The transition of a coral reef to an algal reef as a result of bleaching and overfishing is one of the most readily identifiable examples of a local ecosystem collapse (Image Credit: Stop Adani, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
It’s a bleak headline, and one which was plastered all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds at the start of this week. I’m used to grim news about the environment. It’s part of my job. So there’s nothing particularly surprising about this title.
What it does represent though, is another use of a somewhat sensational term that is ill-defined by scientists and poorly understood by the public. We’ve written about such terms in the past, biodiversity and functional extinction being two examples. Here, I’m referring to ‘ecosystem collapse‘. I get the draw to such a term: people need to be alarmed about climate change and the ongoing loss of biodiversity our planet faces. Ecosystem collapse sounds really alarming.
So I thought I’d swim around in the literature a bit and see if I could figure out what we mean when we talk about ecosystem collapse.
Image Credit: Swallowtail Grass Seeds, Public Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped
There has been a lot of recent (and well deserved) press surrounding the bush fires in Australia. Because of these fires countless animal and plant life has been lost, and the most visible example of that are the koalas. You probably saw the video of a woman running into a burning area to save a koala from the fire*. Unfortunately, most of the koalas didn’t have people around to save them and over 1,000 are estimated to have died. Because of this a group has claimed that koalas are now “functionally extinct”, and the press has run with this claim. While it is unfortunate that this misinformation spread so quickly and so widely, the good news is that koalas are in fact NOT functionally extinct. Great! But what does being “functionally extinct” mean?