Why do I care about conservation?

Posted by Samantha Lincoln @slin247

With the increasing prevalence of technology and social media, and the ability to widely disperse information, I find myself asking why I have followed a path of research and conservation. Is it with the aim of publishing in the most prestigious journals to add gold stars to my CV, or because the academic community is the most effective place to disperse knowledge? This is a question I’m yet to answer, but as my career progresses public interaction seems to be where I personally can make the greatest difference. I have always wanted to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves and help our native species which have been under threat for so long. This blog is but one way members of Ecology Ngatahi are able to share our knowledge on a public platform; I encourage others to take a moment to remember why they do what they do and how best to truly make a positive impact in their environment.

Over the year of my Masters focussing on domestic cats (Felis catus) in urban habitats, I have found myself repeatedly compared to Gareth Morgan in a negative light. His outspoken opinions on the negative impacts of cats in Aotearoa have often isolated people from important discussions due to his cold assessment of cats, however it has also brought an important issue into public discussions. Many argue that pet cats have positive impacts due to their predation of mice and rats, and that they only prey upon common birds, and ‘my Fluffy isn’t a hunter’ – the list goes on. But there is unequivocal proof that cats do have negative impacts upon our native species, and that what cat owners see is not representative of their beloved’s total kill count. A US study found less than a quarter of kills were returned home. Rodents are still present at high levels in our urban parks despite cats. I caught 131 ship rats (Rattus rattus) and 7 Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) over just five nights (1255 corrected trap nights) at eight urban Auckland bush fragments, at sites with plenty of cat activity.

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Clockwise from top left: a cat duo on the prowl at Walpole Reserve, a rat visiting Arch Hill Reserve a few hours after a cat passed through, a cat visiting Peretao Reserve, and another cat at Walpole Reserve. Source: Moultrie 990i cameras; Sam Lincoln.

Ecology can be a tangle, which is why single species control for pest management can lack luster compared to more comprehensive programmes. Large scale projects with generous community input like Cape to City are a great way to inspire and educate the public; putting academic findings to practice while encouraging future generations of scientists. We need to continue open discourse regarding pest management of all pest species, treating ecosystems as integrated systems which won’t be fixed by single species control. As scientists, it is our responsibility to ensure relevant information is made available to the public in a readily consumable format to dispel misinformation and encourage active conservation.

Despite some of our pest species being adorable, we must act to save our natives.

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From top: a hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)  being released from a live capture trap at Peretao Reserve, a party of Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus eximius) at Gretel Reserve, a tree-hugging possum (Thrichosurus vulpecula) at Walpole Reserve, and a possum family photo from Sunnynook Reserve. Source: Moultrie 990i cameras; Sam Lincoln

 

Sam Ln webSam Lincoln is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of  Auckland. She is trying to disentangle interactions between domestic cats and rats in urban environments. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, John Innes and Al Glen.

 

 

 

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The Science & The Art of Camera-Trapping

Posted by Robert Vennell @RobertVennell

From the very beginning, camera trap images have fascinated us.  In the 1890’s George Shiras III – “Grandfather Flash” – developed the first true camera-traps using trip wires and animal lures. When an animal triggered the wire it activated a magnesium flash gun that detonated in a blinding explosion of light that sent animals scattering in all directions. The images he captured were the first night-time wildlife photos ever created and revealed eerie snapshots of a hidden world.

George Shiras III - Camera Trap Photos

George Shiras III “Grandfather Flash” (top left) used a system of trip wires to capture animal photos as early as the 1890s. Source: National Geographic

In the past few decades camera traps have undergone a revolution as a scientific monitoring tool and advances in technology along with a huge reduction in price have led to an explosion in camera trap research. And yet camera traps remain unique as a monitoring tool as they not only collect valuable data, but they produce fascinating images that retain their power to amaze and inspire.

In this way, camera traps represent a unique blending of science and art. They allow us to investigate the natural world, but also package and present it in an engaging way. Raw data has never looked so delicious and interesting; arriving pre-wrapped in shiny packaging, immediately ready for consumption.

Raw data has never looked so delicious and interesting”

As such, camera-traps offer us a monumental opportunity for science communication. Anyone can immediately appreciate and understand the data – allowing us to bridge the gap between ‘experts’ and the public, and open up a dialogue about a range of different issues.

Wildlife Camera Trap Photo of The Year - BBC

Commended photos from the BBC Wildlife Photo of the Year Competition. Top left: Goitered gazelles by the Iranian Cheetah Society. Top right: Horned guan by Javier Rivas. Bottom left: Baby giant armadillo playing by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project. Bottom right: Chimpanzees by ARTP and GRNP.

