model the system to provide future projections of change. First, assume we are dealing with equilibrium systems within a defined time frame so that we can define clear hypotheses and test them on a short time scale of 10 to perhaps 20 years so we reach a 10–20-year time scale understanding of ecological processes. This is how most of our ecological work is currently carried out. If we wish to study the pollination of a particular set of plants or a crop, we work now to find out which species pollinate, and then hopefully in a short time frame try to monitor if these species are increasing or declining over our 10–20-year time span. But we do this research with the knowledge that the time frame of our ecological information is at most 100 years and mostly much less. So, we panic with bird declines over a 48 year time span (Rosenberg et al. 2019) with an analysis based on unreliable population data, and we fail to ask what the pattern might look like if we had data for the last 100 years or what it might look like in the next 100 years. We have the same problem with insect declines (Wagner et al. 2021, Warren et al. 2021).

If we wish to improve these studies we need much better monitoring programs, and with some notable exceptions there is little sign yet that this is happening (Lindenmayer et al. 2018, 2020). But the real question must come back to the time frame and how we can make future projections. We cannot do this with a 3-year funding cycle. If most of our conservation problems can be traced to human alterations of the biosphere then we must document these carefully with the usual scientific methods. At present I would hazard a guess that 95% of all endangered species are due directly to human meddling, even if we remove the effect of climate change.  

One way to make future projections is to model the population or community under study. A great deal of modelling is being done and has been done but there is little follow-through of how accurate the model predictions have been and little plan to test these projections. We may be successful with models that predict next year’s population or community dynamics, given much background data but that is only a tiny step to estimating what will be there in even 20 or 30 years. We need testable models more than panic calls about declining species with no efforts to discover if and why.

Where does that leave us? We must continue to analyse the ecological state of our current populations and communities and beware of the assumption that they are equilibrium systems. While physics for the future is rather well settled, ecological questions are not.

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.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Kooyman, R.M., Taylor, C., Ward, M., and Watson, J.E.M. (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.

Rosenberg, K.V., et al. (2019). Decline of the North American avifauna. Science 366, 120-124. doi: 10.1126/science.aaw1313.

Wagner, D.L., Grames, E.M., Forister, M.L., Berenbaum, M.R., and Stopak, D. (2021). Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, e2023989118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2023989118.

Warren, M.S., et al. (2021). The decline of butterflies in Europe: Problems, significance, and possible solutions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (2), e2002551117. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2002551117.

On Biodiversity Science

With David Attenborough and all the amazing picture books on biodiversity there can be few people in the world who have not been alerted to the array of beautiful and interesting species on Earth. Until recently the subject of biodiversity, known to First Nations since long, long ago, had not entered the western world of automobiles, industry, farming, fishing, music, theatres, and movies. Biodiversity is now greatly appreciated by most people, but perhaps more as entertainment for western societies and more for subsistence food in less wealthy parts of our world.

There are many different measures of ‘biodiversity’ and when discussing how we should protect biodiversity we should be careful about exactly how this word is being used. The number of different species in an area is one simple measure of biodiversity. But often the types of organisms being considered are less well defined. Forest ecologists attempt to protect forest biodiversity, but logging companies are more concerned only with trees and tree size for commercial use. Bird watchers are concerned with birds and have developed much citizen science in counting birds. Mushroom connoisseurs may worry about what edible mushrooms will be available this summer. But in many cases biodiversity scientists recognize that the community of organisms and the ecosystem that contains them would be a more appropriate unit of analysis. But as the number of species in an ecosystem increases, the complexity of the ecosystem becomes unmanageable. A single ecosystem may have hundreds to thousands of species, and we are in the infant stage of trying to determine how to study these biological systems.

