It’s funny to name species after celebrities, but there’s a serious side too



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Attenborougharion rubicundus is one of more than a dozen species named after the legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
Simon Grove/Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, CC BY

Kevin Thiele, University of Western Australia

Microleo attenboroughi. Scaptia beyonceae. Crikey steveirwini. These are the scientific names of just a few of the nearly 25,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms discovered and named in Australia in the past decade.

In each case, the honoured celebrity’s name is Latinised and added to the name of an existing or new genus – a set of closely related species that share common characteristics. In the above examples, Microleo (meaning “tiny lion”) is a genus of extinct carnivorous possums, while Scaptia is a genus of colourful horseflies. And in the case of Crikey steveirwini, a rare snail from northern Queensland, even the genus name honours Irwin, in the form of his favoured colloquialism.




Read more:
It’s not the science of tax, and five other things you should know about taxonomy


Scientists have been naming species in honour of celebrities since the 18th century. The father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, coined names to curry the favour (and open the purses) of rich patrons.

These days, we usually do it to curry short-lived attention from the public by injecting a degree of attention-grabbing frivolity. Scaptia beyonceae is one example – so named because the fly in question has a shiny, golden bum.

I don’t think you’re ready for this genus: Scaptia beyonceae.
Erick/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

But to taxonomists and biosystematists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document the world’s living and fossil species – the naming of organisms is a serious business.

Not just celeb jokes

Consider this. The current best estimate is that Australia, including its shores and surrounding oceans, is home to more than 600,000 species of plants, animals, fungi, microbes and other organisms.

This tally ranks Australia as one of the most biologically rich and diverse nations on Earth. We are “megadiverse” – one of a select handful of nations that together comprise less than 10% of Earth’s surface but are home to more than 70% of its living species.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots.
AAS/Royal Society Te Apārangi

Now consider this: only 30% of Australia’s living species have been discovered, named and documented so far. That leaves more than 400,000 Australian species that we know absolutely nothing about.

Estimated number of described (centre shaded areas) and undescribed (outer unshaded areas) species in Australia and New Zealand.
AAS/Royal Society Te Apārangi

Does this matter? Do organisms need names? The answer is yes, if we want to conserve our biodiversity, keep our native species, agriculture and aquaculture safe from invasive pests and diseases, discover new life-saving drugs, answer some of the greatest scientific questions ever asked, or make full use of the opportunities that nature provides to improve our health, agriculture, industries and economy.

Taxonomists construct the framework that allows us to understand and document species and manage our knowledge of them. Such a framework is essential if we are to sustainably manage life on Earth. At a time when Earth is facing an extinction crisis, brought about by land clearing, pollution and global warming, it is more vital than ever.

Without the understanding provided by taxonomists, we’re like the largest, most complex global corporation imaginable, trying to do business with no stock inventory and no real idea of what most of its products look like or do.

Time for an overhaul

The magnitude of the task seems daunting. At our current rate of progress, it will take more than 400 years even to approach a complete biodiversity inventory of Australia.

Fortunately, we don’t have to continue at our current rate. Taxonomy is in the midst of a technological and scientific revolution.

New methods allow us to cheaply sequence the entire DNA code of any organism. We can extract and identify the minute DNA fragments left in a river when a fish swims past. We are globally connected like never before. And we have supercomputers and smart algorithms that can catalogue and make sense of all the world’s species.

In this context, the release today by the Australian Academy of Science and New Zealand’s Royal Society Te Apārangi of a strategic plan to guide Australian and New Zealand taxonomy and biosystematics for the next decade is a significant step. The new plan outlines how we will rise to the grand challenge of documenting, understanding and conserving all of Australia’s biodiversity.

Sir David Attenborough endorses the new taxonomy plan.

Grand challenge

The plan lays out a blueprint for the strategic investments needed to meet this grand challenge. It envisages a decade of reinvestment, leading to a program of “hyper-taxonomy” – the discovery within a generation of all of Australia’s remaining undiscovered species.

It sets out the ways in which we can use our knowledge of species to benefit society and protect nature, and also the risks involved if we don’t. A small example: there are an estimated 200 unnamed and largely unknown species of native Australian mosquitoes. Mosquitoes cause more human deaths than any other animal on Earth. New mosquito-borne viruses and other parasites are being discovered all the time. It doesn’t take much to put these facts together to see the risks.




