Communication: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Posted by Lloyd Stringer @lloydstringer2

In this age of mass communication, you’d think that we would be able to communicate our ideas well without any misunderstands occurring. Because of the junk that is filling the internet, we are encouraged to write short and punchy articles (providing supplementary files where the reader can actually find out what was done), and then advertise what we have done to improve the likelihood of being read.

I have been lucky enough to experience different sorts of science communication. I have tried tweeting, but I freely admit that social media isn’t my style- I rarely access my facebook account, so you can imagine how well I treat my twitter account. Another approach I gave a go, was a press release of an article I wrote a few months back. At least with this medium I was able to gauge the uptake by the public. After it was published in the Herald (probably in the online form only) it was picked up by Farmers Weekly (online and printed). It was at this point I knew it was out as I had family members and work colleagues contacting me.

Now there is a point to me blowing my own trumpet. While the press release we made was accurate, the rapid Herald release contained inaccuracies- which I believe looks bad for me (if any of my peers read it).

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The second Farmers Weekly article was a much better experience. I had a phone interview with the reporter, then the reporter sent a draft of the article so I could confirm and revise if needed, leading to better outcome for all.

A more recent experience is being caught in the ugly cross-fire between two groups of scientists with ‘opposing’ ideas of fruit fly eradications. I write ‘opposing’ as it appears that both groups are having separate conversations. An article which I am a co-author on was severely criticised and it all looks to be a misunderstanding based on our use of the words ‘same data’, we meant eradication data, where the group with the concerns has interpreted it as exactly the same dataset as theirs. In hindsight this is understandable. Rather than get pulled into the mire, we have decided not to reply to the accusations as:

  1. The journal (tabloid) appears to be trying to egg the discussion on with the use of boxing gloves above the article titles (to increase sales?)
  2. This type of communication is prone to misunderstandings and any outsiders or policy makers will be starting to question the validity of any of earlier reported results.

Boxing gloves

I guess where I am going with this is that we do have the pressure to communicate our information quickly, we are responsible for the words that we write and it is worth the time to ensure that we are as accurate as possible.

Lloyd Stringer is a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, and scientist in the Biosecurity Group and Plant & Food Research, Lincoln. He is studying the effects of population management tools on insect Allee thresholds. He is supervised by Max SucklingJacqueline Beggs, and John Kean

Baby it’s cold outside (where have all the insects gone?!)

Post by Anna Frances Probert @AFProbert

I often get asked where all the insects go in winter, which is a pretty good question considering how conspicuous mosquitoes, ants, wasps and cicadas are during the summer months. The presence of insects may be obvious in summer although they are seemingly absent during winter. We are all aware that there are some pretty amazing animals out there that spend the coldest months of the year in a torpid or hibernation state. But what about all our invertebrate friends that seem to disappear in the cooler months?

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It’s freezing! Dunedin Botanical Gardens in winter. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Like all animals, insects are faced with two options when it comes to the cold: move away, or somehow deal with it. The first option of moving away is something we might generally associate with larger animals – migration. Although insect migration differs slightly compared to that of birds and mammals in that the ‘round trip’ of the migratory path is usually made up of multiple generations, they can indeed travel vast distances to head to warmer climes to overwinter.

This is best exemplified with the North American migration of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). The winter months in Canada and in many places in the United States proves to be too cold for the Monarch butterfly to survive. So to avoid certain death via freezing, come autumn, populations start moving south towards the equator, where the climate becomes more forgiving. Although a complete round-journey involves at least four generations of Monarch butterflies, individual butterflies have been recorded to fly more than 4000km.

But what if you don’t have the ability to move to avoid the cold? Overwintering and being “cold tolerant” becomes your only option. However, when you’re an insect you have different options of how to spend winter time. You can either overwinter in your egg, larval, pupal, nymphal or adult stages, depending on your life history. Yet insects, regardless of which life stage they spend winter, may be subjected to freezing temperatures, requiring them to adopt a strategy to avoid freezing to death. Essentially, like all ectotherms, insects subjected to freezing temperatures need to adopt a freeze avoidance or freeze tolerance strategy.

