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.

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Harrowed sparrows and shrinking starlings

Posted by Sam Heggie-Gracie @SamHegGra

Birds are one of many taxa seen to be on the downslide globally, with 12% of all birds classified as threatened. Bird trends have been particularly well documented in Europe, and some of these studies have thrown up some interesting findings. In particular, it appears rarer birds are increasing in abundance, whilst the more common species are driving the brunt of the overall decline.

Spock’s famous adage “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” doesn’t normally apply in conservation, whereby common species are often overlooked in favour of protecting those that are rarer. It’s easy to take common species for granted. However, common species disproportionately influence the environment they live in as they form an especially integral part of the structure and function of their habitat. Commonality in ecology is (ironically) a rare trait, with only a few species lucky enough to have the right characteristics to multiply like nobody’s business and dominate an environment (think: humans). A decline of a once common species will be pretty bad news. In Europe, even the cherished, ever-present sparrows have taken a dive, as have starlings.

sparrowHouse sparrow (Image source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

Some recent research has shown some of our own common birds such as tui may also be declining. Habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change pose threats to these birds, so it will be important to keep an eye on their populations.

By continuing to undertake informed bird-friendly actions (such as good bird feeding practices!), we can safeguard our inimitable native species from further loss. In terms of policy, a compact city as opposed to a sprawling one appears more favourable for bird communities, and this may be especially true for natives. Such city-scape planning alongside regular population monitoring may be increasingly required in order to mitigate biodiversity loss and assist both the many as well as the few.silvereyeSilvereye (Image source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

Check out Josie’s endearing video on good feeding practices, and remember to keep a close eye on your cat this summer as baby birds begin to emerge!

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Sam Heggie-Gracie is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating the drivers of bird composition in cities. He is supervised by Margaret Stanley and Cheryl Krull (AUT).

 

The adventures of a roboswan: Using technology to collect ecological data

Posted by Rebecca Lehrke @rmlehrke

Hello there, today I would like to introduce you all to my friend S5, the roboswan.

Not S5: but even I’ll admit S5 looks a lot like S7 (shown above) so you get the idea

Not S5: but even I’ll admit S5 looks a lot like S7 (shown above) so you get the idea

Yes I know that name is not very creative but I’m sure this bird will still peak your interest. S5 is not like other birds of its kind. Unlike other swans in my study, S5 likes to travel, likes an adventure. At the exact moment I am writing this (from the comfort of my home), I am also checking on S5, and yes, this swan is still on its adventure, hanging out in a freshwater inlet near the Manukau end of the Auckland Airport. S5, like all the birds, in my study are special. They all have remote-download GPS tracking devices attached to them. This means I can see where they are every five minutes.

The adventures of S5 - the live feed of GPS locations for S5 in the Manukau Harbour shown through an app on my phone

The adventures of S5 – the live feed of GPS locations for S5 in the Manukau Harbour shown through an app on my phone

It’s not often that as an ecologist you can check in on where your study animals are from an app on your phone while you write a blog post in your lounge. As I have explained in a previous blog post my research involves using tracking devices to look at how the movement and location of black swans changes in response to management at the Auckland airport.

I have had the opportunity to work with some pretty amazing, and cutting edge technology for this study. We are using remote-download GPS tracking devices, which allow me to get a continuous stream of movement data on a number of swans around the airport. It is certainly fascinating and insightful already and we have only just started getting data.

Of course with great power comes great responsibility, so they say. Now that I have my data coming in, I have to start analysing it, and there’s a lot of data to work with! But at least I can check in on S5 each night and imagine what adventures its had while moving around the harbour.

A lot of data - raw GPS locations from less than a week for my eight study birds in the Manukau Harbour

A lot of data – raw GPS locations from less than a week for my eight study birds in the Manukau Harbour

RebeccaRebecca Lehrke is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using movement ecology to assess the efficacy of disturbance-based management of black swans at the Auckland Airport. She is supervised by Todd Dennis and Margaret Stanley.

Bush mad in the city

Posted by Samantha Lincoln @slin247

Over the course of this year I have been undertaking intense field work across some of Auckland Councils public parks. Urban ecology is inherently strange; emerging sweat-soaked from a long day’s work, and carrying a small colony of beetles in your hair onto a main road whilst startling local dog walkers and being serenaded by Auckland Zoo’s primates. While not as idyllic as disappearing to the mountains for a week, urban ecology is incredibly important when most of our human population is urban. Connecting with nature is undeniably important for our wellbeing.

