The unloved Cinderella of science
Climate change could make insect swarms an issue for New Zealand farmers and a lack of funding for long-term monitoring may mean we won’t have warning a swarm is likely to form.
Unlike other first world OECD countries, New Zealand doesn’t have long-term ecological research networks.
University of Auckland’s Dr Margaret Stanley said overseas research networks collect data on everything, from water and vegetation to insects. The data can predict potential changes based on a pest being introduced, or climate change which could trigger events such as a locust swarm.
Without data Stanley said: “We’re making decisions, puddling around in the dark a little, but not really understanding what’s going on.”
She refers to monitoring as the unloved and underpaid Cinderella of science.
“Funding agencies don’t see monitoring as sexy or commit for more than five or six years at the very most. You need people out there, year after year doing the same monitoring.”
Threats posed by introduced biocontrol insects are an ongoing area of concern for Stanley.
She said monitoring will help scientists understand ecosystems and could assist in making decisions around bringing in new organisms for biocontrol.
Not having answers to questions asked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when they assess whether a crop biocontrol insect is safe to introduce to the country has proved frustrating for Stanley in the past.
“You just have to throw your hands up and go nobody would know, there’s no data. No one had monitored.”
Currently the only data to assist decision making includes data around invasive wasps, or ants. These are social insects and behave differently to many of the insects proposed for introduction for biocontrol.
For other species the data gap leaves a black-hole.
“Lepidopterists [people who study butterflies and moths] think there are a number of species that have gone extinct or are no longer found in certain places, so locally extinct that they would put down to an introduced species.”
When Stanley is in front of an EPA assessment panel, more often than not all she can give is anecdotal evidence, or refer to the accidentally introduced South African Mantis, which have displaced native mantid.
Without hard evidence the EPA have to assess the risk of introducing biocontrol insects based on costs versus benefits.
“The benefits actually are often overstated because you can put a dollar figure on that, because you can say this industry is worth this much million.
“You might go what are the costs of it? It could impact, this, or this, or this, but we can’t say how much it will impact it. No one has monitored to show that something bad has happened before. We can’t ever put a dollar value on an extinction, or more importantly a reduction in something.”
The worst-case scenario for getting the cost versus benefits equation wrong is the potential collapse of an ecosystem.
“If we let one of these species in [a predator known to eat multiple organisms] it could be the tipping point for another species. We don’t really understand the role of all invertebrates in ecosystems, we know they have roles in decomposition and pollination and these sorts of things but not often for individual species and how they fit together or how much we can afford to lose.
“There may be a tipping point in an ecosystem where you’ve lost too many and all the system processes stop working.”
There have been long-term monitoring projects in New Zealand. Stanley said these disappeared around the same time as the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was disestablished and replaced with Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).
Stanley said funding available through CRIs is short-term and doesn’t allow for 30 to 40-year monitoring projects.
CRIs are crown-owned companies and required by legislation to be financially viable.
Plant & Food Research is a CRI focused on food crops. Its science group leader of biosecurity
and bio-protection, Professor Max Suckling is pragmatic about monitoring and said long-term ecological monitoring comes at a cost.
“Long-term data sets in horticulture have a reason to exist because they use them every year. In the ecosystems it's expensive and where is the benefit? I think that is the challenge.
“There's a call for ‘We don't have any of this going on, we must have some.’ I am the sort of person who says - why? What are we trying to achieve?”
Monitoring for monitoring sake is not something Suckling sees as desirable without clear goals to establish its value, however, he is enthusiastic about the ability of second-hand technology to automate monitoring.
His team are using second-hand mobile phones powered by solar panels hidden in insect traps to take photos and upload them for scientists to review from their desks.
He believes low-cost sensors like this will change the way ecology data is gathered in much the same way sensors can now cheaply gather health data.
“It means good things because it's cheaper than sending people out in the field. The good news if you like is hopefully it [monitoring] should come down in costs but it’s still got to be in the context of why are we doing it in the first place.”
For Stanley the question of why long-term monitoring is needed comes down to gaps in our understanding of New Zealand’s endemic species and their role in the ecosystem.
“We’ve got a lot where we don’t even know how many there are or where they are or what their threats might be. If we don’t do long-term stuff with climate change coming, we don’t know how things are going to be affected.
“We’ve got locusts in New Zealand, they don’t swarm, so we don’t have locust plagues, but they are triggered to swarm in other places because of the environmental conditions. There’s just a lot of stuff we don’t know.”