Posts Tagged ‘Biodiversity’

Conservation denies tigers a future as a species

June 13, 2017

There are, it is thought, around 4,000 tigers still living in the “wild”. There may be as many as 8 – 9,000 in captivity (3,000 in China and perhaps 5,000 in the US). The tigers in captivity are in zoos and parks and are, in the US, often bred for “hunting”. Very few (< 100 perhaps) of those in captivity are returned to the “wild” every year. Breeding hybrid tigons and ligers once used to be very popular in zoos but less so now though it is still prevalent for entertainment purposes. The numbers are not very significant.

Tigers are magnificent animals and a cultural icon for humans. No doubt the sabre-toothed tiger was an even more magnificent creature. It is surely a matter of regret that they became extinct a long time ago. As a species they were replaced by others which were more suited to the changing world. If present-day tigers (considered endangered) were to become extinct, it would also be a matter of much regret. But I find the rationale for “conservation” efforts flawed and illogical. The WWF (which is close to being one of my least favourite organisations) writes in a typical woolly-headed, gushing style:

Yet they are more than just a magnificent animal – they are also crucial for the ecosystems in which they live. As top predators of the food chain, tigers keep populations of prey species in check, which in turn maintains the balance between herbivores and the vegetation upon which they feed. Balanced ecosystems are not only important for wildlife, but for people too – both locally, nationally and globally. People rely on forests, whether it is directly for their livelihoods or indirectly for food and products used in our daily lives. ……… Tigers not only protect the forest by maintaining ecological integrity, but also by bringing the highest levels of protection and investment to an area. Tigers are an “umbrella species” – meaning their conservation also conserves many other species in the same area. They are long-ranging and require vast amounts of habitat to survive; an adult male’s home range varies from 150 km2 – 1000 km2.

Tigers are endangered because their habitats are disappearing. That habitat loss is fundamentally irreversible. As a species they already have no significant role to play in the ecosystem prevailing. They have already become a redundant species biologically even if the concept of majestic tigers roaming wild forests still has a massive emotional impact on the selfish human psyche. Creating new tiger reserves – constrained in area by various means –  is little more than creating glorified zoos. They are just parks where the cages are a little bigger.  The tigers themselves are “frozen” into their current, unsuccessful, unsuitable, failed genetic state. They are doomed to continue unchanged and unchanging in a shrinking and ever more unsuitable habitat. There are no natural selection pressures (or artificial selection measures) in play which would make their descendants more capable of surviving in the new habitats due to changes that have already happened and have yet to come. This “conservation” is not about helping the tiger to survive by evolving but is only about freezing them into an increasingly untenable form. It is backwards looking and all about preserving failure.

I am even more convinced that traditional “conservation” is misguided and is done just to satisfy the emotional needs of humans, and not, in any way, forward-looking to help endangered species to adapt and survive into the future.

Fighting against species extinction is to deny evolution   – (ktwop – 2013)

So what then is the objection to – say – tigers becoming extinct which is not just an emotional reaction to the disappearance of a magnificent but anachronistic creature?  The bio-diversity argument is not very convincing and is of little relevance. To artificially keep an unsuccessful species alive in a specially protected environment has no genetic value. It increases the mis-match between the existing environment and the genetic profile needed to survive in that environment. In fact the biodiversity argument is only relevant for “life” in general and never for any particular species or group of species.  It can serve to maintain a very wide range of genetic material in the event of a catastrophe such that some form of life has a chance of continuing. But given a particular environment biodiversity in itself is of little value. …

…. All those species which succeed into the future will be those which continue to “evolve” and have the characteristics necessary to thrive within the world as it is being shaped and changed by the most successful species that ever lived (though we cannot be sure how far some particular species of dinosaur may have advanced). Putting a tiger into a zoo or a “protected” environment actually only preserves the tiger in an “unsuccessful” form in an artificial environment. Does this really count as “saving the species”? We might be of more use to the future of the tiger species if we intentionally bred them to find a new space in a changed world  – perhaps as urban tigers which can co-exist with man.

Smilodon image DinoAnimals.com

I’ll still make a donation to Project Tiger but that is about helping individuals to survive and has nothing to do with saving the species.


