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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Aliens in Our Backyard: Parasitoid Wasps (and How to Catch Them)

Posted by Tom Saunders.

The eponymous extra-terrestrial from the Alien film franchise struck terror into our souls –razor sharp teeth, acid for blood, and an unusual capacity for memorising the layout of ventilation shafts. But it had another interesting trait – it had a parasitoid life cycle. A parasitoid is an organism that spends its juvenile life stage feeding on the body of a host. While a parasite allows its host to live, a parasitoid does not. It emerges from its dead host in a similar way to how the alien bursts out of the chest of a helpless crew member. But while the ‘xenomorph’ was a frightful fantasy dreamt up by Hollywood, parasitoid wasps are important creatures that live all around us, and we should try to understand them.

 

xanthocryptus

Lemon tree borer parasite (Xanthocryptus novozealandicus), a native New Zealand parasitoid wasp. Image © by Pete McGregor. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0. .

 

Parasitoid wasps are potentially the most diverse group of organisms in the world (sorry beetle fans). They are abundant, they are crucial to the functioning of ecosystems, and they can be used by humans to control pests which damage food and other crops. Despite all this, they are incredibly understudied and there is still much that we don’t know about them on a global, regional, or even local scale. As with any species, the first step in collecting information on parasitoid wasps is to sample their diversity, in order to construct an inventory of species and to monitor how their diversity changes over time. The problem is:

  • How many samples should you take?
  • How many traps should you use?
  • How long should you leave the traps out for?
  • How much diversity can you expect to catch?
  • How many traps are required to achieve the level of diversity you want?

 

netelia

Netelia sp., a native New Zealand parasitoid wasp. Image © by Pete McGregor. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0. .

 

By employing some of the concepts from optimal sampling theory, we can analyse the results from preliminary sampling and incorporate them into a new program that can tell us the answers to these questions. My master’s is tackling how this issue relates to New Zealand’s parasitoid wasps. I’ve collected my insect samples, and now I’m identifying the parasitoid wasps. Once that is complete, I’ll prepare some analyses which will help to build a foundation for the future study of these amazing insects.

 

Me setting up a malaise trap at the Oratia field site.

 

Once we know how to sample efficiently for parasitoid wasps, future work can look at some other interesting questions related to this group. For example, someone could look at how useful the NZ fauna would be as indicators of environmental quality, or surrogates for the diversity of other groups. This would help immensely in the selection of species and habitats to include in conservation planning. Who knows, you could be the one!

 

TomSaunders

Tom Saunders is a Master’s student at the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, within the School of Biological Sciences, at The University of Auckland. He is supervised by Dr Darren Ward (Landcare Research). You can find out more about Tom and his research at TomSaunders.co.nz

Turning the black swan white: lessons from ‘Black Swan Theory’ on identifying and mitigating risks through collaboration

Posted by Rebecca Lehrke @rmlehrke

It would be pretty catastrophic – albeit unlikely – for a fire to sweep through your lab destroying all your research with it. On the other hand, forgetting to save the paper you are working on and so losing the last few hours of productivity, though slightly less painful, probably happens quite frequently to the best of us. Both events carry risks and have the potential of occurring. So which event is more important to prepare for or could collaboration remove the need to decide?

Understanding the balance between the probability of an event occurring and its consequence is important when managing wildlife. Take my current research topic for example – bird strike by black swans. Sparrows hit planes on a daily basis, but their impacts are usually minimal. Black swans on the other hand rarely hit planes. The difference is, when a black swan hits a plane the impact is equivalent to a Holden Commodore VE Sedan hitting a brick wall at least 15km per hour. This kind of impact can destroy a plane’s nose cone costing over $25,000, let alone the risks if it enters an engine. So what event should we be most concerned about?

Swan

Black swan (Cygnus atratus) pair with cygnets at Ambury Regional Park, Auckland.

Unfortunately, there usually aren’t simple answers to balancing risks, and in conservation biology, the survival of a species could be on the line. If we ignore high-risk but low-probability events an endangered species could go extinct because a 100-year storm event wipes out the last breeding pairs on an island. On the other hand, ignoring day-to-day impacts of resource supply could also lead to its extinction over time.

black_swan

“The Black swan: The impact of the highly improbable” book cover.1

Economics has a long-standing concept that conservation and biosecurity managers could be using in these situations – Black Swan theory. According to Taleb ‘Black Swans’ are events that are unexpected, high impact and can often be explained or predicted in hindsight. Just like that 100-year storm event. Taleb warns that we could waste a lot of time – and money – trying to predict all these ‘Black Swans’. Instead our management plans should be robust enough to mitigate the negative impacts of unexpected events.

