Tag Archives: research funding

Biodiversity Science

Protecting biodiversity is a goal of most people who value the environment. My question is what are the goals of biodiversity science and how do we achieve them? Some history is in order here. The term ‘biodiversity’ was coined in the 1980s as the complete biosphere including all species and ecosystems on Earth. The idea of cataloguing all the species on Earth was present many decades before this time, since the origin of the biological sciences. By the 1990s ‘biodiversity conservation’ became a popular subject and has grown greatly since then as a companion to CO2 emissions and the climate change problem. The twin broad goals of biodiversity science and biodiversity conservation are (1) to name and describe all the species on Earth, and (2), to protect all species from extinction, preventing a loss of biodiversity. How can we achieve these two goals?

The first goal of describing species faces challenges from disagreements over what a species is or is not. The old description of a species was to describe what group it was part of, and then how different this particular species was from other members of the group. In the good old days this was primarily based on reproductive incompatibility between species, if no successful reproduction, must be a new species. This simple common-sense view was subject to many attacks since some organisms that we see as different can in fact interbreed. Lions and tigers breed together and are an example, but if their interbred offspring are sterile, clearly, they are two different species. But many arguments arose because there was no data available for 99% of species to know if they could interbreed or not. The fallback position has been to describe the anatomy of a potential species and its relatives and judge from anatomy how different they were. Endless arguments followed, egged on by naturalists who pointed out that if the elephants in India were separated by a continent from elephants in Africa, clearly, they must be different species defined by geography. Many academic wars were fought over these issues.

Then in 1953 the structure of DNA was unravelled, and a new era dawned because with advances in technology of decoding genes we could describe species in a completely new way by determining how much DNA they had in common. But what is the magic percentage of common DNA? Humans and chimpanzees have 98.6% of their DNA in common, but despite this high similarity no one argues that they are the same species.

Despite this uncertainty the answer now seems much simpler: sequence the DNA of everything and you will have the true tree of life for defining separate species. While this was a dream 20 years ago, it is now a technical reality with rapid sequencing methods to help us get criminals and define species. Problem (1) solved?

Enter the lonely ecologist into this fray. Ecologists do not just want names, they wish to understand the function of each of the ‘species’ within communities and ecosystems, how does all this biodiversity interact to produce what we see in the landscape? For the moment we have approximately 10 million species on Earth, but somewhere around 80% of these ‘species’ are still undescribed. So now we have a clash of biodiversity visions, we cannot describe all the species on Earth even on the time scale of centuries, so we cannot achieve goal (1) of biodiversity science in any reasonable time. We have measured the DNA sequence of thousands of organisms that we can capture but we cannot describe them formally as species in the older sense. Perhaps it is akin to having all the phone numbers in the New York City phone book but not knowing to whom the numbers belong.

But the more immediate problem comes with objective (2) to prevent extinctions. Enter the conservation ecologist. The first problem is discussed above, we ecologists have no way of knowing how many species are in danger of extinction. We must look for rare or declining species, but we have complete inventory for few places on Earth. We must concentrate on large mammals and birds, and hope that they act as umbrella species and represent all of biodiversity. When we do have information on threatened species, for the most part there is no money to do the ecological studies needed to reverse declines in abundance. If there is money to list species and give a recovery plan on paper, then we find there is no money to implement the recovery plan. The Species-At-Risk act in Canada was passed in 2002 and has generated many recovery plans mostly for vertebrate species that have come to their attention. Almost none of these recovery plans have been completed, so in general we are all in favour of preventing extinctions but only it if costs us nothing. By and large the politics of preventing extinctions is very strongly supported, but the economic value of extinctions is nearly zero.

None of this is very cheery to conservation biologists. Two approaches have been suggested. The first is Big Science, use satellites and drones to scan the Earth every year to describe changes in landscapes and from these images infer biodiversity ‘health’. Simple and very expensive with AI to the rescue. But while we can see largescale landscape changes, the crux is to do something about them, and it is here that we fail because of the wall of climate change that we have no control over at present. Big Science may well assist us in seeing patterns of change, but it produces no path to understanding food webs or mediating changes in threatened populations. The second is small-scale biodiversity studies that focus on what species are present, how their numbers are changing, and what are the causes of change. Difficult, possible, but very expensive because you must put biologists in the field, on the ground to do the relevant measurements over a long-time frame. The techniques are there to use, thanks to much work on ecological methods in the past. What is missing again is the money. There are a few good examples of this small-scale approach but without good organization and good funding many of these attempts stop after too few years of data.