Freeze avoidance, the basal trait for cold tolerance in insects, is essentially the ability to maintain body fluids at a liquid state at temperatures below zero, existing in what is called a “supercooled” state. Insects achieve this by producing “anti-freeze” chemicals that prevent ice formation. For insects that adopt this strategy of cold tolerance, if the temperature slips below what they are able to maintain in their supercooled state, they usually freeze to death. Whilst this threshold varies largely between species, at the extreme end there is a species of parasitoid wasp that can supercool to -47°C.

 

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The Drinker moth (Euthrix potatoria) can tolerate the cold and hibernates as a larva during the winter. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

On the other hand, freeze tolerant insects have the ability to survive the formation of ice within their tissues, via the production of ice nucleating agents in the extracellular body fluid. Freeze tolerance is a strategy adopted by many Southern Hemisphere insects including a species of alpine tree weta here in New Zealand.

So insects are still around during the winter, they may just not be as active, or in a stage of their life cycle where they are not so conspicuous. Although I don’t necessarily welcome the return of mosquitoes and social wasps into my life, it’s neat to know a little bit more about the amazing adaptations insects have evolved to cope with the cold.

 

MeblogAnna Probert is a PhD student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using ants as a model to assess the risk posed by exotic invertebrates to native ecosystems. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, and Darren Ward.

Life after PhD – the career at the end of the tunnel

Posted by Ellery McNaughton  @EJ_McNaughton

Six days ago I hit my three year anniversary – three years of commitment to the significant other in my life, my PhD project. It’s increasingly difficult to avoid thinking about what will happen when I can finally say goodbye to it. Ideally, this thinking should have been done before I entered into the relationship in the first place, but what can I say, it was a whirlwind romance. I was lured in with grand ideas about saving the world from the supposed evils of unchecked streetlight retrofits. Hard life evaluations and 10-year career plans didn’t factor into it as much as they perhaps should have.

Even if they had, plans can change. Preference for academic careers has been shown to significantly decrease over the course of a science PhD. I must admit that this rings true for me; the thought of academic tenure has swung back and forth between paradise and purgatory over the last three years. Perhaps I’ll eventually be struck with an epiphany that academia is the light at the end of the tunnel, but if I am, I won’t be the only wayward soul trying to reach it. Academic jobs are few and far between, and those that are available are contested hotly by post-docs who have graduated from a system that tends to elevate academia as superior to alternative career options. The spotlight on academic careers isn’t really surprising given that PhDs are awarded by academic institutions, and most students carry out their research in an academic environment, surrounded and mentored by those fortunate and successful enough to end up in an academic position. However, when less than 20% of doctoral graduates end up in tenure-track positions within 5 years of graduation, there is an argument to be made that academia is itself the alternative career option for science graduates.

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Career pathways of NZ science PhD students (MoRST report, data from 2006). Taken from https://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2013/01/29/from-science-phd-to-careers-outside-academia-what-might-help/

Thankfully, this isn’t something that has gone unnoticed. A university workshop I attended earlier this year focused in part on applying for non-academic careers, and as always, the internet can be a great source of helpful articles and blogs (some colourfully worded, some not). Of course, none of this helps me if I’m actively avoiding thinking about the future. I’ve been so focused on trying to get through this rusty frying pan of a PhD that I’ve avoided thinking about the fiery depths of career opportunities I’ll be jumping into. Here’s hoping I’ll figure it out before my next anniversary.

Ellery (2)Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project investigates the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJacqueline BeggsKevin Gaston (University of Exeter, UK) and Darryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

The strange world of academic publishing

Posted by Julia Kaplick @julekap

A couple of days ago I tried to explain to my parents (non-scientists, obviously) how publishing a paper works and why it is so important for us scientists. No problem to wrap your head around the publish or perish principle. Naturally they wanted to know where they could read these papers and that’s where the story became a little bit more complicated and confusing for an outsider. It just doesn’t make sense to them that scientists give their work to publishers for free and that reviewers and editors, who also put in considerable work hours don’t see a penny either. The publishing companies on the other hand earn huge amounts of money by selling single articles to individuals and more importantly journal subscriptions to numerous university and research libraries worldwide. The big publishing houses basically make their profits from selling free work from scientists back to them through the university libraries with profit margins of up to 40%. Sounds a bit insane, right?

