14 December 2012

Different flavours of jelly: species diversity in bluebottles

When I was a kid growing up in South Otago, my family would go to the Rosebank Lodge for a meal on special occasions, especially around Christmas. One of the highlights was the special parfait dishes with traffic light jellies in them, suitably festive with their red then orange then green jelly layers. This was always fun to eat (even though there was no great difference in the flavours). One of the great things about parfait dishes is that you could look at the transition between one colour and the next. I was always fascinated about how the colours bled into each other at the boundaries. Maybe that's what sparked my interest in species!

I was reminded of this childhood delicacy while reading about some recent research done in the department by Rob Cruickshank and Dave Pontin. Dave recently completed his PhD looking various aspects of bluebottle jellyfish (Physalia, often known as Portuguese-men-of-war). This genus of jellyfish inhabits most of the world's oceans. It has an unique trait of an inflatable bladder or sail with which it lives at the surface of the ocean. It is also known, and feared, because of its potent sting which is dangerous to human swimmers. There has been some debate about how many species of Physalia there are, stretching back over 200 years. When your study animal is made out of 'jelly' there are not a lot of useful traits to identify species with. For many years, biologists have speculated that there are few barriers for bluebottles around the oceans and so we might expect to see a widespread species. There is certainly some variation in size and shape around the world, however, and a second species is often assigned to the Pacific. Luckily, DNA can be used to sort out these problems as it is not mislead by bland appearances.


Rob and Dave obtained samples from specimens washed up onto the beaches around New Zealand, Australia and a couple from Hawaii. Two different gene regions, the mitochondrial CO1 and the nuclear ITS, were sequenced and they have published their results in Hydrobologia. Both types of gene data found three distinct 'clans' within the New Zealand samples, although each clan was for a slightly different group of individuals. The amount of difference found between these groups was large, certainly indicating that there are cryptic species in Physalia.
With the mismatch between what the two genes are saying, Rob and Dave can only infer that this is a species complex at this stage. Like my traffic light jelly when I was a kid, where it was difficult to tell exactly where one colour stopped and the next began, at this stage it is difficult to show exactly where the boundaries between these jellyfish species are. Although the answers are not as clear at this stage as Rob and Dave would like, this study does have important implications. If there are, potentially, three species in the New Zealand region alone, then there may be considerable diversity that has gone unnoticed around the rest of the world.... lots of hidden flavours of jellies!

30 November 2012

New Zealand Ecologicaly Society Conference: Student award winners

The NZ Ecol Soc conference was hosted successfully by the Lincoln University Department of Ecology this week. More than 250 candidates enjoyed four days of talks and fieldtrips. The number of student presentations was noticable this year, 43 student talks and 11 posters, as was their quality. The awards went to students from around the country:
Best student poster - Sharada Paudel (Victoria University of Wellington) "Are there distinct phenological seasons in New Zealand plant communities"
Best student talk - Belinda Whyte (Lincoln University) "Changes in possum spatial ecology following density reduction: implications for conservation and bovine turberculosis management"

Black robin - painted by Julie Paterson
Runner-up best student talk - Christine Sheppard(University of Auckland) "Predicting weeds in a changing climate: are bioclimatic models validated by field trials?"
Best student talk on an animal theme - Sarah Wells (Massey University) "Love thy neighbour: mating systems and cuckoldry in the tui"
Best student talk on a plant theme - Olivia Burge (University of Canterbury) "Restoring a RAMSAR wetland - by reforesting it?"
Best student talk on a microbe theme - Paulina Giraldo-Perez (University of Auckland ) "The impact of the selfish gene on the ecology of yeast"
Best student talk on a conservation theme - Emily Weiser (University of Otago) "Population viability of highly inbred black robins"
Well done to all of the speakers - a great standard of talks.

23 November 2012

NZ Ecological Society Conference

The NZ Ecological Society Conference will be held at Lincoln starting on Sunday (25th). The Conference website is here and the programme of talks can be found here. Around 250 excited ecologists will descend on Lincoln University. Some of the key note speakers are :
• Richard Hobbs, University of Western Australia – what restoration can and can’t do: opportunities and constraints in a rapidly changing world
• Trevor Worth, University of Adelaide – a palaeontological perspective on the assembly of the terrestrial vertebrate biota of New Zealand and implications in understanding the ecology of the extant biota
• Bastow Wilson, University of Otago – does ecology have any theories, and if so do they work?
• Hamish Campbell, GNS Science – geological perspectives for permanent land during the Zealandia-New Zealand transition
• Grant Norbury, Landcare Research – dryland habitat modification and succession: implications for pest ecology, impacts and damage mitigation
• John Leathwick, Department of Conservation – integrated prioritisation of the management of New Zealand’s ecosystems and threatened species
• Kerry Jayne Wilson – celebrating 50 years of ecology teaching at Lincoln with a look at her work on seabirds.
It should be a great time!

06 November 2012

Bigfoot in New Zealand?

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Grace Leung as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Grace is one of three students that revisits a Lincoln University research area on calculating the ecological impact of New Zealanders published in the late 1990s.

Many people have heard of the concept of the ecological footprint. You might remember it being used as a way of measuring a household’s environmental impact on the popular television show “Wasted” a few years back. But what exactly is the ecological footprint and how is it calculated?

The original method of calculating ecological footprints was developed at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s. Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and his team used national statistics to calculate the annual per capita consumption by annual productivity. The total per capita ecological footprint is calculated by summing all ecosystem areas needed for each consumption category in a set period of timeThe original method of calculating ecological footprints was developed at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s. Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and his team used national statistics to calculate the annual per capita consumption by annual productivity. The total per capita ecological footprint is calculated by summing all ecosystem areas needed for each consumption category in a set period of time

Sound complicated? It is. The original study calculated an ecological footprint for Canada using many sources of data, research from several countries, spanning a long period of time. Because this project was so big, it is difficult to replicate for other countries and compare over time. Economists from Lincoln University in 1998, attempted to improve this method by modifying it to use sources of data that are reliably updated, then applied the model to the New Zealand economy.

