Friday, March 29, 2013

NatureWatch NZ on Radio New Zealand National

You can have a listen to two of NatureWatch NZ's founders, Colin Meurk and Jon Sullivan, talk about the project on Radio New Zealand National. This was part of Veronica Meduna's show, Our Changing World, and aired on Thursday 28 March 2013. Jon and Colin talked with Veronica about how NatureWatch NZ works and its aspirations for better connecting Kiwis to nature.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The hunt for the toatoa gall mite

Here's an interesting challenge for everyone on NatureWatch NZ from entomologist Nicholas Martin. Nicholas is the creator of the Plant-SyNZ website of the insect herbivores on New Zealand plants. He's an expert on invertebrate herbivores, especially galling species. And he's found something surprising in Auckland and is keen for your help.

The toatoa bud gall mite, Aceria victoriae (Acari: Eriophyidae), lives on the common native plant, toatoa (or shrubby haloragis), Haloragis erecta (Haloragaceae). The mite was first discovered in a greenhouse at Victoria University, Wellington in 1956 and named and described by Graeame Ramsay in 1958. (Here's the holotype specimen at Te Papa museum.) Remarkably, it was not seen again, until Nicholas found it in 2012 in Auckland, despite his spending decades in Auckland documenting invertebrates feeding on native plants.

Nicholas first found bud galls on toatoa in October 2012 at Whatipu on the southwest tip of the Waitakere Ranges. He found them again in December, this time in the heart of urban Auckland in a native reserve in St Helliers.

The host plant is common in native bush, and the galls are obvious to a trained eye, so why is it so rare in Auckland? And where has it been all these years? Is it more common elsewhere in the country? This is an opportunity for other naturalists in New Zealand to see if they can find the toatoa bud gall mite.

The galls are easily recognisable (see the photos with Nicholas's observations at Whatipu and St. Helliers). The galls are red. Toatoa flowers and fruit are normally green, but may be red, so you need to look closely at the shoot with suspected galls to make sure they are not red fruit or flower buds.

If you find what you think are toatoa bud galls, please add your observations to our new project, the Hunt for the toatoa gall mite. Please be sure to include photo(s) with your observations. Nicholas would also appreciate a specimen if you're interested. And if you find some toatoa and there are no galls on it, that would be very useful to know too. In this case, you can enter an observation of the species and tick the "Sought but not found" box.

Good hunting!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Using NatureWatch NZ in a university classroom

Since 2011, Lincoln University's Biological Diversity class (Ecol202) has run the Great Canterbury Butterfly Hunt. As one of their nature journal assignments, each student counts butterflies in a simple, standardised way in one garden and one wild place. As a class, we can then figure out in more detail the kinds of habitats and places our butterflies most like. By doing this every year, and making it public through NatureWatch NZ, we are setting up baseline from which changes in butterfly numbers can be detected.

At the end of summer, each student spends one 20-minute period on a warm sunny day counting butterflies in their garden, and another 20-minutes doing the same in a wild place. They note the maximum and minimum number of individuals of each butterfly species they see within and beyond 10 m of where they stand. They photograph as many of the species as they can. They also record and photograph the presence of any host plants of butterfly caterpillars, and record and photograph the flowers that any butterflies are visiting at the site.

This is the first year that we've had NatureWatch NZ available for the butterfly count. It's made things much easier than having to deal with 60 to 70 student spreadsheets. We set up a project on NatureWatch NZ, which all the students joined and used for this year's observations.

Importantly, the assignment is assessed on the ability of students to create a useful dataset. That means they lose no marks if they cannot identify a species, so long as they provide sufficient notes and photographs to allow someone else to identify it. We encouraged them to use the "ID Please" function in NatureWatch NZ whenever they were unsure of an identification. This worked out really well as often someone else on NatureWatch NZ had already made the correct identification by the time we marked the observation.

Another handy thing about NatureWatch NZ for this kind of exercise is the way it deals with location privacy. Students, if they wish, can choose to publicly obscure their locations to a 10 km radius or make them private. Perhaps they don't want everyone in the class knowing exactly where they live. When they do this, the exact locations are hidden from everyone except the Butterfly Hunt project managers (in this case, me and our tutor Nathan). All projects work this way, and people are warned by NatureWatch NZ when they join and add observations to projects. It's a really useful balance.

I've also been uploading the past years' observations into the project using NatureWatch NZ's handy CSV spreadsheet upload function, and then editing the relevant observations to add photos. Soon, we'll have all three years of butterfly counts publicly available and archived on NatureWatch NZ. That will be a record of local butterfly diversity that will only get more valuable with time.

Imagine how much more we'd know if every university, polytech, and high school was doing something like this each year, throughout the country. Imagine if they'd all been doing it for decades. We wouldn't be wondering whether or not NZ butterflies were declining. We'd know so, and in enough detail to describe the conditions associated with the worst declines. (The Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust is busy working to achieve this vision too.)

As part of the class exercise, I prepared the following video tutorial on using NatureWatch NZ. I expect it will be of general interest to people new to NatureWatch NZ (like last month's video tutorial on how to upload kereru observations). Note that the details we added to the tags of each observation will very soon be able to be added directly into custom fields, part of the next NatureWatch NZ feature upgrade.

NatureWatch NZ tutorial on adding observations of butterflies and their associated plants from Jon Sullivan on Vimeo.

I'll blog at a later time about what all these observations are telling us about butterflies. For now, I hope it's a useful example of how NatureWatch NZ can be used in a university classroom to collate and error-check observations, build students' natural history knowledge, and do so in a way that contributes to our shared knowledge of New Zealand biodiversity.