10 Reasons to Love ‘Bird of the Year’

…and why we should have ‘Critter of the Year”

Posted by @mc_stanley1

When you’re completely swamped and just trying to get through the day hour by hour, hoping to find Hermione Granger’s time-turner, how do you get through the massive stress of being overloaded*?

The answer for me this week has been NZ ‘Bird of The Year’.

Bird of the Year voting has filled Twitter with the most amazing positive energy and opportunities to smile.

Here’s why I think ‘Bird of the Year’ is awesome:

  1. It’s a stress-relieving reward: “If I just finish marking this assignment, I can have a sneaky peek at the hilarious memes” (healthier for mind & body than food rewards!)

Two of the of many awesome memes – check out whio & weka memes too!

2. Breaks down stereotypes – it’s a brilliant opportunity to showcase that scientists are creative, and funny. Scientists such as Stephanie Galla and Josie Galbraith show us that science and art go hand-in-hand (I’m jealous).



Art by Josie Galbraith, Auckland War Memorial Museum (Left) and Stephanie Galla, University of Canterbury (Right)

3. #Scicomm (science communication) is increasingly important in an age where there is a distrust in science among some groups. Ecologists throughout NZ are developing their fledgling #scicomm wings this week and communicating the incredible reasons why these birds are important. While some are old hands at this.

Here’s a couple:

Josie Galbraith on the numbers of Kakī left in the wild: “There are probably more cats on your street than that, more cocopops in your bowl, more lone socks in your drawers.”


Stephanie Galla’s  genius scicomm – explaining the kakī captive breeding programme by putting kakī on Tinder.

4. What biodiversity in Aotearoa-New Zealand needs is for people to care. And people to care enough to do something about it. We need people other than us biodiversity nerds to care and that means engaging people other than our own peer groups. The Bird of Year has seen some high profile supporters, including the Prime Minister (Black Petrel – ‘the bogan bird’), raise the profile of their chosen species – reaching more New Zealanders we could ever do alone.


While Bill Bailey and Stephen Fry are onboard, #TeamKakī tries desperately to attract Sam Neil @TwoPaddocks attention, while #TeamHihi are trying to win over Hilary Barry @Hilary_Barry. Come on Sam!

5. Talking to people about why they are voting for a particular species is fascinating and tells us something about nature connection. Some examples:

  • ‘I’m not voting for something I’ve never seen’
  • ‘That bird doesn’t need a profile, not voting for that’
  • ‘It’s won before, it [kakapo] should be deleted’
  • ‘It’s not even endangered’
  • ‘I like an underdog’
  • ‘A robin almost stood on my shoe – it was so cool’
  • ‘But it’s got a tiny head and beady red eyes’
  • ‘They shouldn’t lump all the shags together, no one can connect with a lumpy shag

6. Tea room battles: again with the people interaction – it’s fascinating watching the tearoom come alive with fiery debate about which bird should win (& why you shouldn’t jump ship just because your bird didn’t win last year).

7. Because kakī have to win:

No other native bird is more kiwi than the kakī.  They wear an all black jersey, and every day is Red Socks Day. Josie Galbraith

8. Because who doesn’t love a scandal?


This has opened up a whole thread on Australians and shags – great mid-marking silliness

9. Because it paves the way for Critter of the Year! Yes New Zealand! No one can possibly wait another year for the enjoyment Bird of the Year has brought us! We need to vote on the forgotten fauna – the freaky but awesome Peripatus, the Otaaaaaaaago skink, and the glorious Powelliphanta snail. Come on NZ Entomological Society! Forest & Bird! RNZ! #CritteroftheWeek

And finally…

10. Because of this:

sad birds


IMG_9315 (2)Dr Margaret Stanley is an Associate Professor in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is the programme director of the Masters in Biosecurity and Conservation. Her interests in terrestrial community ecology are diverse, but can be grouped into three main research strands: urban ecology; invasion ecology; and plant-animal interactions.

* besides having an awesome husband who steps up to do far more than his share of kid duty 🙂


An introduction to landscape connectivity

Posted by Zach Carter

Landscape connectivity (also known as ecological connectivity or landscape permeability) is the degree to which a landscape facilitates or impedes wildlife movement. Understanding landscape connectivity has become a major conservation priority for ecological managers because it can be used to protect and restore important ecological processes; such examples include: the promotion of gene flow/dispersal, creation of risk assessments to characterise the likelihood of invasive species dispersal, and quantification of habitat fragmentation throughout peri-urban regions.

