Thursday, December 19, 2013

More links for 2013: the 'new' conservation, the IPCC report in haiku, and more.

Conservation science has been at the receiving end of some harsh criticisms in the last couple of years, particularly from the current chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva (e.g. 1).  They have suggested that conservation science needs to be redefined and refocused on human-centred benefits and values if it is to be successful. Some pushback in the form of TREE article from Dan Doak et al. suggests that reframing conservation in terms of its human benefits is not the best or only solution.

In a similar vein, another new paper in TREE asks what issues should the conservation community be addressing. A short-list of 15 issues suggests highly specific problems that should be addressed soon, including the exploitation of Antarctica, rapid geographic expansion of macroalgal cultivation for biofuels, and the loss of rhinos and elephants.

Even if the official IPCC report proves too long or dry for the average person to read before the end of the year, there is also a haiku version. The pretty watercolour illustrations don't make the report any more cheerful, unfortunately.

Finally, a new journal, "Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene" seems positioned to focus precisely on these kind of issues. According to their website: 

"Elementa is a new, open-access, scientific journal founded by BioOne, Dartmouth, Georgia Tech, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington.
Elementa represents a comprehensive approach to the challenges presented by this era of accelerated human impact, embracing the concept that basic knowledge can foster sustainable solutions for society....Elementa publishes original research reporting on new knowledge of the Earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems; interactions between human and natural systems; and steps that can be taken to mitigate and adapt to global change. "

It will be interesting to see how it develops.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday caRd 2013

A holiday pResent made of competition from the EEB & Flow :-)

(Easy to copy and run if you choose "view raw" in the lower right hand corner. Just copy and paste into R, it will do all the work. You will need to download and install R if you don't already have it.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ecological processes may diffuse through evolutionary time: an example from Equidae

Body mass evolution and diversification within horses (family Equidae). Lauren Shoemaker, Aaron Clauset. 2013. Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013. Ecology Letters. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12221

One of the things that community phylogenetic approaches have tended to overlook is that how we interpret phylogenetic relationships depends on a model of evolution. For example, the assumption that closely related species also are similar in their traits is implicitly relying on a particular model of trait evolution. One downside to this approach is that different models of evolution may provide different conclusions about macroecological patterns and processes (competition, environmental filtering, facilitation). 

For example, a new paper in Ecology Letters provides an example of how patterns of trait divergence and adaptive radiation can evolve as a result of diffusion evolution, rather than from a single strong ecological pressure. The paper by Shoemaker and Clauset focuses on the Equidae (horse) family, which underwent an adaptive radiation 56 million years ago, resulting in massive increases in diversity and in trait variation, particularly in body size, habitat type and range size, diet, life span and reproductive traits. Several explanations have been proposed for this radiation and in particular the great increase in body size variation (species are estimated to have ranged between 10-1200 kg). A diversity-focused model explains body size divergence as the result of macroecological competition for niches. A limited number of niches at a given size are assumed to be available, and these niches vary in quality or attractiveness. Increasingly extreme body sizes (and presumably less desirable niches) evolve as niches are filled at more desirable sizes. The result is a correlation between diversity and body size variation, much like the one seen in Equidae. The alternative model considered suggests that trait space is filled via diffusion or a random walk, with the only assumption being that there are some physiological constraints – here a hard limit on minimum size, and an assumption of increasing extinction risk as maximum size increases.
From Shoemaker + Clauset, 2013.
Using mathematical models of Equidae body size evoluation, the authors’ results were very clear (figure below): “Using family Equidae as a model system, we found that macroevolutionary ‘diffusion’, in which selective effects on species body size vary independently of the occupation status of nearby niches, explains substantially more of the observed changes in the Equidae body mass distribution over 56 Myr (Fig. 5) than does a diversity-driven mechanism...”. The results are interesting because they are a reminder that the relationship between macroecological patterns (for example, of traits like body size) may be related to evolutionary history in a much more nuanced way than ecophylogenetic studies sometimes assume. Rather, Shoemaker and Clauset suggest that the better performance of the diffusion model--rather than indicating that competition is *not* important--may be effective at capturing many independent ecological interactions and selective effects all driving body size evolution. A macroevolutionary model of competitive effects on trait divergence is may simply be unrealistic, since competition and ecological interactions may be more localized and less generalized in their effects across the entire Equidae family.
From Shoemaker and Clauset, 2013. Left - competition model, Right - diffusion model

