Ecosystem services: it’s not all about the dollars

Thank you to Remember The Wild for the opportunity to write this piece for their exciting new website!

Nature is essential to our wellbeing. There are multiple layers of complexity and nuance to that statement. But they all boil down to the fact that our lives depend on the natural systems around us. Trees, insects, birds, mammals, earthworms, springtails, bacteria, fungi, plants… Soil, water, air… Ecosystems are structured by complex and dynamic interactions between all of these components, all of which ultimately affect our survival.

This fundamental fact is the basis of the ecosystem services concept. Contrary to some popular opinions, working with ecosystem services is not all about ‘putting a price on nature’. In fact, the concept has much greater potential for improving human wellbeing and promoting nature conservation than it is often given credit for.

People often call ‘ecosystem services’ a new concept. It’s not. For centuries, human communities have known that nature provides a multitude of benefits that keep us alive and happy, from food and natural fibres to the clean air we breathe. Almost every ancient text contains some reference to the ways that nature supported human lives and communities, or provides clues to how our ancestors worked within that space to reap the greatest benefits in the long-term.

Continue reading the rest of my article at Remember The Wild…

ES diagram

© Manu Saunders 2017

Pest and beneficial insects in apple orchards

My latest paper is out. It’s a leftover from my last postdoc at Charles Sturt Uni where I was working on ecosystem services in SE Australian apple orchards with Gary Luck and PhD student Rebecca Peisley – see her blog posts on her work here.

Our main research question for the project was to calculate the net outcome, in terms of yield, of all the positive and negative effects of animal interactions across a growing season. You can read our previous paper on those results here.

In this new paper we looked at another interaction, the influence of landscape vegetation and orchard ground cover on different invertebrate groups. I really enjoyed this project as it was an opportunity to explore an idea I had been thinking about for a while. I first got interested in orchard ground cover during my PhD, comparing wild pollinators in almond orchards with and without living ground cover. Continue reading

PhD opportunity!

PhD Opportunity: Ecosystem Services Networks in Multifunctional Landscapes

 Supervisors: Dr Manu Saunders, Dr Romina Rader; University of New England

We are looking for candidates interested in applying for a PhD scholarship through the University of New England, Armidale. Candidates interested in insect ecology, landscape ecology, ecosystem services and environmental modelling are encouraged to apply. Experience with entomological sampling, particularly flying insects, will be highly regarded.

This interdisciplinary project will integrate theory and concepts from ecology, economics and agricultural science to better understand how to sustainably manage multifunctional landscapes that support agricultural production, nature conservation and human well-being. The project can be tailored to the successful candidate’s interests and could be predominantly field-based, modelling-based, or a mix of both. Field work will be mostly around northern New South Wales in a variety of land uses, including remnant forest, berry farms, dairy farms and mixed cropping.

Candidates must be an Australian or New Zealand citizen (or have Australian Permanent Residency). Willingness to work independently and as part of a team are important qualities. The applicant must be proficient in spoken and written English, have a current driver’s license and a First Class Honours or Masters level qualification in ecology, entomology, zoology or related area. The preferred applicant should also have a demonstrated commitment to science communication and outreach and an interest in natural history. Selection of applicants will be based on merit.

The successful PhD candidate will receive operating funds up to 10K, a new computer and access to conference funding.

To apply, or for any questions, contact Dr Manu Saunders: manu.saunders@une.edu.au

For more information on our research: https://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com and https://www.raderlab.com/

Applications should include a CV, a list of any publications (including outreach), and a cover letter describing your background and interest in the project.

Scholarship applications through UNE close 29 September 2017: https://www.une.edu.au/research/hdr/hdr-scholarships/rtp-scholarship

Invertebrates benefit agriculture in lots of different ways

Production benefits from invertebrates (other than pollination and natural pest control) are often overlooked in agroecosystems.  There has been much more focus on the impact of insect pests. But invertebrates provide lots of other benefits in production systems. Developing sustainable farming systems is an imperative for our future – sustainable systems are those that produce food and fibre, while also enhancing human well-being and supporting ecosystem function through ecologically-sound management.  Understanding how farms can be managed to enhance production via the benefits invertebrates provide is a key to sustainable agriculture. Continue reading

Raptors provide an important ecosystem service by scavenging carcasses in agricultural landscapes

This post is from my PhD student Rebecca Peisley, who I co-supervised with Gary Luck. Rebecca submitted her thesis earlier this year. Find the paper here: The role of avian scavengers in the breakdown of carcasses in pastoral landscapes.  Also read Rebecca’s previous post on her other PhD work in apple orchards here.

