We want you to know what is going on in the BOD, our meetings, our actions, members leaving, the new ones elected,... but text written in this blog cannot be taken an official position or statement of the Society for Conservation Biology. Probably it is not even an official statement of the section... as these need to be approved by the members.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Prescribed burning is a promising option in managing grassland biodiversity in Europe

There are serious debates on the application of prescribed burning in grassland biodiversity conservation in Europe. Some conservationists highly welcome prescribed fire, while others are strongly against it. These contrasting attitudes are likely due to the lack of proper scientific knowledge on both short- and long-term effects of fires on grassland biodiversity in Europe. The international and national media often reports on damages in nature, human life and property caused by catastrophic wildfires and arson, which further increases the negative attitude towards even controlled and carefully designed prescribed fires.

To provide a quantitative analysis of fire effects on grassland species, prescribed burning studies offer the most proper source of information. Our recent review evaluated the results of European attempts to use prescribed burning in grassland management and assessed whether or not the targeted objectives were achieved. Prescribed burning studies from North-America were selected as a reference system to identify which elements of fine-tuned fire management can be adapted to the European grassland conservation strategy.

The effects of fire on European grasslands are rarely documented; there were only 11 publications available about prescribed fires in European grasslands. Most studies applied dormant-season burning on an annual basis and concluded that annual burning solely is not feasible for maintaining the targeted structure and composition of grasslands. Obviously, too frequent burning did not allow the vegetation to recover between burns.

In North-America prescribed burning is widely and successfully used for nature conservation purposes in grasslands. Thus, there is a need for focused case studies to test whether the well-developed North-American burning regimes can be adapted to the European grassland conservation strategy. The review paper indicates the most promising management objectives of prescribed burning experiments in European grasslands.

Both European and North-American studies found that dormant-season burning can effectively reduce accumulated biomass and litter but has only minor effects on the flora and fauna. Prescribed burning could be tested on sites where management by grazing or mowing is not feasible, like in grasslands located far from farms or settlements.

Some studies mentioned positive effects of burning on several rare or protected species by creating suitable germination microsites or warmer and drier microclimate. Focused case studies on certain target species could be integrated in future conservation actions. However, burning is not recommended on sites, where remnant populations of endangered species are present.


Fig.1 Pulsatilla pratensis ssp. hungarica (up) and Fritillaria meleagris (down) are endangered species of sandy grasslands. Carefully timed prescribed fires can provide suitable microsites for their germination. 

Based on North-American studies, patch-burning management (combination of fire and grazing) increases structural and functional diversity. In extended grassland areas, prescribed burning can also be a proper tool for preventing huge and uncontrolled wildfires and contributes to the protection of personal safety and private property. In extended open landscapes, like Central- and Eastern European steppes introduction of patch-burning management would also increase landscape-level heterogeneity.


Fig. 2 Hortobágy National Park holds one of the largest open landscapes in Europe, where re-introduction of patch burning could increase landscape-level heterogeneity. 

Despite the serious conservation problems caused by invasive species, fire against them has not been studied yet in Europe. In North-America, carefully designed prescribed burning is effectively used against several invasive species. Based on these studies, timing should be fine-tuned to the most susceptible period of the given invasive species. Invasion control by prescribed burning should be first tested in highly infested areas without outstanding nature conservation values to avoid damaging populations of rare species.

Based on our review, prescribed burning of grasslands might hold a great potential for the European nature conservation practice. However, further habitat-specific prescribed burning experiments are essential to find specific application circumstances and management objectives.

For more detailed information read our open access paper entitled ‘Review: Prospects and limitations of prescribed burning as a management tool in European grasslands’ published in Basic and Applied Ecology which you can freely download (Open Access) here. We hope that our review stimulates discussion and generates further research activity about prescribed burning. 

Contact addresses

Orsolya VALKÓ, Péter TÖRÖK, Balázs DEÁK, Béla TÓTHMÉRÉSZ

MTA-DE Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Research Group
E-mail addresses:
valkoorsi@gmail.com (OV)
molinia@gmail.com (PT)
debalazs@gmail.com (BD)
tothmerb@gmail.com (BT)

Friday, 4 April 2014

Next round of Experts for IPBES -- your turn?

