Density and competition

Density and competition

In the second year of my PhD scholarship, I boarded my first aircraft, a bog-standard commercial flight from London to Rome but wow, what a thing?

The energy pushing you back into your seat, the stupidity of being suspended 30,000 feet up in the air and the impossibility of such a heavy tube of metal being able to get you and your seat up there. Just one experience I now take for granted that 30 odd years ago were a wonder to a youngster.

The journey was the first of many plane trips in my professional career, including some far more risky ones than a smooth jaunt across Europe. This first one was to attend a scientific conference, a meeting of minds for most of the world’s woodlice researchers. Some 50 people from all over Europe and North America who were into the behaviours, physiology and ecology of the terrestrial branch of Isopoda, an order of Crustaceans, the majority of whom live in water. The isopods that is.

So before we get to the publication, a brief ponder on the notion of a woodlouse conference. That humans, the most curious of beings, should have individuals dedicated enough to spend most of their waking hours understanding the biology of a peculiar group of animals that should be in the ocean but are not is quite miraculous. That these scientists can also be organised enough to get together periodically to discuss their obscure findings is bizarre too. This one in Urbino on the east coast of Italy in September 1986 was the Second International Symposium on the Biology of Terrestrial Isopods. It was a hoot, including a crustacean themed dinner with more than a dozen courses one of the very few meals from the distant past that I can still remember.

I was there to present some of my PhD research on competition and in the conference proceedings appeared my first single-author paper.

Dangerfield J.M. (1989) Competition and the effects of density on terrestrial isopods. Monitore Zoologico Italiano (N.S.) Monograph 4: 411-423

When reading this piece again for this post I could not even recall running the experiments the paper describes. It wasn’t until I read the methods of culturing broods of the tiny critters in plastic containers and feeding them uniformly ground leaf litter that it came back to me. The pots layered up on racks in controlled temperature rooms and hours weighing thousands of animals individually. Such is the dedication and forgetfulness required for higher learning.

A series of experiments tested the effects of crowding (although I called it density for formality) on growth, survival of young and the reproduction in adult Armadillidium vulgare, the common pillbug, with the general result that crowding matters. That is if you’re a woodlouse and you are around your woodlouse buddies too much they affect your biological success. The more is not the merrier for woodlice even if there is abundant food. Woodlice also compete against other woodlouse species, who doesn’t, only the win in the competition is affected by the size of the arena. It would seem that for woodlouse at least life is lived very much in three dimensions.

All up my conclusion and the most likely explanation was that there was interference going on in the cultures. The activity doing enough to generate measurable competitive effects. Noting that there was always enough food to go around, at least that is what I assumed. I remember being quite chuffed at this explanation because at the time the theory was that competition was not just about food but proving this was always tricky. So to have generated numbers suggesting it for such a lowly critter was fair play.

By Franco Folini – San Francisco, California, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=789616

It is hard to go past a simple experiment. Easy to design and deliver with all the satisfaction of hypothesis testing at the end. It’s the stuff of early career ecologists, they love it. I certainly did.

Did this science add to the pile of human knowledge? Well, not really, despite my enthusiasm over interference. It is likely that woodlice are competitive and these interactions can have consequences for their populations but there is also a lot more going on. Just because a mechanism exists does not mean it is important. But finding out that it is possible is worth the effort.

Later work could build on the findings but even in themselves, they show how complex patterns in nature can be. Today I would say that all of nature is constantly competitive. It is why we have natural selection and why there is so much diversity. Organisms become different to try and avoid as much of the constant competition as they can, usually with only limited success.

If nature is innately competitive, and we are of nature, not a rhetorical question, then we need not go much further than competition and how to avoid it as an explanation for many a human woe.

Back in 1986, that first plane trip got me started on my research career. My first single-author paper and a small but important step toward independence as a researcher.

Little did I realise how far and wide that journey would go.

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

Alloporus is looking into online courses. I know, once a student, always a student is a nasty affliction.

It is fascinating to see how this format has evolved given that back in the day, that being the late 1990’s when I first built a website for my undergraduate students at Macquarie University, it was a struggle just to code a homepage. How I would have swooned over today’s functionality back then. Uploading self-made videos to cloud platforms with real-time chat, get outta here. I guess that just makes me old.

Anyway, please excuse my reminiscences and get us up to date to an online course from the excellent and free MOOC edX.org entitled “Feeding a Hungry Planet: Agriculture, Nutrition and Sustainability”.

It is fascinating and, I have to say, scary stuff.

