Naive interventionism in Ecological Restoration and How to Avoid It

Philosopher Nassim Taleb coins the term naïve interventionism to name management actions on complex systems that are highly ineffective and can also generate iatrogenics which literally means “harm done by the healer”. Sadly, most restorationists and about 99% of forest engineers perform naive interventions on restoration initiatives that go really wrong.

Here i will discuss shortly the three most common naïve interventions in different restoration projects. Avoid them at all cost. No one is safe from making mistakes, but this ones are non-acceptable.

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The 10 must read resources to start right in ecological restoration

Ecological restoration in the last years has seen an explosive growth in terms of articles, books and reference materials. This is great news because the interest in the field is increasing but also it’s becoming difficult to start right with good resources that offer the right orientation. Remember that too much information can be misleading and even toxic, and someone new entering into restoration can fall prey of misleading ideas.

This is the reason I have decided to compile the 10 best resources to start right in ecological restoration.  Bear in mind also that ecological restoration is more about practical know-how, so as soon as you have read some of this resources i urge you to volunteer or work in a restoration project near your living area. It’s the best way to learn.

The resources listed are composed of three books, six articles and my number one resource: The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER)  primer on Ecological Restoration. Please start with this one.  The list is in alphabetical order.

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Ecological restoration vs Restoration ecology: Not the same thing.

According to the SER, ecological restoration is “an intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability”. That is, ER is an empirical endeavor full of practical know-how.

Restoration ecology on the other hand is the theoretical or scientific corpus associated with the restoration practice.  But they’re not the same “ting”. You may believe that the academic expert is likely to restore some land but give him the responsibility and he won’t have a clue what to do about it (most of the time).

Bradshaw has stated that “restoration is an acid test our ecological understanding”. I  agree, but restoration practitioners don’t work applying abstract theories but instead they follow a simple heuristic that is usually forgotten: Observe nature.

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Christmas bird Count a success in Andean localities.

The christmas bird count is a wonderful activity promoted by the Audubon Society  that takes place every year from December 14 to January 5, where experienced and amateur birders host the  longest running citizen science survey in the world.

The census helps for conservation purposes documenting the change in bird populations and distribution of species over the years. All individuals heard or seen are recorded, compiling a huge database that helps to answer many research questions.

The history of the counts is really interesting. In America there was a tradition of hunting birds in christmas at the end of the XIX century, but the conservation movement begun questioning this activity seriously,  and it was the legendary ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, in the recently born Audubon society who proposed to count birds instead of hunting them.

On december 25 of 1900,  the first christmas bird count  took place, with 25 localities, 27 participants, 90 species  and 18500 birds counted.

I’m proud to say that  Colombia has been a leader in South America promoting the CBC, with the biggest numbers in terms of volunteers and census circles. The number of christmas bird counts has increased  steadily over the years in almost and exponential way. The counts are organized by the RNOA (Red Nacional de Observadores de Aves) and SCO (Sociedad Caldense de Ornitología) in our country.

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The herbarium for plant taxonomy.

There is no institution more important for botanists than the herbarium. In layman terms, it is a collection of dried plants  and you can think of it as a plant library. It provides information and data on everything related to plants, and documents the incredible plant biodiversity on earth. It is the center of all botanical activities and at it’s core we find taxonomy to be the most prominent of them all. The herbarium is the primary reference source for the taxonomist, were floristic works and monographs are made.

Herbariums are composed of herbarium specimens, which not only include the dried plants mentioned earlier but  also pollen, fossils, wood samples, dried fruits, photographs and drawings.  It is important to include all of them because they provide a more complete description of the plant world, with more data to work. A collected plant only has value if it has great information on it, and this information is stored in a way accessible to researchers, as in a huge database.

Herbariums are usually the place to identify plant species or discover new ones to science, they provide material for making taxonomic revisions, to measure species morphology, and help as a repository for new collections of plants.
Also really important is they are a repository of type specimens, on which the scientific name of a taxon is formally attached.

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Biodiversity in Caves and evolution

Caves are a fascinating subject, and through history they’ve been feared, respected, admired but never ignored.  However, it’s biota went a long time unnoticed because naturalists reasoned the conditions were tough to have life in them.  But everything changed with the discovery in 1700 of an eyeless salamander in Eslovaquia when scientists begun to question what else could be found there. Bioespeleology was born. Also,  with a more deep understanding of caves, it is becoming clear that most of them (specially limestone and other solution caves)  are like terrestrial environments, with spatial heterogeneity and stable conditions to sustain life.

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DNA Barcoding for Plant Taxonomy

dna barcoding

A typical 1ha of tropical rainforest may contain about 700 different plant species. Now, if you want to identify them, unless you are Alwyn Gentry that is a big problem.  A taxonomist is a weird creature with almost magical knowledge into the names of plants, and has highly specialized skills and vocabulary.

For a diverse set of conservation and ecological problems, the starting  foundation is always to  identify species correctly. Nothing is more boring than papers referring to species as  ” Bignoniaceae sp.1 , Bignoniaceae sp.2 etc”. Believe me, i have read a lot of them and you stay with the feeling you got nothing of value.So.. what is the solution? DNA barcoding.

