Backyard gardeners around the world are helping to save Australia’s deeply ancient Wollemi pine


Heidi Zimmer, Southern Cross University and Catherine Offord

As bushfires blackened forests last summer, one tree species was protected by a specialist team of firefighters: the Wollemi pine.

These trees have a deeply ancient lineage dating back to when dinosaurs walked Gondwana 100 million years ago. Back then, rainforests – including Wollemi pines (or their cousins) – covered what became Australia.

So when a handful of Wollemi pines were discovered alive in 1994 on the brink of extinction, it caused a frenzy of interest that has barely died down among plant enthusiasts.

How firefighters saved the Wollemi pine from the bushfires.

Today, fewer than 100 mature pines are left in the wild. But their exact location is one of the best kept secrets in Australian plant conservation, to protect them from pathogens such as the root-rotting phytophthora that might hitch a ride on human visitors.

But while rare in nature, our ongoing research with citizen scientists is finding Wollemi pines grow in backyards all over the world, in a range of environments, and this information can inform how we can protect them in the wild.

From Gondwana to the garden

The Wollemi pine is considered the iconic poster-child for plant conservation. It’s an unusual-looking plant – each wild tree has many trunks covered in bark resembling bubbling chocolate and branches of lime or grey-green fern-like leaves. And in the wild, they grow to more than 40 metres tall.

The species is a member of the southern conifer family Araucariaceae, and its cousins include the monkey puzzle tree and the Norfolk Island pine. While considered a rainforest tree, many remaining in the wild exist between rainforest and dry eucalypt woodland, on the ledges of a sandstone gorge.

Wollemi pines can stretch 40 metres in the wild.
Heidi Zimmer.

Since the Wollemi pine was discovered 26 years ago, the protection effort has been intense, focusing on conservation in the wild.

One of the first strategies was cultivation. Horticultural scientists at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan (Sydney) worked out how to propagate the species so it could be grown and enjoyed in gardens, reducing the risk of illegal visitation in the wild.




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Wollemi pines are dinosaur trees


After the Australian Botanic Garden established a basic “insurance population” of plants propagated from the wild trees, some of the first cultivated Wollemi pines were distributed to botanic gardens in Australia and overseas, including in the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

In 2005, Wollemi pines were auctioned to the public at a Sothebys Auction. Since then, they’ve been exported to many nurseries around the world, and now grow in many public and private gardens.

I spy a Wollemi pine

When plants are very rare in the wild, or are very restricted in their distributions, conservation away from the site (ex situ) can play an important role in their survival.

This includes seed banking, translocation (establishing new populations of rare plants in new locations) and cultivation for the nursery trade.




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Where the old things are: Australia’s most ancient trees


Enter our I Spy A Wollemi Pine project. Fifteen years after the Wollemi pine became available for sale, our study asks people to report where Wollemi pines are growing in gardens across the world.

So far, results from the online survey have revealed the species grows across 27 different countries, from Australia to Russia, and the UK to Peru.

The tallest trees so far – stretching to 7 metres tall (though dwarfed by their wild counterparts) – have been reported from the UK. To date, 987 people have contributed data about Wollemi pines.

Wollemi pines growing in Coates Wood, United Kingdom.
Ellen McHale © RBG Kew.

What we can learn

Reading comments from survey participants – from “Has survived minus 10 degrees” to “I just love it” – has been a source of interest and joy for us researchers.

When the survey is finished, we’ll analyse the responses to understand what influences the growth of this species, such as different climates and soils.

Knowing how Wollemi pines grow in other parts of the world will provide gardening tips for home growers, but more importantly it will inform future conservation efforts in the wild in the face of climate change.




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For example, this research will provide information on what environments the Wollemi pine can tolerate. We’re discovering the hottest, coldest, wettest and driest places on earth this species can survive in.

This information can help us find places to establish new populations of Wollemi pines. It may also provide clues on the evolutionary history of this species and how it managed to survive multiple ice ages and other dramatic climate changes in deep history.

Conservation with cultivation

Conserving Wollemi pines in backyards is not quite the same as Wollemi pines in the wild – in the same way its important to have pandas in the wild, and not just in zoos. But using cultivation for conservation does mean these species have much greater distribution today than they have ever had in the past.

In fact, this isn’t the first time a rare tree has ended up in gardens. The dawn redwood, thought to be extinct in the wild, was rediscovered in China in the 1940s and can now be found in gardens across the world.

And the internet is a great place to foster conservation. In online forums, people share every stage of their Wollemi babies’ growth, from seed germination to pine cone production.




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This love and connection to Wollemi pines might even help address “plant blindness”: the propensity for people to see, recognise and focus on animals rather than plants, despite plants being central to providing us with food, the air we breathe and our climate.

So, as more species are threatened with extinction every day, everyone’s actions – even in their own backyards or online – can make a difference.