We are left with a dilemma of a particular science, Biodiversity Science, that has no way of achieving either of its two main objectives to name and to protect species on a global level. On a local level we can adopt partial methods of success by designating and protecting national parks and marine protected areas, and by studying only a few important species, the keystone species of food webs. But then we need extensive research to determine how to protect these areas and species from the inexorable march of climate change, which has singlehandedly complicated achieving biodiversity science’s two goals. Alas at the present time we may have another science to join the description of economics as a “dismal science” And we have not even started to discuss bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Coffey, B. & Wescott, G. (2010) New directions in biodiversity policy and governance? A critique of Victoria’s Land and Biodiversity White Paper. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management 17: 204-214. doi: 10.1080/14486563.2010.9725268.

Donfrancesco, V., Allen, B.L., Appleby, R., et al. (2023) Understanding conflict among experts working on controversial species: A case study on the Australian dingo. Conservation Science and Practice 5: e12900. doi: 10.1111/csp2.12900.

Ritchie, J., Skerrett, M. & Glasgow, A. (2023) Young people’s climate leadership in Aotearoa. Journal of Peace Education, 12-2023: 1-23. doi: 10.1080/17400201.2023.2289649.

Sengupta, A., Bhan, M., Bhatia, S., Joshi, A., Kuriakose, S. & Seshadri, K.S. (2024) Realizing “30 × 30” in India: The potential, the challenges, and the way forward. Conservation Letters 2024, e13004. doi: 10.1111/conl.13004.

Wang, Q., Li, X.C. & Zhou, X.H. (2023) New shortcut for conservation: The combination management strategy of “keystone species” plus “umbrella species” based on food web structure. Biological Conservation 286: 110265.doi. 10.1016/j.biocon.2023.110265.

On Ecology and Medicine

As I grow older and interact more with doctors, it occurred to me that the two sciences of medicine and ecology have very much in common. That is probably not a very new idea, but it may be worth spending time on looking at the similarities and differences of these two areas of science that impinge on our lives. The key question for both is how do we sort out problems? Ecologists worry about population, community and ecosystem problems that have two distinguishing features. First, the problems are complex and the major finding of this generation of ecologists is to begin to understand and appreciate how complex they are. Second, the major problems that need solving to improve conservation and wildlife management are difficult to study with the classical tools of experimental, manipulative scientific methods. We do what we can to achieve scientific paradigms but there are many loose ends we can only wave our hands about. As an example, take any community or ecosystem under threat of global warming. If we heat up the oceans, many corals will die along with the many animals that depend on them. But not all corals will die, nor will all the fish and invertebrate species, and the ecologists is asked to predict what will happen to this ecosystem under global warming. We may well understand from rigorous laboratory research about temperature tolerances of corals, but to apply this to the real world of corals in oceans undergoing many chemical and physical changes we can only make some approximate guesses. We can argue adaptation, but we do not know the limits or the many possible directions of what we predict will happen.

Now consider the poor physician who must deal with only one species, Homo sapiens, and the many interacting organs in the body, the large number of possible diseases that can affect our well-being, the stresses and strains that we ourselves cause, and the physician must make a judgement of what to do to solve your particular problem. If you have a broken arm, it is simple thankfully. If you have severe headaches or dizziness, many different causes come into play. There is no need to go into details that we all appreciate, but the key point is that physicians must solve problems of health with judgements but typically with no ability to do the kinds of experimental work we can do with mice or rabbits in the laboratory. And the result is that the physician’s judgements may be wrong in some cases, leading possibly to lawyers arguing for damages, and one appreciates that once we leave the world of medical science and enter the world of lawyers, all hope for solutions is near impossible.

There is now some hope that artificial intelligence will solve many of these problems both in ecological science and in medicine, but this belief is based on the premise that we know everything, and the only problem is to find the solutions in some forgotten textbook or scientific paper that has escaped our memory as humans. To ask that artificial intelligence will solve these basic problems is problematic because AI depends on past knowledge and science solves problems by future research.

