Sounds Crazy #10 | Pest control means getting on with it

DeerFeral animals are pests in large parts of rural Australia. The list of culprits is long with foxes, cats, feral dogs, goats, rabbits, pigs, deer, and camels all causing problems for farmers and conservationists alike. In production terms the cost is estimated at billions of dollars a year.

Not surprisingly there are pest control programs all over the country with poison baits, mustering, hunting, trapping and a host of other control tactics in place.

In 2005 some scientists became curious to see if any of these control programs actually made a difference.

They interviewed as many of the pest control organisers as they could in all the states and territories for control programs that had a conservation focus. They established that the majority of over a thousand programs they identified, 68% in fact, had no form of monitoring in place at all. The pest control teams did not know how many pests they had removed or what had happened to the species or habitats the pests were affecting.

In short they were operating blind.

Now a pilot in Papua New Guinea on a stormy afternoon, if he had any sense, wouldn’t take off. Flying blind is dangerous.

Except that the only immediate danger in pest control is to the pests. The operators simply get on with control. Indeed the researchers found that there was some monitoring of person days spent tracking, numbers of baits released, and helicopter logbooks full of hours mustering sufficient to show that the job was being done — but nothing on the outcome.

After habitat loss, pests and weeds are the next most significant threat to biodiversity in Australia. In many places they are the main cause of biodiversity loss and attempts at control make sense.

What is crazy is to have no idea if control measures have made a difference. We have no idea if they are worth all the effort.

Perhaps it is that distinctly human trait where being seen to do the right thing is just as important as doing it.

Sounds crazy to me.

Google Scholar can link you to the original research

Reddiex B, et al (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. I. Patterns of control and monitoring. Wildlife Research 33, 691–709

Reddiex B. & Forsyth D.M. (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge Wildlife Research 33, 711–717

Pinnacles of knowledge

Teaspoon of soilSuper-specialization by individuals sets humans apart from all other species — more so even than language and technology.

No other species has a system where individuals can first figure out what their innate skills are and then focus on them to train, strive and perhaps one day become the best at them. It is a luxury afforded by taking away the need to spend our waking hours searching for provisions and we have basked in it. The result is extraordinary greatness in every field of human endeavor from art to archery.

Science is fertile ground for this specialization. Given that what we already know about nature is both broad and deep, advances in science require highly detailed understanding and no small amount of technical expertise.

A visit to any modern analytical laboratory will show you that the lab coated ones must be as adept with electronics and computers as they once were with a pipette and petri-dish. They must be highly focused on their topic and their techniques.

We have also had several generations of this specialization. As each generation passes the body of scientific knowledge broadens thanks to the increasing numbers of focused scientists. The handful of Universities with a five hundred-year plus heritage have been joined by thousands more, most of them in the last 100 years. The lab coat manufacturers are doing pretty well

Specialization has also filtered down the academic system. Modern undergraduates no longer enroll in a general science or even a biology degree. They will major in microbial ecology or wildlife management, specialisms that did not exist in times past. The brightest students that progress through the degrees into research and academia of necessity become super-specialists. The best of them climb steadily onto a pinnacle of knowledge that is often so narrow that only one person can stand on it.

This should be good. The body of knowledge is already vast and all the obvious things are known — it takes focus and tenacity to add anything meaningful to the pile. If the system failed to promote specialization we would rarely find out anything new.

And unless the pinnacle is tall, steep-sided and isolated on the plain of human knowledge he, or these days she who scales it would not be seen by everyone else [just because a person wears a lab coat does not mean they are exempt from normal human needs for adulation and success].

Not surprisingly then, specialization has flourished.

The soil biologist

Suppose that you are want to be a scientist and you happen to be interested in soils, specifically in the importance of biological activity for the delivery of nutrients to plant roots. This is a pretty specialized niche to begin with, albeit essential knowledge at a time when global food production must double again in the next 30 years.