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Animal carcasses such as deceased livestock, road-kill or culled animals are a fact of life in agricultural landscapes, and can encourage increased and unwanted visits from wild dogs and foxes and also contribute to the spread of disease. Scavenging birds in these landscapes can remove carcasses, and therefore provide an important ecosystem service for farmers.

Perhaps the most well-known examples of carcass removal services in agricultural landscapes, which are worth millions of dollars each year, are those provided by vultures in Europe, Asia and Africa. The removal of carcasses by vultures near human settlements can reduce the number and visitation rates of rabid dogs that would otherwise be attracted to the carcasses, and in so doing, reduce the spread of rabies to the human population.

Unfortunately, vulture populations have suffered severe declines in recent years, and do not occur worldwide. However, other bird groups such as raptors and corvids are also common scavengers and a diverse assemblage of these occur in Australia. Like vultures, the scavenging behaviour of raptors and corvids has the potential to reduce the prevalence of unwanted pests such as red foxes and wild dogs in the landscape, and also reduce the spread of diseases such as blowfly strike. However, the benefits of carcass removal in agroecosystems in Australia are not widely recognised and have not yet been quantified. Continue reading

A failed experiment: earwigs as pests and predators in fruit orchards

Field ecology experiments are fickle. Even with best laid plans in place, they can fail…Nature doesn’t follow sampling protocols.

When this happens, should you publish the results? Most people would say no, and I would generally agree. Failed experiments are different to negative results. The latter are important additions to the scientific literature, but the former have very limited use. The results of failed experiments will have limited value, depending on why the experiment failed and how many data points were left intact. But they can have some use as ‘what not to do’ baselines for other researchers. Continue reading

Artificial pollinators are cool, but not the solution

Agreed, bees and other insect pollinators are under threat globally from multiple human pressures. If pollinators disappear completely from an ecosystem, their loss will affect the structure of those ecosystems and the natural foods and fibres we use from the ecosystem. So, finding solutions to the problem of pollinator decline are imperative.

This is why the robo bees story sounds like such a seductive idea. Imagine creating tiny drones with hairs on them that can be programmed to do a bee’s job? Wow! We are off the hook. Continue reading

Sustainable Agriculture: Best of 2016 & the wooden spoon

All good things come to an end. 2016 was a year just like any other; some dreadful things happened and some wonderful things happened, depending on who you talk to.

For people interested in sustainable agriculture, it was a pretty exciting year. But in keeping with the annual theme of misinformation, there were also plenty of fails. Here are some of the highlights for me: Continue reading

Tarzan on Ecosystem Services

They are singing the legend of Tarzan…They speak of his power over the animals of the jungle. Because his spirit came from them. He understood them. And learned to be as one with them.

 

Last week I watched The Legend of Tarzan (2016) because I was trapped on a plane for 4 hours. It really wasn’t that bad, despite the scathing reviews it has received. All the outraged critics must have had very high expectations. It’s just a bit of Hollywood fun that is very enjoyable if you don’t take it all too seriously. And there are some nice historically-accurate details to counteract the fantastical story.

As the credits rolled, it struck me that it also provides some good examples of ecosystem services. Continue reading

Unlikely plant-pollinator relationships

When we think about planting for pollinators, the first plants we reach for are often ones with obvious flowers, usually bright and showy, perhaps with an attractive scent, and lots of pollen and nectar. Most of these will be insect-pollinated plants, which is why they are so attractive to pollinator insects – they have co-evolved with pollinators to reap the reproductive benefits of insect visitation.

But pollinators also use plenty of other plants that we wouldn’t think of as being ‘pollinator plants’, particularly plants that are pollinated by wind, like conifers and grasses. Some grasses are pollinated by bees. And some bees feed on fungi. These interactions have been observed by scientists and naturalists for centuries, but are often forgotten when we talk about pollinator conservation.

This is one of the key challenges with the ecosystem services concept. Trying to justify conservation of pollinator insects because they provide us with benefits, i.e. fruits and seeds from plants they pollinate, is not always useful. Partly because this approach overlooks the fact that pollinators also need lots of other resources to survive, some of which we may not benefit from. And separating ‘insect-pollinated crops’ (e.g. almonds, stonefruit, berries) from ‘wind-pollinated crops’ (e.g. wheat, rice, corn) when we talk about managing farms for pollinator conservation, ignores the fact that some pollinators will regularly visit wind-pollinated crops to collect pollen for food.

I’m currently writing a review of records of pollinator species visiting plant species that we traditionally assume to be wind-pollinated, after noticing some of these interactions at field sites and in my own garden (stay tuned!). I didn’t find any records of some of these plant-pollinator interactions in my literature review, so I’m recording them here. One-off ecological observations are rarely accepted by academic journals, because they are not considered scientific studies. But, in conjunction with other knowledge, they can provide important information for future research hypotheses.

Continue reading