Hidden Diversity

Posted by Darren Ward @nzhymenoptera

New Zealand is a weird place for biodiversity. An estimated 20,000 invertebrate species live in New Zealand and at least 50% are undescribed. When discussed, perhaps most often mentioned is the ‘high degree of endemism’. This is the proportion of species found only in NZ and nowhere else in the world. Overall, about 90% of insect species in NZ are endemic.

What is far less appreciated is the number of new species still to be discovered and described. I am often asked ‘Are there still new species to be found in NZ?’ Yes, there are, and many hundreds of them.

Recently, twenty-four new species of Mecodema, a genus of large-bodied ground beetles, have been described (Seldon & Buckley 2019), with one species even from Clevedon in the northern Wairoa! This genus is highly diverse with species spread throughout mainland New Zealand, and on many offshore islands. Many species are found in relatively restricted geographic areas and their presence indicates past geological events which have shaped New Zealand; including, isolation from the mainland, diversification and adaption in alpine zones; and volcanic activity.

Just this week, a new species of parasitoid wasp, Sierola houdiniae, was described (see Magnacca 2019) from a single specimen, reared from the larvae of a caterpillar, Houdinia flexilissima, better known as “Fred the Thread”. The caterpillar is found in Waikato bogs and peatlands in the living stems of Sporadanthus ferrugineus, a large endemic New Zealand rush, and is considered a species of high conservation status.

Discovering such hidden diversity is an important part of understanding how the world works, but also gives a sense of wonder about the diversity of the weird and wonderful little critters around us.

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

Seldon & Buckley. 2019. The genus Mecodema Blanchard 1853 (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Broscini) from the North Island, New Zealand. Zootaxa. doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4598.1.1

Magnacca. 2019. Two new species of Sierola Cameron (Hymenoptera: Bethylidae) from New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand Entomologist. doi.org/10.1080/00779962.2019.1602899


Sustainability or the drawback of perfectionism

Posted by Julia Schmack

This word cloud gives you an impression of the topics that went through my head during a University seminar on “Sustainability, science, society, water, food production and consumption”. The speakers covered a wide range of interesting topics and ideas. But there was one thing missing: a pragmatic approach on a scale that is larger than the local guerrilla gardening initiative, but still practical enough to not be forgotten as some idealist’s dream. After the fourth talk, I was still waiting for this one term “organic agriculture”.

There is a lot of scientific evidence for and against organic farming. I won’t give you a literature review here, as I think it’s up to everyone to inform themselves. Although some controversy about organic farming, I was surprised to not hear it mentioned in the discussion of “sustainable food production and consumption”. Do Kiwis still doubt the credibility of organic certification? Are most thinking “In New Zealand, everything used to be organic and that’s why we don’t need this organics fuss”? Or are organics still considered elite products for health freaks and people with pockets deeper than PhD students?

Here’s the definition of organic agriculture by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, a long-established umbrella organization for organic food production:

Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”

(c) Julia Schmack

Sounds rather far-fetched, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s not. It’s important to have goals and to work hard to reach them. Although you may not reach organic utopia, it’s certainly better than not having tried at all. Perfectionism often keeps us from trying to make change. We are bound to make mistakes when we try to improve conventional systems, and will likely be disproportionately criticised for not being perfect. This is too often the case when it comes to organic farming. There are logical benefits for biodiversity and animal welfare on organic farms compared to conventional farms. However, scattered cases of fraud cause people to mistrust the entire movement and, unfortunately, revert to the comfort of the status-quo.

I worked at the Research Institute for Organic Farming in Frankfurt for three years. There are things in organic agriculture I disagree with, such as the transport of organics over thousands of kilometres. It would be a lot more sustainable to eat local and seasonal, that much is obvious. I also disagree with the working conditions on some organic farms that rely on the hard work of volunteers. But I also understand that surviving as an alternative system in an economy that is ruled by stock markets is not easy. I don’t like that, in any kind of agriculture, baby cows get taken away from their mothers so that we can pump their milk into plastic bottles only to be let ferment in the communal fridge.

Despite these critiques, after visiting some 60 organic and conventional farms and meeting the farmers, there is one thing that I can say for certain: if I were a cow, pig, or chicken, and I could choose between the two farming systems, I know which farm I would choose. 100% the organic farm! The same goes if I were an earthworm, bird or plant. If I were a weed, the organic farmer wouldn’t be allowed to spray me with nasty chemicals. They would have to use less invasive and often more time intensive methods. But this is what you get when you pay that extra dollar.

