Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times, and are essential to the ecosystems humanity depends upon. They pollinate plants, are food for other creatures and recycle nature’s waste.

Damian Carrington, Environment editor, The Guardian, 24 April 2020

Nearly two years ago Alloporus first noted some worrying research on the decline of insects in Europe. with the key finding

More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas

Hallman et al (2017)

Alloporus’ comment was this

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase the risk to our already precarious food security.

At around the same time this post and research came out, two US researchers returned to a forested conservation reserve in Puerto Rico after 35 years and this is what they said…

We compared arthropod biomass in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest with data taken during the 1970s and found that biomass had fallen 10 to 60 times. Our analyses revealed synchronous declines in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat arthropods.

They published their results in a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences

Lister, B. C., & Garcia, A. (2018). Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(44), E10397-E10406.

The declines the authors put down to climate. It was too hot too often for the ground-dwelling invertebrates creating an upwards cascade through the food web.

In Europe insecticide use and habitat change, in a rainforest, climate change. Either way a serious problem.

Just to make sure this was not just an isolated result, Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, together with colleagues from around Germany and Russia completed a meta-analysis and

‘compiled data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 globally distributed sites and confirmed declines in terrestrial insects, albeit at lower rates than some other studies have reported and concluded that ‘Patterns of variation suggest that local-scale drivers are likely responsible for many changes in population trends, providing hope for directed conservation actions.’

So it’s happening. Roughly 25% declines in insects across the board in a generation, with insects faring only slightly better in nature reserves than outside protected areas.

The conclusion, terrestrial insects are declining in numbers and variety and, as is typical for nature, this loss is patchy, occurs at differing rates and from multiple causes.

Klink and his colleagues took hope from this result. You can see why. If climate change was the cause everywhere, then there is a serious global catastrophe in the offing where the rates of decomposition and nutrient transfer are altered across a wide range of biomes and habitats affecting many land uses, especially primary production.

This would not be about species loss in the way it is for the koala. A cute thing that we like to see in the zoo and maybe take a selfie with one held up by a zookeeper, the cuddly critter that might become extinct. This is about the loss of function, loss of ecosystem services that we cannot do without or easily replace.

Instead, Klink and his colleagues found multiple, often local causes. This they interpret as a solvable problem. Conservation and restoration efforts could help local populations recover.

As regular readers will know, Alloporus has to work hard to be this optimistic.

Until the economy through the supply chains feels the hit of the loss of services little will be done. The efforts of the few with the koala saving gene will be epic, they will try their best, but it will not be enough.

If lockdown with its boredom, ingenuity and the appearance of clean air all around the place tells us anything, it should be that we can survive on relatively little.

Only part of that little has to be food and water.

Imagine lockdown with the supermarket shelves empty of food. That would put toilet paper shortages into perspective for us.

It is trite to say it, and sad that it has to be said again and again, but it is true — nature matters to our very existence.


If you enjoyed this post please share it with others.

If it annoyed you share it anyway, it could be a topic of conversation on your next Zoom chat

More brumbies

More brumbies

Eighteen months ago Allporus posted a piece on the brumby, what Australians call wild horses, specifically the controversy over the NSW Government passing the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses in the national park. This is a law protects a known driver of biodiversity loss.

It was one of the more bizarre decisions that politics is capable of throwing up and is another example of the worrying trend to ignore science whenever it suits.

A few months after that post came out an aerial wildlife survey of the alpine national parks and surrounding state forests in NSW and Victoria was conducted, a follow up to a similar survey of the same area five years earlier.

In that time between surveys, the feral horse population has more than doubled from 9,187 in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019.

This is a growth rate of 24% per year.

It’s a great ‘I told you so’ story.

These animals are introduced. They are not native, repeat, not native.

They are big, bulky and hard-hoofed grazing animals, features that no other herbivore in these habitats has. The last big herbivores were browsers, the Diprotodons that likely died out 12,000 years ago.

Horses will alter vegetation. It will mean some sensitive plant species will be lost along with the invertebrates that go with them. Other plants will come in on the back of the disturbance and some of them will be invasive themselves.