If you have a Wollemi pine in your backyard, or know of a Wollemi pine in a park or garden, and would like to get involved in our citizen science survey, please click here.The Conversation

Heidi Zimmer, Research associate, Southern Cross University and Catherine Offord, Senior Principal Research Scientist

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

How you can help – not harm – wild animals recovering from bushfires



Building one of these watering pods can help thirsty wildlife, but it must be checked for safety and hygiene, and refilled regularly.
Arid Recovery

Marissa Parrott, University of Melbourne; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Since July last year, bushfires have burned more than 7.7 million hectares of southeast Australia, putting many threatened species at increased risk of extinction.

Now that fires have been extinguished in some areas, surviving wildlife face other challenges, such as a lack of food, clean water and shelter, and more exposure to invasive predators.




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Australians have helped raise millions of dollars to support Australia’s imperilled wildlife, such as to set up triage centres and evacuate threatened species like eastern bristlebirds and Macquarie perch.

But beyond the vital role of providing financial support, here are a few simple things individuals can do – and avoid – to help our native wildlife recover.

Giving koala water from a drink bottle can kill them.
Sunrise on Seven/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Animals need fresh water, but not from a bottle

Photos of well-meaning people offering water from bottles to animals, especially thirsty koalas, often go viral online. But this is not a safe way to help koalas.

Animals must be allowed to drink water themselves, rather than us pouring water into their mouths. Animals, such as koalas, can’t drink quickly and poured water can fill their lungs, leading to potentially fatal aspiration pneumonia.

A koala at a bushfire wildlife triage centre. You can give koalas water to lap themselves from a dish, rather than pouring water into their mouths.
Zoos Victoria, Author provided

Still, providing safe, fresh drinking water is one crucial and practical way we can help them as summer grinds on.

This is particularly important since recent storms have washed ash, sediment and chemicals from burnt infrastructure into waterways, contaminating many catchments.

Water should be stationed at ground level, in a shaded location safe from predators, and in trees for birds and tree-dwelling species like possums, gliders and koalas. Check out DIY guides for building drinking fountains, or “watering pods”, for wildlife.

Sticks and rocks should be placed in the water to allow small species, such as reptiles, to climb out if they fall in. Water must be checked and changed regularly to ensure hygiene and avoid the spread of disease. And pets must be kept away from these locations (especially cats).

Watering pod animals.
Arid Recovery

What to do if you spot injured wildlife by the road

Authorities are searching the fire grounds for injured animals, and the public is reminded to avoid these areas until they’re confirmed as safe to enter.

But if you happen upon an injured survivor, what should you do?

First of all, call government agencies or trained wildlife rescuers, who can assist any injured wildlife.

Many animals may be in pain and frightened and some, including kangaroos, koalas and wombats, are potentially dangerous if approached. In urgent cases, such as when an animal is in obvious distress or has clear injuries, some animals can be carefully caught and wrapped in a towel, then placed in a well-ventilated, dark and secure box for quiet transport to wildlife veterinary hospitals for care.

Sadly, many animals are hit by cars during fires when they’re disoriented and panicked, and so it’s important to slow down in such areas.

You can also check animals found by roads for injuries and surviving young in pouches, and call authorities to assist. But always be careful of traffic when attending to animals on roadsides, and help other drivers be aware of you by putting hazard lights on and wearing bright clothes.

Don’t feed native wildlife, especially not peanut butter mixes

With so much vegetation burned away, supplementary feeding has gained attention following fires in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

But feeding wildlife without expert advice and legal approval can do more harm than good.

Feeding inappropriate foods like processed foods, over-feeding, providing unhygienic foods or food stations, and attracting predators to food stations, can all be fatal for native wildlife.




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Even some foods suggested online, such as bait balls (peanut butter mixes), can cause gastrointestinal issues for wildlife, potentially killing them. Similar issues can arise if wildlife are given some types of hay, vegetables, seeds, and fruits.

Supplementary feeding isn’t advised unless habitat and sources of food have been completely destroyed, and is only appropriate as a short-term emergency intervention until natural resources recover.

But leave it up to the experts and government agencies, which provide nutritionally suitable, specially developed and monitored food in extreme cases.

Somewhere to run and hide

In some cases, fire may mean native animals are more prone to predators killing and eating them. And, depending on the habitat, it may take months or even years for plants and animals’ homes to recover sufficiently to provide safety once again.

However, new approaches – such as building artificial shelters out of fencing wire and shade cloth – may help to buy species time, keeping small mammals, reptiles and other potential prey safe from hungry mouths. This could occur both on private and public land.

Artificial refuges to provide wildlife with shelter and protection from predators after fire.
Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

Show wildlife the money

Caring for wildlife after fires, whether they’re injured or have lost their homes, is a marathon, not a sprint. And given the scale of these fires, our wild neighbours need our increased support.

