Zoos aren’t Victorian-era throwbacks: they’re important in saving species



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A meerkat at the National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra. The Zoo has recently announced an expansion that will double its size.
AAP Image/Stefan Postles

Alienor Chauvenet, The University of Queensland

The National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra recently announced a new expansion that will double its size, with open range space for large animals like white rhinos and cheetahs.

As well as improving visitors’ experience, the expansion is touted as a way to improve the zoo’s breeding program for threatened animals. However, zoos have received plenty of criticism over their capacity to educate, conserve, or even keep animals alive.

But while zoos began as 19th-century menageries, they’ve come a long way since then. They’re responsible for saving 10 iconic species worldwide. Without captive breeding and reintroduction efforts, there might be no Californian Condor or Przewalski’s Horse – the only truly wild horse – left in the wild.

Australian zoos form part of a vital global network that keeps our most vulnerable species alive.

What is the role of zoos for conservation?

Although Canberra Zoo is relatively new compared with others in Australia – Melbourne zoo, for example, was opened in 1862 – it adds to a collection of conservation-orientated establishments.

In Australia, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens, Adelaide Zoo and Perth Zoo are all members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). WAZA is an international organisation that aims to guide and support zoos in their conservation missions, including captive breeding, reintroductions into the wild, habitat restoration, and genetic management.

From the perspective of nature conservation, zoos have two major roles: educating the public about the plight of our fauna, and contributing to species recovery in the wild.

Conservation education is deeply embedded in the values of many zoos, especially in Australia. The evidence for the link between zoo education and conservation outcomes is mixed, however zoos are, above anybody else, aimed at children. Evidence shows that after guided experiences in zoos children know more about nature and are more likely to have a positive attitude towards it. Importantly, this attitude is transferable to their parents.

Zoos contribute unique knowledge and research to support field conservation programs, and thus species recovery. In Australia, zoos are directly involved in monitoring of free-ranging native fauna and investigations into emerging diseases. Without zoos many fundamental questions about a species’ biology could not be answered, and we would lack essential knowledge on animal handling, husbandry and care.

Through captive breeding, zoos can secure healthy animals that can be introduced to old or new habitats, or bolster existing wild populations. For example, a conservation manager at Taronga Zoo told me they’ve released more than 50,000 animals that were either bred on-site or rehabilitated in their wildlife hospitals (another important function of zoos).

Criticisms of captive breeding programs

The critics of captive breeding as a conservation strategy raise several concerns. Captive bred population can lose essential behavioural and cultural adaptations, as well as genetic diversity. Large predators – cats, bears and wolves – are more likely to be affected.

Some species, such as frogs, do well in captivity, breed fast, and are able to be released into nature with limited or no training. For others, there is usually a concerted effort to maintain wild behaviour.

There’s a higher chance of disease wiping out zoo populations due to animal proximity. In 2004 the largest tiger zoo in Thailand experienced an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu after 16 tigers were fed contaminated raw chicken; ultimately 147 tigers died or were put down.

However, despite these risks, research shows that reintroduction campaigns improve the prospects of endangered species, and zoos can play a crucial role in conservation. Zoos are continually improving their management of the genetics, behaviour and epidemiology of captive populations.

They are the last resort for species on the brink of extinction, such as the Orange-bellied Parrot or the Scimitar-horned Oryx, and for those facing a threat that we cannot stop yet, such as amphibians threatened by the deadly Chytrid fungus.

Orange-bellied parrots are ranked among the most endangered species on the planet – their survival depends on zoos.
Chris Tzaros/AAP

Zoos need clear priorities

A cost-benefit approach can help zoos prioritise their actions. Taronga, for example, uses a prioritisation system to decide which projects to take on, with and without captive breeding. Their aim is to a foresee threats to wildlife and ecosystems and implement strategies that ensure sustainability.

