The importance of community involvement in ecological projects – reflections from #ERA2016conf

Posted by Lizzy Lowe @LizyLowe

This week, many of the members of our lab attended the joint conference between the New Zealand Ecological Society and the Society for Ecological Restoration Australia. I’ve attended many ecological conferences, but I’ve never experienced such a strong theme of community involvement. Importantly, many of the talks I attended expressed the need not just to do public outreach (which can suggest leaning down from our ivory tower to educate the masses) but to involve the community in the science, decision making and evaluation of ecological research.


Thanks @SpidermanbryceZ for this community photo!

Many of the key note presentations had an underrunning theme of community involvement. Margaret Lowman told us of her long, successful career, and her experiences getting people of all ages and backgrounds into the tree tops to study canopy ecosystems. She also spoke about using inaturalist as a tool for documenting biodiversity and to encourage people to explore the flora and fauna of their local regions. Our local equivalent it NatureWatchNZWendy Henwood showed us that iwi knowledge and experience is invaluable in the decision making process of restoration projects and talked about the success of iwi lead projects in New Zealand.

Alan Featherstone showed us that one person can have a huge impact on the landscape, even with little to no resources. He gave stunning examples of rewilding the Caledonian forest in Scotland in areas he termed “outdoor museums” (no life but full of dead and preserved natural history). It was inspiring to see the results of years worth of volunteer labour protecting and replanting the Scottish forests. Alan also drew connections between Scotland’s growing political independence and their desire to take back and rewild their natural spaces. I loved this observation because it demonstrates how important a connection with the land and an investment in land management is for a country and its people’s identity.

lizzy-blog2The importance of connections between people and landscapes were also very evident in the key note by Kevin Prime. Kevin gave many examples of important iwi cultural sites and showed how the local people’s connection with the land is integral to the process of restoring New Zealand’s natural environments.

Kingsley Dixon noted that without community involvement in ecological restoration, projects have little hope for success. He gave a depressing example of an innovative restoration project that was planned for a coastal area in Perth (my local beach in fact!) that was vetoed because the public didn’t want to lose the grassed areas for ugly native dune vegetation. This story really resonated with me and has renewed my ambition to get out and make connections with my local community.

These speakers all showed how important it is for people in the community to feel connected with their surroundings. I think that people around the world are feeling disenfranchised with political systems, left out of the decision making process and helpless to prevent the broad scale ecological disasters that are occurring globally. This helplessness can lead to resignation and reduce the initiative to maintain sustainable lifestyles. But being involved in ecological projects leads to empowerment by giving everyone the opportunity to contribute to conservation and to invest in their local ecosystems. This is enormously beneficial both to local communities and to the scientists who receive not only help in conducting the research, but a fresh perspective on tackling environmental problems. This is especially valuable when the indigenous peoples of an area are involved.

Some other highlights for me from this conference were a couple of innovative examples of increasing biodiversity in forgotten urban spaces. Margaret gave the great example of “sneaking in biodiversity” in the verges of new housing developments, and in sports grounds, cycle ways and golf courses. In the open science section Robyn Simcock used her impressive efforts in her garden as an example of how to increase the sustainability of private back gardens. I also really liked Bruce Hill’s presentation on using transport lanes as avenues of biodiversity. Areas such as road sides and corridors for telephone wires have traditionally had little ecological value, but his work in Sweden showed that these spaces can be utilised to support local pollinator communities. As urban space is always going to be at a premium, innovative ideas like this are essential for the maintenance of biodiversity in urban environments.

lizzy-blog4I also want to give a special mention to Josie who won a student award for her presentation on the consequences of feeding bread to birds and the fantastic key note by Jacqueline. The key note covered a broad range of topics including Jacqueline’s own ancestral connections with the land, the impacts of invasive wasps and the responses of native pollinators, and supporting the plight of women with children in science! The lab members also contributed to a moving waiata at the end of the presentation which I think was a marvellous close to the conference.



The student prize winners

The conversations around community involvement at this conference are really important for opening science up to the public, and I think there needs to be much more of this in Ecology. Maybe in addition to our scientific conferences we should be holding frequent open days for our ecological research, to connect with the community and demonstrate how everyone can be involved in improving the health and sustainability of their local ecosystems.

Dr Lizzy Lowe is an urban ecologist and entomologist. She is currently working as an Endeavour Postdoctoral Fellow in the Ecology Ngātahi group.

For more on the conference, see #ERA2016conf on twitter.

Untangling insect respiration

Posted by Jessica Devitt @Colette_Keeha


Over several millennia insects have developed physiological adaptations to their environments through the process of natural selection.  Thus, insects are one of the most diverse and widespread animal taxa.

Insects have evolved diverse respiratory responses to a wide range of environments. The mechanisms behind these differing responses are not fully understood, with some insects displaying adaptations to low O2 (hypoxic) and high CO2 (hypercarbic) atmospheres. One such adaptation is the so-called Discontinuous Gas Exchange Cycle (DGC) where the insect only releases CO2 to the external environment periodically (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Graphic showing discontinuous gas exchange phases: The flutter phase (F) where CO2 is released during a rapid opening and shutting of the spiracle, the open phase (O) where a burst of CO2 is released from the spiracle and the closed phase (C) where the spiracle is closed for a time resulting in a small release of CO2 (Hetz & Bradley, 2005, p. 517).

There is debate as to what the main function of this adaptation is: one school of thought suggests DGC might protect against desiccation. The other is that DGC allows insects to withstand hypoxic environments.

