Archive January 2010

Wildlife Economics: Where to start? Brendan Moyle Jan 28


There’s actually not really any sub-discipline in biology or economics recognised as ‘wildlife economics’. Over time, I’ve tried being an environmental economist, or a bioeconomist, or an ecological economist. But none of these really had an overlap with the sorts of problems I was thinking about. So in the end, I decided that I was a wildlife economist, even if nobody knows what it means.

One of the reasons- is that a lot of the economics literature on market failure- or the conservation literature on optimal extinction- really only agree on one thing. This claim is that under certain conditions, a free market won’t conserve wildlife.

Now while that may get some heads nodding sagely, the reality is that most wildlife management doesn’t occur in any markets. There’s a few game animals, and a few wildlife farms. But for 99.99999%* of the species on this planet, there is no market-based management.

When your chief insight does not cover more than some tiny fraction of a percent of the wildlife we try to manage, you’re not claiming much more than nothing. That’s not a good basis for thinking about wildlife problems.

Most wildlife is either in some legal sense ‘unowned’, or it is ‘owned’ by the state (and managed by government authorities) or it is ‘owned’ by communities (and managed by them- like the titi harvests in NZ). By and large, we’d have to say that we’re not doing all that well. Biodiversity is being lost at a fairly significant rate.

In this sense, market failure is a very uninteresting problem with wildlife, while government failure is a lot more interesting. Paradoxically we say very little about government failure in conservation, and often conservationists fight hard to prevent market mechanisms being employed.

So when I talk about wildlife economics, I’m basically striving to describe the real and actual problems attached to wildlife management. I’m going to be arguing, that starting from very abstract and simplified models that don’t describe the problem at hand, we haven’t produced the guidance we actually need.

So to start with, wildlife economics is about the menu of problems we actually face when trying to conserve biodiversity.


* Most complex species are actually arthropods- insects, spiders etc and lower plants. That’s before we start thinking about the micro-organisms. I don’t actually know what percentage of species depend on markets for their management, but with say 6-10m insect species alone, it’s not going to be a big percentage.

Wildlife Economics: An Ecologist's View Brendan Moyle Jan 27


This morning’s post is a bit of a ramble, but it’s really trying to setup the scene for the issues I want to blog about over the next few days. One thing that was kind of obvious early on to me, was that biologists and economists don’t spend a lot of time talking to each other. There are exceptions, but this is usually pretty rare. The end result is that there’s a fair bit of misunderstanding and friction. In the good old days of the 19th C, this wasn’t the case. Darwin was very likely to be familiar with Adam Smith, and definitely was familiar with the economist Malthus.

So, the goal here is to tackle some of these misunderstandings. From an intellectual level, there are a lot of similarities between economics and biology. That’s kind of how I made the transition. I was already familiar with a lot of these shared concepts.

First, both biology and economics says there’s an underlying reality. A shark hasn’t been designed to be an efficient, predatory fish. It’s that way because the processes of evolutionary selection and variation, have ended up at this morphology. Likewise in economics, what we observe about a lot of economic facts are caused by undirected processes. This is the invisible hand metaphor at play. Prices aren’t high because of greedy businessmen. They’re high because of market forces.

Second, both disciplines use competition a lot. Competition drives many biological processes. Competition drives many economic. The graph of the Cournot model of competition between two firms, looks exactly the same as the graph of the Lotka-Volterra model of competition between two animal populations. Biological models of optimal forage strategies, mirror economic models of rational behaviour.

Third, both disciplines recognise that new properties emerge from different types of organisation. An economy is different to a single market, which is different to a household, which is different to a single consumer. In biology, you can’t use the organisation of single cells, to model the behaviour of whole populations. No amount of examination of a cell, would lead you to conclude that kakapo lek for instance.

