Saturday, 28 October 2017

Counting keruru: can public surveys and competitions aid New Zealand conservation?

Whilst some other countries - the UK, for example - have dozens of general and specialised wildlife surveys undertaken by members of the public, New Zealand has comparatively few. Whilst this might seem odd, considering the Kiwi penchant for the great outdoors (not to mention the little matter of the endangered status of so many native species) it should be remembered that the nation has a rather small (human) population. In addition, New Zealand is no different from other developed countries, wherein environmentalists often appear at loggerheads with rural landowners, especially farmers.

Since agriculture forms a fundamental component of the New Zealand economy, any anti-farming sentiment can quickly escalate into unpleasantness, as even a cursory look at agriculture versus environmentalists news stories will confirm. Farmers are often reported as resenting what they deem as unrealistic or uninformed opinions by wildlife campaigners. But lest farmers consider this particular post being yet another piece of anti-farming propaganda, it should be noted that campaigns are usually driven by a perceived need for action in the face of government inactivity: after all, New Zealand is second only to Hawaii in the number of introduced species, many of which are in direct competition with, or predate upon, native ones.

Talking of competitions, this year's Bird of the Year contest has just been won by the cheeky, intelligent kea, the world's only alpine parrot. Run by Forest and Bird* and now in its thirteenth year, it aims to raise publicity for the plight of New Zealand's native birds and the wider environment they rely upon. With over 50,000 votes cast, this means approximately 1% of New Zealand citizens and residents entered the competition (assuming of course that non-Kiwis didn't participate).

The international level of awareness about the competition seems to be on the increase too, with the kea's victory even being reported on the website of the UK's The Guardian newspaper, albeit in an article written by a New Zealand-based journalist. The competition doesn't appear to offer anything to science, except a potential – if not unobvious - theory that the public's fondness for particular wildlife species is based upon their aesthetic qualities, with drab birds for example getting less attention than colourful ones. Then again, perhaps Forest and Bird are more interested in spreading their message rather than the results; as the old adage goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Indeed, the story of a Christchurch-based who tried to rig the vote in favour of the white-faced heron was reported by the BBC.

Another prominent example of the New Zealand's public involvement in environmental matters is the Annual Garden Bird survey, which began in 2007 and is run by the Government-owned Landcare Research. This more obvious example of citizen science states that the results are used to analyse population trends for both native and introduced bird species and so aid pest control programmes. However, it would be difficult to ascertain the validity of the observations, since less than 0.3% of the nation's gardens (or rather their owners) participate.

Whilst 5000 entries might be considerably more than could be achieved by other means, there are probably all sorts of details that are missed with this level of coverage. I have participated for three years now and have found that my observations do not agree with the reported trends. For example, last year's results show that the silvereye, blackbird and song thrush have declined in my area, whereas I have not noticed any such a drop-off for these birds -  and it's not as if I particularly encourage the latter two (non-native) species.

A more specific example of bio-recording was last month's Great Kereru Count, which claims to be New Zealand's biggest citizen science project. Clearly, they don't consider the Bird of the Year competition as science! Various organisations run this survey, which gained around 7000 reports this year. There are also continuous monitoring schemes, such as for monarch butterflies (which is interesting, as this is a far-from-endangered, recently self-introduced creature) whilst NatureWatch NZ allows anyone to supply a record of a plant or animal species, or indeed to request identification of one. The latter might not sound particularly necessary, but judging by how little some New Zealanders seem to know about their own environment (for example I've met Kiwis who cannot identify such common organisms as a tree weta or cabbage trees) this resource is probably essential in understanding the spread of non-native species.

With native species protection in mind, there are other, more direct, citizen science projects in the country, with everything from the Great Kiwi Morning Tea fundraiser this month to allocation of funding for predator control tools and traps – including in urban gardens - via the independent trust Predator Free New Zealand.

For an even greater level of public involvement in science and technological research, in 2015 the New Zealand Government initiated the Participatory Science Platform to aid partnerships between professionals and community groups. Three pilot projects are currently under way, with Dr Victoria Metcalf as the National Coordinator (or Queen of Curiosity as she has been nicknamed.) These projects are exciting because they involve the public from project development through to conclusion, rather than just using non-scientists as data gatherers. In addition, the ability to gain first-hand experience on real-world undertakings may even encourage children from lower decile areas to consider STEM careers. That's no bad thing.