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There was no biodiversity to begin with

September 15, 2015

I was listening to some conservationists on the radio discussing the rate of loss of species and how this was a catastrophe in the making for biodiversity. It was an unsatisfactory talk mainly because they all made what I thought were quite unjustified assumptions. It was more about political advocacy rather than any attempt to argue based on evidence.

The “politically correct” view is that biodiversity (measured as the number of species in existence) is a “good thing” and that more species is “good” and fewer species is “bad”. Saving endangered species is also a “good” thing. That species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate means catastrophically that a 6th mass extinction is nigh. But I find this viewpoint lacking in substance. We have more species existing today than ever before. Probably too many. Mass extinctions have helped “clean out” the rubbish that evolution throws up. Extinction rates may be high but that is hardly surprising when the number of species is so high. A 6th mass extinction may, in fact, be necessary. More species and more biodiversity is not always a good thing.

The fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has been increasing dramatically for 200 million years and is likely to continue. The two mass extinctions in that period (at 201 million and 66 million years ago) slowed the trend only temporarily. Genera are the next taxonomic level up from species and are easier to detect in fossils. The Phanerozoic is the 540-million-year period in which animal life has proliferated. Chart created by and courtesy of University of Chicago paleontologists J. John Sepkoski, Jr. and David M. Raup.

The fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has been increasing dramatically for 200 million years and is likely to continue. The two mass extinctions in that period (at 201 million and 66 million years ago) slowed the trend only temporarily. Genera are the next taxonomic level up from species and are easier to detect in fossils. The Phanerozoic is the 540-million-year period in which animal life has proliferated. Chart created by and courtesy of University of Chicago paleontologists J. John Sepkoski, Jr. and David M. Raup.

An endangered species is one whose population is low and dangerously in decline. If numbers of individuals of a species are that low, then that species has already become irrelevant in its contribution to the functioning of the biosphere. It may well be a matter of regret, just as there is always regret when a language becomes extinct from disuse. But apart from providing entertainment value for humans, the saving of a few members of a doomed species provides no real benefit for the functioning of the biosphere. I would be very sorry to see tigers becoming extinct, but the reality is that their numbers are so low that they play no significant part in the sustenance of the biosphere. The role of a predator species is primarily to control the population of its prey. From a biodiversity point of view they are already irrelevant. Saving the tiger has nothing to do with maintaining a healthy biodiversity and everything to do with human entertainment (including that of the conservationists) and “feeling good”.

(I am of the opinion that helping an endangered species to survive can be desirable but then “conservation” should be based on helping that species to adapt genetically rather than to freeze it into an artificial habitat – zoos and reserves – to which it is not suited).

At one time there was just a single species that all life derives from – perhaps even just one living cell. (And even for creationists, all the diversity of humankind has derived from a single mating pair – and the raging incest that that implies). There was no biodiversity to begin with. Genetic variation with each generation and genetic mutations then caused new species to come into being, first to fill up the spaces that the prevailing environment allowed and then to adapt to changing environments. If each generation of the first species had bred true there would, of course, be no biodiversity. Genetic variation and empty space in the environment led to growth of species. Overcrowding of a given space or drastic environment change cause the decline and extinction of species. The prevailing level of “biodiversity” at any time is not then some target to be achieved, but just the current balance between the birth and death of species.

It seems almost self-evident to me that, for any given environment there must be an optimum number of species, with particular combinations of characteristics, which allow the ecosystem or biosphere to be in a self-sustaining equilibrium (not growing or declining but self-sustaining). This optimum will vary depending upon the characteristics and interactions between the particular species existing and the available space in the prevailing environment. Then, having fewer than the optimum number of species in that environment would mean that all the complex interdependent, interactions between species that seem to be necessary for sustaining each of the participating species would not be fully developed. I say “seem” because it is not certain that all interdependencies are necessarily of benefit to individual species. “It is the entire ecosystem which benefits” I hear some say, but even that is more an assumption than a conclusion.