From an ecological perspective an economy is a way of reducing human scarcity problems. It’s not a organisation for delivering free health care or making Simon Cowell rich. Originally, human populations struggled in the face of food scarcity, and from variations in food supply. Some days hunters would be successful, some days they would not. Being in a group where people shared food would have helped survival. Trading norms probably emerged from this desire for mutual gain.

Trade also meant you weren’t so restricted by local environmental factors. Trading resources that you have in local abundance (say fish) for resources are rare (say wood), is mutually beneficial- so there’s an incentive to go from trade within a group to trade between groups. You get freed from the restrictions that local resources put on you. And because you put a bit less pressure on local resources, it can be more sustainable. And with growing populations, you open up the scope for more specialisation and more trade. All of this takes us further and further away from the binding resource limits of early humans.

Admittingly, it isn’t quite as straightforward as this, but the point I think is to understand that an economy isn’t a designed system. It’s big, and kind of organic and operates with lots of feedbacks- just like an ecosystem. Governments can drive it in certain directions for a while, but the whole basis is about trying to reduce scarcity problems. NZ foresters who sell logs to China, are helping to reduce a local log scarcity in China. And they don’t do it because they love the Chinese. They do it because it’s profitable.

Wildlife Economics- Introduction Brendan Moyle Jan 25


As many regular readers will know, I’ve got a few qualifications, publications and a strong interest in zoology. What probably goes under the radar, is that I also have a doctorate in economics.

There is a very good reason why I added economics to my education. The big conservation issues wildlife faces are actually economic problems. They’re the problems of illegal harvest (poaching). They’re the problems of habitat loss. These have economic drivers. Now, if you want to focus on well defined issues- like how to kill a lot of rats on an offshore island- having the biology is essential. And it certainly helps me looking at wildlife parts in Asian markets to work out the item comes from a cow, rather than a tiger. But it’s really difficult to escape the fact that the bigger scale problems, are economic in nature- not biological.

There was I thought, a good illustration of this issue with wildlife reserves. When I did my master’s degree, we did a bit on optimal reserve design. This takes into account trying to get a size and scope to the reserve, that takes in as much crucial habitat- and as much biodiversity as possible. Adding to the theory of reserve design are corridors and patch separation.

The reality however, is that wildlife reserves aren’t established based on ecological design principles. Wildlife reserves usually just end up in places where there’s little competition with forestry or farming. In effect, most reserves are in economic terms, ‘worthless lands’. That’s why NZ has lots of reserves but significant under-representation of wetlands and low-lying forests.

Reserves tend to get added to the conservation estate I’m afraid to say, not on the basis of ecological importance. Often the explanation is nothing more than the coincidence of opportunity and funding.

In other words, if we really understand our reserve system, then the most important factors turn out to be economic, not ecological.

These sorts of issues led me towards looking at economics, and eventually what I’ll call ‘wildlife economics’.

Return of the Oyster Catcher Family Brendan Moyle Jan 21

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The Oyster Catchers I was watching on Waiheke Island, would take their chicks foraging in the early evening. Mum and Dad would still have to feed the little darlings of course. These were interesting shots to attempt, as the birds were much more nervous with me being on the land. I’m also photographing at a higher ISO to compensate for the low light.

#1 A family that feeds together, stays together

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#2 Staying close to mum

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#3 I can see something tasty over there

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Long-Horn (Cerymabicid) Beetle Photos Brendan Moyle Jan 20


As any good student of NZ natural history knows, 80% of these islands were covered with forests before human settlement. This of course, means lots of wood. So partly as a result, we have a lot of insects that can eat wood. One particularly speciose group are the long-horn beetles (Cerymabicidae).

The dominant characteristic of a long-horn beetle are the very long antenna.

I found this example on Waiheke Island. The nice thing about it was that it was sufficiently large, I didn’t need any magnification aids.




Unfortunately, it’s not a family I have a lot of familiarity, so I’ll have to leave it to other beetle-experts to try improving the identification.

