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Homegrown Talent To Tackle Pesky Problems - PF2050 Ltd

Six of Aotearoa’s brightest young minds are setting out to revolutionise pest management, helping efforts to eradicate possums, stoats and rats from New Zealand by 2050.

Supported by Predator Free 2050 Limited (PF2050 Ltd) and $2.4m in Jobs for Nature funding, the post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers at Auckland, Canterbury, Lincoln and Otago universities will be researching topics as diverse as genetics, biocontrol, audio lures, and social licence.

"Our work is certainly ambitious, but is a critical step to secure New Zealand’s biodiversity. Despite decades of valuable and dedicated conservation efforts, step-changes are needed to achieve our goals. And to achieve those step-changes, New Zealand needs new science talent to drive the cutting-edge research needed," PF2050 Ltd Science Director Dan Tompkins says.

"The PF2050 programme has a fair bit of international attention as to whether it can be done. As New Zealand always has, we’re backing our local ingenuity and talent. We’ve deliberately looked for diversity of candidates and a breadth of topics."

The recently launched PF2050 Ltd research strategy crystallises the outcomes for which breakthroughs are most needed to achieve the PF2050 goals, as well as championing the need for more support for and investment in the science that will most help us achieve them.

"Building new science capability is critical for achieving all of New Zealand’s environmental goals, not just Predator Free. The investments made here will help establish these researchers’ careers, and their skills and accomplishments will be of immense value to New Zealand in the future."

Predator Free 2050 Limited is a Crown-owned, charitable company established in 2016. It provides co-funding to enable predator control and eradication projects at large landscape scale, and drives the breakthrough science needed to underpin large-scale predator eradication. It plans to contribute around $13m towards breakthrough science during 2020-24, guided by its research strategy.

Further information

Alana Alexander is a PostDoc at the University of Otago, who will investigate which genes are important to reproduction and survival in possums, mindful of the social and cultural implications of genetics-based pest control.

Possums were introduced into New Zealand from both Australian mainland and Tasmanian populations, meaning that today, New Zealand possums are a big genetic ‘hodge-podge’ of these two source populations. Alana’s research will use this ‘hodge-podge’ to better understand which genes are potentially important to reproduction/survival because they are more restricted to ‘mainland’ or ‘Tasmanian’ genetic backgrounds, versus genes that are more free to spread despite genetic backgrounds because they offer a leg up in New Zealand environments.

A potential downstream application of this research could be the use of some of these genes in genetically-mediated pest control. Because of this, and because Alana is a Māori scientist (Ngāpuhi: Te Hikutu), she is also interested in making sure hapori Māori (Māori communities) are able to access this research and information about genetically-mediated pest control. Alongside Alana’s genetics mahi, she will also be developing resources in te reo Māori to communicate genetics research on pest species, and potential downstream applications.

Ally Palmer is a PostDoc at the University of Auckland who will investigate potential social and ethical challenges to Predator Free 2050.

PF2050 is a nationwide campaign requiring active support and involvement from communities across the country over a long period to succeed.

New Zealanders hold a diverse array of attitudes towards animals and nature, not all of which necessarily align with the PF2050 goal. Social science research has helped to understand people’s motivations for supporting or opposing predator control.

Ally’s goal is to better understand social and ethical issues that may arise, to enable productive and proactive discussions on how to resolve them.

Achieving this requires understanding not just what values New Zealanders hold in relation to PF2050, but also how they weigh up competing values, why they hold these values, and how any potential conflicts might be resolved. To answer these questions, this research will adopt an in-depth, mixed-methods approach, involving interviews, surveys and focus groups.

Florian Pichlmuller is a PostDoc at the University of Auckland, who will investigate genomic applications for invasive species control, with a particular focus on mustelids.

He intends to undertake a discovery virome study to investigate the different types of viruses carried by stoats, ferrets and weasels. This project will give us a snapshot of the diversity of viruses invasive mustelids harbour and allow us to assess the potential risk to our taonga native wildlife.

Additionally, by comparing the discovered viral sequences with what we know about viruses found in other animal species, it will be possible to determine whether a virus is only found in a certain mustelid species.

An important foundation for the wider pest-free community will be the creation of a high-quality genome for the invasive least weasel (M. nivalis) in collaboration with the Vertebrate Genomes Project.

Florian will also analyse stoat samples from across Aotearoa to gain insights into how the population is connected and investigate the variation in specific genes of interest for pest control efforts.

Anna Clark is a Ph.D student at the University of Otago who will explore the dynamics of genetic pest control technology in a multi-species model.

Her research involves computational experiments to explore the feasibility of coordinating the application of genetic pest control across four mammalian invasive species - brushtail possums, stoats, ship rats and house mice. Considering that predator-prey and competitive relationships exist between these species, such a model aims to characterise the evolutionary outcomes of fluctuating population sizes resulting from these species interactions. The model will further investigate optimising practical application strategies while minimising negative ecological effects (e.g. rapid growth of a prey population after predator removal). Results may also aid the identification of key genetic design parameters that may facilitate social and cultural accessibility to core concepts relating to the technical development and feasibility of genetic pest control.

Brittany Graham is a Ph.D student at Lincoln University. She has received funding to investigate the integration of control tools and attractants to optimise ground-based pest control.

This research would address the question of how to best integrate ground control tools (traps and bait stations) with the best available attractants, aiming to optimise the integration and deployment of the latest control tools and determine the optimal combination of audio, social and food-based lures. Brittany is aiming to get a better understanding of all traditional and new control tools used in New Zealand, and then move into the cutting edge of current research on lures.

Ben McEwen is a Ph.D student at the University of Canterbury who has received funding to investigate and develop new predator luring technology capable of autonomously identifying invasive predator species and monitoring their populations.

His objective is to investigate and develop new predator luring technology and develop a system that uses state-of-the-art visual and audio technology to identify predator species in real-time, allowing populations to be estimated, and audible lures to be automatically selected, making trapping more effective. This system has the potential to significantly improve predator interaction rates with traps.

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