Conservation CorridorAn example of landscape connectivity in practice: a conservation corridor that traverses the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park to facilitate large mammal movement (image: https://conservationcorridor.org/2012/10/banff-national-park/)

Most commonly, spatially explicit connectivity models use resistance surfaces to represent landscape features. This is a graph-theoretic technique that reflects movement, represented as a pixel value in a grid within a geographic information system. Connectivity models ultimately use resistance surfaces to calculate the ecological cost associated with movement through a landscape between two termini (starting/ending points). It is assumed that the organism of interest will travel in such a way so as to minimise incurred costs. Accurate representation of these movements can then be used to make informed management decisions based on desired outcomes.

Two common models used for calculating ecological distance include the cost distance and current flow methodologies. These methods propose antithetic assumptions regarding the organism(s) emigration trajectory, where the cost distance model assumes the organism has perfect knowledge of the landscape and will, therefore, choose a path that minimises cumulative ecological costs, and the current flow model which treats the landscape as an electrical circuit and assumes the organism has no prior knowledge of the landscape whatsoever. Often these methods cannot elucidate an organism’s true understanding of the landscape and, as such, are used in conjunction to create a more complete picture.

Resistance Surface ExamplesAn example cost distance (fig. A, least-cost path) and current flow (fig. B, probabilistic movement) output for a generalised mammalian disperser as it emigrates from the New Zealand mainland to an offshore island in Fiordland. The red coloured least-cost path (fig. A) represents the path of least resistance as the organism emigrates. The dark coloured areas (fig. B) represent areas of probabilistic movement from an emigrating organism (source: Z Carter).

Current flow has gained much attention recently for use in connectivity modelling because it considers probabilistic movement across all possible paths within a landscape. If maximising connectivity is the desired ecological outcome (e.g. reducing habitat fragmentation), then calculating current flow between two termini within a landscape is a good model to follow (see fig. B above). On the other hand, if the desired ecological outcome is to reduce organism dispersal (e.g. prevent the spread of invasive species) calculating the least-cost path between termini may be a good modelling option because it often overestimates connectivity. In this instance it would be better to overestimate connectivity than to under estimate it in order to produce informative ecological recommendations regarding the potential spread of a pest species.

For more reading I recommend the following publications:

Etherington, T. R. (2015). “Geographical isolation and invasion ecology.” Progress in Physical Geography 39(6): 697-710.

McRae, B. H. and P. Beier (2007). “Circuit theory predicts gene flow in plant and animal populations.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(50): 19885-19890.

Wade, A. A., et al. (2015). “Resistance-surface-based wildlife conservation connectivity modeling: Summary of efforts in the United States and guide for practitioners.” Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-333. Fort Collins, CO: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 93 p. 333.



Zach Carter is PhD candidate in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. His research focuses on developing prioritisation models to assist eradication efforts for the Predator Free 2050 Programme. He is supervised by James Russell and George Perry.

The allee effect: an effective ally to achieve eradication of invasive species?

Posted by Hester Williams @HesterW123

The rise in biological invasion, strongly related to increasing international trade and travel, is creating global ecological and economical challenges.

The process by which biological invasions occur can be divided into three phases: arrival, establishment, and spread. Early intervention in the form of detection and eradication can be one of the most cost-efficient approaches. Eradication is the deliberate elimination of an invading species from an area, and is greatly assisted by prompt detection when the newly established population is still small and not widely spread.

Given the perceived difficulty of eliminating all individuals of a species, the practicality of eradication has often been questioned. However, recent population studies indicate that low density populations of a variety of species are governed by Allee effects and this may facilitate eradication. Allee effects may arise from a variety of mechanisms (e.g. mate-location failure, failure to overcome host defences, failure to satiate predators) and create a population threshold, below which population growth rate is negative. Consequently, eradication may not require directly eliminating all individuals in a population; instead, it may only be necessary to reduce the population below the Allee threshold, and extinction will proceed without further intervention.

