It’s been an awful week for the environment. If you’ve missed some of the news from the past four or five days, congratulations. But since climate-related depression is a very real thing, and there ARE always some success stories out there regarding the climate and our planet’s biodiversity, I thought I’d take this chance to share some positive stories from around the world.Read more
The freshwater world is full of horror movie potential, and yet most of the time it’s the ocean that is the centrepiece of aquatic horror stories. It’s not entirely unexpected, after all the ocean makes up over 97% of the earth’s water-based surface, and freshwater doesn’t have much to offer in the way of an ‘abyss’.Read more
Back to nature: Norwegians sustain increased recreational use of urban green space months after the COVID-19 outbreak (2021) Venter et al., Landscape and Urban Planning, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104175
Getting out and spending time in green spaces can have a number of benefits for people, which have been recently shown to include benefits for mental health. It can also foster a connection with nature, which can improve our relationship with the natural world going forward.
When the COVID pandemic hit last year, people all across the world were forced into lockdown. Yet in many places, getting out and spending time in nature was still an option. So did people in these areas increase their use of green spaces during the pandemic? And was this maintained after lockdown?Read more
Last week, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) announced that they were going to import Moroccan dung beetles into Australia. The purpose being ostensibly to combat the fact that local Australian dung beetles have not evolved in step with marsupials instead of cattle, and are therefore pretty ineffective when it comes to breaking down the dung of sheep and cows. The introduction of the new beetles (specifically the Moroccan dung beetle, Gymnopleurus sturmi) is therefore intended to aid in the breakdown of cattle dung, returning nutrients to the soil, reducing the populations of the flies which follow cattle around and just generally cleaning the joint up. Sounds great. We’ve never had problems with species introduced to clean up our own mess before.
Ok but didn’t you introduce the cane toads to sort out your problems and now they’re everywhere?
YES YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT WE DID. For those less familiar with the poster child for biological controls gone wrong, the cane toad (Bufo marinus) was introduced to Australia mid last century to deal with the cane beetle, which was destroying sugar crops. Australian species, having no experience which a poisonous frog of this type, have been heavily affected ever since, and the toads spread like lightning.
So this is a bad idea?
Well not exactly. While many people are comparing this directly to Australia’s previous mistakes, there are some marked differences. Exotic dung beetles have actually already been in Australia for decades. We do have 500 native species of dung beetle (accounting for about 10% of discovered species worldwide), yet scientists from the CSIRO introduced new species in the mid 60s to combat the same problem they’re trying to combat now.
This initial project is not exactly a great look for the CSIRO. In a paper from 2018, Bernard Doube of Dung Beetle Solutions International and formerly of CSIRO pointed out that of the 53 species that scientists attempted to introduce, ten were never introduced and 20 never successfully established. Doube attributed some of this to poor understanding of dung beetle breeding biology, which is worrying, given that we should really know as much as possible about a species before we go dropping it into a new ecosystem. The remaining 23 have spread to varying degrees throughout what was thought would be their natural range in a country like Australia. So far, they don’t appear to have posed a problem for native species, and have done their job in some areas.
So why will these new ones make a difference?
According to the CSIRO, the dung beetles that they have introduced don’t seem to get much work done during the spring. That’s why they’re introducing the new species. They’re not hyperfunctional crazy shitrolling juiced up beetle monsters, they just work a different shift.
This seems… fine?
Yeah ok, BUT IT’S NOT. I don’t actually have a problem with the science, it SEEMS pretty solid and anything that sequesters carbon needs to be given a look-in these days. But the way the CSIRO seems to have ignored the obvious questions that come with this irritates me. Even without reading into this too much, it is perfectly natural for anyone with a passing knowledge of the cane toad debacle to question it. The CSIRO needs to, right off the bat, acknowledge that this might sound like a bad decision, and then be abundantly clear about why it’s not.
This whole thing brings to mind the recent decision to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes into Florida to deal with the Zika virus. The science appears sound, but goddamn the concept of human-made super mosquitoes suddenly being released sounds like the start of a horror film we don’t want right now. As an example of how this sort of communication SHOULD be handled, mosquito ecologist Kara Fikrig posted a fantastic explanation of why the mosquito introduction should work, linked below.
