Save Our Species: Why nature in NZ needs tech help

by Rebecca Macfie / 15 December, 2016

Can New Zealand be predator free by 2050, as the Government has pledged? Not without radical new technology, writes Rebecca Macfie, in the second of a two-part feature.

Considering the size of the mission, New Zealand’s predator-control toolkit is decidedly modest: possum, rat and stoat traps and 1080 poison.

Every year we spend $94 million killing introduced predators by one means or other, but that barely scratches the surface of the problem. At best, we are suppressing predators over about 12% of the country’s land area, and every year an estimated 26 million native chicks and eggs are slaughtered. “Clean green” New Zealand, a place of spectacular natural beauty and rare biodiversity, has one of the highest rates of extinction in the world.

Nearly 4000 of New Zealand’s unique plant and animal species are threatened by introduced predators and habitat loss, with 800 at high risk of extinction, according to the Endangered Species Foundation. Fifty-six species of native birds are already extinct, 73 are ranked as nationally critical, endangered or vulnerable and 91 are classed as at risk.

Without intervention, the kiwi – the creature whose name we have adopted to identify ourselves as a people – could be gone in 50 years.

Turning back the tide of extinctions caused by introduced predators will require money, military-scale commitment, collaboration and – perhaps most importantly – technology. Over the following pages we look at some of the options.

Photo/Getty Images

Genes the way forward

Advances in gene technology could provide a powerful tool in the war against pests.

There’s no magic bullet to eliminate the predators pushing our endangered birds towards extinction – but the rapidly developing techniques of gene editing and gene drives offer the prospect of something close.

Scientific American recently described the technology as a “brutally efficient solution” that could spread a chosen trait, such as producing infertile offspring, through a wild population of predators, causing the population to die out. The technology also raises the possibility of a solution to intractable diseases such as malaria, the elimination of destructive agricultural pests and the reversal of rare genetic disorders.

Evolutionary geneticist Neil Gemmell, AgResearch chair in reproduction and genomics at the University of Otago, likens gene editing in conceptual terms to the “find and replace” function in a Word document. A specific gene can be targeted, cut out and replaced with another version that performs the desired function – for example, swapping a gene that causes blindness with one that doesn’t.

The advent in 2012 of a powerful gene-editing tool, called Crispr/Cas9, has made this process cheap and easy, says Gemmell. The Crispr system “finds” the target gene or DNA sequence, and Cas9 is an enzyme that allows it to be replaced with another gene carrying the desired trait.

Since Crispr/Cas9 burst on to the scene, researchers have tested it with mice to correct mutations that cause hepatitis B, haemophilia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Chinese researchers have used it to modify genes in a bid to enhance HIV resistance in non-viable human embryos.

Where the technology becomes potentially revolutionary for conserving threatened species is in combination with a “gene drive” – a gene that can distribute the edited genetic sequence through a whole population. Under normal inheritance, offspring have a 50% chance of inheriting a given copy of a gene from each parent. With a gene drive, the offspring will almost always inherit the targeted gene, thus “driving” the edited trait through the population.

Gemmell says there are naturally occurring gene drives that slightly alter the normal 50/50 probability of inheriting a gene variant. However, experimentation with Crispr/Cas9-based gene drives has shown they can theoretically spread a targeted gene through 100% of a population – a process termed mutagenic chain reaction, which has already been done in yeast, fruit flies and mosquitoes.

In a conservation setting, researchers are investigating the potential to use this approach to eradicate avian malaria, which is carried by mosquitos and is a major threat to wildlife in Hawaii.

And scientists from the universities of Otago and California, San Diego have been trying – without success so far – to get funding for a collaborative project to “construct” a mouse that would produce only male offspring, in combination with a gene drive that would “spread their genes rapidly to the population, leading to the eventual production of a male-only population”, according to a paper on the proposal.

“We are on the cusp of potentially being able to engineer organisms in a way that seems almost like science fiction,” says Gemmell.

Cabinet papers backgrounding the Predator Free 2050 goal cite gene drives as a “realistic prospect”. “The use of gene drive and other techniques could, for example, produce male possums whose offspring are either infertile females or males that carry the same gene themselves. Such a breakthrough could lead to an eventual collapse of the possum population.”

The papers say the predator-free goal is “dependent on” such ground-breaking science, although it must be “broadly acceptable to the community”.

Genomic techniques are being developed much faster than public awareness, however, and Gemmell says a raft of legitimate questions are yet to be addressed. What would be the implications of eradicating rats, for instance – animals that are not native but have been here for hundreds of years? Can the genetic changes be reversed? Are we sure only the target species will be affected?

But he says New Zealand is relatively well placed to test the technology with predators, because we have islands that provide ready-made quarantines and our Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act provides a good framework for oversight and control.

But a backlash has begun, with a group of international academics and conservationists, including Jane Goodall and David Suzuki, describing the technology as “powerful and potentially dangerous”.

