‘Gene drives’ could wipe out whole populations of pests in one fell swoop

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Gene drives aim to deliberately spread bad genes when invasive species such as mice reproduce.
Colin Robert Varndell/shutterstock.com

Thomas Prowse, University of Adelaide; Joshua Ross, University of Adelaide; Paul Thomas, University of Adelaide, and Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide

What if there was a humane, targeted way to wipe out alien pest species such as mice, rats and rabbits, by turning their own genes on themselves so they can no longer reproduce and their population collapses?

Gene drives – a technique that involves deliberately spreading a faulty gene throughout a population – promises to do exactly that.

Conservationists are understandably excited about the possibility of using gene drives to clear islands of invasive species and allow native species to flourish.

Read more: Gene drives may cause a revolution, but safeguards and public engagement are needed.

Hype surrounding the technique continues to build, despite serious biosecurity, regulatory and ethical questions surrounding this emerging technology.

Our study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that under certain circumstances, genome editing could work.

The penguins on Antipodes Island currently live alongside a 200,000-strong invasive mouse population.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Good and bad genes

The simplest way to construct a gene drive aimed at suppressing a pest population is to identify a gene that is essential for the pest species’ reproduction or embryonic development. A new DNA sequence – the gene-drive “cassette” – is then inserted into that gene to disrupt its function, creating a faulty version (or “allele”) of that gene.

Typically, faulty alleles would not spread through populations, because the evolutionary fitness of individuals carrying them is reduced, meaning they will be less likely than non-faulty alleles to be passed on to the next generation. But the newly developed CRISPR gene-editing technology can cheat natural selection by creating gene-drive sequences that are much more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

Read more: Now we can edit life itself, we need to ask how we should use such technology.

Here’s how the trick works. The gene-drive cassette contains the genetic information to make two new products: an enzyme that cuts DNA, and a molecule called a guide RNA. These products act together as a tiny pair of molecular scissors that cuts the second (normal) copy of the target gene.

To fix the cut, the cell uses the gene drive sequence as a repair template. This results in a copy of the gene drive (and therefore the faulty gene) on both chromosomes.

This process is called “homing” and, when switched on in the egg- or sperm-producing cells of an animal, it should guarantee that almost all of their offspring inherit the gene-drive sequence.

As the gene-drive sequence spreads, mating between carriers becomes more likely, producing offspring that possess two faulty alleles and are therefore sterile or fail to develop past the embryonic stage.

Will it work?

Initial attempts to develop suppression drives will likely focus on invasive species with rapid life cycles that allow gene drives to spread rapidly. House mice are an obvious candidate because they have lots of offspring, they have been studied in great detail by biologists, and have colonised vast areas of the world, including islands.

In our study we developed a mathematical model to predict whether gene drives can realistically be used to eradicate invasive mice from islands.

Our results show that this strategy can work. We predict that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying a gene drive could eradicate a population of 50,000 mice within four to five years.

But it will only work if the process of genetic homing – which acts to overcome natural selection – functions as planned.

Evolution fights back

Just as European rabbits in Australia have developed resistance to the viruses introduced to control them, evolution could thwart attempts to use gene drives for biocontrol.

Experiments with non-vertebrate species show that homing can fail in some circumstances. For example, the DNA break can be repaired by an alternative mechanism that stitches the broken DNA sequence back together without copying the gene-drive template. This also destroys the DNA sequence targeted by the guide RNA, producing a “resistance allele” that can never receive the gene drive.

A recent study in mosquitos estimated that resistance alleles were formed in at least 2% of homing attempts. Our simulation experiments for mice confirm this presents a serious problem.

After accounting for low failure rates during homing, the creation and spread of resistance alleles allowed the modelled populations to rebound after an initial decline in abundance. Imperfect homing therefore threatens the ability of gene drives to eradicate or even suppress pest populations.

One potential solution to this problem is to encode multiple guide RNAs within the gene-drive cassette, each targeting a different DNA sequence. This should reduce homing failure rates by allowing “multiple shots on goal”, and avoiding the creation of resistance alleles in more cases.

To wipe out a population of 200,000 mice living on an island, we calculate that the gene-drive sequences would need to contain at least three different guide RNA sequences, to avoid the mice ultimately getting the better of our attempts to eradicate them.

From hype to reality

Are gene drives a hyperdrive to pest control, or just hype? Part of the answer will come from experiments with gene drives on laboratory mice (with appropriate containment). That will help to provide crucial data to inform the debate about their possible deployment.