The loss of habitat and fragmentation, which are detrimental to rare and endangered species, are complementary in attempts to eradicate an invasive species from an area. Although habitat loss is not a cause of an Allee effect, it can reduce population size such that the population could then become succeptible to an Allee effect. Fragmentation of an invasive species population (through management actions such as host removal /fragmentation) could result in reduced patch-to-patch dispersal as well as reducing the population densities in each fragmented patch to below the Allee threshold. Thus, sufficiently small and distant patches could lead to extinction of the population.

My studies use Neolema ogloblini, a biocontrol agent for Tradescantia fluminensis, as proxy for an invasive insect pest species (Fig 1).


Fig 1: The leaf beetle, Neolema ogloblini, a biocontrol agent for Tradescantia fluminensis, with typical adult damage.

Experiments completed last summer have indicated that at small population sizes, establishment of this beetle is moderated by an Allee effect. This summer I will test the effectiveness of host removal as a management tool to achieve eradication by exploiting the Allee effect. I will remove a selected number of host patches within a meta-population of Neolema ogloblini, thereby fragmenting the remaining population and in turn subjecting it to Allee effects to achieve eradication (Fig 2).


Fig 2: Host removal as management tool to achieve eradication through exploitation of the Allee effect. A selected number of host patches within a meta-population of Neolema ogloblini will be removed (denoted by white patches), fragmenting the remaining population and in turn subjecting it to Allee effects to achieve eradication.

Results of this experiment will ultimately give guidance on what eradication approaches are more or less promising for particular invasive 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 an 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.

Why do tropical rat eradications fail?

Posted by James Russell @IsldJames

The answer is self-evident: because we didn’t kill all the rats. However, the answer to the question “why didn’t we kill all the rats” is more complex. Tropical rat eradications currently fail more often than those in temperate or polar regions (16.1% vs 6.3%). If we discount operational reasons (i.e. the eradication wasn’t undertaken properly), the two prevailing biological hypotheses are that either with rats constantly breeding some pups may be able to survive and re-populate the island, or food is so abundant that not all adult rats diet switch to the poison bait.


A radio-collared rat on Reiono Island (Photo: James Russell)

Experimental rat eradications have proven very profitable in the past for advancing the science of rat eradications, but not everyone wants to allow their rat eradication for conservation to be an experiment, particularly when this increases the risk of failure. This week a team of scientists from University of Auckland (Araceli Samaniego, Markus Gronwald, James Russell) have been undertaking an experiment in association with a tropical rat eradication on Reiono Island in French Polynesia. The 22 hectare island will be treated with poison to eradicate the rats which are widespread across the otherwise relatively pristine island dominated by Pisonia forest and native seabirds and reptiles.


An alive 5 day old rat pup (Photo: James Russell)

The team have radio-collared over 60 female rats and will track them throughout the course of the eradication. They will monitor their nests to determine the likelihood of any baby rats surviving over the two weeks of the eradication. This intensive monitoring effort will reveal the most detailed data yet on the behaviour of rats during a tropical eradication campaign, and hopefully inform future rat eradications on tropical islands so that they may be as successful as those undertaken in temperate and polar regions around the world.

For more information see the special issue of Biological Conservation on tropical rat eradication.

Conservation in Aotearoa in 2030

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

The theme for this year’s University of Auckland Winter Lecture Series is Aotearoa in 2030. James Russell and I were invited to speak about conservation in Aotearoa in 2030. James covered the vision for Predator Free 2050 and I talked about some things we need to think about to make the most of the One Billion Trees policy. In short, we need to think carefully about which trees we plant where.

You can view this recording of the talk for more details.


Maintaining biodiversity in urban areas

Post by Anna Frances Probert @AFProbert

Urbanisation has come at a cost to greenspaces and biodiversity. Worldwide, pressures for development to sustain our growing human population has led to the loss of vast areas of natural habitats and agricultural land. The associated loss of habitats that sustain populations of native species is considered a driving force in global biodiversity declines.

Central park.jpg

Greenspace in a very urban setting; Central Park, New York. Photo: Walkerssk Pixabay

Greenspace is a general term used to characterise vegetated areas of land, whether that be a natural ecosystem such as forest, or a park and recreation area. The benefits of greenspace are broad-reaching; greenspaces can function to increase the quality of living and well-being of residents and visitors to the area. Growing evidence supports the notion that greenspace is an important component of healthy urban living, and greenspace is now a priority area for urban planners. Furthermore, greenspaces provide habitat for biodiversity, providing pockets of refuge within the urban matrix, and allowing the movement of species across the landscape. The protection of greenspace is therefore an important priority to maintain and promote biodiversity in urban areas.