Developing prioritisation systems relies on clearly defined objectives. Is there value in keeping a species in captivity indefinitely, perhaps focusing only on education? Is contributing to a wild population the end goal, requiring both education and active conservation?

Once this is defined, zoos can assess the benefit and costs of different actions, by asking sometimes difficult questions. Is a particular species declining in the wild? Can we secure a genetically diverse sample before it is too late? Will capturing animals impact the viability of the wild population? How likely is successful reintroduction? Can we provide enough space and stimulation for the animals, and how expensive are they to keep?

Decision science can help zoos navigate these many factors to identify the best species to target for active captive conservation. In Australia, some of the rapidly declining northern mammals, which currently do not have viable zoo populations, could be a good place to start.

Partnerships with governmental agencies, universities and other groups are essential to all of these activities. Zoos in Australia are experts at engaging with these groups to help answer and address wildlife issues.


The ConversationAlienor Chauvenet would like to acknowledge the contribution of Hugh Possingham to this article, and thank Nick Boyle and Justine O’Brien from Taronga Conservation Society Australia for the information they provided.

Alienor Chauvenet, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

Scientists are accidentally helping poachers drive rare species to extinction



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The beautiful Chinese cave gecko, or Goniurosaurus luii, is highly prized by poachers.
Carola Jucknies

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

If you open Google and start typing “Chinese cave gecko”, the text will auto-populate to “Chinese cave gecko for sale” – just US$150, with delivery. This extremely rare species is just one of an increasingly large number of animals being pushed to extinction in the wild by animal trafficking.

What’s shocking is that the illegal trade in Chinese cave geckoes began so soon after they were first scientifically described in the early 2000s.

It’s not an isolated case; poachers are trawling scientific papers for information on the location and habits of new, rare species.

As we argue in an essay published today in Science, scientists may have to rethink how much information we publicly publish. Ironically, the principles of open access and transparency have led to the creation of detailed online databases that pose a very real threat to endangered species.

We have personally experienced this, in our research on the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard, a startling creature that resembles a snake. Biologists working in New South Wales are required to provide location data on all species they discover during scientific surveys to an online wildlife atlas.

But after we published our data, the landowners with whom we worked began to find trespassers on their properties. The interlopers had scoured online wildlife atlases. As well as putting animals at risk, this undermines vital long-term relationships between researchers and landowners.

The endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella).
Author provided

The illegal trade in wildlife has exploded online. Several recently described species have been devastated by poaching almost immediately after appearing in the scientific literature. Particularly at risk are animals with small geographic ranges and specialised habitats, which can be most easily pinpointed.

Poaching isn’t the only problem that is exacerbated by unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species. Overzealous wildlife enthusiasts are increasingly scanning scientific papers, government and NGO reports, and wildlife atlases to track down unusual species to photograph or handle.

This can seriously disturb the animals, destroy specialised microhabitats, and spread disease. A striking example is the recent outbreak in Europe of a amphibian chytrid fungus, which essentially “eats” the skin of salamanders.

This pathogen was introduced from Asia through wildlife trade, and has already driven some fire salamander populations to extinction.

Fire salamanders have been devastated by diseases introduced through the wildlife trade.
Erwin Gruber

Rethinking unrestricted access

In an era when poachers can arm themselves with the latest scientific data, we must urgently rethink whether it is appropriate to put detailed location and habitat information into the public domain.

We argue that before publishing, scientists must ask themselves: will this information aid or harm conservation efforts? Is this species particularly vulnerable to disruption? Is it slow-growing and long-lived? Is it likely to be poached?

Fortunately, this calculus will only be relevant in a few cases. Researchers might feel an intellectual passion for the least lovable subjects, but when it comes to poaching, it is generally only charismatic and attractive animals that have broad commercial appeal.

But in high-risk cases, where economically valuable species lack adequate protection, scientists need to consider censoring themselves to avoid unintentionally contributing to species declines.