The ConversationWe also need more sophisticated computer modelling to predict the impacts on non-target populations if introduced gene drives were to spread beyond the populations targeted for management. Using simulation, it will be possible to test the performance and safety of different gene-drive strategies, including strategies that involve multiple drives operating on multiple genes.

Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide; Joshua Ross, Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics, University of Adelaide; Paul Thomas, , University of Adelaide, and Phill Cassey, Assoc Prof in Invasion Biogeography and Biosecurity, University of Adelaide

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

Who’s afraid of the giant African land snail? Perhaps we shouldn’t be

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Giant African land snails can grow up to 15cm long.
Author provided

Luke S. O’Loughlin, La Trobe University and Peter Green, La Trobe University

The giant African land snail is a poster child of a global epidemic: the threat of invasive species. The snails are native to coastal East Africa, but are now found across Asia, the Pacific and the Americas – in fact, almost all tropical mainlands and islands except mainland Australia.

Yet, despite their fearsome reputation, our research on Christmas Island’s invasive snail population suggests the risk they pose to native ecosystems has been greatly exaggerated.

Giant African land snails certainly have the classic characteristics of a successful invader: they can thrive in lots of different places; survive on a broad diet; reach reproductive age quickly; and produce more than 1,000 eggs in a lifetime. Add it all together and you have a species recognised as among the worst invaders in the world.

The snails can eat hundreds of plant species, including vegetable crops (and even calcium-rich plaster and stucco), and have been described as a major threat to agriculture.

They have been intercepted at Australian ports, and the Department of Primary Industries concurs that the snails are a “serious threat”.

Despite all this, there have been no dedicated studies of their environmental impact. Some researchers suggest the risk to agriculture has been exaggerated from accounts of damage in gardens. There are no accounts of giant African land snails destroying natural ecosystems.

Quietly eating leaf litter

In research recently published in the journal Austral Ecology, we tested these assumptions by investigating giant African land snails living in native rainforest on Christmas Island.

Giant African land snails have spread through Christmas Island with the help of another invasive species: the yellow crazy ant.

Until these ants showed up, abundant native red land crabs ate the giant snails before they could gain a foothold in the rainforest. Unfortunately, yellow crazy ants have completely exterminated the crabs in some parts of the island, allowing the snails to flourish.

We predicted that the snails, which eat a broad range of food, would have a significant impact on leaf litter and seedling survival.

Unexpectedly, the snails we observed on Christmas Island confined themselves to eating small amounts of leaf litter.
Author provided

However, our evidence didn’t support this at all. Using several different approaches – including a field experiment, lab experiment and observational study – we found giant African land snails were pretty much just eating a few dead leaves and little else.

We almost couldn’t distinguish between leaf litter removal by the snails compared to natural decomposition. They were eating leaf litter, but not a lot of it.

We saw almost no impact on seedling survival, and the snails were almost never seen eating live foliage. In one lab trial, we attempted to feed snails an exclusive diet of fresh leaves, but so many of these snails died that we had to cut the experiment short. Perhaps common Christmas Island plants just aren’t palatable.

It’s possible that the giant African land snails are causing other problems on Christmas Island. In Florida, for example, they carry parasites that are a risk to human health. But for the key ecological processes we investigated, the snails do not create the kind of disturbance we would assume from their large numbers.

We effectively excluded snails from an area by lining a fence with copper tape.
Author provided

The assumption that giant African land snails are dangerous to native plants and agriculture comes from an overriding sentiment that invasive species are damaging and must be controlled.

Do we have good data on the ecological impact of all invasive species? Of course not. Should we still try to control all abundant invasive species even if we don’t have evidence they are causing harm? That’s a more difficult question.

The precautionary principle drives much of the thinking behind the management of invasive species, including the giant African land snail. The cost of doing nothing is potentially very high, so it’s safest to assume invasive species are having an effect (especially when they exist in high numbers).

But we should also be working hard to test these assumptions. Proper monitoring and experiments give us a true picture of the risks of action (or inaction).

The ConversationIn reality, the giant African land snail is more the poster child of our own knee-jerk reaction to abundant invaders.

Luke S. O’Loughlin, Research fellow, La Trobe University and Peter Green, Head of Department, Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University

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

The bark side: domestic dogs threaten endangered species worldwide

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A feral dog chasing a wild boar, Banni grasslands, India.
Chetan Misher/Facebook

Tim Doherty, Deakin University; Aaron J. Wirsing, University of Washington; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Thomas Newsome, Deakin University

Humans and their canine companions share many close bonds. Wolves (Canis lupus) were the first animal domesticated by people, some time between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago. The Conversation

There are now an estimated 1 billion domestic dogs across their near-global distribution.