Back to surveys. Although science communication (sci-comm) is in vogue, my own feeling is that participation is key to promoting science – the methods as well as the facts – to the wider public. Yes, some science is very difficult to understand, but there's plenty that is also easy to grasp. This includes the dangers facing species pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss, pollution, and introduced organisms. By actively involving entire communities, surveys and competitions can also play a part in preserving species whilst allowing a sustainable level of development.

Of course this requires a government with vision, but with New Zealand's Green Party gaining positions in the Jacinda Ardern-led coalition, perhaps the newly-formed New Zealand Government will pick up the slack after years of prevarication and inactivity. That way our grandchildren will be able to experience the cheeky kea and company for real, rather than just via old recordings. How can that fail to make sense? After all, at the lower end of the bio-recording spectrum, all it requires is for someone to make a few taps on their keyboard or smartphone. It's certainly not rocket science!

*Forest and Bird have actively lobbied the New Zealand Government in numerous cases to prevent environmental degradation via land swaps, mining and hydro-electric schemes. They have produced a volume on environmental law and a mobile app called the Best Fish Guide. All in all, they perform an immensely valuable contribution to ensure that development in New Zealand is sustainable and that the public are made aware of schemes that might impact the wider environment.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The zeal in Zealandia: revealing a lost continent

From an outsider's standpoint, geology appears to be a highly conservative science. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, it seems astonishing that it took over four decades for Alfred Wegener's continental drift hypothesis to be formalised - via the paradigm-shifting discovery of sea floor spreading - into the theory of plate tectonics. I suppose that like evolution by natural selection, the mechanism, once stated, seems blindingly obvious in hindsight.

Regardless, the geological establishment appears to have been stubbornly opposed to the ideas of an outsider (Wegener was a meteorologist) who was unable to provide proof of an exact mechanism. This was despite the fact that the primary alternative, hypothetical submerged (but extremely convenient) land bridges, appear even more far-fetched.

Over the past few decades geophysical data has been accumulating that should generate rewrites of texts from the most basic level upwards. Namely, that the islands making up New Zealand are merely the tip of the iceberg, accounting for just six per cent of a mostly submerged 'lost' continent. Once part of the Southern Hemisphere's Gondwana, in 1995 the newly discovered continent was given the name Zealandia. Approximately five million square kilometres in size, it broke away from the Australasian region of Gondwana around 70-80 million years ago.

After a decade or two of fairly lacklustre reporting, 2017 seems to be the year in which Zealandia is taking-off in the public domain. First, the Geological Society of America published a paper in February. stating that Zealandia should be officially declared as a continent. Then in July the drill ship Joides Resolution began the two month long Expedition 371, a research trip under the International Ocean Discovery Programme (IODP). Scientists from twelve countries undertook deep sea drilling, gaining data on plate tectonics, palaeontology and climate history as well as research directly relevant to understanding the geology of the newest continent.

It is surprising then to learn that geologists first mooted the idea as early as the 1960s but that apart from some marine core samples collected in 1971, no-one undertook the necessary ocean-based research until very recently. Earth resources satellites have helped somewhat, but nothing could replace the evidence that emerged with deep drilling of the seabed. Therefore I wonder what has sparked the sudden interest in an idea that has been around for so long?

One possibility is the large amount of data that the international geological community required to prove the theory beyond doubt, coupled with the fact that this sort of research has little in the way of an obvious immediate practical benefit. It is extremely expensive to undertake deep sea drilling and few vessels are equipped for the purpose. Joides Resolution itself will be forty years old next year, having undergone several years' of refit to keep it going. Those areas of sea bed with potential oil or gas deposits may gain high-fidelity surveying, but compared to fossil fuels, fossil biota and sea bed strata research are very much at the whim of international project funding. In the case of the IODP, governments are cutting budgets on what are deemed non-essential projects, so it remains to be seen whether the intended follow-up trips will occur.