Restricting information on rare and endangered species has trade-offs, and might inhibit some conservation efforts. Yet, much useful information can still be openly published without including specific details that could help the nefarious (or misguided) to find a vulnerable species.

There are signs people are beginning to recognise this problem and adapt to it. For example, new species descriptions are now being published without location data or habitat descriptions.

Biologists can take a lesson from other fields such as palaeontology, where important fossil sites are often kept secret to avoid illegal collection. Similar practices are also common in archaeology.

Restricting the open publication of scientifically and socially important information brings its own challenges, and we don’t have all the answers. For example, the dilemma of organising secure databases to collate data on a global scale remains unresolved.

For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.

The ConversationBiologists have a centuries-old tradition of publishing information on rare and endangered species. For much of this history it was an innocuous practice, but as the world changes, scientists must rethink old norms.

Benjamin Scheele, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

Widespread invasive species control is a risky business



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Partula snails were driven to extinction in the wild by introduced predators.
Wikimedia Commons

R. Keller Kopf, Charles Sturt University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University, and Paul Humphries, Charles Sturt University

In 1977, on the islands of French Polynesia, government authorities released a predatory snail. They hoped this introduction would effectively control another species of invasive snail, previously introduced to supply escargot.

Instead, by the early 1980s, scientists reported alarming declines of native snail populations. Within ten years, 48 native snail species (genus Partula) had been driven to extinction in the wild.

The extinction of the Partula is notorious partially because these snails were, before going extinct, the study subjects of the first test in nature of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

In the decades since, attempts to control and eradicate invasive species have become common, generally with far better results.

However, our paper, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, highlights the importance of scientific evidence and independent assessments when deciding whether to control or eradicate invasive species.

From islands to continents

Increasingly, large-scale invasive species control initiatives are being proposed worldwide. As early as 2018, a herpes virus will be released in Australia’s largest river system, targeting invasive common carp. As part of its Threatened Species Strategy, Australia is also planning to kill two million feral cats.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand has made a bold commitment to remove three groups of invasive predators entirely by 2050.

New Zealand looks to eradicate three groups of invasive predators: rodents, mustelids, and the common brushtail possum.
Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It’s not just Australians and Kiwis making ambitious invasive species control proposals: bounties are being paid to catch invasive fish in the United States. The European Union has blacklisted 37 species of plants and animals within 4 million square kilometres, many of which are well-established and will be targeted by control (not preventative) measures.

Meanwhile, new gene editing technology has made the continental-scale eradication of invasive species a real possibility, for example by implementing gene drives that reduce breeding success. If you haven’t heard of it, CRISPR is a startling new biotechnology that makes genetic modification of plants and animals much easier. It offers new potential solutions to some of the world’s worst environmental, agricultural and human health problems.

These schemes will be implemented across large and complex social-ecological systems, and some options – like releasing a virus or genetically engineered species – may be irreversible.

Managing risk

While these projects may yield great benefits, we must be aware of the potential risk of unexpected and undesirable outcomes.

A prime example is the project to remove invasive carp from a million square kilometres of Australia’s rivers. Some scientists have expressed concern about the potential for the virus to jump species, and the effects of having hundreds of tonnes of dead fish fouling waterways and sapping oxygen from the water. The CSIRO and those planning the release of the virus suggest it is safe and effective.

Despite extensive media reporting giving the impression that the plan is approved to go ahead, the National Carp Control Plan has yet to publish a risk assessment, and is planning to deliver a report in 2018.

Removing well-established invasive species can create unforeseen consequences. These species can play significant roles in food webs, provide shelter for native animals, support ecosystem services, and their sudden death can disrupt ecological processes that are important to native species.

For example, a large amount of time and effort was spent in removing the non-native tamarix (or “salt cedar”) in the southwestern United States, because of the belief it was harming the water table.

Yet, subsequent research has indicated that the negative effects of tamarix have been exaggerated. In some areas, the plant is actually used by large numbers of endangered flycatchers to nest and fledge their young.