Although examples of such contingency plans being used in management programmes exist, it is often on an ad-hoc basis. This is where collaboration and synthesis across disciplines comes in. A devastating 100-year storm may not be common but if you know it is a natural part of the system, you can reduce its impacts, whether that means splitting your population across multiple islands or some other contingency plan.

As ecologists and managers we should always be discussing our study systems with our peers in different disciplines. As Taleb puts it, what the turkey may not see coming the butcher probably does. So let’s be the butcher not the turkey! Get another perspective, share knowledge and collaborate more often. It may not prevent a fire from sweeping through your lab, but seeing your lab from a fireman’s perspective might help you ‘identify’ these risks so you can ‘mitigate’ them by backing up off-site more often. Thus reducing the impacts and “turning the Black Swan white”1.

Turkey

Being the butcher, not the turkey. Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/1pn1vte

Rebecca

Rebecca 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.

  1. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, ISBN978-1400063512

 

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).

 

Potential threats on the horizon for urban ecosystems: the top 10

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1

In an earlier blog (What’s the Point of Urban Ecology?), I talked about the importance of urban ecosystems – both for connecting people with nature, and for their intrinsic values. Cities can be biodiversity hotspots!

Maximising biodiversity in the streets of Paris

Maximising biodiversity in the streets of Paris

There are the usual suspects that come to mind when we consider threats to urban biodiversity: human population increases, intensification, climate change, etc. But are there any new threats on the horizon that we should be looking out for in cities? With this in mind, we applied for funding for a horizon-scanning exercise to identify emerging threats in urban ecosystems (thanks CBB!). Horizon-scanning is a systematic search for issues that are not widely recognised – either in the research literature or in policy.

In January of this year, we brought together 12 participants from Australia, UK and New Zealand for the horizon scanning workshop. We based the workshop on the well-known conservation horizon scanning workshops led by Prof. Bill Sutherland. Before coming to our workshop, we used our professional networks to gather ‘emerging threats’ from colleagues in science, policy and management. During the workshop, we explored, debated and ranked the 137 potential threats that were suggested by the global experts.

Debating the issues during the horizon-scanning workshop

Debating the issues during the horizon-scanning workshop

The key to this exercise was to identify threats that were truly on the horizon, rather than one of the ‘usual suspects’. It was remarkably difficult to really pull out those ‘good grief’ moments as Prof. Kevin Gaston called them – the potential threats that truly surprised us. The workshop was a refreshing opportunity to do something we scientists rarely get an opportunity to do – delve into issues completely outside our knowledge set. Who would have thought we’d be trying to figure out what human ‘cremains’ are composed of? Or google-searching ‘self-healing concrete’?

The paper resulting from the workshop has been published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The final list of potential threats (see below) included advances in technology, as well as issues around how people are using green spaces. It is important to recognise that although we’ve identified potential threats associated with new technology, some of these new technologies also bring a range of environmental benefits (e.g. solar panels). The main purpose of horizon scanning is to identify potential threats early, so we can assess whether they really are a threat, and if so, mitigate the threat proactively. It’s possible that just ‘tweaking’ a piece of technology would reduce its impact on urban biota, while maintaining its effectiveness.

 So what’s next on the horizon?

Ecologists are often accused of being negative (or even “scare-mongering” to quote a journalist who interviewed me this week) – perhaps our next horizon-scan should search for emerging opportunities for urban ecosystems. That sounds like a much more inspiring workshop!

 In the meantime, we hope to inspire researchers to explore how much of a threat these 10 issues are, and to inspire policymakers and managers to look ahead to threats on the horizon.

 TOP 10 Potential threats:

Atlanta beltline

Maximising biodiversity in the streets of Paris

Health demands on greenspace: As more people are encouraged to use green urban spaces for exercise, these spaces can become highly maintained for people rather than wildlife; with more tracks, artificial lighting and fewer plants.

Figure 2bDigital replacement of nature: There is a risk that nature in cities could be replaced with digital equivalents of nature, such as images and sound recordings. This gives people some of the benefits of nature, but without the maintenance and messy side of nature, however it could lead to city dwellers undervaluing nature in their immediate environment.

