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.

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.