A corn bunting perches on a blooming tamarix.
Georgios Alexandris/shutterstock

A science-based solution

In our paper, we highlight a series of considerations that should be addressed before plunging into large-scale invasive species control.

Fundamentally, there must be a demonstrable ecological and social benefit from control or eradication, above and beyond the purely ideological. At first this might seem facile, but invasive species control initiatives are often highly politicised, with science taking a back seat. Given scarce funding for conservation, it is crucial that resources are not squandered on programmes that may not deliver – or could cause environmental damage.

We must avoid assuming that attempting to control invasive species will, by default, solve our environmental problems. This means addressing the full range of human pressures which negatively affect biodiversity. We must also consider how removing an influential invasive species could benefit other invasive species, harm native species through increased predation and competition, or alter ecological processes or habitat.

Comprehensive risk-benefit assessment of invasive species control programs allow decision-makers to proactively avoid, manage or accept these risks.

For example, tonnes of decomposing carp post-virus may cause short-term water quality issues, or the death of native species. Ultimately, however, these risks could be acceptable if the virus is effective, and allows native species a window of opportunity to recover.

The ConversationLarge-scale invasive species control demands careful investigation of the risks and rewards. We hope our paper can provide policy-makers with better guidelines for science-based decision-making.

R. Keller Kopf, Research fellow, Charles Sturt University; Dale Nimmo, ARC DECRA Fellow, Charles Sturt University, and Paul Humphries, Senior lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University

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

Maybe we can, but should we? Deciding whether to bring back extinct species



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Immortalised on a stamp, New Zealand’s stout-legged wren went extinct in the 1990s.
Boris15/www.shutterstock.com

Gwenllian Iacona, The University of Queensland and Iadine Chadès, CSIRO

De-extinction – the science of reviving species that have been lost – has moved from the realm of science-fiction to something that is now nearly feasible. Some types of lost mammals, birds or frogs may soon be able to be revived through de-extinction technologies. The Conversation

But just because we can, does it mean we should? And what might the environmental and conservation impacts be if we did?

Prominent conservation biologist Stuart Pimm has been one of the vocal opponents of de-extinction because, among other concerns,

Without an answer to “where do we put them?” — and to the further question, “what changed in their original habitat that may have contributed to their extinction in the first place?” — efforts to bring back species are a colossal waste.

These are valid concerns, and difficult to consider in light of the many competing factors involved.

We’ve recently outlined a deliberate way to tackle this problem. Our new paper shows that an approach known as “decision science” can help examine the feasibility of de-extinction and its likely impact on existing environmental and species management programs.

Applied to the question of possible de-extinction programs in New Zealand, this approach showed that it would take money away from managing extant (still alive) species, and may lead to other species going extinct.

Solving complex problems

The potential to reverse species extinction is exciting from both a science and a curiosity perspective. But there is also great concern that in the passionate rush to implement new technology, we don’t properly consider environmental, economic and social issues.

Balancing these multiple objectives requires decision makers to understand how various project endpoints relate to all the different project goals.

Decision science methods simplify complex problems into parts that describe the benefit, cost and feasibility of the different possible solutions. They allow for “apples to apples” comparisons to be made about different but essential aspects of the projects being considered.

Decision science in action

When applied to de-extinction projects, decision science lets researchers:

  • compare different possible outcomes of de-extinction approaches
  • better understand future expected costs and benefits, and
  • see impacts of using de-extinction technology on other species that we care about.

New Zealand and New South Wales are home to more than 1,100 threatened species of conservation concern between them.

Over the past decade their management agencies have built on a decision science approach to prioritise their conservation efforts, and increase the number of species they are able to put on the road to recovery.

New Zealand in particular is a prime candidate for considering de-extinction because they have had many recent extinctions, such as the huia.