One result is that, given that there are perhaps 10 million species on Earth and only perhaps 10,000 biologists who study biodiversity, where do we begin? The first and most popular way to answer this question is to pick a single species and concentrate on understanding its ecology. This makes are researcher’s life fairly simple. If elephants in Africa are under threat, find out all about the ecology of elephants. If a particular butterfly in England is very rare, try to find out why and how to protect them. This kind of research is very valuable for conservation because it provides a detailed background for understanding the requirements of each species. But the single species approaches lead into at least two quagmires. First, all species exist in a web of other species and understanding this web greatly expands the problem. It is possible in many cases to decipher the effects other species have on our elephants or butterflies, but this requires many more scientists to assist in analysing the species’ food chain, its diseases, its predators and parasites, and that is only a start. The second quagmire is that one of the general rules of ecology is that most species on Earth are rare, and few are common. So that we must concentrate our person-power on the common species because they are easier to find and study. But it is often the rare species that are of conservation concern, and so we should focus on them rather than the common species. In particular, given that only about 10% of the species on Earth have been described scientifically, we may often be assigned a species that does not have any information on its food habits or habitat requirements, its distribution, and how its abundance might be changing over time, a lifetime research program.

The result of this general overview is that the mantra of our day – Protect Biodiversity – begins as a compelling slogan and ends in enormous scientific complexity. As such it falls into the category of slogans like ‘Reduce Poverty’ and ‘Peace on Earth’, something we can all agree on, but the devil is in the details of how to achieve that particular goal.

One way to avoid all these pitfalls has been to jump over the problems of individual species and analyse communities of species or entire ecosystems. The result of this approach is to boil down all the species in the community to a number that estimates “biodiversity” and then use that number in relating ‘biodiversity’ to community attributes like ‘productivity’ or ‘stability’. This approach leads to testing hypotheses like ‘Higher biodiversity leads to greater stability’. There are serious problems with this approach if it is used to test any such hypothesis. First, biodiversity in this example must be rigorously defined as well as stability. The fact that higher biodiversity of butterflies in a particular region is associated with a more stable abundance of these butterflies over time is worthy of note but not of generalization to global communities or ecosystems. And as in all ecological studies we do not know if this is a generalization applicable to all butterfly populations everywhere until many more studies have been done.

A second problem is that this community or ecosystem approach to address ecological questions about biodiversity is not very useful in promoting conservation which boils down to particular species in particular environments. It should force us back to looking at the population ecology of species that are of conservation concern. It is population ecologists who must push forward the main goals of the conservation of the Earth’s biota, as Caughley (1994) recognized long ago.

The practical goals of conservation have always been local, and this constraint is mostly ignored in papers that demand some global research priorities and global ecological rules. The broad problem is that the conservation of biodiversity is a gigantic scientific and political problem that is currently underfunded and in its scientific infancy. At the present too much biodiversity research is short-term and not structured in a comprehensive framework that identifies critical problems and concentrates research efforts on these problems (Nichols et al. 2019, Sutherland et al. 2018). One more important issue for a seminar discussion group. 

Caughley, G. (1994). Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology 63, 215-244. doi: 10.2307/5542

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.

Sutherland, W.J., Butchart, Stuart H.M., Connor, B., Culshaw, C., Dicks, L.V., et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.

On Culling Overabundant Wildlife

Ecologists have written much about the culling of wildlife from an ecological and conservation perspective (Caughley 1981, Jewell et al. 1981, Bradford and Hobbs 2008, Hampton and Forsyth 2016). The recommendations for culling as a method for reducing overabundant wildlife populations are typically scientifically well established and sensitive to animal welfare. The populations chosen for culling are classified as ‘overabundant’. But overabundant is a human-defined concept, and thus requires some form of social license to agree about what species, in which conditions, should be classified as ‘overabundant’. The problem of overabundance usually arises when humans make changes that permit a species to become so numerous locally that it is having an adverse effect on its food supply, its competitors, or the integrity of the ecosystem it occupies. Once overabundance is recognized, the management issue is to determine which methods should be used to reduce abundance to a suitable level. Culling is only one option for removing wildlife, and animals may be captured and moved elsewhere if that is possible or sterilized to prevent reproduction and further increase (Liu et al. 2012, Massei and Cowan 2014).

