Rockpools, punk science and student strikes

Reconnecting with our local environments like we once did as kids can benefit both the environment and communities; technology can help us here.

By Professor Mike Bunce - Chief Scientist and Hannah Davidson - Research Assistant, Science

26 October 2019

Read the authors' biographies

Discovering and exploring nature is one of the greatest delights of childhood. Checking under rocks for slaters, planting a pocketed coin to see if it will sprout the fabled money tree, putting ladybirds to work controlling aphids on rosebushes, peering into rockpools and trying to pick up a crab… the world around you is teeming with life and everybody has a childhood story to tell that involves nature.

As we are swept further out into the surf of adulthood and life gets busy we tend to lose this curiosity, and subsequently our intimate connection with the environment around us. We no longer run barefoot, and the slaters and crabs stay undisturbed. It can be easy to forget the importance of observation and the thrill of discovery.

Today, thousands of rangatahi will take to the streets to lead the second School Strike for Climate (SSFC). This movement started last year with a single student in Sweden, Greta Thunburg, who this week delivered a chilling and poignant address at the UN Climate Action Summit at age 16. 

Greta Thunberg to world leaders: 'How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood' – YouTube

Frustrated by the dissonance between leaders’ words and their actions, these kids cannot be written off as truant trouble-makers. Their hunger for mature debate about solutions is evident and they are demonstrating that they will not be silenced by those who seek to invalidate them. This time around they are asking for adults to join them in protest, acknowledging the need for intergenerational perspectives and action.

Messages along the Wellington waterfront from SSFC organisers last Friday, 29 September 2019.

Messages along the Wellington waterfront from SSFC organisers last Friday, 29 September 2019.

This union likely appeals to the conscience of many adults, among whom we do see some propensity for reconnecting with their environment, and with the community that it can support. It is hard to know how to help, when the environmental issues we face today are so widespread and overwhelming.

While we might do the recycling at home we are often left asking, what more could be done? But increasingly kiwis are out there “just doing it”, regardless of experience or background. Whether you call it community action, participatory science, (in the science team we like the term “punk science”), are we seeing a sea change in the way people approach environmental protection and science?

Read more about punk science – The Economist website

There are many ways that emerging technologies can be used to support communities that are keen to engage with the environment. For example, apps that allow citizens to identify flora and fauna and submit findings, such as iNaturalist/Seek, NIWA’s Citizen Science app, or the ‘Find-A-Pest’ biosecurity app, geo-tagging rubbish or the Great Kererū Count project. It can even be as simple as asking people to vote for their favourite bird, which is becoming an increasingly intense and political exercise in Aotearoa (vote kea 2019!).

Read more about the Find-A-Pest app – Find-A-Pest website

Read more about the Great Kererū Count project – Science Learning HUb website

Read more about the Bird of the Year competition – Forest & Bird website

The EPA plays a part by managing the administration of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is undergoing development to make it a more rigorous tool for meeting zero carbon goals.

Read more about the Emissions Trading Scheme

We are also in the early stages of piloting another tool, using cutting edge technology. The EPA’s Science and Community teams within the EPA are getting stuck in with project that promotes holistic ecosystem-based monitoring of ecosystems using environmental DNA, or eDNA.

Environmental DNA refers to all genetic material that is recovered from environmental substrates such as water, poo or sediment. Like ‘genetic breadcrumbs’, eDNA is left behind as critters pass through (or over) the substrate and is derived from sources such as faeces, urine, skin, hair or decomposing organisms. This genetic material allows us to survey species composition and communities at a given location.

If you are not a molecular biologist, the key concept to grasp with eDNA is that all species have a DNA barcode akin to product barcodes in a supermarket. In the same way that you use a barcode reader to scan the contents of your supermarket trolley (which is hopefully diverse in its contents!), a DNA barcode reader is also able to scan all the species in seawater or poo.

We have known for years that we should be looking at the whole supermarket and not just a few products – but such approaches are hard – many would argue until eDNA entered the biomonitoring ‘toolkit’ we have not had the right tool.

Chief Science Mike Bunce removing an eDNA filter at Zealandia.

Chief Science Mike Bunce removing an eDNA filter at Zealandia.

This year our team are starting work with a group of kaitiaki, Te Tini o Hākuturi, who are developing a monitoring programme for streams and catchments in their rohe, starting at Zealandia Ecosanctuary.

Why is the EPA, a regulator, doing this? We recognise the importance of connection to, and understanding of, the environment when it comes to making informed decisions. As part of our role in contributing scientific leadership and communication of issues and decisions, we are developing a Science Engagement programme that seeks to make science accessible and relevant to everyday New Zealanders, whilst getting out in parts of NZ that are important to them.

Importantly, it is not just about tracking the decline of species, it is also about tracking the recovery of ecosystems and understanding when they are under stress and need our help.

Coming together like the school strikers, the connections we make with our local environment and communities make us more resilient to change. Sometimes out in that often chaotic and unpredictable surf of adulthood, a wave comes along that we can ride. If this takes us to a place where we can reconnect with people and place like we once did when we were young, it might just widen our perspective on a slew of environmental issues we face both today and tomorrow.

Watch this space!!!

Hannah Davidson's biography

Hannah hails from Otago/Southland, where she completed a Master of Science in Chemistry at the University of Otago, focussed on the topic of improving alternative plastic processes. Hannah joined the EPA in 2019 as Science Research assistant, bringing a passion for science communication and its role in environmental protection.

Professor Mike Bunce's biography

Professor Mike Bunce is Chief Scientist at the EPA. Mike completed his undergraduate degree at Lincoln University (NZ), and his PhD at the Australian National University. He undertook post-doctoral training at Oxford (UK) and McMaster (Canada) Universities before moving to Perth, Western Australia in 2006 to start his own laboratory. In 2014, he founded Curtin University’s Trace and Environmental DNA (TrEnD) laboratory. Through his research career Mike has developed and applied DNA techniques to characterise biological communities within a wide variety of biological samples from sediment and scat, to seawater and streams. His research focus has spanned many areas of environmental science including; biodiversity assessment, impact assessment, archaeology, extinctions, food-webs, biosecurity, marine conservation and endangered species detection. Mike has over 100 peer reviewed publications including nine publications in the journals Science and Nature. Mike took up the role of EPA Chief Scientist in August 2019.

View a list of Mike's publications – Google Scholar