By using economic, demographic and land-use data from Statistics New Zealand and the Official New Zealand Yearbook, Lincoln economists Kathryn Bicknell, Richard Ball, Ross Cullen and Hugh Bigsby created a method of calculating a country’s ecological footprint by calculating standard input-output coefficients, multiplied by the  land to value of output ratio for each industrial sector. So while Bicknell and her team’s method may not be less complicated than Wackernagel’s, their use of standardized national statistics means that it is relatively easy to monitor changes in our footprint over time. Since most developed countries record these statistics, it can also be used to compare our footprint with other countries.
Map of global ecological footprints by country (2007)
From http://www.flickr.com/photos/ielesvinyes/6782494115/

So how big is New Zealand's ecological footprint? When Bicknell and her team calculated it in 1998, our footprint was 3.49ha per person, This included 64% of our productive land being needed to support our current average level of consumption and waste production, plus imports. This accounts for the fact that we export a lot of what we produce and also import some of what we consume. Compared to the Netherlands, we have a slightly bigger ecological footprint, but smaller than that of the US or Canada.

Although comprehensive, Bicknell does admit that there are some limitations to their method, such as not including the amount of marine resources needed to support our needs. With ever growing emphasis on sustainable development and living within the means of this planet, methods of calculating ecological footprints have continued to improve since this paper was published. In 2012, Wackernagel’s Global Footprint Network, with its improved methodology, calculated New Zealand’s footprint to be 4.31ha. Although this means we are still living within the means of our productive land, when projected to the global scale, this level of consumption will require 2.43 planets. You can even calculate your own household’s footprint on Wackernagel’s Global Footprint Network. See how you compare with the New Zealand average and the rest of the world. Go on, are you a Big Foot?

Human footprint tracking is tricky!

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Sophie Papanek as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Sophie is one of three students that  revisits a Lincoln University research area on calculating the ecological impact of New Zealanders published in the late 1990s.

Field guides need several years to learn how to distinguish animal tracks. We human beings also leave footprints on the biosphere as we use its resources and services, but these footprints cannot be tracked so easily. Evaluating human pressure on the planet is one of the most discussed topics nowadays with all kinds of footprint models having been created and used for different assessments. But what can we learn from these approaches?
© Sophie Maria Papanek

There are several methods developed by consultancies or researchers all over the world, making it very difficult to get comparable results. The Ecological Footprint created in the early 1990s by Canadian researchers Mathis Wackernagel and William E. Rees is perhaps the earliest of these models. To calculate your own footprint with this method, visit the Footprint Network website. We could wonder how these numbers are actually calculated. This model uses a matrix of consumption (food, housing, transport, consumer goods and services) and land use (built-up areas, crop land and pasture, managed forests and energy land) for a given population. Sounds complicated? Actually, this model has been criticized for being over-simplified, and scientists have tried to find other methods since then.
Probably the biggest competition to the model was developed by New Zealand researchers at Lincoln University, and used the input-output macroeconomic technique, making the calculations even more complicated. It has been refined since then, but not widely used. A synthesis of the two models, which is called the combined approach, has also been created by researchers at the University of York, UK aimed at solving problems of lack of data sources, and incomparable results. However, the combined methodology has not gained world-wide recognition either, perhaps because it is more profitable for companies or research institutes to develop and market their own methodology. But why is it necessary to have one unified methodology at all?
To answer the question, we could give the example of the ecological footprint of New Zealanders, which has been calculated by using three different methods between 1998 and 2000, the smallest result being 3.4 and the largest 9.6 ha, which are hardly similar. A consistent footprint method, on the other hand, could have several uses besides education, including policy making or project plan development.

The issues of methodology and comparability become even more complicated if we consider carbon and water footprints as well (for further details visit the Water Footprint and the CarbonFootprint websites). It seems that each member of the Footprint Family can only capture a limited range of the complexity of sustainability. Thus they are more like bases on which discussions can begin and better answers can develop. Until a more consistent and unified methodology becomes widespread, we could use the existing models as a tool to create awareness and promote the recognition of ecological limits – as well as the limits to our knowledge about the ecosystem and sustainability.

Measuring how clean and green New Zealand is

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Stephanie Heinicke as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Stephanie is one of three students that revisits a Lincoln University research area on calculating the ecological impact of New Zealanders published in the late 1990s.

New Zealand markets itself as a clean and green country. In a study commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment, it was estimated that this image is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This is how much New Zealand would lose if international consumers would start to think of this country and its products as not being clean and green.

But how clean and green is New Zealand? And how can it be measured?
An often used approach to assess the sustainability of consumption and production patterns of a country is the ecological footprint. This method calculates how much productive land area is needed to provide all the stuff a person consumes, like food, clothes, and housing as well as how much area is needed to generate energy and to absorb all the waste. This can be calculated for an individual, a community and also a country. When comparing these numbers with the land that is actually available, it gives an idea of how sustainable a lifestyle is.

The area needed to produce everything we consume: food, goods and services, housing, energy, ... Graphic by Institut Escola Les Vinyes

Calculating the ecological footprint on a national scale is quite challenging. An awful amount of data is needed to represent the different factors that make up the ecological footprint. But an indicator is only useful when it can be compared for different countries and through time. So in 1998 Kathryn Bicknell and her colleagues from Lincoln University came up with a method for calculating the ecological footprint from data that most developed countries routinely collect as part of their national accounts. Such data includes for instance how much each economic sector produces. This method uses a form of input-output analysis which basically considers how different aspects of an economy interact and the effects an economy has on the environment. Since its publication 14 years ago, this method was further developed to a standard suitable to calculate the ecological footprint for Australia and also to estimate the ecological footprint of international trade activities.