More importantly than this, the ecological integrity of the alpine systems will be altered by horses.

And we now know who promoted it.


Since this little whinge was written the politicians of all hues have been standing next to scientists, patting them on the back and seeking out their learned advice; as they should.

The politicians who are not listening to their health professionals will have a big problem getting re-elected after COVID-19 has passed through the world on its first journey. The epidemiologists know what they are talking about, they know what it takes to slow a pandemic and the logistics folk know what the limits are to the capacity and capability of the health systems.

The problems of a pandemic are acute and affect everyone. The public expects that all sensible advice should be consulted and heeded.

The thing is that the conservation scientists, the biodiversity specialists and the wildlife biologists, well, they know their shit too. Just because their knowledge might save non-human lives, even whole species, of native plants and animals, it is no less valid as science.

So here is the truth.

Remember that all political decisions are value-based. They are not based on science unless the science aligns with the dominant value.

We are grateful that it does when human lives and livelihoods are at stake.

When the human stakes are lower we would do well to be grateful for science then too.

Misleading claims for the future of koalas

Misleading claims for the future of koalas

“to ensure the future of koalas we are planting a tree for every new home insurance policy”

NRMA television advertisement

So says the Australian insurance company NRMA.

What a complete load of cobblers.

This is a complete and total lie. There is no way that the planting of trees at this scale will make any difference to the survival of this species. This would be true even if the koala was actually in real danger of extinction. It isn’t by the way.

Let’s just run some numbers to uncover the lie.

There are roughly 9 million private dwellings in Australia. Let’s be generous and assume that they all have the need for insurance and owners who are prepared to pay the premiums. Now we can be generous to NRMA and say the brand has 20% of the home insurance market. Then let’s say that 10% of the market turns over each year with the opportunity for ‘new’ policies and NRMA grows their book at 5% each year – they would be stoked with that level of new business growth given most people are either already well insured or can’t afford insurance on the first place.

9 million policies all up, 1.8 million for NRMA with 90,000 new policies each year.

So what will 90,000 trees look like for a koala? It sounds like a lot.

Roughly 20 mature eucalypt trees are needed by one koala. This is an arbitrary amount that tries to combine what space they need, what shelter they must have from the elements and predators, and, of course, food supply.

It looks like NRMA could, if the trees they promise are planted and grow to maturity in a hurry, supply trees for 4,500 koalas.

Not bad.

We don’t actually know how many koala are living wild in Australia right now. The estimates vary by two orders of magnitude with the lowest at 43,000 and the commonly expected 100,000 to anything over a million. So again, let’s be generous and assume the lower number of 43,000.

NRMA tree planting, once the trees are mature in 20 to 30 years time, will provide enough food and shelter for 10% of the koala population.

Again this is not bad, the caveat that the trees need a coupe of decades to get big enough. Maybe they will save the species after all. Perhaps I was too hasty.

Adding 10% to the population — although it could be as little as 4% or even 0.5% — may happen as long as we can also assume that the trees planted are the right species and that they are in habitats that koalas like and that they grow really fast.

We will also assume considerable skill in ecological restoration and that the people planting have these skills so that the right trees are planted in the right places with a high chance of survival.

And the koala has the patience to wait for the trees to mature.

A 10% risk buffer in 20 years time is noble. Better than not trying but the greenwash is palpable for with or without those insurance trees, the koala will not go extinct any time soon. It’s a generalist survivor after all.

Then we come to the fire season in 2019.

At the time of writing, it’s early January 2020 and there are months of the fire season left. So far over 5 million hectares of bushland has burned in NSW alone, one fire to the north-west of Sydney has incinerated 846,000 ha of wilderness forest.

At a conservative rate of 200 trees per hectare, this one fire has damaged at least 169 million trees. Most of these will recover through epicormic growth and there will be recruitment from seeds when the rain comes. Good for future koalas but not so great for those alive right now assuming they could have lumbered away from the fire fronts.

The 90,000 trees planted by NRMA, that sounds like such a huge number, is just 0.05% of the trees damaged in just one of the fires in NSW.

Sorry to have to tell you but “to ensure the future of koalas” is pure greenwash or hogwash if you prefer.

