How urban soundscapes affect humans and wildlife — and what may have changed in the hush of lockdown


Kurt Iveson, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, University of SydneyThe dull roar of traffic, the barking of dogs in backyards and the screeching of cockatoos at dusk. The shattering of early morning quiet by the first plane overhead or the garbage truck on its rounds. The squealed delights and occasional fights of a children’s playground.

These sounds and many more create what Canadian composer R Murray Schafer famously called a “soundscape”. Schafer, who passed away last month, helped us realise we experience cities with our ears as well as our eyes.

In recent years, studies have confirmed these soundscapes affect the well-being of urban inhabitants — both human and non-human. But with much of the country back under lockdown, urban soundscapes have changed, sometimes bringing delight, but sometimes causing new distress.

So let’s take a moment to consider how soundscapes influence our lives, and the lives of urban wildlife.

When sounds become ‘noise’

Whether it’s housemates, traffic, or construction, we tend to respond to many urban sounds by defining them as “noise”, and try to shut them out. We do this using a range of techniques and technologies: building regulations on soundproofing, controls on the times for certain activities like construction, and planning measures.

But noise mapping efforts show such regulations tend to produce uneven urban soundscapes — some people are more exposed to loud or annoying sounds than others.

Housing quality is a major factor here, and noise problems are likely exacerbated under lockdown. A recent study of pandemic housing inequality in Sydney found increased exposure to noise during lockdown is significantly contributing to poor well-being.

For example, sounds travelling across internal and external walls of apartments were frequently a source of tension in pre-pandemic times. Now, with so many more people spending more time at home, these domestic sounds inevitably increase.




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It’s not just humans whose lives are disrupted by city noise, as many animals use sound to communicate.

The ever-vigilant New Holland honeyeaters of Australian cities use their alarm calls to warn their friends and neighbours of danger, while the iconic chorus of banjo frogs in wetlands are the hopeful calls of males seeking mates.

This is the sound a banjo frog makes.

Noisy environments can dramatically change how these animals behave. In some cases, animals adapt to their noisy environment. Some frogs, for example, overcome traffic noise disrupting their sex lives by calling at a higher pitch. Likewise, populations of bow-winged grasshoppers in Germany exposed to road noise sing at higher frequencies than those living in quieter areas.

For other animals, such as microbats in England, disruptive noise changes how they forage and move around their environments.




Read more:
How noise pollution is changing animal behaviour


In extreme cases, these human-associated noises can drive animals away from their homes, as the disruptions to their lives becomes untenable.

Urban black-tufted marmosets in Brazil have been shown to avoid areas with abundant food where noise may interfere with their vocal communication. And research shows intruding noise in stopovers for migratory birds in the United States reduces their diversity by 25%, with some species avoiding the stopovers altogether.

Black-tufted marmosets in Brazil avoid noisy habitats even when there’s plenty of food.
Shutterstock

A new quiet?

The soundscape of cities in lockdown can be dramatically different from what we have come to accept as normal.

First, there are new noises. For example, in Sydney’s areas of concern subject to tighter lockdown restrictions, people are living with the frequent intrusive noise of police helicopters patrolling their neighbourhoods, making announcements over loudspeakers about compliance.

But in other cases, as our movements and activities are restricted, some city sounds associated with a negative impact on well-being are significantly reduced. People who live near major roads, aircraft flight paths, or construction sites will certainly be noticing the quiet as road traffic is greatly reduced and non-essential construction is paused.

But of course, while this silence might be golden for some, for others the sound of silence is the sound of lost work and income. This quietude may even be considered as unwelcome or even eerie — the sonic signature of isolation, confinement and loss.

The bow-winged grasshopper adapts to noisy soundscapes by singing at higher frequencies.
Quartl/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Just as many animals adapt to or avoid noisy urban environments, there is a chance many will respond to this natural experiment playing out. Quieter urban environments may see the return of some of our more noise sensitive species, but this depends on the species.

The Brazilian marmosets mentioned earlier didn’t return to those locations even during quieter times, suggesting the noise left a disruptive legacy on their habitat choice, well after it was experienced. On the other hand, other experiments show some species of birds rapidly returned to sites after noise was removed from the landscape.




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While it’s too early to confirm any early speculation about nature returning to quieter urban environments during lockdown, there is compelling evidence many people will benefit from engaging with local nature more actively than they did before.

Birdwatching increased tenfold in lockdown last year.
Matthew Willimott/Unsplash

Many more Australians are acting as urban field naturalists. Birdwatching, for example, increased tenfold in lockdown last year.

It’s clear people are seeing novelty and wonder in animals and plants that have survived and even thrived in our cities right beneath our noses the whole time. Our increased use of local greenspace during the pandemic has created new opportunities to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Rethinking post-pandemic soundscapes

What might we learn from this natural experiment about the soundscapes we take for granted and the soundscapes we actually want?

This is an invitation to think about whether we ought to do more to control sounds we consider “noise”. Yes, decibel levels of activities like car and air traffic matter. But it’s also an opportunity to think beyond controlling sounds, and consider how we might create soundscapes to enhance human and non-human well-being. This is easier said than done, given there’s no universal measure of what sounds give pleasure and what sounds are perceived as noise.

This aligns with the growing body of evidence on the need to reduce noise pollution and protect biodiversity when planning and managing our cities.