Early in the proceedings Professor Achim Dobermann who is Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research UK, the oldest continually operating agricultural research station in the world, gives a 12-minute presentation on the risks associated with agriculture to 2050 should the world follow current business-as-usual for food production.

It is a courageous and smart summary of what global food and nutrition will be like for the next 30 years.

Here are a couple of headline numbers for what is required.

Global per capita meat consumption will rise from 40 to 50 kg per annum that will mean an additional 180 million tons of livestock production or 64% more than today.

Grain consumption per person will rise too and overall grain production will need to increase 1.1 billion tons or 52% more than today, in part to feed the extra animals.

My take is that agricultural and social science is telling us that food supply has to grow at an average of 2% per annum each and every year for over a generation. In short, another Green Revolution.

Such a change to business-as-usual will mean a plethora of production and consumption efficiency gains along the whole supply chain, innovation everywhere, and some nimble policy.

You can see Professor Dobermann’s full presentation here.

These numbers and their consequences present any number of risks to getting a second Green Revolution underway. Here are a few off the top of my head…

  • not enough land for agriculture
  • not enough usable water to increase yields
  • soil degradation, especially ongoing loss of soil carbon
  • peak fertilizer, especially micro-nutrients
  • pests and disease, especially of core crops
  • climate change

These are some of the obvious food production end risks, but once we get to the people part there are many more…

  • resistance to agricultural innovation
  • rapid changes to diet
  • food waste

And then there are the food supply chains themselves that these days are long and involve many parties each claiming a clip. This evens out supply by moving seasonal produce around and feeding the people now congregated in cities — 55% of the total according to the UN. In other words, we would be lost without them.

But long can be brittle, inefficient with losses at each stage and, thanks to the many parties and their clip, raises the price of food; all factors that reduce food security.

On the upside, mass transport and production efficiency has reduced the global agricultural price index over the last century which is a good thing for most consumers; only it has also lowered the farm gate price. This is not so good.

It means that many farmers must push their production rather than nurture it. When the price squeeze happens at the farm gate they must mine their natural capital to keep their business alive instead of investing returns into efficiencies and soil inputs.

Whilst the level of risk and demand growth is scary, at least they are known. The big picture is clear enough.

In addition, we already have a thousand solutions to reduce or mitigate risks from biochar to farmers co-ops to Meatless Monday. We can and should use all of them as and where they make sense because 2% efficiency gains across the board each and every year for 30 years is a massive challenge with unfathomable complexity.

Also, being a bit scared is a good thing. It is a powerful motivator to do something positive.

180 million tonnes extra is a lot

Endnote on awareness

We have to avoid the single focus solutions.

One of the latest is the trillion trees idea — to save the world from climate change we need to plant a trillion trees.

Good idea if you are worried about greenhouse gas emissions given that trees sequester CO2 into woody biomass that can persist for a long time in the landscape. So yes, we should plant, nurture and grow trees and we should resist cutting any trees down.

Only we have to be very careful where we do it.

We can’t put tree planting on the lists of risks to the 2% per annum of food production growth.

More than the rare things

More than the rare things

Suppose you have a choice to make. It is not an easy choice but you have to make it nonetheless, and you only have a moment to think about it.

The choice is this.

You can either

  1. save an endangered plant community from extinction, or
  2. ensure that 1,000 pre-school children in Burkina Faso will not starve to death.

The plants or the kids? I’m guessing that without any context information you would go for the kids even though they are black, a long way away and of a different culture.

Now, let’s make the choice a little more personal.

You can either

  1. save an endangered plant community from extinction, or
  2. ensure that your granddaughter has a good education

The plants or your granddaughters future? Again, I’m guessing that your granddaughter is more important to you than an endangered plant community.

Now you might be asking, what on earth is an endangered plant community? A fair question for otherwise you would have no idea as to the magnitude of your choice.

Formally, a plant community is “a collection or association of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighbouring patches of different vegetation types”.

In more simple terms, plants that occur together often enough to form a recognisable grouping.

An ‘endangered plant community’ is a grouping of plants that is at risk of being lost, usually due to some change in conditions brought about by human activities. A typical example might be where a swamp is drained to extend a suburb. The wetland plants cannot survive without the water.

Now the problem here is a value proposition. How much do I value something I might know very little about over something that I can imagine (starving kids) or is personal to me (my granddaughter’s education)?

In the world today there are many endangered plant communities and there are starving children as well as those in need of a good education. The choice may not be explicit but it is actually part of what society has to do. We are going to have to make choices about how much of nature we can protect and save from our own use of resources without compromising human values.

