In January, biology faculty Meghan Brown, Bradley Cosentino and Susan Flanders Cushman ’98 traveled to New Zealand and Australia, two of the planet’s most aggressive countries in researching and managing non-native species. There, through support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the New York Six Upstate-Global Collective (UGC) project, the trio and their colleagues from other NY6 schools including Union College, Colgate University and Skidmore College saw firsthand how these island nations approach invasive species and conservation.
The majority of the trip was spent in New Zealand, which had no native mammals (other than some bat species) until human arrival and thus has a unique suite of birds and plants that were decimated by the arrival of non-native mammals. In that sense, “it’s really a great place for biologists to see the impact of non-native species and management,” says Brown, associate professor and chair of the biology department.
Both on the mainland and on the smaller islands off the coast, New Zealand has been restoring habitats to their natural state prior to the invasion of mammals. These projects, while costly, have tremendous public and political support and awareness – “not something you often see in the U.S.,” says Cosentino, an assistant professor of biology.
“One of the big things that struck me was seeing how interested people in New Zealand were on this issue,” he says. “Everybody seems to be invested in it and generally aware of the problem of invasive species.”
“It’s part of the literacy of New Zealand to know what invasive species are, to know preventative techniques; it’s impressive to be in a country that takes ecology so seriously,” Brown says, noting the monitoring program of the offshore island preserve the group visited, where visitors’ boots are inspected and luggage is checked for possible invasive rodents and seeds.
Cushman says she was impressed not only by the countries’ preventative measures “to limit future invasions but also the amount of money, time and man power allotted to removing and managing invasives.” On Kapati Island, “one of the great successes in restoration of native species,” Cushman adds, the New Zealand government spent $1 million in 2009 to remove stoats (a type of weasel) in order to restore the native bird community. The government retains a fulltime ranger on the island to ensure invasive species do not return.
Like Australia and New Zealand, the ecosystems in Upstate New York are threatened by the establishment of non-native species, such as the zebra mussel, the round goby, European earthworms and the emerald ash borer. And as Brown, Cosentino and Cushman apply the insights of this winter’s trip to their own research and teaching, they bring a fresh perspective to the complex host of issues surrounding invasive species.
“One of my goals as a conservation biologist is to inspire students about biodiversity and conservation of biodiversity,” says Cosentino. “That means thinking about multiple environmental problems, invasive species, habitat loss, fragmentation, erosion and how these problems interact. So it was great seeing conservation in practice in New Zealand and how they’re managing a conservation problem on the ground.”
The group also spent several days in Queensland, Australia, a popular study abroad location for biology majors. There, the HWS faculty had a chance to engage with their University of Queensland counterparts and get a sense of what students experience to refine the Colleges’ pre-departure and return study abroad programming.