Like just about every other dimension of urban life, envisioning and creating an improved urban soundscape requires careful attention to spatial inequality and diversity – including of species – and a capacity to work through our differences in a fair and just way.




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Where the wild things are: how nature might respond as coronavirus keeps humans indoors


The Conversation


Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor of Urban Geography and Research Lead, Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

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

Australians are 3 times more worried about climate change than COVID. A mental health crisis is looming


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Rhonda Garad, Monash University; Joanne Enticott, Monash University, and Rebecca Patrick, Deakin UniversityAs we write this article, the Delta strain of COVID-19 is reminding the world the pandemic is far from over, with millions of Australians in lockdown and infection rates outpacing a global vaccination effort.

In the northern hemisphere, record breaking temperatures in the form of heat domes recently caused uncontrollable “firebombs”, while unprecedented floods disrupted millions of people. Hundreds of lives have been lost due to heat stress, drownings and fire.

The twin catastrophic threats of climate change and a pandemic have created an “epoch of incredulity”. It’s not surprising many Australians are struggling to cope.

During the pandemic’s first wave in 2020, we collected nationwide data from 5,483 adults across Australia on how climate change affects their mental health. In our new paper, we found that while Australians are concerned about COVID-19, they were almost three times more concerned about climate change.

That Australians are very worried about climate change is not a new finding. But our study goes further, warning of an impending epidemic of mental health related disorders such as eco-anxiety, climate disaster-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and future-orientated despair.

Which Australians are most worried?

We asked Australians to compare their concerns about climate change, COVID, retirement, health, ageing and employment, using a four-point scale (responses ranging from “not a problem” to “very much a problem”).

A high level of concern about climate change was reported across the whole population regardless of gender, age, or residential location (city or rural, disadvantaged or affluent areas). Women, young adults, the well-off, and those in their middle years (aged 35 to 54) showed the highest levels of concern about climate change.




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The latter group (aged 35 to 54) may be particularly worried because they are, or plan to become, parents and may be concerned about the future for their children.

The high level of concern among young Australians (aged 18 to 34) is not surprising, as they’re inheriting the greatest existential crisis faced by any generation. This age group have shown their concern through numerous campaigns such as the School Strike 4 Climate, and several successful litigations.

Of the people we surveyed in more affluent groups, 78% reported a high level of worry. But climate change was still very much a problem for those outside this group (42%) when compared to COVID-related worry (27%).

We also found many of those who directly experienced a climate-related disaster — bushfires, floods, extreme heat waves — reported symptoms consistent with PTSD. This includes recurrent memories of the trauma event, feeling on guard, easily startled and nightmares.

Others reported significant pre-trauma and eco-anxiety symptoms. These include recurrent nightmares about future trauma, poor concentration, insomnia, tearfulness, despair and relationship and work difficulties.

Overall, we found the inevitability of climate threats limit Australians’ ability to feel optimistic about their future, more so than their anxieties about COVID.

How are people managing their climate worry?

Our research also provides insights into what people are doing to manage their mental health in the face of the impending threat of climate change.

Rather than seeking professional mental health support such as counsellors or psychologists, many Australians said they were self-prescribing their own remedies, such as being in natural environments (67%) and taking positive climate action (83%), where possible.

Many said they strengthen their resilience through individual action (such as limiting their plastic use), joining community action (such as volunteering), or joining advocacy efforts to influence policy and raise awareness.




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Indeed, our research from earlier this year showed environmental volunteering has mental health benefits, such as improving connection to place and learning more about the environment.

It’s both ironic and understandable Australians want to be in natural environments to lessen their climate-related anxiety. Events such as the mega fires of 2019 and 2020 may be renewing Australians’ understanding and appreciation of nature’s value in enhancing the quality of their lives. There is now ample research showing green spaces improve psychological well-being.

Walking in nature can improve your mental well-being.
Sebastian Pichler/Unsplash

An impending epidemic

Our research illuminates the profound, growing mental health burden on Australians.

As the global temperature rises and climate-related disasters escalate in frequency and severity, this mental health burden will likely worsen. More people will suffer symptoms of PTSD, eco-anxiety, and more.




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New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


Of great concern is that people are not seeking professional mental health care to cope with climate change concern. Rather, they are finding their own solutions. The lack of effective climate change policy and action from the Australian government is also likely adding to the collective despair.

As Harriet Ingle and Michael Mikulewicz — a neuropsychologist and a human geographer from the UK — wrote in their 2020 paper:

For many, the ominous reality of climate change results in feelings of powerlessness to improve the situation, leaving them with an unresolved sense of loss, helplessness, and frustration.

It is imperative public health responses addressing climate change at the individual, community, and policy levels, are put into place. Governments need to respond to the health sector’s calls for effective climate related responses, to prevent a looming mental health crisis.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Rhonda Garad, Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow in Knowledge Translation, Monash University; Joanne Enticott, Senior Research Fellow, Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation (MCHRI), Monash University, and Rebecca Patrick, Director, Sustainable Health Network, Deakin University

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

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting conservation efforts in Madagascar


The Coquerel Sifaka in its natural environment in a Malagasy national park.
Eugen Haag/Shutterstock

Estelle Razanatsoa, University of Cape TownThe effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the restriction policies used to mitigate the spread of the virus, are being felt all over the world. It affects all parts of life including conservation especially in developing countries like Madagascar.

