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Biological Heritage Science Challenge funding results

Media release from the National Science Challenge for
New Zealand’s Biological Heritage

Date of issue: 20 December 2016

For immediate release

Research funding for: groundwater and waterway health, fighting kauri dieback disease and other biosecurity threats, and understanding public attitudes to novel pest eradication strategies

The National Science Challenge for NZ’s Biological Heritage has approved six new research projects from its latest contestable funding round. There are two related to kauri dieback disease, two concerned with groundwater ecosystems and restoration of streams and waterways, and two focused on the public: research and development of a customised mobile app to enlist public help in reporting biosecurity threats, and research into public attitudes towards novel ways of getting rid of wasps and rats. Project summaries and contact information are below.

The Challenge, hosted by the Crown Research Institute Landcare Research and established in 2014, has c$5M per year to fund research which focuses on reversing the worrying decline in our biodiversity, and strengthening New Zealand’s biosecurity systems. It is seeking step change approaches to pest eradication, and to defending New Zealand against biosecurity threats such as the brown marmorated stink bug or myrtle rust, both of which could devastate primary industries in a very short time.

Director of the Challenge , Dr Andrea Byrom, herself a leading pest ecologist, is pleased with the outcome of this round which “has attracted applications from our best scientists, who plan to use the latest technologies and strategies, such as mobile apps and DNA profiling. Each of our projects embeds mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), and several have a strong focus on public attitudes, endeavours and participation, without which, our science cannot be successfully applied.

“We’ll be reporting back on their findings, so watch this space.”

Project summaries and contact information:

A biosecurity team of 4.7 million’ is the first of five strategic direction statements in the draft Biosecurity 2025 Direction Statement for New Zealand. The National Science Challenge for NZ’s Biological Heritage is funding two new programmes to enlist the public’s help in dealing with biosecurity threats, such as the very worrying disease killing our kauri trees. Together these two projects bring together citizen science approaches (led by Plant & Food Research) and fundamental or underpinning science (led by the University of Otago) to tackle kauri dieback disease.

Community control of kauri dieback: Tiaki mō kauri”

Dr Ian Horner, Plant and Food Research

Kauri dieback disease has already killed hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of kauri trees in the North Island. New Zealanders have strong emotional and cultural attachments to kauri, and their loss is having a major impact. The mighty Kauri is symbolic of strength and longevity, and a legacy of our Gondwanaland heritage.

At a practical level, there are significant concerns about harm to people and property from dying trees, and the substantial costs (in the thousands for just one tree) of felling, and disposing of diseased trees on public and private land.

The fungus-like disease was first identified in the 1970s on Great Barrier Island. In the last ten years, it has also been found in many mainland forests and has become a serious problem. The Waitakere ranges, west of Auckland, are a particular hotspot. The most likely way of it spreading is on the bottom of our shoes, and through moving plants and soil around.

Under this project, Ian Horner from Plant & Food Research and his team will develop a programme to enable scientists, communities and mana whenua to work together on the remedial treatment of kauri trees, otherwise doomed to die. At the same time they will be contributing to our knowledge of how to manage kauri dieback. Of the control tools investigated to date, phosphite injection treatment is the most thoroughly studied and promising, but it may still be some time before research is completed, with widespread release of the treatment tools.

So in the meantime, participants in this study must apply treatments under strict protocols so scientists can properly measure its efficacy and possible side effects of the treatment, thus helping the wider research programme and the eventual roll-out of treatment tools.

Research is already underway with a pre-programme survey to find out community attitudes and responses to the trees, the disease and treatment options.

Members of the team are:

Dr Ian Horner (Plant & Food Research), Lee Hill (Biosecurity Contractor), Dr Marie McEntee (Aranovus Ltd), Dr Melanie Barton (The Tree Council), Waitangi Wood (Wai Communications Ltd), Jeanie Allport (Biosecurity Contractor), Graeme Weavers (Northland Regional Council), Dr Linley Jesson (Plant & Food Research)

Stopping kauri dieback in its tracks

Dr Monica Gerth, University of Otago

This project, led by Dr. Monica Gerth at the University of Otago, will use a combination of biochemistry and mātauranga Māori to try to foil the spread of kauri dieback. Kauri dieback is a fungus-like disease (Phytophthora agathidicida) that is causing the decline and death of thousands of kauri. Phytophthora pathogens are problematic worldwide. Another host-specific form (P. infestans) caused the Irish potato famine, and one with a more general appetite is attacking many Australian natives and avocado trees (P. cinnamomi).