Coming back to our initial question: how clean and green is New Zealand? Bicknell and her colleagues found that the ecological footprint of New Zealand is 3.49 ha per person. When exempting the land needed to produce export goods, New Zealand is one of the few developed countries that have enough land to cover its consumption requirements. This is not necessarily due to the fact that Kiwis are more sustainable in their consumption patterns but, rather a result of the low population density.

This becomes clear when looking at the per capita land requirements. As this is a new methodology, it is not directly comparable to earlier numbers but it does resemble estimates from other developed countries. Bicknell and her colleagues concluded that the ecological footprint of New Zealand is noticeably smaller than the ones of the USA and Canada, but it is bigger than the one of the Netherlands. And it is far bigger compared  with countries such as India.

In the end, this reinforces earlier perceptions. Yes, New Zealand is cleaner than some other developed countries. But if everyone lived like a Kiwi, we would need more than three planets. That can hardly be called a sustainable lifestyle. This brings us back from the abstract level of countries to each individual. The lifestyle choices we make have direct effects on the environment. If you want to find out how big your own ecological footprint is, go to one of the online ecological footprint calculators – try this one! And maybe more importantly – find out how you can reduce it.

This article is based on:
Bicknell, K.B., Ball, R.J., Cullen, R. and Bigsby, H.R. 1998. New methodology for the ecological footprint with an application to the New Zealand economy. Ecological Economics 27: 149-160.

19 October 2012

A fungi to be with: Pines, Trichoderma and ECM fungus

The Syrian army are reported to be using cluster bombs on their own people. What makes this weapon more abhorrent than many of the other methods that they have been using? Cluster bombs are very unselective. Once fired there is no way to target them, except at a general area. So the illusion that you are just trying to get the opponent's soldiers is gone and there are a lot of civilian casualties. I couldn't help thinking that we have a similar problem in pest management where the tools that you use to kill the 'bad guys' will also kill the 'good guys'. The pest management tools are usually, also unselective. Drop toxins in a forest and they will do a great job of taking out the rodents and possums but they may also take out the native birds or someone's dog, if you are not careful. That's why much of the current research in wildlife management is in making toxins and traps more species specific. The same concerns occur even if you are not looking at pesky pest mammals.

One such system can be found in growing pine trees. Pinus radiata makes up almost all of the forestry in New Zealand with over 40 million seedlings sold every year. Pines grow very fast in New Zealand, much faster than in their native Californian homeland. Small increases in health and growth of seedlings provides significant gains for growers. One method of getting this advantage is to add a beneficial fungus, Trichoderma, to the cuttings. Trichoderma enhances the health of the seedlings, not least by stopping competing fungi from growing. Many of these fungi are not helpful for the growing pine but there are a group that are very important - the ectomycorrhizae (ECM) fungi. ECM fungi form a close partnership with pine tree roots where the fungi get carbon from the tree and the tree gets difficult to obtain nutrients from the soil via the ECM fungi. Part of the healthy development of the pine seedling is the successful accumulation of a community of ECM fungi. Potentially this is at risk if Trichoderma is used as Trichoderma may not be able to recognise the good fungi from the bad fungi.


A research group at Lincoln University (Hayley Ridgway and Eirian Jones from Department of Ecology, Leo Condron from Department of Soil Science and Rhys Minchin from the Bio-Protection Centre (which formed part of his thesis work) wanted to see how selective Trichoderma is in removing competing fungi from pines. They set up growing conditions that are similar to nurseries and treated some of the pine seedlings with Trichoderma. They also varied the timing of the application of Trichoderma from planting to 3 months after planting. The seedlings were followed over 9 months and then harvested.
Seedling health and size was measured and DNA methods were used to identify the ECM fungi present. These results have been published in a paper published in Annals of Applied Biology.  The good news was that Trichoderma did not seem to affect the ECM fungi that were present. However, the seedlings in the study, in all of the tests, had a very low diversity of ECM fungal species compared with pine forests. Trichoderma is useful in the nursery situation but it would be intersting to see what happens in a more fungally diverse natural situation. So, unusually, here we have a weapon that may not target the 'good guys' as much as the 'bad guys'. Let's hope that we continue to find these methods!

04 October 2012

Communities and African conservation: a chance or a challenge?

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Shakhzoda Alikhanova as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Shakhzoda revisits a Lincoln University research area that looks at community based wildlife management in Africa published in 1999.

"Indigenous knowledge is an integral part of the culture and history of a local community. We need to learn from local communities to enrich the development process." James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank

Lately, the terms “indigenous/ traditional knowledge” as well as “indigenous peoples/communities” have gained much attention in addressing environmental issues of today. What drives us to get back to the roots of knowledge on the environment in such a dynamic world with its ever-increasing ecological challenges? It is not that science fails in resolving certain ecological problems. It is the comprehension of the environment as a complex system of which human beings, among all other species, are an integral part. This kind of perception of the environment is common among indigenous communities and authorities have realised its importance when working with them. However, it seems not to be a simple task when it comes to implementing projects in practice.