Madagascar’s natural environment faces multiple challenges. These include deforestation, erosion, a changing climate, agriculture fires,
hunting and the over-collection of animals and plants from the wild. One of the biggest hurdles, which exacerbates these issues, is that poverty is widespread in Madagascar. It’s estimated that 75% of people in Madagascar live on less than $1.90 per day, and so many depend on natural resources.

There are about 500 conservation projects which are trying to address these challenges and provide employment to local communities.

I collaborated with a group of conservation managers and researchers, mostly from Madagascar, to assess exactly how the pandemic has affected conservation activities. Our paper is based on our personal experiences and involvement in establishing management strategies during the pandemic.

We found that the pandemic challenged existing conservation structures and management. The issue is that most of Madagascar’s conservation and research projects are conceptualised and funded from abroad – the Global North. Non-governmental organisations on the ground implement their activities with the help of communities living close to protected areas.

Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, several activities were forced to stop. This included vital training and biodiversity monitoring.

This situation provides us with the opportunity to re-examine strategies and research approaches to build resilience for future crises. The foundation of which lies with the true empowerment of local communities, conservationists and researchers.

Challenges and coping strategies

Our research involved members of organisations that manage multiple sites and protected areas across Madagascar. These included WWF Madagascar, the Aspinall Foundation, the Missouri Botanical Garden in Madagascar and the Madagascar National Parks. The type of activities they carry out include both research and conservation.

Prior to the pandemic, activities were directed and funded by local and international agencies. Although there are initiatives that emerged locally, typically foreigners would lead and manage the projects. Malagasies (often those that live around the conservation areas) were usually employed to take on basic roles. For instance as project assistants, field guiding and patrolling. These activities provided them with an additional income to subsistence agriculture.

We found that restrictions, taken to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, had a dramatic effect on conservation and research activities. Travel from abroad and within the country reduced the ability of projects to conduct activities. Foreigners, who were running projects, couldn’t come in. And there were also challenges managing activities from the capital, Antananarivo.

Border closures also meant international tourists and researchers couldn’t come into Madagascar. This resulted in less financial resources for conservation activities. For instance, park entrance and research permit fees are often used to fund conservation activities such as surveillance activities. They also provide park guides with an income.

In addition to a loss of income, in some cases project costs grew. This was because staff had to work from home, which increased communication expenses, and because local communities needed to report to head offices using phones. There were also additional costs related to health safety measures, such as masks and sanitisers.

Because there’s less surveillance activity, and also because many communities living close to protected areas had lost their supplementary income, there’s been an increase in illegal activities inside some national parks. This includes more hunting, logging and charcoal production.

In addition, environmental education and awareness activities for local communities living around protected areas ceased.

Not all local communities lost their work. In some places local communities were relied on to continue conservation and research activities, like reforestation and forest surveillance. But, because they weren’t adequately trained, this compromised the project.

Forest rangers, usually accompanied by permanent staff, had to perform habitat and species monitoring alone. But they faced challenges. This relates mostly to the transfer or proper storage of monitoring data because of the lack of technological knowledge and reduced connectivity in some remote sites.

Improving the model

All of these insights make a strong case for a change in Madagascar’s conservation model. In recent years, scientists and researchers have argued that locally-based conservation activities are more resilient as they engage and provide benefits to local communities.

Our paper supports this. Projects should be more independent so that they can continue to run without such a heavy reliance on human resources from abroad. More needs to be done to ensure that the workforce is predominantly local, and driven by locals.

Projects should also provide leadership opportunities to local managers and researchers.

Communities living near protected areas have benefited from the efforts of NGOs and conservation organisations. However, such an approach should include possibilities for diversifying livelihoods that take into account local needs and values.

We hope that the lessons we have learned in Madagascar during COVID-19 will help to drive conservation and research in developing countries towards a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable model. This would help to improve the success of conservation activities.The Conversation

Estelle Razanatsoa, Postdoctoral Fellow, Plant Conservation Unit (PCU), University of Cape Town

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

We’re all ingesting microplastics at home, and these might be toxic for our health. Here are some tips to reduce your risk


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Mark Patrick Taylor, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, Macquarie UniversityAustralians are eating and inhaling significant numbers of tiny plastics at home, our new research shows.

These “microplastics”, which are derived from petrochemicals extracted from oil and gas products, are settling in dust around the house.

Some of these particles are toxic to humans — they can carry carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals, meaning they potentially cause cancer and/or damage our DNA.

We still don’t know the true impact of these microplastics on human health. But the good news is, having hard floors, using more natural fibres in clothing, furnishings and homewares, along with vacuuming at least weekly can reduce your exposure.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimetres across. They come from a range of household and everyday items such as the clothes we wear, home furnishings, and food and beverage packaging.

We know microplastics are pervasive outdoors, reaching remote and inaccessible locations such as the Arctic, the Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest ocean trench), and the Italian Alps.

Our study demonstrates it’s an inescapable reality that we’re living in a sea of microplastics — they’re in our food and drinks, our oceans, and our homes.




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What we did and what we found

While research has focused mainly on microplastics in the natural environment, a handful of studies have looked at how much we’re exposed to indoors.

People spend up to 90% of their time indoors and therefore the greatest risk of exposure to microplastics is in the home.

