2. How to Save a Species
3. How to Save a Species in Captivity
4. How to Save a Species’ Habitat
5. How to Save a Species in Court
6. How to Save an Evolutionarily Significant Unit
7. How to Save a Species in Theory
8. How to Save a Number of Species
9. Should we Save Species?
Welcome to the blog series Conservation Initiatives! In this collection of essays I hope to provide some insight into the theory and practice of preserving the natural world.
Life is an interwoven tapestry, a majestic work of art, both through time and across space. In our struggle for self preservation, we tug at the threads of life and distort the carefully crafted images therein. In doing so we threaten our own existence, for humanity is very much a part of this intricate fabric. There is still time before life is in tatters, but we have already left an indelible mark.
By studying the tears and inkblots inflicted by human civilization we learn something of the structure of nature, how things are put together. We also gain insight into how best to preserve and possibly restore such a marvelous composition before it is too late. I want to explore past successes and failures, the relative strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, and the fate of the environment in the 21st century.
Conservation biology: nil desperandum
How to Save a Species
It’s pitch black. As we trudge through the undergrowth, the hum of jet engines grows louder. Sirens wail, and speakers are blaring military commands, indecipherable by the time they drift past our ears. Night missions are common on Eglin Air Force Base, and they take things pretty seriously here. Although no live rounds are being used, the experience is terrifying, and likely the closest I will ever come to knowing what it is to live in a war zone. I cannot decide which is more spine-tingling – the sight of tracer rounds illuminating the night sky like headlights on highways, or the ghoulish silhouettes of stealth planes just above the treeline, slicing through the darkness in utter silence. I must keep reminding myself that we are permitted to be here. In fact, we ourselves are on our own mission; a mission of great importance.
The Florida mosquitoes are becoming more unbearable with each step, a good indication we are approaching our destination. Amongst the longleaf pine, the palmetto fronds, and the poison ivy, we are here to catch salamanders. With a simulated fire-fight raging overhead, we are waist deep in water, headlamps on, nets at the ready. To the confusion of many, we wade around for hours, night after night, searching for our quarry. To be fair, these aren’t just any salamanders we’re after. These are reticulated flatwoods salamanders, one of the most endangered amphibians in North America. And we are here to save them.
Those early memories of romping through the Florida panhandle as a fresh faced student will likely stay with me forever. But they seem so distant now. The aforementioned events took place at some point during Obama’s second term in office. It is now 2020, the planet is in the grips of a global pandemic, and Donald is wringing his hands at the prospect of another four years in the hot seat. Why are the wicked so strong? How do the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Waits in lockdown…
I write from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I currently reside about a 30 minute drive from the most photographed section of the Appalachian Trail; over two thousand miles of rugged North American scenery, with innumerable, jaw-dropping vistas, and I live alongside the prettiest stretch. Not the worst place in the world to avoid the clutches of an emergent zoonotic epidemic. As I write, the view from my back porch is a sea of green. It is the height of summer, and the trees are loving it. Honey locust, Virginia pine, black walnut, American elm, shagbark hickory, sweetbay magnolia, striped maple, silver maple, sugar maple, basswood, dogwood, sourwood, black cherry, laurel oak, and yellow buckeye. It’s the kind of diversity you would expect from a tropical rainforest, but this is southwest Virginia. At a glance the forest seems so calm and stationary, but it is anything but. Every tree is in a constant, unending battle with its neighbors, vying for space and nutrients. Battles that play out for centuries; this is the real hundred years war.
Against the backdrop of World War Tree the birds are fighting an epic struggle of their own, fighting over essentially the same necessities of life. Cardinals, chickadees, and warblers are all abundant, and the distant drumming of red-bellied woodpeckers has a delightful earthly charm. For me, the sound of Eastern forests has to be one of their greatest treasures. At night, birdsong is replaced with the incessant calls of katydids and frog choruses. How animals communicate over such a cacophony is surely a mystery to me. I have similar feelings towards twitter. There are no flatwoods salamanders in these forests, mores the pity, but there are plenty of other spellbinding creatures that are regrettably in need of saving.