By Jorge Cham, PhD comics (http://phdcomics.com/)

By Jorge Cham, PhD comics (http://phdcomics.com/)

So what can we do about it? A long-term goal especially for the younger generation of scientists should be to stop publishing with the big five. In some scientific areas the five biggest publishing conglomerates cover 70% of the research output. It isn’t easy, but there is already a growing number of scientists refusing to publish with certain publishers.

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Picture by Sara Thompson (cc)

Publishing open access papers or publishing in entirely open access journals is becoming more popular, but this can be expensive and in most cases still fills the pockets of the bigger publishers. A lot of funding agencies are willing to cover this cost and some even demand that the research outputs of funded projects need to be published open access. This investment might pay off through increased citations and it is certainly a step into the right direction. Swiss universities for example have announced that by 2024 all research output will be published open access.

This is of course tricky and not always possible, either because there is no funding for open access publishing or because you really want to publish in a specific journal. To make your work more accessible to scientists who can’t afford the pricy journal subscriptions you can consider putting a preprint (which doesn’t violate journal copyrights) online. This could be done on a personal blog, a Researchgate profile or you could use one of the many preprint repositories.

There are also less legal ways. A survey by Science Magazine revealed that 88% of scientists don’t think it is wrong to download pirated papers from sources like SciHub. Illegal repositories like SciHub store millions of papers and give especially scientists from developing countries a chance to access scientific knowledge. SciHub is also highly frequented by scientists from the developed world, because more and more institutions have to cut back on journal subscriptions which cost university libraries several million dollars per year. Unpaywall on the other hand is a legal way to gain access to journal articles. It is a little plug-in for Firefox and Chrome browsers that lets you know immediately if there is free access to a paper somewhere while you are browsing through journal websites. Lastly, there is #IcanhazPDF on twitter to ask the scientific community for help if you have trouble finding a particular paper.

All this shows that there is a need for the current system to change. This won’t happen at once, but maybe in a couple of years I can explain the process of publishing academic research without getting these confused looks again.

photo_julia

Julia climbing kauri

Julia Kaplick is a PhD student supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng. She is currently working on the revisions for her first paper.

PhD peers, we are not alone

Posted by Carolina Lara @carislaris

I graduated from my masters in 2012 but sadly it was a difficult emotional experience. This was because I had poor academic support from my supervisor and that I could not accept that I was suffering depression. It took me almost two years to overcome that experience and to decide to do a PhD. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Don’t take me wrong, my PhD experience has been rewarding but not easy, and I’m sure that I can speak for many colleagues.

I know what it’s like to live with high levels of anxiety and stress due to study. Seeing other peers “calmly” navigate the sea of PhD in my first year made me extremely anxious “I am the only one feeling like this?” I eventually found I’m not. A few months ago I read this article strikingly pointing out “one-third of PhD are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder”. PhD peers, WE ARE NOT ALONE.

Anxiety monster

Toby Allen draw different mental disorders as monsters and found this to be a healing process

Of course it’s not easy to open up about how we feel or even think what we are feeling can actually be diagnosed as a mental disorder. The sense of vulnerability involved can be overwhelming. In the end it’s often easier to isolate ourselves and put on a (fake) smile.

Self-care strategies can be of great help when dealing with a mental disorder but the efficiency of different practices will vary from person to person. Seeking professional help then might seem the best option, but this is not straightforward for everyone. Probably the most important thing when feeling emotionally unstable is to talk to a friend or family member, or even your supervisor. I have a deep respect for amazing supervisors who not only act as an academic guide but who are also able to see a person before a student.

