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!


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.


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



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’.



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.”



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 @julia_schmack

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.


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.


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.


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


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?!


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.


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.

Insects and Ethics

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

– George Orwell, Animal Farm

Posted by: Jessica Devitt @Colette_Keeha

I genuinely like insects…okay let’s be truthful, I love insects, or more correctly arthropods, I don’t discriminate. I think that their gormless little faces, with vacant-looking eyes, are utterly charming. I think that they are incredibly industrious, intelligent, remarkable little creatures, and they always have my attention. I know that I am guilty of anthropomorphising them and I know that it this might be irksome, so my apologies in advance.

This love naturally ended up becoming a life-long passion to work with insects in any capacity; if I had my way completely I would be raising endangered insects and writing about them, that would be the life!  However, the majority of work related to insects is around the damage that they can do to agriculture, native environments, the economy, freshwater systems…and the list could go on.  So excluding, controlling or eradicating (usually) invasive insects as a part of biosecurity, and invasive species management, is often where a lot of us entomologists earn our living.  Don’t get me wrong though, I understand and appreciate the need to keep invasive insects at bay, I love insects, but my love is not blind.

So in my day-to-day student life, there are times when I have to kill my insects, like when I had to freeze the remains of my entire Hadda beetle colony; they are invasive so could not be released…that was a sad day. These instances of insect homicide got me thinking recently about insects and the ethics of killing them and/or using them in research. I have several questions like, do they feel pain? Or a ‘version’ of pain? And is our current use of insects in research without the need for ethics approval morally okay?

Spider meme

Might need a bigger gun. (Meme Binge, 2014)

The use of animals for research in New Zealand is controlled under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.  Under the Animal Welfare Act (1999) it is an offence to ‘manipulate’ an animal, meaning to subject an animal to something that interferes with the animal’s normal behavioural, anatomical or physiological integrity, without being an approved code of ethical conduct holder (National Animal Ethics Committee, 2012).  If the code holder is say a research institution, and you are employed by that research institution, then you are in general terms covered by their code (ANZCCART, 2017a).  I put the word ‘animal’ in quotes here because the definition of an animal under the Animal Welfare Act it (1999) is a living animal that is a vertebrate, some invertebrates are included, such as crayfish, and squid but this definition of ‘animal’ does not apply to insects and most invertebrates, such as spiders.  Several insect species are however covered under the Wildlife Act (1956) in New Zealand due to the fact that they are endangered species, such as the giant wētā (Deinacrida spp.)

giant weta2

Giant wētā. (Moffet, 1991).

In terms of consciousness it is generally agreed that vertebrates are sentient as in they have the ability to subjectively feel and perceive experiences, they are conscious, and self-aware, hence they also have the capacity to suffer (Bekoff, 2013).  However, some of the methods used to justify animal consciousness or sentience, such as behavioural responses and neurobiology, are poorly fitted to answering the same question with regard to insects (Merker, 2016).  In saying this Klein and Barron (2016) argue that insect brains are functionally comparable to the vertebrate midbrain (an evolutionary ancient part of the brain in vertebrates), and that subjective experience, as a component of consciousness, is a construct of evolution, hence it is plausible that those animals that came before vertebrates, the invertebrates, would also have the capability of subjective experience (Klein & Barron, 2016).


The insect brain. (n.d.)


Milton the roach. (Daisy_Dazzy, n.d.)

The premise of using the human experience, our behaviour and neurobiological responses to pain as an analogue for how animals feel pain is inherently biased (Klein & Barron, 2016), but what other methods could we use?  Nociception is often cited as an analogue to show pain in vertebrates as compared to the human experience of pain (Adamo, 2016). Nociceptors, are specialised sensory receptors that detect harmful stimuli and signal the brain to react in a way that will minimise harm to the body, however ‘pain’ in itself is subjective (Fein, 2012).  Humans, other vertebrates and insects have nociceptors, and insects do react by altering their behaviour to harmful stimulus, although whether they are in distress from the stimulus is impossible to tell.  In saying this Adamo (2016) points out that the behavioural reaction of insects to harmful stimuli coupled with avoidance to harm are some of the same parameters used to justify distress in vertebrates, so why then is this not more considered by ethics committees and researchers?

when entomologists attack

Disturbing scene. (Kim, n.d.)