But what would happen in such a situation?  If the interactions are truly necessary, then some of these sub-optimal number of species should logically be on the way to stagnation or to extinction. But it is not certain that some new equilibrium will not be reached. One species too few for a given environmental space will only lead to the space being occupied by an existing or a new species. One species too many for a given space will lead to the extinction of a redundant species or of a number of species existing under genetic stress, until genetic variation reduced the stress. The interactions between species in any environment are not planned in advance. They are just those that happen to prevail and survive because they succeed in the environmental space available. Too few species will give an increase of species until overcrowding reduces the number of species. A rapid change of environment and a reduction of the space available must give a decrease in the number of species making up the optimum for a self-sustaining biosphere.

Generally species of plant life have increased in the wake of human habitations.

For example, more than 4,000 plant species introduced into North America during the past 400 years grow naturally here and now constitute nearly 20 percent of the continent’s vascular plant biodiversity.

But then we try to eradicate “invasive” species even though that represents a decrease in biodiversity. Clearly some biodiversity “is not good”. We hunt down successful species as pests when they reach and thrive in new or empty environmental spaces. We protect and support unsuccessful (failed) species in the name of conservation and biodiversity. We have no qualms in trying to eradicate insects, microbes and bacteria which cause human disease even if biodiversity is consequently reduced. From the perspective of the biodiversity of the genetic pool, losing a species of some unknown bacteria may be just as significant as the extinction of the elephant.

The rate of growth of the human species has meant that other species have not been able to adapt fast enough – genetically – to their loss of habitat or the increase of competition. The environmental space available to them has drastically reduced. But that is reality. Creating artificially unsustainable habitats will not change that. The optimum level of biodiversity for the environmental space today is different to that of 100 years ago. Biodiversity cannot be considered independently of the environmental space available. Conservationism which seeks to maintain the wrong level of biodiversity for the available space seems to me to be both futile and stupid. Especially when conservationism has no idea what the “optimum” level of biodiversity is and whether the current level lies above or below the optimum level.

 

Another duck species being exterminated for being successful

August 8, 2014

The inconsistencies in the “conservation” movement and the meaningless defence of “biodiversity” have never been so apparent as in this case where the UK is wiping out all the females of a duck species just because the males are too successful.

Once again an inadequate and failing species is being “protected” by exterminating a successful one for no other reason than that it is successful. The nonsense spouted in the name of “conservationism” is amusing but always expensive and without any real benefit.

The Guardian:

It is American, oversexed and over here, but the days of the ruddy duck in the UK are finally numbered, with the latest culling data revealing that just 10 females remain.

The shooting of the final few – at about £3,000 a bird – will mark the end of half a century of occupation by the species. At their peak, their numbers reached 6,500 but their breeding prowess threatened the native European white-headed duck. 

The invasion began in 1948 when the famed conservationist Sir Peter Scott’s love for ducks led him to import three pairs of the colourful US birds to his Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire. But their escape and consequent flourishing in the British countryside led to an anguished debate among ornithologists decades later, as well as a nationwide cull that has cost more than £5m. …… 

Apart from their success in the duck world they don’t seem to pose any particular threat to humans

The problem is that the “sexy” males ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) are preferred by female white-headed ducks. The resulting hybrid offspring threatened the survival of the white-headed duck, which was already struggling with habitat loss due to development. “Ruddy duck males are particularly aggressive when it comes to breeding and court females more vigorously,” said Madge. “That makes them more attractive to female white-headed ducks.”

The UK ruddy ducks also spread their wings across Europe, into France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Spain. The discovery of hybrids in the latter country in the 1990s showed the ducks had grown into a continent-wide threat and that sealed their fate. The following year, an eradication programme began in the UK and a marksmen who has been part of the cull since then told the Guardian the birds fulfil the idea of a sitting duck.

Clearly gender equality is not something for ducks when the females are culled for the “sins” of the males. If ruddy duck males are preferred by the female white-headed ducks (and they have no problem in breeding together) why are these “conservationists” not allowing natural selection to take its course?

If male conservationists were preferred by normal females then perhaps the solution is to eradicate all female conservationists?

Related: Too much biodiversity – time to let some species die out

Too much biodiversity – time to let some species die out

July 28, 2014

Conservationists would have us believe that the earth is losing species at an alarming rate and that evil humanity is to blame and therefore more and more species must be protected by “freezing” them into an unnatural existence. Alarmist “conservationism” has led to the ridiculous situation where successful species are termed pests and are eradicated. Hopelessly unfit species – if they are cuddly or otherwise attractive to watch – are protected by being sentenced to a “frozen” existence in zoos or in “protected” and totally unnatural and anachronistic habitats.

