I’ll be taking a week off from the Blog (at this stage – may be longer) due to a resurgent CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I have been battling this ‘outbreak’ for about 6 weeks and there has been very little improvement, so I need to take some ‘health time.’ Back when I can be.
The key to a stick insect’s survival may be allowing their eggs to be eaten and excreted by birds, according to new Japanese research.
Phasmatodea – more commonly known as stick insects – were so named because they genuinely look just like sticks.
While some stick insects do look like the classic stick – mottled brown with elongated limbs – others look remarkably like green leaves. They even have intricate leaf-like veins in their broad green wings.
But these new findings show that not only do these insects look like plants, they also behave like them – by using birds to disperse their offspring.
Surprisingly, researchers led by Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University found that stick insect eggs can actually survive being digested by birds, and in some cases still successfully hatch.
They fed three eggs from three stick insect species to their main bird predator, the brown-eared bulbul. Within three hours, 5-20% of these eggs had been defecated and were completely intact.
Even more impressively, a few of these eggs subsequently hatched. This leads us to ask what would happen if an adult female was eaten by a bird. Would the eggs inside of unlucky stick insect survive the bird’s digestive system and stand a chance of making it out at the other end?
Plants have evolved ingenious ways of moving their seeds across large distances. Some seeds are carried by the wind or ocean currents, or by animals. Bushwalkers will be very familiar with prickly seeds designed to attach to animal hair, as they are also annoyingly good at sticking to trousers.
Many plants pack their seeds in delicious fruit which attracts animals with bright colours and alluring fragrances. When animals eat the fruit, some of the seeds make it through their digestive tract and are deposited far away.
This gives these seeds a better chance at survival, because they are not in competition with the parent plant.
This is a challenge that stick insects also face, as they’re not the most mobile twigs on the bush. Stick insects are slow and only move at night to avoid being seen by predators. Dispersal by birds helps avoid localised competition between generations.
But this isn’t where the similarities end. Some species of stick insect have eggs that are covered in long prickly spines that may have evolved to stick to animal fur, just like plant seeds.
There is even some evidence that stick insects arrived in Madagascar from somewhere on the other side of the Indian Ocean. This prompts the question of whether their eggs float across the vast seas like miniature coconuts.
Stick insects and plants have also developed a mutually beneficial relationship with ants to disperse their eggs and seeds.
In Australia, we have a huge diversity of “myrmecochorous” plants (trees and shrubs whose seeds are picked up and carried by ants). These plants attract ants with “elaiosomes”, which are small structures on their outer surface packed full of nutritious ant food.
Some species stick insects’ eggs also have strange-looking structures on their outer surface. It turns out that these structures, called “capitula”, are also full of nutritious ant food. And sure enough, after the eggs are laid, ants will pick them up and carry them to their nests.
An ant’s nest is a surprisingly safe place for an egg or seed. In there, they are protected from fire, predators, parasites, and drying out.
(Exactly how the newly hatched stick insects escape from the ant nest is a mystery – for now.)
It appears stick insects may have taken more than just one leaf out plants’ book – they may be more “plant-like” than we had ever imagined.
Covering roofs and walls of buildings with vegetation is a good way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And these green roofs and walls make cities look nicer. Toronto’s central business district adopted a policy of establishing green roofs on around half of all city buildings in 2009. Research shows this could reduce maximum city temperatures by up to 5℃.
We spent the past 12 months analysing the case for more greenery on Australian city buildings, drawing on international comparisons. We’ve shown that a mandatory policy, coupled with incentives to encourage new and retrofitted green roofs and walls, will provide environmental, social and business benefits.
These include improved air quality, energy conservation and reductions in stormwater run-off from buildings, which would decrease flash flooding. Green roofs and walls also become new habitats for biodiversity and can be pleasant spaces for social interaction in dense urban areas.
What other countries are doing
We examined international case studies of cities embracing green roofs and walls to review policy frameworks which could be suitable for Australia. A range of measures and policies exist and vary depending on building types (buildings need specific features to host vegetation) and the degree to which policies can be enforced.
