Category Archives: Media

From drone swarms to tree batteries, new tech is revolutionising ecology and conservation

Eyes in the sky: drone footage is becoming a vital tool for monitoring ecosystems. Image credit: Deakin Marine Mapping Group

By Euan Ritchie and Blake Allen, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

Understanding Earth’s species and ecosystems is a monumentally challenging scientific pursuit. But with the planet in the grip of its sixth mass extinction event, it has never been a more pressing priority.

To unlock nature’s secrets, ecologists turn to a variety of scientific instruments and tools. Sometimes we even repurpose household items, with eyebrow-raising results – whether it’s using a tea strainer to house ants, or tackling botfly larvae with a well-aimed dab of nail polish.

But there are many more high-tech options becoming available for studying the natural world. In fact, ecology is on the cusp of a revolution, with new and emerging technologies opening up new possibilities for insights into nature and applications for conserving biodiversity.

Our study, published in the journal Ecosphere, tracks the progress of this technological development. Here we highlight a few examples of these exciting advances.

Tiny tracking sensors

Electronically recording the movement of animals was first made possible by VHF radio telemetry in the 1960s. Since then even more species, especially long-distance migratory animals such as caribou, shearwaters and sea turtles, have been tracked with the help of GPS and other satellite data.

But our understanding of what affects animals’ movement and other behaviours, such as hunting, is being advanced further still by the use of “bio-logging” – equipping the animals themselves with miniature sensors.

Many types of miniature sensors have now been developed, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, micro cameras, and barometers. Together, these devices make it possible to track animals’ movements with unprecedented precision. We can also now measure the “physiological cost” of behaviours – that is, whether an animal is working particularly hard to reach a destination, or within a particular location, to capture and consume its prey.

Taken further, placing animal movement paths within spatially accurate 3D-rendered (computer-generated) environments will allow ecologists to examine how individuals respond to each other and their surroundings.

These devices could also help us determine whether animals are changing their behaviour in response to threats such as invasive species or habitat modification. In turn, this could tell us what conservation measures might work best.

Autonomous vehicles

Remotely piloted vehicles, including drones, are now a common feature of our skies, land, and water. Beyond their more typical recreational uses, ecologists are deploying autonomous vehicles to measure environments, observe species, and assess changes through time, all with a degree of detail that was never previously possible.

Coupling autonomous vehicles with sensors (such as thermal imaging) now makes it easier to observe rare, hidden or nocturnal species. It also potentially allows us to catch poachers red-handed, which could help to protect animals like rhinoceros, elephants and pangolins.

3D printing

Despite 3D printing having been pioneered in the 1980s, we are only now beginning to realise the potential uses for ecological research. For instance, it can be used to make cheap, lightweight tracking devices that can be fitted onto animals. Or it can be used to create complex and accurate models of plants, animals or other organisms, for use in behavioural studies.

Bio-batteries

Keeping electronic equipment running in the field can be a challenge. Conventional batteries have limited life spans, and can contain toxic chemicals. Solar power can help with some of these problems, but not in dimly lit areas, such as deep in the heart of rainforests.

“Bio-batteries” may help to overcome this challenge. They convert naturally occurring sources of chemical energy, such as starch, into electricity using enzymes. “Plugging-in” to trees may allow sensors and other field equipment to be powered cheaply for a long time in places without sun or access to mains electricity.

Combining technologies

All of the technologies described above sit on a continuum from previous (now largely mainstream) technological solutions, to new and innovative ones now being trialled.

Emerging technologies are exciting by themselves, but when combined with one another they can revolutionise ecological research. Here is a modified exerpt from our paper:

These advancements will not only generate more accurate research data, but should also minimise the disturbance to species and ecosystems in the process.

Not only will this minimise the stress to animals and the inadvertent spread of diseases, but it should also provide a more “natural” picture of how plants, animals and other organisms interact.

Realising the techno-ecological revolution will require better collaboration across disciplines and industries. Ecologists should ideally also be exposed to relevant technology-based training (such as engineering or IT) and industry placements early in their careers.

