We undertake research to support the recovery of Australia’s threatened species and ecological communities.
To do this we work closely with over 200 on-ground partners across the country, including government agencies, national parks, conservation groups, Indigenous land managers, farmers and community groups.
Our network includes around 150 of Australia’s leading environmental scientists who are delivering more than 100 research projects over six years (ending 2021).
We are supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.
1. Population estimates are commonly generated and used in conservation science. All estimates carry inherent uncertainty, but little attention has been given to when and how this uncertainty limits their use. This requires an understanding of the specific purposes for which population estimates are intended, an assessment of the level of uncertainty each purpose can tolerate, and information on current uncertainty.
2. We conducted a review and meta-analysis for a widespread group of seabirds, the petrels, to better understand how and why population estimates are being used. Globally petrels are highly threatened, and aspects of their ecology make them difficult to survey, introducing high levels of uncertainty into population estimates.
3. We found that by far the most common intended use of population estimates was to inform status and trend assessments, while less common uses were trialling methods to improve estimates and assessing threat impacts and conservation outcomes.
4. The mean coefficient of variation for published estimates was 0.17 (SD = 0.14), with no evidence that uncertainty has been reduced through time. As a consequence of this high uncertainty, when we simulated declines equivalent to thresholds commonly used to trigger management, only 5% of studies could detect significant differences between population estimates collected 10 years apart for populations declining at a rate of 30% over three generations.
5. Reporting of uncertainty was variable with no dispersion statistics reported with 38% of population estimates and most not reporting key underlying parameters: nest numbers/density and nest occupancy. We also found no correlation between uncertainty in petrel population estimates and either island size, body size or species threat status – potential predictors of uncertainty.
6. Key recommendations for managers are to be mindful of uncertainty in past population estimates if aiming to collect contemporary estimates for comparison, to report uncertainty clearly for new estimates, and to give careful consideration to whether a proposed estimate is likely to achieve the requisite level of certainty for the investment in its generation to be warranted. We recommend a practitioner-based value of information assessment to confirm where there is value in reducing uncertainty.
It started off as an enigma. Biologists at field sites around the world reported that frogs had simply disappeared. Costa Rica, 1987: the golden toad, missing. Australia, 1979: the gastric brooding frog, gone. In Ecuador, Arthur’s stubfoot toad was last seen in 1988. By 1990, cases of unexplained frog declines were piling up. These were not isolated incidents; it was a global pattern – one that we now know was due to chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that was infecting and killing a huge range of frogs, toads and salamanders.
Our research, published in Science, reveals the global number of amphibian species affected. At least 501 species have declined due to chytrid, and 90 of them are confirmed or believed extinct.
If you open Google and start typing “Chinese cave gecko”, the text will auto-populate to “Chinese cave gecko for sale” – just US$150, with delivery. This extremely rare species is just one of an increasingly large number of animals being pushed to extinction in the wild by animal trafficking. What’s shocking is that the illegal trade in Chinese cave geckoes began so soon after they were first scientifically described in the early 2000s. It’s not an isolated case; poachers are trawling scientific papers for information on the location and habits of new, rare species.
As we argue in an essay published in Science, scientists may have to rethink how much information we publicly publish. Ironically, the principles of open access and transparency have led to the creation of detailed online databases that pose a very real threat to endangered species.