The loss of human-nature interactions

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2016) Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14(2), 94-101. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_305051666

Increasingly, people are becoming less likely to have direct contact with nature (natural environments and their associated wildlife) in their everyday lives. Over 20 years ago, Robert M Pyle termed this ongoing alienation the “extinction of experience”, but the phenomenon has continued to receive surprisingly limited attention. Here, we present current understanding of the extinction of experience, with particular emphasis on its causes and consequences, and suggest future research directions. Our review illustrates that the loss of interaction with nature not only diminishes a wide range of benefits relating to health and well-being, but also discourages positive emotions, attitudes, and behavior with regard to the environment, implying a cycle of disaffection toward nature. Such serious implications highlight the importance of reconnecting people with nature, as well as focusing research and public policy on addressing and improving awareness of the extinction of experience.

166 Words

Urbanisation and vegetation phenology

Dallimer, M., Tang, Z., Gaston, K. J. & Davies, Z. G. (2016) The extent of shifts in vegetation phenology between rural and urban areas within a human-dominated region. Ecology and Evolution, in press. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1990. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_132604040

Urbanization is one of the major environmental challenges facing the world today. One of its particularly pressing effects is alterations to local and regional climate through, for example, the Urban Heat Island. Such changes in conditions are likely to have an impact on the phenology of urban vegetation, which will have knock-on implications for the role that urban green infrastructure can play in delivering multiple ecosystem services. Here, in a human-dominated region, we undertake an explicit comparison of vegetation phenology between urban and rural zones. Using satellite-derived MODIS-EVI data from the first decade of the 20th century, we extract metrics of vegetation phenology (date of start of growing season, date of end of growing season, and length of season) for Britain’s 15 largest cities and their rural surrounds. On average, urban areas experienced a growing season 8.8 days longer than surrounding rural zones. As would be expected, there was a significant decline in growing season length with latitude (by 3.4 and 2.4 days/degree latitude in rural and urban areas respectively). Although there is considerable variability in how phenology in urban and rural areas differs across our study cities, we found no evidence that built urban form influences the start, end, or length of the growing season. However, the difference in the length of the growing season between rural and urban areas was significantly negatively associated with the mean disposable household income for a city. Vegetation in urban areas deliver many ecosystem services such as temperature mitigation, pollution removal, carbon uptake and storage, the provision of amenity value for humans and habitat for biodiversity. Given the rapid pace of urbanization and ongoing climate change, understanding how vegetation phenology will alter in the future is important if we wish to be able to manage urban greenspaces effectively.

329 Words

Urban greenspace and physical activity

Shanahan, D.F., Franco, L., Lin, B.B., Gaston, K.J. & Fuller, R.A. (2016) The benefits of natural environments for physical activity. Sports Medicine, in press. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0502-4. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_309375524

Urbanisation has a profound effect on both people and the environment, as levels of physical activity decline and many natural ecosystems become lost or degraded. Here we draw on emerging research to examine the role of green spaces in providing a venue for outdoor physical activity, and in enhancing the benefit of a given amount of physical activity for urban residents. We identify critical knowledge gaps, including (1) whether (and for whom) levels of physical activity increase as new green spaces are introduced or old spaces reinvigorated; (2) which characteristics of nature promote physical activity; (3) the extent to which barriers to outdoor physical activity are environmental or social; and (4) whether the benefits of physical activity and experiences of nature accrue separately or synergistically. A clear understanding of these issues will help guide effective investment in green space provision, ecological enhancement and green exercise promotion.

177 Words

Measuring household carbon

Allinson, D., Irvine, K.N., Edmondson, J.L., Tiwary, A., Hill, G., Morris, J., Bell, M., Davies, Z.G., Firth, S.K., Fisher, J., Gaston, K.J., Leake, J.R., McHugh, N., Namdeo, A., Rylatt, M. & Lomas, K. (2016) Measurement and analysis of household carbon: The case of a UK city. Applied Energy 164, 871-881. (Image from Shutterstock)shutterstock_85565086

There is currently a lack of data recording the carbon and emissions inventory at household level. This paper presents a multi-disciplinary, bottom-up approach for estimation and analysis of the carbon emissions, and the organic carbon (OC) stored in gardens, using a sample of 575 households across a UK city. The annual emission of carbon dioxide emissions from energy used in the homes was measured, personal transport emissions were assessed through a household survey and OC stores estimated from soil sampling and vegetation surveys. The results showed that overall carbon patterns were skewed with highest emitting third of the households being responsible for more than 50% of the emissions and around 50% of garden OC storage. There was diversity in the relative contribution that gas, electricity and personal transport made to each household’s total and different patterns were observed for high, medium and low emitting households. Targeting households with high carbon emissions from one source would not reliably identify them as high emitters overall. While carbon emissions could not be offset by growing trees in gardens, there were considerable amounts of stored OC in gardens which ought to be protected. Exploratory analysis of the multiple drivers of emissions was conducted using a combination of primary and secondary data. These findings will be relevant in devising effective policy instruments for combatting city scale green-house gas emissions from domestic end-use energy demand.