The myriad trees, birds, frogs, and insects that we call by different names typically correspond to ‘species’ in biological taxonomy. The reticulated flatwoods salamander is likewise a species. The word ‘species’ is in the public lexicon; I am confident you have heard the term. The biodiversity crisis is often reported in terms of number of species threatened with extinction. The icon of the World Wildlife Fund is a giant panda, one (particularly charismatic) species. An innate sense of unease emerges when contemplating the loss of a species within one’s own lifetime, particularly if said extinction occurred at the hand of man (and I do mean men). Experts think in similar terms, and thus typical questions in the field of conservation might be: What do we do when a species is on the brink of extinction? How do we decide which species deserve protection? Are species the correct scale for conservation? What is a species? All valid questions. All questions that were running through my mind on that warm December evening, as the F-15s and B-52s circled overhead. Flatwoods salamanders are on the brink of extinction. What should we do? It will take millions of dollars to prevent such a grizzly fate. Can we afford it? Many species have already been lost. Many species persist, but no longer have sufficient habitat to sustain viable populations. They are literally dead species walking.
We head back to the field house, soaked to the skin and despondent. Although our salamander hunt was successful, we were well below our target of 20 individuals. On the return journey I survey the fire scars left by lightning ignitions. Regular burns are essential for the health of these forests. I try to picture what this landscape will look like in 6 months’ time, when the Floridian sun will completely evaporate the wetlands these animals utilize for breeding, and the salamanders will be forced to return underground. Perhaps another wildfire will have blown through by then, and the earth will be scorched beyond recognition. It is impossible to tell.
Nature doesn’t stand still. These salamanders have adapted to one of the most dynamic ecosystems on the planet; anything else would spell their demise. Adult salamanders cannot survive in fire-suppressed forests, nor larval salamanders in permanent water. Preserving the inherently dynamic nature of nature is one of the greatest challenges of conservation biology. The fate of flatwoods salamanders has yet to be sealed, but time is running out.
How to Save a Species in Captivity
Everything on earth will perish. And the Lord said you are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground.
God wasn’t much of a biologist. Despite heated discussions with my deacon grandfather, birds are animals. They are archosaurian reptiles, to be specific. But the bible wasn’t big on dinosaurs, so the error isn’t much of a surprise. Male and female is a little off-the-mark too; whilst parthenogenesis is miraculous in Homo sapiens, it is a rather common occurrence throughout the animal kingdom. More germane to this discussion, it doesn’t really take a scientist to work out that attempting to recover a species from only two surviving individuals is fraught with difficulties. In modern conservation we have the 50/500 rule, which essentially states that any species that drops below 500 animals is unlikely to persist in the long term, and anything below 50 won’t even persist short term. A population of two is fucked. Genetically, demographically, and functionally fucked. You can’t just let them off the boat and think everything is going to be tickety-boo.
If we want to have any hope of saving species, we must act before the situation becomes so dire. Unfortunately the law largely prevents us from being proactive in conservation science. The funding is only afforded when species are on the brink. Extinction captures the public imagination. If the loss is not palpable, it is difficult to convince people to care. California Condors were allowed to dwindle down to two dozen individuals before anyone intervened. Many South and Central American frog species are now restricted to captive facilities because the spread of the chytrid fungus was left unabated for so long. Captive breeding is a last ditch effort. In an ideal world, we would not let the situation get so bad as to warrant it. But this is not an ideal world. We have a biblical situation on our hands, and the flood is entirely our own doing. With each passing day, the outside world becomes more and more inhospitable.
In the modern age, arks abound. Zoos, captive rearing facilities, fish hatcheries; we are snatching up animals for their own safety, left, right, and centre. But what now? It is far from a permanent solution. Disease risk is a major concern with housed animals, inbreeding is largely unavoidable, and all of this husbandry is ruinously expensive. Stockpiling species at risk is not the solution, it simply buys us time. Luckily we have several longstanding institutions that can guide us through this interim. We take a lot of our methods from agriculture. The recovery of the American alligator is one of the great success stories of conservation, and was due in large part to alligator ‘farms’. Farmers have been diligently keeping stud books and carefully tracking the genetic lineages of livestock for millennia. So much for GMO-free. Farmers are fastidious for good reason; lives and livelihoods are at stake. Without such a cautionary approach, famine and bankruptcy are almost inevitable. Similarly if conservation is not exacting in its methodologies, any reintroduction efforts would be doomed to failure.
The pet trade also has a lot of expertise to offer. In the trade of reptiles and amphibians for instance, husbandry techniques far surpass anything conservation has achieved. We lack the history, and the institutional knowledge. Clearly a priority then, is to codify this information that largely remains sequestered in the minds of a select few. We must first lose the elitism that pervades academia before scientists will be willing to partner with animal breeders. The black market for exotic animals does nothing to improve these relations, and besmirches the reputations of enthusiasts who truly care about the fate of these creatures. Once unity between the two communities has been achieved, and the black market eliminated, the problem becomes largely an economic one. The last-chance saloon is irritatingly crowded, and there simply isn’t enough to go round.
