RSPB award to Gurutzeta Guillera-Arroita

GuruCongratulations to Gurutzeta Guillera-Arroita, who won the RSPB’s 2015 award for an outstanding PhD. Guru completed her PhD at Kent, and is now a post-doc in QAECO as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.

Her PhD was titled “Occupancy modelling: study design and models for data collected along transects”. Guru’s current work expands on this topic to include optimal monitoring, study design, the modelling of species detectability and adaptive management. Congratulations to Guru and the other RSPB prize winners.

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Methods in Ecology and Evolution highlights women’s contributions

For International Women’s Day, Methods in Ecology and Evolution are highlighting some key women who have made important contributions to their field.  First up was our very own Jane Elith, who was asked ‘what drew you to a career in science?’ Check out her answer here – great insight into the career of an exceptional scientist.

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QAECO’s favourite ecology and conservation papers of 2014

We asked everyone at QAECO to name their favourite ecology, conservation and decision science papers of 2014. The list shows our diverse interests including models and monitoring, fire and frogs, botany and biodiversity and invasions and indices. Here’s what we chose and why. Enjoy!

Happy Christmas and New Year from everyone at QAECO!

Freya Thomas

Muir, A.M, Vesk, P.A, Hepworh, G (2014) Reproductive trajectories over decadal time-spans after fire for eight obligate-seeder shrub species in south-eastern Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 62: 369-378.

Information about trajectories of reproductive performance for many plant species is limited and often qualitative.  This neat paper estimates flowering and fruiting quantitatively for 8 obligate shrub species in south-eastern Australia and infers reproductive maturity times by generating reproductive response curves over time-since fire sites.  A nice example of incorporating quantitative estimates of plant life history trajectories into ecological fire management.


Natasha Cadenhead

Farnsworth, L. M., Nimmo, D. G., Kelly, L. T., Bennett, A. F., & Clarke, M. F (2014) Does pyrodiversity beget alpha, beta or gamma diversity? A case study using reptiles from semi‐arid Australia. Diversity and Distributions, 20: 663-673.

Another interesting paper from the Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Project, and another nail in the coffin for the “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity” hypothesis, despite the catchy maxim. This paper investigates whether the number of fire-age classes in a landscape is correlated with the mean number of species at a site (alpha diversity), the compositional similarity between landscapes (beta diversity), or the total number of species in a landscape (gamma diversity). I haven’t read a lot about measuring different types of biodiversity, so this was a great way to understand the concept, and to see how the different measures can interact with each other. Plus: fire, reptiles, spinifex, semi-arid landscapes – the case study is right up my alley!

Reid Tingley

Y.E. Stuart, T.S. Campbell, P.A. Hohenlohe, R.G. Reynolds, L.J. Revell, and J.B. Losos (2014) Rapid evolution of a native species following invasion by a congener. Science 346: 463-466.

This is a neat example of just how quickly strong selective forces can result in evolutionary change. I particularly liked how the authors were able to sift through alternative hypotheses using a variety of experiments and approaches.

David Duncan

Michael, D.R., Wood, J.T., Crane, M., Montague-Drake, R., Lindenmayer, D.B. (2014) How effective are agri-environment schemes for protecting and improving herpetofaunal diversity in Australian endangered woodland ecosystems? Journal of Applied Ecology, 51: 494–504.

My choice is one I haven’t picked over every detail of, but liked immediately.  It is the latest work emerging from Damien Michael and others’ study of herpetofauna in the agricultural landscapes of southern NSW. As far as the researchers go, I think this work shows how the combination of strong ecological expertise, research questions, and analytical framework can result in a very authoritative and constructive piece of research. I reckon it successfully links the detail a local manager or program investor can use, with the research findings of international interest.

As far as the funding and opportunity is concerned, the work was apparently done on a bunch of sites funded by the Murray CMA via Caring For our Country.  I think this is the calibre of work that all of our major investment schemes should routinely be supporting, and that learning of this kind should be an explicit performance criteria for those who design and commission investment programs.


Guillera-Arroita, G., Lahoz-Monfort, J.J., MacKenzie, D.I., Wintle, B.A., McCarthy, M.A. (2014) Ignoring imperfect detection in biological surveys is dangerous: a response to “fitting and interpreting occupancy models”. PLoS One 9, e99571.

