Top predators are essential to ecosystems: wolves revisited

In a recent post I explained how top predators are essential for healthy ecosystem function. Being a marine ecologist I obviously focused on sharks. I did, however, use the example of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the USA and how their reintroduction lead to the reestablishment of the forest ecosystem.

Last night I discovered a video that tells the wolf story much more eloquently than I can. I have been an ecologist for nearly 20 years, I know this “story”, and I was still left amazed at the extent to which the presence of wolves improved the ecosystem and the landscape. Even more stunning to me was the multitude of pathways that this improvement takes; from direct control of deer populations to behavioural change which means that deer don’t graze in certain areas.

Not only is the video based on good quality ecology but the visuals are stunning. A must watch. Enjoy!

Scariest part of climate change isn’t what we know, but what we don’t

A good colleague of mine at The University of Adelaide, Corey Bradshaw, recently posted a blog on what we don’t know about climate change….. and the answer is scary. It is such a poignant article that I thought I would share it again here.

image-20150731-18728-1ntffbr © Nick Kim

My good friend and tropical conservation rockstar, Bill Laurancejust emailed me and asked if I could repost his recent The Conversationarticle here on

He said:

It’s going completely viral (26,000 reads so far) in just three days. It’s been republished in The Ecologist, I Fucking Love Science, and several other big media outlets.

Several non-scientists have said it really helped them to understand what’s known versus unknown in climate-change research—which was helpful because they feel pummelled by all the research and draconian stuff that gets reported and have problems parsing out what’s likely versus speculative.

With an introduction like that, you’ll just have to read it!

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”: so goes a Danish proverb attributed variously to baseball coach Yogi Berra and physicist Niels Bohr. Yet some things are so important — such as…

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Ocean Acidification science: insightful and essential

Turfs overgrowing coralThe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rapidly increasing as we burn fossil fuels. Nobody doubts this. One of the emerging global consequences of this activity is Ocean Acidification (OA); approximately 30% of the CO2 that we emit into the atmosphere is dissolved into the oceans, forming carbonic acid and reducing the pH of the seawater. This is basic chemistry and can already be measured in many marine waters of the world.

The biological and ecological consequences of OA are, however, more complex to understand. Therefore, over the past two decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of scientific studies investigating the effects of OA. Last week, a review of over 465 of these studies, written by Christopher Cornwall and Catriona Hurd, was published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science. They assessed a number of different scientific methods for rigour and concluded that overall OA science is well designed and executed, and provides useful insights into a complex problem.

There has been some good coverage of Cornwall and Hurd’s paper (e.g. in the journal Nature). Unfortunately, some media outlets misrepresent the findings of the paper. This is of great concern, as the inaccurate and sloppy journalism threatens an essential branch of marine science. I asked Cornwall to write something for this post:

Recently the Daily Mail reported that climate scientists are doom-mongering because their work is flawed. This report is misleading and only serves to introduce misinformation into the public arena.

The Daily Mail quotes an article in Nature by Cressey (2015) that highlights research by Cornwall and Hurd (2015).  Science is always evolving, and its aim is to improve both methods and theory in any given field, to be better equipped to answer the most complex of questions.   Cornwall and Hurd was merely a call for improvement in only one aspect of research amongst a multitude of methods.  The report in the Daily Mail misrepresents our findings.  There is overwhelming evidence that the effects of ocean acidification will impact our oceans through reductions in the growth and calcification rates of calcified organisms (e.g. shellfish, corals, etc., that make calcium carbonate ‘skeletons’), and an alteration of the behaviour of other marine invertebrates and fish.  This fact is unequivocal.  Rather than being “flawed”, the majority of ocean acidification studies have been carried out carefully, using a multitude of methods, and most provide extremely useful and insightful data on this complex problem.

Certainly, the consequences of OA are complex and modified by interactions with other stressors (e.g. nutrient pollution, global warming) and biotic interactions such as herbivory, competition and habitat complexity. This does not mean that the OA science to date is flawed, it simply means that we have more research to do to understand the future impacts. We need to understand all of the effects of OA, from the physiology of single organisms, through population dynamics and up to ecosystem-level interactions. This pattern of discovery is across all of science. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity is complex. Physicists are making great discoveries but still have research to do. Ocean Acidification is no different.

When global warming and shifting-baselines syndrome collide

We are having a strange summer in South Australia. First it was mild, then it was late, now it’s hot. So, the weather is a hot topic (pardon the pun) in every conversation. Invariably, conversation then leads onto climate and global warming. And that’s where things get interesting because, as I’ve discussed before, humans and all other organisms experience weather, not climate. In one such conversation with a friend I brought up an excellent article published recently in The Conversation. The article outlines a scary truth; by the end of February 2015 the global temperature has been above the long-term average for 30 years (see the second figure from NOAA, below). My friend said to me, in a very tongue-in-cheek way, “well, I’m 30-ish, which means that they ARE average temperatures to me!”