I genuinely believe that science communication is getting better all the time. And I think this project sounds promising. I just wish that in articles like this one, and the one linked below (both of which do a pretty good job of communicating the science behind the project), both the media and the scientists would do a better job of addressing people’s valid concerns about the use of exotic species as biological invaders.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who didn’t make a single poo joke for this entire article and deserves your respect because of it. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.
Nature documentaries as catalysts for change: Mapping out the ‘Blackfish Effect’ (2021) Boissot et al., People and Nature, https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10221
Wildlife documentaries generally have the best of intentions, but our ability to determine their actual impact is limited at best. There have been attempts to analyse a documentary’s content or impact before, but they’re few and far between (outside of financial success).
Blackfish is a 2013 documentary which brought to light the poor treatment of orcas at SeaWorld, in particular the whale Tilikum, who killed three people while in captivity. Blackfish received widespread publicity, and in the years following its release, SeaWorld saw an enormous drop in attendance. They also saw a huge drop in stock price, redesigned their orca show to focus on conservation, and ceased their orca breeding program.
Today’s researchers wanted to investigate how closely the release of Blackfish was linked to the negative impacts and subsequent revamp that SeaWorld’s orca program underwent.Read more
While climate change often dominates news headlines, the fact remains that currently the majority of damage being done to the world’s ecosystems is a product of the way we use land. Major examples of land use change such as deforestation and cattle grazing do have impacts on the world’s climate of course, but they have numerous other very severe and more short-term impacts on the world’s biodiversity, as well as on human health.
Yet despite the fact that most species’ population declines and extinctions come down to the rapid degradation of their habitats, climate change remains the more ubiquitous of the two threats. With that in mind, I spoke to Professor Francesca Verones of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology earlier this year. Francesca’s work involves projecting the impact of human activity on the planet’s biodiversity, and we discussed why communicating the problems with land use change can be a challenge, and why changing our habits is hard, but necessary.Read more
Fire, drought and flooding rains: The effect of climatic extremes on bird species’ responses to time since fire (2021) Connell et al., Diversity and Distributions, https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13287
Both bushfires and extreme climate events are capable of shaping not only habitats, but also the number of different species that inhabit them. Yet the interaction between these phenomena can be equally important. For instance, an extreme flood or drought could have a very different impacts on a forest depending on how recently that forest was burned by fire. If a fire tore through recently, an extended period of drought may finish off species already under stress, yet if there has been a longer period of time since the last fire, the ecosystem may be able to tolerate a drought.
Given that climate change is increasing the occurrence of both extreme climate events and bushfires, it’s better to start investigating the effects of these interactions sooner rather than later. This week’s authors looked at the interaction between the two phenomena in south-eastern Australia, an area whose wildlife has come under a lot of pressure recently.Read more
Ever seen a movie monster burst onto screen and wondered “hang on, how does that thing breed”? Or seen a fictional world full of strange ecosystems and wanted to know how they evolved? Or even just seen a big old predator hunt down humans one by one and asked yourself if they’d ever behave like that in real life?Read more
Testing ecological theories in the Anthropocene: alteration of succession by an invasive marine species (2021) Christianson et al., Ecosphere, https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.3471
Ecological disturbances, such as fire, floods, or storms, might seem like a catastrophe at first glance, but often they open up space for new species to take the place of dominant ones, creating a more diverse ecosystem. When a disturbance occurs matters as well – if a storm hits right before a particular species starts to reproduce, that species could take advantage of the extra space and become dominant in a short time.
In the 1970s, John Sutherland and Ronald Karlson tested this theory, looking at the invertebrate community of a coastal dock in North Carolina, USA. They found that which species dominated depended on when the community began to grow (a proxy for when disturbance opened up new space).
The area has since seen the introduction of an invasive species of tunicate, Clavelina oblonga. This week’s authors wanted to test whether the original patterns seen in the 1970s still showed up in the presence of the invader.Read more