Australian Endeavour Research Fellowship

At the end of last year I was lucky enough to be awarded an Australian Government Endeavour Research Fellowship!

This fellowship gives me the chance to spend up to six months working on my PhD overseas. My trip will start up in March hosted by Rebecca Miller, IUCN Red List of Ecosystems Programme Officer based at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (in the David Attenborough building!!!), University of Cambridge. After Cambridge I’ll travel down to London to work with Prof. Mark Burgman, Director of Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy and Chair in Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy.

During my fellowship I will be working on developing and testing a set of biodiversity indicators based on the IUCN Red list of Ecosystems database to measure the risk of ecosystem collapse globally, and quantify trends in the change to ecosystem area and health.

Check back here for updates on my adventures in the UK over the next six months 🙂


Photo Credit: University of Cambridge/ llee_wu via Flickr


New paper: Defining ecosystem collapse

Last month our paper developing a standardised process for defining ecosystem collapse for risk assessment was published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

The media has been buzzing, with articles on the Deakin University’s Invenio, and in the Geelong Advertiser (below).Geelong Advertiser Collapse article - 2Feb2018.jpgCheck our below a blog post I wrote summarising the paper, originally published on our lab website, Conservation Science:

New Paper: Defining ecosystem collapse for risk assessment

Paper authors: Lucie M. Bland, Jessica Rowland, Tracey J. Regan, David A. Keith, Nicholas J. Murray, Rebecca E. Lester, Matt Linn, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Emily Nicholson [Link]


The natural world is changing all around us. Species are going extinct, ecosystems are collapsing, and these losses are only expected to rise. To measure the risks posed to species and ecosystems we use Red Lists, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Ecosystems (RLE).

The RLE is the global protocol for assessing risk to ecosystems. Risk is measured based on change in ecological indicators through time or across space. Indicators can represent the geographic distribution, biotic features, or abiotic environment that characterise the ecosystem.

To measure these risks, we need to define a clear negative outcome, or end point. The endpoint for species or populations is extinction, when all individuals have died; but for ecosystems, defining the endpoint (i.e. ecosystem collapse) is a little trickier.

What is ecosystem collapse?

An ecosystem moves into a collapsed state once it has lost its defining biotic or abiotic features, or been replaced by different type of ecosystem. For example, the Aral Sea moved into a collapsed state after the water volume fell by 92% due to excessive removal of water. The fish, invertebrates, waterbirds and reedbeds vanished, leaving a desert with saline lakes (Keith et al, 2013).

The Aral Sea before (1985) and after (2011) the ecosystem collapsed.


The difference may be stark between the intact, or initial, and collapsed states of an ecosystem based on change in one or more indicators. Yet it can be challenging to quantitatively define the point at which an ecosystem moves into a collapsed state for each indicator, i.e. a threshold of collapse.

Why do we need to quantitatively define ecosystem collapse?

Effectively managing ecosystems and minimising risk depends on making informed decisions based on reliable information. This is unlikely to occur if we don’t clearly differentiate between intact and collapsed states of an ecosystem, and quantify the point at which an ecosystem changes from one state to another (i.e. the collapse thresholds).

How has collapse been defined in the past?

We wanted to understand how ecosystem collapse is commonly defined, so we examined research in marine pelagic and temperate forest ecosystems around the world.

Many studies failed to describe the biota, abiotic environment, ecological processes and spatial distribution in the initial and collapsed states of the ecosystem, or how an ecosystem may change between states. The quantitative collapse thresholds separating initial and collapsed were informed by field data or predicted based on a model.

Studies of marine pelagic ecosystems tended to focus on the functioning of the system. These studies typically used indicators of biotic and abiotic features to measure change. They also used conceptual models to depict the dynamics of the ecosystem more often than temperate forest studies. On the other hand, temperate forests studies mostly looked at change in the ecosystem area and biotic features, such as dominant tree species.


Photo Credit: USFWS / Kydd Pollock via Flickr

The four steps for defining ecosystem collapse

We created a four-step guide for defining ecosystem collapse to help improve consistency among risk assessments:

(1) Quantitatively defining initial and collapsed states

 At the outset, the initial and collapsed states of the ecosystem must be described, of which there may be multiple. This allows us to determine whether there have been any changes over time or across the area of the ecosystem.

(2) Describe collapse and recovery transitions

It is important to describe the ways that an ecosystem can move into or out of collapsed states. This can help highlight useful indicators, collapse thresholds for each indicator, and whether there are intermediate ecosystem states.

 (3) Identify and select indicators

 It is pivotal that informative and sensitive indicators are used that represent different aspect of an ecosystem. There may be multiple ways in which an ecosystem can collapse, so, using a range of indicators of the geographic distribution, biotic and abiotic features can improve the chances of detecting detrimental change.

(4) Set quantitative thresholds for collapse

Lastly, quantitative thresholds of collapse must be defined for each indicator that provide a meaningful distinction between an intact and collapsed ecosystem. There is often uncertainty in the exact point at which this can occur. To deal with this uncertainty, it is best to include bounded estimates for each threshold.