Auckland has hundreds of public parks of all sizes, both without and without maintained walking tracks as I have discovered. They are refuges for native species in the middle of our manicured city, but how well do we really look after these spaces? During my field work my volunteers and I have found a range of debris: backyard clippings spreading weeds, Victorian inkwells, a year’s supply of newspapers courtesy of a lazy paperboy, shelters built by those with nowhere else to turn (a growing issue in Auckland) and a pile of books featuring a bunny not often seen during pest control.

Live capture of a rat during a capture-recapture study

Live capture of a rat during a capture-recapture study

As Auckland city grows, more pressure is being placed on these biodiversity refuges and how we value and care for them becomes more important as was noted last month. Will we value and nurture these green spaces, or will they fail under the pressure? Will we continue to use them as personal rubbish dumps, or will we take interest in the other species that use these spaces? I will be a science advocate – we can all lend our voices. To me nothing beats the feeling of following a fantail nest from first cheeps to first awkward flight, as I make my daily visit to the rat trap at the tree’s base.

Sam Ln webSam Lincoln is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of  Auckland. She is trying to disentangle interactions between domestic cats and rats in urban environments. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, John Innes and Al Glen.

Holy sky glow Batman!

Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

Dear Batman,

I have a bone to pick with you. Maybe you’ve been too busy fighting crime and/or Superman to notice that sky glow from artificial light sources is a global issue. Light emitted upwards from artificial sources is scattered by molecules in the atmosphere, creating a glow that is brighter than the natural night sky. Aside from making it harder to sneak around in your Bat-Plane, sky glow also reduces star visibility (and therefore sights like these), and has a myriad of potential impacts on the environment. It is for this reason that I find your use of the Bat-Signal downright irresponsible.

The Bat-Signal, aka extremely poor outdoor lighting practice

The Bat-Signal, a symbol of hope, fear, and excessive light pollution

You see Batman, when it comes to outdoor lighting there are three main ways to reduce sky glow. The first is to reduce light trespass into the night sky by shielding or directing the light source downwards. The second is to reduce the amount of light emitting into the night sky by dimming or switching off the light source. The third way is to reduce the scattering of light in the night sky by avoiding light sources that emit strongly in the blue part of the spectrum (as short wavelengths scatter more). Ideally these three methods should be used together. Props to you for somewhat shielding your light with a bat symbol, but I can’t help but feel that this is due to aesthetics, rather than good lighting practice.

While we're at it, does Wayne Manor really need that much outdoor lighting?

While we’re at it, does Wayne Manor really need that much outdoor lighting?

In short, your Bat-Signal is polluting the night sky with its bright, upward emitting white light. Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and measure Gotham’s sky glow for yourself. I use a Sky Quality Meter (Unihedron) for my research, but there are also various apps you can easily access and use with your Bat-phone (e.g. Dark Sky Meter or Loss of the Night). You can test for yourself the variations in sky glow around your city, and help out with citizen science while you’re at it!

Honestly Batman, you’re known as the Dark Knight. Please at least try to live up to that.

Ellery (2)Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project will investigate the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, Kevin Gaston (University of Exeter, UK) and Daryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

Giving two hoots about city birds

Posted by Sam Heggie-Gracie @SamHegGra

It’s not easy being a city slicker; vainly calling over car noise, isolated from my friends in a small patch of forest, narrowly avoiding a cat (I’m allergic; also, see Sam’s post). And that’s just me. Urban birds must navigate these conditions too, and for them, it can mean the difference between life and death. By measuring a number of these pressures, I hope to elucidate which abiotic and biotic drivers mould the avian assemblages of Auckland city for my MSc.

Urban ecology studies are a relatively new area of research, as people around the world are increasingly drawn out of a bucolic lifestyle and into the jobs and excitement that cities can provide. The sprawling city of Auckland spans out from the concrete jungle of the CBD, through a gradient of increasingly green urban and suburban areas and onto rural outskirts. Our bird friends are found throughout, so I will be assessing the difference in bird abundances and composition across this environmental gradient. Additionally, I will be looking into what drives bird composition within urban habitat fragments. By assessing housing density, fragment size, noise pollution and a myriad of other urban characteristics, I hope to determine which of these are most important for providing a suitable home for our birds.

Previously, the words ‘all bird observations will occur between 5 and 9 am’, had filled me with much apprehension, but after overcoming the dread of waking at such an ungodly hour, I have become most earnestly committed to the birds of Auckland city and relish getting up to listen to the beatific morning chorus. Hoot hoot!

Sam HGSam Heggie-Gracie is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating the drivers of bird composition in cities. He is supervised by Margaret Stanley and Cheryl Krull (AUT).