It is false and so out of touch with the scale of environmental issues, it is not even funny.

Get a grip everyone.

A solution to biodiversity loss

A solution to biodiversity loss

Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (UN-IPBES) wrote a piece incredulous as to why we are ignoring biodiversity loss when…

It is central to development, through food, water and energy security. It has significant economic value, which should be recognised in national accounting systems. It is a security issue in so far as loss of natural resources, especially in developing countries, can lead to conflict. It is an ethical issue because loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. And it is also a moral issue, because we should not destroy the living planet.

Robert Watson

In short, biodiversity has near uncountable economic, ethical, and moral value and its loss places everyone’s security at risk.

This is all true.

Only the following requirements described by the FAO, a sister agency to IPBES, are also true.

In order to maintain human food supply at or close to demand, global food production will have to increase by an average of 2% per annum across all commodities, but especially grains and meat, for the next 30 years.

Food & Agriculture Organisation

In short, a second agricultural revolution.

Whilst Robert Watson’s statement that biodiversity “is central to development, through food, water and energy security” the scale of that development — 2% per annum for 30 years — will inevitably put biodiversity at risk.

Alright. This is a difficult conundrum, a wicked problem even.

The resource with great value must be mobilised to keep everyone secure and in doing so that resource is depleted.

It is time to accept that this is wicked and try to find solutions.

Here is a simple one.

By 2025, increase soil carbon levels by 1% in all soils.

The only places where you shouldn’t try to do this is where the soil is inherently or no longer capable of retaining another 1% of carbon.

Everywhere else do what you can to raise the level of soil carbon. This means more ground cover, deeper-rooted perennials, restoration and rehabilitation of natural vegetation in and on the margins of the production systems, shifts to less intensive cropping systems, minimum or zero tillage wherever possible, capture and return of organic wastes and by-products,

What would happen?

Well, around 15.5 gigatons of C would be sequestered into soil organic matter. That is equivalent to 173% of annual greenhouse gas emissions of 33.1 billion tCO2e in 2018, not a panacea for climate change because it would be a one off, but very useful.

Source: Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. (2012) Soil carbon storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35

But that’s not the real benefit.

Runoff would decrease and water use efficiency of vegetation would improve due to better soil structure and water retention.

Nutrient use efficiency would increase because soil carbon, especially soil organic carbon, drives the soil biology that mediates most nutrient exchange between soil and plant roots.

So overall agricultural production would increase. Not by the 2% per annum for 30 years that we need to feed the world but part the way there, but close enough for the shortfall to be made covered by intensification and innovation.

Biodiversity would benefit too. Perhaps not enough to save the iconic species, that will need complementary conservation actions of the type proposed for nearly a century, but enough to maintain the core of biodiversity services that impact global security.

Why not people?

Please post answers to why not.


If you like what you read on Alloporus, please share with your social peeps

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia really is a tough place to grow food.

It is invariably hot and dry and the soils lack nutrients. Then the next day there is a storm that flattens the spindly crop and floods the roots.

This has always been the case.

Australian soils are old and the continent big enough to make for a truly continental climate. The dry times are long and deep and the storms bring golf ball hail. The soils are low in carbon and many are friable with a tendency to want to fly across the Tasman sea to New Zealand on the strong westerlies.

And then, the climate is changing. There will be less water, more extreme storms, and even hotter temperatures.

It makes sense that the agricultural sector would be concerned. They should be. Many farm businesses will struggle to cope.

One concerned group of producers, Farmers for Climate Action, launched a report Change in the Air that claims ‘Australia’s agricultural production will fall and food insecurity will rise without a climate strategy’. They managed to persuade the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, to launch the report.

The local media made a big deal that National Party MPs — the minority party in the coalition government — refused to attend on the notion that some still doubt the science of climate change and are not sure if human activity was contributing.

Remember that the right-wingers in the Australian government are making the country the global climate laggard and, yes, it’s now beyond laughable and irreprehensible. We are in the realms of criminal negligence.

Now before you read on, regular readers will know that Alloporus strongly agrees with the premise of a coordinated response to climate across all sectors, especially agriculture, and that part of this response needs policy support.