Domestic dogs include feral and free-ranging animals (such as village and camp dogs), as well as those that are owned by and completely dependent on humans (pet dogs).

Our latest research reveals that the ecological “pawprint” of domestic dogs is much greater than previously realised.

Using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, we counted how many species are negatively affected by dogs, assessed the prevalence of different types of impacts, and identified regions with the greatest number of affected species.

A dog with a black-naped hare, Maharashtra, India.
Hari Somashekhar/Facebook

Dogs are third-most-damaging mammal

We found that dogs are implicated in the extinction of at least 11 species, including the Hawaiian Rail and the Tonga Ground Skink. Dogs are also a known or potential threat to 188 threatened species worldwide: 96 mammal, 78 bird, 22 reptile and three amphibian species. This includes 30 critically endangered species, two of which are classed as “possibly extinct”.

These numbers place dogs in the number three spot after cats and rodents as the world’s most damaging invasive mammalian predators.

Even though dogs have an almost global distribution, the threatened species they are known to affect are concentrated in certain parts of the globe. South-East Asia, South America, Central America and the Caribbean each contain 28 to 30 threatened species impacted by dogs. Other hotspots include Australia, Micro/Mela/Polynesia and the remainder of Asia.

Lethal and non-lethal impacts

Predation was the most commonly reported impact of dogs on wildlife. The typically omnivorous diet of dogs means they have strong potential to affect a diversity of species. For instance, dogs killed at least 19 endangered Kagu (a ground-dwelling bird) in New Caledonia in 14 weeks. Threatened species with small population sizes are particularly vulnerable to such intense bouts of predation.

The frequency of different types of dog impact on threatened species.

Aside from simply killing animals, dogs can harm wildlife in other ways, such as by spreading disease, interbreeding with other canids, competing for resources such as food or shelter, and causing disturbances by chasing or harassment. For example, contact with domestic dogs increases disease risk for endangered African Wild Dogs in Kenya.

Part of the problem is that when wild animals perceive dogs as a threat, they may change their behaviour to avoid them. One study near Sydney found that dog walking in parklands and national parks reduced the abundance and species richness of birds, even when dogs were restrained on leads.

None of the Red List assessments mentioned such indirect risk effects, which suggests that their frequency is likely to be much higher than reported.

Feral dogs chasing Indian wild ass at Little Rann of Kutch, India.
Kalyan Varma/Facebook

Friend and foe

Despite their widespread and sometimes severe impacts on biodiversity, dogs can also benefit some species and ecosystems.

For example, in Australia, the closely related dingo (Canis dingo) can suppress populations of introduced predators such as red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and in doing so can benefit smaller native prey. It is possible that domestic dogs could perform similar ecological roles in some situations.

In some regions, dogs and their keen noses have been trained to help scientists find threatened species such as Tiger Quolls. Elsewhere they are helping to flush out and control feral cats.

An emerging and exciting conservation role for dogs is their growing use as “guardian animals” for wildlife, with the remarkable story of Oddball being the most well known.

Managing the problem

Dogs not only interact with wildlife, but can also attack and spread disease to humans, livestock and other domestic animals. As such, managing the problem requires looking at ecological, cultural and social perspectives.

Some of the regions with high numbers of species threatened by dogs are also hotspots for urbanisation and road building, which make it easier for dogs to access the habitats of threatened species. Urban development increases food waste, which feeds higher numbers of dogs. As dogs expand into new areas, the number of species they impact is likely to grow.

Street dogs scavenging food waste in India.

We can protect wildlife by integrating human health and animal welfare objectives into dog management. Vaccination and desexing campaigns can reduce disease risk and overpopulation problems. We should also focus on responsible dog ownership, removing dogs without owners, and reducing access to food waste.

Given the close relationship between humans and dogs, community engagement should form the basis of any management program. More research is needed to get a better picture of the scale of the problem, and of how dogs interact with other threats such as habitat loss. Such actions are critically important for ensuring the conservation of wildlife threatened by dogs around the world.

This article was co-authored by Dr Al Glen from Landcare Research, New Zealand and Dr Abi Vanak from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, India. These institutions had no role in the design or funding of this research.

Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Aaron J. Wirsing, Assistant Professor, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, ARC DECRA Fellow, Charles Sturt University; Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Thomas Newsome, Fulbright Scholar and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

Tipping the scales on Christmas Island: wasps and bugs use other species, so why can’t we?

Susan Lawler, La Trobe University

A couple of days ago I published an article with Peter Green about the imminent release of a tiny wasp that will be used for biological control of a bug that feeds the crazy ants that kill red crabs on Christmas Island.

It is understandable that people are nervous about the introduction of exotic species to manage wildlife in a natural setting. It turns out that ecologists are even more nervous than the public about this, so if they have decided to do it anyway, then there is a remarkably good reason.

Parasitoid wasps use scale insects

The release of the wasp has concerned some readers because they imagine swarms of biting insects setting up their nests in the back garden. The truth is that the wasps that will be released are tiny and unlikely to be noticed at all.

First of all, Tachardiaephagus somervillei are only 2 mm long and cannot sting humans or other animals. They do not form colonies, they do not swarm, and they do not build nests. In fact, they won’t be at all interested in hanging around human habitations unless there is a tree nearby containing a colony of the yellow lac scale insect (Tachardina aurantiaca).

This is because these wasps are parasitoids – a type of parasitic organism that kills its host species. They don’t need a nest or a colony because the scale insects they target are both their food source and their home.

The specificity of the wasp for this particular type of scale insect can be seen in the first part of their Latin names: Tachardiaephagus literally means “eater of Tachardina”.

Scale insects use ants

Scale insects are a type of true bug (in the Order Hemiptera) that line up along tree branches like barnacles, sucking sap from the tree and in their mature form, releasing a sweet liquid known as honeydew from their backsides for the benefit of ants. They don’t do this for nothing. Their strategy is to use the ants as body guards.

In a situation where scale insects are relatively rare this increases the number of the ants who will in turn protect the scale insects. On Christmas Island, where the introduced yellow lac scale insects have become common because they do not have any natural predators, the invasive crazy ants have access to large quantities of honeydew. In this case, the crazy ants are using the yellow lac scale insects as a super abundant food source.

The super colonies that have formed as a result have instigated an environmental disaster. The crazy ants kill red crabs and other species mostly due to their extremely high densities driven by the abundance of honeydew.

Any detractors concerned about the dangers of yet another invasive species have not fully grasped the consequences of doing nothing. Chemical baiting of the ants is ongoing but has consequences for other animals and is not environmentally desirable or sustainable.

People using wasps

If the scale insects can use the ants as bodyguards and the ants can use the scale insects as a free food source, why can’t we use a tiny wasp as a biological control?

Unlike birds, lizards or other predators that may be deterred by ants crawling all over the scale insects, the tiny parasitoid wasps can slip through and lay their eggs in a scale insect without being noticed by the ants. Their eggs hatch and develop inside the scale insect, emerging as adult wasps that are ready to lay their eggs in another scale insect nearby.

In essence, the wasp uses the scale insect as a one-stop nursery, food source and conveniently located launching pad for the next generation. Inside a scale insect colony, they are likely to find another scale insect less than a centimetre from where they were born.

Consider how this will allow the wasp population to quickly grow and, perhaps, reduce the scale insect colony density so that the wasps will eventually have to fly further and further to find another scale insect. At some point the effort to find more scale insects will balance the benefit of finding an insect, and the two populations (wasp and scale insect) will reach a new equilibrium at a lower density.

How will the crazy ants respond?

The wasp will not run out of food, nor will the scale insects become extinct, but the ants will find themselves deprived of excess honeydew and will have to adjust their populations accordingly.

How do you empirically test the response of the ants to the removal of excess honeydew from their environment? Well, you can’t remove the scale insects but you can prevent the ants from getting into the trees where the scale insects live, even though it wasn’t easy. Apparently, doing this involves Glad wrap, Mr Sheen furniture polish, and daily vigilance by a research student.

The result was a 95% decrease in crazy ant activity in a few weeks, an outcome that suggests this approach has every chance of reducing the impacts of crazy ants on Christmas Island.

What happens next?

I understand that the team is gathering in Malaysia today to pack up some wasps and fly them to Christmas Island. The release will not happen right away, as the wasps will be acclimatised and grown up in large numbers in a dedicated facility. Monitoring programs are planned to observe the impacts, both short and long term, on the scale insects, the ants, the crabs and the forest structure.