Everyone is in favour of personal good health, but alas not everyone favours good environmental science because money is involved. We live in a world where major problems with climate change have had solutions presented for more than 50 years, but little more than words are presented as the solutions rather than action. This highlights one of the main differences between medicine and ecology. Medical issues are immediate since we have active lives and a limited time span of life. Ecological issues are long-term and rarely present an immediate short-term solution. Setting aside protected areas is in the best cases a long-term solution to conservation issues, but money for field research is never long term and ecologists do not live forever. Success stories for endangered species often require 10-20 years or more before success can be achieved; research grants are typically presented as 3- or 5-year proposals. The time scale we face as ecologists is like that of climate scientists. In a world of immediate daily concerns in medicine as in ecology, long-term problems are easily lost to view.

There has been an explosion of papers in the last few years on artificial intelligence as a potentially key process to use for answering both ecological and medical questions (e.g. Buchelt et al. 2024, Christin, Hervet, and Lecomte, 2019, Desjardins-Proulx, Poisot, & Gravel, 2019). It remains to be seen exactly how AI will help us to answer complex questions in ecology and medicine. AI is very good in looking back, but will it be useful to solve our current and future problems? Perhaps we still need to continue training good experimental scientists in ecology and in medicine.  

Buchelt, A., Buchelt, A., Adrowitzer, A. & Holzinger, A. (2024) Exploring artificial intelligence for applications of drones in forest ecology and management. Forest Ecology and Management, 551, 121530. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2023.121530.

Christin, S., Hervet, É. & Lecomte, N. (2019) Applications for deep learning in ecology. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 10, 1632-1644. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.13256.

Desjardins-Proulx, P., Poisot, T. & Gravel, D. (2019) Artificial Intelligence for ecological and evolutionary synthesis. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00402.

On Ecological Imperialism

It is well known among ecologists that there are more species of almost everything in the tropical regions, and it is also well known that there is rather much more research in the ecosystems of the temperate zone. A recent note in Science 379 (6632) – 8 Feb. 2023 highlights the problems faced by ornithologists in Latin America and the Caribbean trying to carry out research on their local birds. The details are in two papers now published (Soares et al. 2023, Ruelas Inzunza et al. 2023). Both of these papers are a response to a review paper published in 2020 (Lees et al. 2020) which discussed how much was not known about birds in Latin America, but which ignored most of the contributions of Latin American scientists. The red flag arose in part because all the authors of the 2020 paper were based at universities either in the United States or in the United Kingdom. The central criticisms were that the 2020 paper perpetuated an elitist, exclusionary, “northern” approach that has overlooked the knowledge produced by Latin American experts and Indigenous people, partly because these papers were not in English.

    Their case is certainly important and should be a call-to-arms but it should be read with a few minor qualifications. It is certainly not valid to ignore local knowledge both of scientists and indigenous peoples. But this has been going on now for more than 200 years in all areas of biological science, not that history justifies these barriers. Alas Charles Darwin would fall under the knife of this criticism. The funding for ecological research is higher in most European countries as well as North America compared with tropical countries. So we are dealing with economic issues that underlie the scientific funding that is less in Latin America in addition to the global problem that too many governments prefer guns to butter. We recognize these problems, but we can do nothing immediately about them.

    The language issue is much more difficult because it is so clear. There is a long history of this conflict in scientific papers as well as in literature in general. French scientists years ago refused to publish in English, that has changed. Chinese scientists were all educated in Russian but when the tide turned they learned English and started to write scientific papers in English. The problem revolves back to the education system of North American schools that seem to operate on the assumption that to learn a foreign language is very close to being a traitor. Alas students hardly learn to speak and write English but that is another social issue. I think many northern scientists have helped Latin America scientists to assist them in English usage, so it is to me quite obscene to think that someone has a business charging people $600 for a translation. So much of the complaint in the predominance of English scientific papers arises from social issues that are difficult to overcome.

    In the end I am very sympathetic with the inequities raised in these papers and the desire to move forward on all these issues. Ironically the skeleton of the Lees et al. (2020) paper is an excellent roadmap for the analysis of any taxonomic group anywhere is the world, and these papers should be a reminder that similar reviews should be more inclusive of all published literature. Remember always that European or American knowledge is not the only or the best knowledge.