Singapore is leading in this area. It markets itself as a “garden city” to attract investment, visitors and commerce. Green roofs and walls are a vital and visual manifestation of this policy.
Greenery is ingrained in Singapore’s development sector and is boosted by incentives, grants, awards, certification schemes and government-led development. Through this voluntary-heavy (yet supported) effort, Singapore increased its number of green roofs and spaces nine-fold between 2006 and 2016.
Rotterdam’s efforts weren’t as extensive as Singapore’s, but the city more than doubled its green roof area from 2012-2017 through incentives, grants, tax benefits and demonstration projects.
London increased its total green-roof area more than four-fold from 2005-2016. This was partially achieved through a biodiversity action plan.
And Toronto has the second-largest area of green roofs of the four cities we studied. This has been delivered through a mandatory policy, introduced in 2009, that requires all new developments with roofs of 2,000m² or more to install green roofs.
The case in Australia
We modelled what could be delivered in the City of Sydney and the City of Melbourne based on the measures taken in Singapore (which is voluntary-heavy), London (voluntary-light), Rotterdam (voluntary-medium) and Toronto (mandatory).
We combined this with data on actual green building projects in 2017 in Sydney and Melbourne to show the potential increase of projects in each city based on the four policies.
In the Sydney local government area, 123 green roof and wall projects were under way in 2016. The below table uses this base to estimate what the numbers of such projects would be for three time periods, based on the policies in the four scenarios modelled.
In the Melbourne local government area, 28 green roof and wall projects were under way in 2016. The table below shows how these could increase based on policies of the four case studies modelled.
How Australia can get on board
Sydney and Melbourne have green roof and green wall policies aligned with their 2030 and 2040 sustainability targets, launched in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Sydney has the Green Roofs and Walls Policy Implementation Plan, while Melbourne has the Growing Green Guide 2014.
These policies appear most aligned with the voluntary-light approach adopted in London. Sydney had a 23% increase in green roofs since its policy launch, although this was from a very low starting point. Melbourne also reports an increase in green roofs and walls, though the amount of uptake isn’t publicly available.
There are, of course, barriers to greening up buildings. These include costs as well as lack of experience in the industry, especially in terms of construction and management. Professional capacity for green roofs is still in a developing phase and further training and skill development are needed.
Around 87% of the building stock Australia will have in 2050 is already here, and a large proportion of existing buildings could be retrofitted. We recommend a voluntary approach using a mix of initiatives for building owners, such as tax benefits and credits in green building tools.
Focusing on new buildings is likely to lead to more modest growth rates in the short to medium term, relative to alternative approaches such as retrofitting. The annual growth rate of new stock is around 1-3%, which means that policies focusing on new stock will have a substantial impact over the long term.
However, in the short to medium term, a retrofit policy would have greater impact given the numbers of existing buildings suitable for this.
Local government areas can also promote the evidence showing the lift in property values in areas with more green infrastructure – in some instances up to 15%. This should encourage voluntary uptake.
Sara Wilkinson, Associate Professor, School of the Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney; Paul J Brown, Senior Lecturer – Creative Intelligence | Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation & Senior Lecturer – Accounting | UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney, and Sumita Ghosh, Senior Lecturer, School of the Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Australian Environmental-Economic Accounts on June 15. It’s a fine achievement, which shows, among other things, growing efficiency in water and energy use. That’s good for both the economy and the environment. Less good is that waste generation is increasing, broadly in line with GDP growth, as shown below.
Equally notable, though, is the reaction to the environmental accounts compared to the response to the traditional national accounts, which give us the indicator GDP.
These national accounts are released to much market speculation and commentary. For example, reports of an expectation of a rising GDP preceded the release of the latest national accounts on June 6. Straight afterwards there was commentary by Treasurer Scott Morrison and many media commentators.
Four reasons we neglect environmental accounts
So why no reaction to the environmental accounts? There are at least four reasons for this.