Kangaroos, taboos and animal rights radicals Brendan Moyle Jan 19

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It’s funny how certain taboos about what animals can eaten emerge. We used to think eating whale was okay, now we don’t. But Norwegians still do. Japanese are horrified that in NZ, people eat lamb. For a while, we thought eating raw fish was strange.

One of the constant struggles we face managing wildlife, is the strange dichotomy people have between animals that can be eaten and those that can’t. Eating native fish in NZ is okay, eating native insects (huhu grubs) is okay, eating some native birds is not okay. (A limited harvest of pukekos is permitted each year in NZ, and in theory they can be eaten). At an ecological level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Always with the boxes.

This leads onto kangaroos. Kangaroos are harvested annually in large numbers in Australia. And there have been a number of campaigns in overseas markets to kill this trade off. California for instance, banned all kangaroo products for decades. And the EU is often subject to pressure to ban the kangaroo trade.

Human populations need a supply of protein. Ideally, we’d like to source protein in a way that reduces impacts on the environment, is sustainable and meets some animal welfare criterion. These are all very good criteria to support kangaroo harvests. Kangaroos have a much lower impact on the Australian environment. They don’t compact the soil or produce large amounts of wastes, and they don’t produce the methane cattle do. All in all, the Australian environment would be far better off with a few less cattle and a few more kangaroos.

Kangaroos are also superabundant. The wild population can reach 40m individuals in good seasons. They have been harvested for decades- managed and monitored under an excellent regulatory system. The harvest has been shown to be sustainable for many years.

Finally, welfare studies on kangaroo harvests have regularly. It is one of the most humane systems of harvest we have. Basically, skippy goes bounce, bounce, bounce and then bang, a head shot moves the animal instantly out of the world of the living. Compared to this, cattle are crammed into large trucks, transported in conditions of heat stress to an abattoir. The animals can smell the blood and death as they approach and are certainly, not in any happy place.

Note that these kangaroo welfare regulations do not apply to pest-eradication. If kangaroos reach pest levels (as superabdundant animals can do), then the same welfare rules do not apply. Banning the commercial harvest of kangaroo would simply shift the harvest towards ‘pest eradication’ and a lower level of welfare rules.

Kangaroo is also a very good meat. It’s a game meat and very low in fat. It comes from a wild animal, so has little in the way of chemical residues. And, because the animal browses widely for food, the taste is judged to be more flavoursome.

If you want to support the kangaroo harvests, try buying some kangaroo from time-to-time. And please, sign this internet petition organised by Professor Mike Archer.

Oyster Catcher Family Photos Brendan Moyle Jan 18

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One of the local bird species on Waiheke Island was the variable Oyster Catcher. This time of the year, parents are caring for their chicks. I managed a couple of shooting sessions or a family.

These shots are taken from a kayak that I let drift towards the group. This has the advantage of getting closer than an approach along an open beach. The disadvantage is that even a slight swell makes holding a camera steady near impossible. And there’s a certain nervousness abut employing expensive camera and lenses on open sea on a kayak.

The juveniles are beginning to fledge- down is disappearing and proper feather are starting to emerge.

#1 Group Shot

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#2 Just the chicks

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#3 Time to move

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Introduced Vespid Wasps Brendan Moyle Jan 18

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NZ has no native vespid wasps, albeit four species have been established here.

Two of those species include the Australian Paper Wasp and the Chinese (or Asian) paper wasp. Such species are a conservation problem, because they predate on native insects. This means they also compete against insectivorous native birds. These wasps also consume nectar, and hence compete against birds like tuis and bellbirds.

Paper wasps build small paper nests or colonies in shrubs or trees.

The Australian Paper Wasp became established in the 1800s in NZ. It tends to be restricted to warmer, northern regions of NZ. It has a more characteristic red body.


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The Chinese (or Asian) Paper Wasp became established in 1979. It’s range has rapidly expanded. It is now reasonably common in the North Island, and has been recorded in the north of the South Island. It has a characteristic, thin, black-and-yellow appearance.