Lees, A.C., Rosenberg, K.V., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Marsden, S., Schulenberg, T.S. & Rodewald, A.D. (2020) A roadmap to identifying and filling shortfalls in Neotropical ornithology. Auk, 137, 1-17. doi: 10.1093/auk/ukaa048.

Ruelas Inzunza, E., Cockle, K.L., Núñez Montellano, M.G., Fontana, C.S., Cuatianquiz Lima, C., Echeverry-Galvis, M.A., Fernández-Gómez, R.A., Montaño-Centellas, F.A., Bonaccorso, E., Lambertucci, S.A., Cornelius, C., Bosque, C., Bugoni, L., Salinas-Melgoza, A., Renton, K., Freile, J.F., Angulo, F., Mugica Valdés, L., Velarde, E., Cuadros, S. & Miño, C.I. (2023) How to include and recognize the work of ornithologists based in the Neotropics: Fourteen actions for Ornithological Applications, Ornithology, and other global-scope journals. Ornithological Applications, 125, duac047. doi: 10.1093/ornithapp/duac047.

Soares, L., Cockle, K.L., Ruelas Inzunza, E., Ibarra, J.T., Miño, C.I., Zuluaga, S., Bonaccorso, E., Ríos-Orjuela, J.C., Montaño-Centellas, F.A., Freile, J.F., Echeverry-Galvis, M.A., Bonaparte, E.B., Diele-Viegas, L.M., Speziale, K., Cabrera-Cruz, S.A., Acevedo-Charry, O., Velarde, E., Cuatianquiz Lima, C., Ojeda, V.S., Fontana, C.S., Echeverri, A., Lambertucci, S.A., Macedo, R.H., Esquivel, A., Latta, S.C., Ruvalcaba-Ortega, I., Alves, M.A.S., Santiago-Alarcon, D., Bodrati, A., González-García, F., Fariña, N., Martínez-Gómez, J.E., Ortega-Álvarez, R., Núñez Montellano, M.G., Ribas, C.C., Bosque, C., Di Giacomo, A.S., Areta, J.I., Emer, C., Mugica Valdés, L., González, C., Rebollo, M.E., Mangini, G., Lara, C., Pizarro, J.C., Cueto, V.R., Bolaños-Sittler, P.R., Ornelas, J.F., Acosta, M., Cenizo, M., Marini, M.Â., Vázquez-Reyes, L.D., González-Oreja, J.A., Bugoni, L., Quiroga, M., Ferretti, V., Manica, L.T., Grande, J.M., Rodríguez-Gómez, F., Diaz, S., Büttner, N., Mentesana, L., Campos-Cerqueira, M., López, F.G., Guaraldo, A.C., MacGregor-Fors, I., Aguiar-Silva, F.H., Miyaki, C.Y., Ippi, S., Mérida, E., Kopuchian, C., Cornelius, C., Enríquez, P.L., Ocampo-Peñuela, N., Renton, K., Salazar, J.C., Sandoval, L., Correa Sandoval, J., Astudillo, P.X., Davis, A.O., Cantero, N., Ocampo, D., Marin Gomez, O.H., Borges, S.H., Cordoba-Cordoba, S., Pietrek, A.G., de Araújo, C.B., Fernández, G., de la Cueva, H., Guimarães Capurucho, J.M., Gutiérrez-Ramos, N.A., Ferreira, A., Costa, L.M., Soldatini, C., Madden, H.M., Santillán, M.A., Jiménez-Uzcátegui, G., Jordan, E.A., Freitas, G.H.S., Pulgarin-R, P.C., Almazán-Núñez, R.C., Altamirano, T., Gomez, M.R., Velazquez, M.C., Irala, R., Gandoy, F.A., Trigueros, A.C., Ferreyra, C.A., Albores-Barajas, Y.V., Tellkamp, M., Oliveira, C.D., Weiler, A., Arizmendi, M.d.C., Tossas, A.G., Zarza, R., Serra, G., Villegas-Patraca, R., Di Sallo, F.G., Valentim, C., Noriega, J.I., Alayon García, G., de la Peña, M.R., Fraga, R.M. & Martins, P.V.R. (2023) Neotropical ornithology: Reckoning with historical assumptions, removing systemic barriers, and reimagining the future. Ornithological Applications, 125, duac046. doi: 10.1093/ornithapp/duac046.

Should Empirical Ecology be all Long-term?