My second choice is very local, in fact the lead author is about 3 m to my left at this moment. Gurutzeta Guillera Arroita and co-authors’ recently published a rejoinder to Welsh et al (2013, PLoS ONE 8:e52015)’s suggestion that accounting for imperfect detection is possibly unhelpful.  This kind of piece is a cleansing breeze for the whiff of gentle conspiracy that can settle within a discipline. As long as an idea is consistent with one’s own beliefs it will probably not be challenged in the various forums that we inhabit, e.g., conference presentation, journal article.  When a disagreement emerges, you often see science being performed at its best.  I particularly like that Guru presented the argument in person at a conference, and also made a (relatively) accessible blog post about it.

Luke Kelly

Giljohann, K.M., McCarthy, M.A., Kelly, L.T. and Regan, T.J (in press) Choice of biodiversity index drives optimal fire management decisions. Ecological Applications.

Fire management requires clear, measurable objectives. Yet objectives can be set in many different ways – even when the overall goal is to promote biodiversity. Giljohann et al. (in press) show that fire management actions aimed at maximizing biodiversity are dependent on the species of concern and the biodiversity indices used. A key take home message was that land managers should carefully consider how they specify objectives when managing fire. I’m a bit biased because I co-authored this one! It builds on some of the other work we published this year on optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservation.

Lucie Bland

Harfoot, M et al. (2014) Emergent Global Patterns of Ecosystem Structure and Function from a Mechanistic General Ecosystem Model. PLoS Biology: e1001841.

Microsoft Research and UNEP-WCMC have aimed high and published the first General Ecosystem Model that applies to both terrestrial and marine environments. Based on fundamental ecological principles and mechanistic modelling, it accurately describes emergent properties of global ecosystems. I look forward to seeing the developments of the Madingley model in different fields: conservation applications, testing of alternative stable state theory, and more complete capture of physical processes. Also, it’s open source!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Laura Pollock

Graham, CH, Carnaval, AC, Cadena CD et al. (2014) The origin and maintenance of montane diversity: integrating evolutionary and ecological processes. Ecography,  37: 711-719.

I like this paper because it skates the middle ground between ecological and evolutionary explanations for diversity patterns- and offers a concrete pathway for further studies. And it’s about mountains, and mountains are really important reservoirs of diversity.. and they are pretty.

Gerry Ryan

Hunter, ML, Redford, KH, & Lindenmayer, DB (2014) The Complementary Niches of Anthropocentric and Biocentric Conservationists. Conservation Biology 28: 641–645.

From the sidelines the ‘new conservation’ vs. ‘old conservation’ debacle made great tit-for-tat entertainment. If you didn’t catch the show, prominent conservationists threw mud around over whether people had any place in conservation priorities; there are stacks of links in that article. Hunter, Redford, and Lindenmayer provided a sound “Surely we should be united against the common enemy” moment in a debate was just as important for exploring our underlying philosophies, and just as silly, as Python.

Jane Catford

Miller AL, Diez JM, Sullivan JJ, Wangen SR, Wiser SK, Meffin R, Duncan RP (2014) Quantifying invasion resistance: the use of recruitment functions to control for propagule pressure. Ecology 95: 920–929.


This paper tackles a very important topic in invasion ecology: how to assess and quantify ecosystem invasibility. Ecosystem invasibility has been widely discussed but it has proved difficult to assess because of the number of factors that are involved in the invasion process. Miller and colleagues disentangle propagule pressure from invasibility by using a (really innovative) seed addition experiment, the findings of which are complemented by results of a field survey. They remove the need to investigate the influence of species invasiveness by focusing on a single invasive species. The authors build on a conceptual/methodological paper that they wrote in 2009 by showing how an “index of safe sites” can be applied and used to interpret the invasibility of six different ecosystems in New Zealand. In short, I think this paper is an absolute ripper: it gets my vote for best paper of 2014.

Chris Baker

I have two. A maths maths one and a maths one.

Leander, Rachel, Suzanne Lenhart, and Vladimir Protopopescu (2014) Optimal Control of Continuous Systems with Impulse Controls. Optimal Control Applications and Methods doi:10.1002/oca.2128.

Biological systems change continuously over long time-scales, while human intervention often occurs at a much shorter time-scales. For example in projects where invasive populations are baited, there are often large gaps between successive baiting events. We can call this type of invasive species control ‘pulse control’. As with any invasive species problem, we are interested in optimising baiting schedules, and this paper sets up the mathematical machinery to better analyse these control problems.

