Artificial Reefs: the last wave of hope for our ocean?

By Heather

2016: A tragic year for coral reefs.

The Great Barrier Reef experienced its worst ever coral bleaching event to date (1). Corals worldwide are declining along with the sea creature communities they support. Many will have heard of the phenomenon of coral bleaching. It occurs when corals become stressed and expel their algae (the organisms they live and interact with which give them their colour). It comes as no surprise that humans are the source of this issue; both directly, through harvesting and disturbing these areas, or indirectly, through climate change, which is warming the oceans to a temperature that the many corals can no longer handle (2).

Humans are also their own victims of this underwater catastrophe. Not only do we benefit economically from the biodiversity of reefs, they offer coastline protection, food, medicine and recreation (3). Vast areas which, not long ago, were vibrant, colourful undersea communities supporting around one third of marine species have transformed into desolate, grey dead zones. Further, 75% of remaining reefs are under threat (2).


Bleaching process of a coral reef near American Samoa. Photo: XL Caitlin Seaview Survey, via the Huffington Post

There is no escaping this grim reality. But all hope for reefs has not yet vanished entirely.  Actions are being taken to repair the damage.

During the 2016 Conservation Science Conference, Amy Kerr introduced us to a conservation tool that has been used for several years: Artificial Reefs. However, their effectiveness is currently being questioned.

At first glance, ‘faking it’ is surely a plausible solution to this problem. If humans have caused the loss of these magnificent structures, surely they can utilise their resources to aid their recovery.

Several types of artificial reef are currently in place:

  1. Manmade reefs are specifically designed to attempt to accurately reflect real coral reefs. Below is a ‘reef ball’, widely considered to be a successful at recolonising marine communities. However these present dangers to humans and may be disruptive to the surrounding environment (4).


Photo: TA Marine Science

2. Discarded structures such as ships or tires are a popular form of artificial reef, which are known to become home to a diverse community to organisms. Environmentalists, however, have concerns that these structures can leach toxic substances into the water, and therefore do more harm than good to marine life (5).


Photo: Richard Whitcombe, Shutterstock

3.Underwater Art Museums are a recent concept. They are manufactured to attract corals thereby combining culture with conservation. If these are successful, it is a possibility that it could raise awareness and dissuade divers from disturbing natural reefs. Take a look at this stunning video displaying exhibition by English Artist Jason DeCaires Taylor, who uses the human form to try and strengthen the connection between humans and the environment (6).



But…Is there a limit to how well we can replicate the intricacy of nature? Should we focus precious marine conservation funding on this somewhat idealistic concept? Artificial reef opponents believe it is a waste of resources. There are concerns they will fail to develop new communities of marine organisms and instead attract and displace fish from other areas. These new structures may also attract fishing in areas which already suffer from depleted stocks (7).

Amy remains optimistic and convincingly concluded that research into creating the most effective designs of reefs is crucial and focus must be placed on enhancing their long term success. In order to succeed, she suggested that regulations must be put in place in terms of fishing, water use and materials used to construct these reefs.

Time is running out, and if this is not done carefully and efficiently, the days for our remaining coral reefs will be numbered.

It is the worst of times but it is the best of times because we still have a chance.”– Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist


  1. Authority GB. Interim report: 2016 coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef.
  2. Burke L, Reytar K, Spalding M, Perry A. Reefs at risk revisited. 2011.
  3. Brander LM, Van Beukering P, Cesar HS. The recreational value of coral reefs: a meta-analysis. Ecological Economics. 2007 Jun 15;63(1):209-18.
  4. Proposal for Reef Ball Submerged Breakwater [Internet]. 2016 [cited 17 November 2016]. Available from:
  5. Sherman RL, Spieler RE. Tires: unstable materials for artificial reef construction. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment. 2006;88:215-23.
  6. Underwater Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor [Internet]. Underwater Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor. 2016 [cited 17 November 2016]. Available from:
  7. Abelson A. Artificial reefs vs coral transplantation as restoration tools for mitigating coral reef deterioration: benefits, concerns, and proposed guidelines. Bulletin of Marine Science. 2006 Jan 1;78(1):151-9.

Trophy hunting in Africa: Are we killing conservation?

By Beth Hanlon

We all remember Cecil the Lion, and the debate that erupted about trophy hunting upon his death. In July 2015 Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil with a bow and arrow, after paying $54,000 for a hunting permit in Zimbabwe. There was worldwide anger over his death, with celebrities and wildlife organisations protesting his death and the practice of trophy hunting. The controversy caused some countries to change their hunting laws, and some airlines to ban the transportation of hunting trophies.


