Last year

A lot happened last year.

Twelve months ago I’d been breathing bushfire smoke for months and I was struggling with despair and anxiety (personal and empathetically global) over Australia’s devastating bushfire summer, after our hottest and driest year on record, and the lack of responsible climate action our government maintains.

Now, we’re on track to have experienced one of the wettest years on record for our region, with some areas flooding in recent months, others seeing welcome regrowth in farms, forests and gardens. After severe drought and bushfires, some places may not find the sudden deluge so exciting. While our new garden is loving the conditions, our garage has suffered some minor flooding as the dehydrated clay soils slowly drown under the weight of water. (Nice reminder that climate change brings rapidly changing extremes, not static increases or decreases.)

In between, we’ve suffered from pandemic anxieties, losses and inconveniences, along with the rest of the world.  

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Post-fire recovery of threatened plants at Torrington State Conservation Reserve NSW: first observations

In late September, we found out that our Australian Government Bushfire Recovery grant application (submitted back in May 2020) was successful. Our team have been funded until June 2021 to help protect 21 threatened plant species, many of which are endemic to the Torrington and/or Bolivia Hill districts in northern New South Wales.

The 2019-20 summer fires were devastating. Collectively, the season’s fires burned through 10.3 million hectares of land in southern and eastern Australia (this doesn’t include the impact of fires in Western Australia and Northern Territory). About 82% of the burned area in the south/east was forested ecosystems, and hundreds of threatened species were impacted across the country.

In northern NSW, Torrington State Conservation Area was impacted by fire in November 2019. This unique protected area supports a high proportion of endemic plants, many of them listed on state or commonwealth threatened species lists. After reports that the entire reserve was impacted by fire, we wanted to know how many of these species had survived and which were in most urgent need of protection to reduce extinction risk. Nearby, Bolivia Hill Nature Reserve escaped the 2019 fires, but has been impacted by uncontrolled burns in recent years.

These two reserves are both part of the New England batholith, one of the most significant areas of granite outcropping in Australia. While they are similar in geology and habitat characteristics, they have very unique plant communities, each with their own collection of endemic species.

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New paper: EPBC Act condition thresholds hinder conservation of threatened ecosystems

Our new paper has just been published, highlighting another way that Australia’s environmental laws aren’t doing enough to protect our ecosystems. In the paper, we look at condition thresholds, which are part of the listing for threatened ecological communities (TECs). These thresholds are often restrictive and may actually increase the extinction risk for TECs that depend on cycles of changing species composition.

Read our summary article at The Conversation: We found a huge flaw in Australia’s environment laws. Wetlands and woodlands will pay the price

Access the paper here: Condition thresholds in Australia’s threatened ecological community listings hinder conservation of dynamic ecosystems

© Manu Saunders 2020

New paper: Conceptual ambiguity and ecosystem disservices

Just published in Journal of Applied Ecology: Conceptual ambiguity hinders measurement and management of ecosystem disservices.  

Ecosystem services is one of the most misunderstood scientific concepts. Ambiguity and confusion can be a real barrier to establishing a new scientific concept or field of research. Ecosystem services is still a young discipline (formalised in the 1990s based on a much longer heritage) and is often misrepresented as being a purely economic concept that is damaging to biodiversity conservation and ecological science. This couldn’t be further from the truth, yet this misguided opinion consistently gets regular airtime and clouds broader understanding of the relevance of ecosystem services to research, policy, and land management.

The term ecosystem disservices was first used to address an early criticism of the ES concept, i.e. that ES was largely focused on benefits and overlooked the ecological reality that nature sometimes harms us. This is a valid issue that must be addressed in any ES approach. But, as we argued a few years’ ago, creating a false dichotomy around opposing terms is not the most effective way to solve this problem.

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Special issue on insect conservation and population trends

The latest issue of Insect Conservation & Diversity is out, a special issue on insect population trends. I’m really happy I was able to contribute to a few papers in this issue as both editor and author (obviously not the same papers in each case!).

Thanks to Editor in Chief Raphael Didham for pulling together a great collection of papers, as well as rallying the editorial team to contribute to the issue with this really useful peer-reviewed paper summarising the key challenges involved in measuring insect population trends. This paper is really timely, as it highlights some of the potential pitfalls involved in estimating population changes over time.

Ecological data (e.g. long-term data on animal population trends) are not like simplified stock market trends or sports team stats. They are confounded by numerous complex environmental and measurement factors, many of which an observer may not be aware of. Nature isn’t simple and we’re kidding ourselves if we want a quick and easy answer to sum up everything, everywhere. Continue reading

Moving on from the insect apocalypse to evidence-based conservation

Our insect apocalypse paper is finally published online at BioScience, with awesome co-authors Jasmine Janes and James O’Hanlon!

We summarise the major flaws in the pop culture ‘insect apocalypse’ narrative and argue that focusing on a hyped global apocalypse narrative distracts us from the more important insect conservation issues that we can tackle right now. Promoting this narrative as fact also sends the wrong message about how science works, and could have huge impacts on public understanding of science.

And, frankly, it’s just depressing. Right now, we all need hope, optimism and reasons to act, not a reason to give up.

This blog isn’t about the paper, you can read it yourself (journal, preprint, or email me for a copy). This is about why we wrote the paper. Continue reading

New paper: using network analysis to understand ecosystem function in agricultural landscapes

Saunders ME, Rader R (2019) Network modularity influences plant reproduction in a mosaic tropical agroecosystem. Proc. R. Soc. B 286: 20190296. (all data and code available on github)

I’m so excited about our new paper! We use network analysis in a cool new way to understand how pollinator community structure influences ecosystem function in a heterogeneous landscape. Understanding links between structure and function is a core goal of ecological research, but there are still plenty of things we don’t know about these relationships. Continue reading

Crop pollination depends on wild AND managed pollinators

I just published this letter with Toby Smith and Romina Rader, in response to an opinion piece in Science back in January. The original paper argues that high densities of honey bees can harm wild pollinators (this can happen in some contexts).

It also suggests that a first step toward a conservation strategy for wild pollinators is that crop pollination by managed honey bees “should not be considered an ecosystem service” because those services “are delivered by an agricultural animal and not the local ecosystems”.

This highlights a common misinterpretation of what ecosystem services is all about. Services are delivered by interactions between species (including Homo sapiens) and their environments at multiple scales, not individual organisms or natural ecosystems. Continue reading

New page: academic miscellany!

I’ve added a new page ‘Academic Miscellany‘ to my blog. It started as a way for me to collate interesting resources that I could access quickly instead of trawling through my old blog posts.

But why not share? I hope some of the links will be useful for you too!

On the page you will find: Continue reading