Our study is the first to examine how much microplastic we’re exposed to in Australian homes. We analysed dust deposited from indoor air in 32 homes across Sydney over a one-month period in 2019.

We asked members of the public to collect dust in specially prepared glass dishes, which we then analysed.

A graphic showing how microplastics suspended in a home
Here’s how microplastics can be generated, suspended, ingested and inhaled inside a house.
Monique Chilton, Author provided

We found 39% of the deposited dust particles were microplastics; 42% were natural fibres such as cotton, hair and wool; and 18% were transformed natural-based fibres such as viscose and cellophane. The remaining 1% were film and fragments consisting of various materials.

Between 22 and 6,169 microfibres were deposited as dust per square metre, each day.

Homes with carpet as the main floor covering had nearly double the number of petrochemical-based fibres (including polyethylene, polyamide and polyacrylic) than homes without carpeted floors.

Conversely, polyvinyl fibres (synthetic fibres made of vinyl chloride) were two times more prevalent in homes without carpet. This is because the coating applied to hard flooring degrades over time, producing polyvinyl fibres in house dust.

Microplastics can be toxic

Microplastics can carry a range of contaminants such as trace metals and some potentially harmful organic chemicals.

These chemicals can leach from the plastic surface once in the body, increasing the potential for toxic effects. Microplastics can have carcinogenic properties, meaning they potentially cause cancer. They can also be mutagenic, meaning they can damage DNA.




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However, even though some of the microplastics measured in our study are composed of potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds, the actual risk to human health is unclear.

Given the pervasiveness of microplastics not only in homes but in food and beverages, the crucial next step in this research area is to establish what, if any, are safe levels of exposure.




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You’re eating microplastics in ways you don’t even realise


How much are we exposed to? And can this be minimised?

Roughly a quarter of all of the fibres we recorded were less than 250 micrometres in size, meaning they can be inhaled. This means we can be internally exposed to these microplastics and any contaminants attached to them.

Using human exposure models, we calculated that inhalation and ingestion rates were greatest in children under six years old. This is due to their lower relative body weight, smaller size, and higher breathing rate than adults. What’s more, young children typically have more contact with the floor, and tend to put their hands in their mouths more often than adults.

Small bits of plastic floating in the sea
Microplastics are found not only in the sea, but in our food, beverages, and our homes.
Shutterstock

Children under six inhale around three times more microplastics than the average — 18,000 fibres, or 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per year. They would also ingest on average 6.1 milligrams of microplastics in dust per kg of body weight per year.

For a five-year-old, this would be equivalent to eating a garden pea’s worth of microplastics over the course of a year. But for many of these plastics there is no established safe level of exposure.

Our study indicated there are effective ways to minimise exposure.

First is the choice of flooring, with hard surfaces, including polished wood floors, likely to have fewer microplastics than carpeted floors.

Also, how often you clean makes a difference. Vacuuming floors at least weekly was associated with less microplastics in dust than those that were less frequently cleaned. So get cleaning!The Conversation

Mark Patrick Taylor, Professor of Environmental Science and Human Health, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Academic Casual, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, , Macquarie University

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

Like the ocean’s ‘gut flora’: we sailed from Antarctica to the equator to learn how bacteria affect ocean health


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Eric Jorden Raes, Dalhousie UniversityAboard an Australian research vessel, the RV Investigator, we sailed for 63 days from Antarctica’s ice edge to the warm equator in the South Pacific and collected 387 water samples.

Our goal? To determine how the genetic code of thousands of different micro-organisms can provide insights into the ocean’s functional diversity — the range of tasks performed by bacteria in the ocean.

Our research was published yesterday in Nature Communications. It showed how bacteria can help us measure shifts in energy production at the base of the food web. These results are important, as they highlight an emerging opportunity to use genetic data for large-scale ecosystem assessments in different marine environments.

In light of our rapidly changing climate, this kind of information is critical, as it will allow us to unpack the complexity of nature step by step. Ultimately, it will help us mitigate human pressures to protect and restore our precious marine ecosystems.

Why should we care about marine bacteria?

The oceans cover 71% of our planet and sustain life on Earth. In the upper 100 meters, the sunlit part of the oceans, microscopic life is abundant. In fact, it’s responsible for producing up to 50% of all the oxygen in the world.

A whale breaches the ocean
Marine bacteria provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to whales.
Shutterstock

Much like the link recently established between human health and the human microbiome (“gut flora”), ocean health is largely controlled by its bacterial inhabitants.

But the role of bacteria go beyond oxygen production. Bacteria sustain, inject and control the fluxes of energy, nutrients and organic matter in our oceans. They provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to fish larvae, whales and the fish we eat.

These micro-organisms also execute key roles in numerous biogeochemical cycles (the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and iron cycles, to name a few).

So, it’s important to quantify their various tasks and understand how the different bacterial species and their functions respond to environmental changes.

Fundamental questions

Global ocean research initiatives — such as GO-SHIP and GEOTRACES — have been measuring the state of oceans in expeditions like ours for decades. They survey temperature, salinity, nutrients, trace metals (iron, cobalt and more) and other essential ocean variables.

Only recently, however, have these programs begun measuring biological variables, such as bacterial gene data, in their global sampling expeditions.