Photo by: Simon English

Alexander Songorwa, a former Lincoln University student, carried out research on an attempt to implement community-based wildlife management in Tanzania back in the 1980s and 1990s. The approach was based on offering the local communities ownership rights and management responsibilities over the natural resources. It was intended to create conditions where local communities benefit from sustainable wildlife management by getting actively engaged themselves. In other words, it was an alternative to a "fences and fines" method. However, was the main message of these programs delivered to public at all? Apparently not, as most of the Tanzanian projects failed. Alexander explained it as an inability of stakeholders to cooperate and provoke interest of communities in wildlife conservation. In most cases the projects implemented in different regions of Tanzania basically neglected their principal objective of involving people in decision-making process. This led to the opposite effect. Removing poaching was the issue identified to work with the community in Tanzania, yet, after the community-based approach was introduced, it became even more rampant. Alexander mentions cases when indigenous community members experienced economic and social losses as a result of increase in wildlife populations. For example, documented cases when wildlife caused tremendous crop damage, hence food shortage, in project implementation areas. There were also reported cases of human injuries caused by wildlife. In the long run, the species of great concern (mostly elephants, hippos and buffalo) became pests in the eyes of the local people. In an attempt to protect themselves, their crops, and their livestock and to compensate losses, people resorted to poaching. This became a vicious circle. The results of interviews conducted by Alexander revealed that half of the participants of the projects though that it had not brought many benefits, while those who saw no benefits at all made up 11.3%. However, lack or rather loss of interest in such kinds of projects might have been drawn by non-fulfilment of excessively high expectations of the local people (e.g. additional income generation possibilities, increase of meat supply etc.). Many of them also believed that the aim of those programs was to provide rural aid.
Photo by Tina Troup

The case of Tanzania implies that community support and engagement is crucial for successful implementation of community-based wildlife management projects, but communities will cooperate only if they are motivated to do so. I believe in this case it is rather difficult to blame rural communities for being more interested in additional income generation, rather than in wildlife conservation.

Community-based wildlife management is ideally a partnership of stakeholders, which helps the scientific approach to be adaptive and therefore more effective. However, Tanzanian example proves that how well goals are reached is up to the ability of both parties to listen, learn and cooperate.

17 September 2012

Don't feel off-colour! Stopping kea eating poison baits

One of the difficulties of living with teenage boys (of which I have three) is that it is impossible to keep food for any length of time. Well that's not true exactly; food that grew on a tree or in the ground can last a very long time. Other foods have an extremely short half-life around the house. Take chocolates, lollies, sweets and candy. If it actually makes it into the house it won't last very long at all. That can be annoying, especially when you've been looking forward to a well-earned sugar-hit after marking a bunch of student essays. What to do? As an occasional behavioural ecologist I figured that I should be able to do something. What I need to do is to make the food unappealing for the teenagers but not for me. Last week I was able to put my cunning plan into action. I visited the Re:Start mall (built of containers) in the wrecked centre of Christchurch. One of the businesses there is a grocer who specialises in importing foods. I am particularly fond of the occasional packet of chocolate disks, let's call them N&Ns, but so are my boys. However, at the grocer were several flavours that we don't normally get in New Zealand. I selected the coconut flavoured N&Ns as I knew my boys dislike that flavour whereas I quite like it. I took them home and left a couple of packets lying about. Sure enough they are still there a few days later - an unprecedented outcome.

The concept of deterrence is also an important one for wildlife management. In New Zealand we have a number of mammalian pest species, such as possums, rats, stoats, pigs and so on, that cause a great deal of ecosystem harm. A major control strategy is to provide poison baits that the pests ingest and die from eating. Of course, you really don't want non-target species to eat these baits as well as they are usually the species that you are trying to protect. One non-target species that complicates control is the kea, the alpine parrot (Nestor notabalis). Kea are an inquisitive species and readily will try baits that are set to kill pest species. This is not a good outcome as kea are a threatened species. So much time and effort has gone into trying to make the poison baits aversive to eat.


Researchers at Lincoln University, Carolin Weser and James Ross, have looked at this problem with kea. Previous studies have shown that having large sized baits can help as the birds find them difficult to handle but it is not feasible to use large baits in most control operations. There is some evidence that birds will not eat green fruits and it was suggested that if baits were dyed green that kea might avoid eating them. Weser and Ross set out to test this idea. Kea from two Christchurch wildlife parks (Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and Orana Wildlife Park) were exposed to cubes of butter cake soaked in lard with non-toxic coloured dyes. Piles of each of the colours (red, yellow, green, mid-blue, dark-blue and brown) were placed on a tray and introduced to an aviary which held kea. Their behaviour was recorded for 30 minutes and the number of encounters with food, and actual food eaten, were identified. The trials were repeated several times and the order in which the colours were presented was changed.
In a new paper published in the New Zealand Journal of Zoology, they found that colours had a significant effect on the selection of food by the kea. The kea preferred yellow a lot more than the other colours, then brown and red, then the two blues and finally green. Overall, kea only ate about 10% of the green bait as opposed to the yellow. Other studies have shown that the colour of the bait makes little difference to pest mammals (who are mostly nocturnal and don't use colour a great deal). So, this finding is promising in that a green bait will not affect the target but will reduce the amount eaten by the nontarget species. It's not fool proof yet, as kea would still occasionally eat enough bait to make them sick (or worse) but at least this is a step in the right direction. Right, I should head of home and see if my chocolate still survives.

14 September 2012

Green New Zealand? Progress in Landscape development

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Johanna Voinopol-Sassu as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Johanna revisits a Lincoln University research area that examines the New Zealand rural landscape published in 2000.

A critical review of the paper: A landscape ecological framework for indigenous regeneration in rural New Zealand-Aotearoa, published by Colin Meurk (Landcare Research NZ) and Simon Swaffield (Lincoln University) in “Landscape and Urban Planning”

The title indicates the authors` ambitious goal for a new rural landscape. Indeed they call their aim a vision.  The authors emphasize the discrepancy between pristine, wild areas, which are often located in national parks and are well preserved, and the agricultural areas/landscapes which are non-native and less suitable for indigenous species. These different landscapes are natural or human-made, with little in between. The goal of the proposed changes (transformation) is for human and native species to enjoy the features of both nature and culture in rural parts of New Zealand.