As a society, we pay for the things we deem important. It is a savage indictment of our education system that we do not consider endangered species deserving of our protection. And I extend this lament to the entire natural world, for as we will see next week, the biggest threat to most species is habitat loss, and if that habitat is not restored, all the captive breeding facilities in the world will not make the slightest difference. The story of Noah says nothing about the trees, the grasses, the fungi, the microbes, the parasites. When the floodwater receded, what habitat remained for the delirious, emaciated animals that disembarked? How long did it take for tropical rainforests to regrow? Where did the buffalo roam? These are not trivial questions. We have hundreds of giant pandas in zoos but nowhere to put them. Bison are relatively easy to farm, but the Great American Prairie is all but extinguished. Captive rearing can save a species from the brink, but without wholesale restoration of natural ecosystems, it is an exercise in futility. For the ark to work, Eden must be reclaimed.
How to Save a Species’ Habitat
If we continue the wanton destruction of the natural world, it will scarcely matter how much money you have, we will all be impoverished. No area of the planet is untouched by man (and I do mean men). Not the deepest deep-sea trench, nor the highest peak in the Himalayas. Not even the atmosphere is beyond reach. From where I write in southwest Virginia, my back porch looks out onto a fabulous sea of green. These are some of the richest, most ebullient forests in the temperate world, and the view is spellbinding. But here too, the discerning eye can pick out certain cracks in the picture that have formed in recent history. There are objects on the canvas that don’t belong. English walnut, Chinese chestnut, and Norway maple clutter the ocean of trees. European starlings and house sparrows occasionally monopolize the bird feeders, in a tumultuous way reminiscent of British tourists. In 2020, we have finally come face to face with the impact of unchecked human travel. We unwittingly transport novel pathogens to new continents, and we intentionally introduce species outside of their native range for our own selfish fancies. Clearly this has to stop.
Invasive species pose a particular challenge for the conservationist. Firstly, it highlights the flaws of simply ring-fencing an area of land in the hope of protecting it. The creation of a national park, say, doesn’t really address the problem. This is not to mention the rather imperialistic overtones of such land-grabbing activities; pretty much all protected areas in the US required the forcible eviction of Native American communities for their establishment. And conservationists have the nerve to call themselves the good guys. But that’s a story for another day. For the vast majority of threatened and endangered species, the primary agent of their decline has been habitat loss. It is often a zero-sum game; the species I studied for my PhD, the incomparable reticulated flatwoods salamander, has declined by 97% because, you guessed it, 97% of the forests they once inhabited have been chopped down. It seems obvious then, that restoration of habitat should be a key priority of conservation endeavours, but expectations must be tempered. The forests outside my window were clear-cut less than a century ago. They are far from natural. But are they good enough? Most invasive species will never be eradicated, and indeed much of the environmental damage wrought by human beings is irreversible. Where are the goalposts?
Restoration is necessary, but unfortunately nobody can agree on what we should be restoring. Some cling on to lauded hopes of pristine wilderness, others are more conciliatory. My approach is to shoot for the moon; aim high and even if we fail to meet targets, we will have done some good. The people with the check-books don’t like this of course, and policy makers don’t like setting unachievable objectives. Well not every policy maker; Donald insisted Mexico was going to pay for that wall… But if we can afford 2,000 miles of bricks and mortar, surely we can rustle up the funds to save something as important as the environment, whatever we deem the environment to be. We could invest in barriers, or we could invest in the future of the planet. It’s our choice. It is still difficult for me to comprehend, as a conservation biologist, that part of my job involves arguing the case for the natural world. Yeah, nature’s pretty important. But sadly nature currently looks like Jake LaMotta after going thirteen rounds with Sugar Ray. Bruised, battered, and bloodied. And this is real life; there’s no guarantee of a miraculous Rocky-style comeback. There is no bell to save us. The world is on its ass, and the referee has started to count.
Indeed, this is why I’m not entirely sold on the term “conservation”. At this point it is not good enough to simply conserve what we still have. Wholesale restoration is an imperative to secure the long term prospects of the natural world. We must dig new ponds and create new wetlands. We must replant the forests, and we must re-establish the grazing dynamics of the American prairie and the African plains. We must mitigate the impacts of invasive species, and take measures to prevent new invasives from establishing. Of course, this isn’t going to be cheap. If we had done this a century ago, it wouldn’t have been nearly as expensive. A stitch in time, and all that jazz. We have been ignoring the tears in the fabric of nature for far too long, but there’s no point crying over spilled milk. Hindsight after all, is 2020. We must act, before it really is too late. The earth is bleeding out, and rather ironically, we can no longer afford to be miserly. Empty your pockets, or the world will empty them for you.
