24 Apr 2020

Survey to stocktake biodiversity in cities starts today

2:39 pm on 24 April 2020

A survey to stocktake biodiversity in cities has kicked off today, and organisers say it's especially important in order to gauge the impact the lockdown has had.

House sparrow perched on a tree branch in nature

People are being asked to take to take a photo of a bird, plant, insect or any other sign of life within the city limits and to upload it to iNaturalistNZ. Photo: 123RF

The City Nature Challenge is a worldwide, annual project run by iNaturalist NZ - Mātaki Taioa in Aotearoa from 24-27 April.

INaturalist is a citizen science network that allows people to "record what you see in nature, meet other nature watchers, and learn about the natural world".

INaturalist NZ trustee Jon Sullivan said: "Last year's event came within a whisker of a million observations, just over four days. It's one of the biggest (if not the biggest) citizen science events in the world.

"With most of the world in lockdown, it's also an exceptionally important moment in time to document nature in cities."

He encouraged people to "get out into their gardens, or take their bubbles for a walk in their local neighbourhood … and photograph as many species that they can find" and upload them to iNaturalist, which can be downloaded as an app for smartphones.

The cities participating in New Zealand are Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.

More people engaging with nature

Sullivan said iNaturalist had seen a "remarkable" increase in users during the lockdown.

There were 16,237 observations of nature made by New Zealanders during the first three-and-a-half weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown.

"We thought people would have a lot else going on in their lives and their activity on iNaturalist NZ-Mātaki Taiao might drop. Instead, the opposite has happened and activity has increased and many more people have got involved," Sullivan said.

"It's been fantastic to see that people are taking the time to focus on nature while in their bubbles."

The 16,237 observations were a 34 percent increase in observations compared with the weeks before lockdown, and a 40 percent increase compared to the same time last year.

Sullivan said the observations included 3008 different species.

"That's an impressive number when you consider that NZ has less than 400 bird species and about 2500 native species of higher plant.

"It's also impressive when you consider that these are the observations New Zealanders are making from their gardens and local neighbourhoods while in their bubbles. There are a lot of species living alongside us."

University of Auckland conservation biologist Dr James Russell said the lockdown meant many people are engaging a lot more with nature, especially in their own backyards.

"They are noticing many things they haven't before, by virtue of being present all the time and looking more," Dr Russell said.

The lockdown may also be having an effect on animal behaviour, he said.

"Animals around the world have been changing their behaviour in response to the massive change in human behaviour.

"As humans have changed their movement patterns, in particular moving shorter distances, avoiding congregating, and avoiding certain areas, animals have become emboldened."

However, we may also just be paying more attention, he said.

INaturalist is not the only outfit trying to measure the lockdown's impact on the natural world.

Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research is trying to establish how people are connecting with nature during the lockdown.

Social scientist Dr Alison Greenaway, who is running the study, said "I'm really interested in the narratives about nature that are emerging as part of and because of our responses to Covid-19".

The project, which has just started and already has enough participants, will also look at how connections with nature were understood.

Dr Greenaway said the work would help inform future planning and provide an opportunity for people to reflect on their lockdown experience.

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