Lampert, Adam, Alan Hastings, Edwin D. Grosholz, Sunny L. Jardine, and James N. Sanchirico (2014) Optimal Approaches for Balancing Invasive Species Eradication and Endangered Species Management. Science 344: 1028–31.

Completely removing an invasive species can have negative consequences for endemic species. This paper solves for the optimal way to eradicate and invasive plant, while ensuring that a threatened bird species, which uses the invasive plant, doesn’t go extinct.

Saras Mei Windecker

Is biodiversity offset effective? This paper concludes that current restoration efforts result in a net loss of biodiversity and have a high rate of failure. The authors suggest we need to reconsider how we allocate precious conservation resources.

Curran, M., Hellweg, S., & Beck, I (2014) Is there any empirical support for biodiversity offset policy? Ecological Applications, 24: 617–632.


Chris Jones

Yes, this is my own paper but it is my first one after 7 years of postgrad research so I don’t care. To be honest though, I do really like this paper, for it’s contribution to a growing field of research, and the way we were able to bring the study together. Dense woody regrowth is increasing in extent worldwide and is a problem for vegetation structure and function. Thinning is a commonly cited solution but its influence on understorey vegetation is largely unknown. We explore all of this in this paper.

Jones CS, Duncan DH, Rumpff L, Thomas FM, Morris WK, and Vesk PA. [in press] Empirically validating a dense woody regrowth ‘problem’ and thinning ‘solution’ for understorey vegetation. Forest Ecology and Management, DOI:10.1016/j.foreco.2014.12.006

Cindy Hauser

Springborn, M.R. (2014) Risk aversion and adaptive management: insights from a multi-armed bandit model of invasive species risk. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 68, 226-242.

Those of us who geek out over adaptive management algorithms are frequently disappointed to discover that the elegance of active adaptive management rarely translates to major improvements in outcomes. Springborn points out that this might be because we’re all hung up on the mean outcome. If we instead look at the entire distribution of plausible outcomes then these approaches have more to offer, such as guarding against disaster.

Hannah Pearson

Favaro, B. (2014). A carbon code of conduct for science. Science, 344: 1461

The article that has excited me the most and had the most impact on me was Brett Favaro’s Carbon Code of Conduct for Science.

And there is another one which has influenced me equally.

Herrando-Perez, S., Brook, B.W. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. (2014). Ecology needs a convention of nomenclature. Bioscience, 64, 311–321.


Stefano Canessa

I have chosen four papers this year, part of the ongoing debate on the role of zoos in species conservation. Within this debate, people agree that zoos can be important for conservation, and that their potential is still to be realised. People agree that threatened species are currently under-represented in zoos. However, people also agree that the potential impact of zoos is multi-faceted, and can go beyond the establishment of captive populations. Apparently, people do not yet agree on how to achieve that maximum potential. Lesson: conservation decisions can be hard!

Martin, T. E., Lurbiecki, H., Joy, J. B. and Mooers, A. O (2014) Mammal and bird species held in zoos are less endemic and less threatened than their close relatives not held in zoos. Animal Conservation, 17: 89–96.

Bowkett, A. E (2014) Ex situ conservation planning is more complicated than prioritizing the keeping of threatened species in zoos. Animal Conservation, 17: 101–103.

Fa, J. E., Gusset, M., Flesness, N. and Conde, D. A (2014) Zoos have yet to unveil their full conservation potential. Animal Conservation, 17: 97–100.

Martin, T. E., Lurbiecki, H. and Mooers, A. O (2014) The economic geography of ex situ conservation. Animal Conservation, 17: 104–105.

Alejandra Moran-Ordonez 

Merow, C., Smith, M. J., Edwards, T. C., Guisan, A., McMahon, S. M., Normand, S., Elith, J (2014) What do we gain from simplicity versus complexity in species distribution models? Ecography 37: 1267-1281.

How many predictors should I use to fit my model? What are the problems/advantages of using more or less predictors? Should I use proximal or distal predictors? Is it advisable to fit a complex model with the data set I have? This paper explores some of these questions but the main take home message is that there is not a simple answer!: the complexity of model must depend on the study objective, the attributes of the data and the understanding of the ecology of the species or the biological process under study.