In other words, Alloporus believes that both the state and federal governments have a key role in both climate mitigation and sustainable food production.

The government part of the coordinated response will begin with an acknowledgement of the problem — the climate is changing — and then some policy options that support climate adaptation, not just emission reduction for that alone is nowhere near enough.

Laughing is not ok. It is time to take serious action.

This makes the next comment unfortunate.

The Change in the Air report is dreadful.

I meant it, it is terrible.

What claims to be a ‘research report’ is, at best, a weak catalogue of already published evidence without meaningful review or summary.

The highlight recommendations are for ‘more research’ and ‘a national strategy on climate change”.

Oh my lordy.

There is no time to stuff around with more research and even if there was we already know more than enough about what to do.

Again, why wait for a national strategy when the government has been bumbling around without one for more than a decade.

Here are the key dot points in the report:

  • Risk minimisation
  • Focus on potential opportunities
  • Strong RD&E
  • Transition to clean energy generation in agriculture
  • Capture and storage of carbon
  • Address climate policy gaps

Only one of these is a tangible solution. The rest are aspirations at best. Indeed this was the real problem with the report, it whinged.

Basically, there were no solutions offered just a plea for the government to fix the problem.

This is not ok.

Right now, at the pointy end of the problem, it is time for solutions.

The weird thing is that if you scroll down the report to Appendix 2 on page 64 you will find a lengthy and reasonable list of adaptation and mitigation strategies sourced from the research literature.

Here is the section for grains…

Shame they didn’t lead with this.

Alright, enough moaning.

Most likely the people behind Farmers for Climate Action are well-meaning and believe what they are doing is important. However, we have to consider the possibility that the minister was happy to promote the report because it does what the government wants, namely to kick the issue further down the road by asking for more evidence.

Better would be some simple tractable solutions.

How about an across the board 2% gain in soil carbon in all production soils through production practices that retain vegetation cover, promote deep-rooted perennials and support the addition of organic or inorganic carbon in cropping systems.

This is just one of the many options available.

No more messing about. It is time to get on with it.

Nature does not behave like a banker

Nature does not behave like a banker

The economic model that has made the west wealthy claims a design that promotes investment with the greatest certainty of returns and least risk.

It is easy to find advocates of this ‘mobilise capital to grow it’ paradigm. A few might even admit that it is acceptable to externalise as much of the cost as possible and minimise the rest with the cheapest labour and materials you can find. All good so long as you are a shareholder and, after all, most of us in the west are thanks to our superannuation or our government’s investments.

Investment options that promote the long, dare we say sustainable, game resolve the full risk profile but often at a cost. They need to discount current profit to ensure that profit accrues for longer. This is the essence of resilient and sustainable systems and is exactly how nature does it.

Try telling that to a banker or a fund manager.

They want to achieve a capitalist outcome. They want to use capital, ideally someone else’s, to generate profit. That’s all. Well, almost all. They also want to do it as fast as possible and they would like to squeeze as much profit as can be squeezed because the sooner the profit accrues the sooner it can be churned back into the system as capital, after taking the clip for the new Ferrari.

Capital is being lazy if it waits around for the profit to accrue. Laziness is judged on the rate of return that itself is set by the market through interest rates and the opportunities for the specific use of funds in each sector and market segment.

This is the dry explanation.

When it comes to the bankers and financiers themselves, well, they are people, individuals with desires and dreams. They want to be successful and competitive so they will be hard-arsed to find and squeeze the best balls of steel deals that they can. It will help them reach their dreams and make them feel good as they do it.

The banker will drive the bargain when an opportunity presents and will walk away in an instant if the numbers or the risk smell of anything below the going rate. For them, efficiency in opportunity is the currency that will bring success.

You should be able to see that this is not how nature does it.

Despite the ‘tooth and claw’ rhetoric that does play out as organisms compete directly with each other for resources, the consequence of competition in nature is to balance resource use and make it efficient. This happens because there are organisms designed to benefit from both the long and the short game – the tree that persists through drought and flood or the weed that exploits in an instant and then dies. Together the variability in nature’s market is absorbed and used efficiently by diversity.

