Category Archives: Opinions
Horses are, without a doubt, a hugely significant part of human culture and history. Worldwide, they’ve played the role of food source, beast of burden, war steed, postal service, transport, and in modern times pet and sports star. Horses were and in many places still are are an omnipresent part of life. People have a lot of feelings about them.Read more
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
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again until I retire*: parasitism is THE most interesting (and arguably the most successful) life history strategy on the planet. Parasites are present in every ecosystem on the planet, and it is incredibly unlikely that any study system or ecological community is parasite-free. So why don’t we talk about them more?
As a disease ecologist, my work focuses on parasites and their place in the natural world, so I think about these organisms a lot. My PhD was centered on incorporating parasites into food webs to understand how they affect species interactions (and how species interactions in turn affect them). Failing to consider parasites can lead scientists to miss important aspects of an ecosystem and draw false conclusions.
Yet most ecological studies – even those which look at entire communities – fail to consider parasites and their effects on other organisms. I can’t blame them, parasite ecology can be difficult to get your head around. So today, I want to try and give ecologists everywhere some tips on incorporating parasites into their work.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.
The “Candelabra” black smoker at a water depth of 3,300 meters in the Logatchev Hydrothermal Field on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (Image Credit: MARUM − Zentrum für Marine Umweltwissenschaften, Universität Bremen, CC BY 4.0, Image Cropped)
The deep sea is an unimaginably large and dark environment, and humanity’s attempt to learn about it is comically clumsy. Sampling the animals in the deep sea is often done “blindly”, by dragging nets along the ocean floor or through the water column, or bringing up cores of deep-sea sediment. The most sophisticated, precise and least destructive method is using underwater robots that have arms that can be controlled remotely to sample specific animals in real time, though naturally, this is also the most expensive.
These sampling efforts are comparable to sampling a rainforest with a helicopter. At night. With a map that a kindergartener drew. How long would it take to get a reliable record of all the different species of bird, beetle, monkey and flower found in the rainforest? How long to find a male and female of every species?Read more
A natural peatland in the North Yorkshire Dales, UK. Much of the UK’s peat is imported from Europe and Ireland. (Image Credit: Charlie Woodrow, CC by 2.0)
The COVID pandemic has disrupted all aspects of our lives, and forced many to pick up new hobbies to stay happy and occupied. Among these new hobbies is gardening, with stores across the UK seeing increasing demand for potted plants and horticultural products. But while gardening may seem like an eco-friendly past time, many of the products sold for home-use have multiple direct and indirect negative environmental effects, and among the worst of these is peat-rich composts. But what is peat? And why should you avoid gardening products that contain it?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
This article was originally posted on the Ducky blog. You can read more of my work there, including this piece on the positive effect that reducing your carbon footprint can have on the world’s biodiversity.