As the world is rapid changing, understanding what risks are posed to ecosystems allows for timely and suitable actions. Ensuring ecosystem collapse is accurately defined will increase our ability to take effective actions to mitigate changes in the future.


Photo Credit: Tatters via Flickr


Conservation Science lab member spotlight

Check out my Conservation Science “Lab member spotlight” on my research group, Conservation Science at Deakin University. Here’s an excerpt:

This month at the Conservation Science Lab we’ve started a new initiative! We are doing a ‘member spotlight’, and Jessin this post we’ll be highlighting the achievements of one of our PhD students, Jess Rowland.  Jess is into the second year of her PhD, and her outstanding work over the past few years is culminating in some well-deserved recognition.

Prior to starting her PhD, Jess completed a Master of Science at the University of Melbourne.  Her research aimed to increase our understanding of the thermal properties of nest-boxes compared to tree-hollows to improve conservation-management efforts for our native wildlife under a rapidly changing climate.

Jess has achieved excellent impact with this research, with her paper on this research, ‘Comparing the thermal suitability of nest-boxes and tree-hollows for conservation-management of arboreal marsupials’ inspiring a feature post on science communication blog Sandpaw, and winning Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Best Student Paper at the 2017 International Congress for Conservation Biology.  Jess was also subsequently interviewed as a featured member for the SCB Oceania website, check out her interview here

View the full original post.

SCBO member spotlight

Check out my Society for Conservation Biology Oceania member spotlight, originally posted on the SCBO website.


Our member in the spotlight this week is Jessica Rowland, who is completing her PhD at Deakin University. Jessica was awarded the 2017 Best Student Paper Award for her paper, “Comparing the thermal suitability of nest-boxes and tree-hollows for the conservation-management of arboreal marsupials”

Jessica in the field with her Masters supervisor Kath Handasyde. Strathbogie Ranges, Victoria

How did it feel to be selected as the recipient of the SCBO Oceania student paper award?

I was so excited when I found out that I had won the award, I really wasn’t expecting it. This is the first paper I’ve had published, so I’m really proud of it. The paper is based on my masters researchlooking into the conservation value of nest-boxes for marsupials. Masters can be a pretty tough slog sometimes, so it was such a nice feeling to know that all of that hard work was appreciated.

What has been the highlight of your research to date and what has been the most interesting thing that you have learned?

One of the highlights of my research career so far has definitely been the people that I’ve worked with. I’ve been really lucky to work with people who are very clever and passionate about what they do, but also super supportive and have helped me learn so much! Another major highlight was going to present my research at the ICCB in Cartagena, Colombia. Not only did I get to see a sloth, but I also had the chance to chat to other scientists from around the world working in my field. The most interesting things that I’ve learnt through my post-grad have been that it’s much harder to define an ecosystem than I thought, field-work is not for everyone, and that I get way more excited than expected over using R.

What project(s) are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my PhD examining the use of indicators in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Ecosystem risk assessments. I’m particularly interested in the types of indicators used to assess change in ecosystems, and whether using different types of indicators affects the predicted risk status of the ecosystem. I’ve also just started developing a way to use the vast amount of information that we are gathering from the Red List of Ecosystems assessments to inform how we are progressing towards the global biodiversity targets.

Sugar glider nest in one of Jessica’s nest-boxes set up in La Trobe University

Do you think Taylor Swift and Katy Perry will ever ever be friends again and what are the implications for conservation in Oceania?

No I think that T-Swizzle and Katy P are never ever getting back together as friends, but that’s ok. I think there’s an important lesson there: not everyone is going to like your style, but you just have to shake it off, and try to be the best that you can be. There are definitely a lot of barriers in the way of conservation in Oceania, but it’s important to not let that stop us from doing all the good work we’re doing.

Where do you see yourself going next? What’s your dream job?

I’m about halfway through my PhD at the moment (yikes), and I’m really enjoying this area of research. I think that I’d like to continue focusing on global conservation issues, potentially while working for an international conservation organisation like the IUCN. I’d also like to do work that allows me to continue to develop my quantitative skills.

Thanks for speaking with us Jessica (and for your surprisingly insightful response to the joke question)! Jessica will receive free registration at next year’s SCB Oceania Conference being held in Wellington:  You can read Jessica’s award winning paper here: 

Rowland, J.A., Briscoe, N.J., Handasyde, K.A., 2017. Comparing the thermal suitability of nest-boxes and tree-hollows for the conservation-management of arboreal marsupials. Biological Conservation 209, 341–348. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2017.02.006
My related research:
Griffiths, S.R., Rowland, J.A., Briscoe, N.J., Lentini, P.E., Handasyde, K.A., Lumsden, L.F., Robert, K.A. 2017. Surface reflectance drives nest box temperature profiles and thermal suitability for target wildlife. PLOS ONE 12(5), e0176951.