Read more:
We can name all of Earth’s species, but we may have to hurry


With such a weighty challenge and such important goals, it’s hardly surprising that taxonomists sometimes indulge in a little quirky name-calling. Names like Draculoides bramstokeri, a cave-dwelling relative of spiders; or the tiny, harmless pseudo-scorpion Tyrannochthonius rex; or Hebejeebie, the name that botanists simply couldn’t resist when a new genus was separated from Hebe.

Materpiscis attenboroughi lived hundreds of millions of years before its celebrity namesake.
MagentaGreen/Sularko/Museum Victoria/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

One of the greatest celebrities of all, the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, has more than a dozen species named in his honour. No fewer than five of them are Australian. These include the brightly coloured slug-snail Attenborougharion rubicundus, and the fossil of the first known organism to give birth to live young, Materpiscis attenboroughi.

The ConversationAs Sir David puts the case in endorsing the plan, discovering and naming species is vitally important, not only for the future of taxonomy and biosystematics, but for the future of our living planet.

Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia among the world’s worst on biodiversity conservation



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A long-term monitoring project in Simpson Desert provides crucial information about the ecosystem.
Mina Guli/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Noel D Preece, James Cook University

Australia is among the top seven countries worldwide responsible for 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss between 1996 and 2008, according to a study published last week in the journal Nature.

The researchers examined the conservation status of species in 109 countries and compared that to conservation funding. Australia ranks as the second worst of the group, with a biodiversity loss of 5-10%.

The study clearly linked adequate conservation funding to better species survival, which makes it all the more concerning that one of Australia’s most valuable national environmental monitoring programs will lose funding next month.


Read more: We need our country; our country needs us


Established in 2011, the long-term ecological research network (LTERN) monitors alpine grasslands, tall wet forests, temperate woodlands, heathlands, tropical savannas, rainforests and deserts. It coordinates 1,100 monitoring sites run by numerous researchers, bringing together decades of experience. There’s nothing else like it in Australia, and at an annual cost of A$1.5 million it delivers extraordinary value for money.

Long term ecological research stations across Australia.
TERN

The value of long-term research

Our continent has a hyper-variable environment, with catastrophic bushfires, alarming species extinctions, and widespread loss of habitat.


Read more: Half the world’s ecosystems at risk from habitat loss, and Australia is one of the worst


In the battle to manage and predict the future of our ecosystems, the LTERN punches above its weight.

In the Northern Territory it was long thought that the ecosystems centred on Kakadu National Park were intact. But instead, long-term monitoring showed alarming and unexpected crashes towards extinction of native mammals of the region since the 1990s, driven by fire regime changes, feral animals, disease, cane toads, climate change and grazing.

Likewise, the 70-year-old network of monitoring sites in Australia’s alpine regions revealed the impact of climate change on flowering pollination, and the fact that livestock grazing actually increases fire risk. Without these insights it would not be possible to manage these ecosystems sustainably.

In the Simpson Desert – the only LTERN site that captures the remote outback – the dynamic of boom and bust has been monitored since 1990. It reveals a long-running and cyclical explosion of life. Intermittent downpours support flushes of wildflowers, booming marsupial populations and flocks of budgerigars, which are then ravaged by feral foxes and cats. Spending only one year in the desert would mean missing this dynamic, which has driven dozens of native species to extinction.

Several of these monitoring sites are likely to close when funding stops next month, as alternative support is not available. Without the network, coordination among the remaining sites will become much harder.

We should be able to predict environmental changes

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme, which ultimately funds the LTERN, has called for the development of a national environmental prediction system to forecast ecosystem changes.

But without long-term data, the development of a reliable and accurate environmental prediction system is impossible, particularly for biodiversity.

The journal Science reported in August that researchers working with LTERN are trying to find alternative funding, possibly for a more comprehensive network. But with limited funding commitment and opaque long-term plans from government, this seems ambitious.

After 40 years working in Australian ecosystem management, assessment, investigation and research, I am deeply concerned about terminating the existing system and starting again. It takes time to understand ecosystems, and the accumulated knowledge of up to 70 years of monitoring is invaluable. It risks destroying one of the few successes in long-term monitoring of our ecosystems and species.

Australia is infamous for commencing new initiatives and then stopping them. Australia’s surveillance and monitoring efforts are already recognised as inadequate. Breaks in continuity of long-term ecological datasets significantly reduce their value and disrupt key information on environmental and ecosystem change.

Out of step with the world

In a letter to Science, 69 Australian scientists described the decision to defund the LTERN as “totally out of step with international trends and national imperatives”. Indeed, the United States has recently expanded its long-term monitoring network, which has been running for nearly 30 years.

