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Only The Cute Will Survive

Raisers look at caged giant panda Ling Ling at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, 12 November 2001. The 16-year-old giant panda was set to board a plane for Mexico in the hope he will mate with three female mates in a Mexico City zoo over the next five months. AFP Photo
Melbourne - Jan 15, 2002
Scientific bias towards the cute, unique or spectacular may be helping condemn a substantial proportion of the world's plants and animals to extinction, suggests an Australian ecologist.

Scientists develop and use lists of extinct and threatened species to provide social and legal mandates for conservation, to report on the state of the environment and to guide the allocation of scarce resources.

Associate Professor Mark Burgman, a University of Melbourne botanist, criticises the way the lists are developed and our reliance on them to manage the environment. He says they are biased and largely unresponsive to the underlying true threats to species.

"We are facing the prospect of a mass extinction event to rival the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago if we continue to rely on such lists as a management tool for the conservation of our environment,"he says.

Burgman unveils his evidence for scientific bias in the lists and the consequences of the bias in an invited paper in the forthcoming January edition of the Australian Journal of Botany. His criticism flows from his involvement in a working group of international experts from the USA-based National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and from an Australian Research Council grant to investigate extinction in Australian flora.

"Possibly the most striking consequence of the way national lists are generated is their focus on large, spectacular, or high profile species, and on geographically restricted and specialised species, and these tend to be the vascular plants and vertebrates,"he says.

"The result is that extinction rates amongst the less well studied groups are considerably higher than the rates implied by the lists of 'known' extinctions. These less appealing species are victims of a lack of interest and are unlikely to attract resources for conservation because priorities are tied to lists whose composition depends on the interests of scientists.

"This regulatory system creates a feedback loop guaranteed to be responsive to the subjective preferences of scientists and largely unresponsive to the underlying true threats."

Other salient biases, he points out, are the result of proclivities and particular expertise of local authorities. For example, Tasmania's list of 650 threatened species includes about 200 species of Hydrobiid snails.

Burgman suggests a further problem is an inconsistency in the various lists themselves. Lists of presumed extinct and threatened species are characterised by a substantial degree of turnover. A species extinct today will be found alive and well the next. An endangered species will suddenly be considered safe.

"Examination of the lists of extinct Australian species, for example, draws the inescapable conclusion that the majority of this change is due merely to an increase in knowledge of the listed species rather than any change to their chances of survival,"he says.

"Most of the information contained in the turnover of species is therefore noise and does little to inform us about the impacts of human activities.

"Such a system entrenches the focus on species that seem most attractive to biologists, rather than on species most likely to become extinct or those whose loss will precipitate the most costly consequences."

There is even inconsistency in the way lists are developed, claims Burgman.

"In Australia, lists of presumed extinct and threatened plants are maintained by scientific representatives from responsible state and federal government agencies. Systems for threat assessment though may vary between agencies: for instance, NSW is guided by the IUCN (1994) rules. Other agencies rely on different methods, some of which are subjective, while others rely on quantitative techniques," he says.

Burgman evaluated the concordance between several of these methods for setting conservation priorities by using a common data set of 29 threatened plants. He discovered the correlation between each method was unsettlingly low.

"One method would find a species safe; another would place it in the endangered or threatened category," he says.

Burgman lists three pieces of information that support assessments of the state of the environment and inform scientists and government agencies how best to act.

The three are:

  1. changes in the numbers of extinct and threatened species
  2. the causes of past extinctions
  3. the causes of any future threat.
"The lists as a concept are undeniably important, but interrogation of these lists, as they currently stand, fails to provide these vital pieces of information.

"While we rely on these lists we will continue to make badly targeted conservation and funding decisions. For example, funding that inadvertently targets safe species will elevate the risk to threatened species and precipitate extinctions that could otherwise have been avoided."

Burgman's NCEAS working group is developing and testing methods for classifying species' conservation status and estimating risk.

"The project will synthesise and evaluate existing protocols for classifying species conservation status applied in the United States, Australia, Mexico, Great Britain and elsewhere," he says.

Based in Santa Barbara, NCEAS is affiliated with the University of California. It has a critical responsibility to synthesise general knowledge of ecological systems and to focus on specific issues such as the massive and accelerating loss of biotic diversity, global change, habitat decline and fragmentation, over-exploitation of natural resources and pollution of air, water, and soil.

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Radiation Zaps Mars And Extrasolar Planets, Affects Biological Evolution
Austin - Jan 7, 2002
Calculations by a team of astronomers at The University of Texas at Austin show that jolts of radiation from space may affect biological and atmospheric evolution on planets in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars.