The majority of empirical ecology research published in our journals is short-term with the time span dictated by the need for 1–2-year Master’s degree studies and 3-4-year PhD research. This has been an excellent model when there was little of a framework for researching the critical questions ecologists ought to answer. Much of ecology in the good old days was based on equilibrium models of populations, communities, and ecosystems, an assumption we know to be irrelevant to a world with a changing climate. Perhaps we should have listened to the paleoecologists who kept reminding us that there was monumental change going on in the eras of glaciation and much earlier in the time of continental drift (Birks 2019). All of this argues that we need to change direction from short-term studies to long-term studies and long-term thinking.

There are many short-term ecological studies that are useful and should be done. It is necessary for management agencies to know if the spraying of forest insect pests this year reduces damage next year, and many similar problems exist that can be used for student projects. But the big issues of our day are long term problems, defined in the first place by longer than the research lifespan of the average ecologist, about 40 years. These big issues are insufficiently studied for two reasons. First, there is little funding for long term research. We can find a few exemptions to this statement, but they are few and many of them are flawed. Second, we as research scientists want to do something new that no one has done before. This approach leads to individual fame and sometimes fortune and is the social model behind many of the research prizes that we hear about in the media, the Nobel Prize, the MacArthur Awards, the National Medal of Science, the Kyoto Prize and many more. The point here is not that we should stop giving these awards (because they are socially useful), but that we should take a broader perspective on how research really works. Many have recognized that scientific advances are made by groups of scientists standing on the shoulders of an earlier generation. Perhaps some of the awards in medicine recognize this more frequently than other areas of science. My point is that large problems in ecology require a group effort by scientists that is too often unrecognized in favour of the individual fame model of science prizes.

A few examples may exemplify the need in ecology to support group studies of long-term problems. The simplest cases are in the media every day. The overharvesting of trees continues with little research into the long-term recovery of the harvested area and exactly how the forest community changes as it recovers. We mine areas for minerals and drill and mine tar sands for oil and gas with little long-term view of the recovery path which may stretch to hundreds or thousands of years while our current research program is long-term if it goes for 10 years. Canada has enough of these disturbance problems to fill the leger. The Giant Gold Mine in the Northwest Territories of Canada mined 220,000 kg of gold from 1948 to 2004 when it closed. It left 237 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust, a by-product for extracting gold. The long-term ecosystem problems from this toxic compound will last for centuries but you might expect it will be much sooner forgotten than subjected to long-term study.

So where are we ecologists with respect to these large problems? We bewail biodiversity loss and when you look at the available data and the long-term studies you would expect to measure biodiversity and, if possible, manage this biodiversity loss. But you will find only piecemeal short-term studies of populations, communities, and ecosystems that are affected. We tolerate this unsatisfactory scientific situation even for ecosystems as iconic as the Great Barrier Reef of eastern Australia where we have a small number of scientists monitoring the collapse of the reef from climate change. The only justification we can give is that “Mother Nature will heal itself” or in the scientific lingo, “the organisms involved will adapt to environmental change”. All the earth’s ecosystems have been filtered through a million years of geological change, so we should not worry, and all will be well for the future, or so the story goes.

I think few ecologists would agree with such nonsense as the statements above, but what can we do about it? My main emphasis here is long-term monitoring. No matter what you do, this should be part of your research program. If possible, do not count birds on a plot for 3 years and then stop. Do not live trap mice for one season and think you are done. If you have any control over funding recommendations, think continuity of monitoring. Long-term monitoring is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for managing biodiversity change.

There are many obstacles interfering with achieving this goal. Money is clearly one. If your research council requests innovation in all research proposals, they are probably driven by Apple iPhone producers who want a new model every year. For the past 50 years we have been able to fund monitoring in our Yukon studies without ever using the forbidden word monitor because it was not considered science by the government granting agencies. In one sense it is not whether you consider science = innovation or not, but part of the discussion about long term studies might be shifted to consider the model of weather stations, and to discuss why we continue to report temperatures and CO2 levels daily when we have so much past data. No one would dream of shutting down weather monitoring now after the near fiasco around whether or not to measure CO2 in the atmosphere (Harris, 2010, Marx et al. 2017).