284 Words

UAVs for wildlife conservation

Gonzalez, L.F., Montes, G.A., Puig, E., Johnson, S., Mengersen, K. & Gaston, K.J. (2016) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Artificial Intelligence revolutionizing wildlife monitoring and conservation. Sensors 16(1), 97. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_188506913

Surveying threatened and invasive species to obtain accurate population estimates is an important but challenging task that requires a considerable investment in time and resources. Estimates using existing ground-based monitoring techniques, such as camera traps and surveys performed on foot, are known to be resource intensive, potentially inaccurate and imprecise, and difficult to validate. Recent developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), artificial intelligence and miniaturized thermal imaging systems represent a new opportunity for wildlife experts to inexpensively survey relatively large areas. The system presented in this paper includes thermal image acquisition as well as a video processing pipeline to perform object detection, classification and tracking of wildlife in forest or open areas. The system is tested on thermal video data from ground based and test flight footage, and is found to be able to detect all the target wildlife located in the surveyed area. The system is flexible in that the user can readily define the types of objects to classify and the object characteristics that should be considered during classification.

203 Words

Warming temperatures and phytoplankton productivity

Yvon-Durocher, G., Allen, A. P., Cellamare, M., Dossena, M., Gaston, K. J., Leitao, M., Montoya, J. M., Reuman, D. C., Woodward, G. & Trimmer, M. (2015) Five Years of Experimental Warming Increases the Biodiversity and Productivity of Phytoplankton. PLoS Biology 13(12): e1002324. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_309631616

Phytoplankton are key components of aquatic ecosystems, fixing CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and supporting secondary production, yet relatively little is known about how future global warming might alter their biodiversity and associated ecosystem functioning. Here, we explore how the structure, function, and biodiversity of a planktonic metacommunity was altered after five years of experimental warming. Our outdoor mesocosm experiment was open to natural dispersal from the regional species pool, allowing us to explore the effects of experimental warming in the context of metacommunity dynamics. Warming of 4°C led to a 67% increase in the species richness of the phytoplankton, more evenly-distributed abundance, and higher rates of gross primary productivity. Warming elevated productivity indirectly, by increasing the biodiversity and biomass of the local phytoplankton communities. Warming also systematically shifted the taxonomic and functional trait composition of the phytoplankton, favoring large, colonial, inedible phytoplankton taxa, suggesting stronger top-down control, mediated by zooplankton grazing played an important role. Overall, our findings suggest that temperature can modulate species coexistence, and through such mechanisms, global warming could, in some cases, increase the species richness and productivity of phytoplankton communities.

228 Words

Spatial features of Protected Areas

Durán, A. P., Inger, R., Cantú‐Salazar, L. & Gaston, K. J. (2015) Species richness representation within protected areas is associated with multiple interacting spatial features. Diversity and Distributions, in press. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12404. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_258166631

We assessed the relative effects of the spatial features of protected areas (PAs), and their interactions, on species richness representation. We used a novel dataset comprising species richness estimates for amphibians, birds and mammals for more than 400 PAs in the Western Hemisphere. Using spatial tools and remote sensing imagery, we calculated four spatial features for each PA: size, shape index, fragmentation level and proximity to the closest PA. The relative effect size of both PA spatial features and environmental covariates on levels of species richness, and how they interact, were assessed using generalized mixed effect models. Spatial features and environmental covariates explained about 61% of the variation in species richness within PAs, with the magnitude of the effect remaining similar among spatial features and taxonomic groups. While area had a positive effect on species richness, shape index and fragmentation had negative effects. Proximity had a significant positive effect only for mammals and a negative effect for all the taxa combined. PA spatial features showed significant interactions between them and with environmental covariates. We provide the first empirical evidence for the combined and interactive effects of terrestrial PA spatial features on predicting species richness. Our results suggest that the spatial features of PAs have an important effect on species richness and while the magnitude of this effect varies across taxonomic groups, its direction is consistent. Additionally, we show that the effect of one spatial design feature can be amplified or attenuated by that of another. These findings contribute towards a better understanding of the effect of spatial features on the performance of PAs and therefore how best to enhance the spatial configuration of existing and future PAs.

