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

 

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.

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.

Finding the sweet spot for ecological, social and economic values of urban greening

Posted by Jacqueline Beggs, Kate Irvine, Ian Mell, Margaret Stanley, Laurence Jones, Mike Dodd, Mark Goddard, Andy Moffat, Gina Cavan, Helen Rawlinson, Luciana Luna, Panteha Daie, Stefan van der Esch, Laila Almulla

Want to improve the value of your home, reduce your stress levels, save on air-conditioning in summer and encourage birds into your garden? Trees can provide all of that, and often the larger the tree the larger the benefits.

The value of urban trees and green-spaces are many. A recent symposium drew together a diverse range of practitioners, researchers, policy makers, and planners – from New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico, to USA and Europe. There is a voracious appetite for sharing ideas and knowledge linking together social, environmental and economic strands to build resilient cities. Finding the sweet spot that balances potentially competing demands is a challenge, so the opportunity to exchange ideas and resources was fruitful.

Some emerging strands:

  1. What are the social implications of greening cities? If adding trees increases property values, does this drive-out lower socio-economic groups? How can we make this more equitable so all sectors of community benefit? How do we best protect urban forests? Recent changes which removed blanket protection of urban trees in Auckland New Zealand potentially leaves socially deprived areas more vulnerable to losing trees. Detroit (Michigan, USA) was suggested as a city to watch as innovative, community based ventures turn urban collapse into urban renewal.

    Urban ‘development’ in Auckland (left) contrasts with urban renewal in Detroit (right)

    Urban ‘development’ in Auckland (left) contrasts with urban renewal in Detroit (right)

  2. How do we adequately measure less tangible benefits of urban green? Does it matter how frequently we visit? What contribution does the ecological quality or type of urban green make to our well-being?
    Don't wait until this state for a break. Drawn by Fritz Ahlefeldt

    Don’t wait until this state for a break. Drawn by Fritz Ahlefeldt

    While policy and practice currently emphasise physical and mental benefits, people using urban parks and riverscapes also report feeling calm, relaxed, or more emotionally attached to the green space after being there. In today’s pressured lifestyles, such greenspaces provide invaluable “timeout”. Watch out for publication of Kate Irvine’s fascinating research in this area.

  3. In times of austerity, we need to find new financial models for adding and maintaining urban green/open space. There are financial benefits: we know people are willing to pay more to live on a “green street”. Ian Mell’s research on blending practice and policy brought useful insights to better planning and implementation to improve the liveability of cities.
  4. There are many citizen science projects where people can help to collect data that can be used to study biodiversity in urban areas. For example, in Auckland NZ there is a project collecting data on the distribution and abundance of a large endemic wood pigeon, while the treezilla project aims to make a monster map of trees in Britain.
  5. Does new green infrastructure actually reduce biodiversity by replacing naturally rewilding areas with “manicured” green?
    The Atlanta Beltline converted disused railway tracks into 23-mile recreational greenway which is designed to integrate an evolving ecological landscape into the everyday lives of the city's residents.

    The Atlanta Beltline converted disused railway tracks into 23-mile recreational greenway which is designed to integrate an evolving ecological landscape into the everyday lives of the city’s residents.

    The Atlanta beltline was used as an example of an innovative funding model for greenspace, while at the same time there was concern that it had resulted in loss of biodiversity. But is this an acceptable trade-off in some urban locations where biodiversity aspirations are unrealistic? How are we to manage competing demands on our green spaces? Perhaps it is time for ecologists to move beyond advocating primarily for native trees to enhance biodiversity, but instead incorporating non-native species if they tolerate future climates and pests.

    The London Wetland Centre welcomes about one million visitors a year of which 50,000 are school children to learn about wildlife and conservation in urban areas.

    The London Wetland Centre welcomes about one million visitors a year of which 50,000 are school children to learn about wildlife and conservation in urban areas.

  6. Around the world there are many exciting urban greening initiatives we can all learn from. GRaBS provides some excellent case studies which share experience and good practice on how to integrate climate change adaptation into urban and town planning. In addition, London has an extraordinarily successful wetlands centre, Paris has brought in legislation for green roofs on all new industrial buildings, Portland (Oregon, USA) offers “treebates” to residents planting trees in their gardens, and Manchester has a growing number of beehives on urban buildings and four UK cities have set up an experiment to assess how best to improve cities for wild pollinators. What is your city doing? We’d love to hear new initiatives from other countries.

The authors of this article all participated in a symposium on restoring urban ecosystem function at the World Conference on Ecological Restoration held in Manchester 26 August 2015.

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.