This area of interest may seem quite focused yet it has a number of pinnacles. You might choose to scale the one related to arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi, AMFs. These are a specific type of fungi in the soil that penetrate the roots of vascular plants and make it easier for the plant to capture certain nutrients.

It is easy to see that the AMF specialist will soon be so focused that the biology undertaken by his colleagues who study soil nematodes is very different to his.

Techniques wise the soil biologist will also need to specialize. Instrumentation to uncover patterns in the DNA of those AMFs is not the same as those used to understand what happens to nitrogen that these microbes help to fix. It would take training and many years of experience to be able to drive all the necessary machines to be an AMF generalist.

The downside of the pinnacle

A pastry chef might be able to rustle up a passable vindaloo but it is unlikely that he would be familiar enough with the flavor combinations to create a gourmet curry dish.

Similarly whilst the AMF specialist will know more than most about soil biology

his intellectual comfort zone is narrow. Monitoring for soil quality that is in part determined by the activities of AMF, for example, requires skills in sampling design [what to sample, where, when and how often] that are not usually in the toolbox of the laboratory specialist.

Once perched on the scientific pinnacle of AMF DNA the specialist may have a fine view of the plain of soil biology below and in the distance see the landscape of challenges to apply the hard won skills. Only to do anything about them requires descending once again to the plain of generality.

At this point Sir David would whisper commentary about lemurs not wanting to cross the bare soil between isolated trees and having to first pluck up courage and then dance across the dangerous open space to the safety of the next tree.

You see the point. Complex environmental challenges need the knowledge and skills from many specialisms. In an ideal world this would mean gathering up the requisite specialists into a team and setting them to work.

Our human made world is never ideal and we are at serious risk of super-specializing our way out of the ability to adapt.

Slow, slow, quick, quick | Postscript for the contentious mind

CO2 enrichment Cumberland Plain WoodlandA recent upbeat post on the importance of soil biology ‘slow, slow, quick, quick’ went by without comment.

Except that loyal readers wouldn’t imagine that Alloporus could really let a taxpayer spend of $40 million on infrastructure and operating costs of $1.5 million per year just for the CO2 for one experiment to pass without comment — especially when you look closely at the image to see that the patch of woodland is so small that the enrichment plots and controls will be subject to huge edge effects.

If significant funds are to be spent on a given research topic then there will always be those for and those against its import. On balance we could concede that understanding the effects of climate change on plant growth and ecosystem dynamics will be important. Findings will help lay the foundations for selecting the most effective responses to climate across ecosystems we rely on. We might say research on some of the more acute effects of climate change [temperature, severe weather, seasonal shifts] might yield better bang for buck, as would a focus on adaptation, but for the moment we could concede these points too.

When I visited the CO2 enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the Environment it was a windy day, the air was moving through the ‘cages’ freely and rapidly. We were told that high-tech control systems monitor wind and try to match the delivery of CO2 to maintain consistent enrichment levels. But I could not see it myself.

The experiment is sited in a small, naturally open patch of woodland constrained far more by moisture and temperature extremes than CO2, blitz occasionally by fire and with plant growth potential moderated by old soils. For me it was simply the wrong manipulation, implemented at the wrong scale and at a site too small for what was being tested.

So it’s not actually about the money. What seems unacceptable is the quality of the science.

97% said their cats prefer it

Its official, 97% of peer-reviewed science papers, that expressed a preference, agree that climate change is caused by human activity.

Academics have surveyed nearly 12,000 academic papers penned by 29,000 scientists. There were 4,000-plus papers that took a position on the causes of climate change and less than 100 of these disputed the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity.

Here is what the lead author had to say about the survey

Call me a cynic but all I could think about was the “8 out of 10 owners who expressed a preference said their cats preferred it” Whiskers ad and how I didn’t believe that either.

And later I imagined what it was like back in the day when every intellectual believed that the earth was flat until some crazy dude decided to sail all the way around it.

And later still I decided that it really is missing the point because it does not matter what the cause is, it is the effects we have to worry about.


