Author Archives: Kat Berthon

ICON at #VicBioCon21

By Katherine Berthon and Marco Gutiérrez

Last month ICON Science was a proud sponsor of the 2021 Victorian Biodiversity Conference (VicBioCon). ICON researchers also helped organise and presented at the conference. It was the first time the conference was held entirely online, and, despite some website updates during a tea break, the whole train ran smoothly!

VicBioCon is a local conference that aims to connect industry, government, and practitioners to research, and showcase local efforts to conserve biodiversity in Victoria. This year’s line-up included plenary talks from academics and professionals working with human-nature connection and threatened species conservation. It also included two outstanding panels; one on the efficacy of Australia’s biodiversity laws, and another on the possibilities for nature in the city. In the latter panel, our very own Sarah Bekessy shared her passion for creating everyday nature in cities, a topic that is especially important given continued covid lockdowns.

Plenary highlights included Euan Richie talking about what gives him hope in conservation, in a time of climate and political challenges.

Minda Murray shared about her story and the struggle of Indigenous Peoples to have their knowledge and cultural existence recognised. She ended by encouraging for collaboration and relationship building across Indigenous organisations and non-Indigenous allies.

Chris McCormack gave us two tales of development and encouraged us to build empathy for human-nature relationships through storytelling.

Lindy Lumsden delivered a passionate talk about her work with Australian bats and their conservation.

An equally important part of VicBioCon is the student and early career researchers talks which give postdocs, PhDs, and master’s students alike the opportunity to network and share their research. This year, ICON researchers participated in sessions on urban ecology, science communication, and environmental policy.

On Friday morning, in the Urban Ecology session, Katherine presented her research on using metabarcoding to determine pollinator preferences in Melbourne parks.

On Friday afternoon, in the Science Communication session, Matthew shared his expert elicitation work on cost-effectiveness of cat containment and wildlife gardening programs on conserving small mammals; and Emily mapped out the ethics behind strategic conservation messaging. Both have papers in prep, so stay tuned!

Alongside in the Environmental Policy session, Marco gave his critical analysis of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment, and Lily van Eeden (our latest ICON recruit) talked about research strategies, and collaborations necessary to encourage Victorians to value nature.

We look forward to the next edition of VicBioCon in 2022!

Celebrating NAIDOC Week 2020

Photo Credit: Holly Kirk

2020 has been a year for reflection and delays, and in due style last week we celebrated a delayed NAIDOC Week. This is a time for delving deep, recognising and reflecting on the culture and peoples who have shaped this land through centuries of change.

Always was, always will be…

That was the theme for this years’ NAIDOC week, which pays homage to this land and the peoples that shaped it before it had the name ‘Australia’. It refutes the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ that led to mass-scale dispossession and often violent conflicts between Indigenous people and colonial settlers.

The idea that you are standing, sitting, sleeping or reading this post while on stolen land is a disconcerting one, especially for those who are the descendants of colonial settlers or new migrants since. How do we sit in this discomfort and what action can we take to reconcile this past?

A good start is to acknowledge the past and understand the impact of past injustices. Though criticised for its lack of action, the Rudd apology in 2008 was a turning point in the discourse at the national level – at least now we had stopped denying the truth.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The quote has been repeated so many times in various ways, it’s hard to know who is first to have said it. The stories we tell ourselves become the reality we live. We too can help change our own internal discourse by learning more about the history of this country, its peoples and their culture, as well as our place in it.

Whose land are you on?

Mount Donna Buang, Yarra Ranges NP, Victoria.
Photo: Holly Kirk

One of the biggest misconceptions about Aboriginal Australia is its expected uniformity. Prior to European settlement, there were 300-500 Indigenous nations, each with their own languages and customs. Sadly, many of these languages are becoming or are already extinct – something you might not think possible given our current ability to document everything online.

These language groups and their geographical bounds are often what we refer to when we think of Indigenous Country. Connection to Country and Caring for Country are phrases you might have heard, but not stopped to think about what they meant, or been able to consider the reality that there are actually many Countries.

Imagine the stories you tell about the places you have been. I was born here, I grew up there, this is where I met my future partner. In Australia we use a mix of place names, original or derived indigenous names like Wagga Wagga and Mallacoota, as well as those that came long after the first peoples already had named them.