The author smiles in front of a blue and white ship, with 'Investigator' written on the side.
On board the RV Investigator, we departed Hobart in 2016, beginning our 63-day journey to sample microbes in the South Pacific.
Eric Raes, Author provided

Including bacterial gene data to measure the state of the ocean means we can try to fill critical knowledge gaps about how the diversity of bacteria impacts their various tasks. One hypothesis is whether a greater diversity of bacteria leads to a better resilience in an ecosystem, allowing it to withstand the effects of climate change.

In our paper, we addressed a fundamental question in this global field of marine microbial ecology: what is the relationship between bacterial identity and function? In other words, who is doing what?

What we found

We showed it’s possible to link the genetic code of marine bacteria to the various functions and tasks they execute, and to quantify how these functions changed from Antarctica to the equator.

The functions that changed include taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, bacterial growth, strategies to cope with limited nutrients, and breaking down organic matter.




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Another key finding is that “oceanographic fronts” can act as boundaries within a seemingly uniform ocean, resulting in unique assemblages of bacteria with specific tasks. Oceanographic fronts are distinct water masses defined by, for instance, sharp changes in temperature and salinity. Where the waters meet and mix, there’s high turbulence.

The change we recorded in energy production across the subtropical front, which separates the colder waters from the Southern Ocean from the warmer waters in the tropics, was a clear example of how oceanographic fronts influenced bacterial functions in the ocean.

Dark blue water meets light blue water under a cloudy sky.
An oceanographic front, where it looks like two oceans meet.
Shutterstock

Tracking changes in our ecosystems

As a result of our research, scientists may start using the functional diversity of bacteria as an indicator to track changes in our ecosystems, like canaries in a coal mine.




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Half of global methane emissions come from aquatic ecosystems – much of this is human-made


So the functional diversity of bacteria can be used to measure how human growth and urbanisation impact coastal areas and estuaries.

For example, we can more accurately and holistically measure the environmental footprint of aquaculture pens, which are known to affect water quality by increasing concentrations of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus – all favourite elements utilised by bacteria.

Likewise, we can track changes in the environmental services rendered by estuaries, such as their important role in removing excessive nitrogen that enters the waterways due to agriculture run-off and urban waste.

With 44% of the world’s population living along coastlines, the input of nitrogen to marine ecosystems, including estuaries, is predicted to increase, putting a strain on the marine life there.

Ultimately, interrogating the bacterial diversity using gene data, along with the opportunity to predict what this microscopic life is or will be doing in future, will help us better understand nature’s complex interactions that sustain life in our oceans.




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The Conversation


Eric Jorden Raes, Postdoctoral researcher Ocean Frontier Institute, Dalhousie University

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

Spending time in nature has always been important, but now it’s an essential part of coping with the pandemic



Shutterstock/Sunny studio, CC BY-SA

Catherine Knight, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

A living wall filled with plants
Time spent in green spaces has been shown to mental and physical well-being.
Shutterstock/vsop, CC BY-SA

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of green spaces and urban parks, especially during periods of lockdown.

Even a short walk, an ocean view or a picnic by a river can leave us feeling invigorated and restored. There is now a growing body of evidence establishing the link between such nature encounters and our mental and physical well-being.

In my new book, I explore these nature benefits and put out a challenge to urban planners and decision makers to include more green spaces in our towns and cities.

Nature’s fix

One of the earliest studies to draw a conclusive link between time spent in nature and well-being was published in 1991. It found a 40-minute walk in nature, compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine, led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and better recovery from mental fatigue.

In more recent studies, exposure to nature or urban green space has been associated with lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression.

Research also suggests the benefits of growing up with access to lots of green space has a lasting effect into adulthood. A Danish study in 2019 found children who grow up surrounded by green spaces are less likely to develop mental disorders as adults.




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Nature exposure has also been shown to boost immunity. Studies found that forest excursions boost the activity of natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in the body’s defence system, attacking infections and tumours) and elevate hormones that may be protective against heart disease, obesity and diabetes, at least over the short term.

No exercise required

Researchers have been careful to factor out the beneficial effects of energetic physical activity when designing their studies of nature exposure. They asked participants to sit quietly or take a gentle walk.

This is good news for those of us who prefer a stroll to strenuous exercise. What’s more, researchers have found that just 20-30 minutes in nature delivers optimal benefits. After that, they continue to accrue, but at a slower rate.

Tree overhanging an urban stream
Even a gentle stroll delivers health benefits.
Shutterstock/Ian Woolcock, CC BY-SA

There’s even better news. To provide these benefits, nature does not need to be remote or pristine. A leafy park, a stream-side walkway, or even a quiet, tree-lined avenue can provide this nature fix.

New Zealand’s lockdowns have made more people appreciate the importance of green spaces for walking, cycling or just getting some fresh, tree-filtered air. During the strictest lockdown in April 2020, citizen science apps such as iNaturalist reported an upsurge in usage, indicating people were getting out into nature in their neighbourhoods.

The nature destruction paradox

Our appreciation of nature at this time of crisis is not without irony, given the destruction of pristine forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth are all at the root of the pandemic, bringing wildlife and people into close contact and making animal-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


A recent World Wildlife Fund report describes COVID-19 as a clear warning signal of an environment out of balance.

The report presents strong evidence of the link between humanity’s impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity and the spread of certain diseases:

Along with maintaining our natural systems, action is needed to restore those that have been destroyed or degraded, in a way that benefits people and restores the fundamental functions that biomes such as forests provide.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich in nature, but here too we have managed to destroy large swathes of indigenous forests and ecosystems since the first Polynesian navigators and then European settlers arrived.