Often, the most helpful thing people can do is raise and donate funds to organisations, including Zoos Victoria and the Ecological Society of Australia.




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Some wildife species, such as bristlebirds, corroboree frogs, and mountain pygmy-possums, are being pushed to the brink of extinction and may need long-term captive breeding and release programs, or investment in active management of wild populations (such as the newly constructed feral predator-free area for Kangaroo Island dunnarts).

We can all help to make a difference and protect our remarkable and unique wildlife that so desperately needs our help.The Conversation

Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Dale Nimmo, Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

New tools help communities measure and reduce their emissions locally



John Englart/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Stephen Pollard, University of Melbourne

The slogan “What you can measure, you can manage” has become a guiding principle for local climate action. There’s an accounting standard made for this purpose: the Global Protocol for Community-scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories. Free online CO₂ emissions snapshots for municipalities in Australia, recently launched by Ironbark Sustainability and Beyond Zero Emissions, make the protocol more accessible than ever for local governments and communities that want to know what their emissions are, and what to do about them.




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The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides a way to measure local greenhouse gas emissions and removals. It is designed to record two elements of local emissions:

  • emissions within a municipal area, such as from cooking with natural gas or driving a car
  • emissions from activities within that area that produce emissions somewhere else, such as using electricity from a coal-fired power station or sending rubbish to landfill.

The method creates a consistent approach to measure emissions in different localities. It lets local governments and communities aggregate their individual commitments to reduce emissions.

The protocol is aligned with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) standards that guide countries’ greenhouse gas inventories. Local accounts can then be nested within national inventories without double counting.




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Australian local governments can do many things to help reduce their community emissions.
Australian Local Government Climate Review 2018, CC BY

By measuring greenhouse gas emissions at the local scale, the protocol supports local governments and communities as important actors in climate governance. Adding local efforts together gives them a stronger voice in national and international arenas. This political pressure is especially important given the inadequacy of countries’ commitments to meet the Paris Agreement targets.




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Translating local actions to global impacts

Even though the protocol adds weight to local climate commitments, translating these commitments into action can be challenging. Consistent with IPCC standards, the protocol frames greenhouse gases in two important ways.

First, greenhouse gases are measured according to defined “sectors”. These include stationary energy, transportation, waste, industrial processes and product use, and agriculture, forestry and other land uses. These categories are shorthand for the complex and extended systems of infrastructure, resource flows and human activities that produce greenhouse gases.

Municipal boundaries often align poorly with these systems. The data on activity needed to calculate emissions are often patchy or misaligned at the local scale. Local governments and communities rarely have the authority to intervene directly and change these larger systems.

So although the protocol helps to direct attention to local activities and systems that produce emissions, changing those systems and activities is usually more complex.




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Second, greenhouse gas emissions are translated, through a set of simple equations established by the IPCC, into a “carbon dioxide equivalent”. These equations are the basis for comparing, aggregating and exchanging greenhouse gas emissions and removals of different types, at different times and in different places.

These calculations are entangled with the claim that “a ton of carbon is everywhere the same”. It forms the basis for regulated and voluntary markets in carbon trading.

However, there are problems with this assumed interchangeability. As Larry Lohmann argues:

While carbon trading encourages ingenuity in inventing measurable ‘equivalences’ between emissions of different types in different places, it does not select for innovations that can initiate or sustain a historical trajectory away from fossil fuels […]

Local carbon accounts aren’t the whole answer

In sum, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol supports the legitimacy and strengthens the voice of local governments and communities in global climate governance.

At the same time, defining emissions by territory and sector does not fully reflect the complexity of the infrastructure systems and human activities that cause emissions. In particular, the protocol can reinforce a framing of carbon as an exchangeable commodity. This poses the risk that choices about whether to reduce or offset emissions could be skewed.

Without suggesting there is no place for territorial carbon accounts, it is important to recognise that how we measure emissions shapes possibilities for how we might manage them.

Alternative approaches such as consumption-based accounts measure greenhouse gas emissions from what is consumed by an individual or within a territory. This draws attention to choices about what we eat and what we buy, and to the social norms and systems of wealth, which are harder to see in territorial accounts.




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The key point is that no single measure of greenhouse gases can offer a definitive view. As a complement to the protocol, an additional question for local governments and communities to ask when trying to manage greenhouse gases is: “Where do we have the power to effect change, and why does that change matter to us?”The Conversation

Stephen Pollard, PhD Candidate in climate change and sustainability, University of Melbourne

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

Lots of people want to help nature after the bushfires – we must seize the moment



Dan Mariuz/AAP

Denise Goodwin, Monash University; Abby Wild, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, Monash University

As the devastation of this season of bushfires unfolds, many people have asked themselves: what can I do to help? Perhaps they donated money, left food out for wildlife or thought about joining a bush regeneration group.