Firstly, few people in government or business are aware of the environmental accounts. While this was the fifth time the ABS has released the environmental accounts, and individual accounts for water and energy have a longer history, they remain little known.
The second reason is that it is not clear to government or business how the accounts should be interpreted. The ABS commentary is baldly descriptive:
More recently, between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the economy grew by 3%. At the same time, the population increased 2%; greenhouse gas emissions were up just under 1%; and Australian energy consumption increased less than 1%. Water consumption decreased 7% between these years. If the economy is growing at a faster rate than the consumption of our resources (or generation of waste and emissions), it is an indication that we are using our resources more efficiently, as measured by the Gross Value Added (GVA) of economic production per unit of resource use (or waste generated).
This is all true, but what does the information mean for the management of the economy and the environment? Of course, it is good that efficiency in resource use is improving. But we also need to understand what the limits are so that we can answer the key question: how much can we extract without risking the performance of the economy or the functioning of the environment?
For this we need other information. For example, to determine how much water we can use without damaging the environment we need information on the amount of water and the condition of ecosystems that depend on water in different places and times. With this information managers could compare the environment stress against the economic benefits or risks. All this can be done in an accounting framework, but is yet to occur.
It is also interesting that the ABS commentary neglects to mention waste. The amount of waste we produce is growing at about the same rate as GDP. Full waste accounts would improve our understanding of the reasons for this and the options for policy intervention. Sadly, while full waste accounts were prepared for 2010-11, they have not continued.
This gets to the third reason – the environmental accounts cover only part of the picture. A summary of the greenhouse gas accounts produced by the Department of Environment and Energy is included. The water accounts from the Bureau of Meteorology are not. The environmental accounts also do not cover air pollution, biodiversity, spending on environmental protection, and more.
The partial picture means the interactions between the different parts of the environmental and the economy cannot be fully understood or explored. A key feature of the national accounts is that these are comprehensive. All industries and sectors of the economy are covered, with data on income, expenditure and assets.
The fourth reason is no one is quite sure how to use the environmental accounts. The greenhouse gas accounts fulfil an international reporting obligation and the water accounts come under the Water Act 2007. But the ABS environmental accounts are not specifically linked to any government process, although they have been used in modelling and economic analysis.
In contrast, the national accounts are used, for example, by the Department of Finance for forecasting revenue, by Treasury for preparing the budget and economic policy, and by the Reserve Bank of Australia when setting interest rates.
Such use is partly due to the length of time that the national accounts have been produced. The first Australian national accounts were published in 1963. A measure of national income was produced in 1938.
The interest in the national accounts is also due to the understanding by business and the public that the health of the economy is directly linked to their own interests – i.e. profits for business and employment and income for people.
It’s also widely recognised that national accounts, and GDP in particular, are a good indicator of economic health. There is no similar indicator for the environment.
What can be done about this?
At present there is little understanding of how the environment contributes to the economy. Government agencies do not have regular information to assess the health of the environment, the adequacy of policies to stop environmental decline, or the economic impacts of environmental degradation.
To fill this information gap, interest in environmental accounting is growing. The recently released National Strategy for Environmental-Economic Accounting is a product of this.
How the strategy is implemented, however, will depend heavily on resourcing. This resourcing will need to consider not just the technical aspects of the accounts and related data sources but also the more challenging issue of how information from the accounts can be used in policy. Natural Capital Accounting for the Sustainable Development Goals recently summarised emerging examples from around the world.
One promising example is the United Kingdom’s Natural Capital Committee, an independent body that advises the government. The committee made recommendations on the development of the UK’s 25-Year Environment Plan. These included recommendations on the type and level of investments needed to achieve the goals of the plan and on the use of pilot demonstration projects.
Australia could establish a similar body to help develop a comprehensive set of environment accounts that meet policy needs. This would put us on the path to better policy, planning and management of both the economy and environment.
We would also get greater public discussion of the environmental accounts. Over time this might even rival the interest in the national accounts and GDP.
