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City nature challenge uncovers hidden biodiversity
A weekend of observation expands what we know about Aotearoa’s urban wildlife.
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A selection of observations made during the City Nature Challenge 2023. Images by Saryu Mae, Matt Ruglys, Christopher Stephens, Dustin Lamont, Emily Roberts, Steve Reekie, commoncopper, naturewatchwidow, Leon Perrie, and Luca Davenport-Thomas.
It’s always exciting finding a critter in your backyard: another living thing trying to make its way, make a home, alongside you. (As long as it’s not a spider in your bed. Or an ant in your pantry.) I’ve been lucky enough to find tree wētā, native skinks, and kākā hanging out in my garden. It’s amazing just how much nature there is to find, once you take the time to look.
That’s exactly what nearly 1,000 New Zealanders did across four days (28 April – 1 May) as part of the City Nature Challenge 2023. They looked, and they found: 33,723 observations of 3,631 different species.
‘The America’s Cup for biodiversity’
The City Nature Challenge started in 2016 as a “friendly biodiversity battle” between San Francisco and Los Angeles, says Jon Sullivan, ecologist at Lincoln University and a founder of iNaturalist NZ – Mātaki Taiao. “It’s evolving into the biodiversity America’s Cup: it started in America, but now it’s gone super global.”
This year, more than 1.8 million observations of more than 57,000 species were made worldwide, with 482 cities from 46 different countries entering. Entrants are judged on three basic metrics: “Who can engage the most people, make the most observations and find the most species?” says Sullivan. La Paz, Bolivia, took out the top spot across all three for the second year in a row.
Five cities from New Zealand entered, and for those outside the urban centres, you could contribute your finds under a “rest of NZ” umbrella. “It's really just about exploration and getting people out there looking at things they've not seen before,” says Sullivan. He shouts out Wellington and New Plymouth for their super efforts.
Oriental latrine fly among discoveries
But it’s not just about the numbers and friendly competition: Sullivan has been combing through the observations, finding plenty of ‘firsts’ and discoveries that add to our scientific knowledge of biodiversity. There’s a “cute little endemic beetle” called Isanthribus proximus, spotted by Christopher Stephens. This shiny lil fella is the first of his kind to be spotted in Wellington, and there’s only one other observation on iNaturalist from anywhere in New Zealand (Mt Ruapehu). “Every observation made of rarely seen natives like this is super helpful for building a picture of the habitats and locations where they live, and form a baseline for comparison in the future,” says Sullivan. Another pioneering record comes from Taranaki, where Emily Roberts made the first iNaturalist NZ observation of the “poetically named” oriental latrine fly. It’s a known interloper here in New Zealand but is rarely observed.
There were migratory birds sighted in Canterbury that should have left by now, and multiple moss species identified growing in Wellington and Taranaki for the first time (“likely species that have been overlooked until now”). And Sullivan himself found an exotic aphid (Aphis lugentis) in Canterbury that was only first spotted in New Zealand on 3 April this year (in Auckland). “Every City Nature Challenge so far, we have species that are present in the north of New Zealand showing up for the first time in the south. As the temperature warms, the whole of iNaturalist is showing this gradual march southwards of all sorts of species,” says Sullivan. Te Papa researcher Lara Shepherd has more Wellington highlights here.
Sullivan is keen to “go big” for 2024’s City Nature Challenge, but emphasises that you don’t have to wait until next year to start making discoveries. Simply grab your smartphone, snap a photo or record a sound, and upload it to iNaturalist NZ. The community, which includes many of New Zealand’s foremost biodiversity experts, will confirm the identity of your critter, and you’ll be contributing to a huge body of open scientific data. “For biosecurity, it's really important to have lots of people observing in cities. We do find stuff that hasn't been seen before,” says Sullivan.
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Forestry slash report recommends ‘drastic’ changes
A ministerial inquiry into forestry slash in Tairāwhiti has released a “scathing” report with sweeping recommendations, Shanti Mathias writes for The Spinoff. The report authors say the fallout from Cyclone Gabrielle “demands an urgent reset” with an “environmental disaster unfolding in plain sight.” The recommendations include banning clear-felling on land most susceptible to erosion, and creating a biodiversity credits scheme to incentivise transitioning land back to native forest. Meanwhile, Jamie Morton from the NZ Herald reports on a study examining which Kiwi business sectors get hit the hardest by climate-fuelled disaster. For example, insurance services’ profits are hit by cyclones, whereas the building industry can actually see income boosts post-weather-event.
Aotearoa’s marine heatwaves a preview to ocean futures globally
“It was a really big marine heatwave last summer and autumn – but this year it’s been worse,” Dr Robert Smith, a University of Otago oceanographer, tells Guardian reporter Tess McClure in this devastating, data-rich must-read. From the die-off of farmed salmon to mass mortality of kororā little penguins, the relentless heat is wreaking havoc on marine life. The oceans are changing at a pace that is surprising scientists. “Extremes are the new normal,” according to this Nature news explainer.
Climate hits and misses in Australian budget
Ahead of the New Zealand government’s budget announcement tomorrow, what’s been unveiled in Australia? The Climate Council called it a “warm up lap” for investing in climate action. “We shouldn’t settle for a slow jog when the climate crisis calls for a sprint.” There’s a good tranche of funding for improving the energy efficiency of homes and getting small businesses off gas, but doesn’t go far enough, according to Dr Liam Wagner, associate professor in sustainable energy systems. “The only way we can decarbonise households will be to abandon natural gas and to electrify all of our energy use,” he says.
Other highlights include the establishment of a National Net Zero Authority and $2b to supercharge Australia’s hydrogen industry. But the budget also includes significant fossil fuel subsidies (approximately $41 billion), which comes as the Albanese government approves its first coal mine since taking power. A fracking project in the Northern Territory has also recently been given the go-ahead, despite scientists’ warnings.
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Ecuador strikes the world’s biggest debt-for-nature deal yet, freeing up hundreds of millions to fund marine conservation around the Galápagos Islands
Eloise Gibson investigates the Department of Conservation’s decision to switch regular health surveys of New Zealand’s forests from once every five years to once every 10 years. The risk of forest collapse could be missed under the new regime, she reports, with consequences for the massive amounts of carbon stored in native forest
Scientists have discovered bacteria and fungi that can break down plastic at temperatures as low as 15°C
The UK was powered by more wind than gas for the first time ever, data from Q1 of 2023 reveals
Bust out the BBQ: sausages prove to be tasty bait for stoats and feral cats, Allison Hess writes on Predator Free NZ
This feature from Wired examines the tension between The Ocean Cleanup, an organisation scooping up floating rubbish from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and scientists studying the marine life that lives there
The New York Times reports from Norway, where 80% of new cars sold are battery-powered
Image credit: WWF Australia.
To finish this issue, I’m a sucker for Aussie wildlife like this adorable wombat mum and bub. This precious pair were captured by AI-powered camera traps, deployed by WWF Australia in partnership with Google to monitor wildlife recovery post-bushfire. The Guardian’s report on the initiative includes some very cute images and I recommend clicking through to see the dingo pups.
Kia pai tō wiki,
PS – No wombat puns (soz) but did you know that wombats’ poo is cube-shaped? More essential poo knowledge courtesy of New Zealand Geographic.
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