“A large role for diffusion does not undermine the general ecological importance of competition, but rather clarifies its role in generating broad-scale patterns for horses in particular, and for evolving systems in general. Macroevolutionary diffusion is an effective large-scale description of many roughly independent ecological interactions and evolutionary constraints on species size variation. Short-term selective effects on size for a particular species can stem from any number of specific mechanisms, including but not limited to competition over ecological niches. So long as the magnitude and direction of these effects, as defined at the species-level, are roughly independent across the taxonomic group, the large-scale pattern will be well described by diffusion. Ecological competition may thus be crucial for individual species, but its effects are more diffuse at the large scale because competition is typically a local process.”

This is a reminder that many phylogenetic hypotheses (trait divergence or convergence in communities, etc) are too simplistic in their assumptions that broad macroecological processes dominating, and instead need to recognize that ecological processes are often numerous, independent, and local, making outcomes more nuanced than usually assumed. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What can the future of ecology learn from the past?

Ecology has been under pressure to mature and progress as a discipline several times in its short life, always in response to looming environmental threats and the perception that ecological knowledge could be of great value. This happened notably in the 1960s, when the call for ecology to be better applicable occurred in relation to the publication of Silent Spring and fears about nuclear power and the Manhattan Project. Voices in academia, government, and the public called for ecology to become a “Big Science”, and focus on bigger scales (the ecosystem) and questions. And yet, “[Silent Spring] brought ecology as a word and concept to the public…A study committee, prodded by the publication of the book, reported to the ESA that their science was not ready to take on the responsibility being given to it.”

Arguably ecology has grown a lot since then: there have been advances in statistical approaches, spatial and temporal considerations, mechanistic understanding of multiple processes, in the number and type of systems and species studied, and the applications being considered. But it is once again facing a call (one that frankly has been ongoing for a number of years) to quickly progress as a science. The Anthropocene has proven an age of extinctions, human-mediated environmental changes, and threats to species and ecosystems from warming, habitat loss and fragmentation, extinctions, and invasions abound. Never has (applied) ecology appeared more relevant as a discipline to the general public and government. This is reflected in the increasing inclusion of buzzwords like “climate change”, “restoration”, “ecosystem services”, “biodiversity hotspot”, or “invasion” as keys to successful self-justification. Also similar to the 1960s is the feeling that ecology is not ready or able to meet the demand. Worse, that the time ecology has to respond is more limited than ever.

This first point--that ecology isn’t ready--is repeated in Georgina Mace’s (the outgoing president of the British Ecological Society) must-read editorial in Nature. The globe is in trouble, from climate change, disease, overpopulation, loss of habitat and biodiversity and Mace argues that ecology is incapable in its current form of responding to the need. She suggests that unless ecology evolves, it will fail as a discipline. Despite the growth of ecology that followed the 1960s, it is still a 'small' discipline: collaborations are mostly intra-disciplinary, data has been privately controlled, and the tendency remains to specialize on a particular system or organism of interest. However, this 'small' approach provides very little insight into the big problems of today - particularly understanding and predicting how the effects of global change on ecosystems and multispecies assemblages. To Mace, the solution, the undeniable necessity, is for ecology to get bigger. In particular, collaborations need to be broader and larger, with data sharing and availability (“big data”) the default. Ecological models and experiments/observations should be scaled up so that we can understand ecosystem effects and identify general trends across species or systems. In this new 'big' ecology, “[g]oals would be shaped by scientists, policy-makers and users of the resulting science, rather than by recent publishing trends”. Making research more interdisciplinary and including end-product users would allow the most important questions to receive the attention they deserve.