Kākāpō – the power of positive

Posted by Jacqueline Beggs @JacquelineBeggs

The distinctive musty odour of kākāpō wafts through the forest as tangata whenua (literally, people of the land) softly chant to welcome back this parrot to Hauturu – Little Barrier Island. The bird tentatively pokes her head out of her travelling cage and then scuttles a short distance into the dense undergrowth, pausing to check her new surroundings. My eyes brim, unexpectedly moved by the connection of this bird to local Māori, and a very special island. It is inspiring to be part of another step forward to securing the future of kākāpō.

Kākāpō are a large, flightless nocturnal parrot, found only in New Zealand.  They have their own facebook page and crowd-funding campaign which contributes to the recovery of this species.

Kākāpō are a large, flightless nocturnal parrot, found only in New Zealand. They have their own facebook page and crowd-funding campaign which contributes to the recovery of this species. Photo: Jacqueline Beggs

By 1995, only 51, mostly adult male kākāpō survived. Previous decades had documented a continual decline in numbers, despite relocating the remaining population to offshore, mammalian predator-free sanctuaries. And then the tide turned. Intensive research and management resulted in successful breeding – as of July 2015 the population stands at 125, a healthy mix of males, females, juveniles and adults. Still critically endangered, but now the challenge is not just making more birds, but where to put the growing population.

Apart from being amazing birds, kākāpō are distinctive in conservation circles because of the positive message they convey. Depressingly often, conservation equates with bad news stories – harbingers of doom. Yet we know people are happiness seekers; so coupling a positive framework with conservation is far more effective in engaging people than negative stories. The conservation benefit of the kākāpō programme is invaluable for this reason alone. So when we come to prioritising how we allocate scarce conservation funding, I argue that this benefit is a critical consideration.

Recent research by Bennett et al. 2015 develops a prioritisation protocol to maximise biodiversity gains using private sponsorship of single ‘flagship’ species conservation programmes.

Jacqueline Beggs assists with the regular health check of one of the kākāpō on Whenua Hou. Photo: Darryl Eason

Jacqueline assists with the regular health check of one of the kākāpō on Whenua Hou. Photo: Darryl Eason

Their protocol estimates cost effectiveness using evolutionary distinctiveness, the benefit to species survival, probability of project success and project cost. The authors highlight the Kākāpō Recovery Programme as an extreme example of potential inefficiencies in using private sponsorship funding. Although an objective way of allocating funding is a great step forward, I think it is important not to ignore the social context of conservation. The iconic status of kākāpō, their importance to Māori, and the captivation of people around the world by these awesome birds are all part of the equation. Including the benefit of an internationally acclaimed good news story such as kākāpō is critical in assessing the true cost effectiveness of programmes.

Kākāpō breathe hope into conservation.

Jacqueline Beggs is an Associate Professor in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity. She is privileged to have been a member of the Kākāpo Recovery Group for the last 15 years.

Controlling the Roboswans: technology and adaptive management

Posted by Rebecca Lehrke @rmlehrke

In conservation ecology we are taught from very early on the importance of adaptive management. We learn that the scientific process is cyclical; it doesn’t just stop once you put out some traps or feeders. It is not enough to just put our management strategies into action – we should always assess and improve them. Often this is actually the most interesting part of a project. We all know that ecological systems are complex and respond to change in so many different ways (see both Sam and Carolina’s previous blog posts if you don’t believe me). How a system, population or even individual organisms respond to management can be fascinating and extremely insightful.

Adaptive management approach

Adaptive management approach

For my masters I am looking at two parts of this question – how do individuals and populations respond to management interventions? This on its own is really nothing new; conservation managers all over the world assess the efficacy of their actions. Pest controllers undertake bird surveys to determine whether the populations are bouncing back, researchers assess changes in invertebrate diversity following reforestation projects, just to name a few. What is different in my research is the use of the fine-scale data made possible by modern technology.

Roboswan Taxidermy black swan with GPS tracking device

Roboswan Taxidermy black swan with GPS tracking device

I will be using GPS-tracking technology to investigate how black swans respond to disturbance-based management actions  at the Auckland Airport. Put simply – and much more interestingly – the airport staff regularly chase the swans with a modified Jet Ski away from areas close to the runway. Black swans are a big bird, averaging around 5kg, they are not something we want hanging out anywhere near our runways. Managing this population is critical to airport safety in Auckland. To better understand how these birds respond to this management intervention, and how it can be improved, I will be collecting GPS-fixes at one-minute intervals during and following interventions by airport staff. These data will allow us to inform managers about the outcomes of their intervention; such as how frequently they should disturb the birds; at what times the swans pose the highest risk of bird strikes; and how the disturbance affects swan behaviour.

