Last year at the Ecological Society for Australia’s annual conference I presented some research as a bush poem (you may recall Corey Bradshaw posted the poem on his site). I’ve had a few request for the poem since then, so I finally got around to recording it. It just happens that the research mentioned in the latter part of the poem is now online in the Journal of Applied Ecology
Nature is full of trade-offs. To excel at one thing, often means you’ll end up sucking at another. Sad but true.
Take ornamentation for example. Flashy, decorative adornments that species parade to lure in a member of the opposite sex work well when finding a mate, but they also have their drawbacks. In a world full of predators searching for their next meal, being adorned like lady gaga might just make you stand out a wee bit.
In our recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, we found that’s the case for the adorable red-capped plover. This species displays sexual dichromatism. That is, one sex displays ornamentation and the other does not. As is often the case in birds, the sex that has the showy plumage is the male. These guys have a bright red head, and the females love it.
Sadly, this red head acts like a beacon for visual predators, threatening not only the male plover, but also exposing their precious eggs to an enhanced risk of predation. You see, male plovers are pretty good dads. They do their fair share in terms of helping around the nest. They incubate their eggs around half of the time, with the other half being tended to by the female.
But their caring nature is undermined by their showiness. Using models of red capped plovers, we found that when males attended the nest during the day, there was a huge increase in the probability that eggs within that nest would be preyed upon by diurnal visual predators (largely ravens).
But nature has a way of findings solutions too. Red capped plover’s love their red heads, and they weren’t going to give them up without a fight. If diurnal predators were the issue, then there’s only one option: night shift. We found that male and female plovers had a strict schedule for when they would attend the nest, with males attending the nest mostly at night when those diurnal, visual predators were asleep, whereas the less conspicuous females attended the nest during the day.
And so, with a little bit of flexibility, the red capped plover shows it is possible to look good and be a caring, sharing dad.
Although the beer was alarmingly cheap, I did manage to use some of my time in a productive manner. This week, the fruits of that productivity have ripened, and are now ready to be plucked from the tree, diced finely, and added to a glass of gin and soda water.
In case you need me to spell it out for you, we’ve published a paper.
What’s it about? I’m glad you asked.
Joern and his posse ran a big research project in a very cool part of the world: Transylvania, Romania. This region is undergoing a transition from traditional to more modern, industrialised farming practices and Joern and his team are trying to figure out what that means for the people and biodiversity that call the place home.
Transylvania has a very interesting set of large mammals, including carnivores such as bears, wolves and foxes, and herbivores such as red deer and roe deer. These species occur along with the people of Transylvania and their dogs that help look after livestock. The paper examined how these species co-exist, and what are the main drivers of their occurrence throughout the landscape.
We used camera traps to monitor these species and an important aspect of this work was that we treated humans like any other species: if we recorded them on a camera trap, we could calculate an index of local human activity, much like we often do with other species.
We then modelled the entire ‘ecosystem’, including humans, to show the relative effect of people on other species, compared to the effects of species on each other. We had some expected results, such as the suppressive effects of large carnivores on herbivores. However, these effects pale in comparison to the effects that humans have on species from all trophic levels. Our work highlights the need to think about people as part of the network of species within a region.
The paper is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.
Ask a person on the street ‘what does it mean to be resilient’? They might answer something to the effect of ‘the ability to bounce back following adversity’.
Ask a second year ecology student ‘what does it mean for an ecosystem to be resilient’. They might recall their first year lecture where they learned about resilience, the ability of an ecosystem to recover following disturbance. They will probably also mention the closely related concept of ‘resistance’, the ability to persist during the disturbance.
Now, ask an academic or postdoc in ecology ‘what does it mean for an ecosystem to be resilient’ and they will often look perplexed. That first year understanding, plain and simple, creeps into their might, along with the dictionary definition of the term. BUT, then a bunch of other terms…Panarchy? Hysteresis? Um, adaptive cycle…multiple stable states?
It was this reaction, by fellow academics, students and land managers, that led to my most recent paper: Vive la resistance: reviving resistance for 21st Century conservation, published online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
The message: let’s get back to basics. The textbook definitions, which we call the ‘resistance-resilience framework’, are actually pretty decent. It’s simple and intuitive. It’s a conceptual model of course, and so it will not always be applicable or relevant. However, it has a bunch of neat attributes that other concepts of resilience lack.
So, long live resistance!
I’m very excited to be joining the group which has a clear commitment to applied ecology and conservation biology, and is home to several ecologists I’ve long admired.
Together with colleagues Euan Ritchie and Tom Newsome, I’ve published an article on The Conversation drawing attention to the radical changes in Australia’s mammal communities since European arrival, calling for more support for projects that seek to ‘rewild’ Australia by re-introducing native predators.