Road running through green spaces.
Most people live in cities, which often lack green spaces.
Shutterstock/krug, CC BY-SA

Most of our surviving forests and pristine waterways are concentrated in our mountains and hill country, preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.




Read more:
3 ways nature in the city can do you good, even in self-isolation


Yet, 86% of us live in cities and towns, which are in coastal and lowland areas. So if we are going to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from spending time in nature, we need more nature spaces in our cities.

This does not necessarily mean more parks. With the right care and investment, neglected stream corridors, weed-infested gullies, flood-prone areas unfit for development and even road verges can provide valuable green spaces for people. As an added benefit, they create a network of habitat for insects, birds and reptiles that keep our natural ecosystems functioning.

In my book, I put out a challenge to all New Zealanders, especially urban planners and our decision makers, to strive for a more nature-rich future – an Aotearoa where every New Zealander can benefit from being in nature, every day of their life.The Conversation

Catherine Knight, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

COVID-19 wasn’t just a disaster for humanity – new research shows nature suffered greatly too



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Marc Hockings, The University of Queensland

It’s one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. While the human and economic toll have been enormous, new findings show the fallout from the virus also seriously damaged nature.

Conservation is often funded by tourism dollars – particularly in developing nations. In many cases, the dramatic tourism downturn brought on by the pandemic meant funds for conservation were cut. Anti-poaching operations and endangered species programs were among those affected.

This dwindling of conservation efforts during COVID is sadly ironic. The destruction of nature is directly linked to zoonotic diseases, and avoiding habitat loss is a cost-effective way to prevent pandemics.

The research papers reveal the inextricable links between the health of humans and the health of the planet. Together, they make one thing abundantly clear: we must learn the hard lessons of COVID-19 to ensure the calamity is not repeated.

A gorilla and man wearing mask
Protected areas are a boon for nature, and can help prevent pandemics.
Jerome Starkey

A disaster for conservation

The findings are contained in a special issue of PARKS, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, co-edited with Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips.

Researchers found between January and May 2020, 45% of global tourism destinations totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. This caused the loss of 174 million direct tourism jobs around the world, and cost the sector US$4.7 trillion.

Over-dependence on tourism to fund conservation is fraught with peril. For example in Namibia, initial estimates suggested communal wildlife conservancies could lose US$10 million in direct tourism revenues. This threatened funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees.

It also threatened the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members. This forced families to rely more heavily on natural resource extraction to survive.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Closed entrance to Grand Canyon national park
Around the world, the pandemic forced the closure of national parks – including the Grand Canyon, pictured here.
Lani Strange/AP

Emergency funds were raised to cover critical shortfalls. However in April 2020, rhinos were poached in a communal conservancy in Namibia – the first such event in two years. Researchers believe this may have been linked to the pandemic fallout.

More than 70% of African countries reported reduced monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade as a result of the pandemic. More than half reported impacts on the protection of endangered species, conservation education and outreach, regular field patrols and anti-poaching operations.

Rangers have also been hard hit. A global survey of nearly 1,000 rangers found more than one in four had their salaries reduced or delayed due to COVID-related budget cuts. A third of all rangers in Central and South America, Africa and Caribbean countries reported being laid off. Some 90% said vital work with local communities had reduced or ceased.

In more bad news, governments of at least 22 countries used the pandemic as a reason to weaken environmental protections for protected and conserved areas, or cut their budgets.

Many of the changes allowed large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, airports, pipelines, hydropower plants and housing) and extractive activities (such as coal, oil and gas development and industrial fishing). Brazil, India and, until recently, the United States have emerged as hotspots of COVID-era rollbacks.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Man holds up leopard skin
When poverty strikes, vulnerable people can turn to poaching and other illegal means to survive.
James Morgan/AP/WWF-Canon

Humans and animals pushed closer

SARS-COV-2 is very similar to other viruses in bats, and may have been passed to humans via another animal species. The pandemic shows the potentially devastating outcomes when animals and humans are forced into closer contact in shrinking habitats – for example, as a result of forest destruction.

As one paper found, during the last century an average of two new viruses spilled from animals to humans each year. These include Ebola and SARS.

Clearly, investment is needed to preserve the world’s protected and conserved areas, ensuring they act as a buffer against new pandemics. One study puts the required spending at US$67 billion each year – and notes only about one-third of this is currently being spent.

While it’s undoubtedly a large sum, the International Monetary Fund estimated late last year the pandemic would cause US$28 trillion in lost economic output in 2020.

Like many zoonotic epidemics, it appears COVID-19 was caused by the trade in wildlife and wild meat consumption. But diseases caused by uncontrolled land-use change – often for agriculture and livestock production – are just as dangerous.

The greatest risk, according to one group of researchers, is in forested tropical regions where land use is changing and a rich variety of mammal species are present.




Read more:
Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics


Rangers managing forest with fire.
Investment is needed in protected areas to ensure important conservation and land management continues.
Shutterstock

2021: a crucial year

As the special issue’s co-editors argue, if COVID-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the “suicidal consequences” of misguided development, then how will future calamities be avoided?