The ConversationSeveral initiatives, such as Wildlabs, the Conservation Technology Working Group and TechnEcology, are already addressing these needs. But we are only just at the start of what’s ultimately possible.
The Conversation

Planet Earth II Live unites art and science in a celebration of nature

Flamingoes dance on a lake in South America in Planet Earth II Live in Concert. Image credit: Travis Hayto

By Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

Following an epic and determined journey by an amorous male pygymy three-toed sloth, witnessing golden eagles duel over a fox carcass against a backdrop of majestic mountains, or simply being in awe of one of evolution’s most sublime creations, the sword-billed hummingbird, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited to experience the Melbourne production of BBC’s Planet Earth II Live in Concert.

The show is a fusion of BBC’s extraordinary wildlife and landscape footage, from the Planet Earth II documentary series. It’s presented on a suitably massive screen, accompanied by a live orchestra playing a score written specially for this visual and aural celebration of nature.

The start of the show was sensational, a montage of wildlife imagery from around the world, with the emotional roller-coaster expertly enhanced by the beauty and fusion with the music that filled the room. It was akin to walking through a gallery, where the individual, finer details of paintings were unimportant, but the overall majesty of what was on show swept you away. I wish the remainder of the show had continued in this vein.

The actual images of wildlife were as we’ve come to expect from the BBC’s legendary wildlife team, second to none. A close-up of a lioness’s paw rippling as it moved across the sands of the Namib Desert while stalking a giraffe, a starling murmuration above Rome, langurs leaping through Jodhpur and, of course, the now famous great escape by a hatchling marine iguana from scores of hungry racer snakes were all captivating.

The orchestra was outstanding. Such was the power of the wildlife footage that at times it was possible to forget their presence, but at key moments onscreen they were most certainly heard and felt, providing a truly emotional and visceral experience.

There were many things to like, but a number of important elements didn’t work, which really detracted from what the show could have been. The first and perhaps most important problem was that each sequence was introduced, in far too much detail, by Eric Bana, who had the unenviable task of trying to replace some of David Attenborough’s narration of the original documentary series.

Bana’s commentary was aimed at making people more informed about the wildlife being featured, but it had the unfortunate effect of giving away exactly what was about to happen next, rather than allowing the audience to have the joy of discovering this for themselves, a very odd production decision. It made the performance feel quite stilted and disjointed, which wasn’t helped by an unannounced 20-minute intermission mid-show.

Bana is a fine Australian actor, but his casual approach and lighthearted jokes were unnecessary, and often not particularly funny. Most importantly, it took attention away from the main event, which should have been what was happening on screen. It reminded me of watching a great film on commercial TV and being engrossed, only to be wrenched out of this blissful state by the dreaded commercial break. This happened multiple times throughout the evening. Judicious and sparing use of surtitles could have remedied this situation.

Another deficiency was the editing and sequence of footage. We were told about the plight of a primate relative of humans, the Indri, from Madagascar’s rapidly disappearing forests. So why then did this sequence start with flying draco lizards from Southeast Asia and toucans from South America? Perhaps many were not bothered by this and instead it just reflects my ecological background.

The Indri was one of several species to appear a number of times in the show, sometimes without narration or explanation. This seemed puzzling given how much amazing material the BBC has at its disposal. Australian wildlife was also conspicuous by its absence.

Finally, at times the show’s lighting was over-the-top, washing out and obscuring imagery on the screen.

There was an attempt towards the end of the show to send a message to the audience about the plight of life of Earth, including how our cities could better accommodate plants and animals to live alongside us. There were painful times during the show when I felt like I was watching soon-to-be ghosts, given the current and dire mass extinction event we have created and are witnessing. I couldn’t help notice the irony of the many audience members watching wildlife while drinking bottled water they’d bought during the show’s intermission, a symptom of our dependence on plastics and consumption.

There is no question in my mind that a greater union between the arts and sciences, such as this event, has enormous potential for positive change.

So my greatest hope is that everyone who attended the show felt moved the next day to assess their own choices and how they affect the other species with which we share this planet, and that together we collectively demand our governments to ensure a sustainable future that preserves Earth’s remarkable wonders.
The Conversation

The Conversation: Rockin’ the suburbs – bandicoots live among us in Melbourne

Young southern brown bandicoots (Isoodon obesulus obesulus), an endangered marsupial species living in outer Melbourne. Image credit: Sarah Maclagan.