Walter Palmer (left) shot Cecil with a bow and arrow. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock, via the Guardian.

Trophy hunting is the practice of hunting wild animals for recreation, and keeping a part of the animal as a sign of the success of the hunt. Regardless of the moral aspect of trophy hunting, there is fierce debate around the conservation benefits hunting provides.

The benefits and consequences of trophy hunting for conservation were recently evaluated by Justin Rogers during the midterm conservation science conference. Justin weighed the pros and cons of trophy hunting in Africa and its impact on conservation.

Trophy hunting is practiced in many African countries and in sub-Saharan Africa there are positive and negative examples of the effect of trophy hunting on conservation.

Trophy hunting provides benefits for communities in areas such as education, employment, income, and meat provisioning. A 2006 paper estimated gross revenues of $201 million from hunting in sub-Saharan Africa.  This financial incentive can increase wildlife conservation, as long as hunting quotas are set correctly and adhered to. One study found that rigorous management of trophy hunting areas can make them valuable conservation zones for large herbivores.

Trophy hunting generates higher revenues and has a lower environmental impact than photo-tourism. If this money makes it into the community then locals will not have to supplement their income through illegal poaching, thus helping conserve the wildlife. Hunting can be the only viable land-use in vast areas, and can preserve the ecosystem when other forms of tourism, such as photo-tourism, cannot.

Other than the obvious ethical issues of killing large animals for fun, there are other arguments against trophy hunting. The benefits from hunting for local communities do not always materialise, or are not always shared equitably among the community. In areas with poor management, and quotas that are not set properly, hunting can be unsustainable and damaging to the animal populations. Under current hunting rates in southern Africa trophy bull elephants will be removed from the population in less than 10 years.

Hunting selective individuals of a population (usually the largest) can result in undesirable evolutionary consequences, and changing population demographics. Trophy hunting has been shown to change the entire evolutionary path of bighorn sheep, which are hunted in North America for their large horns. Over time, ram body weight and horn size has declined significantly. There is a lack of research and data about the impact of trophy hunting, on which assessments can be made to inform management strategies.


Photo-tourism can generate high revenues and promote wildlife conservation. Photograph: Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic Stock

Justin states that trophy hunting should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and that the management should be guided by the total benefit for conservation. In an African context this conservation benefit is the net benefit of trophy hunting on wildlife populations, ecosystems, biodiversity, and local communities. If trophy hunting has a larger net benefit than photo-tourism, then a management plan should be devised to maximise this benefit. If photo-tourism has a higher net benefit, then trophy hunting can be avoided.

Hopefully, with proper management of trophy hunting areas, wild animal populations can be conserved for future generations to enjoy, and for the Earth to remain a little bit wilder.

Deer control and reforesting: the missing lynx?

By Joe

Considering the ragged state of Scottish forests1, many people point the finger at deer2-3. While human activity and overharvest shrunk Scotland’s forest cover, deer have prevented much of it from recovering4. The last British wolf was killed in the 17th century4, and since then deer have lacked natural predators, only being eaten as venison. With populations no longer kept in check, their numbers have exploded5, and our forests are feeling the impact.

Deer are flexible herbivores who eat all kinds of vegetation, and lots of deer need lots of food. Deer stop forests from regenerating because they eat the youngest shoots, which can’t then mature into adult trees tough enough to protect themselves. With few deer, enough seedlings escape to continue the forest, but with too many deer almost every shoot is eaten. The future of Scottish forests lies in deer control, and stalking alone isn’t enough.

The least intensively managed way to control deer, and invigorate our forests, would be to rectify the mistakes of medieval hunters and reintroduce our large predators. One predator which could be reintroduced to current forests is the lynx, and the Lynx UK Trust have developed a proposal for exactly that6.

They plan to release and monitor twelve adult lynx, to see whether the environmental effects are what we expect. The plan has been opposed by farmers, who worry about lynx predating livestock, as happens in Norway, but this is largely due to negligent Norwegian shepherds grazing sheep in the forest7, banned under UK farming subsidy.


(Photo: Lynx UK Trust)

Lynx predate mostly on roe deer, one of the Scotland’s most common species5, but also take fallow and sika. Sika deer are non-native and particularly hard to stalk as they prefer particularly dense woodland. Only red deer are too large for lynx, but these are the most sought-after for meat and stalking, so can be viably controlled otherwise until larger predators are reintroduced.

