Start with the problem, is wildlife in decline or not?

The following post is one of a series previewing the research that will be presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Rome, Italy (13-17 May 2018).

A guest post by Andrew C. Johnson

Over a nearly 30 year career in environmental science I have witnessed scares over pesticides, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals, nanoparticles, and now microplastics. The pattern is largely the same, a chemist detects the substance, and then laboratory tests confirm that some toxic properties exist. Further studies are then carried out in the laboratory at what are called ‘environmentally relevant concentrations,’ which appear to clinch the deal. Catastrophe is around the corner, if it hasn’t happened already.


White-tailed eagle grabbing a fish near Raftsund, Lofoten/Norway Photo by Christoph Müller CC-BY 4.0

But what is really happening to exposed wildlife?  Why do we not seem to ask this question?  Could it be that wildlife exposed to our current fashionable substance of concern are prospering, whilst others might be suffering due to something we have not examined yet?  Even worse, existing problems for wildlife might be due to a chemical, such as a metal, which we have lost interest in due to their having gone out of fashion?

Rather than being chemical driven, let us learn to re-connect with trends in wildlife populations and examine their responses to the place and timing of exposure.

Session: Can trends in wildlife populations revolutionise our understanding of the impacts of chemicals on the environment?
15 May 2018 | 8:30 a.m.–10:05 a.m. | Room E


Two mammal-eating “transient” killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Photographer: Robert Pittman Published courtesy of NOAA.

2 thoughts on “Start with the problem, is wildlife in decline or not?

  1. Ray Kinney

    “Can trends in wildlife populations revolutionise our understanding of the impacts of chemicals on the environment?”
    Certainly could greatly increase our understanding, but politicians pervasively do NOT want that monitoring to happen. They fear the power of industry lobbies cutting election funding punitively for any environmental quality agency that tries to do due diligence science for wildlife decline from toxic contaminant exposures and uptake. If funding essential to scientific integrity in assessment is pervasively withheld, how can we ever expect to adequately understand status and trends? We have to do the work, or we will not reach that scientific integrity, and policy will not be informed.

    1. Leo Posthuma

      Start with the problem, is wildlife in decline or not?
      Recent studies on trends in wildlife showed vast impacts, likely attributable to human activities. An example published in PLOS ONE is entitled “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas”, and suggest that important trends can be uncovered. The next step for such studies is to bridge ecological and ecotoxicological methods, to diagnose the probable set of causal factors causing such trends. These methods are swiftly developing, supported by regulatory obligations to collect monitoring data. As an example, the European Water Framework Directive asks for monitoring of so-called Biological Quality Elements, providing raw data on species and ecosystems. Practical approaches to bridge the gap between field-based ecology and laboratory-based ecotoxicology increasingly succeed to diagnose ecological impacts, under Multi-stress and Mixture-exposure conditions. Succesful practical approaches and policies can succeed to protect the environment using chemo-centric preventive approaches, and can succeed to reduce impacts when needed using eco-centric approaches. Both are needed to reach the goal of a ‘non-toxic environment’.


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