The research to understand the ecology of Christmas Island sufficiently to identify a biological control agent started decades ago, and many scientists were involved along the way. It is not possible to provide links to all the research articles produced thus far, but here is a link to the final risk report.

I am not involved with the research but am familiar with it and in my view there are two things that could happen next. Either the wasp will fail to reduce the scale insect populations and nothing changes, or they will reduce the scale insect populations which could kick start a cascade of beneficial environmental outcomes for Christmas Island.

We are all really hoping that it is the latter.

The Conversation

Susan Lawler, Senior Lecturer, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University

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

Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home

Tim Doherty, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Invasive species are a threat to wildlife across the globe – and invasive, predatory mammals are particularly damaging.

Our research, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that these predators – cats, rats and foxes, but also house mice, possums and many others – have contributed to around 60% of bird, mammal and reptile extinctions. The worst offenders are feral cats, contributing to over 60 extinctions.

So how can we stop these mammals eating away at our threatened wildlife?

Counting the cost

Our study revealed that invasive predators are implicated in 87 bird, 45 mammal and 10 reptile extinctions — 58% of these groups’ contemporary extinctions worldwide.

Invasive predators also threaten 596 species classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. Combined, the affected species include 400 birds, 189 mammals and 149 reptiles.

Twenty-three of the critically endangered species are classed as “possibly extinct”, so the number of extinctions above is likely to be an underestimate.

Until now, these shocking statistics have been unknown, and the heavy toll of invasive predators on native biodiversity grossly underappreciated. Species extinctions attributed to invasive predators include the Hawaiian rail (Zapornia sandwichensis) and Australia’s lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura).

Australia’s lesser bilby, now extinct.

Who are the worst offenders?

We found that three canids (including the red fox and feral dogs), seven members of the weasel family or mustelids (such as stoats), five rodents, two primates, two mongooses, two marsupials and nine species from other families negatively impact threatened species. Some of these species, such as hedgehogs and brushtail possums, don’t immediately spring to mind as predators, yet they are known to prey on many threatened species.

Feral cats threaten the most species overall (430), including 63 that have become extinct. This equates to one-quarter of all bird, mammal and reptile extinctions – making the feral cat arguably the most damaging invasive species for animal biodiversity worldwide.

Five species of introduced rodent collectively threaten 420 species, including 75 extinctions. While we didn’t separate out the impacts of individual rodent species, previous work shows that black rats (Rattus rattus) threaten the greatest number of species, followed by brown rats (R. norvegicus) and Pacific rats (R. exulans).

The humble house mouse (Mus musculus) is another interesting case. Despite their small size, house mice have been recorded eating live chicks of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters.

Other predators that threaten large numbers of species are the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), pig (Sus scrofa), small Indian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and stoat (Mustela erminea).

Invasive mammalian predators (clockwise from top left): feral dog, house mouse, stoat, feral pig, feral cat, brushtail possum, black rat, small Indian mongoose and red fox (centre).
Clockwise from top-left: Andrey flickr CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4M2E7y; Richard Adams flickr CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/7U19v9; Mark Kilner flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4D6LPe; CSIRO CC BY 3.0 http://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/1515; T. Doherty; Toby Hudson CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrushtailPossum.jpg; CSIRO CC BY 3.0 http://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/10564; J.M.Garg CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herpestes_edwardsii_at_Hyderaba.jpg; Harley Kingston CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/ceWFr7 (centre).

Island species most at risk

Species found only on islands (insular endemics) account for 81% of the threatened species at risk from predators.

The isolation of many islands and a lack of natural predators mean that insular species are often naive about new predators and lack appropriate defensive responses. This makes them highly vulnerable to being eaten and in turn suffering rapid population decline or, worse, extinction. The high extinction rates of ground-dwelling birds in Hawaii and New Zealand — both of which lack native mammalian predators — are well-known examples.

Accordingly, the regions where the predators threatened the greatest number of species were all dominated by islands – Central America and the Caribbean, islands of the Pacific, the Madagascar region, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Conversely, the continental regions of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia contain comparatively few species threatened by invasive predators. While Australia is a continent, it is also an island, where large numbers of native birds and mammals are threatened by cats and foxes.

Along with feral cats, red foxes have devastated native mammals in Australia.
Tom Rayner

Managing menacing mammals

Understanding and mitigating the impact of invasive mammal predators is essential for reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

Because most of the threatened species studied here live on islands, managing invasive predators on islands should be a global conservation priority. Invasive predators occur on hundreds of islands and predator control and eradication are costly exercises. Thus, it is important to prioritise island eradications based on feasibility, cost, likelihood of success and potential benefits.

