How many species live in your home?

This is a guest post from Matthew Holden, an applied mathematician based at the University of Queensland. I loved seeing his backyard biodiversity hunt on Twitter, because so many of his pictures were of invertebrates! His story…

Well that’s what I wanted to know about my home.

It all started one day, more than a year ago, when my housemate, Dr Andrew Rogers, was cleaning out his closet. He wanted to move the spiders outside and spare them from getting sucked up by our vacuum, during a much-needed cleaning session. But there was one problem, there were a lot of spiders, definitely several species. He thought, “How many spiders do I share the house with?” It was a slippery slope … it wasn’t long till we wanted to know all of the species in our home.

From then on, we regularly talked about conducting a very local biodiversity survey, but never got around to it. We were fortunate enough to even have a taxonomist, Dr Russell Yong, move in with us, who was keen to help out. But we kept putting it off.

Then the pandemic happened. We all decided to start working for home – a perfect time to do the survey. It would give us all a social activity to bond over during this time of isolation. Andrew even came up with a hashtag for us to share our findings #StayHomeBiodiversityChallenge. Continue reading

Nature moves back in…or will it?

With urban areas around the world suddenly emptied of humans, people are sharing photos and videos on social media showing wild animals cavorting in the empty streets.

I started to collate some of them on Twitter, but I gave up because it’s really hard to confirm how many of them are fake news.

The Goats of Llandudno were a legitimate lockdown observation – but it turns out they’re regular visitors to the town. Some posts are clearly a joke (a herd of buffalo in the centre of Buffalo, NY), while others would seem pretty believable to most people with no specialist knowledge of the species or location, like the ‘rare Malabar civet’ in the streets of an Indian town.

Most posts provide very little context, no confirmation of the date they were filmed, and often no confirmed source. For the average responsible social media user, there is simply no way of verifying them. Continue reading

The real Tinkerbell: don’t mess with these tiny fairy wasps

Have you ever seen a fairy? They exist, and may very well be in your garden. But you would need a high-powered microscope to spot the dainty creatures.

Fairy wasps (family Mymaridae) are tiny, feathery-winged parasitoid wasps. They’re often called fairy flies, which is a misnomer. The Mymaridae family includes the smallest known insects in the world. Most species are less than 1mm long – smaller than the average pinhead.

Read on at The Conversation.

© Manu Saunders 2019

Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face

The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…

As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).

I felt confused, because I cared about both! Continue reading

A community of solitary hymenopterans

You don’t need to plan expensive field expeditions to find exciting natural history observations.

Last weekend, my husband dragged me away from grant-writing for a quick afternoon outing. We headed to Dangars Gorge, about 20 minutes’ drive from Armidale. The gorge is part of the World Heritage Gondwana Rainforests, a protected area we are so lucky to have on our doorstep. Sadly, it’s a bit dry this year.

Every time we’ve visited, I’ve hit the ecology observation jackpot: an interesting interaction, a new species record, or a natural history mystery. So I had my camera on hand, just in case. And I didn’t have to look far… Continue reading

Australia’s threatened insects

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at the Insect Ecology Research Chapter workshop at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference in Brisbane. I talked about how policy and popular media influence insect conservation in Australia; as an example, I discussed this research by Toby Smith and me showing how introduced honey bees dominate mainstream media coverage of pollinators in Australia.

I also collated data on which insect species are officially listed as threatened species in Australia. In Australia, we have a national list (under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) of flora and fauna species that are considered threatened at a national scale. In addition, each individual state and territory has its own threatened species list under various state legislation. Continue reading

Insect declines: pay attention

Last year I wrote about the Insect Armageddon story – an important paper that received some exaggerated media hype.

A new paper just published in PNAS adds another twist to the insect declines saga…clearly, this story is far from over.

Lister & Garcia analysed data collected in the Luqillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico. This area of tropical rainforest is not a ‘pristine’ untouched wilderness, as some media reports are claiming – no place on Earth is untouched by humans! The site has been a long-term research location for decades, going back to the early 1900s, with a focus on experiments to understand the effects of disturbances of all kinds. Many important experimental research projects involving human disturbances (like this one) have happened in the Luqillo forest.

This study is important for a few reasons. Continue reading

Nature’s sugar shack

Following on with the theme from my last post, here’s an article I wrote for the latest issue of the wonderful Wildlife Australia magazine.

Scale insects get a hard time. We usually think of them as pests, based on our experience with them in gardens and farms. But if a scale insect is living on a tree in the middle of a forest far from any human community, is it a pest? Or part of a complex web of interactions? Every living thing contributes to ecosystem function somehow and there are lots of interesting interactions that we overlook by focusing on simplistic labels.

Click on the image below to read the article.

© Manu Saunders 2018

Workshopping invasive insects

Last week I was delighted to attend a workshop at Monash University focused on using EICAT methods to assess environmental impacts of invasive insect species. Thank you to Melodie McGeoch and her team (Dave, Chris & Rebecca), and Andrew and Carol from the Invasive Species Council, for inviting me in the first place, and for organising an excellent, productive week. We were also very lucky to have Sabrina Kumschick and Helen Roy there to share their expertise in developing and using EICAT.

It was a ‘proper’ workshop, i.e. a small group of researchers working on a project together with planned outcomes, rather than a training or upskilling ‘workshop’ (why aren’t they just called courses?!). As an early career researcher, it was so rewarding to be there. Research workshops have similar benefits to conferences, in that you have the opportunity to discuss new ideas and network outside your normal collaborative groups. But I find workshops much more fulfilling than conferences, because you have more time to develop those ideas, learn new perspectives, and really get to know people you may not otherwise cross paths with. Continue reading

Science needs Nature: so why keep them apart?

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Ensia about how popular media tend to separate science and nature stories as if they’re unrelated categories. Most major online news websites have separate pages for ‘Science’ stories (predominantly technology, space and medical research) and ‘Environment’ stories (mostly pieces on nature, wilderness, environmental activism, or cute wildlife, sometimes with a few pieces on climate change thrown in for good measure). Continue reading