How do we accomplish this task?

These figures from the paper best visualise their concepts:

The “contemporary dysfunctional agribusiness landscape”

(Colin D. Meurk, Simon R. Swaffield, 2000)

The medicine for this sick land:

The proposed “integrated landscape vision”

(Colin D. Meurk, Simon R. Swaffield, 2000)

Certainly, most landscape ecologists and nature conservationist have this…let`s call it  a “dream”... of a cultural country bursting with biodiversity. But why is it so difficult to realise this?

The authors promote the aspiring idea that culture itself could become the main driver for nature conservation with an essential part of this being landscape restoration and landscape ecology. If local people value and identify with an ‘indigenous species dominated nature’ (which means: nature, where most species are native), they will engage with increased efforts to conserve and improve their beloved home land. The question that comes to my mind is whether it is somehow naive to believe that people will change their preferences about their surrounding landscape? I believe that many do not care or do not give priority to what they see out of their front door, because their mind is mainly occupied by other issues: work, family, etc. The authors admit that people might not accept changes to their well-known “European” like countryside. Furthermore, we cannot expect people, especially farmers under commercial pressure, to act without incentives. There must be governmental support and frameworks in place, both in finance and knowledge. The government has a large responsibility to design a healthy environment. Let`s glance at one example. The Ministry for Primary Industries (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Ministry of Fisheries combined April 2012) is a main driver in developing rural areas. One of their programs is the: “Sustainable Land Management Hill Country Erosion Programme”. The aim of the project is to improve protection of highly erodible land.

An example of a hill affected by erosion

 (picture taken nearby Christchurch by Johanna V., 2012). 

There are many hills like this in Canterbury.

The Ministry for Primary Industries’ website does not explicitly mention native tree species as part of the solution; instead they use vague language like “building technical capacities”. Where is the link between sustainable agriculture and nature conservation? Is there any?

It is not easy to evaluate whether New Zealand’s rural native biodiversity increased or decreased the last decade. For example, the big dairying boom happened, with the stripping of woodlots and shelterbelts to make way for centre point irrigators. If anything, much of New Zealand’s rural landscapes are even more simplified and less native than when this article was written. On the other hand, there are some promising programmes underway to restore native vegetation along water ways.

It is even more difficult to guess in which direction New Zealand cultural landscape will develop. But as the article admits, it might take centuries until (semi-) native biodiversity dominates New Zealand’s rural areas. 

Colin D. Meurk, Simon R. Swaffield, 2000. A landscape ecological framework for indigenous regeneration in rural New Zealand-Aotearoa. Landscape and Urban Planning, 50, pp. 129-144

The Ministry for Primary Industries homepage


06 September 2012

Understanding tree-species richness in New Zealand's Forests

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Thomas Wabnig as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Thomas revisits a Lincoln University research area on the use of toxins for possum control published since the early 1990s.

Looking at a picture from one of New Zealand's National Parks, we can see a lot of different tree species. When we go out and count the trees we would come up with a number, called “tree-species-richness”, that is a measure of diversity. Different areas have different diversity. Why is it that certain places have more tree-species than others? In 1999 research was carried out at Lincoln University to explain why this could be. The research found that forest-turnover and tree-species-richness in New Zealand's temperate forests were related to each other just as had already been observed in tropical rain-forests. Besides understanding this relationship it is also important to find an explaination for it. The findings of this paper are still valid and help to understand long term changes in New Zealands’ forests.

Paparoa Nationalpark, New Zealand. An example for tree-species diversity. Photo by: Thomas Wabnig

Mortality and recruitment are the main factors that contribute to forest-turnover (change of species). It has been observed in the past that high turnover leads to an increased species richness. Disturbances, such as wind, snow or disease, have an influence on the mortality and lead to a higher turnover rates. Understanding these relationships is important in order to explain national-scale diversity patterns more comprehensively.

The relationship between disturbances and diversity was investigated in the 1970s and led to the formulation of the “intermediate disturbance hypothesis” that states that diversity is highest when disturbances are neither too frequent nor too rare. Hence the 'right' level of disturbance is important and could be the result of seasonality that increases with increasing latitude. This means that tropical rain-forests have more stable weather-conditions throughout the year whilst New Zealand has a distinct change of seasons with occasional cyclones. The seasonality on the one hand might constrain the proliferation of vermin and on the other sometimes generate minor disturbances. Overall, the interaction of mortality and recruitement (forest-turnover) as a result of disturbances and seasonality is a model of trying to understand the complex relationships between them and explain tree-species-richness in New Zealand.

The dynamics of all those factors (mortality, recruitement, forest-turnover, species-richness, latitude) is still the subject of current research and raises a many new questions, such as the impacts of insects or browsing animals on tree-mortality. In fact, an ultimate explanation has yet to be found and current and future research will continue to look for answers that explain those dynamics.

Original text: Bellingham, P.J., Stewart, G.H. &; Allen, R.B.: “Tree species richness and turnover throughout New Zealand forests”, published in: Journal of Vegetation Science 10: 825-832, 1999

30 August 2012

Molecular Ecology Conference at Lincoln

New Zealand Molecular Ecology Conference 2012
 The weekend after the New Zealand Ecological Society Conference at Lincoln University gel jockeys will be leaving their labs and heading along to the New Zealand Molecular Ecology Conference (30th Novemeber-2nd December). This conference has been happening for over a decade and usually takes about 50 people (mostly university lecturers and their postgrad students) to some place off the beaten track where they indulge in their passions for DNA, ecology, trivia, poor football skills and poorer beer. This year Lincoln University is hosting the conference at the Eyre Lodge in the Waimakariri District just north of Christchurch. A website for information and registration has now been set up. You can also contact Stephane Boyer for information.