If the free use of insects in research was to suddenly become a bigger ethical issue, where the researcher had to apply for ethics approval, this would no doubt create a multitude of barriers in research.  Insects are often used as analogues for other animals, insect farming for human consumption is quickly becoming more acceptable, and people in my line of work, where insects are killed en masse, could be stonewalled.  Naturally I have mixed thoughts about this.  On the one hand, I personally do not always feel comfortable with how I have seen insects treated in research situations, nor am I comfortable with my use of them at times during my career, however I realise that I inherently would choose to destroy an insect over say a puppy if I had to pick one. Further to this, I have avoided the dreaded ethics application process (I have heard it can be difficult), which has meant that I have been able to do a range of experiments with minimal bureaucracy.

In saying all this, I still feel that perhaps as researchers we have had free rein over this for too long now, and that some form of middle ground needs to be established.  The three R’s could be a good place to start, where Replacement (use an alternative), Reduction (use less insects), and Refinement (minimise suffering), are ethical considerations taken when using insects in research.  Further, I also think that housing insects in environments where they can live out their bug lives as freely as possible, along with being disposed of humanely are important.

Now kiss3

Bug Life. (Banane, n.d.)

jessJessica 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.


Adamo, S. A. (2016). Do insects feel pain? A question at the intersection of animal behaviour, philosophy and robotics.  Animal Behaviour, 118, 75-79.

Animal Welfare Act. 1999. Retrieved April 28, 2017 from

Banane. (n.d.). Bug Life.  Retrieved from

Bekoff, M. (2013). A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.  Retrieved from

Daisy_Dazzy. (n.d.).  Milton the roach.  Retrieved from

Fein, A. (2012). Nociceptors and the perception of pain. University of Connecticut Health Center, 4, 61-67. Retrieved from

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). (2008). 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.  Retrieved from

Kim, N. (n.d.). Disturbing scene from When Entomologists Attack.  Retrieved from

Klein, C., & Barron, A. B. (2016). Insects have the capacity for subjective experience. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 1(9), 1.

Lynch, K. (n.d.) When is an animal not an ‘animal’? Research ethics draws the line. Retrieved from

Meme Binge. (2014). Might need a bigger gun.  Retrieved from

Merker, B. H. (2016). Insects join the consciousness fray. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 1(9), 4.

Moffet. M. (1991). The giant cricket.  Retrieved from

National Animal Ethics Committee. (2012). Ensuring regulatory compliance in the use of animals in science in New Zealand – the review process. (Occasional Paper No.9).  Wellington, New Zealand.  Retrieved from

Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R., & Morrison, D. (2005). Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological economics, 52(3), 273-288.

The Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART). (2017a). Animal ethics for the use of animals in research, testing or teaching.  Retrieved from

The insect brain. (n.d.). Retrived from

Wildlife Act. (1956). Retrieved April 28, 2017 from


Evolution of invasive traits

Posted by Melissa Kirk @ MGKirk_04
Invasive species are a major problem worldwide, causing numerous impacts on the environment, agriculture and human health. Whether an introduced species becomes invasive is dependent on many factors, but has been attributed to certain life history traits (or characteristics), including high competitive abilities, wide climate tolerances, fast development, wide host ranges and high dispersal abilities (Whitney & Gabler, 2008). Characteristics which enhance the invasiveness of a species can rapidly change and evolve during invasion but such changes are often associated with the lag phase, the stage before the invasive species forms large populations and becomes widespread (Crooks, 2005).


Fig.1. The ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. Image sourced from: Wiki commons- Harmonia axyridis. Image taken by Fritz-Geller-Grimm.

A recent example of rapid changes to an invasive species comes from the Harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. Within ten years of arriving in a new country, it had developed flight traits that increased its ability to disperse allowing the ladybird to become widespread in Belgium. The study found that ladybirds from the first population to establish had reduced flight speed, compared to those sampled from the expanding edge populations (Lombaert et al. 2014).