Ecological theory suggests that this is why nature persists, there is always an organism that can exploit and another that can wait until later. It also tells us that diversity is important. Not so with finance.

Bankers are short players. They have always been so. They exhibit diversity but only to shorten the game.

It is time we invented a new breed of financier, one that instead of picking off the best short-game opportunity can look long, very long. What about a financier who invests for returns that accrue to his grandchildren?

It can be done. Indeed, it must be done or there will be no Ferrari.

Agriculture needs long-game players

The place to begin is in food production. The global numbers have demand increasing steadily over the next 30 years by at least 60% for both grains and meat. That suggests a strong market but one that is short of the 7-10% returns expected in most capital markets. A three-year investment yielding 5% will always outcompete a 2% per year, even if the growth continues steadily for a generation.

The temptation is to invest in intensification. A centre-pivot irrigation system that improves yield by 10% with a non-linear 20% gross margin return sounds attractive. Only now the monoculture under the pivot-arm is mining the soil nutrients much faster than before and in a decade the cost of inputs negates that gross margin benefit.

In agriculture at least, high returns often kick ultimate risk further down the road. No problem if the Ferrari is already in the garage but an opportunity missed if the demand keeps growing.

Much better for the farmer and his backer is a longer play that looks to intercropping the cash crop with a legume that replenishes the soil nutrients and carbon. The average yield is lower but is consistent even in dry years. Economic returns are more modest but they are stable and costs go down over time so that profitability increases.

Is there a banker out there willing to play this longer, lower risk game?

Why do landscapes excite you so much?

Why do landscapes excite you so much?

We love a landscape, we really do.

I bet you are familiar with at least some of these names: John Constable, Thomas Cole, Joseph Turner, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh.

Yes, they are all famous painters and are especially remembered for paintings of landscapes.

Likely you are also familiar with this painting by Constable, The Haywain, that depicts a rural scene on the River Stour between the English counties of Suffolk and Essex or perhaps this one rings a distant bell, A View of Arles by Vincent van Gogh.

Many of the most famous landscape paintings are of rural scenes where human intervention has altered the scene dramatically from the original ‘wilderness’.

This was handy for the painters of course. It meant that as they stood at their easel or sketched their charcoal renderings, they could see a long way into the distance. They could compose across open fields dotted with human-made interest.

Presumably for the landscape painter a pristine forest is less interesting visually, has fewer vantage points for the sketch and, critically, it has no obvious human connection. There are no objects or patterns to link the viewer to themselves.

We have already spoken of the biblical instruction in Genesis 1:28 for mankind to have dominion and, over the centuries, humankind has readily complied. Almost all landscape are altered by our hand, our chainsaws and our D-9s.

What most of the famous landscape artists painted was a human-made landscape, there were very few fully natural views that made it onto canvas.

So why do landscapes excite us?

Landscapes…

  • Are familiar to us.
  • Represent the dominion that we feel we have to have
  • Provide an image of perceived security that comes from dominion over nature
  • Under our control make us feel safer.

If we control nature then all her diabolical beasts and storms and winter chills are less of a threat to our person. If we control the profusion of life and can use it as needs must then we feel that security from food and water is easier to find. More viscerally, open land makes it easier to see the danger coming

The rainforest image was taken in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

It looks natural enough, pristine even, but it has been altered by people planting trees they need closer to where they need them. Sure these trees occur naturally in the forest but their locations and abundance have changed over the thousands of years that people have been living in the forest.

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Gogglebox is a popular TV show in Australia. Turns out that ‘watching people on TV watching TV’ is actually a clever and cheap way to capture the intensity of emotions that the producers of television entertainment have wet dreams about.

It happened this week when we watched people watching a show about a zoo in the UK where a giraffe, pregnant for 14 months, gave birth on film. The 60-kilo youngster entered the world from a great height and lay still on the ground for an eternity.

Was it alive?

Did the fall break its neck?

Was it stillborn?

Oh my god, will it breathe? Breathe, please breathe.

Look! There, there, its nostrils are twitching.