A major way kauri dieback disease spreads is by free swimming zoospores in soil. With their long flagella and rudders, these spores can swim through water-logged soil at amazing speeds of up to 0.7 metres per hour. Once they find their target kauri roots, they encyst and initiate an infection that eventually starves the tree to death.

The question at the heart of their research is: what is it about kauri roots that attracts the zoospores? These spores seem to find the smell of kauri as alluring as coffee is to humans. Dr Gerth and her team will identify the chemical signals from kauri and other native plants that attract, repel or generally disrupt the 'homing' ability of zoospores - and then, in collaboration with Dr. Amanda Black (Lincoln University), they will test the effect of these compounds on the movement of zoospores through soils.

The overall goal of their research is to provide new tools to protect New Zealand's kauri forests. For instance, zoospore repellents could potentially be applied around kauri trees to deter the spores. Long term, the general principles of their research may also be applied to the battle against other plant pathogens.

The Challenge is also funding two new programmes to better understand and restore New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems. The first (led by NIWA) focuses on subterranean systems – vital filtration systems to keep our aquifers clean. The second programme (led by the University of Canterbury) focuses on strengthening and restoring the interconnected network of organisms in New Zealand’s degraded streams and waterways, in partnership with primary industry and communities.

What’s in our groundwater?

Graham Fenwick, NIWA

The groundwater that fills the dark, underground spaces in rocks and gravel can be thousands of years old. Some of our highly productive alluvial plains are hundreds of metres deep, holding enormous volumes of water. Some of it gets trapped and cannot find its way to the sea, but much of it finds its way into lowland rivers and wetlands.

Most of the water from aquifers is high in quality for human uses and contains few harmful contaminants. This is largely due to a remarkable subterranean ecosystem of microbial slime layers and small invertebrates, some up to 25 mm long. Specially adapted to living without sunlight, this ecosystem does a thorough job of filtering out and processing contaminants and many bacteria carried underground by the water.

This project, led by NIWA’s Graham Fenwick, aims to identify the different populations of these very important creatures that are present in three regions (Nelson, Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay), seven catchments, and varying land use situations. Though out of sight and out of mind, they are as much a part of our biodiversity as kiwi or kauri trees, and definitely have their role, as we are beginning to realise. We don’t yet know what we stand to lose, and how land use might be affecting them.

Many of these organisms will be new to science, and so this project will create a reference database for conservation managers, local government, and anyone interested in the health of these neglected ecosystems. DNA profiling, led by Ian Hogg at Waikato University, will be used to identify, differentiate and characterise species.

Two or more key stakeholder groups (Māori and regional councils) will help with fieldwork and scientists will make sure these partners are closely involved in the interpretation of the resulting information.

The recent breach of the Havelock North water supply has alerted New Zealanders to the vital importance of maintaining the health of our aquifers, which we tend to take for granted until something goes wrong. Some water drawn from aquifers for town supplies has chlorine routinely added to kill off any surviving bugs. In some places, here and around the world, groundwater is being used up faster than it can be replaced. It is an increasingly precious resource that must be managed carefully to sustain its valuable “ecosystem services” and groundwater quality.

This project is timely and groundbreaking.

What is delaying the recovery of our degraded streams and rivers?

Project Leaders: Drs Helen Warburton and Catherine Febria, University of Canterbury, with Professors Jon Harding and Angus McIntosh

The good news is that an enormous public effort is going into the restoration of our waterways. The bad news is that there is some resistance to restoration – not from people, but the waterways themselves. Degraded waterways seem to become dominated by species that preserve the status quo. This determined default to an unhealthy state is disheartening and needs to be understood to ensure that our efforts are fully rewarded.

Ecosystems are complicated things. The University of Canterbury Freshwater Research Group, with help from NIWA, will conduct research that draws on a huge amount of data about food webs, and in particular key characteristics about individual insects and fish, such as when or how they feed or reproduce (called functional traits), to figure out what needs to be present to restore healthy resilience. For example, there is a tiny snail that covers some stream bottoms and overwhelms other species, found in agricultural waterways across Canterbury. This expert team will look at various combinations of other species and their functional traits, to see what community of individuals works best together, and whether these designer communities can overcome this negative resilience.