Another obstacle has been the destruction of research sites by human developments. Anyone with a long history of doing field research can tell you of past study areas that have been destroyed by fire or are now parking lots, or roads, or suburbia. This problem could be partly alleviated by the current proposals to maintain 30% of the landscape in protected areas. We should however avoid designating areas like the toxic waste site of the Giant Gold Mine as a “protected area” for ecological research.

Where does this all lead? Consider long-term monitoring if you can do the research as part of your overall program. Read the recent contributions of Hjeljord, and Loe (2022) and Wegge et al. (2022) as indicators of the direction in which we need to move, and if you need more inspiration about monitoring read Lindenmayer (2018).

Birks, H.J.B. (2019) Contributions of Quaternary botany to modern ecology and biogeography. Plant Ecology & Diversity, 12, 189-385.doi: 10.1080/17550874.2019.1646831.

Harris, D.C. (2010) Charles David Keeling and the story of atmospheric CO2 measurements. Analytical Chemistry, 82, 7865-7870.doi: 10.1021/ac1001492.

Hjeljord, O. & Loe, L.E. (2022) The roles of climate and alternative prey in explaining 142 years of declining willow ptarmigan hunting yield. Wildlife Biology, 2022, e01058.doi: 10.1002/wlb3.01058.

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.

Marx, W., Haunschild, R., French, B. & Bornmann, L. (2017) Slow reception and under-citedness in climate change research: A case study of Charles David Keeling, discoverer of the risk of global warming. Scientometrics, 112, 1079-1092.doi: 10.1007/s11192-017-2405-z.

Wegge, P., Moss, R. & Rolstad, J. (2022) Annual variation in breeding success in boreal forest grouse: Four decades of monitoring reveals bottom-up drivers to be more important than predation. Ecology and Evolution.12, e9327. doi: 10.1002/ece3.9327.

On Climate Change Research Funding

I have grown weary of media and news statements that climate change research should be a priority. At the present time military spending, war, and oil and gas companies seem to be the priority spending of many governments. Climate change research seems to be more focused on the physical sciences in attempts to predict what changes in temperature, rainfall, and sea conditions can be expected if we continue at the present global rates of greenhouse gas emissions. This is all very good, and the IPCC reports are excellent. The people are listening and reacting to the bad news even if all the major western governments are close to ignoring the problem. So where does this leave ecological scientists?

Our first response is that we should mimic the climatologists in predicting what the ecological world will be like in 2050 or 2100. But there is a major problem with this centered around the fact that physics has a whole set of fixed laws that will not change in a thousand years, so that the physics of the atmosphere and the oceans is reasonably understood and by the application of the laws of physics, we can arrive at a reasonable prediction that should be constrained by physical laws. Ecological science is nowhere near that paradigm of predictability because it deals with organisms that can evolve and interactions that can change rapidly when an unexpected invasive species arrives on the scene or humans interfere with ecosystem services. Ecological changes are not driven solely by climate change, a fact it is easy to forget. One consequence of this limitation is that we cannot make any kind of reliable predictions about the state of our ecosystems and the state of the Earth’s biodiversity by 2050 or 2100. We can however, in contrast to the physical sciences, do something about ecological changes by finding the limiting factors for the species under concern, protecting these endangered species and setting aside natural areas protected from human depredation. While we can do this to some extent in rich countries, in poor countries, particularly tropical ones, we have a poor record of protecting the exploitation of national parks and reserves. Think Brazil or the Central African Republic.

But given this protection of areas and funding for threatened species, conservation ecologists still have some very difficult problems to face. First and foremost is the conservation of rare, endangered species. It is nearly impossible to study rare species to discover the limiting factors that are pushing them toward extinction. Second, if you have the information on limiting factors, it is difficult to reverse trends that are determined by climate change or by human disrespect for conservation values.

In spite of these problems, the ecological literature is full of papers claiming to solve these issues with various schemes that predict a brighter future sometime. But if we apply the same rigor to these papers as we do to other areas of ecology, we must treat them as a set of hypotheses that make specific predictions, and try to test them. If we have solutions that are feasible but will require 50 years to accomplish, we should be very clear that we are drawing a long bow. Some statement of goals for the next 5 years would be desirable so we can measure progress or lack of progress.

