The Living Planet Report 2016 – taking stock with a student seminar


This morning I started the first in a series of weekly two-hour seminar sessions with my final year undergraduate students on their Biodiversity and Conservation module.  By this stage in their BSc programme the students are being weaned off lectures and being encouraged to take a more critical perspective on the published scientific literature.  Each week we deal with a specific issue relating to biodiversity such as: measuring biodiversity; current trends; spatial patterns; biodiversity and  ecosystem services; and how much is there still to discover about biodiversity?

This morning we focused on the Living Planet Report 2016, the latest installment of an annual assessment of the rate and extent to which we are losing animals across the globe.  The report, which came out last month, generated a lot of media attention with headlines such as “World wildlife falls by 58% in 40 years” and “World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020“.

As preparation for the seminar I asked the students to read the first chapter of the report and then during the session I divided them into groups of three in order to take stock* of the report and answer a series of questions such as:

What do you understand by the “Anthropocene”?

What do you understand by the “Living Planet Index” (LPI)?

How do the LPIs vary across the planet and across taxonomic groups?

What is the evidence base for these trends?

Which LPIs show the greatest declines and which LPIs show the least declines? Can you account for these patterns?

Which LPI trend do you consider to be the most worrying, and why?

By way of a counter-point to the media hype, and to consider one potential area of criticism of the report, I also ask the students to look at critiques written by Simon Leather (You don’t need charismatic megafauna to go on an exciting safari) and Ryan Clarke (What about the little things?).  In both of these posts the bloggers take the report to task by pointing out that it ignores the vast majority of animal life, i.e. invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and so forth.

Simon and Ryan have a valid point, of course, but the fact of the matter is that we simply don’t have the same quality of long-term population data for invertebrates as we do for  birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  The exception to that is the butterflies which the Living Planet Report does discuss, devoting a whole page to grassland butterflies.  It also states (p20) that “Methods to incorporate invertebrates and plants are now in development”.

Although the hype around the report is a bit over the top, nonetheless this focus on the best possible data sets does emphasise the fact that the world’s biodiversity is declining in species richness and abundance.  The final question I ask the students is whether, in their opinion, we on the verge of a “Sixth Mass Extinction” (as the report suggests).  A show of hands at the end showed that about half think “yes”, a quarter think “no”; and a quarter (myself included) said “we don’t know”.  It was a nice demonstration of the complexities around coming to any kind of consensus when it comes to reports such as this.

All-in-all it was a great session, the students really engaged with it and raised some very interesting points.  I’m looking forward to the rest of these seminars, they promise to be very stimulating.



*Before anyone comments, yes, I know that the photo shows a pillory not a set of stocks.  But we don’t have a set of stocks at the university, only a pillory.  Exactly why we have a pillory on campus is another matter…..



10 thoughts on “The Living Planet Report 2016 – taking stock with a student seminar

  1. jamierossigould

    I believe that the sixth mass extinction started around 50,000 years ago when humans spread to all of the continents and caused major loss of megafauna (and possibly their associated species). How many species need to be lost for it to be classed as a mass extinction?

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      That’s a good question. The five recognised mass extinctions all involved the loss of at least 50% of species, worldwide, as far as we can tell:

      Human-induced extinctions, while significant, don’t seem to be at this scale at the moment. In addition these extinctions are very non-random compared to “natural” extinctions, with a particular emphasis on large mammalian herbivores, flightless birds, island species, etc.

      1. jamierossigould

        I see and yes, there is a very selective nature to human-induced extinctions. I can only hope we don’t cause something that will be classified as a mass extinction, though I wouldn’t put it past Homo sapiens!

  2. Pete Pollock

    Greetings Jeff! I truly hope you continue your efforts with this blog. Biodiversity is an absolutely critical issue for our planet at the current time. I am sending these comments – in real time – from the rainforests in Mato Grosso state in Brazil. We are completing an epic journey through the Andes and the Amazon … so far 3 months on the road. We are now trying to collect our thoughts on how we can help biodiversity, and protect critical species. Two quick comments:
    1. Its hard to capture the feeling of disillusionment that you get when you drive through that states of Acre, Rondonia and Mato Grosso. What you see – is people who want to chop down trees and own a herd of white cows. The mentality of “colonial exploitation” is still very dominant. It is a tough, tough fight to try to save species.
    2. One thing that struck me very forcibly is the rapidly declining quality of water in the southern Amazon. In many places, near large towns, the rivers are truly horrible. Pollution, human effluent, and mercury poisoning are taking a real toll. There is no doubt about why WWF studies are showing rapid species declines, especially for creatures that depend on fresh water.
    We are giving serious thought to what we can do … but ultimately this is a fight against a “mindset of greed and exploitation”.
    Kindest Regards, (Dr.) Pete Pollock, Mato Grosso, Brazil.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for your comment Pete, I can only but agree! The link between societal and habitat degradation is a very real one. Brazil is a wonderful country but it has some real issues to address. If you search my blog for “Brazil” you will find my diary from a 2013 trip. Safe travels. Jeff


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