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  • Israeli missiles hit two Palestinian positions in Gaza Strip, one injured
  • Trade looms large as EU, China hold Brussels summit
  • US studies missile shield for Mideast: report
  • Israeli missiles hit Palestinian positions in Gaza Strip
  • US missile defense experts to visit Greenland radar
  • China's PM arrives in Brussels for EU summit
  • German government drafts bill on phasing-out nuclear energy
  • WTO, human rights, trade, environment, to highlight EU-China summit
  • US intends to cut nuclear arsenal unilaterally: Pentagon official
  • US worried about Chinese nuclear buildup: Pentagon
  • ABM dispute should not spoil Russia-US relations: Ivanov
  • Russian firm to launch first private space station in 2004
  • US says missile shield could protect all of Europe
  • China says ready for "serious" dialogue with US on missile defense
  • Russia to launch two US satellites in 2002
  • WTO, human rights, trade, environment, highlight EU-China summit
  • Global warming may be causing Pacific to absorb less CO2: study
  • Scientists to test Mars water-seekers in Egyptian desert
  • Taiwan set to team up with Russia in satellite launch
  • Pakistan denies transfer of missile technology from China
  • India tests sophisticated anti-tank guided missile
  • US booster rocket test successful
  • US sanctions on Chinese firm over missile exports to Pakistan
  • US slaps sanctions on Chinese firm over missile exports
  • Putin says ABM treaty not outdated, ready for talks with US
  • Russian institute to give second try to get solar sail in orbit
  • Astronaut says environmental damage can be seen from space
  • Do French couch potatoes have the right stuff for space mission?
  • Japan's environment minister to press US for Kyoto alternative
  • US space agency offers wine producers eye in the sky
  • Australian firm planning TV contest to choose space tourist
  • China attacks US missile defence plans at UN conference
  • Russia "calm" about US ABM decision: Ivanov
  • Europe back in space after Ariane-5 failure
  • Shield of dreams: Missiles intercepted by US could land on allies
  • Brazilian commission protests Brazil-US satellite-launching deal
  • Russia to launch new ISS module, Soyuz spaceship
  • Bush, Koizumi to have a summit in the shade of Mount Fuji: report
  • Japan's new rocket declared a success
  • Japan's new rocket lifts off
  • Japan counts down to new rocket launch
  • Japanese rocket launch delayed several hours: space agency
  • Concerns over US missile defense spawn lawsuits by health, environment activists
  • Technical problems delay French-US satellite launch
  • Reshuffle at Europe's Arianespace
  • Make or break time for Japan's rocket launch program
  • UNDP sets up trust fund to finance Marrakesh climate talks
  • Chirac reaffirms support for ABM treaty
  • Israel sucessfully tests new Arrow anti-ballistic missile
  • High-tech military gadgetry aplenty at US missile conference
  • US missile experts meet to save the nation -- and make a few bucks
  • Japanese rocket's delayed launch set for Wednesday
  • Russia launches Proton rocket with military satellite
  • Sino-US missile control talks hit deadlock
  • Japanese rocket launch delayed again
  • Mega-asteroid is record-breaker
  • China urges US "prudence" over ABM treaty after Bush comments
  • China and US still deadlocked over missiles
  • Japanese rocket launch to be delayed further: report
  • US not satisfied with China over missile proliferation
  • US, China still at odds over proliferation after Beijing talks
  • Bush vows to drop ABM treaty 'on our timetable'
  • US to renounce ABM treaty: Bush
  • US and China wind up one-day missile non-proliferation talks
  • Indonesian telecoms firm plans to launch new satellite in 2003
  • US-China begin missile non-proliferation talks in Beijing
  • Head of US missile defense program warns of stricter standards
  • Japanese-British team sketch new path to dream of nuclear fusion
  • Discovery returns to earth after "excellent" mission
  • Shuttle Discovery returns to Earth
  • Shuttle Discovery
  • Shuttle Discovery's return to Earth slightly delayed
  • Missile cuts dependent on keeping ABM treaty: Moscow
  • Japan delays H-2A rocket launch
  • Work to start on antimissile defense test center in Alaska: Pentagon
  • US to press China on missile proliferation
  • Discovery undocks from space station
  • Japan may delay H-2A rocket launch - again
  • Japanese general witnesses Taiwan's Patriot anti-missile test: report
  • US missile defense experts to meet in mega event in Alabama
  • Discovery astronauts complete second spacewalk
  • Discovery astronauts begin second spacewalk
  • No missile defence talks before year's end: Moscow
  • US arms chief due in Moscow on Saturday
  • Worlds smallest nations want Bush meeting
  • Shuttle astronauts complete spacewalk
  • A reduction in carbon dioxide could save lives: study
  • Bush faces rising pressure on Chinese missile exports
  • White House confirms UN dues spat
  • No compromise on ABM: Russian foreign ministry