At a smaller scale, urban gardens can act as a type of greenspace, particularly when interconnected with other gardens. Urban residents can therefore play an important role in the maintenance of native biodiversity, by using their gardens and other outdoor spaces in ways that support populations of native birds and invertebrates. Promoting biodiversity in smaller pockets can build up to become part of larger habitat and movement networks that support populations throughout the landscape.

bug hotel

A bug hotel provides habitat for invertebrates such as wēta. Photo: anpe Pixabay

So what can you do to help in your backyard? Well, many councils are now beginning to provide excellent online resources for community members learn about how to support local wildlife. Whether it is building a wētā hotel in your backyard or porch, planting kaihua (a native jasmine, which I have climbing inside my central Auckland apartment) and other native plants, or keeping your cat indoors and installing predator traps, there are many ways we can participate in enhancing our local environment, for both the benefit of people and biodiversity.




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 ecosystemsShe is supervised by Margaret StanleyJacqueline Beggs, and Darren Ward.

When setting the scene, birds are the unsung heroes

Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

There’s a lot of discriminating going on in Hollywood. You’ve probably heard of whitewashing, but what about hawk-washing? Chances are you’ve seen it in action. When some craggy mountaintop or rugged landscape appears on the screen, an eagle will fly by and give a majestic screech. Only problem is, that majestic call isn’t actually an eagle at all. It’s a red-tailed hawk. Apparently the patriotic symbol of America just doesn’t sound cool enough for the silver screen. Birds that sound cool can also nab roles from those more geographically qualified. A prime example of this is the laughing kookaburra, found only in Australasia, yet magically heard in movie jungles all over the world.

Movie birds

The A-listers: Red-tailed hawk, common loon and laughing kookaburra

Inaccurate or not, these birds and others do a lot of scene setting without us even realising. An owl hooting at night is somehow instantly spooky, despite it being what owls naturally do. Nothing says wilderness like a common loon, which is apparently all the reasoning Marvel needs to stick one on an alien planet. It does make me pity American bird enthusiasts, whose suspension of disbelief in movies doesn’t have the same shiny protective coating of ignorance that mine does. I accepted the sound of a common loon as an icon of haunted wilderness way before I knew the actual bird existed. The only twinge of recognition I get is hearing bellbirds in elven woods when watching Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time.

The ability of bird calls to invoke a particular idea or emotion is something I’ve been thinking about whilst going through the dawn/dusk chorus audio data I collected for my thesis. Rugged up with a winter dressing gown and hot water bottle, I didn’t expect to feel like summer was just around the corner. And yet, thanks to Turdus merula, I did.

Blackbird (3)

Blackbird calls on a spectrogram – reminds me of impending summer. Also of Van Gogh.

Merely the recording of a blackbird singing at dusk was enough to get me dreaming of daylight savings and warm summer nights. It’s an interesting reminder of just how much meaning we unconsciously attach to bird calls, whether they be in movie soundtracks or the urban soundscapes we live in.

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).

Going for birds: my top 6 places for bird watching in New Zealand

Posted by Daria Erastova @Kuukso

My big dream was to study New Zealand native birds. To my utter happiness, I finally joined the friendly Ecology Ngātahi labgroup under the supervision of Margaret Stanley to study ecology of urban native birds. However, I have just started my PhD project and I hope to give you some insights on that later. Instead, I will share some of my experiences birdwatching in New Zealand. Birds of a feather flock together – I found this pastime quite popular in New Zealand, so today I share my top six places to find native birds!

No. 6: Dunedin Botanic Garden, Dunedin.

The famous Dunedin Botanic Garden lies within the city’s green belt and is very big. This, along with numerous old and flowering trees growing there makes this place an excellent haven for birds. Many native species scurry here and there: tui, bellbird, silvereye, fantail etc. There is also an aviary with captive kea, kaka and kakariki.



No. 5: Point England Reserve, Auckland.

This spacious reserve connects with other coastal reserves and is maintained, allowing you to spend a whole day there. This amazing place enables you to get  a wildlife experience while staying New Zealand’s largest city. Here you would can find a variety of shore and forest birds. I counted 25 species in a day, including natives like shelduck, kereru and rare little black shag.