 Scattered cremains (material resulting from cremation): There has been a growing trend for cremation as space for burial of human remains is at a premium. However, in some cities land for interring cremains has become very expensive and scattering cremains has become more culturally acceptable. Because of high levels of phosphate and calcium in cremains, there is a risk of polluting urban ecosystems and waterways.

 Figure 3cSpread of disease by urban cats: Globally, there are now more than 600 million pet cats, and the increase in pet cat ownership is resulting in the disease toxoplasma spilling over into wildlife populations, in urban areas as well as to species in more remote locations, such as the endangered Hector’s dolphin.

Figure 4aSwitch to LED lights: Cities across the globe are switching their lighting technology to LED lights. However, the whiter spectrum of LED lights overlaps with the visual systems of wildlife and can disrupt their physiology and behaviour.

Solar cities: Many cities are implementing city-wide solar panel installation programmes. However, solar panels can disrupt the behaviour and reproduction of animals that are attracted to the polarised light they produce.

 Nanotechnology: Nanoparticles (e.g. graphene) are now an increasing but invisible part of cities, found in everything from smartphones to clothing. However, there has been almost no research on the effects of these particles on animals, plants and entire ecosystems.

 Figure 4cSelf-healing concrete: This is a new concrete product infused with specialised bacteria is about to be commercialised. If use of this product becomes widespread, it could spell the end for the often unique biodiversity that currently manages to thrive in cracked concrete all around cities.

Energy efficient homes: Many countries are implementing large-scale retrofitting of buildings to make them more energy efficient. However, this effectively seals the building off from the outside, resulting in loss of breeding sites for wildlife such as bats and nesting birds.

Drones: The recent popularity of using drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) in cities is likely to result in issues for wildlife, such as nesting birds, which are particularly sensitive to stress and repeated aerial disturbance.

 Click here for the paper:

Stanley MC, Beggs JR, Bassett IE, Burns BR, Dirks KN, Jones DJ, Linklater WL, Macinnis-Ng C, Simcock R, Souter-Brown G, Trowsdale SA, Gaston KJ. (2015). Emerging threats in urban ecosystems: a horizon scanning exercise. Frontiers in Ecology & Environment, 2015 13(10): 553–560, doi:10.1890/150229

 Ecology Ngātahi members Jacqueline Beggs and Cate Macinnis-Ng were part of the Horizon-scanning exercise and are co-authors on the paper.

me2small Dr 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.

Taken for granted: New Zealand’s looming freshwater crisis

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;Riparian vegetation

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 1798

In his recent contribution to the Infrequently Asked Questions Blog series, the President of The Royal Society of New Zealand Prof Richard Bedford touched on the influence of climate change on migration to New Zealand. He mentioned that the impact of climate change will be more severe in Australia because droughts and heat waves will be more extreme and more widely distributed. While it is true that the projections indicate that climate change impacts will be greater in Australia, New Zealand is ill-prepared for a changing climate and could therefore be equally vulnerable to the impacts of droughts and rising temperatures, even if they are less intense.

As a nation surrounded by water, we take our water resources for granted. Groundwater has been allowed to become contaminated and the quality of our surface freshwaters has continued to decline with excess nutrients causing algal blooms and other problems. Extraction of groundwater for irrigation is intensive in the Canterbury region, particularly during dry periods. Our rivers are dying, our groundwater is dirty and drying up. Prof Bedford points out that droughts will become more frequent and severe in several parts of the country. We already know about the impact this can have on the dairy industry and other agricultural outputs, resulting in economic declines but the impact on native systems is not as clear. We do know that droughts can be a real problem for native fish like mudfish and mast seeding events can be triggered by warmer temperatures, causing population explosions of introduced mammals, leading to declines in native birds. Further details of current knowledge can be found here but in comparison to other countries, the research effort on the ecological and physiological responses of native species to climate change is lacking.

We can’t just assume that because New Zealand has a mild maritime climate, everything will be alright. We need more research on our unique biota and the water culture in New Zealand needs to change urgently before there really is not a drop to drink.

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions. In 2016, Cate will be starting a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship exploring the impact of drought on native forest.

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.

Should scientists be advocates?

IMG_5014Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1

We’ve all had that moment of frustration watching something unfold in the media – the scientific evidence is clear cut – why isn’t it changing policy? It seems ‘bleedin’ obvious’ to us! So we rant in the tearoom among our colleagues and students, and then go back to our offices feeling slightly better after a good vent.