Accountants: The unlikely environmentalists?
John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University
Cats take a hefty toll on Australia’s reptiles – killing an estimated 649 million of them every year, including threatened species – according to our new research published in the journal Wildlife Research.
This follows the earlier discovery that cats take a similarly huge chunk out of Australian bird populations. As we reported last year, more than a million Australian birds are killed by cats every day. Since their introduction to Australia, cats have also driven many native mammal species extinct.
We collated information from about 100 previous local studies of cats’ diets across Australia. These studies involved teasing apart the contents of more than 10,000 samples of faeces or stomachs from cats collected as part of management programs.
We tallied the number of reptiles found in these samples, and then scaled it up to Australia’s estimated cat population of between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. We also collated information from museums and wildlife shelters on the various animals that had been brought in after being killed or injured by cats.
We calculate that an average feral cat kills 225 reptiles per year, so the total feral cat population kills 596 million reptiles per year. This tally will vary significantly from year to year, because the cat population in inland Australia fluctuates widely between drought and rainy years.
We also estimated that the average pet cat kills 14 reptiles per year. That means that Australia’s 3.9 million pet cats kill 53 million reptiles in total each year. However, there is much less firm evidence to quantify the impact of pet cats, mainly because it is much more straightforward to catch and autopsy feral cats to see what they have been eating, compared with pet cats.
According to our study, cats have been known to kill 258 different Australian reptiles (snakes, lizards and turtles – but not crocodiles!), including 11 threatened species.
The cat autopsies revealed that some cats binge on reptiles, with many cases of individual cats having killed and consumed more than 20 individual lizards within the previous 24 hours. One cat’s stomach was found to contain no less than 40 lizards.
Such intensive predation probably puts severe pressure on local populations of some reptile species. There is now substantial evidence that cats are a primary cause of the ongoing decline of some threatened Australian reptile species, such as the Great Desert Skink.
By our estimate, the average Australian feral cat kills four times more lizards than the average free-roaming cat in the United States (which kills 59 individuals per year). But there are many more such cats in the US (between 30 million and 80 million), so the total toll on reptiles is likely similar.
The conservation of the Australian reptile fauna has been accorded lower public profile than that of many other groups. However, a recent international program has nearly completed an assessment of the conservation status of every one of Australia’s roughly 1,000 lizard and snake species.
Our research provides yet more evidence of the harm that cats are wreaking on Australia’s native wildlife. It underlines the need for more effective and strategic control of Australia’s feral cats, and for more responsible ownership of pet cats.
Pet cats that are allowed to roam will kill reptiles, birds and other small animals. Preventing pet cats from roaming will help the cats live longer and healthier lives – not to mention saving the lives of wildlife.
The authors acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer, Glenn Edwards, Alex Nankivell, John Read and Dani Stokeld to this research.
John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University
Rice is the primary food source for more than 3 billion people around the world. Many are unable to afford a diverse and nutritious diet that includes complete protein, grains, fruits and vegetables. They rely heavily on more affordable cereal crops, including rice, for most of their calories.
My research focuses on health risks associated with climate variability and change. In a recently published study, I worked with scientists from China, Japan, Australia and the United States to assess how the rising carbon dioxide concentrations that are fueling climate change could alter the nutritional value of rice. We conducted field studies in Asia for multiple genetically diverse rice lines, analyzing how rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere altered levels of protein, micronutrients and B vitamins.
Our data showed for the first time that rice grown at the concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide scientists expect the world to reach by 2100 has lower levels of four key B vitamins. These findings also support research from other field studies showing rice grown under such conditions contains less protein, iron and zinc, which are important in fetal and early child development. These changes could have a disproportionate impact on maternal and child health in the poorest rice-dependent countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia.
Carbon dioxide and plant growth
Plants obtain the carbon they need to grow primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and draw other required nutrients from the soil. Human activities – mainly fossil fuel combustion and deforestation – raised atmospheric CO2 concentrations from about 280 parts per million during pre-industrial times to 410 parts per million today. If global emission rates continue on their current path, atmospheric CO2 concentrations could reach over 1,200 parts per million by 2100 (including methane and other greenhouse gas emissions).