No. 4. Urupukapuka Island, Bay of Islands.

I was not keen to go there. Urupukapuka proved I was wrong as it turned out to be an outstanding place for birdwatching. In fact, I beat my personal record and identified 27 species in 3 hours! My most interesting encounters were banded rail, New Zealand dotterel, tomtit and North Island robin.



No. 3. Otago Peninsula, Dunedin.

Except for the famous Royal Albatross Colony, where you can also spot Stewart Island shag, and the Penguin Place, with grumpy yellow-eyed penguins, there are other places worth visiting. For example, the Hooper Inlet, inhabited by sacred kingfisher, white-faced heron, grey teal and swamp harrier. The other place is Portobello Bay with royal spoonbill, pied oystercatcher and the cutest little shag. Finally, go to Tomahawk Lagoon for pied stilt or spur-winged plover.

little shag

Little shag

No. 2. Tawharanui Regional Park, Auckland.

What is special about this beautiful peninsula is that it is surrounded by a pest-proof fence and has a variety of habitats, including old forests with kaka (you are highly likely to see or hear one), river thickets with spotless crake and seashores with pipits.

No. 1. Tiritiri Matangi, Hauraki Gulf.

This reserve does not need any introduction being one of the most popular tourist attractions in Auckland. After predator eradication and forest replanting the island became the bird paradise. There you all the chances to have a close encounter with species you would never or hardly ever see anywhere else, e.g. little spotted kiwi (one passed 25 cm away from me!), takahe, kokako, brown teal, stitchbird and many more.

I hope this list was useful and enjoyable for all nature lovers. It is based on my limited experience, and there are many other fantastic places, which I am eager to explore. Therefore, if you need a volunteer for your bird fieldwork or a companion on a birdwatching trip, please feel free to contact me.





DariaphotoDaria is a PhD candidate studying the influence of garden sugar feeders on native bird behaviour and health, and whether feeders alter the contribution these birds make to pollinating indigenous plants. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Kristal Cain and Josie Galbraith.


Coevolution in exotic herbivores and weeds

Posted by Melissa Kirk @MGKir_04

Evolution and adaptation

Exotic species have the potential to adapt and rapidly evolve in their new introduced ranges. This can have multiple consequences including changes to their host preference, defence mechanisms, growth rates and biomass, climate tolerance, fecundity and phenology. These changes can lead to an increase in abundance, range expansion, and a difference in their overall impacts.

birds evoSuch adaptations are highly likely due to the multiple new selective pressures they may encounter. For example, new selection pressures may occur as they encounter new competitors, new climates and new habitats. These adaptations and trait shift changes can occur in relatively short time periods, within a few generations. The absence of competitors and natural enemies can lead to relaxed selection, and thus a change may occur through a non-adaptive shift. A non-adaptive shift may not translate to a genetic shift initially; however, such shifts can lead to reproductive isolation and subsequently speciation.

Adaptations in plant-herbivore systems

There are two key theories behind why many plant species become weeds: the ‘enemy release hypothesis’ and the ‘novel weapon hypothesis’. The theories state that either the lack of natural enemies in the new introduced area or the presence of novel defence mechanisms which allows no or low herbivory to occur in the new environment. Thus the role of coevolution between weeds and specialists herbivores has also been attributed to plants invasiveness. If a plant has escaped its specialised herbivores, there is no need to produce costly defence mechanisms and this energy and resources can be used for growth and increased competitiveness in its new introduced range. An example of this is when the wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa invaded the US, and after many generations without its coevolved enemy the webworm, Depressaria pastinacella its levels of defence chemicals reduced. However, after the webworm became established within the US and the plant-herbivore system were reunited; rapid evolution resulted in increased levels of defence chemicals (Zangerl & Berenbaum, 2005).

Re-association: wild parsnips and webworms in New Zealand


Image source: Tarmo Lampinen, 2013

Wild parsnips also occur within New Zealand, like in the US, parsnip populations went many years without the webworms. It wasn’t until over 150 years after the establishment of the wild parsnips that the parsnip webworms were accidentally introduced into New Zealand. A previous study found that for wild parsnips in NZ, the re-association with their natural enemy the webworm did not result in an increase of defence chemicals, rather an increase in plant size (Jogesh, Stanley & Berenbaum, 2014). Therefore a switch in strategies seems to have occurred from resistance using chemical defence to tolerance via the plants size, however, whether this change is a true adaptive shift needs to be investigated.