IPBES logo E bg-bleu

As many of you know, IPBES is now starting its real work and putting together expert groups for various tasks. A new round of nominations is open for two task, one for scoping a set of regional and sub-regional assessments and one for scoping a thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration. Information is available at the IPBES website. As a observer to IPBES, SCB has the opportunity to nominate experts for these groups, and we need your help in identifying the best experts available. Send any suggestions to me and I will process these. Maybe it is your turn this time to contribute to the high profile global policy work on biodiversity and ecosystem services!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Short news from the SCB-Europe Board meeting in Montpellier

Bonjour! It's a nice sunny day here in Montpellier, at the third day of SCB-Europe Section's board meeting. We are glad to have Geri Unger, the Executive Director of global SCB with us, and we have a new member on board Rustam Sagitov from St. Petersburg. He is an expert on European Russia's nature conservation. Having him on board opens new possibilities in expanding our membership and focus of activities towards the East and covering whole Europe. We are working hard on setting up the next ECCB which is  here 3-6 august in 2015. We also visited the venue, and Agropolis international where our local organizers are based. Here we also had a quite successfull miniconference, to introduce the SCB-Europe section. At Agropolises webpage you can find the list of the talks. We are going to upload posts informing you about what we are into here! :) Montpellier is a wonderful place, full with energy, cheerful and helpful local organizers, so I suggest to mark this date in your calendar: ****3-6 aug 2015*****

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Will IPBES work?

The second plenary meeting of IPBES is over

A few weeks has passed since the IPBES Chair Professor Zakri Abdul Hamid closed the second plenary session of IPBES. Happy faces were seen and positive closing remarks were given, celebrating the “Antalya consensus”. Indeed, great progress was made, and most importantly, the programme of work for 2014 – 2018 was established. This marks in many respects the real start of IPBES, since now experts can begin working on a range of different assessments. First in line is an assessment on pollinators, pollination and food production which is planned to be finished during 2015. As being perhaps the most widely communicated ecosystem service, pollination seems to be a good starting point to show the value and potential of IPBES. A range of other topics will also be addressed, including assessments on land degradation and restoration, invasive alien species, methods on scenarios and modeling as well as methods for valuation of biodiversity. Also both regional and global assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem service will be scoped.

A key function to make all this happen rests with the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP), which faces a huge workload the coming period. Selecting, managing and coordinating several expert groups and task forces will be critical for the outcome of the different deliverables. Having met several of the MEP members we sensed a bit of stress, but there is also good reason to feel confident about the competence and ambitions of the Panel members. We are also happy to note our direct SCB link with the MEP as having the SCB Europe sections’ president Andras Baldi as one MEP member. We wish him and the other members all the very best luck in the important work!


Time to prove what SCB can do!

The decisions taken also challenge SCB to prove its value for IPBES. When the calls for experts are official, we need to tap into our membership and provide nominations to the different work groups to ensure that the right people are selected to do the job. As an SCB clearly belong to the “qualified national, regional and international scientific organizations, centres of excellence and institutions known for their work and expertise” we are welcome to nominate experts, either directly to IPBES or through national governments. This is a task that will require us to utilize both the networks within our sections and to better link with our national contacts. Our newly revived expert database is another obvious resource. So be prepared to contribute to the nomination process, something we have already promised in our offer for in-kind contribution.


Will IPBES work?

Well, enough of the positive sides, since there are also concerns to voice after the meeting. Although many positive words were said about the role of stakeholders and scientific organizations, the actual discussions and decisions suggest some mistrust among governments to fully engage stakeholders in IPBES. After very long and at some points extremely frustrating negotiations a compromise was established concerning nomination of experts for the functions as report co-chairs, coordinating lead authors, lead authors and review editors. The MEP will be restricted to only select a maximum of 20% of experts directly from nomination from relevant stakeholders, while direct government nominations should comprise the other 80%. This suggests that many governments wants to control who can contribute to the work and somewhat questions the scientific independence and integrity of the work. Fortunately, we have a number of more open governments and we should use these as a second avenue for nomination.

A second disappointment was the lack of decision on the so called Stakeholder Engagement Strategy (SES). The suggested SES was a joint effort from several stakeholder organizations, including SCB, coordinated by IUCN and ICSU. Despite significant efforts this never reached the plenary for a final decision and is now postponed to the next plenary meeting. Although no strong objections were raised against the SES, it showed that the governments did not see this as critical priority for IPBES at this point.

Finally, a major concern is financing of the work. The current budget only supports the internal work of IPBES, its secretariat, upcoming meetings and workshops. No support is available for the actual work provided by experts. The governments seem to assume that the scientific community will stand ready and do all the work for free. Maybe so, but it is easy to see how the lack of funding will strongly filter which experts will be able to contribute. To be successful IPBES needs to become such a prestigious process that the products and work done is recognized in the same way as peer-reviewed publications. We are not there yet, and this questions to what extent IPBES will be able to engage fully with the top experts in the topics to be addressed.

