Preparing for the exotic mosquito invasion of Australian backyards

Backyardbuckets_Tweed_Feb2018

While Australia has hundreds of “home-grown” mosquitoes, it is just a few from overseas that have authorities on alert. Preparing for these new risks is critical if the future pest and public health risks associated with mosquitoes are to be effectively managed. Citizen scientists may hold the key to success!

A project underway in the Northern Rivers region of NSW is set to build a framework for responding to the threats of exotic mosquitoes. This is in association with the Building Resilience to Climate Change program, a partnership program between Local Government NSW (LGNSW) and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) to address identified climate change risks and vulnerabilities facing NSW councils.

Lead by Tweed Shire Council, the program “Developing and trialing a Northern Rivers Emerging Vector Response Plan” is designed to build capacity among local stakeholders in the region to better respond to possible introductions of exotic mosquitoes from overseas (or perhaps travelling south from Queensland).

The mosquitoes that pose the greatest risk are Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. As well as being severe nuisance-biting pests, these mosquitoes can transmit pathogens of serious public health concern such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses. The mosquitoes aren’t found in local wetlands, they prefer backyard water-holding containers. This means that should these mosquitoes make their way to NSW, local authorities must shift their focus from the swamps to the suburbs.

There is already a program in place monitoring mosquitoes and the pathogens they carry in NSW. This program is primarily focused on Ross River virus and the mosquitoes that transmit this pathogen. As a consequence, mosquito collections are typically in bushland or wetland areas adjacent to urban areas and may not readily pick up exotic mosquitoes that have moved into local backyards.

Authorities must expand their approach and develop strategic responses to these exotic threats.

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Representatives of local stakeholders help survey 300 backyards in Tweed Heads!

This work is already underway. A workshop for local stakeholders was held in December 2017 in Tweed Heads along with a two day field exercise in which around 300 residential backyards were surveyed for potential mosquito habitats. A wide range of potential sources of mosquitoes was identified, the most common were water-filled plants (particularly bromeliads), pot-plant saucers, buckets, wheel burrows, garden ornaments, and rainwater tanks.

The survey highlighted how important community involvement in the program is and “citizen science” is currently being employed to assess some mosquito surveillance technologies in backyards across the Tweed Heads region.

Supported by a grant from the Human Health and Social Impacts Node, a partnership between the Office of Environment and Heritage, NSW Health and The University of Sydney, over 150 mosquito traps were deployed and it is hoped that the mosquitoes they collect will help inform the development of strategic mosquito surveillance in the future.

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An example of the mosquito traps deployed across two suburbs in Tweed Heads to collect eggs from mosquitoes buzzing about backyards

Whats needed now is a better understanding of how the community thinks about mosquitoes and how they’re trying to make their backyard less favourable for these pests.

Residents in the Local Government Areas of Tweed, Byron, Ballina, Richmond Valley, Clarence Valley, Lismore and Kyogle are invited to participate in a short survey. It is a great way to learn how to reduce the risks of mosquito bites in your backyard (there is also an iPad that can be won!).

If you live in the areas mentioned, or know friends or family who do, please complete and/or share the details of the survey.

You can start the survey now!

There are many factors contributing to the future threat of  mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease in Australia. Climate change or exotic mosquito introductions may be game changes but one of the most important considerations is the importance of community awareness and willingness to assist local health authorities.

Perhaps the new mosquito emoji will help too?

 

 

 

 

 

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Can citizen science help stop mosquito-borne disease outbreaks?

Aedesaegypti_Westmead_Webb

Mosquito surveillance has been a critical component of how health authorities manage the risk of mosquito-borne disease. Data on the abundance and diversity of mosquitoes, together with activity of mosquito-borne pathogens, can guide decisions on when and how to apply mosquito control agents or issue public health warnings.

Almost every state and territory in Australia conducts seasonal mosquito surveillance. The exceptions are Tasmania and ACT, although both have had some limited investigations over the years. Even among those doing routine surveillance, the program structure varies but most include the collection of mosquitoes. This is how we can determine if it really is “the worst mosquito season ever”!

The programs are currently are working well in providing early warnings of outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease. These programs often include mosquito trapping undertaken by local governments and, occasionally, members of the public. For may years there has been a strong interest in citizen scientists undertaking mosquito sampling, particularly by some schools. The projects that I’ve been involved with have rarely got off the ground for various reasons. School holidays at the peak of mosquito season doesn’t help. Beyond that, the consumable costs of the traps we use, especially the dry-ice (carbon dioxide) used to bait the traps, can be a barrier to involvement. Dry-ice use in schools, and the associated health and safety issues, has been a cause for concern too. Finally, the fact that mosquitoes may be attracted to traps operated in school or community grounds and that these mosquitoes may be carrying disease-causing pathogens can often raise concerns.

As a result, there really haven’t been any major citizen science based mosquito surveillance programs until recently. Things are changing.

