Monday, March 22, 2010

Predicting endangered carnivores: the role of environment, space and phylogeny

ResearchBlogging.orgFor conservation biology, there are several research thrusts that are of critical importance, and one of these is to find predictors of species' extinction risk. Oft-cited is the particular susceptibility of large-bodied organisms, with their large ranges and slow reproductive rates. But there should be other predictors too, especially within larger mammals. In a forthcoming paper in Global Ecology and Biogeography, Safi and Pettorelli use just a few variables to predict extinction risk in carnivores.
They quantified species extinction risk according to the IUCN risk assessments and asked how well three attributes explained variation in extinction risk. They quantified the environmental characteristics of the species' ranges (temperature, precipitation, etc.), spatial distances between species' ranges and the phylogenetic distances among species. Overall, spatial and phylogenetic distances were good predictors of threat status -generally predicting between 21-70% of variation in extinction risk, whereas the environmental variables were weaker predictors. Full models incorporating all three variables (and accounting for their covariance), were able to explain upwards of 96% of the variation in extinction risk!

Although these variables do not represent causal mechanisms of extinction risk -rather they are correlative, they do provide conservation biologists with a rapid assessment tool to evaluate extinction risk. These tools should be particularly important in cases were population data are lacking and immediate pragmatic decisions are required.

Safi, K., & Pettorelli, N. (2010). Phylogenetic, spatial and environmental components of extinction risk in carnivores Global Ecology and Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00523.x

Monday, March 15, 2010

Low impact blogging

coupons and shopping carbon neutral with As a form of communication, blogging (and all that other stuff on the internet) is fairly environmentally friendly. Trees are not cut down to produce paper to print our posts, fuel-hungry trucks are not used to deliver these articles and stories to our many(!) readers and there is no trash to add to landfills. However, there is still the unappreciated cost associated with energy consumption for all the hours of researching, writing, and being read. The energy for all this electronic activity mainly comes from fossil fuels, meaning that my blogging has a carbon footprint.

Not anymore. No, we did not go nuclear. Rather, the ingenious people behind Mach's grun have started a great program. For writing this post about them, their 'make it green' campaign and the Arbor Day Foundation will plant a tree in Plumas National Forest in northern California. In 2007, a devastating forest fire destoyed 65,000 ha. By choosing to blog green, at least one more tree is planted. I will feel better knowing that there will be tree exhaling oxygen for our blog.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ecology and industry: bridging the gap between economics and the environment

ResearchBlogging.orgApplied ecology is the science of minimizing human impacts and of supporting ecological systems in an economic landscape. Often though, applied ecologists work in isolation from those economic forces shaping biological landscapes, not really knowing what businesses would like to accomplish for habitat protection or sustainability. At the same businesses are seldom aware of the knowledge, tools and insight provided by ecologists. And perhaps, greater interaction could help turn ecology into a science with direct impact into how human activities proceed and how we manage the impacts of those activities.

This is the premise of a paper by Paul Armsworth and 15 other authors on the ecological research needs of business, appearing in the Journal of Applied Ecology (for an interview with Paul, by yours truly, please go to the podcast, and I should point out that I am an Editor with this journal). The authors include academics, NGOs and industrial representatives, and they've come together to analyze patterns of cooperation and to discuss ways forward.

They reviewed papers appearing in the top applied ecology journals and grant proposals to the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) in the UK to measure the degree and type of interaction between ecologists and different industries. Ten to 15 percent of publications in applied journals showed some business involvement -mostly from the traditional biological resource industries (farming, fishing and forestry). Further, 35% of NERC proposals included some business engagement, but only 1% had direct business interaction.

Further, the authors reported on a workshop where ecologists and business representatives discussed a number of topics. This included how to minimize negative biodiversity impacts and for industries, such as mining, to consider ecosystem function, and how to develop new ecologically-based economic opportunities, such as insurers managing environmental risk. While there were some challenges identified (such as differing time frames of business needs versus scientific research), the authors note the positive atmosphere and the spirit of collaboration.

The research in this paper should be emulated elsewhere. A better understanding of business needs and desires can only inform and offer opportunities for applied ecological research. Top-down governmental regulation can only take conservation and ecosystem management so far and those who are directly involved in altering and managing ecosystems must articulate goals and desires in order to successfully apply ecological principles to biodiversity protection in an economic landscape.

Armsworth, P., Armsworth, A., Compton, N., Cottle, P., Davies, I., Emmett, B., Fandrich, V., Foote, M., Gaston, K., Gardiner, P., Hess, T., Hopkins, J., Horsley, N., Leaver, N., Maynard, T., & Shannon, D. (2010). The ecological research needs of business Journal of Applied Ecology, 47 (2), 235-243 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01792.x

Friday, March 5, 2010

Competitive coexistence, it's all about individuals.

ResearchBlogging.orgUnderstanding how species coexist has been the raison d'etre for many ecologists over the past 100 years. The quest to understand and explain why so many species coexist together has really been a journey of shifting narratives. The major road stops on this journey have included searching for niche differences among species -from single resources to multidimensional niches, elevating the role for non-equilibrial dynamics -namely disturbances, and assessing the possibility that species actually differ little and diversity patterns follow neutral process. Along this entire journey, researchers (especially theoreticians) have reminded the larger community that that coexistence is a product of the balance between interactions among species (interspecific) and interactions among individuals within species (intraspecific). Despite this occasional reminder, ecologists have largely searched for mechanisms dictating the strength of interspecific interactions.

Image used under Flickr creative commons license, taken by Tinken

In order for two species to coexist, intraspecific competition must be stronger than interspecific -so sayeth classic models of competition. While people have consistently looked for niche differences that reduce interspecific competition, no one has really assessed the strength of intraspecific competition. Until now that is. In a recent paper in Science, Jim Clark examines intra- vs interspecific interactions from data following individual tree performances, across multiple species, for up to 18 years. This data set included annual growth and reproduction, resulting in 226,000 observations across 22,000 trees in 33 species!

His question was actually quite simple -what is the strength of intraspecific interactions relative to interspecific ones? There are two alternatives. First, that intraspecific competition is higher, meaning that among species differences only need to be small for coexistence to occur; or secondly, that intraspecific competition is lower, requiring greater species niche differences for coexistence. To answer this he looked at correlations in growth and fecundity between individuals either belonging to the same or different species, living in proximity to one another. He took a strong positive correlation as evidence for strong competition and a negative or weak correlation as evidence for resource or temporal niche partitioning. What he found was that individuals within species were much more likely to show correlated responses to fluctuating environments, than individuals among species.

This paper represents persuasive evidence that within-species competition is generally extremely high, meaning that to satisfy the inequality leading to coexistence: intra > inter, subtle niche differences can be sufficient. These findings should spur a new era of theoretical predictions and empirical tests as our collective journey to understanding coexistence continues.

Clark, J. (2010). Individuals and the Variation Needed for High Species Diversity in Forest Trees Science, 327 (5969), 1129-1132 DOI: 10.1126/science.1183506

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Check out the carnival of evolution and be sure to vote for your favorite blogs

Be sure to check out this month's Carnival of Evolution (number 21) posted at Mauka to Makai. The Carnival is a monthly digest of recent evolutionary musings from around the blogosphere. This month's edition includes a number of interesting posts, as well as one of our posts on what evolution offers conservation.

Research Blogging Awards 2010 Finalist
Also, Research Blogging has announced finalists for various blogs awards. If you are eligible, please vote, there are a lot of great blogs vying for these awards. Also, The EEB and Flow is among the finalists for best biology blog. And to the people we nominated us, thanks again for nominating our blog.