Gurutzeta Guillera-Arroita 

Fithian, W., Elith, J., Hastie, T., Keith, D. A (2014) Bias correction in species distribution models: pooling survey and collection data for multiple species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12242

An exciting development in species distribution modelling! This paper presents methods for the joint analysis of presence-only and presence-absence data to exploit their complementary strengths. Presence-absence data is of higher quality but usually quite restricted in amount; on the other hand presence-only datasets tend to be larger but these data are susceptible to sampling bias. The method presented in this paper combines both types of data and, by pooling data from many species, it attempts to correct for sampling bias that may be present in the presence-only data.

Brendan Wintle

Pollock, L.J., Tingley, R., Morris, W.K., Golding, N., O’Hara, R.B., Parris, K.M., Vesk, P.A., and McCarthy, M.A. 2014. Understanding co-occurrence by modelling species simultaneously with a Joint Species Distribution Model (JSDM). Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 5:397

This paper breaks new ground in distribution modelling; elegantly dealing with species interactions when modelling a species distribution. Should be a citation classic!

Estibaliz Palma

Laughlin, D.C (2014) Applying trait-based models to achieve functional targets for theory-driven ecological restoration. Ecology Letters 17: 771–784. 

Great paper that brings theory and practice together. First, it reviews the role of plant traits in community assembly and ecosystem functioning using ecological theory. Then, it explains how restoration goals can be defined in terms of traits and the benefits of this approach to achieve a more rigorous, quantitative management framework. Finally, it applies the trait-based framework to particular restoration problems.

Alina Pung

Robinson, N.M., Leonard, S.W.J., Bennett, A.F. and Clarke, M.F (2014) Refuges for birds in fire-prone landscapes: The influence of fire severity and fire history on the distribution of forest birds. Forest Ecology and Management 318: 110-121.


This paper explores the impact of time since fire and fire severity on bird species richness and composition. The authors highlight he importance of unburnt patches of long time since fire as refuges for birds. Additionally, they discuss the potential application of prescribed burning in reducing the severity of future wildfires.

Mick McCarthy

Bland, L.M., Collen, B., Orme, C.D.L. and Bielby, J (in press) Predicting the conservation status of data-deficient species. Conservation Biology.

When assessing species’ extinction risk using IUCN criteria, many species will be listed as being data deficient – we just don’t have the data to assess them against the criteria. However, many of those species might be at risk. Lucie Bland shows that we can predict conservation status based on what we do know. The result is that many of these data deficient species are likely to be threatened, so they will warrant conservation actions.

Heini Kujala

Kelly, L.T., Bennett, A.F., Clarke, M.F. & McCarthy, M.A (in press) Optimal fire histories
for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology.

Linking species distribution models, biodiversity indices and decision tools to solve problems in fire ecology. What’s not to like!

Amy Whitehead

Garrard, G.E., S.A. Bekessy, M.A. McCarthy and B.A. Wintle (2014) Incorporating Detectability of Threatened Species into Environmental Impact Assessment. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12351


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The QAECO & CEBRA lab retreat 2014

QAECO has become quite a large group, and what is the best (and most fun) way for 75 people to get to know each other better?  A lab retreat of course. Earlier this month, we travelled up to Creswick with our friends at the Centre for Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA) for a retreat generously hosted by the School of Ecosystem and Forest Science. Over the course of two days, we arranged social and work-related activities ranging from a hilarious set of speed presentations to discussions addressing equity in Science and a fiercely competitive night of pub trivia.

Continue reading

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A carbon code of conduct is not enough

By Hannah Pearson, Chris Baker, Natalie Briscoe, Laura Pollock and Luke Kelly.

Despite our best efforts, scientists haven’t succeeded in persuading the world’s governments that reducing carbon emissions is vital for maintaining a liveable climate on earth. This might be because we damage our credibility by creating more carbon emissions than average citizens (13). This isn’t exactly the best way to show how much we value reducing carbon emissions and minimising climate change. Favaro (2014) highlighted this issue and proposed a way of reducing scientists’ carbon emissions by going through a carbon-ethics application procedure before undertaking research-related activities. This idea is based around the principles underpinning animal research which require you to minimise and justify the suffering of animal subjects (4).