However, with such a unique opportunity it is important that we don’t get carried away with the art and forget about the science. It’s very easy to collect camera trap data – the hard part is knowing what to do with the data. What do the images of animals we collect actually mean? Do they simply provide evidence that a species exists in an area, or can we use them to ask deeper questions about whether or not our conservation actions are working?

“What do the images of animals we collect actually mean?”

This brings us to my research topic this year. I’m going to be studying feral pigs and the damage they cause to native forests by rooting up the undergrowth. I’ll be using camera-traps to monitor the abundance of feral pig populations – and will undoubtedly collect a vast amount of fascinating pictures. But I want those pictures to be as meaningful as possible.

Feral Pig, Hawkes Bay - Patrick Garvey

Feral pig in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Source: Patrick Garvey

In New Zealand conservation, the overwhelming majority of monitoring funding goes towards results-based monitoring – a “how many pigs did we kill?” mentality that doesn’t answer the more fundamental question of “did killing all those pigs actually achieve our goals?”.

What I hope to do is create a damage function that links the number of pigs on the cameras with the damage they cause to the environment. This should help managers around the country set meaningful targets for pig control that will help protect and restore native forests.

That’s the scientific message that I really want to communicate with my research, and luckily for me I’m going to be armed with arsenal of tasty visual treats to help me do it. I’ll be sure to share them with you as I go.

Robert Vennell - UOA.jpgRobert Vennell is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Mark Mitchell (Auckland Council), Cheryl Krull (AUT) and Al Glen (Landcare Research). He also writes about the history, meaning and significance of New Zealand’s native tree species at www.meaningoftrees.com

Turning the black swan white: lessons from ‘Black Swan Theory’ on identifying and mitigating risks through collaboration

Posted by Rebecca Lehrke @rmlehrke

It would be pretty catastrophic – albeit unlikely – for a fire to sweep through your lab destroying all your research with it. On the other hand, forgetting to save the paper you are working on and so losing the last few hours of productivity, though slightly less painful, probably happens quite frequently to the best of us. Both events carry risks and have the potential of occurring. So which event is more important to prepare for or could collaboration remove the need to decide?

Understanding the balance between the probability of an event occurring and its consequence is important when managing wildlife. Take my current research topic for example – bird strike by black swans. Sparrows hit planes on a daily basis, but their impacts are usually minimal. Black swans on the other hand rarely hit planes. The difference is, when a black swan hits a plane the impact is equivalent to a Holden Commodore VE Sedan hitting a brick wall at least 15km per hour. This kind of impact can destroy a plane’s nose cone costing over $25,000, let alone the risks if it enters an engine. So what event should we be most concerned about?

Swan

Black swan (Cygnus atratus) pair with cygnets at Ambury Regional Park, Auckland.

Unfortunately, there usually aren’t simple answers to balancing risks, and in conservation biology, the survival of a species could be on the line. If we ignore high-risk but low-probability events an endangered species could go extinct because a 100-year storm event wipes out the last breeding pairs on an island. On the other hand, ignoring day-to-day impacts of resource supply could also lead to its extinction over time.

black_swan

“The Black swan: The impact of the highly improbable” book cover.1

Economics has a long-standing concept that conservation and biosecurity managers could be using in these situations – Black Swan theory. According to Taleb ‘Black Swans’ are events that are unexpected, high impact and can often be explained or predicted in hindsight. Just like that 100-year storm event. Taleb warns that we could waste a lot of time – and money – trying to predict all these ‘Black Swans’. Instead our management plans should be robust enough to mitigate the negative impacts of unexpected events.

Although examples of such contingency plans being used in management programmes exist, it is often on an ad-hoc basis. This is where collaboration and synthesis across disciplines comes in. A devastating 100-year storm may not be common but if you know it is a natural part of the system, you can reduce its impacts, whether that means splitting your population across multiple islands or some other contingency plan.

As ecologists and managers we should always be discussing our study systems with our peers in different disciplines. As Taleb puts it, what the turkey may not see coming the butcher probably does. So let’s be the butcher not the turkey! Get another perspective, share knowledge and collaborate more often. It may not prevent a fire from sweeping through your lab, but seeing your lab from a fireman’s perspective might help you ‘identify’ these risks so you can ‘mitigate’ them by backing up off-site more often. Thus reducing the impacts and “turning the Black Swan white”1.

Turkey

Being the butcher, not the turkey. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1pn1vte

Rebecca

Rebecca Lehrke is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using movement ecology to assess the efficacy of disturbance-based management of black swans at the Auckland Airport. She is supervised by Todd Dennis and Margaret Stanley.

  1. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, ISBN978-1400063512