It would be disappointing if there was no further research as despite the acceptance of Zealandia, there is still a great deal of disagreement about what is known as the Oligocene Drowning. I first came across the notion of an eighth continent in the excellent 2007 book In Search of Ancient New Zealand, written by geologist / palaeontologist Hamish Campbell and natural history writer Gerard Hutching. The reason that over ninety per cent of Zealandia is underwater is due to the lack of thickness of its continental land mass - only 20-30km - making it far less buoyant than other continents.

But has this submerged percentage varied during the past eighty million years? There are some very divided opinions about this, with palaeontologists, geneticists and other disciplines taking sides with different camps of geologists. These can be roughly summarised as Moa's Ark versus the Oligocene Drowning, or to be more precise, what percentage, if any, of New Zealand's unique plants and animals are locally-derived Gondwanan survivors and how many have arrived by sea or air within the past twenty or so million years?

The arguments are many and varied, with each side claiming that the other has misinterpreted limited or inaccurate data. If Zealandia has at any time been entirely submerged, then presumably next to none of the current fauna and flora can have remained in situ since the continent broke away from Gondwana. The evidence for and against includes geology, macro- and micro-fossils, and genetic comparisons, but nothing as yet provides enough certainty for a water-tight case in either direction. In Search of Ancient New Zealand examines evidence that all Zealandia was under water around twenty-three million years ago, during the event known as the Oligocene Drowning. However, Hamish Campbell's subsequent 2014 book (co-written with Nick Mortimer) Zealandia: Our continent revealed discusses the finding of land-eroded sediments during this epoch, implying not all the continent was submerged.

It's easy to see why experts might be reticent to alter their initial stance, since in addition to the conservative nature of geology there are other non-science factors such as patriotism at stake. New Zealand's unusual biota is a key element of its national identity, so for New Zealand scientists it's pretty much a case of damage it at your own peril! In 2003 I visited the predator-free Karori Wildlife Reserve in Wellington. Six years later it was rebranded as Zealandia, deliberately referencing the eighth continent and with more than a hint of support for Moa's Ark, i.e. an unbroken chain of home-grown oddities such as the reptile tuatara and insect weta. With the nation's reliance on tourism and the use of the '100% Pure New Zealand' slogan, a lot rests on the idea of unique and long-isolated wildlife. If the flightless kakapo parrot for example turns out not to be very Kiwi after all, then who knows how the country's reputation might suffer.

What isn't well known, even within New Zealand, is that some of the best known animals and plants are very recent arrivals. In addition to the numerous species deliberately or accidentally introduced by settlers in the past two hundred years, birds such as the silvereye / waxeye (Zosterops lateralis) and Welcome swallow (Hirundo neoxena) are self-introduced, as is the monarch butterfly.

The volcanic island of Rangitoto in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf is only about six centuries old and yet - without any human intervention - has gained the largest pohutukawa forest in the world, presumably all thanks to seeds spread on the wind and by birds. Therefore it cannot be confirmed with any certainty just how long the ancestors of the current flora and fauna have survived in the locality. A number of New Zealand scientists are probably worried that some of the nation's best-loved species may have arrived relatively recently from across the Tasman; a fossil discovered in 2013 suggests that the flightless kiwi is a fairly close cousin of the Australian emu and so is descended from a bird that flew to New Zealand before settling into an ecological niche that didn't require flight.

Other paleontological evidence supports the Moa's Ark hypothesis: since 2001 work on a lake bed at St Bathans, Central Otago has produced a wide range of 16 million year-old fossils, including three bones from a mouse-sized land mammal. The diversity of the assemblage indicates that unless there was some uniquely rapid colonisation and subsequent speciation, there must have been above-water regions throughout the Oligocene. In addition, whereas the pro-underwater faction have concentrated on vertebrates, research into smaller critters such as giant land snails (which are unable to survive in salt water conditions) supports the opposite proposition.

So all in all, there is as yet no definitive proof one way or the other. What's interesting about this particular set of hypotheses is the way in which an array of disciplines are coming together to provide a more accurate picture of New Zealand's past. By working together, they also seem to be reducing the inertia that has led geology to overlook new ideas for far too long; Zealandia, your time has come!