This journey has not finished for me yet, but I can proudly say I have learnt a lot (both good and bad things) about myself while doing a PhD. This often makes me think that as much as a PhD is about science, it’s also about personal discoveries. I wish my degree could state that as well!

Calis

Carolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.

 

Unhappy taxonomists

Posted by Darren Ward @nzhymenoptera

If you’re short of ideas for a blog, then look no further than the twittersphere for inspiration, or at least something to rant about. In a world of covfefe it’s generally not hard to find something annoying. This week’s winner was the muppets who wrote “Taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation”, published in Nature.

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They state: “…the scientific community’s failure to govern taxonomy threatens the effectiveness of global efforts to halt biodiversity loss…” really? I thought greed and hunger would be more important to global biodiversity loss?

Their solutions to ‘taxonomic governance’ border on the absurd; that taxonomy should be controlled by the International Union of Biological Sciences (who?). A four step process is suggested: i) effective leadership (covfefe?); ii) a commission, iii) a commission with subcommittees; and finally iv) a commission with subcommittees with a judicial committee. Yeah that will work, like all the other global commissions with committees and subcommittees.

The only good point about the article is that it [inadvertently] raises the issues of ‘the role of taxonomy in todays society’, and also the age old questions of ‘what is a species’ and ‘the process of speciation’. The role and value of taxonomy in the modern world is important to consider, especially in times of widespread funding cuts to natural sciences, museums, and the environment in general. Yet the authors are very naïve about the taxonomic process. Those working in the disciplines of biodiversity and conservation (and also the other biological sciences) are end users of taxonomy and names. But, fundamentally, taxonomists must have the ability to undertake science without interference. This must apply to all sciences.

The authors mention the importance of science debate (giving the example of whether the Anthropocene is real), yet they then fail to see the importance of debate for taxonomy and species concepts. They also fail to mention that other science disciplines also struggle to define the natural world by simple terms; what is a “habitat”, an “invasive species”, is Pluto a planet? Not everything fits into a well-defined box.

This is the reason I don’t publish in Nature.

Darren Ward is an entomologist, Head Curator at the New Zealand Arthropod Collection at Landcare Research, and a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.

 

An ecologist’s love life

Posted by Julia Schmack PhD student at the University of Auckland @julia_schmack

Being back in Europe for a couple of months is great. It’s summer over here, I’m visiting family and friends all over Germany and I’m freeing their gardens from Vespula wasps.

It’s a busy life since I started my PhD at the University of Auckland six months ago, but apart from collecting wasps, I’ve collected more air miles than any time before in my life. A conference in Scotland, a lab visit in Wellington, meeting my co-supervisor in Christchurch…

A giant’s footprint

The picture of a giant’s footprint in the beautiful black West Coast sand makes me swallow. How many trees would I have to plant to mitigate my carbon sins?
Naturefund’s CO2 Calculator – Flying determines:

27 trees for the return flight from Auckland to Frankfurt + 2 for the flight to the conference + 1 for driving the car up to 1000 kilometres = 30 trees

footprint

(c) kiwisnsheep.blogspot.de

I am relieved to get such a straight forward and feasible recommendation. Also, 30 trees would be a fair start for the meadow orchard I am dreaming of; nevertheless I am suspicious about this ecological ‘letter of indulgence’.

streuobstwiese_BZfE

(c) bzfe.de

The article How to reduce your carbon footprint in The Guardian sums it up. ”The easiest way to make a big difference [to your carbon account] is to go by train or not take as many flights.”

What a dilemma!

Do you know these situations?

The idealistic ecologist in me insists: “Stay at home, research those bored cows next door, feed yourself with veggies from the compost garden and invent international conferences using skype – nobody really needs all those handshakes and nibbles!”

Also, scientists are supposed to be more believable when reducing their own carbon footprint. It seems obvious that I should stick to the cows next door.

The love story

I love nature. But I haven’t found the catharsis in this romance yet. If nature was my lover, I would tell him “I want to spend time with you, I want to be close to you, I’m intrigued by your power and I want to understand you. I want to be there for you when you are weak and I want to protect you from harm.”