It’s alive. Thank heaven it’s alive. Pass the tissues.

I kid you not. These were the reactions of the Goggleboxers and no doubt most of the viewers who saw the show when it went to air. It’s why the producers made it. They knew there would be a deep reaction and they knew they had gold as soon as the birthing footage was in.

Rather than scurry along with the psychology of the entertainment industry, the healthy thinking idea today is what makes us so attached to animals and to birth in particular.

Consider the giraffe

Back in the day, we ate giraffes. At least we would if we could catch them.

An adult giraffe is hard to pull down with primitive tools and the more manageable youngster has its mother with dinner plate sized hooves to help protect it. Even lions find it hard to kill a giraffe, so no doubt our ancestors did too, but they would have tried. Cuteness did not overcome the desire to eat.

Somewhere along the way cuteness grew or, as seems more likely, hunger withdrew. As soon as we had agriculture and food supply chains then it was much easier to build cuteness into our lives. We even started to keep pets, perhaps in response to our insatiable need for human relationships, especially those between parent and child.

How many lap dogs are obviously surrogate kids that behave themselves?

Cuteness in animals is because they can look like babies. The cutest pets tend to be small, have forward facing eyes, are unconditionally needy, and fluffy or, as in the case of the giraffe on Gogglebox, newborn. Many of these attributes can generate more satisfaction than the real thing and are excellent surrogates for people who either have grown up children or none at all.

This is the key. Animals are just like babies.

Their cuteness is attractive. And it sticks thanks to that unconditionality that all animals have, even the giraffe caged in a zoo. The animal is controlled and cannot hurt us.

As visitors, we can smile, sigh ahh, say a few squishy words, whiff the dung and move on.

In return, it looks at us with those doughy eyes and we think it loves us. Well, it does love its keepers because they bring a regular supply of food.

You can’t go past the unconditional affection from a dog, even the pretend aloofness of a cat. And then they are soft and cuddly, wow.

The reality is we love animals, the cute ones, not the yukky creepy crawly ones. And surely this reality is of little consequence. All it means is that we will have pets, keep animals in zoos and pay money to ensure that the koala can be saved.

We love animals

This love is hard-wired. It is not going away.

These days people would starve before they could knock the baby giraffe on the head and roast its leg. And if they were mad enough to do it, they would go to prison and suffer a slow death by social media.

So we love them. It is a given.

Now let’s think about what that means…

  1. There will be pets, lots of them, just shy of 90 million dogs in the US alone and growing in number by over 1 million per year
  2. We will prefer to protect koalas because you can hold them and their fur is soft but maybe not polar bears so much, and elephants less than bears
  3. It is unlikely that we will ever consider it important to protect insects
  4. We will have to ignore the fact that before we ate its rump, the cow was cute(ish) and that venison was… no, you can’t say it.

Even if you go past the obvious contradictions, we have ourselves a problem.

Why are species going extinct?

Why are species going extinct?

Species go extinct because of the process that created them.

Ah ha, not the answer you were expecting. You thought I was going to say habitat loss, pollution, introduced pests, climate change or some other lefty topic sung about by old hippies and youngsters frightened for their future.

Indulge me for a few minutes and follow this little sequence of logic to the end of the post and you’ll see why extinction is more about the process of evolution than it is about humanity.

Polar bears and koala (not) bears

If you go to northern Manitoba, Canada, you can go out to the wilds and see a polar bear. There are even tour operators who will take you and look after you so the bears don’t rip your Gortex jacket.

You cannot see a wild polar bear in Australia.

However, if you go out to the Australian bush, into the right habitat types, keep your eyes keen, and have a bit of luck, you will see a koala. And, yes, a koala is not a bear, it is a marsupial mammal.

There are no wild koalas in Canada.

Canada, polar bears; Australia, koalas. This we know and take for granted. The reason is that all species have regions where they occur in the wild and regions where they do not go and have never been seen, except in a zoo. It’s called their geographic range.

Let’s extend this idea a little.

Bird species in Australia

There are 828 bird species in Australia that are known to be present. Some are rare, others common. Some occur everywhere and some are found in just one or two places or in the case of the King Island scrub tit, on one island. It would take a lifetime of twitching holidays to personally see all these species because it is also nature’s way that species have certain habitats and places they prefer.