The difficulty with the looming environmental crises and the pressure on ecology to grow, is that the important decisions to be made have to be made rapidly and perhaps without complete information. Often scientific progress is afforded the time for slow progression and self-correction. After all, change is costly and risky, it requires reinvesting effort and funding, and may or may not pay off, and so science (including ecology) is often conservative. For example, a conservative mind would note that Mace’s suggestions are not without uncertainty and risk. Big data, for example, is acknowledged to have its strengths and its weaknesses, it may or may not be the cure-all it is touted as. Regardless of the amounts of data, good questions need to be asked and data, no matter how high quality, may not be appropriate for some questions. Context is often so important in ecology that attempts to combine data for meta-analysis may be questionable. Long running arguments within ecology reflect the fear that making ecological research more useful for applications and interdisciplinary questions may come at the expense of basic research and theory. It seems then that ecology is in an even worse scenario than Mace suggests, since not only must ecology change in order to respond to need, but it also must predict with incomplete information which future path will be most effective.

So ecological science is at an important junction with choices to make about future directions, limits on the information with which to make those choices, little time to make them, and much pressure to make them correctly. Perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that ecology has been here before, though. There are some lessons we can draw from ecology’s last identity crisis, both the successes and failures. The last round resulted in ecology gaining legitimacy as a science and being integrated into policy and governance (the EPA, environmental assessments, etc). It appears, particularly in some countries, that ecology is more difficult to sell to policy and government today, but at the very least ecology has established a toehold it can take advantage of. Ecology also tried to focus on bigger scales in the 1960s--the concept of the 'ecosystem' resulted from that time--but the criticism was that the new ideas about ecosystems and evolutionary ecology weren't well integrated into ecological applications, and so their effect wasn't as broad as it could have been. Concepts like ecosystem services and function today integrate ecosystem science into applied outputs, and the cautionary tale is the value of balancing theoretical and applied development. It also seems that ecology must first consider what its duty as a science is to society (Mace’s assumption being that we have a great duty to be of value), since that is the key determinate of what path we decide to take. Then, we can hopefully consider what have we done right in recent years, what have we done wrong, and then decide where to go from here.
Page from "Silent Spring", Rachel Carson.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Biodiversity hotspots: are we missing other priorities?

ResearchBlogging.orgBiodiversity hotspots are regions that harbour disproportionate biodiversity, especially of species with small ranges, and regarded as major conservation priorities (Zachos and Habel 2011). Biodiversity hotspots occur in some of the most exotic and romanticized regions around the world, such as Madagascar, the Caribbean Islands, the Western Ghats of India, and the Succulent Karoo of South Africa. By preserving these regions, we disproportionately preserve the diversity of life on Earth, and thus these conservation efforts are seen as critically important.

However, some argue that the emphasis on global biodiversity hotspots leaves other unique or less diverse regions open to human impacts since they have a perceived low natural value, and certainly not valuable enough to stem other economically motivated activities. This mind set may put large habitats under increased risk. This conflict is front and center in a recent paper by Durant and colleagues in Diversity and Distributions (Durant et al. 2013). In this paper, Durant et al. argue that large, globally relevant systems like hot deserts are under-protected, leading to potentially major collapses in these systems.

Ahaggar Mountains Oasis, from Wikipedia

They use the Sahara desert as the case study and show that while conservation efforts have been focused on hotspots, the majority of large vertebrates in the Sahara desert are now extinct or critically endangered.  System like hot deserts are important for human economic well-being, but our activities there have greatly reduced the amount of intact, undisturbed habitat.

Durant et al. argue, that had there been greater conservation effort and scientific interest in the Sahara, the catastrophic declines in large vertebrates may have been averted. This paper highlights the reality that we often undervalue certain ecosystems, regardless of the important ecosystem services and functions that they deliver.

S. M. Durant, T. Wacher, S. Bashir, R. Woodroffe, P. De Ornellas, C. Ransom, J. Newby, T. Abáigar, M. Abdelgadir, H. El Alqamy, J. Baillie, M. Beddiaf, F. Belbachir, A. Belbachir-Bazi, A. A. Berbash, N. E. Bemadjim, R. Beudels-Jamar, L. Boitani, C. Breit (2013). Fiddling in biodiversity hotspots while deserts burn? Collapse of the Sahara's megafauna
 Diversity and Distributions DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12157