How to Save a Species in Court
The federal government is legally obliged to fork out money to save species. Despite the best efforts of the current administration, and of republicans since time immemorial, US environmental policy remains the envy of the world. Whilst there are older pieces of conservation legislation, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is by far the most famous. This act commands the government to provide funds for the management of endangered species until they are no longer endangered. This altogether seems like a good idea, because god knows they would not hand over the money willingly. Many politicians are in the pockets of fossil fuel companies, and thus protection of the environment is seldom a priority, nor a tenable party line. For this tenuous arrangement to have any chance of success, we must be clear as to which species are endangered, and how we determine when this is no longer true. These are not trivial tasks. Navigating the legal system to propose a candidate species for listing status is hard enough. Achieving recovery goals when the forests continue to be cleared, and strip malls continue to be built, is a veritable nightmare.
Let’s start with listing. In order for a species to be considered endangered, there must exist sufficient information on the organism’s biology and the threats that jeopardize its continued existence. The burden of proof is on the scientists to demonstrate that the species has declined, and is in imminent danger of going extinct. Essentially, we must show that intervention, and therefore federal funding, is necessary. Species status assessments are typically hundreds of pages long, subject to a public comment period, and scrutinized by the best legal minds in the country. Despite such stringent criteria, we actually have a backlog of ‘candidate’ species; species that qualify for endangered status, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to get round to. I think this says something about the current state of the planet; a savage indictment if ever I’ve seen one.
Many species that have been listed continue to decline because no recovery plan exists that outlines the steps needed to delist. By law, this recovery plan must be formulated within five years of the listing decision, but if the USFWS is overwhelmed (and given that the most recent estimates put over 1 million species at risk of extinction, ‘overwhelmed’ is their new default), endangered species can sit idle for decades. Indeed the situation is so bad, concerned parties are often forced to sue the federal government for its inaction, in the hope of chivying things along. The squeakiest wheel gets the oil. The species I studied for my PhD, the reticulated flatwoods salamander, was first listed in 1999. A codified recovery plan still does not exist for the species. We have sued the USFWS at least twice. There is no guarantee that these animals will still be around when the money finally starts to roll in.
But perhaps I shouldn’t complain too vehemently. By all rights, the ESA is not strictly constitutional. In 1913, the Migratory Bird Act was introduced, largely owing to the concern of duck hunters at recent declines in waterfowl (who would’ve thunk it ay? If you shoot all the birds, there won’t be as many next year). Less than 12 months later however, the act was deemed unconstitutional, owing to it violating states’ rights by essentially granting ownership of birds to the federal government. I am torn on this decision. As a liberal, I approve of limiting all forms of power; the people that scare me the most are the politicians, the priests, and the police officers. But as a biologist, I don’t want to see the birds go extinct. Luckily, rather than scrapping the law altogether, they sought a loophole. In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty was enacted, an international agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Such a multinational pact circumvents the power dynamic inherent in the US political system and grants the federal government license to do pretty much whatever it wants. I don’t understand it either, but I take solace in the fact that nobody does.
Given the rigmarole involved in establishing protection for birds, one would think more than half a century later, when plans were being drawn up for the protection of all animals, a similar kerfuffle could be easily avoided. I believe they call it ‘precedent’ in legalese. But if you thought that, you’d be a fool. When I was first taught the history of environmental legislation in North America, during the pursuit of my doctorate degree, my immediate and genuinely innocent question as an ignorant foreigner was: “why then is it not the Endangered Species Treaty?” No answer was forthcoming. Curious. The ESA has stood relatively unchallenged for almost fifty years, so perhaps it’s not a big deal, but it just seems peculiar, and not to mention rather risky, to base so much of our environmental policy on such shaky legal foundations. The ESA has achieved a tremendous amount of good work in its history, but if someone truly wants to besmirch this piece of legislation, I’m not sure we can defend it.
