18 April 2014

On the value of ecology

I often find that I have to comment on the value of ecology. One gets the sense when talking to some people that they wonder why we need to bother with ecology. Surely there are more pressing issues and more immediate uses of limited funds? This has been particularly true of late where ecologists have been heavily targeted in change proposals at Lincoln University. Ecology is mainly concerned with interactions, how individuals/populations/species interact with each other, how they interact with habitats and how these interactions are affected by space (spatial scale) and time (evolution). Interactions create complexity and make systems live; responding to feedback, initiating change, creating diversity. As such ecology is a fairly broad area. 'Mites living in soil' is ecology. 'Sheep living in high country tussock grasslands' is ecology. 'Nematodes living in cattle' is ecology. 'The effect of irrigation regimes on local diversity' is ecology. 'Insect pests of pastures' is ecology. 'Management of possums in farmland' is ecology. 'Adaptation of New Zealand plants to increasing occurence of fires' is ecology. And so on.

An invasive species in Tekapo ...

Clearly, if ecology is about interactions, then it is a fairly important and relevant branch of the biological sciences. For example, agricultural systems are just simplified ecosystems. So why is there a need to justify our science? Perhaps there is a lack of understanding about what ecology is? For many the word ecology seems tied to concepts of environmentalism. Back in the 1970s the link was made between ecology and saving the environment such that the perception of ecologists was that they were tree hugging eco-fundamentalists. While ecologists are often advocated for conservation and restoration this is largely an outcome of the science that they do where they see the effects of humans on interactions in ecosystems. Ecology, however, is a science with concerns which range far outside simple environmentalism. Luckily the term 'green' has taken over many of the connotations that ecology once had. However, some of these opinions obviously still linger. For example, a recent campaign to advertise the BSc in Conservation and Ecology here at Lincoln featured a picture of a rubbish dump. We pointed out to marketing that we don't do anything with recycling in our department and that this more appropriate for our environmental degrees. But this remains the perception.
monitoring for pest mammals at Onawe ...

What do we do then as ecologists? Our Department of Ecology has strengths in several areas. Wildlife management looks at how we control vertebrate pest and threatened species. Entomology (insect research) looks at identifying native diversity, biocontrol and insect pest control. Plant pathology looks at identifying and controlling disease and parasites of plants (mainly horticultural). Restoration and invasive species which look at identifying and managing invading plant species and returning a habitat to a more fully functioning state. There is a rich diversity of other areas as well including a link through agroecology, which uses ecology to better maximise our outputs in agriculture, to the Centre for Bioprotection. All of these areas seem very relevant to what humans do in the world and how we will go about obtaining solutions to the various problems that we see around us.

My own postgraduate students show the breadth of research that ecology encompasses. I have Vikki looking at the diversity of New Zealand trap door spiders. She is finding new species, getting a picture of their evolutionary history and trying to understand their habitat and behaviours. These large and sedentary spiders can also provide information about the effects of fragmentation of habitats by human development (last few decades) as well as the evolution of the New Zealand biota (last 100 million years). Then there is Arsalan who is using DNA to understand fur seal population growth and their diet. Fur seals populations are growing rapidly in numbers and range and will come into more and more contact with humans, whether at the beach or fishing. Understanding how new colonies form and which fish species we are competing for with the seals will help us to manage this interaction. Elisa is interested in whether the island rule applies to birds. The island rule suggests that when species colonise islands that large species tend to get smaller and small species tend to get larger. New Zealand, with its myriad of islands and large and well-studied bird fauna is an ideal place to ask these big evolutionary ideas. Kaylyn is about to start a project looking at what limits white-tailed deer to a small, wilderness area near Isengard (or Glenorchy when it's not in a Peter Jackson film). This species is effectively a pest in its native North American area but has not really extended its range near Queenstown in over 100 years. Perhaps it is limited by a mineral deficiency in the local soils, the presence of sheep parasites nearby, interactions with red deer, a change in home range behaviours, hunting pressure? We'll find out. Michael is using drone technology to capture habitat information in coastal dunelands. The imagery can be analysed to describe species found in a habitat in incredible detail as well as identifying potential sites where species of interest might be found. In this case we are doing this for the endangered katipo spider. So, quite a varied bunch of projects and no rubbish dumps in sight.
getting a DNA sample at Sandymount ....

Ecology is the science best placed to deal with the crises that face us. Whether this is feeding the world (through agroecology, insect pest management and plant pathology), protecting the future (wildlife management, biodiversity, conservation) or living well (understanding the world around us and how humans can interact with it in a sustainable way). All of these research areas are key parts of ecology. We need to get better at valuing ecology, there are no more pressing issues or better uses of limited funds!

