Popularity, protection and pandas: How public perception shapes research and conservation

This is a guest post by Nicole Mertens.

Can you name an Australian ecosystem that provides billions of dollars to our economy, supports myriad endemic species and is facing ever increasing threats to its existence through poor management and climate change?

Many of you would have answered the Great Barrier Reef. But have you ever heard of the Great Southern Reef? Spanning the entire coastline of the southern half of Australia, most of us live a short distance from this rocky reef assemblage dominated by magnificent kelp forests. The forests themselves support a diverse range of fish, seaweeds and invertebrates. Kelp provide important “ecosystem services” such as nutrient cycling, sheltering coastlines and providing habitats for many species, including commercially targeted fish.

The kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef serve as habitat and breeding grounds for many endemic (and fascinating) marine species. Credit: Scott Bennett,

The kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef serve as habitat and breeding grounds for many endemic (and fascinating) marine species. Credit: Scott Bennett,

Whilst relatively little recognition of such an important system is disappointing in its own right, lack of public awareness of the existence (or plight) of something can have real world consequences. For example, the Australian Research Council (ARC) has awarded over $55 million in government funding to projects involving coral reefs in the last five years, whilst temperate (southern) reef research has only been funded to the tune of about $4 million. Conservative estimates show that the Great Southern Reef (GSR) is many times more economically valuable than the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Both systems are at risk of irreversible change from increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, mismanaged agricultural practices and overfishing. But while damage to the GBR is widely publicised and lamented, the forests of the GSR suffer in silence, deprived of valuable awareness and funding that could go a long way in identifying solutions to their decline.

And that brings us to pandas.

Giant pandas cost zoos five times more than elephants in upkeep, and it costs millions of dollars to rent pandas from China as part of their captive breeding program. Could that money be better spent? Credit:

Giant pandas cost zoos five times more than elephants in upkeep, and it costs millions of dollars to rent pandas from China as part of their captive breeding program. Could that money be better spent? Credit:

Everyone loves a giant panda. Any zoo lucky enough to have them draws adoring crowds and, theoretically, converts awareness and attendance into serious conservation dollars. Arguably the face of global conservation efforts, the panda even features on the World Wildlife Fund logo. But given the high cost of raising pandas in zoos (over US$1 million/year), cost of renting them from China (up to US$2.5 million/year), and relatively low success of captive breeding programs, is it all really worth it? In good news for pandas (and panda fans), China’s efforts to restore bamboo forests saw the species’ IUCN status downgraded last year from endangered to vulnerable. Is it time others got a piece of the conservation pie?

It’s common to champion a loveable, “flagship” animal, as any effort that results in better protection for them (such as habitat restoration) can spill over to the broader ecosystem. But pandas continue to siphon huge amounts of money away from other areas of zoological conservation, to the detriment of local endangered species. And in the case of big game hunting, some argue that allowing small numbers of iconic animals such as black rhinos to be killed by wealthy trophy hunters can provide greater protection than conventional conservation efforts. Understandably, many people don’t regard this as a win for wildlife, and despite the possibility that hunting could be a valuable conservation tool under certain circumstances, they demand a more feel-good approach. However, public sentiment in cases such as these may actually be doing more harm than good.

From perpetuating costly but ineffective panda breeding programs through to opposing trophy hunting as a conservation strategy, public perception does not always result in the best protections for endangered wildlife. Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

From perpetuating costly but ineffective panda breeding programs through to opposing trophy hunting as a conservation strategy, public perception does not always result in the best protections for endangered wildlife. Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

And then there are those species who don’t fall under the labels of “cute”, “loveable”, or even just “impressive” by our standards. These organisms may still be important drivers of ecosystem stability (or change). But tiny molluscs, moulds or crustaceans aren’t likely to be appearing on the logos of major environmental groups any time soon.

If an animal or place under threat just isn’t that popular, what can be done to raise awareness? For one example, Zoos Victoria is currently highlighting the predicament of the lesser known native endangered species they house, from skinks to stick insects. In the case of the GSR, researchers decided it would help to name it - to make it an entity that could be studied and discussed like its tropical counterpart. It seems that for humans to take an interest we need to be able to relate, and having a name helps. Some have even suggested that the GSR be given a different name entirely because most people only associate the word “reef” with coral - although arguably, this is part of the problem.