Big, life-changing moments – whether society-wide or personal – provide unique opportunities to disrupt habits and foster new behaviours. Think of how a heart attack can prompt some people to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

For many Australians, the bushfire disaster could represent such a turning point, marking the moment they adopt new, long-term actions to help nature. But governments and environmental organisations must quickly engage people before the moment is lost.

Creatures of habit

Human behaviour is generally habitual, resistant to change, and shaped by context such as time of day, location or social group. But when this context is disrupted, opportunities emerge to foster change.

Take the case of taking action on climate change. Research into public perceptions, including in Australia, suggests most people see climate change as not personally relevant. In other words, they are “psychologically distant” from the problem. This means they are less likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviors.




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But the bushfire crisis was personally relevant to millions of Australians. Some tragically lost loved ones or homes. Thousands were forced to evacuate or had holidays cut short. And the smoke haze which engulfed our cities badly interfered with daily life.

Such ruptures are described in psychology and behavioural science as a moment of change, which means the time is ripe to encourage new behaviours.

Where there’s a will

Even before the fire crisis, many Australians were primed to act for nature.

In 2018 we conducted a survey which found 86% of Victorians support pro-environmental and pro-social values, 95% are aware of the condition of Victoria’s environment and the importance of biodiversity, and more than 64% feel connected to nature.

Experience of previous natural disasters provides further insights into why people might volunteer.




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After the 2011 Rena oil spill in New Zealand, communities came together to quickly remove oil from the coastline. Subsequent research found people volunteered for a range of reasons. This included a sense of collective responsibility for the environment for both current and future generations, and to connect with others and cope with their negative response to the spill.

One model of behaviour change theory suggests if people have the motivation, capability and opportunity, they are more likely to act.

Australians have shown motivation and capability to act in this bushfire crisis – now they need opportunities. Governments and environmental organisations should encourage easy behaviours people can perform now.

Bush regeneration groups are keenly awaiting new volunteers to help with bushfire recovery.
Flickr

Putting it into practice

Timeliness is essential in promoting new behaviours. Organisations should limit the time that passes between a person’s first impulse to help – such as signing up to a volunteer organisation – and concrete opportunities to act.

Volunteering groups should communicate early with volunteers, find out what skills and resources they can offer then provide easy, practical suggestions for acting quickly.

In the short term, this might mean suggesting that concerned citizens keep their cats indoors and dogs under control, particularly near areas affected by the fires; take a bag on their beach walk to pick up litter and debris; or advocate for the environment by talking with family and friends about why nature needs protecting.




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In the longer term, these behaviours could be scaled up to activities such as encouraging people to fill their garden with native plants to provide new habitat for wildlife; regularly volunteering for nature, and participating in citizen science projects.

Governments, councils and other organisations should provide information that guides the activities of volunteers, but still gives them control over how they act. This can lead to positive initiatives such as Landcare, which allows local people to design solutions to environmental problems.

Analysis of natural disaster response overseas has shown that decentralised approaches which incorporate local communities work well.

The long-term picture

There is a danger that once the immediate shock of the bushfire crisis passes, some people will return to their old behaviours. However research has shown when people undertake one pro-environmental behaviour, they are more likely to repeat it in future.

Encouraging people to help nature, and spend time in it, can also improve a person’s physical and mental well-being.

After the New Zealand oil spill cleanup, for example, most volunteers reported a sense of satisfaction, better social ties and renewed optimism.

This summer’s east coast bushfires are a tragedy. But if the moment is harnessed, Australians can create new habits that help the environment in its long process of recovery. And perhaps one day, acting for nature will become the new social norm.The Conversation

Denise Goodwin, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Abby Wild, Research fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, PhD candidate, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

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

Climate explained: regenerative farming can help grow food with less impact



Returning nutrients, including animal feces, to the land is important to maintain the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I would like to know to what extent regenerative agriculture practices could play a role in reducing carbon emissions and producing food, including meat, in the future. From what I have read it seems to offer much, but I am curious about how much difference it would make if all of our farmers moved to this kind of land management practice. Or even most of them. – a question from Virginia

To identify and quantify the potential of regenerative agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we first have to define what it means. If regenerative practices maintain or improve production, and reduce wasteful losses on the farm, then the answer tends to be yes. But to what degree is it better, and can we verify this yet?

Let’s first define how regenerative farming differs from other ways of farming. For example, North Americans listening to environmentally conscious media would be likely to define most of New Zealand pastoral agriculture systems as regenerative, when compared to the tilled fields of crops they see across most of their continent.

If milk and meat-producing animals are not farmed on pasture, farmers have to grow grains to feed them and transport the fodder to the animals, often over long distances. It’s hard to miss that the transport is inefficient, but easier to miss that nutrients excreted by the animals as manure or urine can’t go back to the land that fed them.