Not only is Australia’s decision against the international trend, it also defies Australia’s own stated goals. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy explicitly commits to establishing a national long-term biodiversity monitoring system. The strategy’s five-year review admits to failing to achieve this outcome.


Read more: The environment needs billions of dollars more: here’s how to raise the money


The loss of the LTERN will undermine assessments of the sustainability of key industries such as grazing and forestry. Without it, we can’t robustly evaluate the success of taxpayer-funded environmental management.

A$1.5 million a year is a very small price to pay for crucial insights into our continent’s changing environments and biodiversity. But reinstating this paltry sum will not solve the very real crisis in Australian ecosystem knowledge.

The ConversationWe urgently need a comprehensive national strategy, as pledged in Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. The evidence is in: investment in biodiversity conservation pays off.

Noel D Preece, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Charles Darwin and, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The environment needs billions of dollars more: here’s how to raise the money


Paul Martin, University of New England; Amy Cosby, University of New England, and Kip Werren, University of New England

Extinction threatens iconic Australian birds and animals. The regent honeyeater, the orange-bellied parrot, and Leadbeater’s possum have all entered the list of critically endangered species.

It is too late for the more than 50 species that are already extinct, including bettongs, various wallabies, and many others. Despite international commitments, policies and projects, Australia’s biodiversity outcomes remain unsatisfactory.

A 2015 review of Australia’s 2010-2050 Biodiversity Conservation Strategy found that it has failed to “effectively guide the efforts of governments, other organisations or individuals”.

Insufficient resourcing is one cause of biodiversity loss. The challenge is impressive. Australia must tackle degradation and fragmentation of habitat, invasive species, unsustainable use of resources, the deterioration of the aquatic environment and water flows, increased fire events, and climate change.

This all requires money to support private landholders conducting conservation activities, to fund research, to manage public lands, and to support other conservation activities conducted by governments, industry, and individuals.

So where can we find the funds?

How much money is needed?

We have estimated that Australia’s biodiversity protection requires an equivalent investment to defence spending – roughly 2% of gross domestic product.

Of course, such estimates are up for debate given that how much money is required depends on what we want the environment to look like, which methods we use, and how well they work. Other studies (see also here and here point to a similar conclusion: far more money is needed to achieve significantly better outcomes.

Apart from government funding, private landholders, businesses, communities, Indigenous Australians, and non-government organisations contribute significantly to natural resource management. We were unable to quantify their collective cash and in-kind contributions, as the information is not available. But we do know that farmers spend around A$3 billion each year on natural resource management.

Nonetheless, the erosion of environmental values indicates that the level of spending required to sufficiently meet conservation targets far exceeds the amount currently being spent. The investment required is similar to value of agriculture in Australia.

Conservation doesn’t come cheap.
JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Unfortunately, the concentration of wealth and labour sets a limit to what any given community can pay.

Despite a high GDP per person and very wealthy cities, Australia has fewer than 0.1 people per hectare and a wealth intensity (GDP per hectare) of less than US$2,000 due to the sparse population and income of rural Australia.

Australia’s rural population has declined sharply, from over 18% in 1960 to around 10% today. Other countries (for example in Europe) are not limited to the same degree. Even China has a greater rural resource intensity than Australia.

Rural incomes are often volatile, but environmental investments need to be sustained. The history of Landcare highlights that private landholders have struggled to secure a reliable investment basis for sustainably managing the environment.

Can government pay what is required?

If Australia is serious about the environment, we need to know who will pay for biodiversity protection (a public good). This is especially true given that it is not feasible for rural (particularly Indigenous) landholders and communities to invest the required amount.

Will government be the underpinning investor? The federal government’s current spending program on natural resource management was initiated in 2014 with an allocation of A$2 billion over four years.

This was split between the second National Landcare Program, the (now-defunded) Green Army, the Working on Country program, the Land Sector Package, the Reef 2050 plan, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and the Whale and Dolphin Protection Plan.

As well as federal funding, the state, territory, and local governments invest in public lands, bushfire mitigation, waste management, water management, environmental research and development, biodiversity programs, and environmental policies. Local and state government departments together spend around A$4.9 billion each year on natural resource management.

The problem is that government spending on natural resource management can not be significantly increased in the near future due to fiscal pressures and the focus on reducing budget deficits.

Show us the money

At a time when Australia is reconsidering many aspects of its environmental policies, we should address the strategy for funding natural resource management.

It should be possible to leverage more private spending on the environment preferably as part of a coordinated strategy. Diverse, market-based approaches are being used around the world.