I was just watching a program about the highly successful urban coyotes of N. America. They have found a new prey in domestic pets and are thriving. But having adapted successfully to the changing environment they have – needless to say – earned  the status of being declared a pest to be wiped out!!

And yet there have never been more species alive than there are today.

A new review paper warns with great alarm about another impending mass extinction due to the loss of fauna that man has caused. The press release for this paper (why do scientific papers need press releases?) begins thus:

Stanford biologist warns of early stages of Earth’s 6th mass extinction event

The planet’s current biodiversity, the product of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary trial and error, is the highest in the history of life. But it may be reaching a tipping point.

In a new review of scientific literature and analysis of data published in Science, an international team of scientists cautions that the loss and decline of animals is contributing to what appears to be the early days of the planet’s sixth mass biological extinction event.

If biodiversity “is the highest in the history of life” and many species are incapable of adapting to the world they live in, perhaps it is time for them to exit gracefully.

Perhaps the progress of humankind requires that some of these obsolete species must be allowed to disappear.

The dangers of reducing biodiversity are being hyped to a ridiculous extent. Without the mass extinctions of the past, most of the species living today would never have evolved. If the dinosaurs had not gone extinct we would not be around. And the disappearance of the dodo has not increased any threat to humanity.

Related:

Fighting against species extinction is to deny evolution

Genetic adaptation – not stagnating conservation – is the way to help threatened species

Christianity should do more for biodiversity!

September 5, 2013

I kid you not.

A new paper at Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation by Swedish and Australian researchers.

 ” … the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches appear to have the greatest per capita opportunity to influence discourse on biodiversity… “

Does this count as science? or advocacy? or is it theological economics?

What were they thinking?

Grzegorz Mikusiński, Hugh P. Possingham and Malgorzata Blicharska, Biodiversity priority areas and religions—a global analysis of spatial overlapOryx, available on CJO2013. doi:10.1017/S0030605312000993. 

Abstract:Numerous solutions have been proposed to slow the accelerating loss of biodiversity. Thinking about biodiversity conservation has not, however, been incorporated into the everyday activities of most individuals and nations. Conservation scientists need to refocus on strategies that reshape ethical attitudes to nature and encourage pro-environmental thinking and lifestyles. Religions are central to basic beliefs and ethics that influence people’s behaviour and should be considered more seriously in biodiversity discourse. Using data from the World Religion Database we conducted an analysis of the spatial overlap between major global religions and seven templates for prioritizing biodiversity action. Our analysis indicated that the majority of these focal areas are situated in countries dominated by Christianity, and particularly the Roman Catholic denomination. Moreover, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches appear to have the greatest per capita opportunity to influence discourse on biodiversity, notwithstanding the role of other religious communities in some key biodiversity areas.

From EurekAlert:

A new study carried out by ecologists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, among others, indicates that if the world’s religious leaders wished to bring about a change, they would be ideally positioned to do so

Leaders of the major world religions can play a key role in preserving biological diversity. A new study carried out by ecologists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), among others, indicates that if the world’s religious leaders wished to bring about a change, they would be ideally positioned to do so. …. 

…. Religions strive to be morally good and for centuries have led people in terms of right and wrong. Therefore, says Grzegorz Mikusinski, they have the potential to guide them to “miracles” also when it comes to conservation in the places where the religion has a great influence on society.

– The results show that Roman Catholics, per capita, have the greatest potential to preserve biological diversity where they live, says Hugh Possingham, a researcher at University of Queensland, Australia, and a co-author of the study.

The Catholic Church has just elected a pope, Francis – a name associated with the Catholic Church’s “greenest” saint, Francis of Assisi, the special patron saint of ecology. Let us hope that he and other religious leaders seriously consider the possibility of becoming more involved in the conservation debate. But at the same time scientists need to more actively encourage religious leaders to take part in such a debate.

Many solutions have been proposed to halt the loss of biological diversity. But the notion of conservation has seldom become part of daily life, either among individuals or among nations.