Favaro’s (2014) recommendation that scientists reduce carbon emissions in all areas of their research is admirable. However, we believe that focussing on the main source of carbon emissions would be more efficient. The majority of scientists’ carbon emissions are produced by travelling to conferences (1, 2). The average conference attendee expends 801kg of carbon in transit (2) (southern hemisphere scientists vastly exceed this average as they have to travel far greater distances to reach conferences). Therefore a conference such as the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting, which is attended by in excess of 7000 scientists generates the more CO2 than a Hummer driving around the world 350 times. This is compounded by many scientists traveling to several international conferences per year, drastically increasing their personal carbon emissions.

It is not surprising that scientists keep traveling to conferences despite the environmental cost. Attending conferences improves productivity (5, 6), scientific networks, and grant applications. These advantages must be maintained to avoid crippling the career advancement of researchers. But we think that there are low emission alternatives which could still provide these benefits. We advocate using advances in web technology to replace (some or all) traditional conferences with online conferences.

Some aspects of conferences could be difficult to replicate online, but online conferences have many benefits including greater scope for personalised programs and more in-depth discussions using online forums and social media (7). These tools encourage greater dialogue between researchers at all career stages.

Bearing in mind that online conferences are relatively untested and may not fully provide the benefits achieved at traditional conferences, we propose that some traditional conferences are retained, at least to begin with. However, it is important that the carbon cost of these conferences is justified by the benefits gained. Despite the potential for convenient networking at traditional (face-to-face) conferences, it is often difficult to identify, locate and approach the people who would be most beneficial. We feel that the carbon-efficiency of conferences could be improved by using social networking apps like SocialRadar and those developed for conferences such as ESA alongside ‘speed networking’ events and social media.

An increase in online conferences, paired with fewer, more effective traditional conferences, could allow the benefits of attending conferences to be maintained while reducing scientists’ carbon footprint. Maybe this will improve our credibility and make our calls for reductions in carbon emissions more compelling? Maybe it won’t? Either way, we will be doing our best to minimise our impact on the world’s climate.

Favaro’s (2014) recommendations have great potential. But their implementation is likely to be slow. As early career researchers, we believe that broader institutional change, such as the increased use of online conferences, is required to effectively reduce scientists’ carbon emissions, while minimising the impact on the career advancement of individual researchers.

If you want to get an idea of how much carbon you’re releasing by travelling to conferences you can visit this site.


1. W. M. J. Achten, J. Almeida, B. Muys, Carbon footprint of science: more than flying. Ecol. Indic. 34, 352–355 (2013).

2. D. Spinellis, P. Louridas, The Carbon Footprint of Conference Papers. PLoS One. 8 (2013).

3. L. Fahrni, Y. Rydin, S. Tunesi, M. Maslin, “Travel related carbon footprint: a case study using the UCL Environment Institute” (London, 2009).

4. B. Favaro, A carbon code of conduct for science. Science (80-. ). 344, 1461 (2014).

5. D. Teodorescu, Correlates of faculty publication productivity: A cross-national analysis. High. Educ. 39, 201–222 (2000).

6. K. Prpic, The publication productivity of young scientists: An empirical study. Scientometrics. 49, 453–490 (2000).

7. iCohere, “Getting it right: five steps to planning a successful 100% online conference” (2013), pp. 0–10.

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Saving the most species at #uomOpenDay

How should you invest $20 million to save the most species from extinction? That was the challenge we put to visitors to The University of Melbourne Open Day. You can take the challenge too!

It is a difficult problem; programs to conserve different species will cost different amounts of money and will have different levels of success.

A difficult choice

Choices, choices… If money is short, do we fund the parrot, the frog, or a bit of both?

We used the paper by Liana Joseph and her colleagues as a case study; we had 32 different species, and the total funding required for all of them cost over $100 million. With only $20 million to spend, we need to find more money to invest in species conservation. But while waiting for Treasury to provide more funds, how do we decide which species to save?

Before reading about the optimal solution, you can try for yourself; please download the Excel spreadsheet here. (The expected success of each program differs, as does the cost. Enter the proportion of each program that you want to fund. Unfortunately, you can’t fund them all – you will have to prioritize. Can you save the most species?)

Hard at work saving the most species. (Photo by Liz Martin:

Working hard to save the most species. (Photo by Liz Martin)

Here is how to construct this as an environmental decision problem; we then use some basic maths to maximize the number of species saved.