For example, we could use market instruments such as biodiversity banking to support landholders in protecting biodiversity.

Taxation incentives, such as a generous tax offset for landholders who spend money on improving the environment, can be a very powerful catalyst and could be crucial for meeting environmental investment needs.

Evidence suggests that integrating a variety of mechanisms into a coordinated business model for the environment is likely to be the most efficient and effective approach. But this will not happen unless Australia faces the fiscal challenge of sustainability head-on.

Australia needs an innovative investment plan for the environment. By combining known funding methods and investment innovation, Australia can reduce the gap between what we currently spend and what the environment needs.

Without a more sophisticated investment strategy, it is likely that Australia will continue on the trajectory of decline.

The Conversation

Paul Martin, Director, Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England; Amy Cosby, Researcher, Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England, and Kip Werren, Lecturer in Law, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Go native: why we need ‘wildlife allotments’ to bring species back to the ‘burbs


Lizzy Lowe, University of Auckland and Margaret Stanley, University of Auckland

As urban populations around the globe skyrocket and the demand for housing grows, space is increasingly at a premium in cities. Unfortunately, despite some notable efforts to include green space in cities, native wildlife is not often a priority for urban planners, despite research showing the benefits it brings to both people and ecosystems.

It may seem that bringing biodiversity back into cities would require large areas of land set aside for habitat restoration. But it is possible to use relatively small spaces such as transport corridors, verges and the edges of sporting grounds. Think of it as “land sharing” rather than “land sparing”“.

The idea of transforming public areas in cities into green space is not a new one. Allotment vegetable gardens, which have long been a staple of British suburban life, are enjoying a revival, as are community gardens in Australia.

These gardens are obviously great for sustainable food production and community engagement. But we think similar efforts should be directed towards creating green spaces filled with native vegetation, so that local wildlife might thrive too.

Benefits for biodiversity

Cities can be hostile environments for wildlife, and although some rare species are still present in some cities, the destruction of habitats and growth of built-up areas has led to many localised extinctions. Often, species are left clinging on in particular reserves or habitat remnants. “Green corridors” through the built environment can link these habitat fragments together and help stop urban species from being marooned in small patches – and this is where native gardens can help.

Cities are often built in fertile areas on coasts, and because of their fertility are often home to large numbers of species, which means that planting native vegetation in public spaces can potentially help a wide range of different species.

A study in Melbourne found that native vegetation in urban green space is essential for conservation of native pollinators, as introduced plants only benefit introduced bees. But with the right habitat, even small mammals such as bandicoots can survive in urban areas.

Benefits for people

Native green space in cities can also be used to educate communities about their wildlife. Community gardens can be a very effective way to bring people together and create a sense of identity and cohesion within a community.

Native landscaping in playgrounds.
Simon Pawley, Sustainable Outdoors

Many people in cities have little or no contact with nature, and this “extinction of experience” can make them feel apathetic about conservation. Green space lets city dwellers connect with nature, and if these spaces contain native rather than introduced plants, they have the added benefit of familiarising people with their native flora, creating a stronger sense of cultural identity.

Where to share

There are many places in urban areas that can be tinkered with to encourage native species, with little or no disruption to their intended use. Picture the typical Australian park, for example: large expanses of grass and some isolated gum trees. Biodiverse systems are more complex, featuring tall trees, smaller ones, shrubs, herbs and grasses, which together create diverse habitat for a range of species. So by building native garden beds around single trees, at the park’s edges, or within designated areas (even among playgrounds!), we can gain complex layers of habitats for our native animals without losing too much picnic space.

We think of verges as places to park our cars or wheelie bins, but these grass borders are another underused area where we could plant native gardens. This not only improves the aesthetics of the streetscape but also reduces water use and the need to mow.

Verge gardens.
Simon Pawley, Sustainable Outdoors

Australia is a sporting nation and our sports grounds are cherished features of the urban landscape, yet there are plenty of opportunities here for native vegetation. The average golf course, for instance, only uses two-thirds of its area for actual golf (unless you’re a very bad shot). The out-of-bounds areas nestled between the fairways offer plenty of space for native biodiversity. Likewise, the boundaries of sporting ovals are ideal locations for native vegetation borders.

Even infrastructure corridors such as train lines, electricity corridors, and the edges of highways have the potential to contribute to the functioning of local ecosystems.

Making it happen

As the existence of community gardens and Landcare groups shows, there is already a drive within local communities to make these ideas a reality. In fact, some groups of “guerrilla gardeners” are so passionate about urban greening that they dedicate their own time and resources towards creating green public space, often without permission.

