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Choosing new 'umbrella' species in Australia could save many others
Is the way we choose which animals to protect out of date?
- "Umbrella" species are animals selected for protection because doing so protects other species in the habitat.
- However, there may be a better, more efficient way of picking umbrella species: ignoring shared habitats and focusing instead on shared threats.
- Using this new methodology, researchers discovered that seven times as many species could be protected using the same budget.
Across the world, species are going extinct at a rate 1,000-fold higher than what experts consider natural. Aside from the intrinsic value of preserving diverse animal species, animal life contributes to the ecosystem and makes human society possible. Having a high diversity of animal species keeps this system stable.
That's why governments often designate key species as "umbrella" species. These animals are protected because they perform critical work that facilitates the survival of numerous other species in its ecological community. For instance, the northern spotted owl is considered an umbrella species because their habitat, old-growth forests, are also home to many other productive creatures, like mollusks and salamanders. Since humans can't log old-growth forests without infringing on the northern spotted owl's protective status, these other species are indirectly protected as well. Others include grizzly bears, whose umbrella protects elk, deer, mountain goats, mountain lions, and bison, and tigers, whose habitats also support leopards, monkeys, hares, boars, and other animals.
Building a bigger umbrella
But this system isn't perfect. Umbrella species are selected solely on the basis that they share a geographical range with other species — the northern spotted owl and old-growth forests, for instance, or the grizzly bear and woodlands and meadows.
There's likely a better, more effective way to select umbrella species. That's why Ph.D. candidate Michelle Ward and colleagues examined umbrella species in Australia and developed a new methodology for their selection based on threats to the species, actions that can be taken to mitigate those threats, and their costs.
"The Australian Federal Government's umbrella prioritization list identifies 73 species as conservation priorities," Ward said in a statement. "But this only ends up benefiting six percent of all Australia's threatened terrestrial species. This figure could be increased to benefit nearly half of all threatened terrestrial species for the same budget."
Species protection is a particularly critical task for Australia, as the nation is home to nearly 1,830 threatened species and sees the highest extinction rates on Earth.
Threats tend to be specific to particular species, and taking action to address those threats doesn't necessarily help the other species that have overlapping habitats. It could, however, help a large number of species living in distinct habitats.
An example of how protecting species based on shared threats rather than shared habitat works. Koalas face several threats, such as from fires, feral cats, and foxes. Putting koalas under protective status would require taking action against wildfires (protecting orchid species) and foxes (protecting the greater bilby).
Ward et al., 2020
Consider the Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus). The Australasian bittern's greatest threats are fire, habitat loss, pollution, grazing livestock, feral cats, and high water salinity. If the idea of an umbrella species were redefined to focus on addressing threats rather than protecting habitat, protecting the Australasian bittern would coincidentally protect 15 other species.
Protecting the Australasian bittern, the researchers calculated, would cost $2.3 million a year out of Australia's estimated $550 million budget for threatened species protection, a far more cost-effective solution than protecting animals based solely on overlapping geographical ranges.
Ward also identified the koala, red goshawk, matted flax-lily, and purple clover as both highly impactful and highly cost-effective species to target for protective status. "Yet none of these appear on the existing federal government priority species list," she said.
The sixth extinction
Currently, the Earth is in the midst of its sixth extinction event. These events have had different causes, such as the comet that killed 75 percent of all species including the dinosaurs, or the development of plant life and the subsequent sudden change in atmospheric composition.
The current extinction event, however, is entirely attributable to the different activities of human life. Most notably, this includes climate change, but it also is due to habitat destruction, pollution, and overexploitation of flora and fauna.
From the dawn of human civilization to today, 83 percent of wild mammals, 80 percent of marine mammals, 50 percent of plants, and 15 percent of fish have disappeared. Half of all existing species on Earth are expected to face extinction by the year 2100. While this crisis has been borne out of humanity's excess cleverness, that cleverness may be able to help repair some of the damage as well — improving our conservation methodologies is just one part of what must be a larger strategy.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
The future of deepfakes<p>In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.</p><p>But the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=324528215059254" target="_blank">video</a> is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real. </p><p>The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/research/is-seeing-still-believing-the-deepfake-challenge-to-truth-in-politics/#cancel" target="_blank">2020 report from The Brookings Institution</a>. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes. </p><p>As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."</p>
Context is everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new behaviours into daily routines, like physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing. Meanwhile, many old behaviours such as attending events, eating out and seeing friends have been put on hold.
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
- Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
- In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
- The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.