29 August 2012

Let's Save our Forests, Native Species and Agricultural Industry... Nah, Let's Argue Instead

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Thomas Agnew as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Thomas revisits a Lincoln University research area on the use of toxins for possum control published since the early 1990s.

Signs of protest against DOC controlled 1080 drops
The 1080 (Sodium Fluoroacetate) debate has reared its ugly head once again. Articles just weeks apart in common New Zealand media suggests that Kiwis are more aware than ever of the threat posed by pesticide and toxin applications in natural environments. Department of Conservation plans to aerially apply 1080 to forested land in Wainuiomata (Dominion Post, 08/05/2012) and Golden Bay (Nelson Mail 03/05/12)have been met with fierce opposition. Those opposed to controlling possums with the use of 1080 desire a highly selective, humane control method, with little effect on non-target species and domesticated animals, which they feel 1080 cannot claim. As our science and technology advances, new and improved methods for controlling possums and other introduced mammalian predators arise, some show promise, whilst others fade away. It is often difficult to tell whether we are making progress when it comes to pest management in New Zealand. Whilst the debate between supporters and disapprovers of 1080 rages on, I set out to investigate whether the turn of the century has meant improvement for our most loved and most hated toxin.

In 1992, Charles Eason of Lincoln University published a paper evaluating the appropriate alternatives to 1080 use for possum control1. It highlighted not only the need to develop a socially acceptable chemical product, but also the need to avoid bait shyness and resistance build up towards 1080. The focus fell with non-anticoagulants, such as Cholecalciferol and Nicotine. Within the article, Charlie explained how the lethal doses for both male and female possums for these substances had already been established, and that the next step in finding an alternative to 1080 was getting non-anticoagulants into palatable bait types at a cost effective price. I feel that this paper best represents the 1990’s scientific viewpoint of finding an alternative toxin to 1080. With that in mind, have we seen the advancements in possum control technology that Charlie suggested back in 1992?

20 years down the track, and we are still commonly debating the pros and cons of 1080 use in New Zealand, as shown by those articles mentioned above. It remains at the forefront of our nationwide attack on possums, and it doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon. Just two years ago, Charlie Eason was again the lead author in a modern review of the toxicology and efficacy of 10802. This paper was an overall review of the modern day 1080 toxin, which compared it with other common toxins (including the aforementioned Cholecalciferol) for various aspects such as environmental persistence, ability to bioaccumulate, and effectiveness for killing possums. Compared with the other options, 1080 proved to have a relatively low half life, and an average level of bioaccumulation. It still proves to be one of the most potent (if not the most potent) chemicals for causing fatalities amongst possums, and acts at one of the lowest concentrations. Brodifacoum is the new kid on the block. This anticoagulant was absent from debate during the 1990’s, and it now opens up a whole new can of worms. It is a slow acting toxin, as it takes up to 14 days within the animal before any adverse effects begin. It is this form of pesticide that will fix our problem with bait shy and 1080 resistant possums. Off course, Brodifacoum doesn’t come without its own issues. It is less selective than 1080, remains in the environment for much longer, and has the potential to bioaccumulate.

1080 :  a poisoned possum displayed alongside a deceased tree weta

In my personal opinion, the aerial application of 1080 is not the perfect option, but it is the best one available to us at this time, and has been so for the last 20 years. Any attempt to introduce “new and improved” chemical products to control possums in this country will always be met with heavy competition (which I also believe to be healthy), and biological control seems to still be a fair way off. To expect those who protect our native species and our agricultural industry to control possums without an effective chemical product is, to me, outrageous. Our climate and terrain is such that labour intensive methods such as shooting and trapping cannot possibly be expected to make a significant enough impact. It is my opinion that those looking to improve the 1080 poison need to address the concerns of the general public and hardcore greenies, by making domestic animals, waterways and endangered species less susceptible to intoxication. Perhaps when this is achieved, both sides can work together in an attempt to eradicate what is arguably the worst pest in our forests.

For more on possums have a read of this, this, this and this.
1 Eason, C. (1992) The evaluation of alternativetoxins to sodium monofluoroacetate (1080) for possum control, Proceedings of the Fifteenth Vertebrate PestConference.
2 Eason, C., Miller, A., Ogilvie, S.,Fairweather, A. (2010) An updated review of the toxicology and ecotoxicology of sodium fluoroacetate (1080) in relation to its use as a pest control tool inNew Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 35, 2011.

22 August 2012

Ecology Conference set for Lincoln

The New Zealand Ecological Society will have their annual meeting at Lincoln University in late November. The theme of the conference will be "Is New Zealand ecology on solid foundations". There will be a student only day on the 25th of November and the regular conference will run from the 26th - 28th with a field trip day on the 29th. Keynote speakers are Richard Hobbs, Trevor Worthy, Hamish Campbell, J. Bastow Wilson, Kerry Jayne Wilson and Lesley Hughes (winner of the Ecological Society of Australia award last year). There will also be a celebration of 50 years of ecology teaching at Lincoln. There will be the following symposia: Restoration Ecology, Microbial Ecology, Plant Functional Traits, Drylands Research, Next Generation Sequencing, Wildlife Management and Conservation, Community-led Projects, and Data Archiving.

We look forward to seeing you there! Registration and a call for abstracts can be found here.

20 August 2012

Say no to botrytized wines? Biological control of Botrytis cinerea in vines

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Wei Liu as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Wei revisits a Lincoln University study on biological control in grapes published in 1999 and assesses the progress made since then.