The New Zealand native bird ‘huia’ went extinct in 1907.
Photographed by Kendrick, J. L. and with thanks from NZ Department of Conservation, Author provided

These lost species fit many of the criteria for species appropriate for de-extinction technologies.

A recent study took the process that was developed to rank New Zealand species according to priority for action, and included 11 possible candidates for de-extinction in the ranking process. These were birds, frogs and plants, including the little bush moa, Waitomo frog and laughing owl.

By applying a decision science process, the authors found that adding these species to the management worklist would reduce their ability to adequately fund up to three times the number of currently managed species, and essentially could lead to additional species going extinct.

The study also showed that private agencies wishing to sponsor the return of resurrected extinct species into the wild, could instead use the money to fund conservation of over eight times as many species, potentially saving them from extinction.

Crucially, this study could not examine the initial costs of using genetic technology to resurrect extinct species, which is unknown but likely to be substantial. If it could have included such costs, de-extinction would have come out as an even less efficient option.

The laughing owl went extinct in New Zealand in 1914.
Photographed by Kendrick, J. L. and with thanks from NZ Department of Conservation, Author provided

Could de-extinction ever be the right option?

The New Zealand example is not a particularly rosy picture, but it may not always be the case that de-extinction is a terrible idea for conservation.

Hypothetically, there are situations where the novelty and excitement of a de-extinct species could act as a “flagship species” and actually attract public interest or funding to a conservation project.

There also is an interesting phenomenon where even just the possibility of having a management action such as de-extinction may change how conservation problems are formulated.

Conservation management currently aims to do the best it can, while operating under the constraint that biodiversity is a non-renewable resource. With this constraint we can apply theory that is used for managing the extraction of non-renewable resources like oil or diamonds to determine the best strategy for management.

However, if extinction was no longer forever, the problem could be considered as one that would be managing a renewable resource, like trees or fish.

Of course, the ability to revive species is nowhere near as simple as regrowing trees, and a species being revived does not necessarily equate to conservation.

But changing the way that conservation managers think about the problem could present conservation gains in addition to losses.

Theoretically, different methods may be used for conservation benefit and there may be different strategies to produce the best outcomes. For example, species that could easily be de-extinct may get less funding attention that the ones for which the de-extinction technology isn’t available, or are too costly to produce.

This research does not advocate for or against de-extinction, rather, it provides strategies to deal with alternatives from the start with a clear representation of the trade-offs.

This work aims to step back and take a realistic look at the implications of new technology, including its costs and its risks, within the context of other conservation actions. Decision theory helps to do just that.

Gwenllian Iacona, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Iadine Chadès, Leader of the Conservation Decisions Team and Senior research scientist, CSIRO

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

The bark side: domestic dogs threaten endangered species worldwide



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A feral dog chasing a wild boar, Banni grasslands, India.
Chetan Misher/Facebook

Tim Doherty, Deakin University; Aaron J. Wirsing, University of Washington; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Thomas Newsome, Deakin University

Humans and their canine companions share many close bonds. Wolves (Canis lupus) were the first animal domesticated by people, some time between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago. The Conversation

There are now an estimated 1 billion domestic dogs across their near-global distribution.

Domestic dogs include feral and free-ranging animals (such as village and camp dogs), as well as those that are owned by and completely dependent on humans (pet dogs).

Our latest research reveals that the ecological “pawprint” of domestic dogs is much greater than previously realised.

Using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, we counted how many species are negatively affected by dogs, assessed the prevalence of different types of impacts, and identified regions with the greatest number of affected species.

A dog with a black-naped hare, Maharashtra, India.
Hari Somashekhar/Facebook

Dogs are third-most-damaging mammal

We found that dogs are implicated in the extinction of at least 11 species, including the Hawaiian Rail and the Tonga Ground Skink. Dogs are also a known or potential threat to 188 threatened species worldwide: 96 mammal, 78 bird, 22 reptile and three amphibian species. This includes 30 critically endangered species, two of which are classed as “possibly extinct”.

