Biodiversity and our brains: how ecology and mental health go together in our cities


Zoe Myers, University of Western Australia

Mental health in our cities is an increasingly urgent issue. Rates of disorders such as anxiety and depression are high. Urban design and planning can promote mental health by refocusing on spaces we use in our everyday lives in light of what research tells us about the benefits of exposure to nature and biodiversity.

Mental health issues have many causes. However, the changing and unpredictable elements of our physical and sensory environments have a profound impact on risk, experiences and recovery.




Read more:
Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us


Physical activity is still the mainstay of urban planning efforts to enable healthy behaviours. Mental well-being is then a hoped-for byproduct of opportunities for exercise and social interaction.

Neuroscientific research and tools now allow us to examine more deeply some of the ways in which individuals experience spaces and natural elements. This knowledge can greatly add to, and shift, the priorities and direction of urban design and planning.

What do we mean by ‘nature’?

A large body of research has compellingly shown that “nature” in its many forms and contexts can have direct benefits on mental health. Unfortunately, the extent and diversity of natural habitats in our cities are decreasing rapidly.

Too often “nature” – by way of green space and “POS” (Public Open Space) – is still seen as something separate from other parts of our urban neighbourhoods. Regeneration efforts often focus on large green corridors. But even small patches of genuinely biodiverse nature can re-invite and sustain multitudes of plant and animal species, as urban ecologists have shown.




Read more:
The small patch of bush over your back fence might be key to a species’ survival


An urban orchard in Perth.
Zoe Myers

It has also been widely demonstrated that nature does not effect us in uniform or universal ways. Sometimes it can be confronting or dangerous. That is particularly true if nature is isolated or uninviting, or has unwritten rules around who should be there or what activities are appropriate.

These factors complicate the desire for a “nature pill” to treat urban ills.

We need to be far more specific about what “nature” we are talking about in design and planning to assist with mental health.




Read more:
Increasing tree cover may be like a ‘superfood’ for community mental health


Why does biodiversity matter?

The exponential accessibility and affordability of lab and mobile technologies, such as fMRI and EEG measuring brain activity, have vastly widened the scope of studies of mental health and nature. Researchers are able, for example, to analyse responses to images of urban streetscapes versus forests. They can also track people’s perceptions “on the move”.

Research shows us biodiverse nature has particular positive benefit for mental well-being. Multi-sensory elements such as bird or frog sounds or wildflower smells have well-documented beneficial effects on mental restoration, calm and creativity.

Other senses – such as our sense of ourselves in space, our balance and equilibrium and temperature – can also contribute to us feeling restored by nature.

Acknowledging the crucial role all these senses play shifts the focus of urban design and planning from visual aesthetics and functional activity to how we experience natural spaces. This is particularly important in ensuring we create places for people of all abilities, mobilities and neurodiversities.

Neuroscientific research also shows an “enriched” environment – one with multiple diverse elements of interest – can prompt movement and engagement. This helps keep our brains cognitively healthy, and us happier.




Read more:
Reducing stress at work is a walk in the park


Beyond brain imaging of experiences in nature, there is growing and compelling evidence that contact with diverse microbiomes in the soil and air has a profound effect on depression and anxiety. Increasing our interaction with natural elements through touch – literally getting dirt under our nails – is both psychologically therapeutic and neurologically nourishing.

We also have increasing evidence that air, noise and soil pollution increase risk of mental health disorders in cities.

What does this mean for urban neighbourhoods?

These converging illustrations suggest biodiverse urban nature is a priority for promoting mental health. Our job as designers and planners is therefore to multiply opportunities to interact with these areas in tangible ways.

A residential street in Perth.
Zoe Myers

The concept of “biophilia” isn’t new. But a focus on incidental and authentic biodiversity helps us apply this very broad, at times unwieldy and non-contextual, concept to the local environment. This grounds efforts in real-time, achievable interventions.

Using novel technologies and interdisciplinary research expands our understanding of the ways our environments affect our mental well-being. This knowledge challenges the standardised planning of nature spaces and monocultured plantings in our cities. Neuroscience can therefore support urban designers and planners in allowing for more flexibility and authenticity of nature in urban areas.

Neuroscientific evidence of our sensory encounters with biodiverse nature points us towards the ultimate win-win (-win) for ecology, mental health and cities.


Dr Zoe Myers is the author of Wildness and Wellbeing: Nature, Neuroscience, and Urban Designn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).The Conversation

Zoe Myers, Lecturer, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How many species on Earth? Why that’s a simple question but hard to answer



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How many species still to name? That’s a good question.
Shutterstock/ju see

Tanya Latty, University of Sydney and Timothy Lee, University of Sydney

You’d think it would be a simple piece of biological accounting – how many distinct species make up life on Earth?

