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In search of a “good” Anthropocene? Physiology can help

It is generally accepted that the Earth has been irreversibly altered by an ever-growing human population. Indeed, we now refer to our current geologic period as the Anthropocene, to stress the great anthropogenic pressure on the planet’s atmosphere, geology, and biological diversity. In the face of threats such as habitat loss, pollution, and urban and agricultural expansion, it is easy to feel discouraged about the future prospect of the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity. However, scientists and conservationists have a choice about how to approach their mission to preserve existing habitats and rehabilitate those already in a state of degradation.

While much of the rhetoric surrounding the Anthropocene has been markedly negative, there has recently been a push by many scientists for a more positive narrative. Specifically, researchers are posing the question: can the Anthropocene be good? A good Anthropocene would balance the preservation of the natural world with realistic societal needs and consumption.

Recent research supports the value of a hopeful, rather than “doom and gloom”, perspective for rallying individuals to action. Messages of optimism are thought to be necessary to broadly engage the public and to attract youth to professional careers in the field of conservation biology. This makes intuitive sense—if experts are constantly heard saying that all is lost, it is difficult to expect anyone to be motivated to change their behaviour.

The field of conservation biology is made up of a diversity of scientists and practitioners that use tools such as genetics, physiology, modelling, demographics, psychology, and social science. All of these branches have the capacity to contribute positive and progressive approaches to conservation science. Conservation physiology, one of the more recent, formally conceptualized sub-disciplines, is actively contributing to and proposing avenues for the good Anthropocene movement. Specifically, these pathways focus on taking a proactive approach to conservation, encouraging a pragmatic perspective when approaching conservation dilemmas, establishing an appreciation for environmental resilience, and being active in public outreach and policy-building. Establishing these four avenues as goals will allow conservation professionals to solve conservation problems through evidence-based conservation, better-populated models, an appreciation of the mechanisms underlying population declines, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and a well-informed public.

Orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula). Amphiprion percula 3d by Grifon2011. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

One example of how this multi-faceted approach can tackle a large-scale conservation problem is well-illustrated by research on clownfish (Amphiprion percula) in the Great Barrier Reef. Firstly, conservation physiology researchers are contributing to proactive conservation by applying knowledge of the respiratory physiology and microbiome of the fish to plan coastal development, determine vulnerability, predict how sediments from dredging may influence populations, and assess the potential for acclimation. The work is also underpinned by pragmatism. There is an appreciation that development is continuing and tactics are needed to diminish the associated impacts as much as possible. By taking an experimental approach aimed at determining threshold levels of suspended sediments that alter fish assemblage patterns, the timing of dredging can be sensitively adjusted to avoid interference with coral and reef fish spawning. As much of the work focuses on establishing thresholds, it also incorporates an appreciation of resilience and aims to determine when the capacity to cope with environmental change may be surpassed. Finally, researchers also made outreach a priority and took advantage of the public’s familiarity with clownfish in Disney’s Finding Nemo to garner attention about the impacts of habitat alteration on the respiratory health of these native fishes. As a whole, this physiological work has been contributing to evidence-based conservation and restoration plans that help to achieve a better Anthropocene.

Individuals trying to shine a positive light on the Anthropocene believe that leveraging technologies, knowledge, and passionate individuals can accomplish the tasks necessary to maintain nature in perpetuity. As we continue to develop new research foci, attempt to attract new students to our fields, and dedicate ourselves to the preservation of nature, we will do well to remember that “conservation is ultimately an act of hope”.

Featured image credit: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Great barrier reef by Wise Hok Wai Lum. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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