If you think it’s weird to see your friends appreciate red wines with heavy bitterness and astringency, I strongly recommend you try noble rot wine, a famous wine with particular sweetness, made from botrytized grapes. Noble rot wine is a special product, but we do not want all the grapes to be botrytized!
 Botrytis (noble rot) shrivels the grapes, concentrating their
 sugar and flavour, and lends unique flavours to the wine (by stoneboatvineyards)

Winemakers don’t set out to make noble rot wine. Grapes occasionally become infected with Botrytis cinerea, a kind of fungus. The crop yield of grapes suffers as a result. Botrytis cinerea usually happens during wet weather just prior to harvest. After harvesting, the pathogen survives on rotten canes and leaves in the vineyard floor, or infected tissues of the vines. Then they become active again next season!

During the growing season, one of the key controlling methods is applications of fungicides. However, Botrytis cinerea will become resistant to fungicides over time, and pesticide residues in grapes are harmful to human healthy as well.
In 1999, S.R. Fowler and other Lincoln University staffs published an article about biological control using antagonistic fungi for the control of Botrytis cinerea. In their experiment, Epicoccum sp., Scytalidium sp. and Ulocladium sp. suppressed Botrytis cinerea effectively. The suppression was via competition for nutrients and space between antagonistic fungi and Botrytis cinerea, and production of toxic metabolites to Botrytis cinerea. There were some limitations to this research. This study was done only in two places: a vineyard of Lincoln University and one in Napier, and the only factor studied was in suppressing the sporulation of Botrytis cinerea on rachii of grapes.

How time flies! A research paper published in 2011 reported that Epicoccum is currently being developed commercially as a biological control method. Because Epicoccum produces metabolites which are toxic to Botrytis cinerea.

Another article published recently studied the infection of Botrytis cinerea on grapevine debris left on the ground of vineyard and inside the canopy in vineyards of Marlborough, New Zealand. Fowler’s method of measuring the severity of Botrytis cinerea, which was published in his article mentioned above, was used in this experiment.

The Botrytis cinerea problem in wine industry is a worldwide issue, but especially in New Zealand, which has a relative warm and wet winter that suits Botrytis cinerea. More advances in Botrytis cinerea control will benefit wine industry more. On one hand, unnecessary Botrytis cinerea infection could be better controlled. On the other hand, we would be able to make noble rot wine in New Zealand, and would not need to buy as much noble rot wine from France! We could just drop down to a local winery and enjoy the kiwi noble rot wine!

16 August 2012

Finding Name-os! Barcoding aquarium fish

These two species look extremely similar but DNA barcodes can
tell us that A is a species of barb called Puntius filamentosus
while B is Putius assimilis
 When you have a young family, a good and entertaining way to spend some time is to visit a local pet shop. Toddlers love to look at the kittens and puppies. When they tire of that there are more exotic pets to examine. One that seems endlessly fascinating is the aquarium fish. There are usually a number of species in different tanks in all shapes and sizes and colours. Not being a fish expert I am sometimes overwhelmed by the diversity, tanks with lesser spotted whatsits sitting next to blue-striped dodads and sometimes swimming with clown thingamys. Although I've never succumbed to getting fish, many obviously do. Aquarium fish account for about $20 billion in global trade each year! That's an estimated one billion fish moving mostly from tropical to temperate countries. That's a lot of fish! The fate of most of these fish is to live comfortable lives in an aquarium before going belly-up. For a few there is the prospect of liberation as they make it into the wild. Of 59 fish species colonisations into the USA, 37 of them are as a result of the aquarium trade. So there is a significant biosecurity problem here. If these fish establish then they may outcompete native species, modify habitats and so on.


New Zealand is a country that works hard to maintain its borders from entry by potential pest species. We have a fragile native fish fauna that is already under threat from previous introductions and habitat change. In order to manage the possible threat of aquarium fish the government has developed a list of species that are allowed to enter the country as they can be easily managed or are unlikely to survive in the wild. Of course this relies on being able to identify individuals coming into the country as belonging to the right species. For some species this is obvious but for most, especially if they are larval forms which haven't developed their species traits, this can be very difficult and time-consuming. You don't want to bring a pest species into the country that happens to look like a safe species. What to do?
Rupert Collins with many colleagues, mostly from Lincoln University, has thought long and hard about this. Rupert realised that using the appearance of fish, known as morphology, was not ideal as species often look very similar. One thing that always differs between species is their DNA. Even if two species look exactly the same they still differ in their DNA. Taking DNA samples from individuals would remove doubt about the species. This approach has been termed DNA barcoding (as each species has its own DNA code). Rupert checked to see whether this approach would work for aquarium fish species and his study is now published in PLOS One. Rupert collected DNA from 678 fish from 172 species entering New Zealand. Rupert was able to match over 90% of the DNA sequences with known named species. He was also able to show that there were at least 10 cryptic species (species that happened to look like another species on the safe list). From this study, Rupert was able to develop a procedure that can be used to make fast and accurate identifications of fish coming into New Zealand. So the next time a toddler asks you what that fish is you can be confident in the name written on the tank!

31 July 2012

Four more years! A link to the species in EcoLincNZ

Yellow-eyed Penguin
EcoLincNZ has turned four. It just seems like yesterday that we discussed the use of blogs in our weekly ecology and evolution discussion group and decided that we should give it a go. It's been 130 posts since the first one on the different meanings of 'Gondwanan' and we have covered a lot of areas, highlighting the incredible range of research being done by Lincoln University Ecology staff and students. Over this time most of the blogs have involved research on particular species. Finding blogs on specific species is a little difficult as our keywords are more for concepts than species. So for your benefit I have put together a list of which blogs are associated with particular species (with links to the blog entries!). Possums, penguins, butterflies & moths and spiders have the most entries. Take a look at your favourite species. Don't thank me all at once!