But the answer may come as a bit of a shock.

We simply don’t know.

We know more accurately the number of books in the US Library of Congress than we know even the order or magnitude – millions and billions and so on – of species living on our planet, wrote the Australian-born ecologist Robert May.




Read more:
Trapdoor spider species that stay local put themselves at risk


Current estimates for the number of species on Earth range between 5.3 million and 1 trillion.

That’s a massive degree of uncertainty. It’s like getting a bank statement that says you have between $5.30 and $1 million in your account.

So why don’t we know the answer to this fundamental question?

It’s hard to count life

Part of the problem is that we cannot simply count the number of life forms. Many live in inaccessible habitats (such as the deep sea), are too small to see, are hard to find, or live inside other living things.

New species are discovered on almost every dive, says David Attenborough.

So, instead of counting, scientists try to estimate the total number of species by looking for patterns in biodiversity.

In the early 1980s, the American entomologist Terry Erwin famously estimated the number of species on Earth by spraying pesticides into the canopy of tropical rainforest trees in Panama. At least 1,200 species of beetle fell to the ground, of which 163 lived only on a single tree species.

Assuming that each tree species had a similar number of beetles, and given that beetles make up about 40% of insects (the largest animal group), Erwin arrived at a controversial estimate of 30 million species on Earth.

Many scientists believe the 30 million number is far too high. Later estimates arrived at figures under 10 million.

In 2011, scientists used a technique based on patterns in the number of species at each level of biological classification to arrive at a much lower prediction of about 8.7 million species.

A jewel beetle, one of the more colourful species of insect alive today.
Shutterstock/Suttipon Thanarakpong

All creatures great and very, very small

But most estimates of global biodiversity overlook microorganisms such as bacteria because many of these organisms can only be identified to species level by sequencing their DNA.

As a result the true diversity of microorganisms may have been underestimated.

After compiling and analysing a database of DNA sequences from 5 million microbe species from 35,000 sites around the world, researchers concluded that there are a staggering 1 trillion species on Earth. That’s more species than the estimated number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

But, like previous estimates, this one relies on patterns in biodiversity, and not everyone agrees these should be applied to microorganisms.

It’s not just the microorganisms that have been overlooked in estimates of global biodiversity. We’ve also ignored the many life forms that live inside other life forms.

Most – and possibly all – insect species are the victim of at least one or more species of parasitic wasp. These lay their eggs in or on a host species (think of the movie Aliens, if the aliens had wings). Researchers suggest that the insect group containing wasps may be the largest group of animals on the planet.

A parasitic wasp finds a host for her young.

What do we mean by species?

A more fundamental problem with counting species comes down to a somewhat philosophical issue: biologists do not agree on what the term “species” actually means.

The well-known biological species concept states that two organisms belong to the same species if they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But since this concept relies on mating, it cannot be used to define species of asexual organisms such as many microorganisms as well as some reptiles, birds and fish.

It also ignores the fact that many living things we consider separate species can and do interbreed. For example, dogs, coyotes and wolves readily interbreed, yet are usually considered to be separate species.

Three six-to-seven-month-old hybrids between a male western gray wolf and a female western coyote resulting from artificial insemination.
PLOS One (L. David Mech et al), CC BY

Other popular species definitions rely on how similar individuals are to one another (if it looks like a duck, it is a duck), their shared evolutionary history, or their shared ecological requirements.

Yet none of these definitions are entirely satisfactory, and none work for all life forms.

There are at least 50 different definitions of a species to choose from. Whether or not a scientist chooses to designate a newly found life form as a new species or not can come down to their philosophical stance about the nature of a species.

The cost of species loss

Our ignorance about the true biodiversity on our planet has real consequence. Each species is a potential treasure trove of solutions to problems including cures for disease, inspirations for new technologies, sources of new materials and providers of key ecosystem services.

Yet we are living in an age of mass extinction with reports of catastrophic insect declines, wide-scale depopulation of our oceans and the loss of more than 50% of wildlife within the span of a single human life.

Our current rate of biodiversity loss means we are almost certainly losing species faster than we are naming them. We are effectively burning a library without knowing the names or the contents of the books we are losing.

So while our estimate of the number of species on the planet remains frustratingly imprecise, the one thing we do know is that we have probably named and described only a tiny percentage of living things.