Healthy soils

Returning nutrients to the land really matters because these build up soil, and grow more plants. We can’t sequester carbon in soil without returning nutrients to the soil.

New Zealand’s style of pastoral agricultural does this well, and we’re still improving as we focus on reducing nutrient losses to water.




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Our pastoral soils tend to have as much carbon as they once did under forest, but concerns have been raised about carbon losses in some regions. Yet, we do still have two big problems.

First, the animals that efficiently digest tough plants – including cows, sheep, and goats – all belch the greenhouse gas methane. This is a direct result of their special stomachs, and chewing their cud. Therefore, farms will continue to have high greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat and milk they produce. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasised this, noting that changing diets can reduce emissions.

The second problem is worst in dairying. When a cow lifts its tail to urinate, litres of urine saturate a small area. The nitrogen content in this patch exceeds what plants and soil can retain, and the excess is lost to water as nitrate and to the air, partly as the powerful, long-lived greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Defining regenerative

Regenerative agriculture lacks a clear definition, but there is an opportunity for innovation around its core concept, which is a more circular economy. This means taking steps to reduce or recover losses, including those of nutrients and greenhouse gases.




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Organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of antibiotics and synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, could potentially include regenerative agriculture. Organics once had the same innovative status, but now has a clear business model and supply chain linked to a price premium achieved through certification.

The price premium and regulation linked to certification can limit the redesign of the organic agricultural systems to incremental improvements, limiting the inclusion of regenerative concepts. It also means that emission studies of organic agriculture may not reveal the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture.

Instead, the potential for a redesign of New Zealand’s style of pastoral dairy farming around regenerative principles provides a useful example of how progress might work. Pastures could shift from ryegrass and clover to a more diverse, more deeply rooted mix of alternate species such as chicory, plantains, lupins and other grasses. This system change would have three main benefits.

Win-win-win

The first big win in farming is always enhanced production, and this is possible by better matching the ideal diet for cows. High performance ryegrass-clover pastures contain too little energy and too much protein. Diverse pastures fix this, allowing potential increases in production.

A second benefit will result when protein content of pasture doesn’t exceed what cows need to produce milk, reducing or diluting the nitrogen concentrated in the urine patches that are a main source of nitrous oxide emissions and impacts on water.

A third set of gains can result if the new, more diverse pastures are better at capturing and storing nutrients in soil, usually through deeper and more vigorous root growth. These three gains interrelate and create options for redesign of the farm system. This is best done by farmers, although models may help put the three pieces together into a win-win-win.

Whether you’re interested in local beef in Virginia, or the future of New Zealand’s dairy industry, the principles that define regenerative agriculture look promising for redesigning farming to reduce emissions. They may prove simpler than agriculture’s wider search for new ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including genetically engineering ryegrass.The Conversation

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

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

Here’s how your holiday photos could help save endangered species



Zephyr_p/Shutterstock

Kasim Rafiq, Liverpool John Moores University

Animal populations have declined on average by 60% since 1970, and it’s predicted that around a million species are at risk of extinction. As more of the Earth’s biodiversity disappears and the human population grows, protected landscapes that are set aside to conserve biodiversity are increasingly important. Sadly, many are underfunded – some of Africa’s most treasured wildlife reserves operate in funding deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In unfenced wilderness, scientists rarely have an inventory on the exact numbers of species in an area at a particular time. Instead they make inferences using one of many different survey approaches, including camera traps, track surveys, and drones. These methods can estimate how much and what kind of wildlife is present, but often require large amounts of effort, time and money.

Camera traps are placed in remote locations and activated by movement. They can collect vast quantities of data by taking photographs and videos of passing animals. But this can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run and once in the wild, cameras are at the mercy of curious wildlife.

Track surveys rely on specialist trackers, who aren’t always available and drones, while promising, have restricted access to many tourism areas in Africa. All of this makes wildlife monitoring difficult to carry out and repeat over large areas. Without knowing what’s out there, making conservation decisions based on evidence becomes almost impossible.

Citizen science on Safari

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world – 42m people visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 alone. Many come for the unique wildlife and unknowingly collect valuable conservation data with their phones and cameras. Photographs on social media are already being used to help track the illegal wildlife trade and how often areas of wilderness are visited by tourists.

Despite this, tourists and their guides are still an overlooked source of information. Could your holidays snaps help monitor endangered wildlife? In a recent study, we tested exactly this.

Partnering with a tour operator in Botswana, we approached all guests passing through a safari lodge over three months in the Okavango Delta and asked them if they were interested in contributing their photographs to help with conservation. We provided those interested with a small GPS logger – the type commonly used for tracking pet cats – so that we could see where the images were being taken.