"On Guard"

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Needless to say, destroying the nests of these wasps should be a guilt-free experience.

A new tui photo Brendan Moyle Jan 16

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I got back from my break on Waiheke Island a couple of days ago. We were based at the ARC camp ground, so lacked for electricity and cellphone coverage. I came prepared with three charged batteries for my camera (and used up 2, those big telephoto lenses suck up the juice).

I liked this photo of a tui, as the light was able to catch the full range of colours on the body. The background provides little in the way of distraction. This time of year is better to attempt tui photos, as they are down from the tree canopy and feeding on flax flowers. A good photo of a tui in a forest has so far, eluded me.

Where God went wrong- 10 biological design mistakes Brendan Moyle Jan 03


Knowing that I’m a zoologist makes it easy to surmise I’m not in fact, playing on the modern Creationist team. I don’t have a great problem with pre-Darwinian creationists, as they made some effort on the prediction side, and modified their theory as new evidence accumulated (e.g. multiple cataclysms rather than just one biblical flood, multiple centres of creation, not just one Garden of Eden, the days in Genesis 1 were really eras, not literal days).

I don’t have a great problem either with the very weak Creationist doctrine adopted by a lot of denominations. This is the God started the Big Bang, had a tea break, then popped back in time to send Jesus to earth approach. This just says that evolution is God’s mechanism for life on this planet. This doesn’t leave a lot of scope for conflict.

What I have absolutely no sympathy for, is the very naive, very anti-science Creationist approach adopted by ’Intelligent Design’ sic or Young Earth Creationists (YEC). This is one of the things that turned my brief period as a conservative Christian into an even briefer one. People who value truth really shouldn’t be so keen to obfuscate, confuse and ignore the evidence for evolution. It ruins their credibility.

Anyway, I’m going to turn things around a bit by looking at the evidence for ID, not evolution. (This is actually rarely done, as ID-YEC advocates spend more time trying to prove that evolution is wrong than coming up with evidence for ID.)

Suppose that there is an Intelligent Designer (for argument’s sake). We also assume that this designer has the following characteristics. He is omnipotent, omniscient and is also caring and benevolent.

Let’s consider the actual evidence for the existence of such a being. I’m looking for examples of optimality, efficiency and parsimony in design.

1) Junk DNA

The DNA in our genes has large components of non-coding or junk-DNA. This is a source of inefficiency (or genuine redundancy), as inheritance mechanisms for organisms don’t need or use this extra DNA. (There is also no relationship between the size and complexity of an organism and the amount of junk DNA- the Congo Eel – actually a salamander- has 50 times more DNA per cell than we do). An intelligent designer would not introduce a deliberate source of inefficiency into a design, hence this is a mistake.

2) UV Radiation System Vulnerability

The peculiar problem of designing DNA to be the molecule of inheritance is that it is peculiarly vulnerable to UV radiation. Planet Earth just happens to be bathed in the stuff. An omniscient designer would have found a better alternative and an omnipotent designer would have redesigned DNA to be less vulnerable to UV radiation. Hence, picking a molecule that is vulnerable to UV radiation then not correcting this vulnerability, is a design mistake.

3) Complexity for No Purpose

While we all know the function of DNA is to provide a coding system (capable of inheritance) for proteins. The only problem is that it doesn’t actually work until you employ RNA as an intermediary (kind of like a system patch). This introduces complexity for no purpose, as we already know that some viruses use RNA as their coding system anyway. An intelligent designer would have picked RNA or fixed things (omnipotence) to avoid this needless complexity.

4) The Human Appendix Mistake

Wow, here we have a small organ included in our body whose only purpose it seems, is to randomly get infected, burst, and for centuries, inflict a painful death via peritonitis on its victim. If we were a car, we’d have been recalled and the manufacturer sued for negligence. No evidence for intelligent design there.