(c) Julia Schmack

There is a lot of confusion around certification systems, which leaves many thinking “I don’t trust all these certifications. The ‘free range chicken’ that gets an hour of daylight and is still called ‘free range’”. It’s all too easy to throw your hands in the air and claim “well, who really knows” than to inform yourself. But on the website of the Ministry of Primary Industries you can read up on organics in NZ.

It’s up to you what you want to support with your money, but I think these small decisions make a big difference. In New Zealand, organics are still a somewhat elite and often expensive product, but it doesn’t have to stay like that. Remember that supply and demand means that a higher demand from the organic sector results in its growth. In Europe, the high demand for organics resulted in more affordable organics along the entire value chain. New Zealand is already very successful in exporting high-end organic products, but we need more sustainable foods in our schools, kindergartens, universities, hospitals, and defence forces.

What about a little experiment at University of Auckland. On the UoA Sustainability Website it states that “The University of Auckland is committed to pursuing sustainability via research, teaching and learning, operating practices, partnerships and capacity building”. UoA also recently came out first in the international sustainability rankings for universities showing commitment to sustainability. Sweet, here’s my idea for an operating practice to increase sustainability at UoA:

Let’s swap the conventional milk (a brand that so many people complain about) for an organic alternative, and provide plant-based options.

(c) pexels.com

Taking a bunch of money from big corporations and investing it into farmers with a sustainable vision of agriculture, is a simple and practical step. It not only makes a big difference for the farmer themselves, who now has an entire institution backing him, but it also makes a statement: we want our food to be produced sustainably and we invest in those with the best outcomes for all levels of sustainability, economy, ecology and society!

I think it would be worth a try to buy good, quality milk, and allocate a greater portion of our budget to plant-based alternatives. The greenhouse gases emitted by producing one glass of dairy milk are about three times as high as for plant-based alternatives.

Let’s do it! Let’s make a change by investing in good (but not perfect) ideas!


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 social wasps, supervised by Jacqueline Beggs and Darren Ward (Landcare Research). Her PhD is funded by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. twitter: @julia_schmack

email: j.schmack@auckland.ac.nz

Tipping points are all around!

Posted by Ellen Hume

I feel it in my fingers

I feel it in my toes

Tipping points are all around me

And so the feeling grows!

It’s not quite as catchy as the original (Love is all around), and probably just as awkward as the Love Actually Billy Mack version (Christmas is all around), but it does make my point that tipping points are all around us, often without us realising.

The world around us is made up of lots and lots of systems and many of these are classed as ‘complex’. Complex systems can have tipping points, where unexpected behaviour and sudden large changes can result from seemingly small actions due to interactions between parts of the system. This is often difficult to anticipate as studying parts of the system separately doesn’t tell us how the system is going to behave as a whole (concept of emergence).

In my previous blog (The point of collapse), I gave the example of an environmental tipping point involving our freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand tipping suddenly into a degraded unhealthy state from gradual changes to the surrounding land. However, as complex systems can include anything from ecosystems, politics, economy and cities, to the human body and the individual cells that compose it, tipping points (both positive and negative) can also be found in these systems.

Here are some real-world examples:

If you are interested in social tipping points I’d recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point or checking out one of the many summaries out there like this.

So what examples of tipping points have you seen around you? What could you do to encourage positive tipping points or halt negative ones? Do you feel like singing out about them? I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes, tipping points are all around me, and so the feeling grows… Maybe, just maybe, it’ll catch on!

Ellen Hume

Ellen Hume is a University of Auckland PhD student funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence. Her project is looking at tipping points in complex systems to enable better risk-based decision making, with supervision from Cate Macinnis-Ng and Shaun Hendy.

Bioacoustics tools- listening to the inner lives of animals

Posted by Ines Geraldine Moran

Birds’ melodious songs, bats’ echolocations, insects’ crackling lisps and shuffles are sounds heard in nature that have fascinated humans for many centuries. Bioacoustics, the science of natural sounds produced by living organisms, is a relatively new field of science that has become central to the study of linguistics, animal behaviour, animal ecology and animal conservation. 

Prior to any technological tools in the field of bioacoustics, scientists described animal sounds using various medium such as music notes, intricate words, or onomatopoeia with letter combinations that attempted to reproduce particular sounds. In order to accurately identify sounds in nature, scientists needed detailed behavioural notes associated to phonetic references. One may imagine how difficult it would have been to walk in a forest and try to detect an animal sound described as Grea-deal for example. For the curious minds, Greadeal was a phonetic sound that referred to Alder Flycatchers from Massachusetts.