We at ICONScience live and work across Melbourne and its outskirts, Perth, and regional Victoria. Said differently, we live and work on lands of the Dja Dja Wurung, Woiwurung, and Boonwurrung language groups of the Kulin Nations, Wajuk country in WA, and Jaitmatang country in regional Victoria.

Can you imagine how your story would change if you mapped your life according to the Indigenous Country you stood on? There are many tools out there to help you, like this map from AIATSIS that covers all of Australia, or the Welcome to Country App (on Apple phones only) that gives you location specific information.

Paying the rent

It is both politically unpalatable and personally unsettling to talk about Australia as being unceded land. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we reconcile it with our current lifestyle?

Melbourne city skyline. Photo: Holly Kirk

It is difficult for the average Australian, who right now might be jobless or struggling to pay rent, to imagine providing restitution for the misgivings of their ancestors, or those they live with. It is hard to feel how privileged we are.

And yet, acknowledging the past does not remove its ongoing effects. Indigenous people are half as likely to own their own home, more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated, and have a lower life expectancy (for more information see Australia’s Welfare 2017 report or the Closing the Gap campaign). Never again, we said in 2008, but in 2020 more children than ever are being taken from their families under controversial child protection policies.

A movement that acknowledges the political complexity of restitution is the notion of “Paying the Rent“. First born out of NAIHO (now NACCHO) and a team of dedicated activists in Victoria, the movement urges for governments to pay a percentage of the Country’s income to Aboriginal peoples while allowing for self-determination and governance on how that money is spent for repatriation.

But you don’t have to wait for the government to act. You can pay the rent yourselves through this Victorian website.

Other steps

Sunrise at Rowles Lagoon, WA. Photo: Holly Kirk

This is a good point to acknowledge that money cannot fix everything. There are other things that are needed in the process towards reconciliation with First Nations people.

High on the list are calls to allow Indigenous voices to be heard in parliament (e.g. the Statement from the Heart) and other governance processes; an official treaty that gives Indigenous Australians the power for self-determination; and integration of the true history and understanding of Indigenous cultures into our education system.

If respect for indigenous culture was embedded into the fabric of the Australian way of life, we wouldn’t need this moment to reflect during NAIDOC week, we would see it reflected in our everyday.

Resources

If you want to explore beyond simply acknowledging Country, there are a range of resources designed to teach you and help you connect to Indigenous culture, history, music and language – check out this list here.

There are also many great books to read including Dark Emu by Bruce Pasco, who uses settler colonial accounts to dispute the idea that Aboriginal peoples were simply hunter-gatherer societies.

Claire Land’s book Decolonising Solidarity is also a great book club read with lots of associated resources to help you to have those difficult conversations about how to act as a non-Indigenous ally.

For those interested in conservation and engaging with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Knowledge, have a look at CSIRO’s Our Knowledge Our Way guidelines, and the Three Category Approach Workbook by the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub

Society for Conservation Biology Melbourne Twitter Conference

ICON scientists were out in force last Thursday and Friday at the first ever Twitter conference of the SCB Greater Melbourne Chapter. A huge congratulations to the organising committee and moderators (including ICON members Matthew and Holly) that braved the technology issues, found stray threads, and kept the tweets flowing. For many of us, it was the first time presenting in this format, but the quality of presentations was outstanding!

Our fearless leader, Sarah, defeated technology glitches to kick off the talks with an inspirational opening plenary that urged readers to plan for, and create everyday nature in cities.

In the following session on Fitting Nature into Melbourne, Katherine presented her systematic review results for how plant origin influences biodiversity in urban green spaces (keep a look out for the paper, coming soon!)

On Thursday afternoon, the Strategies for Designing Urban Spaces for Nature session saw a triple header of ICON Scientists. First up, Marco presented his work investigating how biodiversity and ecosystem services are treated in urban planning and policy documents (the answer is not well – another paper to look out for!).

Holly then presented her connectivity modelling work for the City of Melbourne, including prioritisation of road segments for greening action, to reduce the impact of these roads as barriers for wildlife. Rounding out the session, Thami presented on the process of setting biodiversity targets in the recently finished Biodiversity Plan for Fisherman’s Bend.

On Friday, Georgia presented her work on cat control in the Threats to Nature in Melbourne session, and in the Connection to Nature session, Matthew shared his new survey results on connection to Nature in the City of Melbourne.

With COVID-19 lockdowns now extended in Melbourne, and second waves potentially hitting other cities, Twitter Conferences may be the way of the future. They are very engaging and it is almost easier to gain post-talk feedback and ask questions – plus the talks are up there in perpetuity so you’ll never miss a thing!