– Conservation research needs to adjust its focus, toward strategies that can change people’s ethical attitudes toward nature and encourage modes of thinking and lifestyles that are good for the environment, says Malgorzata Blicharska, a researcher at SLU and a co-author of the study. Religions are central to fundamental beliefs and ethics that influence people, and they should be taken more seriously in the debate about biological diversity.

Or these religious leaders could just lead the prayers!

“Half of deer population in UK should be culled” to protect countryside and birdlife!!

March 7, 2013

There is a large amount of hypocrisy and no small measure of irony here!

The bio-diversity creed seems to have become “Kill off the successful species and protect the unsuccessful ones”.

BBCDeer: 50% cull ‘necessary to protect countryside’

Around half of the UK’s growing deer population needs to be shot each year to stop devastation of woodlands and birdlife, a group of scientists says. A study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management says this would keep numbers stable.

The deer population is currently estimated at around 1.5 million. The researchers from the University of East Anglia suggest creating a venison market to make a cull ethically and economically acceptable. The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) commented that any cull must be carried out in a humane and controlled way and be supported by “strong science”.

There are now more deer in the UK than at any time since the last Ice Age. …

…. Dr Paul Dolman, ecologist at the University of East Anglia and lead author, said: “We know deer are eating out the… vegetation of important woodlands, including ancient woodlands.

“Deer are implicated as the major cause of unfavourable conditions in terms of woodland structure and regeneration.

“There is evidence that deer reduce the number of woodland birds – especially some of our much loved migrant birds species like Blackcap and Nightingale, and resident species like Willow Tip. We have a problem.”

Dr Paul M Dolman

Dr Paul M Dolman – Bambi killer

Dr Paul Dolman is one of the “biodiversity” brigade and seems to be a bird-watcher of some note. But like most of this advocacy group he seems more than a little confused. I note that he invokes “strong science” – whatever that may be – to support his vision of a string of farm-shops and gastro-pubs serving venison. It would take more than a few pubs to handle 750,000 deer every year. I like his comment that such meat would be “ethically sourced”! I suppose that makes it all right then. This is not science – it is religion.

“We are not killing something and then incinerating the carcass – what we are talking about is harvesting a wild animal to supply wild free-ranging venison for or tables – for farm shops, for gastro pubs.

“What we are advocating isn’t removing deer from the countryside – what we are advocating is trying to get on top of the deer population explosion and try to control the problems that are being caused.

“And in a way, [venison] provides a sustainable food source where you know where it comes from, you know it is ethically sourced, you know it is safe to eat, and that puts food on people’s tables. As much as I love deer, to be a meat eater but then to object to the culling and harvesting of deer seems to be inconsistent.”

Fighting against species extinction is to deny evolution

February 27, 2013

I was reading an article today about the threat of extinction for leather-backed turtles and once again I started wondering as to why extinction of a species or a language or of an isolated tribe arouses moral outrage or is an emotional matter for so many people. I don’t want these turtles to become extinct just as I don’t want tigers or polar bears or pandas to become extinct. But this is purely an emotional reaction because each of these animals is attractive – to my human eye – in its own right. Outside of TV documentaries, zoos and safari parks I have never seen any of them. I don’t have the same reaction when I read that guinea worms or disease-carrying species of mosquitoes are being eradicated. “Good riddance” is then the predominating feeling that I have. Yet whether a mammal or a bacterium becomes extinct the genetic loss is about the same. That dinosaurs became extinct millions of years ago or even that humans killed off the dodo or the thylacine or the Javan tiger in more recent times arouses some feelings of regret but not any moral outrage or much emotional response from me. The article about the turtles – like most other articles about the extinction of species  – is permeated with the politically correct assumption that extinction would be a “bad thing”. But I never see properly addressed the question as to why the extinction of a species is a “bad thing”.

This is essentially a value-judgement and is taken for granted and yet – in the rational plane – I can only conclude that there is nothing “unnatural” about this. In fact it is this emotional desire that species considered “attractive” should not become extinct when their time is due that is irrational. Normal or natural evolution is always a result of change. It is the result of species responding to change where the individuals of a species most suited to the changed circumstances continue and reproduce. Where the variety existing within a species is insufficient to provide any individuals who can survive and reproduce in the changed environment, the species dies out. It is said that about 90% of all species that have ever lived have become extinct. If they had not there would be no room for the 10% that exist today. Just as homo sapiens would never have evolved without the environmental changes which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, most of the species alive today would not have succeeded their extinct ancestors if conditions had not led to their extinction. Where a species cannot compete with another – in whatever the prevailing circumstances – it dies out. It makes room for the more successful species.