  • Discovery astronauts start spacewalk
  • Russia gets Arab backing for air-based space launch project
  • Bush forces Greenpeace back to its roots
  • No compromise on ABM: Russian foreign ministry
  • Australia and New Zealand delegations arrive for Pacific Forum
  • Bush withdrawal from Kyoto condemned by 80 percent of Europeans: poll
  • Pentagon aims for more viable missile defense tests
  • Russia plans first-ever satellite launch from plane
  • German cabinet approves bill on greener energy production
  • NASA beats altitude record with solar-powered aircraft
  • Russian media sees US ultimatum, Russian concession in Rumsfeld talks
  • NASA shoots for altitude record with solar-powered aircraft
  • US names date on China non-proliferation talks
  • US Space Shuttle Discovery docks with ISS
  • Space Shuttle Discovery docks with ISS
  • US Space Shuttle Discovery readies for docking with ISS
  • Israeli satellite helps Taiwan spy on China: press
  • Discovery chases space station ahead of Sunday link-up
  • US balloonist Fossett snatches some sleep over South Pacific
  • Bush defends Kyoto treaty rejection
  • British foreign minister backs Bush's missile defence plan: report
  • Discovery launched with relief crew
  • Countdown under way for Discovery launch
  • Putin tightens Russian non-proliferation laws
  • US, Russia reach deal on "space tourists:" daily
  • Missile defense test scored almost direct hit: general
  • Discovery launch delayed due to thunderstorms
  • Discovery launch delayed
  • Discovery blasts off on scientific, not construction, mission
  • South African could fly to ISS in April: Russian space chief
  • Moscow police arrest 20 Greenpeace protesters outside US embassy
  • Chinese president denies missile proliferation allegations
  • Missile defense test scored almost direct hit: general
  • Discovery launch delayed due to thunderstorms
  • Discovery launch delayed
  • Discovery blasts off on scientific, not construction, mission
  • South African could fly to ISS in April: Russian space chief
  • Moscow police arrest 20 Greenpeace protesters outside US embassy
  • Chinese president denies missile proliferation allegations
  • US missile defence plans "unreasonable": China
  • US, Russians conclude missile defense talks
  • US, China talking about talks on missiles
  • Genesis solar wind-catcher launched
  • Long-delayed Genesis probe finally gets to space
  • Shuttle Discovery set to blast off for International Space Station
  • Activists try to breach radar post to protest US missile plans
  • US, Russians meet on missile defense
  • Shuttle Discovery set for launch to space station
  • Ariane-5 rocket grounded until end November after malfunction
  • Russia, heading into missile talks with US, has many questions
  • Launch of Genesis rescheduled for Wednesday
  • Moscow proposes non-military measures to deter "rogue states"
  • Second German firm suspected of supplying missile components
  • Heavy security for N. Korean leader Kim on Russian space tour
  • US, Russia to resume talks on missile defense, nuclear arms
  • Launch of Genesis rescheduled for August 12
  • Leading US lawmakers call for curbs on greenhouse gases: report
  • Bush undergoes first presidential physical
  • Russian defence minister, top Bush aide consult
  • NKorea says its missile programme is peaceful
  • NASA assembles 3D map of Earth from shuttle soundings
  • Second German firm suspected of supplying missile components
  • Bush heads for vacation, basking in legislative wins
  • China plane, "relationships" top Bush foreign policy wins
  • Bad weather stymies launch of NASA's Genesis -- again
  • Bush heads for vacation basking in legislative wins
  • Top Congressional Democrat blasts Bush's foreign policy
  • US Senate panel approves key climate change legislation
  • US still hopes for missile pact with Russia: Rice interview
  • Genesis space probe launch delayed due to bad weather
  • Genesis space probe launch proceeding, may be delayed due to weather
  • Solar storms help destroy the ozone layer: study
  • Senators call on Bush to offer alternative to Kyoto Protocol
  • US still hopes for missile pact with Russia: Rice interview
  • Genesis space probe launch delayed due to bad weather
  • Genesis space probe launch proceeding, may be delayed due to weather
  • Solar storms help destroy the ozone layer: study
  • Senators call on Bush to offer alternative to Kyoto Protocol
  • Genesis space probe launch postponed
  • Solar storms help destroy the ozone layer: study
  • Genesis space probe launch postponed
  • US must eventually have capability to shoot down satellites: air force chief
  • Countdown begins for Genesis launch
  • Land depletion blamed for high typhoon death toll in Taiwan
  • NKorea's Kim to visit Russian mission control
  • German firm suspected of supplying missile component
  • Japan's JSAT to enter US satellite communications market
  • Japan to study ways to deal with rising sea level

  • AFP Space headlines for April-July 2001 are here
  • AFP Space headlines for Jan-April 2001 are here

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