Something unexpected

Teaspoon of soilHere is an interesting situation, almost unimaginable.

You are approaching your 60th birthday and are about to be surprised by an unexpected inheritance from a wealthy relative that you barely remember.

Many years ago your great Aunt, who was always rather odd, left you some money.

She stipulated that you could only access the balance of the funds when you are 60 years old, 40 years on from when the money was deposited.

The good news is that the initial capital she left was $10 million, a huge sum even if nobody quite knew how she came to be so wealthy. The bad news is that the $10 million capital has lost value to the tune of 1.3% a year.

Bummer. Not only did you have to wait to be rich, but also each year there were 1.3% fewer funds. Still, in a few months time when you reach 60 there will be a bank cheque for $6 million in the post, more than enough for a world cruise or two and a luxurious retirement.

Your younger brother was less fortunate. The dowager only bequeathed $1 million to him under the same rules. He has to wait longer for his funds and gets a much smaller cheque of $593,000.

A tidy sum for sure but not quite enough to fund his retirement.

Your three cousins, who soon found out about the unexpected inheritance, were also hoping for something from this distant relative that they only just realized they had. Sure enough, she did not forget them and deposited $100,000 each for when they reach their 60th birthday. They get $59,250 — certainly better than a kick in the teeth but hardly a pension fund.

On the first of your world cruises you mull over the odd situation of financial capital failing to appreciate.

What if your retirement savings, that before your great slice of luck were your only means of support in old age, were being eroded at 1.3% a year?

Each year the amount you had saved up went down a bit, not much admittedly but it went down. Likely you would seek to reinvest your capital quick smart rather than run the risk of not having enough funds for your retirement. Also likely you would fire your investment analyst and rant at everyone you could, looking for a scapegoat for such a fundamental error.

And what bad news it was for your brother. If he had known about that $1 million all those years ago and invested it wisely he would have more money than you right now.

As you sip a G&T on the sundeck you can’t help thinking it funny what we take for granted.


Another unexpected thing

Soil scientists have estimated that the amount of carbon in agricultural soils in Australia has declined by 51% in the last 40 years — that is 1.3% a year.

Soil carbon is a critical environmental asset that drives plant growth because carbon fuels soil biological activity, promotes soil structure, aids infiltration and moisture retention and supports nutrient exchange. Handy material to have and not something to be squandered.

What is worse is that science has little idea about the initial carbon stocks [the capital]. It might have been the equivalent of $10 million in which case we can keep going for a while.

We might even have time to reinvest by adopting smart agricultural practices and get the capital to appreciate again.

The worry is that we may be as uninformed and as poorly off as your cousins.


Here is the original scientific reference for loss of soil carbon [you can find a copy on Google Scholar]:

Zhongkui Luo, Enli Wang, & Osbert Jianxin Sun (2010) Soil carbon change and its responses to agricultural practices in Australian agro-ecosystems: A review and synthesis. Geoderma 155 (2010) 211–223.


And some more articles on soil carbon

Carbon in Soil – Why Organic Carbon is So Important

Soil – the missing carbon sink

Once in a lifetime

Cyclone_Yasi_QueenslandIf you play sport then one day you will achieve your lifetime personal best.

You will catch a 3 kg bream, swim 400m in 5 minutes, make 122 not out on a green wicket or score 34 goals in the season. Every sporty person has their personal best, the one they talk about modestly to their grandkids and boast about after a few beers with mates.

It is also true that in your lifetime you will witness your hottest, wettest and coldest day, and your biggest storm.

Now that most of us go beyond the three score years and 10, there are upwards of 25,000 days for us to experience extremes.

Hurricane Sandy was devastating, as was Katrina, events that should only occur once in a lifetime and preferably not at all.

Sandy was a confluence of events, each one quite severe but devastating together, yet it happened. And we know that that equally perfect storm has happened before in previous lifetimes and will again in our children’s lifetime.

