The Eco-index research programme: Aotearoa New Zealand’s answer for effective investment in biodiversity restoration

Catherine Kirby is the Communication & Relationships Manager for the Eco-index research programme as well as Programme Manager for the People, Cities & Nature research programme, part of the Four Islands EcoHealth Network. Here Catherine explains the novel approach of the Eco-index Programme and how it is focussed on reversing biodiversity decline on the islands of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s biodiversity has a unique story

Indigenous biodiversity in Aotearoa New Zealand is in dangerous decline – this is not a unique situation on the world stage. However, the story of how we got to this point and our planned approach towards recovery could be perceived as rather novel.

Kea (Nestor notabilis) – endemic to New Zealand and the world’s only alpine parrot. Credit: BioHeritage Challenge.

Our biogeographical story

The fascinating islands of Aotearoa New Zealand have been isolated in the Pacific Ocean for up to 80 million years. The islands are long and narrow, straddling latitudes from 34° to 47° south and encountering climates from subtropical in the north to subantarctic in far south. The country experiences a highly changeable climate that is coupled with wildly variable geographic features. In Te Ika a Māui – the North Island, landscapes range from white sandy beaches to active volcanoes and rugged western coast lines. While in Te Wai Pounamu – the South Island, you can encounter temperate rainforests, dramatic glacial fjords, dry open plains as well as the rugged Southern Alps.

This isolation, habitat and climatic variability in an island context has influenced the evolution of unique indigenous flora and fauna with a high degree of endemism (100% of frogs and reptiles, 90% of insects and approximately 80% of vascular plants) and a particular fragility and vulnerability to predation and competition from invasive non-native plants and animals.

Delicate flowers of the New Zealand endemic Pittosporum cornifolium. Credit: Catherine Kirby.

New Zealand’s National Science Challenges

Despite extensive reporting on biodiversity decline in Aotearoa New Zealand, an effective approach for reversing the loss of our special indigenous species has not been identified. This is where the National Science Challenges come in.

Established in 2014 by the New Zealand government, the 11 cross-disciplinary, mission-led National Science Challenges are working to address science-based wicked problems that researchers and residents are most concerned about. The Science Challenges focus on many aspects of society, the natural environment, the urban environment and economic development. They involve collaboration between universities, other academic institutions, crown research institutes, businesses and non-government organisations. Together, the Challenges will receive NZ$680 million (US$491.5 million) of government funding over ten years.

Biodiversity and biosecurity are central for New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge | Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho (or, ‘BioHeritage Challenge’ for short). The BioHeritage Challenge is focussed on discovering the most effective means of protecting and managing native biodiversity, improving biosecurity and enhancing resilience to harmful organisms. This work is centred on three core goals and is grounded in strong values that embrace partnerships with Māori (indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand):

The three core goals of the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge | Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho.
Values of the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge | Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho.

Introducing the Eco-index programme

The Eco-index programme is one of 14 research teams in the BioHeritage Challenge. With a focus on the Whakamana (Empower) goal, the Eco-index team is thinking outside the square to measure and direct land managers’ investment in ecological restoration.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a significant evidence base that biodiversity decline is occurring, but an effective countrywide approach to reverse this trend has not eventuated. A team of national and international experts from many different fields spent 6 months developing our novel Eco-index approach to address this issue and specified a starting with the formation of a long-term biodiversity vision, followed by a means of accomplishing the vision.

Kiwi (Apteryx australis) – flightless, nocturnal, and endemic to New Zealand. Credit: BioHeritage Challenge.

Eco-index 100-year national vision for biodiversity restoration

To guide long-term change, the Eco-index programme has developed a 100-year national vision that is informed by the targets, perspectives and strategies of biodiversity stakeholders across our nation, including iwi (Māori tribal groups), businesses, communities, NGOs, primary industries and governmental organisations.

