Experiments in Conservation: More Tools in the Toolbox


Experimental Approaches to Conservation Biology . Gordon, M.S., and S. M.Bartol , editors . 2004 . The University of California Press , Berkeley . 358 pp . $75.00 (hardcover) . ISBN 0-520-24024-3 .

Experimental Approaches to Conservation Biology is a timely and welcome addition to the conservation literature for several reasons. The emphasis on experimental methods contrasts productively with a number of recent books that concentrate on modeling approaches, providing a nice complement to this work (e.g., Beissinger & McCullough 2002; Ferson & Burgman 2002; Morris & Doak 2002; Brigham & Schwartz 2003). Much of the book also unapologetically takes a strongly species-centered perspective. In recent years, this kind of work has to some degree fallen out of fashion in the conservation literature relative to coarser-scale community or ecosystem management approaches (Schwartz 1999). Unarguably, strategies targeting individual species are not sufficient in and of themselves to achieve conservation goals, given the scope and scale of the problems involved. Nevertheless, a lack of basic information on species biology is clearly often a significant stumbling block to conservation efforts. Many of the case studies in this book highlight examples of such problems and point out the contributions that experimental studies addressing questions about species biology can make. In this respect, the book serves as a good reminder of some important basic tools in the conservation toolbox that are at times perhaps underappreciated in the literature.

This book is a compendium of papers from an international conference held in Los Angeles in September 2001. The conference was rescheduled and shortened because of the events of September 11, so the book includes some work that was prepared for the meeting but was not presented. Editors Malcolm Gordon and Soraya Bartol note that experiment has been intentionally defined very broadly. The contributions are extremely diverse in terms of both the species and the methods addressed, and some chapters deal with studies of natural experiments or with management strategies that can be viewed as experimental. The breadth and variety of material make this book an interesting sampler of ongoing conservation-related work in areas ranging from vertebrate endocrinology and physiology to spatial dynamics of invasive plant spread. At the same time, the material is so wide-ranging that many readers will probably find this book most useful as a reference from which to draw on specific chapters in their own area of interest.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first, and longest, covers rare and endangered species biology. The emphasis here is primarily on vertebrates, including chapters on leatherback sea turtles, birds in New Zealand, Australian marsupials, and Steller's sea lions. Several of the chapters in this portion offer interesting perspectives on how to creatively address the challenges of carrying out experimental studies of rare or listed animals. Many conservation practitioners will also appreciate the specific and down-to-earth way some of these contributions directly link experiments to management. For example, work by Hadfield et al. on Hawaiian tree snails and by Alberts and Phillips on West Indian rock iguanas focuses on the application of demographic, population genetic, and behavioral approaches to help design reintroduction strategies. In a similar vein, Cockrem et al. describe the use of endocrinology to evaluate the potential impacts of ecotourism on kiwi in New Zealand. Another notable contribution is an extensive review by Blaustein et al. on amphibian declines, which synthesizes a number of recent experimental results on a range of species and suggests future directions for research into interactions among multiple stressors.

The second section concentrates on biological invasions, with the focus turning largely to plants. This part of the book is much shorter, but includes a chapter by Richardson et al. about methods for analyzing historical data from “natural” experiments on tree introductions and a contribution by Hoddle on the use of biological control in managing invasions. For followers of the invasions literature, a number of the ideas and issues touched on here will be familiar. In addition, Corbin et al. review recent experimental studies on management of invasive plants and restoration of native plant communities in California grasslands, and their results will interest managers and researchers working in this system. They found that the outcomes of strategies such as grazing and burning vary substantially in different contexts and manipulations that suppress invasive species often fail to promote recovery of native species when carried out in isolation from additional restoration efforts such as seeding.

The final part of the book focuses explicitly on policy, with three case studies on desert tortoise management in California, approaches to integrating conservation research and management in Australia, and the management of national parks in Africa, respectively. The overview chapter in this section articulates two compelling reasons for connecting policy with the theme of experimental approaches in conservation: (1) management itself is often experimental and (2) one of the most important challenges in conservation is actually translating scientific information and experimental results into management practices. In my view, the contributions succeed more in addressing the second of these issues than the first. All too often in the conservation literature, we cite ideas such as adaptive management without clearly defining what this means or how to actually implement management as a set of informative experiments. For the most part, the chapters in this section could do more to meet this challenge. Nevertheless, the papers provide some interesting examples of the problems that can arise when trying to integrate science into management, as well as ideas about strategies for overcoming them.

This book tackles such a broad range of topics that inevitably it will leave many readers feeling partly unsatisfied. For example, I thought it unfortunate that the first two sections were so taxonomically segregated, with all the threatened species chapters focused on animals and almost all the invasive species work on plants. In addition, the latter two sections both have only one-third as many chapters as the first. The book succeeds admirably, though, in achieving its stated goals: providing a broad sampling of case studies that serve as models for connecting experimental research in organismic biology to conservation and speaking effectively to the interests of both conservation researchers and practitioners.