Regardless, it is unhelpful to focus on a good name or how loveable something is. For a healthy planet, we need “boring” insects and algae just as much as we need rhinos, pandas, and corals. Funding opportunities and broader conservation efforts can be heavily influenced by public perception of importance. Researchers and conservationists need to make sure the significance of their work is highlighted, emphasising the worth of a project over the aesthetics of its subject. Additionally, there is a need to make sure that the public can really relate, by promoting understanding and connection to our natural world.

So, before it gets too cold, get out and enjoy your local spot along our Great Southern Reef. I don’t recommend giving anything you find there a hug, but you can give it your appreciation.

Disclosure: The author has spent most of her time as a researcher studying decidedly non-photogenic algae and molluscs from temperate coastal ecosystems.

Superb Songsters: Uncovering the Secret Lives of Superb Fairy-wrens

This is a guest post by Amy LeBlanc.

It is a cold morning in rural Victoria, the mists still clinging to the grass in the paddocks. The euphonious sound of birdsong is all around, filling the air with both harmonies and clashing notes. A nearby bush rustles and out of it bursts a woman covered in twigs and leaves. She is holding a big fluffy microphone and has a heavy pair of binoculars around her neck. This is Amy LeBlanc, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, and she is here to chase down one of the cuter members of the dawn chorus: the superb fairy-wren.

Superb fairy-wrens are a favourite fixture throughout the south-eastern corner of mainland Australia and Tasmania, where they can be found in a large range of habitats. Although the females are a subtle brown colour, the eye-catching blue plumage of the males has made these birds something of an avian celebrity; images of fairy-wrens appear on everything from postcards to teacups, and they are well recognised by the general public. Their pretty plumage and coquettish tail flicks, coupled with the bird’s propensity to approach people, makes this species a popular backyard bird. What the public might not know is that this sweet little tweeter has a rather sordid private life.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

It has been known for quite some time that female and male wrens form lifelong partnerships where they defend a small territory and help to raise chicks together. Fairy-wrens have an interesting form of brood-care called cooperative breeding, where older sons will stay on with their mother at the nest and help raise younger generations of siblings. However, as it turns out, this happy little household holds quite a few secrets, and the family life of a wren is not as clean-cut as had previously been assumed.

In 1994, a study by Raoul Mulder showed that the large majority of eggs in a fairy-wren nest weren’t actually fathered by the dominant male of that territory. In other words, although the male and female were socially bonded, about 61-76% of the chicks he helped raise weren’t actually his. As it turns out, superb fairy-wrens have an extraordinarily high level of extra-pair paternity, where the female mates with males other than her social partner.

With this interesting mating system in mind, a long-term study was initiated at Serendip Sanctuary in Victoria to study a population of these unconventional songbirds. The study focused on personality and behaviour in the wrens. Each individual in the wildlife sanctuary was banded with a unique combination of colour bands, and over the course of the following decade extensive information has been collected on each Serendip bird.

It is this study that LeBlanc joined in 2015. Her specialisation is in animal communication, particularly the study of song complexity in passerine birds. Songbirds have long been thought to exhibit one of the most complex forms of audio communication know to science. Not only do their trills and warbles sound pretty, they are also able to convey an astounding amount of information from one bird to another.

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

Just as a human sentence is composed of words, syllables and phonemes all bound together by grammar, a bird song has phrases, syllables and elements bound together by syntax. And like a character out of a Shakespeare play, birds with larger vocabularies, or repertoires, are found to be more attractive by their peers than those who only know a few basic songs.

By recording the songs of superb fairy-wrens, LeBlanc is hoping to measure the repertoire sizes in different fairy-wrens and then compare their song complexity to traits such as sex, age and personality. She has also conducted experiments where she manipulated song recordings into complex and simple versions of the same song, played them to the wild wrens and recorded their reactions to each song type. Safe to say, the birds weren’t happy with the recordings: they were the equivalent of a stranger coming into your kitchen and belting out an opera. The level of reaction displayed by the birds in response to this intrusion can, however, tell us a lot about how they deal with conflict. LeBlanc is hoping to see if birds with different personalities react differently to her rude song intrusions.

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

What she has found so far is that males and females have similar repertoire sizes. However, male birds tend to cram more syllable types into each song than females. In other words, although they know a similar number of syllables, or “words”, the males choose to use more per song than the females. Unlike their female companions, they are a bit “wordier” with their lyrics. The results are preliminary and there is more yet to be explored, but what they show so far are some interesting similarities and differences between male and female birds.

