ESA Hot Topic: Feral horses in Australia

I recently contributed to the Ecological Society of Australia’s new ‘Hot Topics’, a forum for scientists to summarise important ecological issues in a brief format suitable for a broad audience. There have been some excellent Hot Topics so far, synthesising the science underpinning controversial issues, such as the decline of the dingo and the effect of cattle grazing on fire risk in the high country.

My Hot Topic focuses on the ecological impact of feral horses on native ecosystems. This took me back to my honours year, when I studied the human dimensions of feral horse management, which involved a review of the human and ecological aspects of the issue. My Hot Topic synthesises information from around the world to conclude that feral horses can have substantial, negative impacts on native ecosystems.

Don Driscoll and Sam Banks authored an article on the same issue in The Conversation , where they detail a personal experience in which they observed starving feral horses cannibalising one another. If you are interested in the issue, or merely have a penchant for the macabre, then click on the video below:


Shifting lands: how international trade is transforming biodiversity

A few weeks ago I was asked to expand on some of the ideas in my blog on land displacement, which was posted on Joern Fischer’s website.

Well, I did that, and the article is now published in the CSIROs science magazine ECOS.

It was excellent reading some of the amazing work being done in this area. I’m keen to step into it myself.

The article can be found here:

Mallee Fire & Biodiversity Project named as finalist for 2014 Eureka Prize

I’m happy to announce that the project I contributed towards during my PhD - the Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Project – has been listed as one of three finalists for the 2014 Eureka Prize in Environmental Science.

My colleagues and I will make the trip up to Sydney for the awards ceremony on September 10th.

A short clip on the project can be seen here, including my own comically short cameo

Honours in ecology 2015

Below is a list of honours projects I’m putting up for 2015. I’m involved in others with Euan Ritchie that he will advertise shortly. As always, I’m looking for students with a strong academic history (i.e. High Distinction average). If one of the projects interests you, email me ( explaining why it interests you and attach a copy of your academic transcript.

Biodiversity on the farm: how will land-use change affect farmland biodiversity?

Associate or External Supervisors and their contact details: Dr Simon Watson, LaTrobe University
Start date: February 2015 or July 2015 (either)

Land for livestock and cropping comprise 40% of the world’s ice-free land surface. Although primarily committed to production, these landscapes accommodate much biodiversity. Climate change and market forces are bringing about changes in land-use across the globe. In SE Australia, one transition is from livestock to winter cereals such as wheat, as wool prices fall and the south of the continent dries. In many regions, this transition is already well underway. However, we know virtually nothing about how these transitions will affect farmland biodiversity. This novel study will survey biodiversity on farmland to examine how scenarios of land-use change will affect biodiversity.

Ecosystem services of scattered trees in farming landscapes

Associate or External Supervisors and their contact details: Prof Andrew Bennett
Start date: February 2015 or July 2015 (either)

Scattered trees are typical of farming landscapes all over the world. They are ‘keystone structures’ as they are disproportionately important as habitat to biodiversity in agricultural regions. However, scattered trees are declining across SE Australia as old trees die and are not replaced due to a lack of recruitment. We are beginning to understand what this will mean for biodiversity, but we do not know what the flow-on effects are for the many ecosystem services that scattered trees provide. This project will examine the ecosystem services brought to farming landscapes by scattered trees. The project will directly measure ecosystem services, including insect pest control by the birds and bats that live in scattered trees, carbon sequestration, and soil function. By gaining a greater appreciation for the services provided by scattered trees, this project will inform policies aimed at their protection and restoration.

How does a century of fire influence carbon storage in mallee ecosystems?

Associate or External Supervisors: Prof Andrew F Bennett, Deakin University; Dr Steve Leonard, LaTrobe University
Start date: February 2015 or July 2015 (either)

This study will explore how fire affects above-ground carbon stocks over a century-long time-scale in semi-arid Australia. Utilizing vegetation data collected during the Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Project (also see here), the project will determine the amount of carbon stored above ground in over 800 sites located across a 104, 0002 km study area. Some field work will be required in the remote Murray Mallee region in order to validate statistical models. A manual driving license is required. This project will have important implications for how fire is managed in mallee systems.

The role of phylogeny in global responses to disturbance

Associate or External Supervisors: Dr Mathew Symonds, Deakin University,
Start date: February 2015 or July 2015 (either)

Understanding the pattern of species declines around the world is critical to alleviating such declines. Such an understanding can be enhanced by exploring the extent to which related species decline in a similar way, due to their shared evolutionary history. This project will ask to what extent are responses to modern disturbances (such as land clearing or climate change) governed by a species evolutionary history.

How does wildfire influence reptile behaviour?

Associate or External Supervisors: Dr Mike Kearney, University of Melbourne
Start date: July 2015

Fire is key driver of the distribution of fauna in regions throughout the world. However, we know very little about how species cope with the changes that fire brings about. This study will build on a number of research projects broadly investigating the influence of fire on fanua in mallee ecosystems. It will employ the use of remote cameras to monitor the behavior of lizard species across the Murray Mallee region of semi-arid southeastern Australia, in relation to fire history and climatic variables. Possible study species include the Desert Skink Liopholis inornata and the Mallee Dragon Ctenophorus fordi. Remote field work will be required, and therefore applicants must have a manual license.

Land used for export production (in Mha). The maps highlight total land, cropland, grazing land and forest land displaced through export production. The thickness of the arrows and numbers next to the arrows represent the amount of land used as inputs for the production of imported and exported goods. Map and legend are from Yu et al. 2013. Maps are shown for total land and cropland.

Global land displacement: a challenge for conservation biology

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

Guest post by Dale Nimmo, who is currently visiting Leuphana University Lueneburg

We live in an increasingly connected, globalized world. Our food and clothes come from all corners of the globe, and the food produced in our own country gets sent all around the world too. One consequence of global trade is land displacement; that is, the displacement of land that occurs when the resources consumed by people in one nation or region were produced on land in another.

Recently, I read two fascinating papers on land displacement (Weinzettel et al. 2013 and Yu et al. 2013). Both track resources used across nations, allowing them to quantify land displaced across the globe via trade. While land displacement isn’t a new concept, I think these quantitative analyses help capture it in a captivating way.

The picture that emerges is one of a first-world vacuum, as the land…

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