It’s not too late, check out the hash tag #SCBMelb20 or follow the links above to view the talks and post your questions now!

Invertebrate use of rooftops in Melbourne

Green roofs are a peculiar kind of designed habitat. In already highly urbanised areas, where there is large pressure on efficient land use, green roof retrofits are a key strategy to bring back nature without losing building capital.

While green roofs are known to have many economic and social benefits, such as stormwater retention and thermal buffering, their usefulness as wildlife habitat remains an open question. Multiple studies record insects, birds, spiders and other animals existing on green roofs, but there is little known as to how (and if) they are subsisting, or indeed what they are doing up there.

Native Halictid bee visiting a native Scaveola flower on the Parliament green roof. Photo Credit: Jess Baumann.

This is the focus of a new study by ICON Science researchers Georgia Garrard and Katherine Berthon, and research assistant Jess Baumann, who are setting out to document how animals (particularly birds and insects) are using green roofs in the City of Melbourne by monitoring two new green roof retrofit developments. This project is funded under the City of Melbourne ‘Green Our Rooftop’ initiative, and uses a large new green roof retrofit that is set to be constructed on 1 Treasury Place in Fitzroy, as well as the innovative Melbourne Skyfarm that will replace the top level of the Siddeley Street Carpark in Docklands.

Monitoring a green roof retrofit before and after its construction is an ideal way to answer some of the tricky questions about the secret life of rooftop animals. For example, we don’t yet fully understand the value of a single roof, the primary pathways by which animals come to live or forage on a roof, and whether there is any movement of animals between rooftops.

It is often not acknowledged that some invertebrates (like spiders and flies) and some birds (like the Peregrine Falcons nesting on 367 Collins St) are capable of using bare roof spaces. Knowing this baseline of buzzing activity helps us know what animals have been attracted after a green roof is installed. This allows us to quantify the added value of a new green roof in the landscape.

It is likely, however, that the construction of a green roof is so disturbing and prolonged for a site that it might wipe the slate clean. This is where monitoring the site immediately after construction is important – it tells us the first-comers, and potentially highlights stowaways that have been transported onto the roof with the plants or in the soil. Perhaps surprisingly, snails have been found in large quantities on some green roofs, many stories high – likely as a result of hitch-hiking on plant material during roof installation.

We will also monitor nearby ground sites that might act as sources of animals that appear on the new green roofs. This may also show whether anything that is transported onto the roof might spill over into adjacent environments. Often soils and plants used in green roof construction come from far away, and can create assemblages of species that are atypical of the regional area. Finally, monitoring adjacent roof sites helps answer whether there is any spill over effects that might generate synergistic or additive effects of multiple green roofs popping up in the landscape.

During our study we will also be recording specific plant-insect interactions so we can not only know what insects are up on the roof, but what they are using it for. Pre-covid lockdown we had just finished collecting the baseline data to show what’s happening before the roofs have been constructed. Not surprisingly there wasn’t much happening on the bare roofs except for a few spiders and flies, whereas ground sites were still bustling with summer insect life.

At the end of our study we hope to know a little more about what makes a green roof good for biodiversity. Importantly, we want to avoid making roofs that act as “ecological traps” by enticing animals to live there without adequately fulfilling their life-cycle needs. Already we know that some ground nesting birds, whose nestlings are left to fend for themselves after hatching, find low reproductive success on green roofs. Solitary bees also struggle to produce viable offspring on roofs above 5 stories high. So, how do we create green roofs that provide the right resources, especially for breeding? To stay tuned follow the ICON blog or follow me on Twitter @CityKat75

References:

Baumann, N. (2006) Ground-nesting birds on green roofs in Switzerland: Preliminary observations. Urban Habitats 4 (1), 37-50.

MacIvor, J.S. (2015) Building height matters: nesting activity of bees and wasps on vegetated roofs. Israel Journal of Ecology & Evolution (ahead-of-print), 1-9.

Madre, F. et al. (2013) A comparison of 3 types of green roof as habitats for arthropods. Ecological Engineering 57, 109-117.

Williams, N.S. et al. (2014) Do green roofs help urban biodiversity conservation? Journal of Applied Ecology 51 (6), 1643-1649.

Shafique, M. et al. (2018) Green roof benefits, opportunities and challenges – A review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 90, 757-773.