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(c) goethezeitportal.de

Isn’t that romantic?

Yet, he wouldn’t be too wrong replying: “But you rarely take the time to hang out with me. You always have an agenda. But the worst thing is, that you are too selfish to resist those temptations that are really hurting me. You’re creating a bad atmosphere by travelling around as if you wouldn’t have a home!”

Touché, mon amour!

Passionate intents

His words are bothering me, but they linger around in the blurry part of my consciousness – together with pictures of politicians who should never be in power to influence global climate agreements and the intent to start rebelling against them before it is too late.

As I said there is no catharsis, it’s more like real life love life – passionate intents and restrained promises.

My contribution

I’m using the bike as often as possible, I choose seasonal and regional food and I eat meat only twice a week. It might not make a big difference compared to the carbon boost produced during one flight between New Zealand and Germany, but it is what I can do right now. Also, I am going to plant this orchard one day. And love is said to be patient.

Your feedback

It would be great if you would like to share your thoughts on that topic with me. Feel free to send me an email or a message.

ny

 

twitter_pixabay.com @julia_schmack

email_commons.wikipedia.org j.schmack@auckland.ac.nz

Julia Schmack is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the ecology and control of Vespula wasps, supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Darren Ward and Mandy Barron (Landcare Research). Her PhD is funded by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

 

Using remote sensing to detect impacts of past droughts on NZ native forests

Posted by Kshama Awasthi

The 2013 drought in New Zealand cost $1.5 million to the economy through lost agricultural production but the impact on native forest is unknown. Drought-induced forest mortality is a global issue but droughts can also have sub-lethal impacts on trees. Water stress, vulnerability to pathogen attacks and reductions in productivity are some other examples of drought effects. Here in New Zealand, more than 80% of plant species are endemic but we have very little information about the impacts of drought on our vegetation. There is serious need for monitoring the effects of drought on native forest because the conservation value of native flora is globally significant. Hence, this study aims to study the effect of drought on the native forest vegetation in New Zealand using remote sensing techniques. I will be integrating Normalised Differentiation vegetation index (NDVI) and Drought severity index (New Zealand drought index, NZDI) methods. These two methods will be able to assess effects of historic droughts in 1992, 2010, 2013 in comparison to wetter and average rainfall years on diverse types of vegetation. The results that I will obtain are expected to detect temporal and spatial vegetation profiles that will be related to soil moisture profiles. I will also assess if there is any recovery period after drought year. I have selected eight different sites from across the country for analysis. This will help us identify vegetation that is vulnerable to drought impacts for future intensive study.

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Image: Ministry for the Environment

While droughts in New Zealand are not severe on the global scale, the vegetation is used to mild and relatively moist conditions and may not be well prepared for drought. A remote sensing approach is ideal for this study because it allows us to look at historical drought impacts in remote areas across the country. This research will help us identify forests vulnerable to drought.

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kshamaKshama Awasthi is an MSc student supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng and Jay Gao.

Nat Geo videojournals: the masterclass of storytelling

Posted by Ben Cranston

*Disclaimer* This is not a paid endorsement for National Geographic, rather it’s an homage. Also, apologies for not embedding videos but the links should work.

National-Geographic-logo-yellow-frame

This being my first foray into blogging and ecology writing, I thought it appropriate to draw attention to one of the undisputed masters of contemporary storytelling: Nat Geo (that’s National Geographic magazine to the uninitiated), and just how exquisite a model they provide for those trying to communicate and engage people in their personal passion for research, drive to explore, or love of all things Terra.

I’ll omit the rich history of the organization responsible for giving us the ever-pervasive yellow rectangle, save for one rapid-fire fun-fact: did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was the second president of the Nat Geo Society? He succeeded his father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard (the lawyer who actually filed Bell’s patents for the telephone), after he died.