Let’s look at the data for the first two species on the spreadsheet we used:

Species Benefit
(Reduction in extinction risk)
Probability of success Cost
Long-tailed bat 0.95 0.21 $6,210,151
North Island brown kiwi 0.95 1.00 $7,910,292

For North Island brown kiwi, the risk of extinction will be reduced by 0.95 if its conservation program is successful. And that particular conservation program is certain to succeed – the probability of success is 1.00. So if it is funded, we’ll improve the expected number of species saved by 0.95.

For the long-tailed bat, the benefit of the conservation program is also 0.95, but the probability of success is only 0.21. So if that is funded, the expected improvement in the number of saved species is only 0.95×0.21 = 0.1995.

The expected benefit of funding the kiwi program is greater, but the long-tailed bat program is cheaper. So which would we prefer to fund?

Well, we simply ask “Which species gives us the best bang for our buck?” That is, we select the option where the expected number of species saved per dollar spent is the greatest.

By multiplying the benefit by the probability of success, and then dividing by the cost, we can rank the options by their relative efficiencies. We fund the species where the relative efficiencies are greatest until we run out of money.

In the example in the Excel spreadsheet, the optimal solution saves just under an extra 7.84 species. You can download that optimal solution here.

This approach to efficient allocation of funding is now being used in New Zealand, and is being adopted in some Australian states. You can read more about it in Liana Joseph’s paper.

Some species might be valued more than others – they might influence the ecology of an area more than others, they might be economically important (e.g., think of the tourism value of koalas), or they might be more evolutionarily distinct. These different factors can be incorporated by modifying the benefit derived from conserving each species.

The benefit of a conservation program might change non-linearly with the level of funding, while this example assumes linear changes. The maths required to solve the non-linear case is more complicated – it requires calculus, but it is not much more complicated than the calculus taught in high schools (email Mick if you want a copy of the paper – this will generate an email, and the automatic response will send you a copy of the paper).

While it is relatively straight-forward to determine the budget for a conservation program, determining the values of saving species and estimating the probability of success can be difficult. If those values are hard to calculate, you might wonder whether this approach is useful. In fact, this approach is particularly useful because it focuses one’s mind on the parameters that need to be determined so that a good decision can be made. We don’t end up worrying about factors that are irrelevant to the decision at hand.

Some might worry that this approach sanitizes the extinction of species – in fact, I think it does the opposite, by making clear that current levels of funding are insufficient. It forces us to calculate how much money is actually required to save species from extinction.

To those who used the spreadsheet at Open Day, thanks for participating. I hope you enjoyed the challenge, and learned a little about some of the things we study at The University of Melbourne. Congratulations to Tim and Sam who figured out the approach to optimizing this particular problem. And thanks to Natasha for organizing everything!

To learn more about using maths to help manage the environment, check out our research centre’s (free) monthly magazine Decision Point.

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Socially-acceptable conservation planning: how can we integrate biological and social values to improve conservation?

By Rachael Vorwerk, Amy Whitehead and Heini Kujala (This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Decision Point, The Monthly Magazine of the Environmental Decisions Group)

Understanding how society perceives and values different areas is important for effective land-use planning. Making use of social values is arguably one of the most important challenges in modern conservation planning, yet their potential remains poorly exploited. Previous research suggests the inclusion of social values can reduce conflicts between stakeholders and provide more efficient conservation implementation. However, the potential tradeoffs related to incorporating social values into spatial conservation planning are not well understood. These gaps in knowledge led Amy Whitehead and colleagues to investigate methods for integrating social values into spatial conservation planning.

Obtaining social and biological values

The research group collected spatial data on social values by conducting a Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) survey in the Lower Hunter Valley in eastern New South Wales. Local residents were asked to map areas perceived to be important for their natural or potential development values. Randomly-selected landowners were given a map of the region and a set of sticker dots that corresponded to different social values, including biodiversity, natural significance and intrinsic value types (social values for biodiversity). Another set of stickers corresponded to areas believed to be appropriate for different types of future development (social values for development). Participants were asked to place stickers on areas of the map they associated with each of the social values for biodiversity and development. The responses were then digitised and used to create density maps for each social value in the region.

In addition to social values data, the researchers used biological data to represent areas important for conservation. Seven fauna species considered to be vulnerable to land clearance were selected to represent the biological values in the Lower Hunter Valley. These species were mapped onto the landscape using species distribution models, derived from occurrence data.