We then collected, processed, and passed the images through computer models to estimate the densities of five large African carnivore species – lions, spotted hyaenas, leopards, African wild dogs and cheetahs. We compared these densities to those from three of the most popular carnivore survey approaches in Africa – camera trapping, track surveys, and call-in stations, which play sounds through a loudspeaker to attract wildlife so they can be counted.

The tourist photographs provided similar estimates to the other approaches and were, in total, cheaper to collect and process. Relying on tourists to help survey wildlife saved up to US$840 per survey season. Even better, it was the only method to detect cheetahs in the area – though so few were sighted that their total density couldn’t be confirmed.

Thousands of wildlife photographs are taken every day, and the study showed that we can use statistical models to cut through the noise and get valuable data for conservation. Still, relying on researchers to visit tourist groups and coordinate their photograph collection would be difficult to replicate across many areas. Luckily, that’s where wildlife tour operators could come in.

Tour operators could help collect tourist images to share with researchers. If the efforts of tourists were paired with AI that could process millions of images quickly, conservationists could have a simple and low-cost method for monitoring wildlife.

Tourist photographs are best suited for monitoring large species that live in areas often visited by tourists – species that tend to have high economic and ecological value. While this method perhaps isn’t as well suited to smaller species, it can still indirectly support their conservation by helping protect the landscapes they live in.

The line between true wilderness and landscapes modified by humans is becoming increasingly blurred, and more people are visiting wildlife in their natural habitats. This isn’t always a good thing, but maybe conservationists can use these travels to their advantage and help conserve some of the most iconic species on our planet.The Conversation

Kasim Rafiq, Postdoctoral Researcher in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Liverpool John Moores University

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

Turning methane into carbon dioxide could help us fight climate change



It’s not cows’ fault they fart, but the methane they produce is warming the planet.
Robert Bye/Unsplash

Pep Canadell, CSIRO and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

Discussions on how to address climate change have focused, very appropriately, on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those of carbon dioxide, the major contributor to climate change and a long-lived greenhouse gas. Reducing emissions should remain the paramount climate goal.

However, greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing now for two centuries. Damage to the atmosphere is already profound enough that reducing emissions alone won’t be enough to avoid effects like extreme weather and changing weather patterns.

In a paper published today in Nature Sustainability, we propose a new technique to clean the atmosphere of the second most powerful greenhouse gas people produce: methane. The technique could restore the concentration of methane to levels found before the Industrial Revolution, and in doing so, reduce global warming by one-sixth.

Our new technique sounds paradoxical at first: turning methane into carbon dioxide. It’s a concept at this stage, and won’t be cheap, but it would add to the tool kit needed to tackle climate change.

The methane menace

After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas leading to human-induced climate change. Methane packs a climate punch: it is 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the planet over the first 20 years of its molecular life.




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Methane emissions from human activities are now larger than all natural sources combined. Agriculture and energy production generate most of them, including emissions from cattle, rice paddies and oil and gas wells.

The result is methane concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by 150% from pre-industrial times, and continue to grow. Finding ways to reduce or remove methane will therefore have an outsize and fast-acting effect in the fight against climate change.


Global Carbon Atlas

What we propose

The single biggest challenge for removing methane from the atmosphere is its low concentration, only about 2 parts per million. In contrast, carbon dioxide is now at 415 parts per million, roughly 200 times higher. Both gases are much more diluted in air than when found in the exhaust of a car or in a cow’s burp, and both would be better served by keeping them out of the atmosphere to start with.

Nonetheless, emissions continue. What if we could capture the methane after its release and convert it into something less damaging to climate?




Read more:
What is a pre-industrial climate and why does it matter?


That is why our paper proposes removing all methane in the atmosphere produced by human activities – by oxidising it to carbon dioxide. Such an approach has not been proposed before: previously, all removal techniques have only been applied to carbon dioxide.

This is the equivalent of turning 3.2 billion tonnes of methane into 8.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent to several months of global emissions). The surprising aspect to this trade is that it would reduce global warming by 15%, because methane is so much more warming than carbon dioxide.

Proposed industrial array to oxidise methane to carbon dioxide.
Jackson et al. 2019 Nature Sustainability

This reaction yields energy rather than requires it. It does require a catalyst, though, such as a metal, that converts methane from the air and turns it into carbon dioxide.

One fit-for-purpose family of catalysts are zeolites. They are crystalline materials that consist of aluminum, silicon and oxygen, with a very porous molecular structure that can act as a sponge to soak up methane.

They are well known to industrial researchers trying to oxidise methane to methanol, a valuable chemical feedstock.

We envision arrays of electric fans powered by renewable energy to force large volumes of air into chambers, where the catalyst is exposed to air. The catalyst is then heated in oxygen to form and release CO₂. Such arrays of fans could be placed anywhere where renewable energy – and enough space – is available.