For now, the money continues to flow. We still have a bias problem, whereby most of the funding is earmarked for a handful of charismatic species; bald eagles and Florida panthers receive more federal dollars than some entire groups of animals. But the public are perhaps more to blame than the government on that front. Perceptions of animals are tightly linked to how much effort we are willing to expend to protect them. Stricter emission policies and broader protections for wildlife will be essential as we progress through the 21st century. The system is far from perfect, but laws are far from immutable. The law is a work in progress; it used to be illegal to be gay. In many countries it still is. Laws must be constantly updated in step with the march of society. Environmental law is no different. I blame Religion for our backward take on justice, but I am already over my word limit, so I’m not opening that can of worms. After all, blasphemy is a crime in some places. I’ll see you in court.
How to Save an Evolutionarily Significant Unit
Hypotheses about past events are not susceptible to scientific proofs, and the historian can never hope to have a hypothesis certified as anything better than reasonable. They must lope along where scientists fear to tread.
Geneticists don’t like species. And to be fair, there are as many definitions of a ‘species’ as there are scientists. What’s a ‘species’ when bacteria are concerned? The term is meaningless. Even a lot of plants and fungi defy our traditional concepts. The closer we study nature, the more cracks begin to appear. But don’t worry, that’s exactly how science is supposed to work. Our understanding gradually improves with each discovery, and our description of the natural world is refined. Nobody said science was speedy. We are far more concerned with accuracy. And the geneticists tell us that if we want to be accurate, we need to stop talking about species.
Many of the foundational pillars of conservation were devised by geneticists. Many of our management methods arose with genetic viability in mind. Captive rearing and species reintroduction efforts take care to avoid inbreeding and outbreeding depressions. The 50/500 rule, infamous in the field of conservation, in part seeks to combat the loss of genetic material through drift. And nowadays, if you read modern recovery plans for threatened and endangered species, you’ll struggle to find the word ‘species’. Curious. The language has shifted in the last few decades; we now concern ourselves with ‘evolutionarily significant units’. You can see why it hasn’t caught on in day to day parlance. Not very pithy, I’ll admit, but again we are going for accuracy, and conservation biology in particular, is above all else concerned with success.
The geneticists tell us that if we ignore ESUs, we risk constant and repeated failure. Moreover, we may not even realize we have failed until it is too late. Indeed one of the greatest challenges in conservation is measuring your impact, i.e. quantifying success. California condors have increased from around 20 individuals in the 1970’s to 300 individuals at the time of writing. Sounds pretty successful. But if these birds disappear in a century’s time, have we achieved anything? Even the entirety of human history is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, so to see conservation goals only extending over decades, as opposed to millennia, is somewhat troubling. The geneticists are much better at long-term thinking. Not only do they think in timescales more in line with natural processes, but they also seek to preserve the raw materials that allow organisms to persist in perpetuity. Surely this must be the ultimate goal of conservation – self-sufficiency. We must see the return of biological communities that do not require human intervention; we must safeguard organisms that can adapt to future conditions, and survive environmental perturbations. If this is not achieved, can we really claim success?
Any species (sorry, ESU, old habits…) or ecosystem that cannot sustain itself without constant supervision is not long for this earth. It won’t be cheap to get nature back on its feet, but this must be weighed against the cost of indefinite management. I would argue the latter is ruinously expensive. Prohibitively expensive. The longer we argue over the economics of conservation, the worse the situation becomes. The price of our ambivalence grows with each passing day. We can no longer afford to be idle on this issue. I’m not sure we could ever afford it. Many animals and biological systems currently hang by a thread. Indeed some fear that the wanton destruction of the environment in recent years has made self-sufficiency a pipe dream. But in the immortal words of Richard Hofstadter, “in so far as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that this is not so.”
Over geological epochs, generations turnover like dominoes as successful genotypes march through time. This is the most accurate view of the world we have. For conservation to be successful we must plan on colossal timescales, because we are attempting to preserve colossal processes. For now ESUs apply to populations within a species range that harbor unique genetic lineages or represent separate fishing stocks. In time we will apply the ESU concept to predator-prey guilds and ecosystems. Genetics reminds us to manage the natural world on a timescale that nature understands.
How to Save a Species in Theory
Agency reports claim a million species are at risk of extinction. The handful of conservation success stories are overwhelmed by news of continued logging activities and wetland drainage. Backward environmental policies remain the norm. But the psychologists tell us to be positive! The doom-and-gloom approach doesn’t work apparently. The passengers on the titanic don’t like to be informed how cold the water is going to be. It really puts a downer on the party atmosphere. If you are looking to curry favor with the masses, you will fare much better if you sell the myriad benefits ecosystems provide, or extol the majesty of nature. We live in the age of spin after all.