In an open letter, they argue there is “no place for gene drives in conservation”. They say it has not been tested for unintended consequences or fully evaluated for its ethical and social effects.

Crispr/Cas9 and its application to gene drives “gives technicians the ability to intervene in evolution, to engineer the fate of an entire species, to dramatically modify ecosystems and to unleash large-scale environmental changes – in ways never thought possible”.

The group called for a halt to proposals to use gene drives, given the “obvious dangers of irretrievably releasing genocidal genes into the natural world”.

Grant Ryan and son Cam. Photo/Erica Austin

Outsmarting the pests

A Kiwi inventor’s ground-breaking trials.

Banks Peninsula inventor and tech entrepreneur Grant Ryan thinks the goal of being predator free by 2050 is crazy. “2040 is much more like it.” He is channelling Moore’s law – which holds that it keeps getting cheaper and easier to crunch ever-larger volumes of data – in the battle for the country’s biodiversity.

After noticing more birdsong around his property after a two-year blitz to clear rats and possums, he started thinking about applying some technological grunt to the hit-and-miss business of trapping.

First, he turned an old cellphone into a device to record birdsong at regular intervals. The sound was automatically uploaded to the cloud, providing a data stream that could be analysed to establish whether the birdlife really was improving.

Then he started working towards a completely digital trapping solution. It sounds audacious, but he thinks traditionally labour-intensive trapping can be made 80,000 times more accurate and efficient.

Using a combination of animal sounds as lures, cameras to record and analyse what pests (or cats, dogs or other domestic animals) are there, and the possibilities afforded by open-source artificial intelligence software, he and his son Cam are working towards a device that will outsmart the predators.

An experiment to find a digital trapping solution. Photo/Erica Austin

The ultimate goal of what he has dubbed the Cacophony Project is a unit “the size of your fist” uploaded with hundreds of different animal sound lures that is capable of detecting by pattern recognition what type of animal is in the vicinity. Whenever a predator is recognised, it would select the most appropriate sound to attract the animal, squirt it with a poison, then automatically reset to wait for the next rat, stoat or possum.

“You could potentially have drones dropping lines of them, waiting until they have got [the predators], then picking them up, topping up the poison and moving them on. So you wouldn’t have to have people making tracks and checking traps.”

Bits of the technological framework already exist. “We gave 50 videos of rats, stoats, possums and blowing leaves to a group of researchers at the University of Canterbury, who ran it through an open-source artificial-intelligence algorithm. They could tell with 100% accuracy the difference between those.”

Ryan is also experimenting with a $60 Raspberry Pi computer to run a heat and infrared camera to video animal movement and upload it to the cloud. The next step is to use artificial-intelligence software to analyse the footage, with the goal of developing the pattern-recognition capability needed for the device to know which animal is present and select the best sound lure.

Spark has backed the project with free data, and Ryan hopes to start trials on Banks Peninsula, where the local conservation trust has just set a goal of becoming “effectively” predator free.

He accepts that some will regard his aim of intelligent traps as “nutty”, but others, such as Al Bramley of Zero Invasive Predators and Department of Conservation boss Lou Sanson, are keenly interested.

“It is out there,” says Ryan. “But think about 34 years of technological development to 2050 – it’s not going to take that long.”

Capital idea

"Give the communities ownership and let the birds thrive,” says Kelvin Hastie, IT geek turned community conservation leader.

After spotting a weasel in broad daylight near his Crofton Downs home in mid-2014, Hastie harnessed a citizen biodiversity movement that has radiated from his Wellington suburb to include the entire city.

His first step after seeing the mustelid was to talk to a community meeting to propose ridding Crofton Downs of predators. Lots of people agreed.

With a $5000 grant from the Morgan Foundation, he bought rat traps, then did a letter-box drop offering them to people willing to put them in their backyards and report their catches. About one in five households joined the effort.

Another $12,000 was raised from Transpower’s CommunityCare Fund to buy stoat traps to place in reserves that surround Crofton Downs. There are now 140 traps in the bush from the edge of Otari-Wilton up to Mt Kaukau, regularly monitored by a small army of volunteers. Thanks to a smartphone app called Trap.NZ, designed by award-winning Kapiti conservation company Groundtruth, the GPS location of every trap is recorded and kills can be uploaded from the field.

The template developed by Hastie for Predator Free Crofton Downs has since been picked up by other suburbs including Ngaio, Wilton and Khandallah, as well as Plimmerton, where titipounamu (riflemen) were recently spotted. It’s the first time the tiny native bird – categorised as at risk/declining on New Zealand’s Threat Classification System – has been seen west of the Hutt Valley since 1925.

In 2015, Hastie applied to the philanthropic Next Foundation for funding to expand his campaign throughout the capital. He was successful, and with the Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council signed up to the cause, a technical panel is planning the methodology for the first phase of a city-wide assault – to make the Miramar Peninsula predator free.

This article was first published in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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