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Squid team finds high species diversity off Kermadec Islands, part of stalled marine reserve proposal


New species are turning up all the time, at a rate of roughly 18,000 species each year. For example, researchers in Los Angeles found 30 new species of scuttle fly living in urban parks, while researchers also in the US discovered more than 1,400 new species of bacteria living in the belly buttons of university students.

Even if we take the more conservative estimate of 8.7 million species of life on Earth, then we have only described and named about 25% of life forms on the planet. If the 1 trillion figure is correct, then we have done an abysmally poor job, with 99.99% of species still awaiting description.

It’s clear our planet is absolutely teeming with life, even if we cannot yet put a number to the multitudes. The question now is how much of that awe-inspiring diversity we choose to save.The Conversation

Tanya Latty, Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney and Timothy Lee, Associate Lecturer in Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What Australia can learn from Victoria’s shocking biodiversity record



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The endangered Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby is one of Victoria’s threatened species.
TARONGA ZOO/AAP

Geoffrey Wescott, Deakin University

Victoria is struggling with biodiversity conservation, according to a State of the Environment report tabled in parliament this week. While the scorecard is bleak – not one of the state’s key biodiversity indicators ranks as “good” – the report itself gives some hope.

For the first time the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, who prepared the report, offers proactive recommendations to the Victorian government for improving its performance, and has linked these goals to international sustainability targets. It’s an comprehensive and ambitious effort, and offers some good lessons to the rest of Australia.




Read more:
Australia among the world’s worst on biodiversity conservation


Alarming results

Victoria is the most densely populated state in Australia, the most cleared of native vegetation, and has the smallest percentage of public land.

The State of the Environment report uses a traffic light method to summarise the status, trend and data quality of 170 indicators spread over 12 scientific assessment areas (everything from general air and water quality to specific environments such as marine and coasts, plus issues such as waste and energy).

The indicators paint a picture that does not look good for biodiversity. None of these indicators are rated “good”; seven are “fair”, 21 “poor”, and seven “unknown”. In terms of trends, just one is improving, seven are stable, and 18 are deteriorating (nine are unclear).

National park declarations have slowed substantially on land in recent years – the first Andrews government (2014-18) was the first Victorian government in a quarter of a century not to increase national parks. Not a single additional marine area has been protected since 2002.

In contrast, conservation on private land is fair and trending upward according to the report card (probably largely due to the efforts of Trust for Nature). A substantial cash injection for the trust from Victoria’s rolling fund would likely see outsized results, although this is not a specific recommendation in the report.

The reports offers two critical recommendations for improving biodiversity:

  • increase private land conservation and invest in local government capability to enforce existing protective guidelines, and

  • appoint a Chief Biodiversity Scientist to counsel the Secretary and Environment Minister to improve the impact of biodiversity research.

Creating a Chief Biodiversity Scientist is a good starting point for an area that has received decreasing effort, over the past decade in particular. However, it must be only the first step in raising the lowly position of biodiversity conservation, not only in the environment department but across the entire government.

Beyond passive reporting

This years report moves beyond simply relaying data in two ways: first, with 20 specific recommendations to the government, and secondly by using the United Nation’s framework of environmental accounting to tie the report to the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The report claims this is the first attempt to apply the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to a sub-national environmental report. Given the number of federated nations around the world (the United States, Brazil and Canada, for a start), putting the spotlight on state or provincial environmental responsibilities is a significant and laudable step.

In the more immediate future, the report gives the Victorian government 20 recommendations linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, across a range of categories: Traditional Owner leadership, climate change, air and water quality, land, forests, fire, marine and coastal environments, water resources, waste and resource recovery, energy, transport, and “megatrends”.

The 20 recommendations are solidly based on the findings across the 12 assessment areas. These show that only 11% of status indicators are “good”, whereas 32% are “poor”, with the trend demonstrating only 10% are improving, 30% stable and 30% deteriorating.




Read more:
Why biodiversity is key to our survival


While the State of the Environment report naturally focuses on Victoria, there are plenty of lessons and ideas here for the rest of the country.

Now the onus is firmly on the self-proclaimed “most progressive government in Australia” to act.The Conversation

Geoffrey Wescott, Honorary Research Fellow, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NZ is home to species found nowhere else but biodiversity losses match global crisis



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There are five species of kiwi in New Zealand. Their total number is currently at around 70,000 but the populations may have declined by two thirds in 20 years.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University and Steven Alexander Trewick, Massey University

The recently released 2018 Living Planet report is among the most comprehensive global analyses of biodiversity yet. It is based on published data on 4,000 out of the 70,000 known species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

Rather than listing species that have gone extinct, the report summarises more subtle information about the vulnerability of global biodiversity. The bottom line is that across the globe, the population sizes of the species considered have declined by an average of 60% in 40 years.