We calculate that with removal costs per tonne of CO₂ rising quickly from US$50 to US$500 or more this century, consistent with mitigation scenarios that keep global warming below 2℃, this technique could be economically feasible and even profitable.

We won’t know for sure, though, until future research highlights the precise chemistry and industrial infrastructure needed.

Beyond the clean-up we propose here, methane removal and atmospheric restoration could be an extra tool in humanity’s belt as we aim for stringent climate targets, while providing new economic opportunities.




Read more:
Why methane should be treated differently compared to long-lived greenhouse gases


Future research and development will determine the technical and economic feasibility of methane removal. Even if successful, methane- and other carbon-removal technologies are no substitute for strong and rapid emissions reductions if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.The Conversation

Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO and Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, globalcarbonproject.org, Stanford University

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

Going to ground: how used coffee beans can help your garden and your health



File 20180201 157495 1dbwul7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Coffee’s usefulness doesn’t have to end here.
Yanadhorn/Shutterstock.com

Tien Huynh, RMIT University

Did you know that your morning cup of coffee contributes to six million tonnes of spent coffee grounds going to landfill every year? This does not have to be the fate of your caffeine addiction and there are many opportunities to up-cycle spent coffee grounds into valuable commodities.

From fresh fruit, to roasted bean, to used up grounds, coffee’s chemical composition offers a range of uses beyond making your daily brew.




Read more:
Sustainable shopping: here’s how to find coffee that doesn’t cost the Earth


Potential applications range from biofuels, to health products, and fertiliser for farms or your garden. So why are we throwing this precious product away?

The answer is that processing and production can be more complex than you might imagine – even when we’re talking about simply using coffee grounds in your garden. What’s more, many recycling initiatives to turn waste coffee into valuable commodities are still in their early stages.

When composted properly, coffee can be an excellent fertiliser.
Author provided

You may have noticed that some cafes now offer free spent coffee grounds for customers to take home and use in the garden. In theory, this is a great initiative but the reality is that fresh coffee grounds are high in caffeine, chlorogenic acid and tannins that are beneficial to humans but toxic to plants.

The spent coffee must be detoxified by composting for a minimum of 98 days for plants to benefit from the potassium and nitrogen contained in the roasted beans. Without adequate composting, the benefits are scant (see below). So if you do take some coffee grounds home from your local cafe, make sure you compost them before sprinkling them on the veggie patch.

Parsley plants after 70 days in soil containing a) 21 days composted spent coffee; b) fresh spent coffee grounds; c) newspaper; d) soil only; and e) fertiliser.
Brendan Janissen, unpublished experimental results., Author provided

The good news is that properly composted coffee grounds offer a cheap alternative to agro-industrial fertilisers, potentially helping urban communities become greener and more sustainable. Savvy businesses have begun processing coffee grounds on a commercial scale, turning them into nutrient-rich fertilisers or soil conditioners in convenient pellets for use in the garden.

The coffee berries before harvest.
Author provided

But why stop there? A potentially even more valuable ingredient is the chlorogenic acid. Although toxic to plants, as mentioned above, chlorogenic acid has potential as a natural health supplement for humans, because of its antioxidant, anticancer and neuroprotective properties.




Read more:
Where’s that bean been? Coffee’s journey from crop to cafe


The whole coffee production process is abundant in chlorogenic acid, particularly in raw coffee beans. Chlorogenic acid conversion efficiency is even better from green coffee pulp, with a 50% recovery rate, compared with 19% for spent coffee grounds.

As undersized and imperfect beans are discarded at this raw stage, many businesses have seized the opportunity to market green coffee extracts as a weight loss product, although more research is needed to confirm this potential.

Roasted coffee beans ready for grinding.
Author provided

The list doesn’t end there. Coffee waste can be used to create a diverse list of chemicals, including enzymes and hormones for digestion of common biological compounds and to improve plant growth; and feedstocks for high-end crops such as mushrooms. Coffee oil has even been trialled as a fuel for London buses.

The ConversationWith abundant waste supplies due to the popularity of coffee consumption, by recycling the byproducts, perhaps we can enjoy one of our favourite beverages without too much guilt.

Tien Huynh, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sciences, RMIT University

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

The Great Barrier Reef can repair itself, with a little help from science



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How the Great Barrier Reef can be helped to help repair the damaged reef.
AIMS/Neal Cantin, CC BY-ND

Ken Anthony, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Britta Schaffelke, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Madeleine van Oppen, Australian Institute of Marine Science

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from recent unprecedented coral bleaching events. But the answer to part of its recovery could lie in the reef itself, with a little help.

In our recent article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, we argue that at least two potential interventions show promise as means to boost climate resilience and tolerance in the reef’s corals: assisted gene flow
and assisted evolution.

