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.