311 Words

Horizon scanning for urban ecosystems

Stanley, M.C., Beggs, J.R., Bassett, I.E., Burns, B.R., Dirks, K.N., Jones, D.N., Linklater, W.L., Macinnis-Ng, C., Simcock, R., Souter-Brown, G., Trowsdale, S.A. & Gaston, K.J. (2015) Emerging threats in urban ecosystems: a horizon scanning exercise. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13(10): 553–560. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_115045105

As urbanization intensifies, urban ecosystems are increasingly under pressure from a range of threats. Horizon scanning has the potential to act as an early warning system, thereby initiating prompt discussion and decision making about threat mitigation. We undertook a systematic horizon scanning exercise, using a modified Delphi technique and experts from wide-ranging disciplines, to identify emerging threats in urban ecosystems. The 10 identified threats were generally associated with rapid advances in technology (eg solar panels, light-emitting diode lights, self-healing concrete) or with societal demands on urban nature (eg green prescriptions). Although many of the issues identified are also technological opportunities with recognized environmental benefits, we have highlighted emerging risks so that research and mitigation strategies can be initiated promptly. Given the accelerated rate of technological advancement and the increasing demands of urbanized populations, horizon scanning should be conducted routinely for urban ecosystems.

192 Words

Songbirds and connecting people to nature

Cox, D.T.C. & Gaston, K.J. (2015) Likeability of garden birds: importance of species knowledge & richness in connecting people to nature. PLoS ONE 10(11), e0141505. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_149233118

Interacting with nature is widely recognised as providing many health and well-being benefits. As people live increasingly urbanised lifestyles, the provision of food for garden birds may create a vital link for connecting people to nature and enabling them to access these benefits. However, it is not clear which factors determine the pleasure that people receive from watching birds at their feeders. These may be dependent on the species that are present, the abundance of individuals and the species richness of birds around the feeders. We quantitatively surveyed urban households from towns in southern England to determine the factors that influence the likeability of 14 common garden bird species, and to assess whether people prefer to see a greater abundance of individuals or increased species richness at their feeders. There was substantial variation in likeability across species, with songbirds being preferred over non-songbirds. Species likeability increased for people who fed birds regularly and who could name the species. We found a strong correlation between the number of species that a person could correctly identify and how connected to nature they felt when they watched garden birds. Species richness was preferred over a greater number of individuals of the same species. Although we do not show causation this study suggests that it is possible to increase the well-being benefits that people gain from watching birds at their feeders. This could be done first through a human to bird approach by encouraging regular interactions between people and their garden birds, such as through learning the species names and providing food. Second, it could be achieved through a bird to human approach by increasing garden songbird diversity because the pleasure that a person receives from watching an individual bird at a feeder is dependent not only on its species but also on the diversity of birds at the feeder.

334 Words

LiDAR for vegetation modelling

Anderson, K., Hancock, S., Disney, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2015) Is waveform worth it? A comparison of LiDAR approaches for vegetation and landscape characterization. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, in press. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_95030080

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) systems are frequently used in ecological studies to measure vegetation canopy structure. Waveform LiDAR systems offer new capabilities for vegetation modelling by measuring the time-varying signal of the laser pulse as it illuminates different elements of the canopy, providing an opportunity to describe the 3D structure of vegetation canopies more fully. This article provides a comparison between waveform airborne laser scanning (ALS) data and discrete return ALS data, using terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) data as an independent validation. With reference to two urban landscape typologies, we demonstrate that discrete return ALS data provided more biased and less consistent measurements of woodland canopy height (in a 100% tree covered plot, height underestimation bias = 0.82 m;SD = 1.78 m) than waveform ALS data (height overestimation bias = −0.65 m; SD = 1.45 m). The same biases were found in suburban data (in a plot consisting of 100% hard targets e.g. roads and pavements), but discrete return ALS were more consistent here than waveform data (SD = 0.57 m compared to waveform SD = 0.76 m). Discrete return ALS data performed poorly in describing the canopy understorey, compared to waveform data. Our results also highlighted errors in discrete return ALS intensity, which were not present with waveform data. Waveform ALS data therefore offer an improved method for measuring the three-dimensional structure of vegetation systems, but carry a higher data processing cost. New toolkits for analysing waveform data will expedite future analysis and allow ecologists to exploit the information content of waveform LiDAR.

277 Words