Beethoven’s pastoral Symphony No. 6 in F major ends with instrumental European birdsongs from the nightingale (flute), the quail (oboe), and the cuckoo (clarinets) (here respectively denoted with the German translation Nachtigall, Wachtel and Kukuk). Image from muswrite.blogspot.com

Like with many advances in science, new technologies often play an essential role in making new discoveries. In the mid 20s century, a technological revolution changed how scientists studied animal sounds. In 1950s with the invention of recorders and sound visualization tools, a new era in the field of bioacoustics began. Thanks to these devices, scientists could record and visualize sounds of wild species. A new window in the inner lives of animals opened up to scientists. For the first time, scientists could record and measure complex vocalizations and repertoires, vocal differences between individuals, sound variation throughout seasons or even vocalizations produced during specific breeding stages in wild animals. With these technologies, new horizons opened up in linguistics, animal behaviour, animal ecology and conservation. For example, new sound libraries, like the Macaulay Library, have built up impressive collections of animal sounds from the wild. Playback experiments, in which animal sounds are played back to live animals, became a common technique for wildlife biologists and allowed researchers to answer new questions about animal behaviour. Later, automated recorders, devices left in nature for long periods of time, allowed researchers to record the sounds of habitats known as soundscapes, which in return provided important information about the health of ecosystems. 

Spectrograms help scientists visualize sounds, while recording devices help scientists record wildlife, and sound recordings ultimately become part of libraries of animal sounds on Earth, like the Macaulay Library. (Left) spectrogram with multiframe output made with SeeWave R package (image from http://www.rug.mnhn.fr/seewave/). (Right) map of the world with the number of wild species showing missing recorded sounds in the Macaulay Library, as of November 2018 (image from http://www.macaulaylibrary.org).

Recently, the Cain lab – at the University of Auckland where I am conducting a PhD in bioacoustics- started to use some of the latest technologies available in the field of bioacoustics, to advance our knowledge on the evolution of vocal learning in birds. Research in the Cain Lab investigates the vocal learning abilities of rifleman (a small passerine) in a remote reserve, Boundary Stream Mainland Island, New Zealand. Researchers at the Cain Lab use relatively novel bioacoustics technologies, such as automated recording devices, computer programming and machine learning, to record and analyse bird vocalizations.

Recording equipment deployed by researchers at the Cain Lab at the University of Auckland, are used to record the rifleman birds of a North Island forest, in Boundary Stream Mainland Island, New Zealand.(Left) a female rifleman; (middle) passive bioacoustic audio recorder (BAR) from The Frontier Labs; (right) a researcher, Ines G. Moran, from the Cain Lab, recording a rifleman in the tree canopy, with a handheld microphone, a recorder and a tripod. (Photo credit for left and middle photo: I.G. Moran; right photo: Y.Y. Loo)

The development of new technology in the field of wildlife bioacoustics has changed the way we study the vocal world of wild animals. New technologies in bioacoustics are rapidly advancing, and with them new questions are emerging. Animal vocalizations has fascinated humans for many centuries and will keep doing so for many more centuries. As frogs would say: ribbit ribbit!

R packages:

Recommended resources for the detection and analysis of animal sounds.

Several R packages, in particular warbleR, SeeWave, bioacoustics, and monitor, and software are available to analyse, detect and classify sound. Here are few examples of great R packages and software:

warbleR : warbleR is R package that combines analytic tools used to measure and detect acoustic signals. Authors: Marcelo Araya-Salas & Grace Smith-Vidaurre (araya-salas@cornell.ed)

Seewave Seewave offers a wide array of tools to analyze animal sounds with R signals. Acoustic template detection and monitoring database interface. Authors: Jerome Sueur et al. (sueur@mnhn.fr)

monitoR monitoR uses acoustic template to detect sounds. Authors: Sasha D. Hafner (sdh11@cornell.edu)

bioacousticsbioacoustics contains tools to transform, detect and classify animal sounds. Authors: Jean Marchal et al. (jean.marchal@wavx.ca) 

Sound autodetection software

Kaleidoscope Kaleidoscope uses sound recognizers to detect animal sounds. This software saves a lot of time when processing numerous and long audio files.

Interactive sound analysis software

Raven– Cornell Lab of Ornithology Raven is a user-friendly platform that allows visualizing of sounds and annotation of animal vocalizations. 

Ines G. Moran is a Ph.D. candidate in the Cain Lab at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her research investigates the evolution of vocal learning in birds, as well as dialects and vocal behaviours of kinship groups in the titpounamu/ rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris), New Zealand.