But urban gardening doesn’t need to be illegal. Many councils in Australia have policies that encourage the planting of native plants in private gardens, with some even offering rebates for native landscaping projects.

Ultimately we need to both share and spare urban landscapes. By conserving habitat fragments and planting native gardens to connect these patches, we can bring native plants and animals back into our cities.

The Conversation

Lizzy Lowe, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Auckland and Margaret Stanley, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, University of Auckland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event


Bill Laurance, James Cook University and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Life has existed on Earth for roughly 3.7 billion years. During that time we know of five mass extinction events — dramatic episodes when many, if not most, life forms vanished in a geological heartbeat. The most recent of these was the global calamity that claimed the dinosaurs and myriad other species around 66 million years ago.

Growing numbers of scientists have asserted that our planet might soon see a sixth massive extinction — one driven by the escalating impacts of humanity. Others, such as the Danish economist Bjørn Lomborg, have characterised such claims as ill-informed fearmongering.

We argue emphatically that the jury is in and the debate is over: Earth’s sixth great extinction has arrived.

Collapse of biodiversity

Mass extinctions involve a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, but what many people fail to appreciate is just what “biodiversity” means. A shorthand way of talking about biodiversity is simply to count species. For instance, if a species goes extinct without being replaced, then we are losing biodiversity.

But there’s much more to biodiversity than just species. Within each species there usually are substantial amounts of genetic, demographic, behavioural and geographic variation. Much of this variation involves adaptations to local environmental conditions, increasing the biological fitness of the individual organism and its population.

Natural variation within two species of sea snails. Upper row: Littorina sitkana. Lower row: Littorina obtusata.
Copyright David Reid/Ray Society.

And there’s also an enormous amount of biodiversity that involves interactions among different species and their physical environment.

Many plants rely on animals for pollination and seed dispersal. Competing species adapt to one another, as do predators and their prey. Pathogens and their hosts also interact and evolve together, sometimes with remarkable speed, whereas our internal digestive systems host trillions of helpful, benign or malicious microbes.

Hence, ecosystems themselves are a mélange of different species that are continually competing, combating, cooperating, hiding, fooling, cheating, robbing and consuming one another in a mind-boggling variety of ways.

All of this, then, is biodiversity – from genes to ecosystems and everything in between.

The modern extinction spasm

Cumulative vertebrate species extinctions since 1500 compared to the ‘background’ rate of species losses.
G. Ceballos et al. (2015) Scientific Advances.

No matter how you measure it, a mass extinction has arrived. A 2015 study that one of us (Ehrlich) coauthored used conservative assumptions to estimate the natural, or background rate of species extinctions for various groups of vertebrates. The study then compared these background rates to the pace of species losses since the beginning of the 20th century.

Even assuming conservatively high background rates, species have been disappearing far faster than before. Since 1900, reptiles are vanishing 24 times faster, birds 34 times faster, mammals and fishes about 55 times faster, and amphibians 100 times faster than they have in the past.

For all vertebrate groups together, the average rate of species loss is 53 times higher than the background rate.

Extinction filters

To make matters worse, these modern extinctions ignore the many human-caused species losses before 1900. It has been estimated, for instance, that Polynesians wiped out around 1,800 species of endemic island birds as they colonised the Pacific over the past two millennia.

And long before then, early human hunter-gatherers drove a blitzkrieg of species extinctions — especially of megafauna such as mastodons, moas, elephant birds and giant ground sloths — as they migrated from Africa to the other continents.

In Australia, for instance, the arrival of humans at least 50,000 years ago was soon followed by the disappearance of massive goannas and pythons, predatory kangaroos, the marsupial “lion”, and the hippo-sized Diprotodon among others.

Changes in climate could have contributed, but humans with their hunting and fires were almost certainly the death knell for many of these species.

As a result of these pre-1900 extinctions, most ecosystems worldwide went through an “extinction filter”: the most vulnerable species vanished, leaving relatively more resilient or less conspicuous species behind.

Giant ground sloths such as this elephant-sized Megatherium vanished soon after humans arrived in the New World.
Copyright Catmando.

And it’s the loss of these survivors that we are seeing now. The tally of all species driven to extinction by humans from prehistory to today would be far greater than many people realise.

Vanishing populations

The sixth great extinction is playing out in other ways too, especially in the widespread annihilation of millions (perhaps billions) of animal and plant populations. Just as species can go extinct, so can their individual populations, reducing both the genetic diversity and long-term survival prospects of the species.