Siberian Tiger Français : Tigre de sibérie Ita...

Siberian Tiger Français : (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what then is the objection to – say – tigers becoming extinct which is not just an emotional reaction to the disappearance of a magnificent but anachronistic creature?  The bio-diversity argument is not very convincing and is of little relevance. To artificially keep an unsuccessful species alive in a specially protected environment has no genetic value. It increases the mis-match between the existing environment and the genetic profile needed to survive in that environment. In fact the biodiversity argument is only relevant for “life” in general and never for any particular species or group of species.  It can serve to maintain a very wide range of genetic material in the event of a catastrophe such that some form of life has a chance of continuing. But given a particular environment biodiversity in itself is of little value.

Returning to the tiger as an example, the variety of individuals within the tiger population does not provide any which have the characteristics necessary for adapting to the reality of co-existing with humans in some form of urban living. Foxes, on the other hand, are evolving within our lifetimes. In a few more fox generations, urban foxes will out-compete their “wild” cousins who may well become extinct. But urban foxes will thrive. Many bird species and insects are throwing up the individuals to succeed in the shadow of the success of the human species. Bacteria and no doubt viruses are also throwing up their survivors. Some bacteria are changing faster than we would like. The polar bears who visit Churchill every year are evolving. Those who know how to forage in human communities have a distinct advantage over their less intelligent brethren. And of those who visit Churchill it is the ones who avoid attacking humans which have the best chance of surviving. (Polar bears are of course thriving and are in no danger of extinction – but that is another story). Langur and rhesus monkey troops in Delhi are in the process of becoming urbanised and “evolving” to succeed in their human-filled environment. These species are not domesticated. They are still wild but they are evolving – by selection – into new species suited to their new environment.

All those species which succeed into the future will be those which continue to “evolve” and have the characteristics necessary to thrive within the world as it is being shaped and changed by the most successful species that ever lived (though we cannot be sure how far some particular species of dinosaur may have advanced). Putting a tiger into a zoo or a “protected” environment actually only preserves the tiger in an “unsuccessful” form in an artificial environment. Does this really count as “saving the species”? We might be of more use to the future of the tiger species if we intentionally bred them to find a new space in a changed world  – perhaps as urban tigers which can co-exist with man.

If a polar bear were to hunt and kill a seal – even if it was the last individual of a seal species – it could be a matter of some regret but it would not generate any moral outrage. And then if the polar bears did not themselves adapt to find alternative food sources – then they too would fail to survive. The loss of a species can always be a matter of some regret but so is the death of any individual. Both are equally inevitable but the regret is mitigated by what comes after.

The thought occurs to me that while there is no doubt that human activity is altering the environment for many species, it is of little benefit to try and deny evolution. Species protection must consist of helping “threatened species”  to evolve and not in standing-still in some artificial environment.

Perhaps the answer is – for example – to breed and train a new species of Siberian tiger to manage vast reindeer herds where they could also be allowed to hunt and devour a few!

Conservation movement’s focus is anachronistic and counterproductive – Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of the The Nature Conservancy.

April 4, 2012

The environmental and conservation movements lost their way when they moved to imposing their vision of the world onto others by fashioning people rather than fashioning a world to suit the needs of people. They started – in a formal sense – perhaps 60 – 70 years ago with the best of motives but became heavily politicised through the 80’s and since then have been more concerned about moulding people to fit their world view rather than serving the needs of human development. The environment – in some idealised and pristine form – even without man has been priorotised instead of being the surroundings to meet the needs of humans.  Biodiversity has been made into a false god and human development has been condemned as a demon. Alarmism has been used as the vehicle for imposing change.

An article in Breakthrough Journal is causing a few waves. This essay is full of “common sense” but what makes it noteworthy is that its authors – Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier – are all senior figures in The Nature Conservancy. Common sense from the environmental and conservations “movements” has been sadly absent in recent times.The essay is posted at the Breakthrough Journal and the Journal’s publicity states:

 “By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we’re saving.”