By Euan Ritchie and Sarah Maclagan, Deakin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

There are more and more of us on Earth, and increasingly we’re choosing to live in cities. This is a problem for wildlife: urbanisation is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. Sprawling construction to accommodate people completely removes or modifies the homes of many other species.

But although we need to do all we can to mitigate these effects and their causes, cities are far from biodiversity wastelands. In fact, cities are home to large numbers of species, many of which are threatened.

One such example is the iconic but endangered southern brown bandicoot. New research has found these shy animals thriving in peri-urban areas (the interface between cities and more rural areas) on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Novel ecosystems

Through our effects on the environment, humans are increasingly creating “novel ecosystems”: areas composed of new combinations of species and/or new and modified environmental conditions. In these areas there are winners and losers. How we perceive and manage such ecosystems could have a big influence on conserving species more broadly, and helping to address Earth’s extinction crisis.

We studied these issues by examining the ecology of the endangered southern brown bandicoot in southeast Melbourne. Specifically, we compared bandicoot abundance and body condition between novel sites, made up of peri-urban areas, and more natural remnant sites at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Cranbourne and Quail Island Nature Conservation Reserve, which more closely resemble original bandicoot habitat.

Our goal was to see whether novel sites could support resident bandicoots. Crucially, could peri-urban areas allow bandicoots to breed, recruit (attract new migrating individuals) and survive well enough for populations to persist?

Don’t judge habitats by their appearance

Contrary to what the Human Threat Hypothesis (and logic) might predict, we found more bandicoots at novel sites (66 individuals recorded over 1722 trap-nights) than remnant sites (26 individuals recorded over 1384 trap-nights). And bandicoots were most abundant at the novel site with the most urbanised surroundings. The condition of females was similar between novel and remnant sites.

Most bandicoots at novel sites were resident (meaning they were observed at the same location multiple times thoughout the study). At these same sites we recorded successful breeding, recruitment of young adults, and survival of mature adults.

Our results challenge conventional conservation thinking. Where bandicoots did best is also where known predators such as foxes and feral cats are present and abundant, as opposed to the nature reserves from which they are largely absent. Remnant areas also have more intact native vegetation, whereas bandicoots in urban areas nested in roadsides full of invasive blackberry, a weed often targeted for removal.

Bandicoots like thick vegetation, but they appear not to care which plant species they use – as long as cover is sufficient. Blackberry bushes may protect bandicoots from predators, and also be a source of food through the insects they attract.

On the topic of food and just how adaptable bandicoots are, locals within our study region reported them dining on pet and domestic animal food from backyards.

Conservation opportunities in cities

A growing body of evidence suggests that even heavily modified environments can support viable populations of native plants and animals, and we should endeavour to manage these areas more sympathetically for the benefit of more species. This does not mean that all species will thrive in cities and heavily modified environments – there will always be a need for conservation reserves – but it throws the wilderness-versus-city dichotomy into question.

We need greater awareness of the nature we already share our cities with. Deliberate encouragement such as greener building and urban design that encourages wildlife to return and flourish would substantially benefit humans and other species alike. We are a part of and dependent upon nature, and as such should celebrate and seek to re-establish these vital connections.
The Conversation

Ecological Society of Australia: The demise of the dingo

The native dingo Canis dingo — the only remaining terrestrial, large-bodied, top predator in mainland Australia — is classified as a pest species because it threatens livestock.

Barrier fencing, and lethal methods — such as 1080 poisoning, trapping and shooting — are used as control methods, in a management practice that parallels the persecution of the Tasmanian tiger.

Continue reading on the Ecological Society of Australia website.

The Conversation: Australia’s draft ‘Strategy for nature’ doesn’t cut it. Here are nine ways to fix it

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Bek Christensen (Queensland University of Technology), Bill Bateman (Curtin University), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Grant Wardell-Johnson (Curtin University) Noel D Preece (James Cook University) and Sarah Luxton (Curtin University).

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

The thorny devil, one of Australia’s many remarkable and unique animals.