Some species are super specialists and only occur in certain very specific habitats, for example, old growth forest. As there is not much of this habitat left, these species have a narrow range. You need to hike into the forest and be very patient in order to see one.

Other species are just about everywhere. The Indian myna or the house sparrow are familiar to half the people on the planet, even those who have never owned a pair of binoculars.

Even in a habitat that occurs everywhere, like open woodland or backyards, not all species occur everywhere. There will be a dozen or so species in the average Aussie backyard in Sydney only several of the species in the Melbourne suburbs will be different, and those in Brisbane different again.

This is normal and always has been. Some species are rare, some are common. Some are localised others are everywhere. Welcome to nature.

In fact, nearly half, 400 or so, of the 828 bird species in Australia occur nowhere else on earth. They are endemic or unique to the island continent or both.

Alright, I’ve laboured this enough.

The point is that this is what the process of evolution does, it creates diversity. Random mutation alongside natural selection results in diversity as organisms focus on the most efficient way to harness resources that they convert into more organisms.

If you prefer to replace organisms in the last sentence with genes, you get Richard Dawkins, Selfish Gene.

I use organisms because a gene does not do it on its own, it needs other genes to make a vehicle that can travel forward in intergenerational time. But, of course, Dawkins is right, really it is genes that are selected.

We are so familiar with the result of natural selection, namely a huge variety of species unevenly spread across regions and habitats, that we take it for granted. Don’t be stupid, everybody knows that there are no wild polar bears in Australia, it’s too hot for them.

Nature is made up of gene combinations that are the most efficient at converting the resources in a given place, given the conditions. This is what evolution does all the time, everywhere.

This is the bit you need to follow… given the conditions.

Specialisation happens as an inevitable result of natural selection. There are still generalists with a fine working model of existence, crocodiles for example, that have not changed much, but the majority of species become quite specialised.

The problem with specialisation is what to do when the conditions change. Just ask the dinosaurs how that went for them.

Again we accept that mass extinction 66 million years ago without blinking. A huge, diverse group of land animals all die out in a short space of time because a meteorite hit the earth and changed the conditions. They couldn’t cope with what the impact and its aftermath did to their food and shelter. It disrupted things too much for them to adapt fast enough. Except for the crocodiles who could switch to fish.

The 5th mass extinction that knocked out the dinosaurs and 76% of species alive at the time, is a dramatic, iconic example of change. Only, the thing is that conditions change all the time. And this means that species go extinct all the time. It is an inevitable part of the process.

I’ll just say this again. If conditions change (and they always do) and they change fast enough, big enough or for long enough, some species cannot survive and go extinct. Period.

This is just a consequence of natural selection creating diversity and the whirlwind of a spinning planet with a complex atmosphere, ocean currents and mobile continents generating change.

The flip side of change that causes extinction is the opportunity for diversity. Change things and gaps open up for new species to exploit. But we’ll save that idea for another time. Today we are on the extinction consequence.

Change and extinction are inevitable

Only this is not what you are told.

Take this example from the front page of the Guardian online feed on 31 March 2019 stating that record numbers of Australian mammals face ‘imminent extinction’ that includes this quote

“The report calls on the next Australian government to commit to a policy that no more of Australia’s unique wildlife species will be allowed to go extinct, and to ensure, backed by the necessary laws and resources, that this policy is fulfilled”

Wilderness Society’s national forest campaigner, Peter Roberston.

Pause and read that quote again.

This person is asking you to believe that extinction, a law of nature that has a history as long and deep as life itself, can be overturned by muppets in Canberra.

Come on, get over yourselves.

You are not that important. Human activity is the biggest current agent of change sure, but to think that a specific political decision can rewrite evolution means you really do not understand the challenge.

We could leave it there as today’s healthy thought. Only there is just…

One more thing

Thinking we can ‘save the koala’ forces us into a bind. We are now imagining that extinction is terrible, an awful result that must be prevented. So important is this premise we even ask the politicians to make a policy to stop it happening.