Superb fairy-wrens, those sweet Australian songsters, have a lot more going on in their lives than simply showing off their feathers. From lifetime loves, to sordid neighbourhood affairs and complex sonatas, these birds demonstrate just how intriguing the social lives of our native animals can be. Through research and long-term studies, we can uncover all kinds of hidden facts about even our most common backyard birds.

Amy LeBlanc is a MSc candidate at the University of Melbourne, studying animal communication. She is passionate about science communication and anything with feathers.

You can find her on twitter @amylebird.

Banner image courtesy of Timon van Asten.

Oliver the Orphaned Swan

We know the story of Oliver’s parents, up until they went missing. We know that Oliver’s mother is at least four years old, and used to live in Brighton. We know that his father was raised at Albert Park Lake, but also spent time in Williamstown and at the Eastern Treatment Plant. We know that the couple were together for at least three months before Oliver and his siblings hatched.

Oliver and his family are wild black swans. So how do we know so much about them?

Since 2006, researchers from the University of Melbourne have been studying the black swans at Albert Park Lake. To tell the swans apart, each is given a metal leg band with a unique code. These metal bands are designed to last a swan’s lifetime, but they are almost impossible to read from a distance – particularly when a swan has its legs underwater. So the swans are also given a specially designed identification collar, allowing anyone to identify a swan without needing to catch it.

Since the project began, more than 700 people have reported sightings of collared swans, using the MySwan website and mobile app. These sightings provide huge amounts of information about the swans’ behaviour and movements. While some swans have remained at Albert Park, others are regularly seen in other waterways around Melbourne, or further afield. Some swans have even crossed the border into New South Wales.

Image: Marci Chai

Image: Marci Chai

I joined the black swan team two years ago, when I began my PhD. When I first looked for swan nests at Albert Park, I only had a vague idea of what I was looking for. I was almost surprised when I first saw a swan sitting on a neatly-constructed mound of reeds, twigs and grass. The swan’s name, according to his collar, was W43. His partner was J17. They had built their nest on one of the islands, away from foxes, dogs and people. For the next four to five weeks, the pair took turns incubating their eggs, while I watched from the shore.

A volunteer, Rowan, saw the babies first. To the naked eye, they were tiny pale shapes moving at the nest, barely visible. We had to use a spotting scope to be sure we weren’t imagining them. But there, shuffling beneath the two parents, were three tiny, white balls of fluff. As we watched, these three baby swans – or “cygnets” – followed their parents down the bank and into the water. They were probably less than a day old.

The first time our team caught W43 and J17’s cygnets, they were still far too small for leg bands or collars. The smallest cygnet was only 230g – about the weight of a large potato. So instead, we gave them temporary marks on their feet, which would last until they had grown. We also took a small blood sample for DNA. The DNA would be used to find out whether the cygnets were male or female, and whether W43 was their biological father.

Contrary to popular myth, swans don’t necessarily mate with one partner for life. In fact, around 15% of cygnets are not fathered by their mother’s partner – a discovery that was made by examining the DNA of cygnets at Albert Park Lake. Swans will also find a new partner if something happens to their previous partner, and will even sometimes divorce. For example, W43’s ex-partner was still living nearby when he and J17 built their nest.

Image: Anne Aulsebrook

Image: Anne Aulsebrook

After the cygnets had been tagged, weighed, and sampled for DNA, the family was released. They swam out into the lake, honking and bobbing their heads together in a display called a “triumph”. Then they preened themselves vigorously. All appeared well.

Three months later, Oliver’s parents were gone.

We – another research student, Izzy, and I – found the three cygnets grazing by the lake’s edge. They were still grey, fluffy and far too young to fly. We walked around the entire lake. W43 and J17 were nowhere to be seen.

What happened? I still don’t know. Five months later, we received a report that W43 was back at Albert Park, but this was never confirmed. J17 was never seen again. She is now presumed dead.

There are many dangers that a cygnet might experience. There are predators, including foxes. There are cars and dogs. But one of the biggest threats to a cygnet is an adult swan. Black swans are less territorial than their European relatives, but will still attack “intruders”, particularly if they have their own cygnets to feed. For an orphaned cygnet, with no protection from parents and no safe “home”, the situation becomes particularly dire. Within a month, two of the three orphaned cygnets had disappeared.