After 129 years, Nat Geo magazine is still in publication, yet the somewhat recent advent of videojournalism has offered a new medium through which they have given stories even greater depth than via traditional photojournalism

Variety

As many of us can attest to, videojournalism is fast becoming a favoured method of data assimilation — especially when made to a high standard — due in part to its abilities to convey many ideas quickly and effectively by superimposing, say, illustrative graphics with verbal audio, or text over film to help viewers better connect with the content/context.

Take this clip. Now, what begins as a seemingly simple statement that conservationists should be tree-planters rather than cutters is contradicted by the text a couple of frames later that states for the purpose of fighting climate change, they have been working to clear-cut 13,300 acres of trees! But it is critical to the ensuing story for general audiences that they begin by opening with a common adage only to then immediately dispel the myth that plantations on peatlands are a good thing for carbon storage. After that they use the remainder of the piece to expand on the restoration project as well as the potential scale of its impacts. As an aside, background bagpipes and scientific literature are just a winning combination, eh?!

Emotion

Another greatly significant advantage of videojournalism that Nat Geo utilizes is the ability to incorporate appeal-to-pathos into otherwise logos- and ethos-centric narratives which become saturating when limited to mostly text and graphics.

The next video is a bit longer but the power of the speaker’s emotions is palpable throughout the first couple minutes.

(Note, Nat Geo was not responsible for the making of this videojournal, however it was curated by them in their Short Film Showcase)

The project of cloning and replanting redwoods, though the main focus of the piece, was not  necessarily the most logical place to begin spinning this tale. It bent the rules a bit in order to highlight the speaker’s reason for involvement and personal philosophy towards old-growth Redwood forests which, I believe, is an oft understated component of scientific inquiry (not old-growth Redwoods specifically, but any internal investment to our respective fields). In this as in most cases, hearing a voice, seeing the vivid colors and subtle movements of the forest add incalculable value to the conveyance of the message.

Drama

The last video exploits one major fixture of storytelling that suddenly amplifies the viewers interests: drama.

Whether by sweeping aerial shots or the anomalous statement that Ascension Island once only laid claim to a single tree, or even the somewhat paradoxical set of conditions which lead one man to transform a one-tree volcanic island into a flourishing artificial ecosystem, the dramatic effects of this story owe much to the videographer(s) who took what would have been an above-average spread in a magazine article at best and created an immersive experience for the viewer, complete with a fair understanding of this novel landscape and a notion of what it might mean to balance the needs of native vegetation with those of the introduced species.

Become a VJ

As I continue on with ecological research, I would like to make time to transfer some of my work to videojournal in much the same way that the above and countless other examples of Nat Geo videojournals have been. I reckon it’s well worth the effort in the long-run insomuch that videojournals are a hyper-effective supplemental communication device, they allow for some artistic value be given to at times rigid and demanding projects, and, maybe most important of all, they represent new branches of story-development that can potentially contribute entirely new perspectives.

 

 

 

Mosquitoes – not just another splotch on the wall!

Posted by Hester Williams @HesterW123

I was lucky enough to attend the 66th Entomological Society of New Zealand Conference in Wellington a few weeks ago. I learned a lot about New Zealand’s insects and spiders and some very futuristic wasp control technologies. Along with this I met some really interesting characters (which is not surprising – entomologists are special people!)

Mosquito cartoon 1

The opening presentation of the conference was given by a very entertaining Ruud Kleinpaste: ‘Messages from Below: Bugs Biodiversity and Nature Literacy’. Ruud is very passionate about reconnecting our next generation to the Natural World and emphasised how we can use the environment as a context for education. He also encouraged us as entomologists to ‘tell stories’ to connect people with the environment. One thing that struck me was when Ruud mentioned mosquitoes and how our first reaction as humans is to ‘slap – good riddance!’, but he then followed to point out the role of mosquitoes in the Alaskan food web – mosquito larvae as food source to salmon, salmon as food to bears and birds of prey, etc., all with beautiful background photos.