One of my favorite positive terms in conservation is ‘adaptive management’. It is reminiscent of Orwellian newspeak. What it really means is that we have no idea what we are doing, so it will take a few goes before we get it right. Conservation is a crisis discipline. Many species have already disappeared. Many management decisions are implemented so belatedly as to be redundant. Whilst it is true that we haven’t figured everything out yet (spoiler alert, we never will), it is also true that inaction is no longer an option. It hasn’t been for some time. Adaptive management accommodates learning on the fly; as we improve our understanding of the natural systems we are hoping to save, we refine our management practices accordingly. Adaptive management is an exercise in humility.
The early years of sea turtle conservation were a complete disaster. Although well-intentioned, efforts were at best futile, and at worst destructive. Our first seemingly sensible idea was to recover eggs from nests to incubate in controlled conditions, in the hope of increasing hatching success / reducing nest predation. Sea turtles however, like many reptiles as we now know, exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination. We were unwittingly creating and releasing nothing but males, and it doesn’t take a scientist to work out where that situation will lead: total sausage-fest. On discovering this SNAFU, we adapted our management, whereby fencing to protect nests in situ is now the dominant practice. A step in the right direction, but it is time to adapt again.
Turtles are long lived, and females can lay hundreds of eggs each year. Thus there is a lot of redundancy built into the life-cycle. Mass mortality of young does not jeopardize the health of the population appreciably, and indeed the natural history of these animals is specifically designed to accommodate lots of eggs/hatchlings being eaten. As mammals with very low reproductive outputs and high offspring survival, we struggle to reconcile the idea that juveniles are dispensable. But in sea turtles, as well as haddock, toads, and oak trees, this is the case. These species can afford catastrophic reproductive failure; they assume it is going to happen, and hence lay thousands, sometime millions of eggs in their lifetime.
The Achilles heel of such ultra-fecund animals is often increases in adult mortality. In the case of sea turtles, the real reason for their decline was too many mature females colliding with boat propellers, or getting tangled in fishing nets. For every female that dies of unnatural causes, you lose perhaps 50 years of egg-laying potential. Moms are valuable. For the same reason, an oak tree is far more integral to the forest than any acorn. For species with this kind of life history, conservation will get the most bang for its buck if it can target older individuals. Unfortunately in the case of sea turtles, beaches are much easier to access than the open ocean; turtle-excluder devices have been introduced to some modern fishing practices, but the emphasis of conservation efforts remains largely on nests and hatchlings.
The cuteness of baby turtles undoubtedly also plays a role in this bias. Members of the public are willing to volunteer to help the babies, and even if hatchlings are released to their certain death, and no discernible improvement to the population occurs, it makes people feel good about themselves. Attitudes are difficult to change, but the success of conservation needs to be taken more seriously. All the baby sea turtles in the world will scarcely make a dent on population recovery; we have known this since the 1980s, but the word is still not out. Perhaps it is our fault, scientists’ fault, for not better communicating our theoretical understanding of life-histories to the public. Regardless, forty years of ineffectual management is not something we can afford for every species on the brink of extinction. If we don’t improve, conservation successes will appear nothing more than a speck – a small leathery shell cast adrift amidst an ocean of failure. But like I said, we’re told we need to be positive.
How to Save a Number of Species
Mathematics is the language of nature. If we are to have any chance of conserving the natural world, we must be fluent. In recovery plans for threatened and endangered species, delisting criteria typically involve achieving x number of individuals or populations. IUCN red list categories are largely determined on count based metrics. Biodiversity hotspots are demarcated based on the number of species present in a given area. I will always tell people I study snakes, sharks, and salamanders, but at the end of the day I am essentially just a glorified statistician.
Ecological statistics seek to find a signal amongst the noise, a definite pattern amongst the chaos. And living things can be pretty chaotic! Biology is the youngest of the sciences, but concerns itself with the most challenging puzzles posed by the universe. Indeed Carl Pantin scathingly opined “a physicist is a person who only tackles the easy questions on the examination paper set by nature.” Amen, brother. A platypus is far more complicated than a particle or a protein, that’s for sure. When faced with such formidable mysteries, it is important to walk before we can run.
If we count all the animals of one type, we call this population abundance, and how this number changes through time can be extremely informative. An overall declining trend, if steep enough, would qualify a species for endangerment status. This would subsequently trigger legal action that mandates federal funding to be invested in the species’ attempted recovery. Alternatively, we can document where an animal occurs and where it is absent. Even with this simple binary data, we can create species distribution models that predict whether the animal is likely to exist in places we have yet to look. These models can also help us to map the spread of an invasive disease, or predict the success of conservation reintroduction efforts.
