Toward more effective use of SDMs in conservation decision making

Species distribution models (SDMs), which relate species occurrence records to environmental datasets, are increasingly advocated in the peer-reviewed literature to support conservation decisions. Nearly every paper that uses SDMs has a token section about how the developed SDMs could be used in future conservation efforts. But is there much evidence that SDMs are actually being used to support conservation decisions on the ground? How could we most effectively develop SDMs to support these decisions, and start to bridge the gap between academics and managers?

In a recent paper in Ecology Letters, several authors from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (including Tracey Regan, Brendan Wintle and John Baumgartner from QAECO) take the first steps toward tackling these challenges. In our manuscript, we use examples from four important conservation domains to illustrate how the development of SDMs should be dictated by the decision context in which they are to be used, and describe some of the types of constraints that need to be considered in different decision contexts. Drawing on the unpublished conservation literature and our own experiences in the realm of conservation decision making, we show that SDMs are being used to support conservation efforts, but suggest that SDMs could be used more effectively by developing them within a structured decision making framework that considers the real world constraints faced by managers.

So if you’re doing research on SDMs – get out there and get involved in a real conservation decision! Your research will help inform a practical conservation problem, and you may just find that the experience provides exciting new collaborations and directions for your own research.

You can download our paper free of charge here.


Relative likelihood of occurrence of an Australian frog according to MaxEnt, a popular type of SDM. How one builds such a model, and how it will be used to inform a conservation decision (e.g. critical habitat designation) should depend upon the decision context.

Curtailing the spread of invasive toads

Invasive species represent a major threat to ecosystems worldwide. In a recent article published in Journal of Applied Ecology, my colleagues and I investigate whether we could halt the spread of one of the world’s worst invaders: the cane toad (Rhinella marina). Cane toads have marched rapidly across the Top End of Australia, but in order to invade further into Western Australia, the toads must disperse through a narrow coastal corridor connecting the Kimberley to the Pilbara. This is a pretty dry part of the world, and so farmers in this region have constructed numerous artificial waterbodies to water their livestock. Unfortunately, these watering points are ideal breeding and refuge sites for cane toads, and thus may serve as critical stepping stones for toads as they attempt to spread along the corridor.

In our paper, we use a stochastic simulation of cane toad spread to show that excluding toads from just one hundred of these artificial waterbodies could significantly reduce the probability that toads could reach the Pilbara. Importantly, this corridor connects extensive patches of suitable habitat for toads, and thus excluding toads from artificial waterbodies could prevent them from occupying 268,000 square kilometres of their potential range in Western Australia; an area of land larger than the State of Victoria! However, before we can implement this strategy, we will need to conduct a much more holistic analysis that considers not only ecological costs, but economic and societal costs as well. The optimal strategy for doing so is a topic for another day…

You can read the article free of charge courtesy of the kind folks at Journal of Applied Ecology. Also check out my co-author Ben Phillips chatting about our work over at The Conversation and on ABC Radio National, and head over to the Faculty of 1000 to read a review of our work by Mark Lonsdale and Hazel Ruth Perry.

Reid Tingley, Benjamin Phillips, Mike Letnic, Gregory Brown, Richard Shine and Stuart Baird (2013). Identifying optimal barriers to halt the invasion of cane toads Rhinella marina in arid Australia, Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 129-137. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12021.

Seeking student with an interest in genetics and optimal survey design

eDNA may revolutionise surveys for cryptic invasive species such as the cane toad, but is eDNA more cost-efficient than traditional survey methods?

QAECO is seeking an honours or postgraduate student with an interest in genetics and environmental monitoring. The successful candidate will work with researchers from Bio21 and the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne to develop and test novel methods for conducting biodiversity surveys using environmental DNA (eDNA). eDNA can be used to detect species from water samples, and thus holds great promise for reducing survey costs (see a recent blog on this topic over at However, there are numerous uncertainties associated with this technology. How many water samples should we take? How quickly does eDNA degrade, and what conditions accelerate DNA denaturation? How does a species’ abundance influence detection?

The successful candidate will attempt to answer these types of questions in the laboratory using invasive and endangered aquatic vertebrates as model systems. Optimal protocols determined in the laboratory will then be applied to field surveys around greater Melbourne. The results of these field surveys will then be used to compare the cost-efficiency of traditional and eDNA sampling strategies.

If this sounds like something that interests you, drop me a line at

Welcome! I will be updating this page on a regular basis with information on my research activities, so stay tuned! In the meantime, learn more about my research interests on the ‘About me’ and ‘Publications’ sections of my website.