I doubt this is how conservation is proposed. It is usually presented as a ‘we have to or else’ kind of decision and rarely as a choice between competing values. The reason being that if we thought about it in value terms, where human values are among the choices, the people would win every time.

The irony is that this would be a disaster for the people. We might be able to lose an endangered plant community here and there but we cannot lose them all for we cannot live without plant communities. They feed us, clean up our water, produce oxygen… well, you get the idea.

The conservation movement still sets the choice up as a loss of rare things.

Recently the Adani coal mine was approved by the Federal government in Australia. In the absence of any sensible climate policy, the only legislation to stop it was from environmental protection, in this instance some unique plant communities associated with freshwater springs and possible impacts on the Black Throated Finch (Poephila cincta) currently listed as ‘Endangered’ under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

So when the approval went through and the indignation from the conservationists begaan, they led with the plants and the bird.

What were they thinking?

Just the previous day Norway’s $US1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, tightened its investment rules to divest further from coal that meant they would pull out $1billion investments in a slew of Australian companies. They should have led with this news. It is hip pocket gold, just as good as choosing your granddaughter’s school over a bird with cute plumage.

Now, of course, cash of this size is about strategy and in the case of Norway the move out of coal into integrated energy companies is as much a hedge against future oil prices as anything to do with the climate. Only that is fine because the climate issue is addressed by the strategy option, numerous values win so the choice becomes less about nature versus people.

It is time we started thinking carefully about the trade-offs that are always present in these value propositions. The green movement really has to or history will record their passion for the rare things as misguided fantasy.

Stories

Stories

This definition pops up when you ask Google.

story

/ˈstɔːri
noun
1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
“an adventure story” synonyms: tale, narrative, account, recital;

2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.
“stories in the local papers” synonyms: news item, news report, article, feature, piece

Stories are accounts about the wonders of real or imaginary people told to entertain. We like them so much that every day we listen to them constantly as we gossip amongst ourselves or settle in for a night of Netflix.

We also call items of news stories and that is rather odd.

Evidence, on the other hand, is less popular. It is dry, factual and objective, unlikely to fire the imagination or to entertain, unless, of course, it is dramatised into a story.

Enter the public relations team for a government department. Any department really, but let’s say it’s the Department of the Environment.

The PR team face a conundrum. They have some scientific evidence to communicate only it is dry information that would struggle to cut through butter. Stories though are entertainment and, in the times of personal screens and feeds, are indispensable.

“Do you have a story?”, the PR lead says without any idea of what he is asking.

Well, as it turns out I do. I even wrote a book of them called Stories for a Change. There was also my first book, Awkward News for Greenies, that radically and without success had both stories and evidence in the same volume. It just confused the hell out of the handful of people who read it. They couldn’t tell when the fiction became fact.

Even though Netflix shows about sitting presidents get closer and closer to reality, we know them to be dramas made for television. This means that they are not true. Part of our brain can hold onto this even as we fall headlong into the illusion.

Similarly, modern period pieces are so well made that it feels like what actually happened is right there on the screen. The deception would be complete if they figured out how to relay the stench of Mr Darcy. He was most likely on the nose, given the frequency of bathing in the early 1800s. Into these dramas, we can fall without any controls because no matter how realistic they look they are obviously not real.

No doubt our affection for reality TV is that we can kid ourselves into turning off this safety completely. We can see that the people are real even as their stories are clumsily manipulated by eager producers.

In all of these entertainments, there is part of our brain that knows the truth. The story is not a reality. The thing is that we all must know how to separate the truth from fiction otherwise we go mad.

Our lady from the Ministry asks ‘what’s the story’ on a reflex. She knows that unless the evidence is made into entertainment it will not cut through to the desired audience. She also knows that evidence is more likely to be painful than dramatic, stranger than fiction but impenetrable and dull.

Who would know what to say about the average area of illegal land clearing being consistently greater than the modal area? It means that a few large clearing events skew the average upwards and tells you that the majority of instances are smaller than the average. It also tells you that if the total area of clearing is the worry, develop a policy to reduce the instance of large events, through heavy penalties for example.

So why do the people who should use evidence baulk at it in favour of the story, the fabrication that entertains? It is not just a matter of cutting through for people do want to know the truth and are engaged with it whenever it becomes accessible. A more likely reason is that stories are easier.

Telling the truth requires more than courage, it’s about making it easy for people to grasp when the truth can so often be painful.

Stories do this so much easier than facts.

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.

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Palaeontologists have a fine time of it. They fossick around in obscure parts of the world where there are few people and take a hammer to rocks.