24 March 2014

1080: delusion and confusion

In which we see the value of rational thinking.

We all behave irrationally at times. I like to think that I am rational about most things but I do have an irrational dislike of rugby league. I am passionate about rugby union but the similar code leaves me very cold. In fact one of the first things that I said to my first son was not some memorable gem or a quote for the ages but rather the comment that "You won't play league"! In my line of work as an evolutionary biologist I do occasionally come across less than rational thinking when I encounter creationists. In New Zealand we don't have huge numbers of people in this group (but probably more than you would think). Surprisingly, I very seldom run into them at university - I guess if you are attending a course called 'Evolutionary Biology' you can hardly complain about the content. I did see an example of this last weekend at the Ecoblitz where I was giving a talk on kiwi and what these amazing birds tell us about New Zealand's history. I mentioned various adaptations that they have, the length of time they have been in New Zealand, how they are related to other ratites and so on. The audience was made up of teens from various schools and four or five from a christian school had to get up and leave (rather than risk eternal damnation I suppose). These schools must struggle with a lot of biology because, as the old saying goes, nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.

In New Zealand there is one debate that seems to be a magnet for less than rational thinking. I have seen this debate transform intelligent and worldly people into irrational, conspiracy theory riven fanatics. I speak of course about 1080. 1080 is a form of the toxin sodium fluroacetate which occurs naturally in plants in the Fabaceae family where it acts as a deterrent to leaf browsers. 1080 is widely used in New Zealand for control of introduced mammalian pest species where it is delivered in baits (usually cereal based) that are either dropped aerially or put into bait stations. It is extremely effective in controlling possum populations which are a major target in New Zealand. Large areas of New Zealand's conservation land have 1080 operations which successfully reduce possum and rat populations by over 90%. With these predators and competitors removed, native species, especially birds and invertebrates, tend to do well and their populations grow over the next few years until possum and rat numbers recover. This somewhat drastic approach works well in New Zealand as there are no native mammals that will take these baits and therefore no non-target species to eat the toxins.

Since the 1950s there have been thousands of operations and hundreds of scientific studies and publications. Techniques for delivery have been refined (less than 10% toxic bait is now used because we have gotten better at spreading it where we need to), behaviour of pests in response to 1080 is better understood (reducing unwanted behaviours, like bait shyness where individuals eat enough to feel sick but not enough to have a lethal dose) and impacts on non target species are better understood (there are various repellants that can be added to discourage species like deer or kea from eating the baits).
A possum investigates a site in beech forest
The advantages for the populations of native species, from plants to insects to birds, has been demonstrated in many studies. And yet. And yet there is a strident group within New Zealand who make wild claims about 1080. You can't drive around New Zealand with out seeing signs like "1080 kills everything" or "DoC poisons our birds". Claims are made that 1080 is poisoning the groundwater and it isn't safe for pregnant women to be in the same catchment as a poisoning operation.

None of these claims seem to be based on any actual evidence and it's hard to see why these things would be correct. No one has every explained to me why the Department of Conservation would want to poison native birds after spending decades building up these populations, for example. The Wilderness Magazine has just run an article in which they look at ten beliefs about 1080 and get some information on these beliefs from three experts, Dr Jan Wright (the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment), Dr James Ross (a wildlife management scientist who is in the office next to me), and Dr Penny Fisher (a toxicologist with Landcare Research and a former PhD student of mine). To read the article you need to buy a copy of the magazine but the article is summarised here.  Ten beliefs about 1080 are discussed. What this discussion shows is that 1080 is indeed a toxin that will kill most animals if they eat enough of it (which is why so much research has been on delivering the toxin in minimal amounts to precise areas with specific targets), 1080 remains our main toxin because it out-performs all other toxins that have been trialled/used so far, native ecosystems do not recover without intensive and ongoing pest control, non-target organisms will occasionally take a poison bait but the benefit in growth to local native populations outweighs these deaths in the medium term, and that 1080 does not enter groundwater (in fact there are native plants that contain their own sodium fluroacetate). It's a timely article (and there is a large scientific literature if you want to know more of the details) but do I expect an outbreak of rational thinking? Of course the issue with beliefs is that they are difficult to change. So I suspect we'll still be discussing 1080 for many years to come.

For more on this topic you can read articles on possum home range changing with density, the fate of toxins in pest carcasses, using sound to better lure possums to baits, stopping kea eating poison baits, assessment of different toxins, possum impact on vegetation, a new stoat toxin, a new toxin for wallabies.