Figure two Lythrum salicaria. Image source from Wikimedia commons Lythrum salicaria

Fig. 2. Lythrum salicaria. Image source from: Wiki commons-Lythrum salicaria. Image taken by Manfred Heyde.

Comparatively, the invasive plant Lythrum salicaria, has evolved earlier flowering times to adapt to the climatic conditions at the expanding front of the population. This adaption has allowed for the wide spread dispersal of the invasive plant from South to North America (Colautti & Barrett, 2013).

figure three Ceratitis capitata. Image sourced from Wikimedia commons- Ceratitis capitata.

Fig. 3: Ceratitis capitata. Image sourced from: Wiki commons- Ceratitis capitata. Image taken by Imrich.

Further, the Mediterranean fruit fly, Ceratitis capitata, has evolved enhanced reproductive output and longevity in its newly invaded range compared to populations from older ranges. These adaptive traits allowed for rapid population growth and spread (Diamantidis, Carey & Papadopoulos, 2008).

Rapid evolution of invasive species shows that risk assessment, predictive models, control and eradication strategies can be difficult to design and implement. These examples highlight the need for ongoing research on the life history traits of invaders, even once they have established and begun spreading.

1173650_304225506394902_1331297686799750324_nMelissa Kirk is a MSc candidate in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is supervised by Darren Ward (Landcare Research/University of Auckland) and Eckehard Brockerhoff (Scion).

Colautti, R. I., & Barrett, S. C. (2013). Rapid adaptation to climate facilitates range expansion of an invasive plant. Science, 342(6156), 364-366.

Crooks, J. A. (2005). Lag times and exotic species: the ecology and management of biological invasions in slow-motion. Écoscience, 12(3), 316-329.

Diamantidis, A. D., Carey, J. R., & Papadopoulos, N. T. (2008). Life‐history evolution of an invasive tephritid. Journal of applied entomology, 132(9‐10), 695-705.

Lombaert, E., Estoup, A., Facon, B., Joubard, B., Grégoire, J. C., Jannin, A., … & Guillemaud, T. (2014). Rapid increase in dispersal during range expansion in the invasive ladybird Harmonia axyridis. Journal of evolutionary biology, 27(3), 508-517.

Whitney, K. D., & Gabler, C. A. (2008). Rapid evolution in introduced species,‘invasive traits’ and recipient communities: challenges for predicting invasive potential. Diversity and Distributions, 14(4), 569-580.

Taken for granted – Auckland’s tree crisis

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

Another week, another decades-old tree is on the chopping block. This time a Norfolk pine in Ellerslie is being removed to make way for a car port. Residents believe the tree is unsafe. It’s all too common that people are worried about the perceived dangers of trees but there are plenty of benefits that are often forgotten in the rush the remove a ‘nuisance’ or ‘dangerous’ tree.

Ellery McNaughton already lamented the loss of trees at her urban study sites in February. So what good are trees?

1) Trees capture and store carbon. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees take up CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon in their roots, stem, branches and leaves. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it stores as approximately 50% of biomass is carbon so that huge Norfolk pine is likely to store tonnes of carbon in wood and it will take decades for that carbon to be recaptured but a replacement tree.

wood pile2

Let’s stop reducing trees to this

2) Trees reduce air temperature. Trees cool things down in two ways. First, they obviously provide shade. Second, they lose water through their leaves through the process of transpiration. As water is lost from the surface of the leaf, evaporative cooling takes place. Trees are helpful in reducing the urban heat island effect, counterbalancing the warming effects of sealed roads, driveways and roofs.

3) Trees modulate the water cycle. Water taken up from the soil by roots travels up the trunk and then exits the leaves, returning to the atmosphere as transpiration. This process slowly removes water from the soil so when it rains, water can soak into the soil instead of becoming runoff and causing floods. Trees also act as a giant umbrella, catching water in their leaves. We call this interception and because tree canopies are complex, they can store huge amounts of water on the surfaces of leaves and branches. In a closed kauri forest, up to 44% of incoming rainfall across the year is captured in this way and returns to the atmosphere as evaporation when the sun comes out. This is hugely helpful in preventing floods!