We would have a very different view of conservation if extinction were an acceptable option because that is what happens in nature.

The choice to save a species from extinction becomes a conscious one made with a clear understanding of cost and benefit. We may still want to save the koala or the panda or the Southern Corroboree frog but if we do it’s a positive choice.

Important postscript

This post simplified natural selection as just about honing a solution to shelter and food and secretly implied that competition for these resources is what sorts out the weaker options. This is true but it’s not the only way.

There is also sexual competition that drives specialisation. Just so you know, Charles Darwin figured this one out too.

Amazing.

Eat your greens while you can

Eat your greens while you can

Many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline. The proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing. Overall, the diversity of crops present in farmers’ fields has declined and threats to crop diversity are increasing.

FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

This banal quote comes from the web summary of a critical FAO Report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.

It is bad people.

Biodiversity loss is not just about Andean condors, orangutans, koalas and rhinos, as important as these iconic creatures are, it is also about a myriad of plants, microbes and invertebrate animals, and especially insects, that actually make nature what it is and, crucially, allow nature to provide for us.

Alloporus has banged on about this for ages. Blue in the face kind of stuff. Here are a few:

They have bored faithful readers witless. And the message still holds.

Biodiversity loss is bad for humans.

This recent message from the FAO is a little more subtle. It refers to the loss of biodiversity in the diversity that humans have created over generations of artificial selection. This is the diversity we get from humans playing god. Think chihuahuas and great Danes, sausage dogs and schnauzers. Only it also applies to crops and livestock.

We made it and now we are getting rid of it.

Let’s back up a little and ask why we made genetic, species and ecosystem diversity in agricultural systems in the first place.

Well right from the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago it was clear that wild varieties of grass were never going to deliver enough grain and wild cattle were way too unruly for the herd boys to cope. Better options were needed.

Initially through trial and error and later through the wonders of more formal selective breeding, farmers were able to choose crops and varieties that were best suited to the specific conditions on their farm and run livestock that would breed well and grow fat without squishing the shepherd.

It did not matter if that was in the highlands of Scotland or southern Sudan, there were suitable beasts and ideal crops.

This was humans creating variety for their own ends. Selecting the best production system possible. And for a few thousand years this meant the creation of all sorts of efficient breeds and crop types that became familiar to local communities. It helped to create distinctive cuisines and trade in the items that couldn’t be grown locally, spices being the most famous example.

Then two inventions changed everything.

The first was mechanised agriculture.

This meant ploughs that would never tire and fertilizers that made it possible to grow crops that unimproved soil could not support. Ubiquitous energy also meant we could synthesize and deliver pesticides and herbicides whenever they were needed.

The second was that we figured out genetics and how to use this to rapidly select for optimal varieties that could use the tilled soil and fertilizer to deliver the best possible yields.

It was possible to make serious money from agriculture if you could harness these breakthroughs and scale them up. So we did. We tilled the fields and spread fertilisers, then planted fewer and fewer types of crop. The ones that gave the best yields and market prices: corn, wheat, rice and potatoes.

This production we converted into more people.

Agriculture created diversity to ensure food production was possible almost everywhere. Fossil fuel energy homogenised production for high yield crops on the best soils in the most benign climates and squeezed the market.

No problem surely. What is the FAO going on about? We have more food than ever and in most places, it is as cheap as chips.

Well, what happens if the handful of species that make up the bulk of production are hit with a disease or what if the climate changes in the main grain growing regions?

If the production system is diverse then it can adapt to these events shifting readily between crops not affected by plague or drought. If the system is simple, it is far less resilient to change.

More importantly, if these crops and varieties from ancient genetic stock are lost, there is nothing for the geneticists to latch on to and engineer their way out of a production crisis.

This brings us back to biodiversity proper. It is the resilience of diverse systems that is most valuable to humanity, not the presence or not of iconic species. We have to have as much genetic, species and ecosystem diversity as possible if only as a reserve for future options should things go sour.

There is great irony in the FAO report.

Humans first create and then destroy diversity. That is a hoot.

That we are doing it as blindly as we eradicate what nature created makes you want to cry.