The screams of practitioners go up – we have no time to test hypotheses, we need action! If we have clear-cut a forest site, or bulldozed shrub habitats, we may have a good idea of how to proceed to restoration. But with a long term view, restoration itself in highly contestable. In particular with climate change we have even less ability to predict with knowledge based on the last 50 year or so. So if you are in a predictive mode about conservation issues, have multiple working hypotheses about what to do, rather than one certain view of what will solve the problem.

This is not a cry to give up on conservation, but rather to trim our certainty about future states of ecosystems. Trying to predict what will happen under climate change is important for the Earth but we must always keep in mind the other critical factors affecting biodiversity, from predators to parasites and diseases, and the potential for evolution. Human destruction of habitats is a key issue we do not control well enough, and yet it may be the most important short term threat to conservation.

All of this leads into the fact that to achieve anything we need resources –people and money. The problem at present is where can we get the money? Governments in general place a low value on conservation and the environment in general in the quest for money and economic growth. Rich philanthropists are useful but few, and perhaps too often they have a distorted view of what to invest in. Improving the human condition of the poor is vital; medical research is vital, but if the environment suffers losses as it is at present, we need to balance or reverse our priorities of where to put our money. I do not know how to accomplish this goal. The search for politicians who have even a grade 1 understanding of environmental problems is not going well. Read Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin. What is being accomplished now is more to the credit of private philanthropy which has clear goals but may pull in diverse directions. I submit that to date we have not been successful in this pursuit of environmental harmony, but it is a goal we must keep pushing for. E.O. Wilson once said that there was more money spent in New York City on a Friday night on beer than was devoted to biodiversity conservation for the entire world for the year.  This should hardly be a good epitaph for our century.

Our World View and Conservation

Recent events have large implications for conservation science. Behind these events – Covid, climate change, wars – lies a fundamental dichotomy of views about humanity’s place in the world today. At the most basic level there are those who view humans as the end-all-and-be-all of importance so that the remainder of the environment and all other species are far down the list of importance when it comes to decision making. The other view is that humans are the custodians of the Earth and all its ecosystems, so that humans are an important part of our policy decisions but not the only part or even the most important part. Between these extreme views there is not a normal distribution but a strongly bimodal one. We see this very clearly with respect to the climate emergency. If you explain the greenhouse dilemma to anyone, you can see the first reaction is that this does not apply to me, so I can do whatever I want versus the reaction of others that I should do something to reduce this problem now. It is the me-here-and-now view of our lives in contrast to the concern we should have about future generations.

Our hope lies in the expectation that things are improving, strongly in young people, more slowly in older people, and negligibly in our politicians. We must achieve sustainability professed by the Greta Thunberg’s of the world, and yet recognize that the action needed is promised by our policy makers only for 2050 or 2100. There is hope that the captains of industry will move toward sustainability goals, but this will be achieved only by rising public and economic pressure. We are beset by wars that make achieving any sustainability goals more difficult. In Western countries blessed with superabundant wealth we can be easily blinded by promises of the future like electricity from nuclear fusion at little cost, or carbon-capture to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. If things get impossibly bad, we are told we can all go to Mars. Or at least the selected elite can.

Conservation gets lost in this current world, and pleas to set aside 30% or 40% of the Earth for biosphere conservation are rarely even heard about on the evening news. The requests for funds for conservation projects are continually cut when there are more important goals for economic growth. Even research funding through our first-class universities and government laboratories is falling, and I would wager without the data that less than 20% of funding for basic research goes to investigating environmental problems or conservation priorities. In my province in Canada a large section of this year’s budget labelled “Addressing Climate Change” is to be spent on repairing the highways from last year’s floods and trying to restore the large areas affected by fires in the previous dry summer.  

What is the solution to this rather depressing situation? Two things must happen soon. First, we the public must hold the government to account for sustainability. Funding oil companies, building pipelines, building highways through Class A farmland, and waging wars will not bring us closer to having a sustainable earth for our grandchildren. Second, we must encourage private industries and wealthy philanthropists to invest in sustainability research. Conservation cannot ever be achieved without setting aside large, protected areas. The list of species that are in decline around the Earth is growing, yet for the vast number of these we have no clear idea why they are declining or what can be done about it. We need funding for science and action, both in short supply in the world today. And some wisdom thrown in.   

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.

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:


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.

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.