And that is part of the problem with climate change. It is now easy to demonstrate that temperatures are warming. In Australia, we’re starting to get used to hot summers and bush fires. Even amongst normal inter-annual variation, it’s certainly not difficult to see where the temperature trend is going from the temperature records:

This pattern is repeated globally:

But why can’t we seem to accept the data to all agree that the earth is warming and that we’re the cause?

The problem is three-fold. First, there is the shifting-baselines syndrome. Basically, the idea behind this syndrome is that what you experience in your lifetime is “normal” to you. As with my friend, if you’re only 30 years old (or younger!) then these current temperatures are “normal”. But that doesn’t mean that they ARE normal; the data clearly show that we’re warming outside pre-industrial climatic patterns.

Second, and related to the first, is that we only experience weather. If it rains, we get wet. If it’s winter, we put on a jacket. If it’s summer, we go swimming. We don’t experience “averages.” Some colleagues and I recently published a paper explaining the different effects of climate and weather, noting that without understanding these differences we will not be able to predict what will happen to our marine ecosystems. Yet, policy-makers generally conflate climate with weather, and so we continue to hold to bad policy.

The third, and possibly worst reason, is that in an attempt to “sell the story” the global media still pretends to provide a balanced report. What this means for them is that one person who speaks out against the science underpinning our understanding of climate change gets equal voice to the thousands of scientists who recognise the rigor of this science. That is not only unbalanced, but simply confuses the public into thinking that there is some debate. There is not. To paraphrase the start of the Conversation article, let’s call it, the climate has changed and we’re the cause.

What’s in a little noise?

Image source:

Different sources of noise in the marine environment. Image source:

Everyone has seen some sort of human impact in the ocean, from plastic washed up on the beach, to a plankton bloom driven by nutrient pollution, possibly even something as confronting as a fish kill (or even dolphins!). But what about the things you can’t see, say some noise?

Marine noise pollution has again become topical in South Australia, with the announcement that seismic surveys in the waters south and west of Kangaroo Island will begin in 2015. But this raises the question, what do we know about the effects of seismic surveys? The answer is…. not much. There is obviously immense community concern, and I was lucky enough to talk about it on ABC radio today.

For those of you who don’t know, the most common method of seismic surveys in marine waters is to use an array of air guns that are towed below the surface (at say, 8 m depth) behind a ship, firing in a sequence at intervals from seconds to minutes. The sound that is reflected back is then analysed to tell you what is on and under the sea floor, important information if you’re looking to extract resources. These surveys can span hundreds of square kilometres and run for months.

There is some literature on the effect of these surveys, but woefully little, and none in this region. The little information that we do have suggests that the effects will be variable, depending on taxa. Whales and dolphins seem to alter the way they communicate and potentially migration routes or residency patterns, at least in the short term, which is concerning because of the seasonal Blue Whale and Southern Right Whale populations in this region. Fish may become stressed and migrate away from the testing area, which includes important fisheries for species such as the Southern Bluefin Tuna. In contrast, it seems that at least some invertebrates may not be affected. I would reiterate, however, that the evidence in either direction is extremely sparse, which concerns me because this region (South Australia) is a global hotspot for species diversity and endemism.

This is where the discussion collides with another topical issue in Australia – how much information do we need to properly assess applications to develop marine resources, and which activities should we allow in our marine (and terrestrial) environments in the name of “progress”? Although some development and an increase in productivity is good, there is more and more support from the scientific community to make sure we don’t damage our environment beyond repair. I won’t go into detail on this, however, as others have written about this topic in much more depth. But, I note that other countries are taking the issue of marine noise seriously, and discussing it, so why aren’t we?

Don’t forget to remember the past

I have recently returned from the 10th International Temperate Reefs Symposium in Perth. It was great to spend a week talking good science

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow. Photo: Owen Burnell

Seagrass may increase their productivity in the future as they use CO2 for photosynthesis.
Photo: Owen Burnell

with a vibrant group of great scientists. There was an array of talks from classical marine ecology (which is great to see!) to novel modelling approaches and plenty of discussion of human impacts in marine systems. In the rare moments of quiet since my return I’ve been thinking about the main message that I took away from the meeting, and it’s this: anthropogenic climate change may be new to the planet, but we were studying the effects of human activities on ecosystems for several decades before we even realised that climate change was happening. So why is it that we seem to have abandoned ecology in our race to understand climate change?

While I was writing my talk for the conference I realised that, in general, research into the effects of climate change in marine ecosystems has been hampered by not looking at the literature on other human impacts. For example, there is a rich and abundant literature on how excess nutrient loads degrade ecosystems and change their structure and function. Yet, it is only recently that we have realised that CO2 is a “nutrient” or resource in marine systems. This seems logical; after all, plants use inorganic carbon for photosynthesis.  However, the story isn’t that simple, with different algae and seagrasses using different forms of carbon for photosynthesis. Even more confusing is that it looks like the “weedy” species will benefit by switching to the most abundant source of carbon and start to dominate ecosystems (see some of my papers and Harley et al. for the ecosystem effects and Raven & Hurd for the physiological aspects)! But I digress….