However, scientific literacy can be low among the public and we need scientists to help interpret the science, and improve scientific literacy among the public by providing ‘expert opinion.’ Climate change and childhood immunisations are two examples where the scientific evidence points clearly in one direction, but where the science and scientific process is not well understood by the public. It’s a two-way street though and scientists need to get better at communicating science.

So I have taken the step to speak out in the media in areas where I’ve felt I have the expertise to do so. While other ecologists have taken the road of joining and supporting NGOs to aid their advocacy, I have taken the stance not to join conservation NGOs, as I feel it’s important to be independent. I’m still finding my way on advocacy though (and would be interested in views…). The issue of credibility is a difficult one. Sir Alan Mark, one of the first academics in New Zealand to use science to advocate for environmental policy change, speaks of ‘taking a back seat’ on one particular environmental issue ( the proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana) because he was concerned about being labelled “a perpetual stirrer” and his involvement potentially weakening the environmental case. A pertinent reminder to us all, that always leaving the same one or two scientists to engage with the media is likely to result in a loss of impact.

Ecological significant saltmarsh at Aramoana, New Zealand (Photo: Otago Regional Council). Proposed site of aluminium smelter in the late 1970s – became the focus of environmental protest. Proposal abandoned due to falling commodity prices.

Ecological significant saltmarsh at Aramoana, New Zealand (Photo: Otago Regional Council). Proposed site of aluminium smelter in the late 1970s – became the focus of environmental protest. Proposal abandoned due to falling commodity prices.

Make no mistake; it is a risk to us personally to speak out in the media on very contentious issues – particularly where jobs and industry are at stake. It is much easier to sit in our academic ’ivory towers’ and just publish the science in publically inaccessible academic journals. Scientists have been criticised in the public arena when they have commented on issues very important to the country’s GDP, such as dairy farming. We recently had a taste of this when 25 staff from our university’s Faculty of Science submitted on NZ’s climate change targets. An opinion piece in the newspaper soon after mocked us: “How lucky we are, we are endlessly told, to have the academic Conclave up the hill, away from the cares of the workaday world, able to think and ponder, and tell us what to do.” I have also been called an ‘ecoterrorist’ by a nursery owner taking umbrage with my media release supporting the local council’s proposed policy banning weed species. However, the role of academic staff in speaking on matters that affect New Zealand society is enshrined in The Education Act (1989) – which legally requires that universitiesaccept a role as critic and conscience of society.” This is becoming increasingly important as scientists in local and central governmental organisations are discouraged from publicly commenting on contentious issues or policies.

So who is an expert? No matter what we believe – no one is totally objective – we are human, and everybody has their own personal contextual framing. As an ecologist, I have particular set of values that guided me into that career path. However, as long as we are interpreting and critiquing scientific knowledge using the scientific process, we should continue to provide expert opinion on the science.

Although I have not undertaken research on the role of coarse woody debris in ecosystems, I chose to comment in the media last year when a law was changed to allow the harvesting of windblown timber from old growth forest. I have lectured on the role of coarse woody debris in ecosystems for many years, and am well-versed in the literature. For me, it was a no-brainer. There was very little science at all in the media surrounding this contentious issue, and I had all the literature in front of me, with the appropriate ecological expertise to interpret it. However, we should also be aware that all the scientific evidence in the world does not directly change behaviour (e.g. smoking) and may not change policy. In my view, a good outcome of this media engagement was that several members of the public commented that they had no idea that rotting wood was so important in forests. I’d given them access to scientific knowledge that is locked away in journals.

Rotting log (coarse woody debris) on forest floor

Rotting log (coarse woody debris) on forest floor

It’s also important to remember that it’s not the job of scientists to write policy – managers/policymakers will use our science to make decisions and change/keep policy. They will do so in a socio-political landscape (e.g. likelihood of job losses) – something ecologists don’t often have to take into account. Nevertheless, increasing science literacy among policymakers is a very important task; it will enable them to critique the science (and uncertainty) they are presented with.
So what should scientists be aiming to do in their interactions with policymakers and the public? It is the job of scientists to: 1) ensure scientific results and literature are available in a form for public consumption; 2) make sure policymakers are exposed to current scientific evidence; 3) increase scientific literacy (ie. understanding of scientific process) of the public and policymakers; and 4) comment on issues where science is lacking or has been misrepresented in the media.

So next time you’re frustrated with the lack of science around an issue playing out in the media, don’t just vent to your colleagues in the tearoom, join with your colleagues in engaging with the public and policymakers.

Dr 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.

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.

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.