All these policy issues are subject to open public debate and these debates are often heated because of different belief systems. Animal rights advocates may push the assumption that we humans have no rights to kill any wildlife at all. News media often concentrate on the most stringent views on controlling populations that are overabundant, and public discussion becomes impossible. Two aspects need to be noted that are often lost in any discussion. First is the cost of alternatives in dollars and cents. As an example, most ecologists would agree that wild horses are overabundant on open range in western United States (Davies et al. 2014, Rutberg et al. 2017) but the question is what to do about this. Costs to reduce horse populations by capturing horses and penning them and feeding them are astronomical (the current situation in western USA, estimated at $25,000 per animal) but this method of control could be done if society wishes to spend money to achieve this goal. Culling would be much cheaper, but the killing of large animals is anathema to many people who speak loudly to politicians. Fertility control methods are improving with time and may be more acceptable socially, but costs are high and results in population reduction can be slow in coming (Hobbs and Hinds 2018). Models are essential to sort out many of these issues, whether it be the projected costs of various options (including doing nothing), the expected population trajectory, or the consequences for other species in the ecosystem.

The bottom line is that if overabundant wildlife populations are not reduced by some means, the result must be death by starvation or disease coupled with extensive damage to other species in these ecosystems. This type of “Plan B” is the second aspect not often considered in discussions of policies on overabundant species. In the present political scene in North America opposition to culling overabundant wildlife is strong, coherent discussion is rarely possible, and Plan B problems are rarely heard. Most overabundant wildlife result from human actions in changing the vegetation, introducing new species, and reducing and fragmenting wildlife habitats. Wishing the problems will go away without doing anything is not a feasible course of action.

These kinds of problems in wildlife management are soluble in an objective manner with careful planning of research and management actions (Hone et al. 2017). Ecologists have a moral duty to present all scientific sides of the management of overabundant species, and to bring evidence into the resulting social and political discussions of management issues. It is not an easy job.

Bradford, J.B., and N.T. Hobbs. 2008. Regulating overabundant ungulate populations: An example for elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Journal of Environmental Management 86:520-528. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2006.12.005

Caughley, G. 1981. Overpopulation. Pages 7-19 in P.A. Jewell S. Holt, and D. Hart, editors. Problems in Management of Locally Abundant Wild Mammals. Academic Press, New York. ISBN: 978-0-12-385280-9

Davies, K. W., Collins, G. & Boyd, C. S. (2014) Effects of feral free-roaming horses on semi-arid rangeland ecosystems: an example from the sagebrush steppe. Ecosphere, 5, 127. doi: 10.1890/ES14-00171.1

Hampton, J. O., and D. M. Forsyth. 2016. An assessment of animal welfare for the culling of peri-urban kangaroos. Wildlife Research 43:261-266. doi: 10.1071/WR16023

Hobbs, R.J. and Hinds, L.A. (2018). Could current fertility control methods be effective for landscape-scale management of populations of wild horses (Equus caballus) in Australia? Wildlife Research 45, 195-207. doi: 10.1071/WR17136.

Hone, J., Drake, V.A. & Krebs, C.J. (2017) The effort–outcomes relationship in applied ecology: Evaluation and implications BioScience, 67, 845-852. doi: 10.1093/biosci/bix091

Jewell, P. A., Holt, S. & Hart, D. (1982) Problems in Management of Locally Abundant Wild Mammals. Academic Press, New York. 360 pp. ISBN: 978-0-12-385280-9

Liu, M., Qu, J., Yang, M., Wang, Z., Wang, Y., Zhang, Y. & Zhang, Z. (2012) Effects of quinestrol and levonorgestrel on populations of plateau pikas, Ochotona curzoniae, in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Pest Management Science, 68, 592-601. doi: 10.1002/ps.2302

Massei, G. & Cowan, D. (2014) Fertility control to mitigate human–wildlife conflicts: a review. Wildlife Research, 41, 1-21. doi: 10.1071/WR13141

Rutberg, A., Grams, K., Turner, J.W. & Hopkins, H. (2017) Contraceptive efficacy of priming and boosting doses of controlled-release PZP in wild horses. Wildlife Research, 44, 174-181. doi: 10.1071/WR16123