The cost of effectively maintaining protected and conserved natural areas is a small fraction of the cost of dealing with the pandemic and getting economies moving again. Imagine, for a moment, if the effort put into the development of vaccines were applied in the same measure to addressing the root causes of zoonotic pandemics.

In 2021, a series of international meetings will be held to decide how to stabilise our climate, save biodiversity, secure human health and revive the global economy. Through these events should run a golden thread: learn the lessons of COVID-19 by protecting nature and restoring damaged ecosystems.The Conversation

Marc Hockings, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

COVID has reached Antarctica. Scientists are extremely concerned for its wildlife



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Michelle Power, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Federation University Australia

In December, Antarctica lost its status as the last continent free of COVID-19 when 36 people at the Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins research station tested positive. The station’s isolation from other bases and fewer researchers in the continent means the outbreak is now likely contained.

However, we know all too well how unpredictable — and pervasive — the virus can be. And while there’s currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the COVID-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.

We’re among a global team of 15 scientists who assessed the risks of the COVID-19 virus to Antarctic wildlife, and the pathways the virus could take into the fragile ecosystem. Antarctic wildlife haven’t yet been tested for the COVID-19 virus, and if it does make its way into these charismatic animals, we don’t know how it could affect them or the continent’s ecosystem stability.

A person looking at the red research station in the distance, by the ocean
Bernardo O Higgins Station in Antarctica, where 36 people tested positive to COVID-19.
Stone Monki/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jumping from animals to humans, and back to animals

The COVID-19 virus is one of seven coronaviruses found in people — all have animal origins (dubbed “zoonoses”), and vary in their ability to infect different hosts. The COVID-19 virus is thought to have originated in an animal and spread to people through an unknown intermediate host, while the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 likely came from raccoon dogs or civets.

Given the general ubiquity of coronaviruses and the rapid saturation of the global environment with the COVID-19 virus, it’s paramount we explore the risk for it to spread from people to other animals, known as “reverse zoonoses”.

The World Organisation for Animal Health is monitoring cases of the COVID-19 virus in animals. To date, only a few species around the globe have been found to be susceptible, including mink, felines (such as lions, tigers and cats), dogs and a ferret.

Whether the animal gets sick and recovers depends on the species. For example, researchers found infected adolescent cats got sick but could fight off the virus, while dogs were much more resistant.




Read more:
Can your pets get coronavirus, and can you catch it from them?


Researchers and tourists

While mink, dogs or cats are not in Antarctica, more than 100 million flying seabirds, 45% of the world’s penguin species, 50% of the world’s seal populations and 17% of the world’s whale and dolphin species inhabit the continent.

A tourist sits near a penguin and takes a photo
Tourists visit penguin roosts in large numbers.
Shutterstock

In a 2020 study, researchers ran computer simulations and found cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — have a high susceptibility of infection from the virus, based on the makeup of their genetic receptors to the virus. Seals and birds had a lower risk of infection.

We concluded that direct contact with people poses the greatest risk for spreading the virus to wildlife, with researchers more likely vectors than tourists. Researchers have closer contact with wildlife: many Antarctic species are found near research stations, and wildlife studies often require direct handling and close proximity to animals.

Tourists, however, are still a concerning vector, as they visit penguin roosts and seal haul-out sites (where seals rest or breed) in large numbers. For instance, a staggering 73,991 tourists travelled to the continent between October 2019 and April 2020, when COVID-19 was just emerging.

Each visitor to Antarctica carries millions of microbial passengers, such as bacteria, and many of these microbes are left behind when the visitors leave. Most are likely benign and probably die off. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it takes only one powerful organism to jump hosts to cause a pandemic.

How to protect Antarctic wildlife

There are guidelines for visitors to reduce the risk of introducing infectious microbes. This includes cleaning clothes and equipment before heading to Antarctica and between animal colonies, and keeping at least five metres away from animals.

These rules are no longer enough in COVID times, and more measures must be taken.

The first and most crucial step to protect Antarctic wildlife is controlling human-to-human spread, particularly at research stations. Everyone heading to Antarctica should be tested and quarantined prior to travelling, with regular ongoing tests throughout the season. The fewer people with COVID-19 in Antarctica, the less opportunity the virus has to jump to animal hosts.

A killer whale poking its head out the water near sea ice
Cetaceans, such as orcas, are more susceptible to COVID infections than sea birds and seals.
Shutterstock

Second, close contact with wildlife should be restricted to essential scientific purposes only. All handling procedures should be re-evaluated, given how much we just don’t know about the virus.

We recommend all scientific personnel wear appropriate protective equipment (including masks) at all times when handling, or in close proximity to, Antarctic wildlife. Similar recommendations are in place for those working with wildlife in Australia.

Migrating animals that may have picked up COVID-19 from other parts of the world could also spread it to other wildlife in Antarctica. Skuas, for example, migrate to Antarctica from the South American coast, where there are enormous cases of COVID-19.




Read more:
Coronavirus: wastewater can tell us where the next outbreak will be


And then there’s the issue of sewage. Around 37% of bases release untreated sewage directly into the Antarctic ecosystem. Meanwhile, an estimated 57,000 to 114,000 litres of sewage per day is dumped from ships into the Southern Ocean.