They have done this for generations, found lots of fossils, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

Here are five of them.

  • 444 million years ago 86% of species were lost.
  • 375 million years ago 75% of species were lost
  • 251 million years ago 96% of species were lost
  • 200 million years ago 80% of species were lost
  • 66 million years ago 76% of species were lost.

These are, of course, the five mass extinction events in the fossil record. The last one being the most famous when all the dinosaurs copped it.

Here is another pattern they found

Over time diversity has increased despite these mass extinctions and several smaller ones in between them.

There are more species alive today than at any other time in evolutionary history, despite the obvious fact that humans are kicking the sixth mass extinction into existence.

This is the history of life on earth. It is dynamic with huge shifts in diversity but with an underlying driver powerful enough to increase diversity over time.

If you believe this evidence then a few core concepts become clear:

  1. Extinction happens.
  2. Large extinction events happen often enough to make another one inevitable.
  3. After extinction events, diversity recovers
  4. And for at least 150 million years the trend is for diversity to increase rapidly, noting that the non-avian dinosaurs were lost during this time.

Diversity happens because there is time enough for mutation and natural selection to hone any number of specialisms. When organisms specialise they are successful in a relatively narrow set of conditions. A proportion of species become vulnerable to change in those conditions.

Enter human beings. Modestly specialised initially but with a distinct advantage. They had the brains and communication to adapt to a wide range of conditions, especially when they tamed fire and then much later discovered fossil fuels.

Once in control of energy humans have appropriated over half the global biomass production, removed vegetation, getting rid of wildlife and altered the composition of the atmosphere. More than enough change for mass extinction.

Humans affected the change but change would have happened at some point. Tectonic plates moving to cut off ocean gyres, volcanic eruptions, another meteorite strike, it would happen soon enough, maybe 50 million years hence.

Is the reality of extinction too painful?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we are just too much in the present day to accept timeframes beyond ourselves. Certainly, there will be huge consequences of extinction for our production systems, the ecosystem services we rely on, and the very liveability of the planet for our species.

We’ll need a lot of adaptation to survive.

What we might also remember as we plan for change and seek to retain what we can of the diversity of life, that extinction is real and inevitable. It is as much a part of the process of evolution as the creation of new types.

Objectivity

Objectivity

I’m sure you would say that you are impartial and that you are “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. Indeed you would say that objectivity is a feature of your everydayness.

At least this is what our parents and teachers taught us to say.

What these good folks often forgot to mention was that being objective takes effort and a lot of it. In order to be objective a person must know or have access to real kernels of truth, irrefutable information, that is things that are known or proved to be true.

In short, objectivity requires evidence.

This means that becoming and remaining an objective person takes constant effort to assemble and evaluate evidence. It means knowing a fact when you see one and also where to look for those that you do not have to hand. It takes rigour.

This should be easy enough in this world of internet searches and virtual assistants but just because an important or famous persons says something or it is reported on commercial media, does not make it a fact. There is learning, skill and experience in making sure that information is factual, reliable and accurate, not to mention relevant.

Just yesterday there was typical vision on the news of a windswept reporter wearing logo embossed gore tex standing in front of a collapsed shed. There had been a supercell storm. An event so powerful “the town was all but destroyed”. Only wait a minute. The ‘town’ was home to 20 people, it was a hamlet at best where most of the houses were still standing. Pan out from the close crop of the flimsy shed and the destruction was hard to see.

Access to information is only the first part of objectivity.

There is information in profusion and some of it is irrefutable. The shed was in a mess. The problem is there was no town and no information beyond the close up of the shed to indicate destruction. What we actually have is a visual fact and a host of loose interpretation and opinion. We must also trust the reputation of the news channel and believe that the reporter was indeed in central Queensland. She could have been in a studio with a wind machine and a green screen.

One irrefutable fact – an image of an upside down shed – is not enough.

Objectivity requires numerous validated facts that must override a host of deep, ingrained and often long standing feelings that are part nature, part nurture and part sheer bloody mindedness. Objectivity means not just accumulation but the ability to sift through facts and put them into context, a process of evaluation to generate relevance.

Now we are lurching rapidly toward some serious effort.

Not only must we have asked Alexa or said hey Google for the relevant facts, we must not just take what the virtual assistants on the smartphone says as gospel. There is another step to objectivity that requires we evaluate the facts for their individual efficacy – are they true – as well as what that piece of information brings to the challenge or conundrum we are trying to be objective about.

Knowledge is not just about committing facts to memory, it requires an additional step, relevance.