Higher concentrations of CO2 are generally acknowledged to stimulate plant photosynthesis and growth. This effect could make the cereal crops that remain the world’s most important sources of food, such as rice, wheat and corn, more productive, although recent research suggests that predicting impacts on plant growth is complex.
Concentrations of minerals critical for human health, particularly iron and zinc, do not change in unison with CO2 concentrations. Current understanding of plant physiology suggests that major cereal crops – particularly rice and wheat – respond to higher CO2 concentrations by synthesizing more carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and less protein, and by reducing the quantity of minerals in their grains.
The importance of micronutrients
Worldwide, approximately 815 million people worldwide are food-insecure, meaning that they do not have reliable access to sufficient quantities of safe, nutritious and affordable food. Even more people – approximately 2 billion – have deficiencies of important micronutrients such as iron, iodine and zinc.
Insufficient dietary iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which there are too few red blood cells in the body to carry oxygen. This is the most common type of anemia. It can cause fatigue, shortness of breath or chest pain, and can lead to serious complications, such as heart failure and developmental delays in children.
Zinc deficiencies are characterized by loss of appetite and diminished sense of smell, impaired wound healing, and weakened immune function. Zinc also supports growth and development, so sufficient dietary intake is important for pregnant women and growing children.
Higher carbon concentrations in plants reduce nitrogen amounts in plant tissue, which is critical for the formation of B vitamins. Different B vitamins are required for key functions in the body, such as regulating the nervous system, turning food into energy and fighting infections. Folate, a B vitamin, reduces the risk of birth defects when consumed by pregnant women.
Significant nutrition losses
We carried out our field studies in China and Japan, where we grew different strains of rice outdoors. To simulate higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations, we used Free-Air CO2 Enrichment, which blows CO2 over fields to maintain concentrations that are expected later in the century. Control fields experience similar conditions except for the higher CO2 concentrations.
On average, the rice that we grew in air with elevated CO2 concentrations contained 17 percent less vitamin B1 (thiamine) than rice grown under current CO2 concentrations; 17 percent less vitamin B2 (riboflavin); 13 percent less vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid); and 30 percent less vitamin B9 (folate). Our study is the first to identify that concentrations of B vitamins in rice are reduced with higher CO2.
We also found average reductions of 10 percent in protein, 8 percent in iron and 5 percent in zinc. We found no change in levels of vitamin B6 or calcium. The only increase we found was in vitamin E levels for most strains.
Worsening micronutrient deficiencies
At present, about 600 million people — mostly in Southeast Asia — get more than half of their daily calories and protein directly from rice. If nothing is done, the declines we found would likely worsen the overall burden of undernutrition. They also could affect early childhood development through impacts that include worsened effects from diarrheal disease and malaria.
The potential health risks associated with CO2-induced nutritional deficits are directly correlated to the lowest overall gross domestic product per capita. This suggests that such changes would have serious potential consequences for countries already struggling with poverty and undernutrition. Few people would associate fossil fuel combustion and deforestation with the nutritional content of rice, but our research clearly shows one way in which emitting fossil fuels could worsen world hunger challenges.
How could climate change affect other key plants?
Unfortunately, today there is no entity at the federal, state or business level that provides long-term funding to evaluate how rising CO2 levels could affect plant chemistry and nutritional quality. But CO2-induced changes have significant implications, ranging from medicinal plants to nutrition, food safety and food allergies. Given the potential impacts, which may already be occurring, there is a clear and urgent need to invest in this research.
It is also critical to identify options for avoiding or lessening these risks, from traditional plant breeding to genetic modification to supplements. Rising CO2 concentrations are driving climate change. What role these emissions will play in altering all aspects of plant biology, including the nutritional quality of the crops that we use for food, feed, fiber and fuel, remains to be determined.