19 March 2014

Ecoblitzing the Southern Alps

Cor Vink introduces a spider friend
Over the weekend Nina Valley played host to about 200 high school students from around the South Island, 30 or so teachers, and 50 ecologists. We were there to participate in an ecoblitz in Nina Valley and around the Boyle River area near Lewis Pass deep within the Southern Alps. The goals of the ecoblitz were to introduce high school students to ecological sampling in a real field situation as well as to collect information on diversity and distribution of species within the area. This area is increasingly being used as a research focus as great spotted kiwi are being released into Nina Valley and Lincoln University locate a major field trip there.

Planning for this event has taken well over a year. Nina Valley is a logistically difficult place to work and stay in. Tim Kelly, Jon Sullivan and Tim Curran, in particular amongst a cast of dozens, worked hard to get this concept up and running. I noticed a few extra grey hairs with these guys by the end of the weekend.
Grassland plots at Dan's Creek
Not only did they have to figure out how to keep 200 high school students happy and busy for a weekend, worry about safety in the mountains but they had to organise researchers (always difficult). In addition, when they all turned up ready to tent for two nights, the forecast was for a visit from cyclone Lusi.
James Ross talks about monitoring stoats and possums

I was there to help set out mammal monitoring equipment (tracking tunnels, trail cameras, wax tags) around the various plots set up in the valley in grassland, scrub and forest. I also gave a talk on kiwi and what they tell us about the biological history of New Zealand. When the kids weren't helping to gather information from our research plots they were taken in groups to see how to monitor for specific groups of organisms by experts. I took groups to show how we monitor mammals (including spotlighting in the evenings), spiders, and birds.

Ecoblitz over: a happy Jon Sullivan and Tim Curran
The energy of the kids was fantastic and the questions that I fielded were of a really high standard. It seems that the future of ecology in New Zealand is in good hands. We were incredibly lucky in that the cyclone went around our alpine valley and we had no real rain. Overall, the ecoblitz was a huge success. The next step is to look at the data that was collected and to get a handle on the diversity present in the area. That is something that will take a few months to put together and will be the icing on this particular cake. Stay tuned for an update!

12 March 2014

Swimming, not sinking, in the Southern Alps

Nicole Rinaldi El-Abd is a student from the University of California (UCSB) who is in the first group of students from UC participating in the Sustainability Program being run jointly by the UC Education Abroad Program and Lincoln University. She took our Field Ecology course in January 2014 and these are her thoughts on that course.

I’ll be honest, being an international student in ECOL 310, I didn’t really know what I had gotten myself into. I vaguely understood the concept of the class—to go out and do field work—but I didn’t really think about what that meant. If someone had told me that we would be designing, executing and communicating our own, independent field research project, I probably would have been too afraid to take this class. I would have thought I would be entirely unprepared for something like that. Boy, am I glad I did not read the course outline before signing up!
Open areas at risk from weedy species

It wasn’t until the class orientation lectures that I began to realize there was approximately a 99.99% chance that I was in over my head. As Tim was explaining what we would be doing in this class—the skills we would be using, the previous knowledge that could come in handy, and the nature (no pun intended) of our field work—I remember thinking “It’ll be awkward telling my parents I failed the course I left home a month early to take.” With this same feeling of drastic unpreparedness I listened to my fellow classmates talk about their previous experience doing work related to this class. It seemed like just about everyone in the class (well, except for me of course) had already done some incredible research. Here were my fellow classmates talking about projects that they had worked on that sounded like the things I had always thought “yeah, that might be cool to do someday.”

This was the general feeling I had as we headed up to the Boyle River Valley in New Zealand’s Southern Alps (with a bunch of other students). I had only very vaguely been able to say what I wanted to work on “umm…something on invasive plant species, I think?” This was, honestly, just the first thing I could think of—a drastic attempt to keep my head above water. Coming from an environmental science background, invasive species are something that I had learned about fairly extensively and could apply to California as well. I now know that that general idea was all I needed to get started.
Nicole and the weeds

From this idea, I was guided towards more specific projects that would be a good fit for my interest and were possible in the timeframe of the class. I never felt forced into doing anything in particular, but these gentle suggestions were welcome life rafts. They let me feel like I might not be so out of my depth after all. Soon enough, with the help of the lecturers (particularly Jon), I had a sampling design and plan of action for sampling weeds around the Boyle River Outdoor Recreation Center in a variety of habitats. Although I may not have known all the weeds by name when I started, I knew that I could ask for help with the identifications and before I knew it, I began to feel confident in my plant IDs. I think at this point, you could say things were going swimmingly.