5) Vestigial Organs Mistake

It’s hardly rocket science to work out designing something with features that don’t work, isn’t a very clever design principle. But vestigial organs are just that. The vestigial wings of flightless birds- like the kiwi, the vestigial eye-spots of some cave-dwelling arthropods, vestigial hind leg bones in whales, the human tailbone (coccyx), all have no actual purpose. It’s either a very dumb design mistake (hmm, wings on a flightless bird, how clever) or evidence of transitional forms that confirm evolution.

6) The Human Eye Mistake

The human eye always gets creationists excited for reasons that escape me. A few light sensitive dermal (skin) cells and the eye is suddenly too complicated to evolve. It’s obvious that they haven’t actually looked at the eye at an anatomical level. There’s a very big design mistake. The human eye has been designed backwards. The nerves have to loop back and pass through the retina (arthropods have a better system that avoids this problem). The nerves loop through in one place on the retina, creating a well-known blind spot (and area of the retina that can’t be used to see with).

7) The Invasive Species Design Mistake

If you’re going to design organisms to live in certain places, and you’ve got some scope to design them, then you’re going to put organisms in habitats they are the best fit for. (This is actually on old pre-Darwinian creationist prediction.)

But invasive species represent a major extinction threat to many native species globally, proving that the natives were not the best fit. For example, we have a native Theridiid spider called the katipo whose range and population has dropped rather dramatically, due to competition with an invasive Theridiid spider from South Africa (sometimes called the false-katipo). Invasive wasps and ants out-compete native wasps and ants.

The problem with invasive species is that they show that natives aren’t the best design for that environment. This shows an absence of intelligent design.

8) The Extinction Mistake

Fossil records show that there have been numerous periods of mass extinctions (Cretaceous-Tertiary, End-Triassic, Permian-Triassic, Late Devonian and Ordovician-Silurian extinctions). These stretch from c65m years ago to c439m years ago. That so many of these species were allowed to become extinct shows a distinct lack of care and benevolence. And it’s a fairly colossal design mistake to design so many species that are so flawed that they become extinct. When we are talking about a failure rate of over 95% [1], it is clear that these designs are well below acceptable standards.

  • As an aside, this is what perturbed so many pre-Darwinian creationists. The fossil record showed that large groups of organisms were being casually wiped out by their Creator. This didn’t gel with the concept of an omniscient, benevolent creator. Naturalistic explanations started to make more sense.

9) The Termite mistake

Termites are designed apparently, to eat wood. They’ve got the mouth parts, size and body-shape to do the job extremely well. There’s just one problem. They can’t. That is, until you give them species of micro-organisms in the gut that can digest lignin. So, termites have been designed to eat wood, but the design is such a failure we need an entirely new species to come to the rescue. Here’s an idea. Give termites the enzymes they need to digest wood in the first place.

10) An irrational fondness for bilateralism

A lot of animals have a bilateral appearance. One side of the body is (roughly) mirror image of the other. This works internally as well as externally. We’ve got matching limbs and lungs afterall. So a lot of animal species- from butterflies to lizards to monkeys- have this bilateral structure.

The problem is, it isn’t so efficient for some species. Snakes for instance, like the long and cylinder-like look. So once you dissect them and look at their anatomy, you realise that in order to fit paired lungs (and other organs) into the body, one half gets very big and one half very small. So snakes have on large, long lung, and one paired very small one taking up very little room a bit further down. Bilateralism isn’t a smart design feature. Having one lung would be more efficient than two. You wouldn’t waste energy on growing an extra lung and there’d be fewer compromises trying to fit everything in. Bilateralism for snakes is a bad design feature.


As noted above, not all of these are new issues. Both (7) and (8) perturbed pre-Darwinian creationists. They were also somewhat shocked to observe how red in tooth and claw nature really was, with top predators not restricting their hunting to the weak and infirm.

[1] Raup, David M. Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? W.W. Norton and Company. New York. 1991. pp.3-6 ISBN 978-0393309270