Australia arguably has the worst conservation record of any wealthy and politically stable nation. Since European arrival roughly 230 years ago, 50 animal and 60 plant species have gone extinct, including the loss of some 30 native mammals – roughly 35% of global mammal extinctions since 1500.

These are not just tragedies of the distant past – the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the forest skink and the Bramble Cay melomys have all died out within the past two decades.

More than 1,800 plant, animal and ecological communities are listed as being at risk of extinction, ranging from individual species such as the orange-bellied parrot and Gilbert’s potoroo, all the way up to entire ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef. This number rises every year, in the face of threats such as climate change, rampant land clearing, mining and invasive species.

This bleak situation has been recognised by successive governments, but never successfully tackled.

In the midst of such a tremendous environmental challenge, the federal government has released a draft document, Australia’s strategy for nature 2018–2030, for public comment. This is a welcome step, but regrettably the strategy falls a long way short of what’s required and contains significant flaws. It contains no firm commitments or measurable targets, and overlooks a substantial amount of relevant scientific evidence.

As representatives of Australia’s peak professional ecological body, the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA), we are deeply concerned that the strategy is not fit for its purpose of protecting Australia’s biodiversity.

A bolder, science-based vision

As part of ESA’s formal submission to the public consultation, we provide an alternative, evidence-based vision. This includes nine key recommendations for nature conservation in Australia.

1. Set measurable targets. Any project needs a set of quantifiable targets, otherwise we won’t know whether it has been successful or not. Some suggestions:

  • establish a comprehensive national network of ecosystem monitoring sites by 2025
  • reverse the declines of all species that are threatened by human-caused factors by 2025.

2. Commit to preventing human-caused species extinctions. The strategy should state explicitly that human-driven species extinctions are not acceptable, and establish and maintain clear paths of accountability.

3. Adequately fund the strategy’s implementation. Australia should show international leadership in conservation by investing at the upper end of OECD and G20 averages. At present Australia allocates less than 0.8% of GDP to conservation. We suggest 2% as an urgent minimum investment, with scope to expand funding to ensure that targets can be met.

4. Focus on the intrinsic value of biodiversity. The draft strategy is supposed to represent “Australia’s biodiversity conservation strategy and action inventory”, but it does not define biodiversity, choosing instead to focus on the vague notion of “nature”. We recommend the document return its focus to biodiversity, defined in the Convention on Biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

5. Make specific legislative recommendations. The strategy should specify the legislative revisions that will be needed to improve conservation, with particular focus on the flagship Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. This should include:

  • requiring recovery plans for all threatened species
  • requiring threat-abatement plans to efficiently manage major threats to many species, such as impacts of feral predators and herbivores, invasive plants and new diseases
  • specifically protecting high-value ecosystems, including those of economic value such as the Great Barrier Reef, and those that are critical for species survival, and rare ecosystems.

6. Commit to establishing a comprehensive system of protected areas, including marine parks. Despite longstanding commitments to developing a fully representative network of protected areas in Australia, many bioregions remain poorly represented in the National Reserve System and the national marine protected area system.

7. Include all 20 Aichi biodiversity targets and affirm Australia’s commitment to the Convention on Biodiversity. Australia has a proud bipartisan history of national and international engagement with conservation. But the new draft strategy is poor in comparison with other countries’ equivalent documents, such as Germany’s National Strategy on Biological Diversity and New Zealands’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

8. Base the strategy on Australia’s international conservation commitments. Australia has signed more than 30 international conservation agreements, including the Convention on Biodiversity, the Apia Convention, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The domestic EPBC Act requires Australia not to defy these agreements, yet with the exception of the Convention on Biodiversity, none of them rates a mention in the new draft strategy.

9. Recognise key issues that affect Australian biodiversity conservation. Any successful strategy should specifically address new and emerging issues that can harm our environment, such as Australia’s increasing use of natural resources, environmental water flows in rivers, and overfishing.

We cannot ignore human population growth, increasing per capita consumption and subsequent resource demand as drivers of threats to healthy and resilient ecosystems.

Our unique plants, animals and other organisms shape our national identity. They have wide-ranging benefits to our society, as well as being inherently valuable in their own right. They need a much stronger commitment to their ongoing protection.
The Conversation