But the last orphan found ways to escape older swan bullies. Down by the sailing club, we witnessed him being chased by a full-grown male swan, who was flapping furiously, neck outstretched. The cygnet swam straight towards the jetty and ducked underneath. There, between the water and the platform, was just enough space for a cygnet his size. The large male, unable to reach him, soon turned away. As we watched, the cygnet slowly poked his head out from his hiding place, checked the coast was clear, and resumed his search for food.

Oliver and his hiding spot under the jetty.  Image: Izzy Taylor

Oliver and his hiding spot under the jetty. Image: Izzy Taylor

We started to call him Oliver. He became a local favourite. Hassled by swans on the water, Oliver began to spend his time on land. We would often find him eating grass outside the sailing club café, showing no fear of the people nearby. He somehow always looked as though he was eating ravenously, as though it could be his last meal.

The markings on Oliver’s feet told us that he was “Cygnet 8”, the smallest of W43 and J17’s offspring. But these markings would not last forever. So, when he was eight months old, we captured Oliver to give him his first collar. Oliver showed an unusual response to being captured: he did not respond at all. When Izzy grabbed hold of Oliver, he didn’t even flinch. When she picked him up, he appeared to examine his surroundings curiously. When he was released, Oliver stood on the spot for a few minutes, before checking our hands for food.

Oliver, also known as K40 (“Oliver” wouldn’t fit on his collar), became better at behaving like a swan. But he continued to have his quirks. From a distance, we would see a group of swans ambling about, nibbling at grass – and one swan sitting and tearing the grass apart as though his life depended on it. Sure enough, it would be Oliver. We once arrived at Albert Park to find that all the grass had been mown except for one small patch, about two metres wide. At the edge of this patch, there was a person on a ride-on mower, looking tired and impatient. In the middle of patch, there was Oliver, eating ravenously, with no apparent intention of moving.

Oliver at four months.  Image: Izzy Taylor

Oliver at four months. Image: Izzy Taylor

Oliver at eight months with his neck collar.  Image: Izzy Taylor

Oliver at eight months with his neck collar. Image: Izzy Taylor

I haven’t seen Oliver for four months now. He seemed to vanish, exactly one year after his parents did. Maybe he is exploring around Port Phillip Bay, the way his father did at his age. Maybe I just happen to miss him each time I visit Albert Park Lake. Maybe something worse has happened. But wherever he’s gone, and no matter what happens to him, we will know Oliver’s story when we find him – or at least how it began.

You can log your sightings of wild black swans wearing neck collars, and also upload photos, using the MySwan website or MySwan mobile app.

Anne Aulsebrook

Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, interested in conservation and the evolution of animal behaviour. She is currently researching how streetlights affect sleep in urban birds, including black swans.

You can find her on Twitter at @AnneAulsebrook.

Banner image courtesy of Anne Aulsebrook.


The Little Things That Run The City

This is a guest post by Luis Mata. 

…let me say a word on behalf of these little things that run the world.

This quote was part of an address given by E.O. Wilson on the occasion of the 1997 opening of the invertebrate exhibit of the National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. The ultimate objective of Wilson’s address was to stress the urgent need to recognise the importance of insects and other invertebrates for humanity. He was keen to see that efforts aimed at the conservation of biodiversity were beginning to include non-vertebrate animals. In his words:

‘A hundred years ago few people thought of saving any kind of animal or plant. The circle of concern has expanded steadily since, and it is just now beginning to encompass the invertebrates.’

With The Little Things that Run the City - a close research collaboration between the City of Melbourne’s Urban Sustainability Branch, RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group and nine other academic and government organisations - we sought to expand this circle so that it may also encompass the conservation of insects in urban environments. We were driven by the motivation to ‘say a word on behalf of the little things that run the city’. 

The Little Things that Run the City, Mata et al. 2016.  Artwork: Kate Cranney

The Little Things that Run the City, Mata et al. 2016. Artwork: Kate Cranney

How many insect species live in your city? How are they distributed amongst the city’s green spaces and habitats? What are the ecological processes they perform and ecosystem services they deliver? What are their most frequent ecological interactions?

The Little Things that Run the City project is addressing these and other questions within the boundaries of the City of Melbourne. Here are some of our key findings:

We found that at least 560 insect species occur within the City of Melbourne’s public green spaces. These included species of ants, bees, beetles, cicadas, flies, heteropteran bugs, jumping plant lice, leafhoppers, treehoppers, planthoppers, parasitoid and stinging wasps, and sawflies. The insect group with the highest diversity was beetles, followed by parasitoid wasps and flies.