This brings us to my study species: The golden-haired bark beetle (GHBB) (Hylurgus liginperda: Curculionidae). Bark beetles predominantly attack damaged trees, stumps and fallen/felled trunks and branches. GHBB adult beetles burrow through the bark creating galleries within the cambium/phloem, in which the eggs are laid. Once the larvae have consumed the available cambium/phloem and undergone pupation, newly emerged adults take flight to the next available resource.


Figure 2. Hylurgus ligniperda (Fabricius, 1792). (Schmidt, 2014)


Figure 3. Hylurgus ligniperda adults exposed under pine bark. (Pest Alert, n.d.)

The golden-haired bark beetle is a widespread forest pest distributed throughout several continents, such as Australasia and North and South America. Although the beetle itself does not cause significant damage to the heartwood, its presence on export logs creates a market access issue.

In my PhD study we will investigate the respiratory responses of GHBB to a range of atmospheric conditions, such as contrasting O2/CO2 levels over different durations. I plan to use GHBB as an experimental model to understand bark beetle respiration in the presence of low O2/high COenvironments.  My experiments will manipulate atmospheric conditions with the addition of fumigants in order to ascertain the most effective conditions in which to treat export logs.


Hetz, S. K., & Bradley, T. J. (2005). Insects breathe discontinuously to avoid oxygen toxicity. Nature, 433(7025), 516-519. doi:10.1038/nature03106.

Pest Alert. (n.d.). Hylurgus ligniperda adults exposed under pine bark.  Retrieved from

Schmidt, U.  2014. Hylurgus ligniperda. Retrieved from


Jessica Devitt is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Plant and Food Research. She is researching the respiratory responses of the golden-haired bark beetle to advance fumigation techniques. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs from the University of Auckland, Adriana Najar-Rodriguez and Matthew Hall from Plant and Food Research

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When roles are reversed – all in the name of science!


Posted by Hester Williams @HesterW123

As international trade and travel increases, the arrival of non-native species in new territories has accelerated accordingly. Many of these non-natives are unable to establish, while the establishment of others are so successful that they become major economic and ecological threats in their new environments. To prevent the arrival of non-native species, governments across the world impose different measures, e.g. surveillance programs, quarantine measures, inspections, and restrictions on movement of certain goods.

Biological invasions can be separated into a sequence of phases including arrival, establishment, population growth, and spread. The second phase of the invasion process is critical as this is where the establishment of a small founder population occurs, and where the success of eradication is much higher while populations are small. More often than not we don’t get a chance to study newly established insect pests because they go undetected until they are widespread. By that time, eradication can be very difficult.

I have just started my PhD, where I will identify the key factors influencing the establishment (and then eradication) of exotic insect species. However, instead of using exotic species, I will use biological control agents as proxy invasive systems.

A reversal of roles! The biocontrol agent thus becomes the foe, and the invasive plant the friend!

Propagule pressure has emerged as arguably the only consistent factor explaining establishment success, while several intrinsic (‘internal’) processes underpin the effect of propagule pressure, namely demographic stochasticity, Allee effects, and genetic diversity. My studies will focus on the invasive plant, Tradescantia fluminensis, and one of its biocontrol agents, the leaf beetle Neolema ogloblini, and through a combination of field and mesocosm experiments, I aim to identify the role these key processes play in the establishment of the beetle. Heartbreakingly, once beetle populations have been established, I will use methods to eradicate them – techniques that will lower the population level to a critical level (below the Allee threshold where the population will go extinct).


Tradescantia leaf beetle (Neolema ogloblini) adult



Tradescantia leaf beetle late-instar larva

But all in the name of science! This project will generate a better understanding of the key factors that affect biocontrol agent establishment and also invasion success of invasive pest species. Ultimately it aims to give guidance on what eradication approaches are more or less promising for particular species.


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.


Embracing complexity to address equity

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

Defining order in complex systems is central to the science of ecology. We use Linnaean classification to sort and name organisms, foodwebs to define flows of matter and energy and population models to describe population dynamics. This need for structure in a complicated world is not unique to ecology. Businesses have an organisational structure, maps help us define the location of geographical features and spreadsheets allow us to organise data. As datasets grow, we need more ways to arrange, store and make use of this information.


Leaf venation – an exquisite example of complexity in ecology. Image: Wikimedia commons

This week is the annual Rutherford Discovery Fellowship workshop when we all gather at The Royal Society of New Zealand in Wellington. Our guest speaker this year was Dame Anne Salmond on the topic of equity excellence. With a long and distinguished career as an anthropologist (including nine years as the PVC Equal Opportunity at the University of Auckland), Dame Anne is well placed is provide rich insights on equity and diversity.

Central to her talk was the religious hierarchical structure of life and matter known as the Great Chain of Being. This ancient ladder defines the place in the world for all life forms, precious stones, metals and minerals. Each step up the ladder represents greater authority and leadership while those beings on lower rungs should pay tribute to layers above. Civilised people rule over barbarians, men over women and free citizens over slaves. In modern times, we have dismissed much of this mythical model as parochial but Dame Anne argued this structure still has some influence in our lives as the basis of top-down leadership and the reason for the glass ceiling. She also used the examples of resource management and ecosystem services to illustrate human-centred ideas about earth systems.

Holding on to remnants of hierarchical structures is preventing progress in equity in our research institutions and other organisations. Complex networks are far more realistic and effective because they allow diverse voices to be heard. Science is enriched with new and unexpected styles of thought that remain hidden in a hierarchy. Networks of leadership and relationships with the wider community will help to address a range of equity issues. Finally, networks of researchers are needed to address our most pressing problems such as climate change and invasive species. Without effective collaboration between researchers in science, social science and the humanities, solutions will remain elusive.

Seawifs_global_biosphere.jpgGlobal productivity – large-scale complexity in ecology. Image: Wikimedia commons

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.