So begins a searing indictment by the unlikeliest of sources: Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization. …. Conservationists need to work with development, not condemn it as leading to the end of nature. In truth, nature’s resilience has been overlooked, its fragility “grossly overstated.” Areas blasted by nuclear radiation are bio-diverse. Forest cover is rising in the Northern Hemisphere even as it declines globally. …. 
And it’s time to stop prioritizing being alone over being with others.

The essay itself is well worth reading and selected extracts are reproduced below:

(more…)

On biodiversity and conservation and the number of frog species

September 17, 2011

One of the politically correct and alarmist themes that pervades the conservation movement is that biodiversity is vital and is dangerously threatened. Generally biodiversity can be considered to include

  1. gene diversity within a particular species, and
  2. species diversity within some particular region
Sometimes having different ecosystems and environments within a particular region is also included as being a form of ecological biodiversity. Yet it has always been inexplicable to me as to why human intervention for the protection of a species which has been out-competed by other species is not considered unnatural and artificial. Extinction of species happens naturally as a consequence of natural selection and evolution as some species succeed and others fail. If species did not fail and become extinct there would be diminishing space for evolution of other species. More species are thought to have become extinct than are in existence today.
I find that there is a fundamental conflict between allowing evolution to happen naturally with successful species (and that includes humans) eliminating unsuccessful species and the conservationist view of interfering with this normal development in favour of artificially maintaining failed species.
Conservationism at heart is a conservative (with a small “c”) and backward looking philosophy trying to prevent development and evolution because of fear. I suppose that is why I find “conservationsim” unattractive – because it is based on fear subordinating actions and that – by definition – is cowardice. King Canute trying to hold back the tide!
As I have posted earlier: The problem is not only that we have not identified all the eukaryote species in existence (and about 1.3 million have been classified and named) but we have no idea whether the number in existence is to be measured in millions or in hundreds of millions. About 15,000 new species are identified and catalogued each year. If  Bacteria and Archaea are added to eukaryotes, the total number of species could be in the billions.
Vub night frog
And with so many species around why should humans interfere to protect some but not others. In fact some species are considered interlopers in some regions and then conservation is all about exterminating these.
We do not know how many frog species exist and new species are being “discovered” continuously. Species thought to have become extinct are rediscovered. Of course a “discovery” of a species has nothing to say about how long that species has been in existence. And the importance of any particular species to the future of humans and the environment humans survive and thrive in is an unknown unknown.
Wired  – which is a very politically correct on-line journal – reports that 12 New and 3 Lost Night-Frog Species Discovered in India. Researchers in India have found a dozen new frog species belonging to the night frog group, named for their nocturnal habits, and rediscovered three species, one of which had not been seen in nearly a century. The findings appeared in the journal Zootaxa on Sept. 15. …… half of the newly discovered species reproduce without any physical contact between the sexes, with the female depositing her eggs on a leaf and the males later fertilizing them.
All the frogs were spotted in a region known as the Western Ghats, a mountain range than runs along the western coast of India that has been identified as one of the ten hottest biodiversity hotspots in the world. Because of the small area they occupy, at least six of the new species are sensitive to habitat loss and will require immediate steps toward conservation.
I find the conclusion that “the new species are sensitive to habitat loss and will require immediate steps toward conservation”  illogical and inexplicable.
Why interfere?
Just the number of articles about frogs in Wired in recent times further deepens the mystery. It only demonstrates all we don’t know that we don’t know. Even if out of fear of what is to come, humans were to try and intervene and protect every discovered species, the intervention would still fail and would not return us to the time of the dinosaurs.

Conservationism – as an ism – has no clear purpose that I can see.

Number of species on the planet is an unknown unknown – so what is the importance of biodiversity?

August 24, 2011
PLoS Biology_front page_2010-03-01

Image by Bettaman via Flickr

The importance of biodiversity and the loss of species as humans take over their habitats is one of the favourite themes of the environmental movement. But I have yet to see a clear exposition as to why the natural loss of species unable to cope with change is something to be opposed. The diversity of life is certainly one of the most striking aspects of our planet and it is not hard to accept that knowing how many species inhabit Earth is a fundamental question in science. In fact, without knowing this number any comments – let alone conclusions – about the danger of loss of species or the importance of bio-diversity to humanity can only be speculation.