These numbers place dogs in the number three spot after cats and rodents as the world’s most damaging invasive mammalian predators.

Even though dogs have an almost global distribution, the threatened species they are known to affect are concentrated in certain parts of the globe. South-East Asia, South America, Central America and the Caribbean each contain 28 to 30 threatened species impacted by dogs. Other hotspots include Australia, Micro/Mela/Polynesia and the remainder of Asia.

Lethal and non-lethal impacts

Predation was the most commonly reported impact of dogs on wildlife. The typically omnivorous diet of dogs means they have strong potential to affect a diversity of species. For instance, dogs killed at least 19 endangered Kagu (a ground-dwelling bird) in New Caledonia in 14 weeks. Threatened species with small population sizes are particularly vulnerable to such intense bouts of predation.

The frequency of different types of dog impact on threatened species.
https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Uxs~1R~e71Xl

Aside from simply killing animals, dogs can harm wildlife in other ways, such as by spreading disease, interbreeding with other canids, competing for resources such as food or shelter, and causing disturbances by chasing or harassment. For example, contact with domestic dogs increases disease risk for endangered African Wild Dogs in Kenya.

Part of the problem is that when wild animals perceive dogs as a threat, they may change their behaviour to avoid them. One study near Sydney found that dog walking in parklands and national parks reduced the abundance and species richness of birds, even when dogs were restrained on leads.

None of the Red List assessments mentioned such indirect risk effects, which suggests that their frequency is likely to be much higher than reported.

Feral dogs chasing Indian wild ass at Little Rann of Kutch, India.
Kalyan Varma/Facebook

Friend and foe

Despite their widespread and sometimes severe impacts on biodiversity, dogs can also benefit some species and ecosystems.

For example, in Australia, the closely related dingo (Canis dingo) can suppress populations of introduced predators such as red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and in doing so can benefit smaller native prey. It is possible that domestic dogs could perform similar ecological roles in some situations.

In some regions, dogs and their keen noses have been trained to help scientists find threatened species such as Tiger Quolls. Elsewhere they are helping to flush out and control feral cats.

An emerging and exciting conservation role for dogs is their growing use as “guardian animals” for wildlife, with the remarkable story of Oddball being the most well known.

Managing the problem

Dogs not only interact with wildlife, but can also attack and spread disease to humans, livestock and other domestic animals. As such, managing the problem requires looking at ecological, cultural and social perspectives.

Some of the regions with high numbers of species threatened by dogs are also hotspots for urbanisation and road building, which make it easier for dogs to access the habitats of threatened species. Urban development increases food waste, which feeds higher numbers of dogs. As dogs expand into new areas, the number of species they impact is likely to grow.

Street dogs scavenging food waste in India.
Achat1234/wikimedia

We can protect wildlife by integrating human health and animal welfare objectives into dog management. Vaccination and desexing campaigns can reduce disease risk and overpopulation problems. We should also focus on responsible dog ownership, removing dogs without owners, and reducing access to food waste.

Given the close relationship between humans and dogs, community engagement should form the basis of any management program. More research is needed to get a better picture of the scale of the problem, and of how dogs interact with other threats such as habitat loss. Such actions are critically important for ensuring the conservation of wildlife threatened by dogs around the world.


This article was co-authored by Dr Al Glen from Landcare Research, New Zealand and Dr Abi Vanak from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, India. These institutions had no role in the design or funding of this research.

Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Aaron J. Wirsing, Assistant Professor, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, ARC DECRA Fellow, Charles Sturt University; Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Thomas Newsome, Fulbright Scholar and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

Australia: Large Number of New Spider Species Discovered in Queensland


The link below is to an article reporting on the discovery of over 50 new species of spider in Queensland, Australia.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/11/fifty-new-species-of-spider-discovered-in-far-north-australia