Anthropocene Baselines: Assessing Change and Managing Biodiversity in Human-Dominated Aquatic Ecosystems

Norfolk Broads, UK.A recent paper in BioScience, co-authored by Keller Kopf, Max Finlayson, myself (all Charles Sturt University), Neil Sims (CSIRO Land and Water) and Sally Hladyz (Monash University), sets out to ask: how can we measure change in human-dominated freshwater ecosystems, given that most are unlikely to be able to be restored to historical conditions? We propose the new concept of Anthropocene Baselines. This concept recognises that remnants of historical ecosystems have great value, in all senses, but socio-economic and/or ecological constraints commonly prevent complete restoration. If it is not appropriate to measure change relative to an unachievable historical baseline, what do we do about this? To find out, read the whole article here.

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Rivers of art: Classical Ancient Greece


Naiade, Henri Fantin-Latour, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Although water plays a prominent part in Classical Ancient Greek myths and legends, it is saltwater that tends to dominate. Understandable, given Greece’s location, surrounded by the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas. Mind you, the Greeks did think that the world’s water was all one body, the global river, Okeanos, which surrounded the earth and was itself personified by the eponymous Titan. So rivers, per se, are largely absent in Ancient Greek artwork, in a similar way to the art of Ancient Egyptians. But rivers appear in art as mythological creatures, such as water nymphs and gods. Continue reading

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Rivers of art: Ancient Egypt

Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time

Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time (Wikimedia commons).

In the beginning

Water features strongly in the creation myths of many civilizations. The Ancient Egyptians were no exceptions. At Heliopolis, for example, people believed that in the beginning there was only the surging, chaotic water, Nu or Nun. And from that chaos rose a mound of earth, and on that mound Atum, the creator, came into being. Continue reading

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George Monbiot and ‘Everything is Connected’

foodweb earth

If you haven’t heard of George Monbiot, you should have! He is a gifted story-teller and environmental activist, and I love reading his articles, which are diverse and well-thought out. His credentials are excellent (read his bio for some interesting history of his exploits when he was young), his knowledge and interests broad, and his writings impressive and inspiring. He writes for the Guardian and his articles are on his website.

I was especially taken by his recent article entitled Everything is Connected, and reminded me of the wonderful video and story associated with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park 20 years ago (that he narrated). He and others at the Sustainable Human organisation have produced another video on the theme of whales and whale poo. It is well worth a look. It is called How Whales Change Climate.

Both stories are based on the concept of trophic cascades. In trophic cascades, the effects of predators ‘cascades’ down through the trophic (feeding) levels, to their prey, their prey’s prey and so on, in sometimes counter-intuitive ways. A big fish, for example, eats a smaller fish, which in turn eats zooplankton, which grazes on phytoplankton. These ‘top-down’ effects can be  substantial and have been considered important for maintaining biodiversity in a number of ecosystems. See, for example, Fabrizio Sergio‘s work on raptors and Julia Baum‘s and Boris Worm‘s work in oceans. I will post a blog devoted to trophic cascades and rivers in the near future.

Of course, there are many more interactions in nature besides trophic cascades that structure ecosystems. But the appeal for me as an ecologist and as a teacher of ecology is that stories involving trophic cascades show really nicely the interconnectedness of components of ecosystems that we might not, at first or even second and third glance, think are connected. Trophic cascades also warn against complacency: that if we affect one component of an ecosystem, we are most likely creating a ripple effect that can carry far beyond the original disturbance.

I hope you enjoy George Monbiot’s writing.

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Stuffed Murray cod in pubs

Bridgewater Bridge Hotel (Peterdownunder – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Hi all Murray cod lovers, we are just getting underway a new project to find – and describe information related to – stuffed Murray cod in pubs around the Murray-Darling Basin. It is part cultural heritage, part environmental history and part biology. And it could be a lot of fun. But we need your help. Continue reading

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Rivers of art: indigenous societies

Man calling on rain rom lightning-serpent ( Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Man calling on rain from lightning-serpent (Bjoertvedt [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient peoples just didn’t paint rivers. It is uncommon to find rock art, tomb paintings, frescoes or amphorae where rivers were the main focus. Perhaps only the Chinese, dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), made rivers and waterfalls central themes in their art.

This is somewhat surprising, because for many societies, rivers featured (and still feature) in their mythology, religious or spiritual life, and alongside rivers were often where the most important cities were built and largely continue to stand. Not to mention the fact that so many early societies derived a large proportion of their food either directly from rivers, as fish, shellfish, crayfish, water birds and aquatic plants, or indirectly from agriculture, because of flooding and the fertility it brings.

But you have to ask yourself: why would people paint rivers in the first place? What is it about rivers that would motivate an artist to paint them? What do rivers represent to humans? This post is part of a series about the art and science of rivers, that commenced with three articles about Leonardo da Vinci. I want now, to go back, meander a little down the riverscape of time and see how humans have depicted rivers in their art. Continue reading

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Why are there no true freshwater protected areas in Australia?

Keller Kopf, Nicole McCasker and I have written a short piece for The Conversation, asking why there are no true freshwater protected areas in Australia.

Freshwater ecosystems such as rivers, lakes and wetlands are precious. They contain several-times more vertebrate species per unit area than land and ocean environments, and they are more degraded. Protected areas such as Alpine National Park and the Great Barrier Marine Park are a crucial tool for conserving wildlife on land and in the sea. But there is no similar protection for freshwater ecosystems in the world’s driest continent, Australia. Why not?

To read the full article, click here.

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