For example, the Asian two-horned rhinoceros once ranged widely across Southeast Asia and Indochina. Today it survives only in tiny pockets comprising perhaps 3% of its original geographic range.

Three-quarters of the world’s largest carnivores, including big cats, bears, otters and wolves, are declining in number. Half of these species have lost at least 50% of their former range.

Likewise, except in certain wilderness areas, populations of large, long-lived trees are falling dramatically in abundance.

WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report summarises long-term trends in over 14,000 populations of more than 3,700 vertebrate species. Its conclusion: in just the last four decades, the population sizes of monitored mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have shrunk by an average of 58% worldwide.

And as populations of many species collapse, their crucial ecological functions decline with them, potentially creating ripple effects that can alter entire ecosystems.

Hence, disappearing species can cease to play an ecological role long before they actually go extinct.

Once a widespread and dominating predator, the tiger today is vanishingly rare across most of its former range.
Copyright Matt Gibson

Paying the extinction debt

Everything we know about conservation biology tells us that species whose populations are in freefall are increasingly vulnerable to extinction.

Extinctions rarely happen instantly, but the conspiracy of declining numbers, population fragmentation, inbreeding and reduced genetic variation can lead to a fatal “extinction vortex”. In this sense, our planet is currently accumulating a large extinction debt that must eventually be paid.

And we’re not just talking about losing cute animals; human civilisation relies on biodiversity for its very existence. The plants, animals and microorganisms with which we share the Earth supply us with vital ecosystem services. These include regulating the climate, supplying clean water, limiting floods, running nutrient cycles essential to agriculture and forestry, controlling serious crop pests and carriers of diseases, and providing beauty, spiritual and recreational benefits.

Are we preaching doom? Far from it. What we’re saying, however, is that life on Earth is ultimately a zero-sum game. Humans cannot keep growing in number and consuming ever more land, water and natural resources and expect all to be well.

Limiting harmful climate change has become a catchphrase for battling such maladies. But solutions to the modern extinction crisis must go well beyond this.

We also have to move urgently to slow human population growth, reduce overconsumption and overhunting, save remaining wilderness areas, expand and better protect our nature reserves, invest in conserving critically endangered species, and vote for leaders who make these issues a priority.

Without decisive action, we are likely to hack off vital limbs of the tree of life that could take millions of years to recover.

The Slow Loris, a primitive primate, is a denizen of intact rainforests in southern Asia.
Copyright hkhtt hj

Paul Ehrlich will present a lecture on the current mass extinction, at James Cook University’s Cairns campus on November 10.

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Squandering riches: can Perth realise the value of its biodiversity?


Julian Bolleter, University of Western Australia

Perth is not known as a model for suburbia and its suburban condition is similar to that of developed cities the world over. However, it does stand out in one respect: it sits in an exceptionally biodiverse natural setting. A strong, informed vision for this setting’s relationship with the city could help Perth become an exemplar for similarly positioned metropolises everywhere.

The greater Perth region has been designated the Southwest Australia Ecoregion (SWAE). This is one of only 35 “biodiversity hotspots” in the world.

Reconciling future growth with biodiversity is a key issue for urban design and planning this century. Indeed, if current trends continue, global urban land cover will increase by 1.2 million square kilometres (equivalent to half the area of Western Australia) by 2030. Much of this will happen in biodiversity hotspots.

This is important because it is estimated we will lose nearly half of all terrestrial species if we fail to protect the hotspots. We will also lose the ecosystem services upon which human populations ultimately depend.

If we fail to protect the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots we risk losing nearly half of all terrestrial species.
Conservation International, Author provided

“Ecosystem services” may sound like abstract jargon, but it’s actually a term used to describe the services nature provides – such as clean air, water and food, and heatwave and flood mitigation. Without these, human life would be extremely unpleasant, if not unviable.

Perth has a reputedly strong planning system and is comparatively wealthy. If it can’t control its city form to protect biodiversity – compact cities generally being recognised as the best model for protecting land for conservation – then city administrators elsewhere, particularly in the developing world, are likely to struggle.

Misreading the land

The current treatment of the Australian environment has its roots in the European annexation of Australia, which has been characterised by catastrophic misreadings of the land. Governor James Stirling, who was singularly responsible for the European annexation of Perth, was the kind of man who saw what he wanted to see rather than what was there. In The Origins of Australia’s Capital Cities, Geoffrey Bolton writes:

…arriving at the end of … an uncommonly cool, moist summer, [Stirling was] misled by the tallness of the northern jarrah forest and the quality of the alluvial soils close to the river into believing that the coastal plain would offer fertile farming and grazing. It was, Stirling wrote, equal to the plains of Lombardy; and he persuaded himself that the cool easterly land breeze of these early autumn nights must originate from a range of snowy mountains.