Black swans taking off during a chase by Auckland Airport staff

Black swans taking off during a chase by Auckland Airport staff

The use of technology in adaptive management projects, such as this, provides us with unprecedented detail about the way organisms respond to changes in their environment. For example, PIT-tagging birds around feeders can show us everything from how often they use them and when they use them, to whether a feeder is optimally positioned. There have already been a huge number of studies using tracking-technology that have changed the way we think about how and why animals move. These technologies are only getting more efficient, smaller and cheaper in time. More regular integration of data-capture technology into our adaptive management programmes could greatly improve their outcomes. If you’re still not convinced and you need to see another example of all this in action – watch this space, it is sure to be insightful and will no doubt be fascinating.

RebeccaRebecca Lehrke is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using movement ecology to assess the efficacy of disturbance-based management of black swans at the Auckland Airport. She is supervised by Todd Dennis and Margaret Stanley.

 

There was once an old lady who swallowed a fly…

Posted by Sam Lincoln

Biological systems are incredibly complex (see ecological networks blog). Introducing a spider to eat a fly may not help; New Zealand found that out the hard way with rabbits and ferrets. When one food source is running low, most predators prey-switch, and in New Zealand that often means moving onto our native birds. We regularly control rats both in our homes and local parks with little knowledge of the indirect impacts wrought upon biological systems. My Masters project aims to take a first look at how domestic cats respond to the removal of rats in local parks – are they eating more of our birds?

In Auckland Council’s local parks, a mix of native and introduced birds share their space with predators such as rats and domestic cats. There has been much recent debate about the impact of cats in New Zealand; while scientists agree that cats have negative impacts on our native species, the SPCA often has a far more cat-friendly view citing rodent control by domestic cats as potentially helping birds. Even politicians are involved in the cat debate, with Conservation Minister Maggie Barry in one corner fighting for kiwi versus Prime Minister John Key representing Moonbeam. My pilot study of 11 cameras set for two nights captured 14 individual cats in two local parks (as well as a few possums and an MSc student).

Photos from cat camera pilot study, clockwise from top left: two cats, MSc student Sam Lincoln and a possum. Cats were photographed visiting both parks during the day and night.

Photos from cat camera pilot study, clockwise from top left: two cats, MSc student Sam Lincoln and a possum. Cats were photographed visiting both parks during the day and night.

By assessing the changes to cat behaviour after removing rats from half of the sites, I will get a first look into what really goes on between cats, rats and birds – is rat control bad for birds due to increased predation by cats, or are rats the main culprits in an urban environment? What would happen if cats were to go? Should we instead be moving toward a predator free New Zealand where our birds can exist without either of these mammalian invaders?

Sam Ln web

Sam Lincoln is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is trying to disentangle interactions between domestic cats and rats in urban environments. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, John Innes and Al Glen.

What we talk about when we talk about ecological networks

Posted by Carolina Lara @carislaris

I was recently asked by an engineer friend of mine what my PhD project was about. In my (failed) attempt to put it into simple words, I ended up giving him a large discourse on the topic. A couple of days passed and he got back to me to say “… I always thought biological systems were simpler”. I am new to this world of ecological networks, but simplicity is not a word that can be used to describe them. More specifically for animal-plant mutualistic networks, a set of animals interacts mutualistically with a set of plants that are connected to another set of animals that interact with another set of plants. Animals disperse a plant´s genes and get food as a reward, as in the case of pollination and seed dispersal ecosystem services.

Kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), New Zealand’s native pigeon, feeding on Nikau Palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) fruit

Kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), New Zealand’s native pigeon, feeding on Nikau Palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) fruit

The dynamics of these networks and how they are built have profound implications on the coexistence of species and moreover, they can give us insights about how resilient they are to human disturbances, such as habitat fragmentation. It has now been recognised that conservation efforts should not only be directed to species alone, but should also be extended to the interactions and networks they form. Loss of interactions would translate into loss of ecological functions and this could happen even before actual species extinctions, a concept known as extinction debt of ecological interactions. Daniel Janzen, a pioneer scientist in tropical ecology, stated more than 40 years ago that “what escapes the eye, however, is a much more insidious kind of extinction: the extinction of ecological interactions”. So, we really are talking about complexity when we talk about networks. And I’m glad I changed my friend´s perception of just how complex biological systems are.

Carolina2Carolina 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 Stanley, Jason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.