On continents or large islands where eradications are difficult, other approaches are needed. This includes predator-proof fencing, top-predator restoration and conservation, lethal control, and maintenance of habitat structure.

Despite the shocking statistics we have revealed, there remain many unknowns. For example, only around 40% of reptile species have been assessed for the Red List, compared to 99% for birds and mammals. Very little is known about the impact of invasive predators on invertebrate species.

We expect that the number of species affected by invasive predators will climb as more knowledge becomes available.

This article was co-authored by Al Glen from Landcare Research, New Zealand.

The Conversation

Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

Goodies v baddies? Why labelling wild animals as ‘pests’ or ‘friends’ is holding farming back

Manu Saunders; Gary Luck; Rebecca Peisley, and Romina Rader, University of New England

It’s hard to keep wild animals out of farms. Birds, mammals and insects all affect crop yields, in positive ways (such as flies pollinating flowers) and negative ones (such as when birds damage fruit).

Agricultural research and management programs often deal with these interactions by focusing on simplistic “good” and “bad” labels: aphids are annoying pests, for example, whereas bees are little angels.

In reality, however, no animal is 100% a “goodie” or “baddie” – their effects on crop production vary with context. Interactions between animals and crops are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and other animals. They can also be affected by the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. The same species can be “good” in one system and “bad” in another.

It sounds complicated, because it is. But this is where ecological research can help. Understanding the interplay between these factors will help ensure that farms can protect wildlife while also providing us with food and other resources.

Good versus bad?

When we reviewed 281 papers that evaluated increases or reductions in crop yields due to wild birds or insects on farms, we found that the binary view of “good” and “bad” animals is still widespread.

Of the studies we looked at, 53% (mostly in the agricultural sciences) focused on identifying and managing the “baddies”, by weighing up costs that animals create for farmers by damaging crops. Another 38% (mostly ecology and conservation studies) calculated the impact of the “goodies”: benefits such as pollination and pest control. Only 9% of the studies we reviewed considered both costs and benefits in a single system.

This shows that most scientific studies are still taking an approach that is too simplistic. Attempting to link increases or reductions in crop yields with a single pest or helper species doesn’t usually tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell us about other factors that influence crop yields, like seasonal changes in animal activity, effects of different management practices, or interactions between different animal species.

Because so many studies have focused on quantifying the effect of one group of animals (such as bees), or focused on effects at one crop development stage (for example, using fruit set as an indicator of pollination efficiency), the overall body of knowledge on how wild animals affect crops has become disjointed and sometimes contradictory.

Moving forward

In a second paper, we suggest a new way to address these complex issues that considers the social and environmental contexts of crop production across the entire growing season. By looking at the interplay between the various positive and negative effects, we can gain a more realistic estimate of how crop yields are affected by wild animals.

Here’s an example. In Australian almond orchards, native birds are often considered pests because they can cause crop losses by pecking at developing fruit. But after harvest has finished, the same birds also remove the decaying “mummy” nuts left on trees. Growers sometimes use paid manual labour to remove these nuts, because they harbour disease and pests that can damage the trees.

A cost-benefit analysis of shows that the positive economic value of the birds cleaning up the mummy nuts outweighs the cost of crop losses from damaged almonds. Averaged across the entire plantation, the presence of the birds is a net positive for farmers. This means that letting birds do their thing could be more cost-effective for growers than deterring the birds and then paying people to remove the mummy nuts. But without this cost-benefit approach, it easy to imagine how farmers would persist in viewing the birds as crop pests and shooing them away.

Very few studies have considered how wild animals create this type of cost-benefit trade-off in farming ecosystems. Yet this approach is central to the study of ecology, and there are obvious parallels between natural and agricultural systems. Both, for instance, have pollination and pest control as key functions.

Farms are ecosystems too. So we need to find a way to maintain sustainable crop production while also protecting biodiversity and ecosystem function. Doing this means moving beyond simplified systems and intensive production.

Productive farms have complex cycles of interactions between crops, wild animals and people. These cycles need to be sustained, not isolated from the system. As with any ecosystem, understanding is the first step towards protection.

The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Post-doctoral Research Fellow (Ecology); Gary Luck, Professor in Ecology and Interdisciplinary Science; Rebecca Peisley, PhD Candidate, Institute for Land, Water and Society, and Romina Rader, Lecturer in Community Ecology, University of New England

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