Ecology as a Contingent Science

The Northern Hemisphere is working through a summer of very warm weather, often temperatures 10ºC above ‘normal’. Climate change should in these conditions be obvious to all. Yet despite these clear changes, all the governments of developed countries – including Canada, USA, Australia, Britain – are doing next to nothing about the causes of climate change. This bald statement will lead to a lot of noise about “all we are now doing…”, a carbon tax promoted loudly but that is so low it can have little effect on emissions, and endless talk in the media about “sustainable practices” that are far from sustainable. Why should this be? There are many reasons and I want to discuss just one that pertains to the science of ecology.

Imagine that you are a physicist or chemist and are studying a physical or chemical problem in a lab in Germany and one in Canada. You would expect to get exactly the same experimental results in the two labs. The laws of chemistry and physics are universal and there would be consternation if results differed by geographical locations. Now transform this thought experiment to ecology. You might expect the converse for ecological experiments in the field, and there is much discussion of why this occurs (Brudvig et al. 2017, Marino et al. 2018, Zhou and Ning 2017). We need to think more about why this should be.

First, we might suspect that the ecological conditions are variable by place. The soils of Germany or France or New York or Vietnam differ in composition. The flora and fauna vary dramatically by site even within the same country. The impacts of human activities such as agriculture on the landscape vary by area. Climates are regional as well as local. Dispersal of seeds is not a uniform process. All these things ecologists know a great deal about, and they provide a rich source of post-hoc explanations for any differences. But the flip side is that ecology does not then produce general laws or principles except very general ones that provide guidance but not predictive models useful for management.

This thought leads me back to the general feeling that ecology is not categorized as a hard science and is thus often ignored. Ecologist have been pointing out many of the consequences of climate change for at least 30-40 years with few people in business or local political power listening. This could simply be a consequence of the public caring about the present but not about the future of the Earth. But it might be partly the result of ecology having produced no generality that the public appreciates, except for the most general ecological ‘law’ that “Mother Nature takes care of itself”, so we the public have little to be concerned about.

The paradigm of stability is deeply embedded in most people (Martin et al. 2016), and we are in the process of inventing a non-equilibrium ‘theory’ of ecology in which the outcome of ecological processes leads us into new communities and ecosystems we can only scarcely imagine and certainly not predict clearly. Physicists can predict generally what a future Earth climate with +2ºC or + 4ºC will entail (IPCC 2013, Lean 2018), but we cannot do this so readily with our ecological knowledge.

Where does this get us? Ecology is not appreciated as a science, and thus in the broad sense not funded properly. Ecologists fight over crumbs of funding even to monitor the changes that are occurring, and schemes that might alleviate some of the major effects of climate change are not tested because they are expensive and long-term. Ecology is a long-term science in a world that is increasingly short-term in thinking and in action. Perhaps this will change but no politician wants to wait 10-20 years to see if some experimental procedure works. Funding that is visionary is stopped after 4 years by politicians who know nothing about the problems of the Earth and sustainability. We should demand a politics of sustainability for our future and that of following generations. Thinking long-term should be a requirement not an option.

Brudvig, L.A., Barak, R.S., Bauer, J.T., Caughlin, T.T., and Laughlin, D.C. (2017). Interpreting variation to advance predictive restoration science. Journal of Applied Ecology 54, 1018-1027. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12938.

Chapman, M., LaValle, A., Furey, G., and Chan, K.M.A. (2017). Sustainability beyond city limits: can “greener” beef lighten a city’s Ecological Footprint? Sustainability Science 12, 597-610. doi: 10.1007/s11625-017-0423-7.

IPCC (2013) ‘IPCC Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.) http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_ALL_FINAL.pdf

Lean, J.L. (2018). Observation-based detection and attribution of 21st century climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews. Climate Change 9, e511. doi: 10.1002/wcc.511.

Marino, N.A.C., Romero, G.Q., and Farjalla, V.F. 2018. Geographical and experimental contexts modulate the effect of warming on top-down control: a meta-analysis. Ecology Letters 21, 455-466. doi: 10.1111/ele.12913.

Martin, J-L., Maris, V., and Simberloff, D.S. (2016). The need to respect nature and its limits challenges society and conservation science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 6105-6112. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113.

Zhou, J. and Ning, D. (2017). Stochastic community assembly: Does it matter in microbial ecology? Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 81, e00002-00017. doi: 10.1128/MMBR.00002-17.