If lynx reintroduction is successful in the UK, it paves the way for other reintroductions. With these, we may eventually attain a self-regulating ecosystem containing some aspect of the rich flora and fauna our ancestors cleared centuries ago. Many organisations are working towards this in Scotland, for more information ‘Rewilding Britain’ ( and ‘Trees For Life’ ( are two excellent places to start.


  1. Rudel, T. K., Coomes, O. T., Moran, E., Achard, F., Angelsen, A., Xu, J., & Lambin, E. (2005). Forest transitions: towards a global understanding of land use change. Global environmental change, 15(1), 23-31.
  2. Putman, R. J. (1996). Ungulates in temperate forest ecosystems: perspectives and recommendations for future research. Forest Ecology and Management, 88(1), 205-214.
  3. Côté, S. D., Rooney, T. P., Tremblay, J. P., Dussault, C., & Waller, D. M. (2004). Ecological impacts of deer overabundance. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 113-147.
  4. Rackham, O. (1986). The History of the Countryside. JM Dent and Sons, London.
  5. Edwards, T., & Kenyon, W. (2013) SPICe Briefing: Wild Deer in Scotland. Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh.
  6. Eagle, A., & Chance, C. (2015) Lynx UK Trust’s Proposal for a trial reintroduction. Launceston, Cornwall: Lynx UK Trust.
  7. Odden, J., Linnell, J. D., Moa, P. F., Herfindal, I., Kvam, T., & Andersen, R. (2002). Lynx depredation on domestic sheep in Norway. The Journal of wildlife management, 98-105.



By Aoife Hutton


The concept of rewilding has recently emerged as a hot topic in both scientific and public spheres. Championed by the writings of George Monbiot in his book ‘Feral and popular TED talk, rewilding pushes the bounds of a previously a conservative approach to conservation science and encourages us to reassess our goals, and aim big.

Rebecca McDonald, a 4th year ecological and environmental science undergraduate at University of Edinburgh, last week presented a project on the aims, scope and logic of a potential rewilding effort in North America proposed by Donlan et al., (2005). Rebecca’s project was refreshingly critical in scrutinizing just how realistic the often times romaticised concept of rewilding actually is.

Donlan et al. proposed that rewilding should aim to restore ecosystem function of the Pleistocene era and reintroduce megafauna lost 13,000 years ago – a time long before human arrival in North America. In particular, this would mean refilling the niche once taken by proboscidians (mammoths, mastadons and gomphotheres). Modern day relatives most similar are the Asian and African elephants. As idyllic as elephants roaming along the edges of Route 66 may sound, there are some pretty mammoth logistical issues involved.


How would elephants be transported to the US? How would elephants react to a vegetation they have not evolved to live with? What impact would human-elephant interactions and conflict have? And for the economists among, how much would all of this cost?

Alongside these quite obvious concerns, maybe it is time to address the elephant in the room about Pleistocene rewilding; if the aim is to restore ecological function of a pre-human time, how do we, as humans, co-exist?

The fundamental separation of human and non-human animals inferred (perhaps albeit unintentionally) by this kind of rewilding scheme is problematic on several levels. If we aim to restore ecological function to a time before human existence in an area, how do resolve the fact that humans do and have been living in those areas for many generations.

Sadly, conservation has been an oppressive force to indigenous people – one just has to look at the displacement of Native American people from tribal land for the creation of National Parks in the US as an example. While rewilding North America wouldn’t necessarily lead to similar circumstance, the cultural and social implications of such a project definitely need to be examined more thoroughly to address such concerns.

Not all rewilding projects have a Pleistocene era as the end-sight, and countless projects have shown the success of rewilding, delivering the top-down benefits to ecosystems which advocates of the concept endorse. Taking a more recent point in geological time as the aim seems to prove for a more attainable result, one such case was the reintroduction of wolves in Greenstone National Park, US, which had been lost from the area less than 100 years prior. The reintroduction achieved expected and desirable top down changes to the ecosystem, restoring beaver populations and ultimately affecting river hydrology.

While some rewilding efforts do seem highly effective tool in conservation science, I remain skeptical over Pleistocene era rewilding. In this case, time and resource seems better spent on looking after the flora and fauna in our presently existent biosphere, and on trying to break down barriers of the human/non-human interface, so that we can come to see ourselves as not only a cause of problems to ecosystems, but also as components which are a part of a living ecosystem – we are not above it.

