Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Impact 1: Trends in national and regional biodiversity on public and private land are known and understood, based on best available defiitions and descriptions for species and indices of ecological integrity

Widling pine control. Image - Pike Brown

Widling pine control. Image - Pike Brown

Key performance indicator: DOC and regional councils are using comparable metrics to measure status and trend and impacts of interventions on biodiversity within their jurisdictions.

2010/11 Baseline situation: A variety of methodologies were used to assess biodiversity so it was difficult to understand national and regional trends and to assess the impact of management interventions. Species names and descriptions need regular review.

Progress 2011/12:

Progress 2012/13:

Progress 2013/14:

  • As a basis for determining status and trend regional councils and DOC began using our ‘ecological integrity’ metrics in their reporting, including DOC in its 2011/12 Annual Report.
  • DOC’s use of robust, nationally-consistent, objective metrics was instrumental in its annual reporting gaining Office of the Auditor General approval.
  • DOC is able to report on the state of non-forested ecosystems across the conservation estate
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  • Regional councils (through the Biodiversity Forum) and DOC (through its Planning, Monitoring, and Reporting Unit) are adopting the ‘ecological integrity’ concept, and its biodiversity metrics
  • Regional councils have a suite of metrics for monitoring biodiversity on public and private land; metrics are compatible with those used by DOC
  • Biodiversity managers on public and private land will benefit from innovative soil DNA-based biodiversity assessments
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  • Of New Zealand’s 72 naturally uncommon ecosystems, the IUCN’s ecosystem Red-List criteria identified 18 as critically endangered, 17 as endangered and 10 as vulnerable
  • Status data are provided by our nationally significant collections. The e-Flora was extended with descriptions of one moss family and five fern families; NVS added 100 datasets for 4860 plots; information from all 70 volumes of Fauna of New Zealand is now available online via the Biotaxa website
  • DOC has updated data for key invertebrate groups for its Threat Classification System (see: Key initiatives)
  • We participated in an international working group assessing application of IUCN ecosystem Red List criteria and protocols to the Oceania Region, to aid biodiversity monitoring and conservation action


State of non-forested ecosystems

We used standardised indicators of biodiversity at the national scale to report on the state of non-forested ecosystems across all public conservation land. In nonforested ecosystems there were 10 times more non-native plant species than in forests, even though the absolute number of species was low relative to the number of native species. Of the non-forested locations, possums were detected in 40% of them (cf. 80% of forested locations); and 62 bird species were detected including 14 threatened species, 30% more than in non-forested sites. Combined, these metrics can be used to determine areas of high ecological integrity – maximum dominance of indigenous species, fewest weeds and pests. Nonforested ecosystems in national parks, especially those in the western South Island, have comparatively high ecological integrity (e.g. alpine grasslands). Conversely, some non-forested dryland ecosystems on public conservation land, especially in inland Marlborough, had the lowest ecological integrity.

These objective measurements are enabling DOC to report its progress towards achieving its intermediate outcome of maintaining and restoring the diversity of our natural heritage. The Office of the Auditor General used the data in evaluating and approving DOC’s performance.

This research is part of the Measuring Biodiversity Change Portfolio; and was supported by DOC funding.

Soil DNA-based biodiversity assessments

New Zealand lacks information on biodiversity criteria that can be used as an indicator of ecosystem function in productive landscapes. Conventional methods for measuring terrestrial biodiversity neglect the vast pool of soil biodiversity even though it is critical to healthy ecosystem functioning (e.g. nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration). State-of-the-art molecular techniques are providing an innovative solution. DNA extracted from a single soil sample provides a rapid, effective measure of soil organisms as well as providing information on the above-ground faunal and floral communities. DNA from roots provides an excellent assessment of plant community composition, including ephemeral plant species that may not be apparent year-round. Moreover DNA in the soil from dead organisms, faeces and urine, or shed body parts (e.g. epidermal cells) reveals the above-ground fauna.

This new methodology has been successfully applied in a pilot study sampling five different land uses (native forest, plantation forest, low-producing farmland, viticulture, irrigated agricultural land) in the Wairau Valley. Molecular information was obtained for a total of 12 taxonomic groups, from bacteria to mammals. Pairing DNA methods with traditional plot-based plant and bird surveys allowed the results from the molecular analyses to be validated. These data are also being used to develop quantitative thresholds and limits for land use intensification and biodiversity. Landowners, major wine companies and forestry companies in the area covered by the pilot project were very receptive to the concept of understanding the relationship between land use and biodiversity, and the possibility of undertaking rapid biodiversity assessments using molecular techniques.