The point is that for some reason we don’t seem to draw on this older literature for the general principles of what we may expect to see as CO2 concentrations increase in the oceans. We’re starting to catch up, but the lost time is frustrating – let’s not make the mistakes of past generations but rather learn by them.

Digital library links for: Connell & Russell 2010

The secret to scientific success….

PublishingThis post tackles one of the big issues in science – how to be successful. It turns out that the basic principle is simple, publish. But, there’s some detail that needs to be considered. Most of all, it seems that the earlier you start publishing the better for your career (yes Ph.D. candidates, that means you!). To explain the detail much better than I ever could, I have reproduced a post from a colleague of mine, Prof. Corey Bradshaw (see his blog, Conservation Bytes). He can be controversial, but it gets the point across and it’s fun. His post and blog are definitely worth a read if you want to be successful in science…….

Early to press is best for success

by CJA Bradshaw

This paper is bound to piss off a few people. So be it. This is what we found, regardless of what you want to believe.

Led by the extremely prolific Bill Laurance, we have just published a paper (online early) that looks at the correlates of publication success for biologists.

I have to preface the main message with a little philosophical discussion of that loaded word – ‘success’. What do we mean by scientific ‘success’? There are several bucket loads of studies that have attempted to get at this question, and several more that have lamented the current system that emphasises publication, publication, publication. Some have even argued that the obsession of ever-more-frequent publication has harmed scientific advancement because of our preoccupation with superficial metrics at the expense of in-depth scientific enquiry.

Well, one can argue these points of view, and empirically support the position that publication frequency is a poor metric. I tend to agree. At the same time, I am not aware of a single scientist known for her or his important scientific contributions that doesn’t have a prolific publication output. No, publishing shitloads of papers won’t win you the Nobel Prize, but if you don’t publish, you won’t win either.

So, publication frequency is certainly correlated with success, even if it’s not the perfect indicator. But my post today isn’t really about that issue. If you accept that writing papers is part of a scientist’s job, then read on. If you don’t, well …

So today I report the result of our study published online in BioScience, Predicting publication success for biologists. We asked the question: what makes someone publish more than someone else?

There are a few possibilities here, with some well-known mechanisms, and others that are only suspected. Using the CVs of 1400 biologists in various disciplines (excluding medical) from four different continents, we measured the number of publications they had written by the time they had completed their PhD and ten years later. We also collected information on the scientists’ gender, whether English was their first language, and the international ranking of the university where they obtained their PhD.

Combining the data into a series of linear models, we asked the following questions:

  1. Given that our sample included people that stayed in science for at least ten years (i.e., we didn’t include people that gave up their scientific careers in the interim), do males publish more than females?
  2. If you went to a highly ranked university for your PhD (e.g., Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, etc.), were you  likely to publish more than someone who had received theirs from a lower-ranked institution?
  3. Most scientific results are published in English these days, so if English is your first language, do you have an advantage and therefore publish more than someone for whom English is a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language?
  4. If you start publishing early in your career, does that set the pace for the rest of it?

The results? Drumroll, please.

Most will be happy to read that the most important determinant of your ‘long’-term (10-year) publication success is how many papers you’ve written by the time you’ve completed your PhD. This effect increases markedly if we take the number of papers you’ve published three years after PhD completion as a predictor. To make the point again that publication output is a reasonable metric of ‘success’, we also found that it was highly correlated with the ten-year h-index of the scientists for which we had data.

But there were other effects, albeit of lesser importance. Yes, even after removing the well-known ‘attrition’ effect of female scientists (i.e., leaving their careers earlier than males), men tended to publish a little more than women. There are many potential reasons for this, including still largely male-dominated academic and publishing systems, misogyny and the extra constraints of child rearing. We still have a long way to go here.

English as a first language also gave scientists a publication advantage as hypothesised, although the effect was weak.

Possibly one of the most interesting results was that PhD-university ranking had absolutely no discernible effect on publication output, regardless of which ranking metric one uses.

There a few take-home messages in all of this. First, if you are a PhD student and/or early-career researcher, make sure you put the effort into getting those first papers out. Second, if you’re considering people to hire for a new position and you’re taking a gamble on their potential to publish, you should perhaps place a strong importance on their publication output to date (all other considerations being equal).

However, employers should NOT choose men over women, nor should they blindly hire people with English as a first language. Case in point is that most of my lab’s best and brightest are early-career women from non-English-speaking countries. The gender and language effects were weak at best, and nearly disappeared once we considered the data three-years after PhD completion.

Finally, if an employer is considering choosing one of two recently completed PhD students for a postdoctoral position, and the one from the higher-ranking university has fewer publications than the other from the lower-ranked institution, my advice would be to choose the latter (all other things considered being equal, of course). Maybe students (and their parents) should also put less emphasis on university ranking and more on the people with whom they will be working when considering where to do their postgraduate studies.

CJA Bradshaw