Can creepy crawlies help us watch our wetlands?
Taranaki school students are finding out how important rarely studied creepy crawlies are to wetlands and whether these can be used to track success in restoration and pest control.
Tauira (students) from Hāwera High School plus Rawhitiroa and Ngaere primary schools are helping to generate biodiversity records that can be used to measure changes over time, an important factor in gauging the success of habitat restoration in riparian areas (wetlands next to rivers/lakes).
The Taranaki region has seen a lot of riparian planting over many years, but little monitoring of the insects and other invertebrates that support healthy functioning ecosystems in riparian and wetland areas, say project co-ordinator Josephine Fitness from MAIN Trust New Zealand.
Hāwera High School students collecting bugs from a trap
To address this, the project team is collecting samples of invertebrates from two wetland areas. Nowells Lake is surrounded by pastoral farmland and open to predators, and Lake Rotokare is the largest New Zealand wetland and lake habitat inside a predator proof fence.
Josephine says the project involves strong partnerships with many organisations, particularly the Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust and its educator Ash Muriladar.
In the first six months of setting and collecting from pitfall traps the team has found a range of species: spiders, beetles, flies, wasps, slugs, mites and worms.
An unusual find at Rotokare was a large fluffy red mite, which at 3mm long was three times the size of the more commonly collected mite. The insect was difficult to identify so the team went to iNaturalist website for help, where it was identified as a Chyzeria novaezealandiae - a mite known to be in New Zealand.
The students are learning the correct way to process and classify their findings.
“The whole point is to get the kids to follow a scientific protocol. They are learning all of that and the teachers are doing it as well,” Josephine explains.
The students have also taken the learning back to their schools with some now using their learnings in their own outdoor classrooms.
While invertebrates have not been researched in these areas in the past, they’re a very important part of the ecosystem, Josephine says.
“We need to focus on keeping these invertebrates, because we need to keep feeding the native birds and lizards. On a global scale, we want to understand our biodiversity and they are a big part of it.”
The students are learning how to identify the invertebrates they catch
Invertebrates and insects are also important for pollination, soil formation, productivity, decomposition and population regulation, and the study is an opportunity to educate both the students and the community.
“I want invertebrates to be as equally important as the Kākāpō and not just seen as something that is seen as creepy and yucky,” Josephine says.
“It is really about biodiversity, getting students started to understand the ecosystem as a whole. We’ve got them thinking about the food chain. We’re asking 'what are their predators, and what are their prey?', so they can understand the whole conservation aspect and why they are important.”
Technology is part of the learning, so the students are also working with inventor and engineer Andrew Hornblow from the Electrotechnology and Telecommunications Industry Training Organisation (ETITO) and Skills Bright Sparks technology competition.
Andrea and the students are using technology to monitor weather at different times of the year, and those at Hāwera High School have made dataloggers to collect environmental data which will be added to the invertebrate survey data.
Josephine says it is rewarding being involved in a citizen science survey that will extend scientific knowledge both locally and around the country. After six months they have noticed there are more native species living at the Rotokare site. With the study running across 10 months, she hopes to see more trends emerge.
The project team will share their findings with the Taranaki Regional Council, Department of Conservation and farmers who have planted riparian areas.
“I'm excited to get all the parties involved together and have the children share the data from it,” Josephine says. “Hopefully we can connect conservation and agriculture together and then we get the best of both worlds – native species get protected and there is enough grass for the cows to eat.”
Pitfall traps - containers buried in the ground - are used to catch local invertebrates
About the project
Fish food and Fringes is run by MAIN Trust in partnership with Hāwera High School, Rawhitiroa primary school, Ngaere primary school, ETITO, Rotokare Scenic Reserve and other partners, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform.
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