Penguins [1,2,3,4,5], Seabirds [1,2], Royal Albatross, Moa, Kakapo [1,2], Pukeko, Kiwi [1,2], Tui [1,2], Kokako [1,2], Magpies, Whooping Crane, Blackbirds [1,2]


Possums [1,2,3,4,5], Rats [1,2], Stoats [1,2], Cats, Wallabies, Fur seals

Spiders [1,2,3,4,5,6]


Butterflies and Moths [1,2,3,4,5,6], Beetles [1,2,3,4], Bird Lice [1,2,3], Lacewings, Argentine Ants, Hoverflies, Weta [1,2], Bees [1,2]


Bacteria [1,2,3,4]

Tussocks [1,2,3], Clover, Pitcher plants [1,2], Kanuka, Gorse [1,2,3,4], Lantana, Chatham plants [1,2], Geraniums, Grapes [1,2], Dune plants, Kahikitea, Rata, Southern Beech [1,2], Hieracium, Kiwifruit, Pikopiko

30 July 2012

EcoLincNZ wordle

Wordles seem to be a great way to get a visual idea of the concepts in written work. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the wordle for the first 129 blogs here at EcoLincNZ. The size of each world is equivalent to the frequency of the use of that word in the blogs. 'Species', that essential unit of ecology and evolution, is the winer! It looks like a typical sentence would be: "A Lincoln University study has found that New Zealand native bird and plant species have different populations on islands." Which is probably correct! Wordle: EcoLincNZ blog 2008-2012

New Zealand ghost moths: the results from a molecular phylogeny

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Hamish Patrick as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Hamish revisits a Lincoln University study on New Zealand moth evolution published in 1999 and assesses the progress made since then.

Hepialidae commonly known as ghost moths are a family of moths distributed throughout the world. There are 27 species of ghost moth present in New Zealand all of which are endemic. These include New Zealand’s largest moth: the puriri moth (Aenetus virescens), several pasture pests in the genus Wiseana as well some species with flightless females that use pheromones to attract males. Click here to learn more about our unique ghost moth fauna.

Two male puriri moths (Aenetus virescens) in the Hawkes Bay. These moths had a wingspan of over 10 cm but the females which are not seen as often are nearly double that size. Adult ghost moths have very short lifespans due to them having no mouth parts, but some species such as the puriri moth can spend a number of years as a caterpillar. (Photo: Hamish Patrick)

The first DNA analysis of the New Zealand ghost moths was completed by Barbara Brown, Rowan M. Emberson and Adrian M. Paterson of Lincoln University in 1999 and has changed the way we think about the New Zealand ghost moth fauna.
For this project ghost moths were collected using light traps before two mitochondrial genes: COI (commonly known as the DNA barcoding region) and II were sequenced. The resulting phylogenetic tree was very similar to previously constructed trees based on morphology and allozymes (a kind of enzymes). However, there were a few differences between the two, particularly in the ‘Oxycanus’ lineage (which contains 13 New Zealand species). The main differences were in the genus Wiseana, where additional haplotypes (distinct DNA sequences) were identified for three species. Morphological features could not be found to support all the Wiseana haplotypes highlighting the difficulty in identifying the species in this economically significant genus. This may explain why the feeding behavior and other traits can vary in what was previously thought to be one species based on morphology, which is very important information for the control of these pest species.
The New Zealand ‘Oxycanus’ came out as the sister group to the Australian ‘Oxycanus’ which were included in this study; and an estimate on time divergence between the Australian and New Zealand members of this lineage revealed that the New Zealand species had split from their Australian relatives around 3-4 million years ago (MYA). This indicates that they dispersed to New Zealand rather than remaining here since the breakup of Gondwana over 80 MYA. The evolution of the species within Wiseana was found to have occurred around 1-1.5 MYA coinciding with the uplifting of the Southern Alps and other Ranges that are thought to have created new sub alpine and tussock grassland habitats for these species. Although the idea of moths making their way from Australia to New Zealand may sound odd, there are in fact a number of Australian moth and butterfly species that are regularly blown to New Zealand from Australia including the blue moon butterfly.

A Male Heloxycanus patricki (a member of the ‘Oxycanus’ lineage) sitting on its sphagnum moss host in Southland. Adults of this species emerge only once every two years which is thought to have contributed to it being discovered recently, in 1979. (Photo: Hamish Patrick)

Barbara Brown and colleagues’ paper has been cited 20 times since publication according to the web of knowledge including in a number of similar studies on invertebrate phylogeny and taxonomy such as spiders and butterflies. It has been cited in a number of papers on biogeography including a large study of the origin of the New Zealand terrestrial fauna where it was used along with many other case studied to disprove the once popular Moa’s Ark theory which maintained that most of New Zealand’s terrestrial fauna had been present in New Zealand since the breakup of Gondwana. The paper has also been cited in two additional papers published by the same three authors. In one of these, morphological characters were overlaid onto the molecular phylogeny created from this research resulting in the origin and history of five morphological characters being more fully understood. In the second paper published in the same year, a nuclear gene was sequenced for the same moths and was used along with the morphological and molecular phylogeny from the original paper to find additional support for three of the Wiseana haplotypes that had been identified. There are plans to name these haplotypes in the future.
While there is still a lot to learn about the New Zealand ghost moths, this research has helped us to understand more about the phylogeny and taxonomy of these fascinating moths as well as helping us to learn more about the origin of New Zealand fauna. Ghost moths often emerge when a front is approaching so appreciate these native weather indicators next time they annoy you by flying into your house at night!

The full reference for the article is: Brown B, Emerson RM & Paterson AM. 1999. Phylogeny of ‘‘Oxycanus’’ Lineages of Hepialid Moths from New Zealand Inferred from Sequence Variation in the mtDNA COI and II Gene Regions. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 13, 463–473.

The males (left) and females (right) of one of the New Zealand ghost moth species with a flightless female: Aoraia macropis collected up the Old Man Range. This species is active at dusk and also in cloudy or misty conditions. (Photo: Hamish Patrick)