IPBES is a never ending story and the next plenary meeting is scheduled for already late 2014. The upcoming intersessional period will include a new set of documents to read, analyze and comment to show the involvement of SCB and to hopefully contribute to a functioning IPBES. As of now the work will be coordinated by a subcommittee of the SCBs global Policy Committee, but you are all of course welcome to contribute with wise comments and perspectives. Lets remain devoted regardless of the concerns raised above – after all this is what we have as an international process trying to link science with policy making in the area of biodiversity and ecosystem services. SCB needs, in the light of our Mission and Visions, to watch these developments with interest, concern, and hope to see a science-policy dialogue rather than a purely politically dominated system

 Bengt Gunnar Jonsson, on behalf the IPBES2 delegation and head of the IPBES subcommittee.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Last chance of a European rodent: the fate of the Vojvodina blind mole rat

 by Gábor Csorba and Attila Németh

Rodents are usually not in the focus of conservation biology and proper evaluation of the conservation status of rodent species is complicated by the confusion that surrounds almost all levels of rodent systematics. However, the vulnerability of this order is demonstrated by the fact that rodent species contributed roughly half of mammalian extinctions in the last 500 years.

Nannospalax leucodon montanosyrmiensis
The situation is clearly mirrored in the case of the Eurasian blind mole rats. These small mammals represent a distinct group among rodents which is extremely adapted to subterranean life. They have cylindrically shaped body with no external ear and a vestigial tail, and are completely blind spending their entire life in their tunnel system built underground. Compared to other rodents, the conditions resulting from their lifestyle created a decreased morphological variability and the species are very similar both externally and osteologically. Putting aside the lineage of large mole rats (genus Spalax), taxa belonging to Nannospalax present a long-standing source of dispute and disagreement on their systematics. Within the latter genus one of the recognised species groups (regarded as superspecies) which include a large number of karyologically different taxa is the Lesser blind mole rat, Nannospalax (superspecies leucodon). Molecular genetic investigations of this superspecies are quite limited so far both in terms of geographic and taxonomic coverage and the species status of taxa differentiated on chromosomal grounds have not been widely accepted. Alongside with taxonomic uncertainty the determination of conservation status of different mole rat taxa is further hampered by their exclusively subterranean lifestyle which makes it difficult to evaluate their population size. It is worth to note that Microtus bavaricus (a rare and highly localised European rodent) is regarded as Critically Endangered. and receives much attention whereas - due to the disputed taxonomy - Lesser blind mole rats are treated as a single taxon and are categorised as Least Concern (Temple and Terry 2007) or Data Deficient (www.iucnredlist.org). In the meantime, populations and habitats of many different European chromosomal forms of the Lesser blind mole rats are disappearing at an alarming rate, a phenomenon which has just recently been realized...

A recently published paper presents a case study where a mammal within Europe can drift to the
Habitat fragments in the foothills of Fruska gora
rink of extinction almost unnoticed as a result of the lack of information, unclear taxonomic status and unrecognised tasks in conservation biology. On-going research of Carpathian Basin blind mole rats identified a small and fragmented population of these rodents on both sides of the Hungarian-Serbian border. Cytogenetic investigations proved that this population karyologically identical with the Vojvodina blind mole rat described earlier as Nannospalax (leucodon) montanosyrmiensis near the Fruska Gora, Serbia. Based on cytochrome b gene sequences, these blind mole rats form a discrete phylogenetic clade which, with a difference of about 10%, is well separated from other blind mole rat taxa inhabiting the Carpathian Basin.
According to the results of an other study, which is so far the most comprehensive molecular biological research on blind mole rats, montanosyrmiensis forms a well separated lineage that diverged from the closest taxon examined about 1.8 million years ago.

Habitat fragment near the Hungarian-Serbian border with a mole rat mound
The Vojvodina blind mole rat has only three extant populations that are widely separated from each other by unsuitable habitats e.g. agricultural fields and geographical barriers. The combined occupied area is estimated to be less than 10 km2, and the total estimated number of individuals is less than 400. These remaining populations are heavily fragmented and many fragments are under imminent threat by the establishment of tree plantations, small-scale and agro-industrial farms and land development. A study of the landscape history based on military maps spanning over the last 200 years has shown a drastic decrease in the extent and quality of potential habitats. Two of the three populations inhabits unprotected areas although the newly established Kőrös-ér Landscape Protection Area (declared on 18 April 2013) in the Hungarian side of the distribution area gives us the glimmer of hope to save this critically endangered endemic rodent of Europe from extinction.

Based on our present knowledge, the Vojvodina blind mole rat is one of the most seriously threatened, rarest mammal in Europe, the remaining population of which can disappear within years unless immediate conservation actions are taken.

Gábor Csorba
Hungarian Natural History Museum

Attila Németh
MTA-ELTE-MTM Research Group for Paleontology