Vegetation of Southwest Australia Ecoregion near current-day Perth at the time of European settlement. Based on statewide mapping by John Beard between 1964 and 1981.
DPAW
Remnant vegetation of SWAE near Perth in 2015.
DPAW/WALGA, courtesy of AUDRC, Author provided

The results of such misinterpretations of the land were generally less poetic. Stirling sited the settlement of Perth on a narrow, constrained strip of land between swamps to the north and marshy river edges to the south. These low-lying areas fuelled plagues of mosquitos and, once polluted, deadly typhoid outbreaks.

In time, due to a lingering discomfort with Perth’s “unsanitary” wetlands, more than 200,000 hectares – an area equivalent to 500 Kings Parks – were drained on the Swan Coastal Plain. These biologically productive areas directly or indirectly support most of the coastal plain’s wildlife, so the effects on biodiversity have been catastrophic.

Furthermore, a perception of the Banksia woodland and coastal heath on Perth’s fringes as unattractive and useless has seen much of it cleared for the expansion of the city. Between 2001 and 2009, suburban growth consumed an annual average of 851ha of highly biodiverse land on the urban fringe.

The lesson from this experience is that any future growth in a biodiversity hotspot, or indeed elsewhere, has to be founded on the understanding that we cannot continue to bend nature to our will. We must learn how to work with it.

Within this humbling process, we need to recognise that working with the land is not an entirely pure or noble act; rather, it is imperative for humanity’s survival. As species and ecosystems become threatened and vanish, so too do the ecosystem services that support human wellbeing.

Perth’s Green Growth Plan

The release of the state government’s long-anticipated Perth and Peel Green Growth Plan for 3.5 million may herald a shift in the relationship between the city and the biodiversity hotspot. The plan encapsulates two broad goals:

  • to protect fringe bushland, rivers, wetlands and wildlife in an impressive 170,000 hectares of new and expanded reserves on Perth’s fringe

  • to cut red tape by securing upfront Commonwealth environmental approvals for outer suburban development.

Proposed new and existing reserves – light and dark green respectively – on Perth’s fringe (indicative only).
DOP, courtesy of AUDRDC, Author provided

While ostensibly positive achievements, a question remains as to the implications of clearing a further 45,000ha (3% of the Swan Coastal Plain) of remnant bushland which is not protected by the conservation reserves.

Furthermore, the typically disconnected conservation reserves proposed in the Green Growth Plan lack overall legibility. This stymies the public’s ability to conceptualise the city’s edge, which leads them to care about it (like London’s greenbelt, for instance).

Finally, a question remains about how a plan that places restrictions on outer suburban development will accommodate the powerful local land development industry over time. This is a concern given the frequent “urban break-outs” – where urban development occurs outside nominated growth areas – between 1970 and 2005.

In 2003, the ABC asked revered Western Australian landscape architect Marion Blackwell, “Are we at home now in the land we live in?” She replied, “No, we’re not. We don’t know enough about it, and not enough people know anything about it.”

We still have work to do on our engagement with biodiversity in Western Australia, and Perth specifically, before we can become a model for future cities.


The Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point. You can read other articles here.

The Conversation

Julian Bolleter, Research Fellow, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Earth’s biodiversity could be much greater than we thought


Mike Lee, Flinders University and Paul Oliver, Australian National University

After centuries of study, you’d think we’d have at least a rough idea of how many different species of life exist on Earth. This is becoming even more pressing as biodiversity disappears at an increasing pace due to human impacts. Some species are going extinct even before we discover them.

Scientists have named nearly 2 million species, but the estimated total number out there has ranged from 3 million to 100 million. Consensus recently congealed around the lower end of this range, with one widely touted study proposing a precise figure of 8.7 million species (excluding bacteria strains, which are too tricky to count).

If so, we’ve made sizeable inroads into cataloguing the planet’s biodiversity, with perhaps 20% done.

But in correspondence published in Nature this week, we suggest this consensus may underestimate the Earth’s biodiversity by a factor of ten.

If so, the task of describing and understanding biodiversity is far more Herculean than ever imagined. In the 300 years since the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus pioneered scientific classification, we might have managed to recognise only 2% of Earth’s biodiversity.

