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Student wins scholarship to help struggling native plants

UC postgraduate student wins scholarship to help struggling native plants

September 4, 2013

A University of Canterbury (UC) postgraduate student has won a major environmental scholarship to look into ways to help plants in native bush.

Marine Aubert is the inaugural recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust Dr Brian Molloy Doctoral Scholarship which includes a $30,000 annual grant and a research expenses allowance of $20,000 a year.

Aubert says New Zealand has seen its natural environment severely decimated in the last 170 years with habitat loss, over-harvesting, predation, herbivory by introduced pests and competition with exotic invasive species.

``A total of 49 percent of endemic land bird species are now extinct, while a considerable proportion of the remaining have been reduced and now have restricted distributions, sometimes only remaining as small populations in isolated sanctuaries.

``Changes in bird density have a significant influence on bird foraging behaviour, food preference and competition mechanisms. As a consequence, some native plants may suffer from insufficient bird visits and subsequent regeneration failure.

``The extensive loss of native birds is of particular concern in New Zealand because of the unusually high importance of birds for plant regeneration compared to other temperate countries.

``Along with the significant impact of habitat destruction, seed predation and herbivory, the loss of plant-bird interactions is threatening the regeneration ability of native bird-pollinated and fleshy-fruited species.

``Currently, a large proportion of lowland native forests in New Zealand is highly fragmented, embedded in predominantly farmed landscapes, and often consist in post-disturbance, secondary grown vegetation.

``For years, increasing biodiversity conservation efforts and ecological restoration projects have been promoted throughout the country, from the management of large natural reserve to the protection of small forest remnants in private lands, such as open space covenants.

``My PhD project aims to evaluate whether native plant regeneration is failing in small isolated forest patches below some threshold size and isolation level.

``The research will identify the extent of pollination and dispersal with current bird densities over a range of forest patch sizes. This will provide information about how many birds are required that may be   considered a sustainable limit to allow for long term forest self-sustainability.

Aubert will complete her research under the supervision of Professor Dave Kelly.

ENDS

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