Wednesday, May 1, 2024

May 2024 science summary

Blackwater River trail


This month I have a mixed bag of four unrelated articles: the efficacy of conservation globally, the state of wetlands in the US, the state of the world's migratory species, and one on how biodiversity relates to productivity in forests.

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Langhammer et al. 2024 is the big splashy new Science paper looking at the impact of conservation. It's a meta-analysis of trials comparing interventions to counterfactuals (similar areas w/o action). They found conservation helps 2/3 of the time (45% of trials led to absolute improvement in biodiversity, 21% reduced biodiversity loss), but is harmful 1/3 of the time (in 21% of trials biodiversity declined more due to conservation, in 12% it improved less due to conservation), and only 2% of trials showed no difference). That's not a great track record - I'd hoped net harm would be rare (1/3 is very high!), and just over half the time we're losing biodiversity despite trying to stop it. Fig 2 helpfully shows how impact varies by type of intervention: protected areas show the smallest positive effect on average, and invasive species removal shows the largest positive effect. I'd ignore "sustainable use of species" b/c it's a weirdly broad category that somehow only included 4 papers on wildlife hunting and 1 on fishing, although a few fishing papers are included under protected areas (details in the supplement - this makes me think their sample is not representative of conservation broadly). While the authors conclude conservation is working and we should do more of it, I bet if this was a paper on medical efficacy we'd consider interventions that are 2/3 helpful and 1/3 harmful an urgent cry to improve efficacy BEFORE we try to scale work that is so often ineffective or harmful. Would you send your kids to a school where 1/3 of students learned less than kids not in school at all?

The latest report on the status of wetlands in the US (excluding AK and HI) is a bummer but has some useful info. Key summaries are in Fig 9 and Table 2, but in short on net 221,000 acres of wetlands were converted, mostly to ag and tree plantations followed by housing developments. But that net change hides that fact that we actually lost 670,000 acres of vegetated wetlands, with non-vegetated wetlands like ponds, sandbars, and mudflats increasing (but NOT providing nearly as much ecological value). The report calls for more coordination to achieve no net loss of wetlands, to update and improve the National Wetlands Inventory, develop and implement better wetland conservation and management (duh), and commit to long-term monitoring and adaptive management.

The new State of the World's Migratory Species report (UNEP-WCMC 2024) has an update on how the 1,189 migratory species in CMS are doing. Almost half (44%) are in decline (with 22% at risk of extinction, including 97% of listed fish spp), 1/3 are stable, and the rest are split between improving and unknown. The report also notes that 399 spp not even listed in CMS (including ~200 fish spp, ~150 bird spp, and ) are at risk (from critically endangered to near threatened). See Fig 2.10b for an overview of which migratory species CMS leaves out (including horseshoe crabs!) and 2.10c for the subset at risk. Unsurprisingly the main threats are habitat loss (along w/ degradation and fragmentation) and overexploitation (hunting and fishing). Recommendations on page ix-xi are familiar and unsurprising (albeit important). There's a blog about this paper with key highlights at:

At first I thought Liu et al. 2024 was saying that productivity (the rate at which biomass is created) is a great predictor of forest species richness / biodiversity. That's not right though! Look at Fig 2 - they're actually saying that to predict productivity there is a significant but weak positive correlation to tree species richness, which is about the same as the correlation w/ more compelx metrics (functional attribute diversity and phylogenetic diversity). But forest stands under 30 show lower productivity with higher richness, and wildlife richness is left out entirely. So this is less of a strong & clear relationship, and more of a "if you're going to compare the two you may as well use the simpler metric" result.


Lang, M. W., Ingebritsen, J. C., & Griffin, R. K. (2024). Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2009 to 2019. U.S. Department of the Interior; Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C. 43 pp.

Langhammer, P. F., Bull, J. W., Bicknell, J. E., Oakley, J. L., Brown, M. H., Bruford, M. W., Butchart, S. H. M., Carr, J. A., Church, D., Cooney, R., Cutajar, S., Foden, W., Foster, M. N., Gascon, C., Geldmann, J., Genovesi, P., Hoffmann, M., Howard-McCombe, J., Lewis, T., … Brooks, T. M. (2024). The positive impact of conservation action. Science, 384(6694), 453–458.

Liu, Y., Hogan, J. A., Lichstein, J. W., Guralnick, R. P., Soltis, D. E., Soltis, P. S., & Scheiner, S. M. (2024). Biodiversity and productivity in eastern US forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 121(14), 2017.

UNEP-WCMC, 2024. State of the World’s Migratory Species. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


p.s. This photo is on the Blackwater River Trail in the Canaan Valley Resort State Park, where we were treated to some April snow on vacation!

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