To be brutally honest, mosquitoes have never been of much interest to me, except when out camping or when you hear that tell-tale whine in the dark. When I mention to people that I am an entomologist, a question that unvaryingly comes up is: ‘So, why are there mosquitoes?’. My general answer is usually that everything has a role either as food or as control mechanism in an ecosystem. But I decided for this blog I want to delve a bit deeper into the pesky mosquito’s life strategies to find their more unusual side.

The social isolation of the entomologist: 'Most people just want to talk about killing 'em.'

Interesting life history strategies

Mosquito females are well known for needing protein in the form of blood to produce eggs, but both females and males may also feed on nectar. Mosquitoes thus act as pollinators for grasses and a few other flowering plants, although they don’t actively gather pollen. Their role in spreading pollen hasn’t been studied nearly as much as their blood-sucking and disease-spreading habits. But the exception is their role in the pollination of bog orchids, including the blunt-leaved bog orchid, (Platanthera obtusata) that has been reported to be pollinated by several Aedes species, and other rare bog orchid species especially in the Arctic. Here, in the absence of an abundance of other pollinating insect species, the mosquito has heroically stepped forward to fill this important role.

Bog orchid

Figure 1. The blunt-leaved bog orchid, Platanthera obtusa, who depends on a mosquito species in the genus Aedes for pollination

During one of the teatime breaks at the Conference I had a chat with Dr. Mary McIntyre (University of Otago) and learned about one of New Zealand’s endemic mosquitoes, Maorigoeldia argyropus, an autogenous species which has largely or completely lost the blood-feeding habit. Reasons for the loss of the blood-feeding habit in many mosquito species are not yet understood but it is suggested that autogeny could be an evolutionary response to low availability of suitable hosts, and in such species the “burden of accruing materials for egg production is shifted from adult to larva”. Maorigoeldia argyropus has a limited and disjunct distribution in New Zealand, possibly as a consequence of extensive anthropogenic environmental change in the 20th century, and its long-term survival could be at risk.

Another interesting mosquito species is the pitcher plant mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, which spends their egg, larval and pupal life in the water-filled pitchers (leaves) of the pitcher-plant (Sarracenia purpurea). The larvae feed by filtering particles arising from breakdown of prey (mostly arthropods) of the pitcher-plant. Interestingly the water temperature of pitchers in open sunlight ordinarily fluctuates from a low of 10-15 C to a high of 30-35 C in a single summer day, thus highly adaptable larvae! Similar to M. argyropus, W. smithii adults may feed on plant juices in nature, but on the basis of laboratory observations, they do not require such food to produce eggs.

Pitcher plant

Figure 2: Adult Wyeomyia smithii resting in a pitcher of the pitcher-plant Sarracenia purpurea (Copyright © 2016 tom murray)

The cattail mosquito (Coquillettidia perturbans), although a blood feeding mosquito, is also worth mentioning as far as interesting life histories is concerned. The larvae of this species has a specialized siphon to pierce the roots, stems, or submerged leaves of aquatic plants, enabling them to utilize oxygen from plant tissue and reducing the risk of being located near the surface of the water, as to avoid predators and insecticides. The adult stage of this mosquito was described in 1856, but because of its unusual behaviour the larva remained undescribed for more than 50 years.

While searching for interesting life histories and facts about mosquitoes I came across a lot of words like ‘annoying’, ‘vector’, ‘itchy’, ‘irritating’, ‘control’, ‘invasive’, ‘problem’, ‘dangerous’, etc., even a quote by the peace-loving Dalai Lama XIV: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

I have tried my best….slap….oops!

Hester Williams

Hester Williams is a PhD candidate in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is stationed with the Landcare Research Biocontrol team in Lincoln, Canterbury. She is interested in invasion processes of both insect and plant species. Hester is supervised by Darren Ward (Landcare Research/University of Auckland) and Eckehard Brockerhoff (Scion), with Mandy Barron (Landcare Research) as advisor. Her studies are supported by a joint Ministry for Primary Industries – University of Auckland scholarship. The project is an integral part of an MBIE program “A Toolkit for the Urban Battlefield” led by Scion.