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 advocates 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 pests and manage 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 ecology and invasion biology look at identifying and managing invading 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 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 test 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, or 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!