Epilogue: How to Save Our Species

The note for the future is co-operation based on mutual understanding and respect. I suggest the essential is a continuing and continuous collaboration in which nature conservation has the double role to play: that of providing the scientific guidance relative to humanity’s place in the ecosystem, our position against the background of the natural environment, coupled with the special task of fostering the pride of the public in the native fauna and flora and so of making due provision for their conservation.

Sir Dudley Stamp, 1969

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.  

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.