Links and Resources

Oil Companies thrive, Greater-Sage Grouse dies

By Rosa

Despite its potential extinction, the Greater-Sage Grouse is not listed under the endangered species act.  Nick Walsh, our fellow Conservation Science student, highlighted this at the mid-term conference to a shocked audience. He presented his poster under the title “The five billion dollar question; should the Greater Sage-Grouse be listed on the Endangered Species Act?” ‘Why of course!’ you may shout ‘this is absurd’, but…… you may then ponder ‘why is it a $5 billion dollar question?’ This is soon set out by Nick. And the answer is………..Oil.


The Great Sage Grouse is threatened with extinction. Image by Bob Wick / U.S. Bureau of Land Management via nbcnews


The Greater-Sage Grouse is under threat.

The Greater-Sage Grouse inhabits areas of sagebrush-steppe  in Midwestern and western USA and Canada. The species entirely depends on these habitats to survive.  However, this habitat is being fragmented and shrinking rapidly due to urbanisation, agriculture, drought, invasive plants and exploitation by oil and gas companies.

In addition, they have also been hit by the West Nile Virus  and increases in wild fires.

As a result, they have suffered major declines in numbers and reductions in distribution. Historical estimates of population abundance were as much as 1,600,000 to 16,000,000 birds. They now just number 100, 000 to 500, 000 birds. A study  found that breeding males fell by 56% between 2007 and 2013.  If nothing is done, these trends in population decline represent a very real possibility of extinction for the species in the near future.


The Great Sage Grouse has seen dramatic declines in distribution, occupying just over half their historical range. Image Source .


Conservation of the Greater-Sage Grouse is therefore imperative for its status. In addition, conserving the species would involve conserving the habitat, thus bringing about benefits to a whole host of other species associated with the sagebrush-steppe such as the mule deer and the Pronghorn.

Despite all of this, just last year in 2015, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service  reclassified the Greater Sage-Grouse as a species for which conservation efforts are no longer warranted.


The sage-brush steppe provides huge potential for companies such as the Western Energy Alliance to exploit oil and gas. Strict measures that would have to be implemented to conserve the Greater-sage grouse would therefore cost the 12 oil producing states $5.6 and 31,000 jobs.


Status of the Greater-Sage Grouse is under threat from financial benefits of oil and gas exploitation. Image Source.


Nick argues that economic and political factors should not be considered in deciding whether a species is listed under the endangered species act. But concludes that given there is so much at stake, legislation to conserve the species is highly improbable, therefore a compromise must be made instead. This could involve the continuation of exploiting oil in some states whilst reducing efforts in others, relocation of populations, and the introduction of financial incentives.

Perhaps, with these compromises, the Greater-sage grouse might be saved. But this all begs the question, does it not set a precedent for oil companies to continue on their destructive way?



Dreams of a Jurassic park or conservation reality?

By Malin

Species extinctions have recently been in the spotlight in media and scientific reports and it is clear that humans have to accept some of the blame. With drastic labels such as sixth extinction, it is understandable that we want to somehow fix the problems we caused. Recent biotechnology has made it possible to use cells from living or recently dead animals in in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to breed new individuals. This could be a way to “bring back” extinct species or increase population sizes for a threatened species. Is this the solution we have been waiting for or a distraction from other conservation issues?

 Biotechnology and the Northern white rhino

In a recent science conference, Undergraduate Eleonora Faraggiana raised the question if biotechnology could help save the Northern white Rhino. The species currently only consists of three individuals and will go extinct if we do not apply this technology.


Najin, one of the three remaining Northern white rhinos could be donating eggs for IVF in the future Photograph: Sun Ruibo/Xinhua Press/Corbis (


Scientists are planning to use eggs from the two remaining female rhinos and sperm from frozen samples to implant a fertilised egg in a Southern white rhino surrogate. This has never been done before in rhinos but attempted and been somewhat successful in the recently extinct Ibex. This in itself is a big feat, but to save the species, we need to go much further. Since there are only two remaining females, future eggs need to be generated from stem cells of frozen samples to increase the genetic diversity. This is both costly and time consuming. Because this is new scientific territory, we need to weigh costs to other conservation projects, such as the Southern white rhino, against the value of new scientific advances. If we claim that our aim is to protect species from extinction, we need to make sure that our judgements are not clouded by protecting charismatic species but instead try to consider factors such as genetic distance and ecosystem services.