Species are often not what they seem to be

Species are one of the fundamental units of biodiversity. Each species represents an independent evolutionary lineage and irreplaceable gene pool.

For example, the domestic dog, Canis lupus, is a separate species from the golden jackal, Canis aureas, since these two groups do not normally interbreed nor exchange genes. But spaniels and dalmatians are merely different breeds of the same species, Canis lupus, which can readily get together to produce mongrels.

Sometimes different species can be hard to tell apart. An extreme case involves cryptic species. These are separate species that are very similar outwardly, yet are true species that never interbreed. They thus possess distinct gene pools evolving in independent directions.

Cryptic species are often revealed only by laborious studies that integrate fieldwork, ecology and genetics.

Our DNA studies on what appeared to be widespread single species of Australian gecko revealed that each consists of up to ten cryptic species. Each is restricted to a small region, never interbreeding with adjacent regions at any time over the last 10 million years.

DNA from the tiny Clawless Gecko Crenadactylus from northern Australia shows it was not one but at least ten different species; eight are shown here.
Brad Maryan (Western Australian Museum), Glenn Shea (University of Sydney), and Glenn Gaikhorst

Despite looking very alike, these cryptic gecko species are much more genetically distinct from each other than, say, humans and chimps. So they are definitely proper species, despite being very similar in appearance (sometimes almost indistinguishable).

Cryptic species have recently been found in some of the biggest and well-studied marine creatures such as beaked whales and hammerhead sharks.

On land, scientists have only just realised that African elephants are probably not a single species but two cryptic species: a bush (savannah) elephant and a forest elephant.

The African bush elephant, Loxodonta africana.
Michael Lee (Flinders University and South Australian Museum)
The African forest elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis.
Richard Ruggiero/USFWS

Most of life consists of small invertebrates, especially arthropods – such as insects, spiders and crustaceans – which are much more poorly known than elephants and sharks.

With so few taxonomists and so many invertebrates, only very obviously different groups are picked out as separate species. This sorting is usually based on visual inspection alone, with no genetic analysis. These first-pass species are known as morphospecies and they make up the bulk of known biodiversity.

When scientists take a closer look at invertebrate morphospecies using DNA methods, they usually find multiple species. These might look rather similar, but never interbreed and haven’t done so for millions of years.

For example, what was once thought to be a single species of malaria-carrying mosquito turned out to be at least seven different species. A major agricultural pest (the tobacco whitefly) was revealed to be 31 cryptic species.

Biodiversity bites back! The malaria-carrying mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, turned out to be at least seven distinct species.
CDC/James Gathany

Looking at every known species in such genetic detail will be an immense task, even given the promise of techniques such as rapid DNA barcoding. But when we do so, cryptic species should prove to be the rule, rather than the exception, across the majority of life.

Millions more species

Most of the 2 million known species are morphospecies. The prediction that there are 8.7 million species on Earth, and other similar estimates, are extrapolations from this 2 million figure (or lower earlier figures such as 1.2 million).

Yet, a torrent of new genetic evidence indicates that many currently known morphospecies could represent up to ten or more cryptic species, all very similar to one another but nevertheless real species with separate gene pools. Most estimates of global species diversity have not accounted for this.

Hence, the 2 million morphospecies already described could easily turn out to represent perhaps 20 million real species, if we ever get around to analysing their DNA. This tenfold increase would swell estimates of Earth’s total biodiversity by a similar magnitude, e.g. from 8.7 million to 87 million.

Why taxonomy is vital for humanity

Does it really matter? Are there any consequences to treating, for example, African elephants as one morphospecies, or properly recognising them as two similar yet distinct species?

We think there can be profound consequences. Lumping all African elephants into a single species could lead to terrible conservation decisions.

For example, we might not be concerned that elephants in the forest were declining, as long as plenty remained on the savannah. Forest elephants might be allowed to perish, leading to the loss of a distinct species. We might compound the problem by translocating elephants from the savannah into dense forest, a foreign habitat for this species, and wonder why they weren’t thriving.

Similarly, knowing whether a pesky mosquito is one species or several is crucial information that can improve millions of lives. Cryptic mosquito species can differ in behaviour, habitat and ability to transmit malaria.

The ongoing efforts to properly count and identify the species on Earth are therefore much more than an obscure academic exercise.

Knowing how many life forms exist on Earth is one of the most fundamental scientific questions that can be asked. Our efforts to answer it will greatly benefit humanity in diverse and important ways, from conservation to agriculture to health.

The Conversation

Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University and Paul Oliver, Postdoctoral Researcher in Biodiversity and Evolution, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.