New Zealand is a relatively large and geographically isolated archipelago with a biota that includes many species found nowhere else in the world. One might think that it is buffered from some of the effects of biological erosion, especially since people only arrived less than 800 years ago. But as we show, the impact on wildlife has been catastrophic.




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Tipping point: huge wildlife loss threatens the life support of our small planet


Describing biological diversity

The diversity of life may seem incomprehensible. Carolus Linnaeus began his systematic work to describe earth’s biological diversity in the 18th century with about 12,000 plants and animals. Since then, 1.3 million species of multi-cellular creatures have been described, but the size of the remaining taxonomic gap remains unclear.

Recently, sophisticated models estimated the scale of life, suggesting that multi-cellular life ranges between about five million and nine million species. Microbial life might include millions, billions or even trillions of species.

Species do not exist in isolation. They are part of communities of large and microscopic organisms that themselves drive diversification. Charles Darwin observed in his usual understated way:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Global decline of wild places

The main threat to biodiversity remains overexploitation of resources, leading to loss of habitat. Human overconsumption can only get worse in coming decades, and this will likely escalate the impact of invasive species, increase the rate of disease transmission, worsen water and air pollution and add to climate change.




Read more:
Capitalism is killing the world’s wildlife populations, not ‘humanity’


This is the Anthropocene, the era of human domination of many global-scale processes. By the early 1990s, just 33 million of the earth’s 130 million square kilometres of ice-free land remained in wilderness. By 2016, it was down to 30 million. Most of this is either desert, taiga or tundra. In other words, humans and their cities, roads and farms occupy 77% of the available land on earth.

By 2050, wild lands are projected to contract to 13 million square kilometres, leaving ever less space for wild animals and plants. In terms of resources consumed, there is huge inequity. Preliminary estimates of the biomass of all life on earth reveal that humans, their pets and their farm animals outweigh wild land mammals by 50 to one. Poultry outweigh all wild birds 2.5 to one.

New Zealand: at the bottom of the cliff

In New Zealand, a lot of attention is paid to iconic, rare species, such as kiwi and kākāpo. However, in 2017, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reported that the proportion of forest land occupied by birds found only in New Zealand had declined in the North Island from 16% to 5% between 1974 and 2002. In the South Island, it declined from 23% to 16%.

These figures are consistent with other studies on animal populations. For example, kiwi, which currently number 70,000, may have declined by two thirds in 20 years. Thus there is a risk that continued biodiversity decline overall will see more and more species requiring last-ditch efforts to save them, with healthy populations confined to heavily protected and often fenced sanctuaries.

New Zealand is unusual in that introduced, invasive predators are a major threat and are widely seen as the predominant threat to native animals. However, land use change in New Zealand has been rapid, extensive and catastrophic for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The New Zealand situation is at best the global story writ small.

As the last substantial land area to be settled by humans, the land experienced an alarming rate of habitat loss. Indeed, deforestation was considered a necessity and the “homestead system” in Auckland saw tenants turned off the land if they failed to clear sufficient native bush.

Native bush in New Zealand has been reduced by about three quarters from its former 82% extent across the landscape. What remains is heavily modified and not representative of former diversity. For example, in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, ancient lowland kahikatea forest has been reduced to less than 5% of its former extent, and between 1996 and 2012, 89,000 hectares of indigenous forest and scrub was converted to exotic forest and exotic pasture. When a habitat is removed, the organisms that live in it go, too.

The way forward

The Living Planet report charts a detailed, aspirational roadmap to reverse the decline in biodiversity. It takes heart from the 2015 Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It looks ahead to a greatly strengthened Convention on Biological Diversity for 2020.

Unfortunately, biodiversity threats are, if anything, even more pervasive and difficult to address than fossil fuel emissions. In climate change, it is broadly agreed that rising seas, acidifying oceans and destabilised weather patterns are bad. There is no such universal understanding of the importance of biodiversity.

To address this, the report details the importance of biodiversity to human health, food production and economic activity – the “ecosystem services” that nature provides to humans. The intrinsic value of nature to itself is hardly mentioned. This is not a new debate. The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity is founded on “the intrinsic value of biological diversity”, while the Rio Earth Summit of the same year stated that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”

The issue should not be confined to ecologists, philosophers, and diplomats. It needs to be addressed or we may find that future generations value nature even less than present ones do. In 2002, Randy Olsen popularised the concept of the shifting baseline, which means that people progressively adjust to a new normal and don’t realise what has been lost:

People go diving today in California kelp beds that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, “You should have seen it in the old days”.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University and Steven Alexander Trewick, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia among the world’s worst on biodiversity conservation



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A long-term monitoring project in Simpson Desert provides crucial information about the ecosystem.
Mina Guli/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Noel D Preece, James Cook University

Australia is among the top seven countries worldwide responsible for 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss between 1996 and 2008, according to a study published last week in the journal Nature.