Is biotechnology the answer?

Stopping for a second to marvel at the scientific progress, it is tempting to get swept along with the prospect of mammoths and “undoing” past mistakes, especially growing up with a romantic shimmer around anything remotely related to Jurassic park. The reality however is more complicated and Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University is seriously concerned that people will rely on scientists to fix our mistakes rather than trying to prevent new extinctions. I personally share this concern but also think that we should promote an eagerness to progress and learn more about alternative solutions. In a practical sense, this means that biotechnology most likely will not be the solution to save the Northern white rhino, but an attempt could bring us closer to understand how to increase the genetic diversity of other threatened species in the future. Another concern is that we focus on bringing back species without addressing the underlying reason they went extinct in the first place. For rhinos, poaching has increased dramatically with at least 1.312 rhinos killed in 2015 alone. To make sure all our efforts are not in vain, we need to make sure future Northern white rhinos are not being bred for the fertility market, but for a sustainable wild existence.


Are you still curious about biotechnology and what science can do in the future? Have a look at this fascinating talk by Hendrik Poinar about bringing back the holly mammoth!


Image from TEDblog (













Fish are friends, not foes

By Mollie McCulloch

At the mid-term conservation science conference on Tuesday 1st November 2016, Robert Giesler highlighted his concern towards the controversial issue of the endangered delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus); a fish native to California’s delta. Over 80% of the State of California is currently experiencing moderate drought conditions which is the basis for the controversy; fish vs farmers.


Map of the extent of drought across California on 10/11/2016. You can check out the most up-to-date figures right here:

To overcome this drought, people (like the guy below) are arguing that the need for the redirection of rivers is crucial to irrigate fields to keeps crops alive for human consumption and to maximise profits. On the other hand, the diversion of water negatively impacts the ecosystems within the delta. The delta smelt may be small in size (5 to 7 inches) but they play a big role in stabilising community composition. To conserve or not conserve, that is the question.

Protest in Fresno city where farmers and farmworkers rallied to turn the pumps on in the delta to allow irrigation to the farms in the western Central Valley of California.
(Photo credit:
The California Delta and its endemic species, the delta smelt.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta encompasses 57 islands and a collection of fresh water channels. The delta is an essential source of fresh water for the surrounding agricultural area. The delta smelt is endemic to the area and has seen severe population reductions, raising concern to conservationists. The IUCN has listed the species as critically endangered.


The decline of the delta smelt from 1967 to 2015 [1]
The decline in population is due to the pumping of water away from the delta to overcome the problems caused by drought in other areas of California [2]. So why is this species so important to conserve?

A small fish with big impacts;

Protecting the delta smelt has caused some controversy, mainly amongst farmers who are more concerned about their crop yield. Farmers support the decision that water should be redirected towards their farms to ensure the growth of crops and therefore profits. Farmers are even more frustrated with the fact that water restrictions to help conserve the smelt have diverted in the opposite direction; population numbers continue to decline year after year [1]. Despite all the arguments against the protection of the smelt, this little fish plays a big role in ecosystem stability.

The protection of the delta smelt does not just concern itself but can help to protect the wider ecosystem. The smelt is a good indicator species, providing information on the health of the ecosystem [3]. The extinction of the delta smelt would affect the balance of food webs as it is a key species in trophic interactions. The delta is a biodiversity hotspot in the eyes of conservationists [4], therefore has a high priority in conservation strategies to help maintain a high biodiversity. A key feature of conservation goals is to preserve biodiversity, therefore protecting the California delta must be considered in order to achieve this.

Fish or farmers; who wins?

This issue still causes controversy among California. In the eyes of conservationists, the California delta’s ecosystem is too precious to loose in terms of biodiversity but for farmers it is hard to see the importance of species protection, especially a fish as small as the delta smelt. For progress to be made, increased understanding of this important conservation issue is key to protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California.


  1. (2016). Monthly Abundance Indices. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2016].
  1. Moyle, P., Herbold, B., Stevens, D. and Miller, L. (1992). Life History and Status of Delta Smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, California. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 121(1), pp.67-77.
  2. Hasenbein, M., Komoroske, L., Connon, R., Geist, J. and Fangue, N. (2013). Turbidity and Salinity Affect Feeding Performance and Physiological Stress in the Endangered Delta Smelt. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 53(4), pp.620-634.
  3. Myers, N., Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., Da Fonseca, G.A. and Kent, J. (2000). Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature, 403(6772), pp.853-858.