Hello darkness, my old friend

Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

Who’s afraid of the dark? Society in general it would seem. Some people have good reason to be, living in places where humans are not top of the food chain, and darkness provides cover for those that are. Yet even in places where predation is not a risk to contend with, darkness gets a bad rap. The Dark Side, the Dark Lord with his Dark Mark, dark magic, somehow we have conflated darkness with evil. Perhaps this is because in the dichotomy of light and dark, light outshines darkness in the PR department. Light is the stuff angels wear to look suitably holy. Light signifies safe places for lion kings to rule their lion kingdoms. Light is the symbol of enlightenment and civilisation, an indicator of human innovation, technology and progress. And in the immutable logic of opposing pairs, if light = good, then darkness must therefore = bad. It’s algebra, or something.

Light side dark side

Choose light or choose dark. Choose the hero or the villain. Somehow they’re always the same choice

However, darkness really is our friend, preserving our sleep patterns and physiological processes, keeping our biological clock running in an orderly manner. It’s an unappreciated and often abusive friendship on our part. Natural darkness is being eroded away as we increasingly choose to hang out with the cool new kid, light. Natural limiters of daily activity are for lesser species, and if we want to work late into the night, nothing can stop us (even if the numerous health problems should). Some people love light so much that when their streetlights are changed to have less light spill, they buy outdoor lights to make up for the lack of illumination. That’s not just enabling a later bedtime; it is actively avoiding the presence of darkness. Why are we afraid of the dark?

dumbledore-happiness-turn-on-the-light

Dumbledore promoting light pollution

While urban dwellers generally don’t have to deal with predation, in the dark we often feel at risk from other humans. Walking home at night becomes an exercise of fearful imagination, where every shadowy bush, alley or doorway becomes a hiding place for others up to no good. Light banishes the shadows and leaves no place for imagination to run riot; security lights are so named for a reason – they make us feel secure. This is in spite of the fact that light doesn’t appear to reliably banish the presence of the criminal element. Of course, even if light doesn’t actually make us safe, it is important for people to feel safe in their cities. And until we as a society stop viewing darkness as a villain to be conquered, light is a necessary evil.

 

Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of

Ellery (2)

Ellery

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).

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If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it…

The demise of long-term population monitoring

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1

“Is there any evidence that an introduced insect – other than a social insect – has caused the decline of a native species in New Zealand?”

A feeling of total frustration and helplessness came over me when I heard those words – while standing before an EPA panel deciding whether to allow a generalist insect predator into New Zealand for biocontrol of a crop pest.

The answer to this is “no”. The frustration comes from the fact that we have no evidence, because there is no long-term monitoring of native insect populations in New Zealand. The Dept. of Conservation (DoC) may have data for a few threatened species (perhaps wetapunga?), but not for common insect species – those that might follow the fate of the passenger pigeon if an additional invasive predator is the thing that tips the balance for that population. The example I gave the EPA in answer to that question was anecdotal – the decline of our native mantis as a result of the invasive South African mantis. There’s certainly no long-term population monitoring that has picked up the demise of the native mantis.

The lack of long-term monitoring for non-charismatic species (e.g. bees) has also been lamented in Europe lately, where a massive decline of insects in Germany over the last few decades has been detected by the Krefeld Entomological Society: a group of mostly amateur entomologists, recording insects since 1905. They have recorded declines of up to 80% since the early 1980s – that’s a lot of bird food (if you care only for vertebrates!).

biodviersity weather station

Plans for long-term biodiversity monitoring in Germany (Vogel 2007)

Changes in science funding over the last few decades, and the vagaries of politics, means that long-term population monitoring is no longer ‘sexy’ and not worthy of funding (‘Cinderella Science’: unloved and underpaid). These types of datasets are difficult to maintain because they exceed cycles of funding and government administration. In New Zealand we now lament the loss of amazing datasets that have provided the foundation and impetus for some amazing science around ecology, conservation and pest control: e.g. the Orongorongo Valley dataset, and the long term monitoring of wasps, pests and birds in Nelson.

beech seed

Seedfall of hinau and hard beech trees in the Orongorongo Valley 1968-1991 (Fitzgerald & Gibb 2001)

DoC and some councils do undertake regular biodiversity monitoring where they can, but on a reduced number of taxa (usually birds and vegetation), not often at a population level (except for threatened species), and the data are often held within these organisations, rather than open access sites. Some scientists also try to sneak in a long-term monitoring project where their (often unfunded) time and resources allow.

Instead, community groups in New Zealand, those groups undertaking pest control and restoring ecosystems, are taking up the slack in long-term ecological monitoring. At least for vegetation and birds, they are the ones undertaking regular and long-term monitoring via vegetation plots and bird counts. There is also the rise of citizen science – with large numbers of people recording biodiversity: counting kereru and garden birds. Although scientists are doing what they can to give community groups technical advice, and make citizen science more robust, will the data being collected be robust enough to understand how disturbance, invasion, and climate change are affecting biodiversity? Community restoration often takes place primarily where people are (close to urban centres), and restoration projects are dominated by lowland coastal forest ecosystems. Hardly representative of New Zealand’s ecosystems.

Needless to say, there was great excitement within the ecological/entomological community with the initiation of NZ’s National Science Challenges. The idea was mooted that we could have a Long Term Ecological Research network (LETR) like that funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA. This network of sites provides the research platforms and long-term datasets necessary to document and analyse environmental change. There are numerous papers that summarise the benefits of long-term ecological datasets, such as: (1) quantifying and understanding how ecosystems respond to change; (2) understanding complex ecosystem processes that occur over long time periods; (3) providing core ecological data to develop, parameterise and validate theoretical and simulation models; (4) acting as platforms for collaborative, transdisciplinary research; and (5) providing data and understanding at scales relevant to management (Lindenmayer et al. 2012). Surely gaining an in-depth understanding of New Zealand populations and ecosystems over time would allow us to understand their resilience to the effects of long-term and large-scale drivers like climate change, and even the effects of new invasive species, such as myrtle rust?

However, it was not to be. And although citizen science and community monitoring is valuable in its own right for specific purposes, it doesn’t allow us to respond to the opening salvo.

If an insect goes extinct in the forest, will anyone know?

Postscript: The EPA decided not to allow import of the predatory insect – not so much because the ecological risk was perceived to be particularly high – but the industry benefits were seen as too low relative to the risk.

 

MargaretDr Margaret Stanley is a Senior Lecturer 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.