As part of my PhD research on the ‘rapid evolution of exotic species’ I am planning on researching exotic herbivores and weed interactions, and how they can influence each other’s evolution. For this I am planning on investigating the wild parsnip and webworm interaction in NZ. I am also planning on investigating the interaction between nodding thistle and its exotic herbivores in NZ, like that of the wild parsnip it is thought that the presence of the nodding thistles natural enemies has influenced the traits and evolution of the plants growth and reproduction.

Key references:

Blossey, B., & Notzold, R. (1995). Evolution of increased competitive ability in invasive nonindigenous plants: a hypothesis. Journal of Ecology, 83(5), 887-889.

Callaway, R. M., & Ridenour, W. M. (2004). Novel weapons: invasive success and the evolution of increased competitive ability. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2(8), 436-443.

Jogesh, T., Stanley, M. C., & Berenbaum, M. R. (2014). Evolution of tolerance in an invasive weed after reassociation with its specialist herbivore. Journal of evolutionary biology, 27(11), 2334-2346.

Müller-Schärer, H., & Steinger, T. (2004). Predicting evolutionary change in invasive, exotic plants   and its consequences for plant–herbivore interactions. Genetics, evolution and biological control, 137-162.

Zangerl, A. R., & Berenbaum, M. R. (2005). Increase in toxicity of an invasive weed after    reassociation with its coevolved herbivore. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(43), 15529-15532.

Melissa is a PhD candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biomesecurity, School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. She is studying rapid evolution in exotic species, and is supervised by Darren Ward, Thomas Buckley and Quentin Paynter. Email: mkir508@aucklanduni.ac.nz

Simple Words and Storytelling: Communicating Science to a General Audience

Posted by Olivia Rooke-Devoy (BSc(Hons) Candidate)

If a tree falls in the woods and [we don’t communicate it to someone], does it make a sound?

How important is it that scientists communicate and disseminate their ideas to the wider public?


Credit: Miri Schroeter

Scientific communities now face climate change denial, anti-vaccination movements, ‘detox’ diets and, bizarrely, a resurgence of Flat-Earth believers. In view of these challenges, it seems that science communication is just as important as the science itself. Ultimately, by educating societies, we as researchers encourage better social and political decision making.

However, science communication is challenging. David Chambers’ well-known ‘Draw a Scientist’ test (1983) demonstrates that, from a young age, people view scientists as aloof and antisocial. My own research of urban lawns in Auckland has stirred controversy. Many people have rejected the premise immediately: “I like your idea, but I won’t stop mowing my lawn!”. Preconceived notions of science and the emotive subjects we study make for critical (and often unfriendly) audiences.

Faced with these difficulties, how do we communicate complex scientific ideas, so general audiences understand? Common techniques, such as using less jargon, sound great in theory but are hard in practice. For example, the Ten Hundred Words of Science blog challenges scientists to use the 1000 most commonly used English words to describe their research. Here’s my own attempt:

“What are the impacts of varying mowing regimes on lawn species assemblages in urban lawns?” becomes “what happens if city people cut green low-growing things less?”

Have a go at the challenge yourself.

Explaining scientific ideas in a straightforward way is difficult. However, using ‘simple’ language and crafting a science narrative makes our subjects accessible. Storytelling in science, taking the form of analogies and personal stories of successes and struggles, connects many types of people. This form of communication opens science to previously-excluded groups and makes science more inclusive and diverse.

Contemporary communication is instantaneous and global. In this modern age, what is a ‘scientist’? Overall, I believe that part of what makes a scientist is the ability to communicate ideas. If a tree falls in the woods and you don’t tell me, how can I care that it made a sound?

Further Reading:

Chambers, D. W. (1983). Stereotypic images of the scientist: The draw-a-scientist test. Science Education, 67(2), 255–265. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.3730670213

Salmon, R., & Priestley, R. (2015). A future for public engagement with science in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 45(2), 101–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/03036758.2015.1023320


Olivia is an Honours student at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research is focused on encouraging low-cost, biodiverse lawns in Auckland. She is supervised by Dr Bruce Burns. For further information regarding this research, please visit https://urbanlawnsproject.weebly.com/