Integrating social and biological values in conservation planning

The spatial prioritisation of the Lower Hunter Valley was done using Zonation, a commonly-used tool in conservation planning. The program ranks sites in the landscape based on their importance for all features in the model, producing a spatially-explicit output that identifies areas of high value. Zonation is typically used with biological data to identify areas of high conservation value but any spatially-explicit variable of interest, such as social values, can be included.

The researchers first examined three scenarios that identified priority areas for each of the datasets. The top 30% of each individual prioritisation was overlaid on the other prioritisations to identify potential areas of synergy or conflict. Identifying these areas spatially allows decision makers to target specific actions and policies depending on biological and social values (Figure 1). For example, an area with high biodiversity values and high community awareness for its natural significance (2) may require a different strategy to one with conflicts between high biodiversity values and a perceived suitability for future development (6).

Figure 1. Overlaying the top priority areas from biological values and social values for biodiversity and development allows decision makers to identify potential areas of synergy or conflict between the different value sets.  Each combination requires a specific type of management action and may require further community engagement or specific policy implementation to ensure socially-acceptable conservation outcomes.

Figure 1. Overlaying the top priority areas from biological values and social values for biodiversity and development allows decision makers to identify potential areas of synergy or conflict between the different value sets. Each combination requires a specific type of management action and may require further community engagement or specific policy implementation to ensure socially-acceptable conservation outcomes.

The next step was to integrate the three datasets into spatial prioritisations to examine whether the inclusion of social values for biodiversity and development would come at the cost of trading off actual biological values. The researchers investigated six integrated prioritisation scenarios that explored different methods of integration. Social values for biodiversity were either included as features in the prioritisation together with the biological data, or as a cost layer where the priority areas were pushed towards those areas that the community perceived as having high biodiversity value. Social values for development were either included as a cost layer where the solution was guided away from areas considered to be important for future development, or as a mask where the top 30% of the high priority areas for development were forced out of the conservation solution.

Identifying socially-acceptable conservation areas

Not surprisingly, the best option for conserving of the seven threatened species included in the model was obtained when the prioritisation only considered biological data (Figure 2). Interestingly however, a similar proportion of each species’ current distribution was captured when biological and social values for biodiversity were integrated and prioritised together, although the spatial location of some conservation areas changed. Even when the areas perceived to be most important for development were forced out and the remaining sites were prioritised for both biological and social values for biodiversity, Zonation still managed to find a solution that gave reasonable protection to the seven fauna species. This is good news for planners as it demonstrates spatial flexibility in the way conservation targets may be met in the Lower Hunter Valley. However, it is important to note that some of this flexibility might stem from the type and number of species used in the study; all seven species are forest dwellers and people often perceive forests as more valuable natural areas than, for example, grasslands. The integration of biological and social values may result in greater tradeoffs if a more diverse set of habitats or species were included.

This is one of the first studies to fully integrate spatially-explicit biological and social values into a quantitative spatial prioritisation analysis, providing a simple method to achieve both socially-acceptable and scientifically-defensible conservation outcomes. Such an approach can help decision makers target communication strategies and management actions to specific areas of the landscape, while integrated prioritisations can identify balanced conservation solutions that protect biodiversity and incorporate societal values. Although this approach may create an extra level of complexity for conservation planners, it offers the potential to improve conservation outcomes in contested landscapes.

Figure 2. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of different spatial prioritisation scenarios by isolating the top 30% of each value (biological or social). Six of the seven species’ distributions in the Lower Hunter Valley, NSW, were best represented when the prioritisation only included biological values, while all species were less protected when prioritising social values for biodiversity alone. In contrast, the prioritisation of both biological and social values identified areas for conservation that were socially acceptable and did not lead to significant tradeoffs in conservation value.

Figure 2. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of different spatial prioritisation scenarios by isolating the top 30% of each value (biological or social). Six of the seven species’ distributions in the Lower Hunter Valley, NSW, were best represented when the prioritisation only included biological values, while all species were less protected when prioritising social values for biodiversity alone. In contrast, the prioritisation of both biological and social values identified areas for conservation that were socially acceptable and did not lead to significant tradeoffs in conservation value.


Whitehead, A.L., Kujala, H., Ives, C., Gordon, A., Lentini, P.E., Wintle, B.A., Nicholson, E., Raymond, C.M., 2014. Integrating biological and social values when prioritizing for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology 28: 992-1003. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12257

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