4) Trees bind the soil, preventing erosion. This is particularly important in steep terrain where fast-moving water is more likely to cause slips, especially during heavy rain events.


This schedulded tree in Mission Bay had 40% of it’s crown unlawfully removed by a neighbour.



5) Trees enhance biodiversity. Trees provide food and homes for birds, invertebrates, reptiles and other plants.

6) Trees provide colour. Without trees, out landscapes become dull and grey. Trees provide greens of leaves but also reds, yellows, whites and oranges when they flower and fruit.

We know that trees improve property values because leafy areas are seen as being more affluent. While asthetics are important, there are clearly so many other good reasons to love trees. Surely it’s time to value are trees for the wonderful services they provide!

The million trees programme is a great way to rebuild forest but we also need to preserve what we already have with better tree protection.




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.

Save the bees!

Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert

It seems that everyone loves honeybees and everyone wants to save them. Of course they do. Honeybees give us honey, they pollinate our crops, kids like them, and they’re great for science outreach. But despite their endearing, cuddlesome nature, I have issues with honeybees. Firstly, they’re exotic to New Zealand, some would even say invasive, and they’re probably having negative impacts on our native biodiversity. Secondly, I think they’re crying wolf (at least in New Zealand).

The general public have a terrible misconception about bees; when people think about bees they inherently think of honeybees. That’s it. One bee. Let’s save it, or we’ll all die. In New Zealand, the deluded media continues to wheeze and waffle about honeybees in peril, yet hive numbers have increased from 300,000 in 2000 to 685,000 in 2016. That’s a whopping 120% increase! Meanwhile, native bees continue to go unnoticed and unrecognised.

hive numbers in NZ

Change in the number of registered honeybee hives in New Zealand from 2000-2016. The red dashed line is when Varroa was first detected in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, few people know that there are over 20,000 bee species in the world and most of them don’t live in a colony with a queen. Rather, they live solitary lives and nest in the ground or in plant material. Globally, native bees, in combination with other wild insects, contribute more to crop pollination than honeybees. But unlike honeybees which are managed by humans, native bees are strongly affected by the bad things that humans do (e.g., agriculture, urbanisation, pesticides, climate change and invasive species). In addition, evidence is mounting that honeybees have negative impacts on wild insects, largely through competition.

Leioproctus of Coriander

An endemic New Zealand bee (genus Leioproctus)

I’m not saying that we should forget about honeybees altogether and let Varroa have its way with them. They’re important pollinators of many crops and make manuka honey that cashed up baby boomers pay $1,000/kg for to treat their pinot noir induced acid reflux. But it seems dumb to rely on a single species to do all the pollination. It’s akin to “putting all your eggs in one basket”. Resilience comes in the form of biodiversity. When we have lots of biodiversity we have many species that are equally capable of doing the job. For example, if we have 10 pollinator species that are equally good at pollinating a crop and for some reason five species go extinct, we still have five species left. However, if we have one species and it goes extinct, that’s it, game over.

So how can we save the bees? Our native bees? Essentially they need natural habitat, which provides floral and nesting resources. In New Zealand, native bees are active from September to February and require flowers (preferably natives!) throughout that period. They also require sites for nesting; small holes (2-3 mm) in timber/plant material for cavity nesting species and areas of warm, well drained bare earth for ground nesting species.

Leioproctus in hole

A ground nesting Leioproctus bee emerging from its nest hole

These solutions are feasible on a small scale (i.e., in urban gardens), but the real problem is at a much larger scale, where agricultural intensification threatens to wipe out native bee populations. Therefore, to “save the bees” perhaps we need to move beyond the capitalist dream of monocultures, mono-pollinators and massive profits, and instead vie for diverse production systems that truly value biodiversity.

For an up-to-date assessment on the global status, trends and threats to pollinators and pollination check out: the assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on pollinators, pollination and food production.

IMG_0293Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Biodiversity &
Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is interested in how functional traits influence ecosystem function and species’ responses to environmental change in pollination systems.
 He is supervised by Jacqueline BeggsAnne GaskettDavid Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.