The researchers examined the conservation status of species in 109 countries and compared that to conservation funding. Australia ranks as the second worst of the group, with a biodiversity loss of 5-10%.

The study clearly linked adequate conservation funding to better species survival, which makes it all the more concerning that one of Australia’s most valuable national environmental monitoring programs will lose funding next month.


Read more: We need our country; our country needs us


Established in 2011, the long-term ecological research network (LTERN) monitors alpine grasslands, tall wet forests, temperate woodlands, heathlands, tropical savannas, rainforests and deserts. It coordinates 1,100 monitoring sites run by numerous researchers, bringing together decades of experience. There’s nothing else like it in Australia, and at an annual cost of A$1.5 million it delivers extraordinary value for money.

Long term ecological research stations across Australia.
TERN

The value of long-term research

Our continent has a hyper-variable environment, with catastrophic bushfires, alarming species extinctions, and widespread loss of habitat.


Read more: Half the world’s ecosystems at risk from habitat loss, and Australia is one of the worst


In the battle to manage and predict the future of our ecosystems, the LTERN punches above its weight.

In the Northern Territory it was long thought that the ecosystems centred on Kakadu National Park were intact. But instead, long-term monitoring showed alarming and unexpected crashes towards extinction of native mammals of the region since the 1990s, driven by fire regime changes, feral animals, disease, cane toads, climate change and grazing.

Likewise, the 70-year-old network of monitoring sites in Australia’s alpine regions revealed the impact of climate change on flowering pollination, and the fact that livestock grazing actually increases fire risk. Without these insights it would not be possible to manage these ecosystems sustainably.

In the Simpson Desert – the only LTERN site that captures the remote outback – the dynamic of boom and bust has been monitored since 1990. It reveals a long-running and cyclical explosion of life. Intermittent downpours support flushes of wildflowers, booming marsupial populations and flocks of budgerigars, which are then ravaged by feral foxes and cats. Spending only one year in the desert would mean missing this dynamic, which has driven dozens of native species to extinction.

Several of these monitoring sites are likely to close when funding stops next month, as alternative support is not available. Without the network, coordination among the remaining sites will become much harder.

We should be able to predict environmental changes

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme, which ultimately funds the LTERN, has called for the development of a national environmental prediction system to forecast ecosystem changes.

But without long-term data, the development of a reliable and accurate environmental prediction system is impossible, particularly for biodiversity.

The journal Science reported in August that researchers working with LTERN are trying to find alternative funding, possibly for a more comprehensive network. But with limited funding commitment and opaque long-term plans from government, this seems ambitious.

After 40 years working in Australian ecosystem management, assessment, investigation and research, I am deeply concerned about terminating the existing system and starting again. It takes time to understand ecosystems, and the accumulated knowledge of up to 70 years of monitoring is invaluable. It risks destroying one of the few successes in long-term monitoring of our ecosystems and species.

Australia is infamous for commencing new initiatives and then stopping them. Australia’s surveillance and monitoring efforts are already recognised as inadequate. Breaks in continuity of long-term ecological datasets significantly reduce their value and disrupt key information on environmental and ecosystem change.

Out of step with the world

In a letter to Science, 69 Australian scientists described the decision to defund the LTERN as “totally out of step with international trends and national imperatives”. Indeed, the United States has recently expanded its long-term monitoring network, which has been running for nearly 30 years.

Not only is Australia’s decision against the international trend, it also defies Australia’s own stated goals. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy explicitly commits to establishing a national long-term biodiversity monitoring system. The strategy’s five-year review admits to failing to achieve this outcome.


Read more: The environment needs billions of dollars more: here’s how to raise the money


The loss of the LTERN will undermine assessments of the sustainability of key industries such as grazing and forestry. Without it, we can’t robustly evaluate the success of taxpayer-funded environmental management.

A$1.5 million a year is a very small price to pay for crucial insights into our continent’s changing environments and biodiversity. But reinstating this paltry sum will not solve the very real crisis in Australian ecosystem knowledge.

The ConversationWe urgently need a comprehensive national strategy, as pledged in Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. The evidence is in: investment in biodiversity conservation pays off.

Noel D Preece, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Charles Darwin and, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.