The problem is not only that we have not identified all the eukaryote species in existence (and about 1.3 million have been classified and named) but we have no idea whether the number in existence is to be measured in millions or in hundreds of millions. About 15,000 new species are identified and catalogued each year. If  Bacteria and Archaea are added to eukaryotes, the total number of species could be in the billions.

A new paper in PLoS Biology using a relatively new methodology predicts the total number of species that exist. They claim that “the higher taxonomic classification of species (i.e., the assignment of species to phylum, class, order, family, and genus) follows a consistent and predictable pattern from which the total number of species in a taxonomic group can be estimated”. Using this approach they conclude that “there are ~8.7 million (±1.3 million SE) eukaryotic species globally, of which ~2.2 million (±0.18 million SE) are marine. …. (and) some 86% of existing species on Earth and 91% of species in the ocean still await description”.

Mora C, Tittensor DP, Adl S, Simpson AGB, Worm B (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127 

But the paper is already facing objections. The methodology – some claim – actually only estmates human activity in classifying species and not the species themselves. It does seem like an extrapolation from “what has been found” to predict “all that can possibly be found” and the argument is somewhat circular and not fully convincing. It brings to mind the quotation from Donald Rumsfeld which he was castigated for but which I am finding increasingly profound:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

I think we are still in the state of not knowing what we do not know.

NY Times

“It’s astounding that we don’t know the most basic thing about life,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. On Tuesday, Dr. Worm, Dr. Mora and their colleagues presented the latest estimate of how many species there are, based on a new method they have developed. They estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet, plus or minus 1.3 million.

In 1833, a British entomologist named John Obadiah Westwood made the earliest known estimate of global biodiversity by guessing how many insect species there are. He estimated how many species of insects lived on each plant species in England, and then extrapolated that figure across the whole planet. “If we say 400,000, we shall, perhaps, not be very wide of the truth,” he wrote. Today, scientists know the Westwood figure is far too low. They’ve already found more than a million insect species, and their discovery rate shows no signs of slowing down.

In 1988, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, observed that the diversity of land animals increases as they get smaller. He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.

For the new estimate, the scientists came up with a method of their own, based on how taxonomists classify species. Each species belongs to a larger group called a genus, which belongs to a larger group called a family, and so on. .. In 2002, researchers at the University of Rome published a paper in which they used these higher groups to estimate the diversity of plants around Italy. There were fewer higher-level groups than lower ones at each site, like the layers of a pyramid. The scientists could estimate how many species there were at each site, much as it’s possible to estimate how big the bottom layer of a pyramid based on the rest of it. . … The scientists built a taxonomic pyramid to estimate the total number of species in well-studied groups, like mammals and birds. (They) then used it on all major groups of species, coming up with estimates of 7.7 million species of animals, for example, and 298,000 species of plants.

Terry Erwin, an entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution, think there’s a big flaw in the study. There’s no reason to assume that the diversity in little-studied groups will follow the rules of well-studied ones. “They’re measuring human activity, not biodiversity,” he said. David Pollock, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado who studies fungi — a particularly understudied group — agrees. “This appears to be an incredibly ill-founded approach,” he said. There are 43,271 cataloged species of fungi, based on which Dr. Mora and his colleagues estimate there are 660,000 species of fungi on Earth. But other studies on fungus diversity suggest the number may be as high as 5.1 million species. ….

Jonathan Eisen, an expert on microbial diversity at the University of California, Davis, said he found the new paper disappointing. “This is akin to saying, ‘Dinosaurs roamed the Earth more than 500 years ago,’ ” he said. “While true, what is the point of saying it?”

At least it could be argued that there are not less than 8.7 million eukaryotic species. This is not likely to be the end of this story. Nevertheless it does at least show the scale of the problem and that the number of all living species (and not just eukaryotes) is still in the realm of the unknown.

And the importance of the disappearance of unsuccessful species and of the resulting bio-diversity on humanity is still an unknown unknown.


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