A koala example

Let’s consider an example and try to be objective about the following statement:

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it.

Australians understand what this means but it doesn’t have to be the koala, it could be the lion, tiger, African elephant or the ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, known only from a handful of tiny sites in Oxfordshire.

Feel free to insert into the clause whatever species you are told is in danger of extinction. The challenge is how to be objective when presented with such an edict of irreversible loss.

Begin with getting yourself across the suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts.

And here is the initial challenge. What facts are these?

Well given the edict, it would have to be facts about how many koalas are currently alive, what has happened to their numbers in historical and recent times, and evidence for the presence and veracity of threats to their continued existence.

In other words you need to be cognisant of and able to evaluate the population dynamics of koalas as well as the key drivers of those dynamics before you can be objective about the clause regarding extinction.

Curiously, the Australian government factsheet on Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and national environment law does not say how many koalas there are in Australia. What is does say is there are koalas living wild across a range that stretches the entire eastern seaboard of the continent.

Similarly the NSW government’s $44.7 million NSW Koala Strategy does not mention how many koalas there are in the state of NSW.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild, possibly as few as 43,000. However, the link that sends you to a page on how this estimate came about was broken.

You need to go to the science literature to get a more robust estimate.

Phillips (2000) reports koala population trends in the reputable journal Conservation Biology as declining from a population size somewhere <100,000 to “an order of magnitude larger”. That’s a discrepancy estimate of around 900,000 that, even for an error estimate, is quite a few more than the 43,000 the conservationists would have us believe are currently extant.

More recently McAlpine et al (2015) looked at ‘Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges’ in the equally reputable journal Biological Conservation and presented some density data but no actual numbers for total population.

I could go on but I suspect you are getting the message.

The suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts are not easy to find or may not exist at all. In the case of koala numbers, it would seem that nobody knows how many there are in Australia right now, let alone historically. The key facts are actually a known unknown (although nobody close to the problem would admit to this).

In the absence of accessible facts we might choose to rely on the Commonwealth Scientific Committee that gathers information to match the status of species and habitats believed to be at risk of extinction and evaluates this information against agreed IUCN criteria, the global standard. This is the independent body of scientists tasked with deciding if a species or habitat type is at risk of extinction across Australia.

What they said about the koala in the koala population factsheet was nothing about the populations of koala, that is, how many there are now or were around in the past. There’s a nice map of where they are known to occur and if you are a species with a distribution that covers a third of a continent you are probably not too worried. But even in the absence of evidence and a truth that the koala is unlikely to go extinct soon, if at all, the federal environment minister listed Australia’s most at risk koala populations in April 2012 as vulnerable under national environment law

This means that the system set up to evaluate the evidence for decision making on whether a species is at risk of extinction in the wild did not find enough evidence, but it made a decision anyway. Perhaps the scientific committee invoked the precautionary principle or, dare I say, they temporarily put objectivity aside in favour of political expediency or public opinion.

How dare you!

What to do?

This example is typical. It means that it is very hard to obtain and evaluate enough relevant facts to be truly objective. There will usually be holes in your own or the collective knowledge, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It is rare that we are across all the relevant facts.

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it

Most of us don’t have the time, inclination or access to the facts to evaluate this statement with objectivity. Somewhat ironically you can find reference to the science on Google Scholar but not all of it has free access. You also need to know where to look for not all sources are credible.

Reality is that it takes too much time to hunt down and assemble the facts (oops, poor choice of words), that’s before you put in the intellectual effort to evaluate them and find the truth.

We would also have to work hard emotionally to suspend our feelings enough for healthy skepticism. There is a reason koalas, pandas, polar bears and other creatures with fur are used in these extinction statements: to humans they look cute.

So we resort to our default source of objectivity; what we feel. Our instinct, the gut response we have somewhere deep down that is part guide and part conscience.

Should we be brave enough to discuss our objectivity with others, this gut feel will be exposed to serious peer pressure, and must pass some collective logic that comes from group gut feel, known round these parts as the ‘pub test’.

How to be be objective without the effort

And this is just one of the many opinionated statements we have to filter every day.

Koalas are cute because humans beings have a genetic predisposition to find expressive forward pointing eyes either side of a nose clustered together rather low in a much larger “face” impossibly attractive… Think about it.

We are going to need an inordinate amount of seriously powerful facts to overturn such innate prejudice. Most people would not even see the need to try.

Koalas are cute after all, what’s your problem dude?

Any objectivity has a precipitous, ice-covered cuteness cliff to climb.