The resulting shared vision for Aotearoa New Zealand is based on thriving, ecologically robust corridors of indigenous landcover that stretch from mountains to the sea. These biodiverse corridors will link our conservation estate with private and production landscapes and contribute to 15% of original ecosystem extent being restored, protected and connected in every catchment.

To contribute to methods for development of national restoration visions internationally, we are in the process of publishing our vision creation methodology in the primary literature.

Achieving the vision: linking biodiversity investment with impact

The Eco-index programme is utilising existing big data to quantify investment that land managers of all types are making to benefit indigenous biodiversity. These investments include restoration practices like native plantings, control of non-native invasive mammals (e.g., rats and stoats), protection of indigenous ecosystems, and planning work that goes into all of these. We are then linking this investment with big data indicating the impact these investments have on biodiversity. These data include indigenous species increases or decreases, especially those of importance to Māori, indigenous landcover, and human-nature connectedness. These links will be made at national, regional, iwi (Māori tribal groups) and industry scales and will provide:

  1. an overall score of Aotearoa New Zealand’s biodiversity status updated regularly and shown at different scales, therefore showing trends over time;
  2. biodiversity impact comparisons between industries and trends over time;
  3. determine overall investments needed for effective biodiversity restoration by key land managers (e.g., government, industries, iwi, NGOS);
  4. determine correlations between levels of investment in biodiversity restoration and levels of impact on biodiversity status nationally, regionally, and across industries;
  5. identify best or most effective biodiversity protection and restoration investments by major region and industry.
Children planting indigenous trees to benefit local biodiversity. Credit Catherine Kirby.

How is the Eco-index approach novel?

Our point of difference is that we are co-designing with key land managers across the country to understand what will help them most. A large proportion of indigenous ecosystems in Aotearoa New Zealand is on privately-owned agricultural land and many land managers are passionate about protecting and enhancing indigenous biodiversity but need to know best actions to take. Our programme will identify the most effective incremental investments that land managers (including iwi), as well as investors and communities, can make to generate the cumulative intergenerational impact needed to reverse decline. Creating and tracking this change using the Eco-index outputs will enable an effective, collective journey. 

In time, the Eco-index will indicate our Aotearoa New Zealand’s biodiversity performance, much like GDP indicates economic performance.

Current Eco-index focus – June 2021

The Eco-index programme runs from 2020 to 2024. We are building relationships with key land managers and data owners to co-design our approach and discover efficient ways to work together for the benefit of indigenous biodiversity. We are also developing methodology for gathering and analysing relevant biodiversity investment and impact data. The application of fast-evolving artificial intelligence and machine learning technology may be the key for cost-effective analysis of existing big data and satellite imagery across Aotearoa New Zealand.

About our team

We have expertise in Aotearoa New Zealand ecology, economics, sustainable development, land management systems and ecological restoration. The Eco-index team is led by Dr. John Reid (Ngāti Pikiao, Tainui, JD Reid Ltd.) and Dr. Kiri Joy Wallace (Te Pūtahi Rangahau Taiao – Environmental Research Institute, University of Waikato).

Keep up to date!

Interested in the Eco-index programme? See more at www.eco-index.nz and like/follow us on Facebook and Twitter to be updated on our progress and discoveries:

Monitoring Breeding Birds at Shaw Nature Reserve

The best time to start a long-term dataset is 25 years ago. The second-best time is now!

Summer solstice is the height of the bird breeding season at Shaw Nature Reserve. Dozens of species are singing, from Dickcissels in the open prairies, to Prothonotary Warblers in the damp forests along the Meramec River, to near-ubiquitous Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, seemingly everywhere.

 

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For six days this month, two students and I are counting birds systematically across Shaw Nature Reserve to learn how they are influenced by ecological restoration. Birds are a common focus for monitoring restoration projects because they can be observed efficiently over large areas, and because they often respond quickly to changes in ecosystem structure. Ovenbirds, for instance, prefer the dark shade of closed-canopy forests, whereas Kentucky Warblers replace them in woodlands that have been burned (fire is a common restoration strategy in many Missouri ecosystems).