This project represents a major step forward in the efficiency and completeness of biodiversity assessment. It will provide the evidence base needed for policy and the rigorous processes needed to support ‘green growth’ within environmental limits.

This work is part of the Measuring Biodiversity Change Portfolio, and was supported by MBIE ’Phase 1 Smart Idea’ contestable funding.

Insect genomics aid conservation management

New DNA sequencing technologies are revolutionizing many areas of biology, including conservation biology. Using the super-computing facilities of NeSI, we established a pipeline process for the assembly and analysis of whole genomes from native organisms, using the common New Zealand stick insect (Clitarchus hookeri) as the test species. These data also enabled us to investigate how natural selection has influenced the genetics of core metabolic enzymes that allow insects to survive in specialised environments, such as alpine environments, which is highly pertinent to understanding how future climate change may affect such species. This is the first study of a New Zealand insect at the genomic level and is therefore a notable scientific advance. Furthermore, it is one of the largest animal genomes yet assembled and is of interest to the international scientific community.

We are also using the pipeline process to generate a whole genome of the threatened giant weta (Deinacrida fallai). These data (genetic diversity, genetic suitability to their environment) will be used to enhance the success of translocations of several giant weta by DOC. The technologies are available to other stakeholders to help increase the effectiveness of conservation management.

The research is part of the Defining Land Biota Portfolio, and was supported by the Allan Wilson Centre (Massey University), and RSNZ.

New understanding of kauri PTA

Kauri (Agathis australis) trees are slow-growing venerable giants of northern forests. These iconic trees are special to all New Zealanders, particularly Māori who individually named each of the most revered trees. In recent times, kauri dieback disease – a fungus-like organism with an interim name Phytophthora ‘taxon Agathis’ (PTA) – has caused significant harm; there are no effective methods of managing the disease. Given the very slow regeneration time of kauri, PTA is of major concern.

Our research established that PTA is a distinct new species, which we propose to name Phytophthora agathidicida (the ‘Agathis-killing Phytophthora’). The formal name is important for clear scientific communication between biosecurity agencies, commercial operators, researchers and the public. Gene sequencing, part of the species description, shows very low genetic variation in PTA (reflecting a ‘founder population’), supporting the hypothesis it is an exotic incursion rather than a native species. This new understanding of its genetic relationship to similar species will be useful to the Kauri Dieback Joint Agency (KDJAR) and others seeking to understand and control this devastating disease.

The research is part of the Defining Land Biota Portfolio, and was supported by MBIE Core funding and the KDJAR.

National Indigenous Vegetation Survey (NVS)

NVS is a physical archive and electronic databank containing records of over 94,000 vegetation survey plots – including data from over 19,000 permanent plots. The data support diverse monitoring and reporting requirements of government departments, such as for the Convention on Biological Diversity, Framework Convention on Climate Change, Resource Management Act and State of the Environment reporting. NVS enhanced its support of DOC’s National Biodiversity Monitoring and Reporting System by customising data management tools, improving data validation and support systems, and enabling DOC staff to enter data directly into the NVS database from within the DOC network. This allows DOC to organise dataentry teams to meet their specific needs. This year, NVS data (measurements of tagged trees across about 9000 independent permanent plots) was used in a significant study incorporating data from 17 countries that showed tree growth does not slow as trees age and get larger; growth actually accelerates. This shattered common assumptions that older trees senesce, and highlighted the disproportionately important role that large old trees play in a forest’s carbon dynamics. The widely-acclaimed study highlights international recognition of the value of the data in NVS.
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NVS is part of the Measuring Biodiversity Change Portfolio, and is supported by MBIE Core funding.

New data to support plant conservation

In New Zealand, the plant genus Cardamine comprises species with wide distribution through to species with restricted distributions and specialist habitat requirements. The latter comprises rare species deemed ‘Nationally Threatened’, which are either restricted to mountain habitats where they are not under any immediate threat or they occur in modified lowland habitats where they are especially vulnerable. A new taxonomic revision of Cardamine recognised 30 new species that are endemic to New Zealand, with several previously listed as ‘Data Deficient’. The revision gives DOC and regional councils certainty about the distribution and conservation status Cardamine species in New Zealand, and how to identify them – vital information for monitoring and managing these threatened species.

This research is part of the Defining Land Biota Portfolio, and was supported by MBIE Core funding.