In under a fortnight, I had gone from feeling laughably unprepared for this course to feeling confident in my blossoming field work abilities. It wasn’t until I had, almost accidentally, written a 4,000 word scientific report about what I had done, a feat that would have sounded nearly impossible just a few days earlier, that I realized what a truly incredible opportunity ECOL 310 has been. I had never really been at risk for drowning because the lecturers had been there all along—my life guards, my swim instructors. They had been there to help me through each step of the process and gave me all the tools necessary to find my own way through my first field research experience. As far as I know, there is no course like this at my university for 30,000+ students back in California and I feel so lucky to have had the chance to take a course like this here at Lincoln. I now feel as though I would not be afraid to do field work in the future. My “someday it might be cool to do…” has now become my “I can’t wait to do…”.

07 March 2014

Ecology by numbers

In which we see that maths and stats are at the heart of ecology.

One of the things about aging, gracefully or otherwise, is that you obtain a better appreciation of being organised. That's not to say that we necessarily get better at organising ourselves as we age but we can certainly see its advantages. This is particularly the case when you have teenage boys. In the summer ours is a cricketing household. Cricket takes up most of a day, has a lot of gear and, for us, can be played all over Canterbury. So a high degree of organisation and planning is required. Food and drink need to be taken, sunblock applied and kept ready, white clothing cleaned and in gear bag, pads and gloves dried from the previous game and in the bag, spikes for grass wickets put into shoes after being taken out for last week's artificial pitch. Or at least that is what I mean when I say to my sons "I want you ready to go in 30 minutes". "Yes, yes, already done" they reply. Unfortunately, 'ready to go' means something rather different to a teen. To a teen 'ready to go' actually means 'I will be sweet as long as everything is where I threw it a week ago (unlikely)'. Hilarity ensues (if by hilarity you mean yelling, cursing and rising blood pressures).
Ecologists need to be more sophisticated at analyses

A similar situation is present in ecology teaching. As you gain experience in ecology it becomes painfully obvious that you need to know a lot about numbers, the joy of statistics, the call of calculus, the - well you get my drift. Ecology can be data rich and there are some very sophisticated approaches to analysing and modelling data. Getting a good grounding in statistics and so on will help you to understand ecology fully, allow you to access the science literature in depth and allow you to design a robust study of your own. The Department of Ecology have just revamped their curriculum to add more quantitative methods to what the students learn.So we say to the students "maths and stats are good for you and your ecology, take all opportunities to do these things". Of course what the students hear is something more like "maths and stats are frightening and should be avoided at all costs". Hilarity ensues (if by hilarity you mean yelling, cursing and rising blood pressures).

Ecologists can gather a lot of data but need to be able to do something with it
A number of ecologists, including our very own Tim Curran, have just published a study in PeerJ. In this study they surveyed early-career ecologists about what they thought of their maths and stats training during their time at university. Over 900 people responded to the online survey, the majority were current PhD and Masters students, mostly from Europe and North America. About 75% were not satisfied with the amount of maths and stats that they had done, 90% wanted more math classes in degrees and 95% suggested more statistics classes. I suspect that if we surveyed our own students that we would obtain similar results. So why don't we have more quantitative courses in our degree? We have just changed or courses at Lincoln and they do have more quantitative components but nothing like what is being suggested here. There are a couple of reasons. First, if we surveyed other ecological areas, like knowledge of particular groups, say plants or beetles, then students would likely give similar results. They want to know more, that's why they are students. Second, undergraduate students, as a group, really loathe maths and stats. When we have have tried to bring in courses with more math they have not done very well as students tend to avoid them. Third, this survey is a reasonably 'biased' group. It is made up of academic ecologists who do need these skills. However, the majority of students enrolled in ecology do so for other reasons than a career in research.

So what should we do? We know as professional ecologists that maths and stats are really important. However, telling people what's good for them very rarely works (even when you are right).... So I guess patience and small changes with the long view in mind are the only real way to change behaviour. Something I need to tell myself tomorrow as I try to get my cricket boys out of the door.

26 February 2014

A blue whale in the attic, many moa in the basement

Today I was fortunate to have a tour around the  collections at the Canterbury Museum. Backstage as it were. My former student, Cor Vink, is now a curator of natural history at the museum and I organised for some of my colleagues from the Department of Ecology to have a look at what is going on behind the scenes. We spent a great couple of hours roaming around the collections.
Moa bones!

One of things that seems not to be appreciated by almost everyone is that museums are there to store collections of things and have far more than what is on display for the public. These collections (hundreds of thousands of insects for example) are of extreme importance from a science and research perspective. They show us the variation that is present in a species, their distribution across habitats and different parts of the country and the diversity of groups. This is of tremendous use to studies of conservation, evolution, pest management and so on.