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Biodiversity Pro and EstimateS

estimate s

biodiversity pro

Here we have two of the best software for measuring biodiversity parameters to assess species richness, like the famous accumulation species curve, and lots of indexes like the Shannon-Wiener, Simpson and Margalef. Also you can measure B diversity with the Jaccard similarity index and other indexes. EstimateS has the Chao-Jaccard Index, which according to Chao et al. 2005 “has been shown to reduce substantially the negative bias that undermines the usefulness of traditional similarity indexes, especially with incomplete sampling of rich communities”. I have reviewed this paper and the statistics look robust.

species accumulation curves

I find that Biodiversity Pro is more intuitive and you can get your indexes really fast. Estimate S is more tricky and you need to get used to the way to enter information, but once you get it’s easy as well. One thing you must remember is that none of this software is useful if you don’t have a crystal clear view of what you want to do with the information obtained. Also you need to be comfortable with the terminology and how the indexes work. If you know this stuff, then working with any of these programs is easy cake.

What I don’t like about Biodiversity pro though is that it hasn’t been updated since 1997. And that’s a long time. By contrast Estimate S is and the last version 8.20 is from 2009. I feel more confident using a software that is obvious the developers are paying a lot attention to it. I suggest you try both programs and take your own decision.

biodiversity index

 Ok.. .ready?

Here you can download Estimate S (Requires prior registration)

And here is the link to Biodiversity Pro

Biodiversity hotspots

biodiversity hotspots

A biodiversity hotspot is a geographic area that due to its physical and biological characteristics has high levels of plant endemisms (1500+ vascular plants, 0.5% of the worlds total) and  has to have lost at least 70% of the original habitat. Currently there are  34 biodiversity hotspots and most of them are tropical, but some are not. Whoever the ones in the tropics have the highest rankings in endemisms.

Look at the map closely and you will see that Colombia is practically a hostpot all by itself.  We have the biggest biodiversity hotspot which is the Tropical Andes, and we also have the  Chocó Biogeographical Region.

The polar regions contain no hotspots, and a good example of a temperate hotspot is the Mediterranean Basin or the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa.

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Biodiversity surveys

Biodiversity surveys are the most direct way to assess the species diversity of a given area, and data collected with them is priceless. It can help us describe the composition and structure of a landscape, to evaluate conservation priorities,  and to make comparisons and analysis for ecosystem management and diverse disciplines like ecology, biogeography and systematics.

There are three elements to take into account for a good design of a biodiversity survey:

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Distribution and abundance of life in the tropics

According to my college textbook, ecology is the scientific study of the interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. This is a really interesting subject and it becomes even more interesting when you ask why most of the species on earth are concentrated in the tropics. The discussion can start by the fact that  geographic areas has a fundamental role over biodiversity, and that’s why species diversity in the tropical zones is so much greater in respect to the temperate regions. It’s sad to realize that even when we want to,  richness is not distributed equal.

The geographic area influences directly with variables such as temperature, humidity and luminosity that determine the tolerance limits of the species. We can also find that the tropics hosts a huge array of biodiversity because these variables are more stable in the majority of cases. Also life has been able to diversify in the tropics  due to the abscense of great geological perturbations, like the glaciations that affect the temperate zones. When a glaciation strikes, it leaves almost nothing and life has to start again with processes of primary succession.

Now from studies in ecology we know that most species have a very narrow distribution, and that they’re not abundant. The contrary is true for widespread species that have high population densities. For a mundane example, rats are superabundant and you can find them everywhere (chances are there is one of them watching you right now)

I mention this ecological observation so you can understand better what is happening in the tropics.  We have tons of different species, but they are distributed in really specific areas. That is why deforesting  say, 10 hectares of tropical rain forest is devasting.  You could easily have lost some species in that process, because they’re distribution is so limited.  Deforestation in a tropical rain forest is a genocide to nature.

tropical forest

The Tropical Plant Taxonomic Challenge

botany in the tropics
One of the biggest challenges in building a career in biodiversity is the ability to quickly and correctly identify the plant species that you encounter in the field. If you need to go to an herbarium, then you’re screwed. I know this because i happen to have a great botany teacher in my college, his name is William Vargas. When i go with him on a trip, he can identify almost all plant species, even down to species level, with the blink of an eye. Off course there are some identifications that needs to be done in the herbarium, but only in special cases, if your making a revision etc.

Studies in vegetation are so important because they are the support for planification, management and conservation of tropical ecosistems. And remember that the tropics comprise almost two thirds of all vascular flora. Colombia itself has about 30,000 plant species. This is why learning to identify plants is not an easy task.  There are at least 250 plant families in the neotropics only. Some very different from each other. Some perplexingly similar. By identifying a plant to family level then it’s easy to go down to the genre and species level, whoever  i would say it’s best to identify to genre level because with the APG system some families are constantly changing.

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The Red Lists of Threatened Species

IUCN Red List

The red lists of threatened species are an excellent way to assess what are the main elements of our biodiversity that we need to protect. Some species require immediate action or their survival is at risk. A red list can tell us this kind of precious information.

However, generating this kind of list is not an easy task. It requires a lot of effort and teamwork from researchers to generate data that is reliable, consistent and useful. In fact, most of the information comes from scientist that dedicated most of their life to a particular taxon or species.

Now the question is how do you know if a species is threatened or not? And by the way… how do you categorize if the species is at the brink of extinction or maybe it’s populations are declining in a slow way? This is the job of the UICN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) where they have assigned specific criteria to know how endangered is a species. The criteria include important aspects like decline in area of occupancy and how small are the populations.

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What is Biodiversity to Me

Biodiversity is a relative recent term, and a straightforward definition is that it means the variation of all life forms.  Most people then think about species diversity, which is key because it works like a proxy to understand biodiversity at the other levels it embraces; which include the genetic, evolutionary, ecosistemic and landscape levels.

Now,  personally i think any definition doesn’t honor what biodiversity represents. To really understand it you should experience it. There is no way around. Somehow in the scientific paradigm there’s the idea that you can understand everything with the rational mind but this is not the case. Let me explain you:

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