The most common species was a ‘Minute brown scavenger beetle’ in genus Cortinicara. Minute brown scavenger beetles are tiny and dark, and measure about 2 mm in length. Truly ubiquitous in the City of Melbourne, the species was collected in all studied sites and habitats, and in association with 102 different plant species – that’s 94% of all surveyed plant species!

The European honey bee Apis mellifera was the most common bee species. We also recorded many Australian native bees, including chequered cuckoo, leafcutter, and blue-banded bees.

A blue-banded bee ( Amegilla asserta ) flying towards a black-anther flax-lily.  Image: Luis Mata

A blue-banded bee (Amegilla asserta) flying towards a black-anther flax-lily. Image: Luis Mata

We have recorded at least four new species to science. These include an ant in genus Turneria, a lacebug in genus Tingis, and two jumping plant lice: Mycopsylla sp. nov. and Acanthocasuarina sp. nov..

As many as 97% of all recorded species were native to Australia. The most common non-native species was the Argentine ant Linepithema humile, an aggressive invasive species known to displace native ants and capable of disrupting ant-mediated seed dispersal interactions.

Mid-storey was the habitat type with the highest insect diversity. As many as 337 species were recorded in association with mid-storey plants. The second most diverse habitat type was tree, followed by grassland and lawn.  

The tussock-grass Poa labillardierei was the plant species with the highest associated insect diversity. As many as 103 insect species were associated with this native grass. The native wallaby grass Rytidosperma sp. and kangaroo grass Themeda triandra also had large numbers of associated insect species. The shrub with the highest associated insect diversity was the fragrant saltbush Chenopodium parabolicum, followed by sweet bursaria Bursaria spinosa, gold-dust wattle Acacia acinacea and hop goodenia Goodenia ovata.

There were over 60% more insect species in native than non-native tree species. Interestingly, however, the tree species with the highest associated insect diversity were both the native spotted gum Corymbia maculata and the non-native pepper tree Schinus molle.

We documented approximately 2,200 associations between insect and plant species. On average, each insect species was associated with 3.3 plant species. For example, the most generalist herbivore recorded in the study, a tiny green leafhopper, was recorded in association with 57 plant species, which is more than 50% of all surveyed plant species. This is assuming of course that it actually feeds on every plant species that we found it on!

A dingy swallowtail ( Papilio anactus ) in Carlton Gardens.  Image: Luis Mata

A dingy swallowtail (Papilio anactus) in Carlton Gardens. Image: Luis Mata

Half of all adult insect species recorded in the study were herbivores. Of these, as many as 68% were folivores, a guild in which species specialise to eat leaves.

We don’t know how many species were pollinators! What we do know is that as many as 25% of all recorded species are known to visit flowers to collect nectar and/or pollen – that is almost 150 species of beetles, parasitoid and stinging wasps, flies, heteropteran bugs, ants, and, of course, bees.

Over 40% of all recorded insect species were predators or parasitoids. These species are therefore capable of regulating the populations of potential insect pests.

The insects recorded in the study may supply at least two types of food: honey and lerps. We documented only one species of honey-producing bee, namely the non-native European honey bee. Lerps are crystallised protective structures made out of the sugar-rich liquid honeydew exudated by the immature stages of jumping plant lice.

The Little Things that Run the City project illustrates the importance of insect biodiversity conservation to the City of Melbourne, and by extension, to other cities worldwide. Our findings are being applied to identify where to prioritise conservation activities, guide the design and maintenance of green spaces, and assist decision-makers considering insects in broader biodiversity plans and strategies. The study is providing valuable baseline data that can be integrated into the council’s planned research agendas; for example, in future iterations of the City of Melbourne’s BioBlitz and in the future development of monitoring programs.

Our findings are also providing data to The shared urban habitat, one of the five main research lines of the National Environmental Science Programme – Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, and to the recently awarded Australian Research Council Linkage Project Designing green spaces for biodiversity and human well-being.

Insects are the most diversified animal group on our planet - and in our city! From a functional perspective they are arguably the most important as well. The ‘little things that run the city’ spread seeds, eat rubbish, pollinate food crops and flowers, produce honey, keep soils healthy, help control weeds and pests, and are a food source for some of our other most dear animals, such as lizards, bats and birds. Keeping them safe and healthy within our city should be one of our top urban conservation priorities!

Dr Luis Mata is a postdoctoral researcher at RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group. You can discover more about Luis and his research on his research blog. 

Banner image of a shield bug from genus Cuspicona courtesy of Luis Mata.