Don’t lose heart, valiant water restoration heros. Planting riparian zones is still a great thing to do, but we need to accept that life is complicated, and that this is a multi-generation job. Fortunately, the best science help is on its way.

This project team is led by Drs Helen Warburton and Catherine Febria at University of Canterbury, and includes, Dr Elizabeth Graham of NIWA, Hamilton and Dr Kristy Hogsden, University of Canterbury.

Two further programmes aim to involve citizens and the public in science. The first (led by Scion Research) aims to equip 4.7 million citizens with the technology to work alongside primary industries to identify biosecurity threats, and make use of citizen and agency information collected to strengthen NZ’s biosecurity system and support the Biosecurity 2025 initiative. A second programme (led by the Department of Conservation and Landcare Research) builds on existing Challenge funding for novel technologies to eliminate wasps and small mammal pests, and explores the relationship between the public’s acceptance, or lack of acceptance, of novel technologies in order to better understand people’s beliefs, attitudes and values. It is ground-breaking social research that will support the Predator-Free NZ 2050 initiative.

Using mobile technology to protect New Zealand from biosecurity threats

Stephen Pawson, Scion

Protecting our country from biosecurity threats, such as the dreaded fruit fly and the brown marmorated stink bug, demands the vigilance of “Team New Zealand”. In fact, all New Zealanders have a responsibility to report biosecurity threats. But you have to be able to recognise them first. To equip our 4.7M strong biosecurity defence force, Stephen Pawson (Scion) and team plan to employ the power of the latest mobile technology to help us identify and report threats on the spot.

One app will not fit all situations. An important part of this research will be teasing out the different demands of the public and particular user groups, such as the forestry and kiwifruit industries.

Currently, there is an 0800 number (0800 80 99 66) to report suspected threats to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) who then investigate to establish if there is a biosecurity threat, and if so, what can potentially be done to manage or eliminate the threat. More rapid communication to MPI, and others managing biosecurity threats via mobile, including a photo, with date, time and location, has obvious advantages.

Stephen and his team want to link some functions of the app to the existing NatureWatch NZ site, where experts pool their knowledge to identify plants and organisms from photos submitted by “citizen scientists”. This will assist with ensuring that experts can rapidly identify potential risks, and flag these to MPI and those managing biosecurity threats. This will hopefully increase the quality of the reporting from the public without over-whelming biosecurity investigation staff.

The app/s developed will draw on agency data to focus surveillance efforts on high-priority threats, so the project has strong support from the Ministry of Primary Industries. The tool will be tested using two case studies, one targeting public participation, the other targeting primary sector industry participants. Iwi partners (Māori Biosecurity Network and Wakatū Inc.) will participate in the co-development process to incorporate Mātauranga Maori.

Bottom line, the two-year programme aims to provide an enduring and flexible model for a fast, easy-to-use system for identifying, reporting, and prompting immediate and appropriate responses to, plant and animal pests.

The team includes: Stephen Pawson, Scion; Andrea Grant, Scion; Eckehard Brockerhoff, Scion; Jon Sullivan, Lincoln University; and Melanie Mark-Shadbolt, Lincoln University

Public perceptions of the use of novel pest control methods

Edy MacDonald, Department of Conservation

Scientists designing pest control methods know that they are part of a wider society and there is a need to understand and listen to the public’s views about novel technologies. Dr Edy MacDonald and her co-researchers plan to work nationally to understand what different groups feel about new wide-scale pest control that might be developed, starting with tools for the control of wasps and rats.

Her group will discuss potential new technologies, testing the degree, if any, of social acceptance and opposition to the use of innovative new methods. The research will focus on two groups: the general New Zealand public and the main stakeholders/partners, e.g. iwi, commercial bee industry, farmers, and local government. Organisations committed to understanding public opinion and acceptance or otherwise of novel pest control, e.g. Department of Conservation, Ministry for Primary Industries, and local councils, can use the findings as a guide for public engagement in future.

The Challenge-funded research will explore the relationship between the public’s acceptance, or lack of acceptance, of novel technologies, with their beliefs, attitudes and values.

For further information about the National Science Challenge, see

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