Fragments of the COVID virus can be found in wastewater, but these fragments aren’t infectious, so sewage isn’t considered a transmission risk. However, there are other potentially dangerous microbes found in sewage that could be spread to animals, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A huge cruise ship in icy Antarctic waters
Ships dump 114,000 litres of sewage into the water, each day.
Shutterstock

We can curb the general risk of microbes from sewage if the Antarctic Treaty formally recognises microbes as invasive species and a threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. This would support better biosecurity practices and environmental control of waste.

Taking precautions

In these early stages of the pandemic, scientists are scrambling to understand complexity of COVID-19 and the virus’s characteristics. Meanwhile, the virus continues to evolve.

Until the true risk of cross-species transmission is known, precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of spread to all wildlife. We don’t want to see the human footprint becoming an epidemic among Antarctic wildlife, a scenario that can be mitigated by better processes and behaviours.




Read more:
Humans threaten the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. A marine protected area is long overdue


The Conversation


Michelle Power, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Lecturer, Federation University Australia

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

Bzzz, slap! How to treat insect bites (home remedies included)



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Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

It’s the holidays and we’re spending more time outdoors. This means we’re exposed to the more annoying and painful aspects of summer — insect bites and stings.

There are plenty of products at the local pharmacy to treat these. Some treat the initial bite or sting, others the itchy aftermath.

What about natural remedies? Few studies have actually examined them. But if they work for you, and don’t irritate already inflamed skin, there’s likely no harm in continuing.




Read more:
Buzz, buzz, slap! Why flies can be so annoying


Why do insects bite and sting?

When insects bite and sting, they are either defending themselves or need something from us (like blood).

Whatever the motivation, it can leave us with a painful or itchy reaction, sometimes a severe allergic reaction, or even a debilitating disease.

While insects sometimes get a bad rap, there are relatively few that actually pose a serious threat to our health.

Flies, mosquitoes

Many types of flies, especially mosquitoes, bite. In most instances, they need blood for nutrition or the development of eggs. The method of “biting” can vary between the different types of flies. While mosquitoes inject a needle-like tube to suck our blood, others chew or rasp away at our skin.

While researchers have studied what happens when mosquitoes bite, there is still much to learn about how to treat the bites.

So, avoiding mosquito bites is especially important given some can transmit pathogens that make us sick.




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Feel like you’re a mozzie magnet? It’s true – mosquitoes prefer to bite some people over others


We still have lots to learn about treating mosquito bites.
A/Prof Cameron Webb

Fleas, lice, mites and ticks

There are lots of other insects (such as bed bugs, fleas, lice) and other arthropods (such as mites, ticks) that bite.

But it is difficult to determine which insect has bitten us based on the bite reaction alone. This is generally because different people react in different ways to the saliva injected as they start to suck our blood.

Bees, wasps, ants

Then there are stinging insects, such as bees, wasps and ants. These are typically just defending themselves.

But as well as being painful, the venom they inject when they sting can cause potentially severe allergic reactions.

How do you best treat a sting or bite?

If you suffer potentially severe allergic reactions from bites or stings, immediately seek appropriate medical treatment. But for many other people, it is the initial painful reaction and itchy aftermath that require attention.

Despite how common insect bites can be, there is surprisingly little formal research into how best to treat them. Most of the research is focused on insect-borne diseases.

Even for recommended treatments, there is little evidence they actually work. Instead, recommendations are based on expert opinion and clinical experience.

For instance, heath authorities promote some general advice on treating insect bites and stings. This includes using pain relief medication (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen). They also advise applying a cold compress (such as a cold pack, ice, or damp cloth soaked in cold water) to the site of the sting or bite to help reduce the inflammation and to ease some of the discomfort.

Refreshing red drink in glass with ice cubes and lemon
Ice cubes aren’t just for summer cocktails. They can help reduce inflammation from insect bites and stings.
Shutterstock

There is also specific advice for dealing with stings and removing ticks.

However, if you do nothing, the discomfort of the bite or sting will eventually fade after a few days. The body quickly recovers, just as it would for a cut or bruise.

If you’re still in pain for more than a couple of days, or there are signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical assistance.

What about the itch?

Once the initial pain has started to fade, the itch starts. That’s because the body is reacting to the saliva injected when insects bite.

For many people, this is incredibly frustrating and it is all too easy to get trapped in a cycle of itching and scratching.

In some cases, medications, such as corticosteroid creams or antihistamines could help alleviate the itchiness. You can buy these from the pharmacy.

Then there’s calamine lotion, a mainstay in many Australian homes used to treat the itchiness caused by insect bites. But there are few studies that demonstrate it works.




Read more:
Are itchier insect bites more likely to make us sick?


Do any home remedies work?

If you’re looking for a home remedy to treat insect bites and the itchiness that comes with it, a quick internet search will keep you busy for days.

Potential home remedies include: tea bags, banana, tea tree or other essential oils, a paste of baking soda, vinegar, aloe vera, oatmeal, honey and even onion.

There is little evidence any of these work. But not many have actually been scientifically evaluated.

Tea tree oil is one of the few. While it is said to help treat skin reactions, the oil itself can cause skin reactions if not used as directed.

However, if a home remedy works for you, and it’s not causing additional irritation, there’s no harm in using it if you’re getting some relief.

With so much uncertainty about how to treat insect bites and stings, perhaps it is best if we avoid exposure in the first place. There are plenty of insect repellents available at your local pharmacy or supermarket that do this safely and effectively.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Associate Professor and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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