If we want to get more complicated, we can tally all the different types of animals; this gives us a measure of ‘species richness’. So far we have managed to elucidate that tropical rainforests have a higher species richness than the arctic tundra, but we are still not quite sure why; differences in ecosystem stability or productivity represent our best guesses. Again how this number changes over time can be extremely informative. Whether you are situated on the equator or at the poles, if habitat is destroyed, some species persist whilst others are immediately lost. Much can be gleaned from the predictability of such changes in species richness. In conservation the numbers are always our guide.
Given the pervasiveness of mathematics in ecology, it has always surprised me as to how statistically averse some biologists can be. Particularly in applied fields, mathematical competency often leaves a lot to be desired. To some extent it makes intuitive sense. Most people are attracted to these fields as a result of childhood experiences – camping, fishing, or hiking say. The love for the outdoors is what drives them; the love for the abacus does not come naturally, if at all. But if you are to have any chance of understanding living things, you must first understand numbers.
Inadequate statistical training stems from the way we teach mathematics at school. To hear children complain that it is somehow dull or irrelevant to their lives is lamentable indeed. The same is true of history. History is everything that has ever happened. Yet if you ask most people, they will tell you history is boring. Clearly it is not history at fault, merely our ineffectual teaching methods. Pedagogical techniques must improve lest we stultify children. If students are permitted the freedom to apply mathematical logic to problems that actually interest them, if students are able to study history of their own choosing, their value will become self-evident. Indeed, very little instruction will be necessary.
Mathematics is the language of nature, but the majority of us continue to exhibit willful aphasia. In modern society, the absurdity of numbers associated with the wealth gap and overpopulation is matched only by people’s indifference. Statistically speaking, indifference is not acceptable. The same is true for the preservation of the natural world. Statistics makes clear the scale of the crisis faced. An area of forest the size of South Africa has been felled in the last 30 years. Since the 1970s, a third of all wetlands have been drained and global CO2 emissions have doubled. There are over 5,000,000,000,000 pieces of plastic in our oceans. But we must never forget that statistics, whilst grimly capturing the 6th mass extinction in real time, also help reveal the inner workings of the splendor around us. From the flowering dates of daisies to the march of emperor penguins, from the height of laurel pine to the clutch size of cod, each is numerical precision. Not every biologist needs to be fluent in mathematics, but at the very least, each should know some basic vocabulary that permits some semblance of a conversation with the biosphere. If not, we will continue fumbling about the forests, deaf, dumb, and blind.
Should we Save Species?
Nearly a foot of rain in less than 24 hours. That’s the record documented from the gauges at our salamander ponds. This part of the Florida Panhandle is known for its tempestuous weather, particularly during hurricane season. The locals are not afraid of the alligators or the cottonmouths, they are afraid of the lightning. Us herpetologists must be pretty brave, because we again find ourselves soaked to the skin trying to save species.
As I bend down to snatch a saw palmetto to use as a makeshift umbrella, I notice a pine woods tree frog perched atop one of the broad fronds. Unlike myself, this ebullient creature is relishing the afternoon storm. Indeed many species do in these coastal forests. Oak toads are calling in the distance and a stink pot turtle clambers through the undergrowth by my feet. The plants and animals in this part of the world are adapted to extraordinary change; episodic fires and flooding are just some of the environmental challenges they must overcome. For the conservationist, the challenge is how to restore and protect such dynamic landscapes.
Can we save everything?
More than a million species are threatened with extinction. That’s what scientists tell us. The giant panda, the California condor, the great crested newt; by and large conservation efforts focus on species. But should they? Trying to save a million of anything sounds like a tall order. The cost of rescuing California condors from the brink of extinction amounted to well over $1,000,000 per bird. Bald eagle recovery programs invested $4,000,000 every year for half a century to safeguard the future of these iconic animals. If we carry on at this rate, we will run out of money before we even get to the frogs. And the frogs aren’t doing so hot. Species-level conservation is prohibitively expensive.
The extinction of a species captures the public imagination however, more so than the loss of a gene or an ecotone, and this perhaps goes some way to explaining our narrow focus. The loss of the dodo is tangible. It is also relatively easy to see that the loss is irreversible (barring any breakthroughs in genetic engineering). Thus how we communicate the 6th mass extinction, and in turn how we combat it, is typically along species lines. I fear we will not be able to escape this questionable approach until the public have a better understanding of the synergistic properties of living things. No species is an island.