Map

Locations of bird counting stations at Shaw Nature Reserve. Each point is at least 100 meters from the edge of a management unit and at least 200 meters from any other station.

A typical bird survey goes like this:

  • 4:20 AM. I pour a travel mug of coffee, pick up a student to help record data, and drive to Shaw Nature Reserve in the dark. There are way too many deer along the side of I-44.
  • ~5:00 AM. We arrive at Shaw Nature Reserve in twilight and hear a cacophony of birds singing over one another. Indigo Buntings scatter from the loop road ahead of our car.
  • ~5:15 AM. We arrive at the first bird counting station and record the temperature, cloud cover, and wind speed. For five minutes, we write down each bird that we hear or see. Sometimes during these early morning counts, nocturnal birds, like Chuck-will’s-widow, are still calling.
  • ~5:30-10:00 AM. After we finish a point, I set my GPS to navigate to the next point on our route and we continue to record birds until mid-morning, by which time it is warm and many birds have stopped singing (although the Red-eyed Vireos are still going strong).

Combo

Leighton Reid (left) listens to Wood Thrushes and Northern Parulas while REU student Joseph Smith (Lake Superior State University, right) records data. As indicated by the abundant bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii; e.g., by Leighton’s right leg), this particular part of the reserve has yet to be restored.

This is our inaugural bird survey at Shaw Nature Reserve. Unlike many of my projects, this one does not have explicit apriori hypotheses; I’m not trying to “test” anything. Instead, I intend for these data to be used for monitoring and demonstrating progress. Over time, I hope and expect these observations to provide a record of biodiversity change as portions of the reserve are restored and managed.

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Counting Common Yellowthroats, Dickcissels, and Red-winged Blackbirds at dawn at the Wetland Mitigation Bank.

For more information on breeding birds at Shaw Nature Reserve, you can explore citizen science observations on eBird, including this printable checklist of birds recorded in June during the past 10 years.

Drones can help monitor forest restoration

Leighton Reid is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development.

Hexacopter flying over a restoration site. The red, digital camera is visible between the landing bars.

Hexacopter flying over a restoration site. The red, digital camera is visible between the landing bars.

Monitoring restoration projects is important to demonstrate progress and learn what works and what doesn’t, but it can be time consuming and expensive. As such, restoration practitioners around the world are looking to automate tasks like monitoring, and one way this can be done is with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Over the past two years I’ve worked with a research team in southern Costa Rica to test how well drones can monitor tropical forest restoration. We used hexacopter drones: helicopter-like contraptions with six rotors. Each drone had a consumer-grade digital camera attached to the bottom. We flew the drones over thirteen restoration sites and then used Ecosynth computer software to stitch the images together and create three-dimensional models of the vegetation structure.

Drones accurately estimated forest structure

Drone-based measurements of canopy height closely matched our hard-won field measurements (but with less sweat and insect bites). The drone-based system also detected canopy gaps, predicted fruit-eating bird movements, and estimated above ground biomass. The ability to accurately assess above ground biomass is particularly important; it suggests that drones could be used to monitor carbon accumulation in regenerating forests.

Editors’ choice – a must read

Our research on drones and forest restoration was published this week in the journal Biological Conservation. The editors selected it as the must-read choice of the month, saying:

“The rapidly expanding use of unmanned vehicles to monitor vegetation and other aspects of biodiversity is an exciting development in conservation biology. This article also demonstrates that bird abundance can be estimated using data gathered by UAVs.”

The paper is freely available for download through August 27, 2015 at the publisher’s website.

Researchers Jonathan Dandois and Dana Nadwodny launch a drone at a site in Costa Rica [Photo courtesy of Karen Holl].

Researchers Jonathan Dandois and Dana Nadwodny (University of Maryland Baltimore County) launch a drone at a site in Costa Rica [Photo courtesy of Karen Holl].