Both techniques use existing genetic material on the reef to breed hardier corals, and do not involve genetic engineering.

But why are such interventions needed? Can’t the reef simply repair itself?

Damage to the reef, so far

Coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 took its biggest toll on the reef to date, with two-thirds of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem impacted in these back-to-back events. The consequence was widespread damage.

Bleached corals on the central Great Barrier Reef at the peak of the heat wave in March 2017. Most branching corals in the photo were dead six months later.
Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will dampen coral bleaching risk in the long term, but will not prevent it. Even with strong action to tackle climate change, more warming is locked in.

So while emissions reductions are essential for the future of the reef, other actions are now also needed.

Even in the most optimistic future, reef-building corals need to become more resilient. Continued improvement of water quality, controlling Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, and managing no-take areas will all help.

But continued stress from climate change – in frequency and intensity – increasingly overwhelms the natural resilience despite the best conventional management efforts. Although natural processes of adaptation and acclimation are in play, they are unlikely to be fast enough to keep up with any rate of global warming.

So to boost the reef’s resilience in the face of climate change we need to consider new interventions – and urgently.

That’s why we believe assisted gene flow and assisted evolution could help the reef.

Delaying their development could mean that climate change degrades the reef beyond repair, and before we can save key species.

What is assisted gene flow?

The idea here is to move warm-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef. Corals in the far north are naturally adapted to 1C to 2C higher summer temperatures than corals further south.

This means there is an opportunity to build resistance to future warming in corals in the south under strong climate change mitigation, or to decades of warming under weaker mitigation.

There is already natural genetic connectivity of coral populations across most of the reef. But the rate of larval flow from the warm north to the south is limited, partly because of the South Equatorial Current that flows west across the Pacific.

The South Equatorial Current splits into the north-flowing Gulf of Papua Current and south-flowing East Australian Current off the coast of north Queensland. This means coral larvae spawned in the warm north are often more likely to stay in the north.

So manually moving some of the northern corals south could help overcome that physical limitation of natural north-to-south larval flow. If enough corals could be moved it could help heat-damaged reefs recover faster with more heat-resistant coral stock.

We could start safe tests at a subset of well-chosen reefs to understand how warm-adapted populations can be spread to reefs further south.

These two-year old corals reared in AIMS’s National Sea Simulator are hybrids between different species of the genus Acropora. They are the results of artificial selection under experimental climate change and show tolerance to prolonged heat stress expected in the future.
Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

What is assisted evolution?

While assisted gene flow may be effective for southern or recently degraded reefs, it will not be enough or feasible for all reefs or species. Here, we argue that assisted evolution could help.

Assisted evolution is artificial selection on steroids. It combines multiple approaches that target the coral host and its essential microbial symbionts.

These are aimed at producing a hardier coral without the use of genetic engineering. Experiments at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are already making progress, with results yet to be published.

First, evolution of algal symbionts in isolation from the coral host has been fast-tracked to resist higher levels of heat stress. When symbionts are made to reengage with the coral host, benefits to bleaching resistance are still small, but with more work we expect to see a hardier symbiosis.

Secondly, experiments have created new genetic diversity of corals through hybridisation and researchers have selected these artificially for increased climate resilience.

Natural hybridisation happens only occasionally on the reef, so this result gives us new options for climate hardening corals using existing genetic stocks.

The danger of doing nothing?

The right time to start any new intervention is when the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.

Assisted gene flow and assisted evolution represent manageable risk because they use genetic material already present on the reef. The interventions speed up naturally occurring processes and do not involve genetic engineering.


Read more: Back-to-back bleaching has now hit two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef


These interventions would not introduce or produce new species. Assisted gene flow would simply enhance the natural flow of warm-adapted corals into areas on the reef that desperately need more heat tolerance.

Risk of increasing the spread of diseases may also be low because most parts of the Reef are already interconnected. A full understanding of risks is an area of continued research.

The ConversationThese are just two examples of new tools that could help build climate resilience on the reef. Other interventions are developing and should be put on the table for open discussion.

Ken Anthony, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Britta Schaffelke, Research Program Leader – A Healthy and Sustainable Great Barrier Reef, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Madeleine van Oppen, Marine molecular ecologist, Australian Institute of Marine Science

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

Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health



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Social media posts, such as this image uploaded to Flickr, can be repurposed for reef health monitoring.
Sarah Ackerman/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Susanne Becken, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Griffith University

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.

Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.

This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.

Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.


Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help.


Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.

Picture of health? You can learn a lot from holiday snaps posted online.
Paul Holloway/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.

In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.

After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.

Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef.
Author provided

Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.

Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).

The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).

Casting the net wider

Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.

The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.


Read more: Survey: two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef tourists want to ‘see it before it’s gone’.


Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.

Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.

The ConversationWhile it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.

Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University

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