Nature exists on many scales, from cells to ecosystems; what level we decide to view the natural world is largely based on preference and training. In antiquity, we used to think species were immutable. A horse is a horse, of course. With that kind of philosophy, current conservation practices might make sense. But such a static view of the world around us has not really been tenable since Darwin. Nature doesn’t stand still. Evolution is inherently dynamic; animals compete, generations pass, lineages are lost. Living things occupy space, and hence necessarily occupy time. The arrow of time has not been fully explained by the physicists, but it definitely exists. Attempting to preserve a freeze frame of nature as we currently see it is a fool’s errand. Moreover, no part of the natural world is untouched by man, and thus it seems rather concessionary to accept things how they presently occur.
So what alternatives do we have? Where should we shift our focus to better capture the dynamic communities we are hoping to maintain? What scale of conservation is most economically efficient? Back in the 1970’s James Lovelock argued that the world should be looked at as one big super organism, with the currents of the ocean acting like a circulatory system, and the great northern forests acting as lungs. The Gaia hypothesis as it is known has fallen in and out of favor since its conception, but at the very least it provides a useful thought exercise. What good is it to save a handful of charismatic megafauna if we proceed to chop down all the trees and drain all the wetlands? Whilst modern recovery plans typically include some component relating to the habitat requirements of the species in question, the continued focus on captive rearing, reintroductions, and population regulation is telling. The landscape nowadays more closely resembles an abattoir, as opposed to Eden; we release animals to their inevitable fate.
At best guess there are between 2 and 10 million species on the planet. As such the loss of any one species, whilst lamentable, cannot be considered cataclysmic. As a biologist it pains me to say this, but I am also a statistician, and the numbers don’t lie. Sometimes it is better to use our heads, not our hearts. In contrast, there are, at most, 20 recognized biomes on the planet, from tundra to tropical rainforest. To lose a biome would be beyond tragic. And such is not out of the realms of possibility. Longleaf pine forests now only occupy 3% of their former range. Heathland has all but been converted to agriculture across continental Europe, and the unique early-successional habitat only survives at a few intensively managed sites in Britain. Nature is not what it was, that much is obvious, but if we inefficiently address one species at a time, we risk losing the forest for the trees.
The public are sold on species. The logo of the World Wildlife Fund is a giant panda, not a patch of pristine bamboo forest. And public perceptions are important. Funding for conservation is inextricably tied to public support. We risk losing the public’s backing however, if we continue to be so wasteful with the money they so generously provide. Eventually the expense will no longer seem justified. In the grand scheme of science, conservation biology is an extremely young field; we are still figuring things out. Yet it is also a crisis discipline, and as such a lot of the learning must happen on the fly, through trial and error. It will never be perfect therefore; the best we can hope is that it’s sensible. Should we save species? Certainly. The fate of humanity is contingent upon the preservation of the natural world. But perhaps we should save species indirectly, through management of the land, and restoration of community dynamics. Perhaps the Endangered Species Act should be supplanted with an Endangered Ecosystems Act. I’m not sure. Nobody is. I told you this shit weren’t easy.
As I wave a chainsaw through the tangle of vines, and the bulldozer rolls through a patch of gum trees in the dry the wetland basin, I wonder what a passer-by might think of us. They might assume we were quite mad. It is Florida in July after all. We’re doing heavy manual labor in conditions that by midday resemble the surface of Venus. They might not realize we are conservationists, desperately trying to restore ecosystems to their natural state. They might not realize we are here for the salamanders.
Taking a breather from my weed-whacking, I survey the uplands. Flatwoods salamanders can travel over a mile from their natal wetlands into the surrounding forests. That’s where they are now. Scanning, it is clear to see the benefit of last winter’s burn; the mid-story is no longer an impenetrable mess, the herbaceous ground cover is starting to re-sprout. Unfortunately the ponds were full of water when the blaze swept through, so remained largely untouched by the flames. Prescribed burns need to be conducted in all seasons if they are to effectively substitute for wildfires. Too many ineffectual winter burns, and wetland basins will quickly become overgrown and start to fill in. That is the situation we find ourselves in with the chainsaws, the bulldozers, and the Floridian sun.
Once the brush is cleared and the duff removed, bluestems, pipewort, and sundew will return to the wetland basin. Once the vegetation has become established, the dragonflies and damselflies will begin to investigate. Crayfish will colonize and waterfowl will frequent. If the pond is appropriately situated, frogs and newts will find it eventually. Flatwoods salamanders are classic umbrella species. By catering to the greedy ecological requirements of one particularly spectacular amphibian, we are saving as many species as we can.