Blue whale skelton - in pieces
Canterbury Museum is no different from other large museums in that it has very large collections (something like 95% of the collections are NOT on display). Cor is a specialist in spiders and one of the things that he will do is to increase the collection in this area. Other experts have done this in the past and there are thousands of specimens of things like New Zealand mayflies or beetles. Canterbury Museum has an amazing collection of moa bones from local sites. In fact, Haast built up the overall colletion by selling and swapping moa skeletons for overseas samples back in Victorian times. There are shelves and shelves of moa bones from our many species. These can tell us a lot about where moa species were found. In recent years DNA has been extracted from these bones to inform us about how many species of moa there were, sex raios and population sizes.
Other highlights were the largest blue whale skeleton in the world (currently in the attic until a larger display space becomes available), a fist sized meteorite from Arizona, a cabinet of 'shame' which contained several huia, bush wrens, South Island kokako and other extinct New Zealand birds, and curious little hunchbacked flies that lay their eggs in spiders. And all these things and millions more are found in the bowels of the museum where they are looked after by dedicated and passionate people.

Cor shows off his computer imaging technology

18 February 2014

The hills are alive with the sounds of ... research

My first taste of real research was back in my third year at Otago. I was doing an animal behaviour course and a couple of other classmates and I were able to design and conduct an experiment, all on our own. We had access to the DSIR facility at Invermay where we painted big numbers on some deer, released them into a paddock and crammed ourselves into a small but tall hide to make our observations. We were looking at dominance hierarchies and whether there was a definite pattern of interactions within the herd. It might not have been earth-shattering science but as we collected the data over a few afternoons we really felt the buzz of being real scientists.

Last week I spent a couple of days on our third year field course up at Lewis Pass. The students spend about 10 days in the field where they design and conduct their own research. They then return to Lincoln to analyse and write up their project as well as giving a 10 minute talk on their research. This field course is a great way to do your first serious research. The Boyle River area (Nina Valley, Mt Faust, Lewis Pass) is about as archetypal New Zealand as you can get with bush clad mountains, rocky mountain streams, rifleman and robins flitting about the trees, spongy moss and hairy lichen coating trees and rocks, and sandflies, lots of sandflies.

Daisies above the treeline

It was great to be out with the groups and to see the same excitement about doing their own research that I recalled from my student days. As a lecturer it is very stimulating to be out in the field. This is, after all, where our interests are and it is great to be training another generation of young naturalists. Talking to Tim Curran, the course examiner, we discussed how it was so good to see these students taking the next big step in their careers and how they matured (in a science way!) in front of our eyes.


And it is fun for us lecturers as well. I ended up above the treeline looking at daisies, searching for mistletoes in steep beech forests, marking native cockroaches into the wee hours and looking for birds in different habitats in my time in the area. On Friday I got to hear about all of the research that had been done. Here are the various projects done by our students.

Marking cockroaches

Karina Brennan Evans looked at drought resistance traits in beech species, Dan Quinn gave us a guide to avoiding sandflies, Emily McLaughlin recorded bellbird distribution in different habitats, Davena Watkin looked at home ranges of native cockroaches, Niki Rinaldi El-Abd surveyed invasive weeds in open areas, Ashley Orton measured seedling and sapling recruitment of Nothofagus (beech) species across an altitudinal gradient, Annie Lloyd looked at how NZ Robins populations vary in time and space, Georgia Stevenson examined the effects of altitude on the plant functional traits of mountain beech and silver beech, Grace Ng surveyed invasive plants moving into beech forest, Ian Geary searched for seed predation of native and exotic daisy flowers by insects, Jarrod Anderson measured relationships between habitat and bird diversity, species richness and detection totals, Jonathan Ridden surveyed the distribution of mistletoes, Jordyn Roe compared different insect sampling methods in grassland, Angus Heslop examined how vertebrate pest populations may beaffected by beech mast seeding, Morgan Shields recorded invertebrate communities in beech and kanuka, Shyam Provost surveyed woody exotic species, Courtenay Guise studied whether altitude affects Rifleman abundance, Sam Hansby recorded insect communities on Mount Faust, Matt Coultas looked at effective monitoring methods for mammalian pests in mixed beech forest, while Renee O’Halloran looked at the link between vertebrate pests and bellbird abundances.

GPSing the bird sitings

A major theme of the talks was how the best laid plans that you make in the lodge before heading out can quickly come unstuck when you you are several hours walk into the mountains. There was also the detectable buzz of having been out in the mountains and successfully obtained new knowledge about the world. So hopefully this will be as memorable for these students as my first experiences were.
Five minute bird counts