Even events that skip a generation or two and occur on average every 100 years are possible. The rank amateur can fluke a hole in one and have his day.

Given time Sandy will be followed by Samantha, Sybil and Susan. And she was preceded by literally thousands of equally severe storms in times past witnessed by settlers, indigenous peoples and before them, various species of now extinct megafauna.

The difference was there were no subways to flood, houses on wooden piers to collapse and substations to explode.

If we understood this fully then we would not blame Sandy or her sisters even if climate change means they happen more often that they did before.

We would realize what we have changed. We are present to witness and put flimsy things in the way of the storms.

We happen to be around for that meteorological PB.

After Katrina, and again after Sandy, there was much courageous talk of rebuilding clearing up and starting it over — inspiring stuff from leaders who know how to tap into the spirit humans have that makes them feel good even in hard times.

So the flooding will be drained and cleared up, the millions of dead rats ground up for fertilizer, the house rebuilt in readiness for Samantha and Shona. Although I suspect not built with too much more care than before.

This is what humans do. It is as innate as any cravings for salt and sugar. We will get to work, repeat what we did before and complain that it wasn’t our fault. So be it, it is our endless love affair with risk and opportunity

Some families will witness tragedy and have to mourn the loss of loved ones and of property, but society will shake off Sandy, even use her as a motivator and fiscal stimulus.

And later, remember her as that once in a lifetime storm.

The new gold

You would never call an actuary sexy. Number logic people just don’t have the suave of a James Bond or the sass of a Marilyn. They are just too precise. Absorbed by detail and loving that a + b = c, especially when b is the reciprocal of the square root of f, they just lack that playful oomph.

That said being a good number cruncher was never a bad career. Thanks to the acute need for their skills, especially from insurance companies treading the tightrope of premiums over risk, data people have always been well paid and in reasonable demand. Over the years it has been quite tricky to get a place on an actuarial degree.

Now, however, sexy is in for the statisticians too, because the mad men need them. Or more strictly, there is a new breed of advertiser who have taken the mix of imagery and psychology invented to persuade us all to buy things to a whole new level. Now it is possible to predict as well as persuade.

Thanks to the already huge and rapid accumulating databanks on our online profiles, our offline purchases and even where we are throughout the day (yep, that handy little app in your smartphone does more than tell you where you are and how long it takes to walk three blocks), it is now possible to track behaviours and from that predict what might happen next, or better still intervene with an irresistible offer.

The mad men who want to place that person specific ad on the right device at the right time need the data crunchers to do the sums.

Here is a simple example. Your Facebook profile says that you like the delectable British soul singer Sade (mine does) and your mobile pings a GPS signal that you are in Sydney. Instantly the ticketing website you use puts two and two together and sends you an email with Sade tour dates. Not only that but her Sydney concert listing is flashing with a special offer of 10% off the usual ticket price. Outcome obvious, you have an outstanding night out and can’t wait for her next tour.

Here is another example. Your credit card purchases at the casino hotel, activity at the gaming tables and even what goes out of the mini-bar in your room are monitored in real time. What you buy, win, and loose on your casino weekend break are matched to a predictive model based on thousands of previous punters that tells the hotel staff the optimum time to offer you a free meal voucher or a discounted show ticket for the next evening. That optimum being the point being just before your instinct tells you to cut your losses and check out.

This is just the start of the thousands of uses that analysis of data can support. Take a moment and you will think of plenty yourself.

Usefulness readily translates into products and services that become a new gold, the nuggets that come from data mining. The vast datasets on what people do, where they do it and when trawled, filtered, analysed and modeled to predict what, where and when they will do next. All so that businesses can deliver a timely intervention.

The talk is of a multi-billion dollar industry built around analysis, interpretation, and prediction, followed by delivery of highly targeted suggestion. It is a whole new field for anyone unfazed by terabytes of data and permutation algorithms…. and who are also unfazed by where the money comes from.

I wonder how many of the new gold diggers will dare to ask.