One reason local authorities are starting to turn their minds to a citizen science based approach is that the threat of exotic mosquitoes will require a shift in focus from the swamps to the suburbs. The mosquitoes that drive outbreaks of dengue, particularly Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus live in water-holding containers in backyards and populations are not as easily measured by traditional surveillance approaches. This is why there has been a much stronger engagement with the public in Far North QLD (a region where Aedes aegypti is present and causes occasional outbreaks of dengue) where health authorities are regularly visiting backyards looking for and controlling backyard mosquitoes

There are many reasons why citizen science is starting to come into play when it comes to mosquito surveillance more broadly. Technology is getting better (as highlighted by many smartphone apps) but also, some of the laboratory techniques are getting cheaper. This is a really critical issue.

A breakthrough in rapid testing of mosquitoes led to the development of an award winning initiative in Brisbane by Metro South Health and Queensland Health Forensic & Scientific Services. The Zika Mozzie Seeker project combines this new laboratory technique with DIY mosquito traps by the general public to help track exotic mosquitoes. In short, residents create their own mosquito trap out of a bucket or recycled plastic container, it is filled with water and placed in a yard with a small piece of paper hung inside. Mosquitoes then drop by to lay eggs on the paper. After a couple of weeks, the traps are collected and egg filled paper strips sent to the lab and tested to track the DNA of local and exotic mosquitoes. The project has been an amazing success with around 2,000 participants being involved in recent years (that adds up to about 150,000 mosquito eggs collected and tested). Luckily, no exotic mosquitoes have been detected.

But when it comes to citizen science based projects, perhaps it isn’t the mosquitoes collected (the backyard mosquito battles are fun to track though) but the awareness raised that is important. Awareness not only of the risks posed by mosquitoes, but what you can do about them through the safe and effective use of mosquito repellents and other personal protection measures. Engaging the public through citizen science may be the way to go. It doesn’t always work in reaching new audiences, as was discovered in a mosquito surveillance project in South Australia, but that doesn’t mean it won’t!

Perhaps the rise in new smartphone apps will help. There are a few out there, like the Globe Observer and Mosquito Alert. These, and other smartphone apps, deserve their own post (stay tuned). However, the significant initiative of recent years has been the Global Mosquito Alert project. Launched in May 2017, here is an extract from their media release:

The new initiative, launched under the name ‘Global Mosquito Alert’, brings together thousands of scientists and volunteers from around the world to track and control mosquito borne viruses, including Zika, yellow fever, chikungunya, dengue, malaria and the West Nile virus. It is the first global platform dedicated to citizen science techniques to tackle the monitoring of mosquito populations. The programme is expected to move forward as a collaboration involving the European, Australian and American Citizen Science Associations as well as the developing citizen science community in Southeast Asia.

With such momentum, it is an exciting time to consider the potential of citizen science in Australian mosquito surveillance programs. This is what i will be exploring in my presentation at the Australian Citizen Science Conference in Adelaide this week.

I’ll be presenting the paper on Wednesday 7 February 2018 in the “Empower with Data” session. The full abstract of our presentation is below:

The public as a partner in enhancing mosquito surveillance networks to protect public health

Craig Williams (1), Brian L. Montgomery (2), Phil Rocha (2), and Cameron Webb (3)

(1) University of South Australia, School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences; (2) Metro South Public Health Unit, Queensland Health; (3) Medical Entomology, Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, University of Sydney

Mosquito-borne diseases are pervasive public health concerns on a global scale. Strategic management of risk requires well-designed surveillance programs, typically coordinated by local health authorities, for both endemic and exotic mosquitoes as well as the pathogens that they may transmit. There is great potential to utilise citizen science to expand the reach of current surveillance programs, particularly those centred on urban areas. There is increasing focus internationally on the role of citizen science in mosquito surveillance as evidenced by the establishment of the ‘Global Mosquito Alert’ project driven by multiple international stakeholders and citizen science associations. In Australia, new initiatives to engage the public in mosquito surveillance are emerging in multiple centres; utilizing a range of emerging field and laboratory technologies that remove previously existing barriers to community involvement. In South Australia, citizen science entomology programs have been trialed, and mosquito trapping and identification technology to expand existing trapping networks has been assessed. In suburban South-East Queensland, Zika Mozzie Seeker is linking citizen scientists into a network by using new laboratory techniques to rapidly screen for Ae. aegypti DNA in large numbers of eggs collected from DIY ovitraps,. In NSW, citizen science is being used to promote biodiversity and delineate pest and non-pest activity of mosquitoes associated with urban wetlands and surrounding suburbs. Citizen science holds great potential for public engagement activities as well as serving to enhance existing surveillance operations.

 

Join the conversation on Twitter by following Dr Cameron Webb, A/Prof Craig Williams and keep an eye on the meeting via the hashtag

Can social media help track environmental change?

saltmarshrehabilitation_KGIA picture may well tell a thousand words but what if that picture is tweeted, shared and liked? Could social media help engage the community with local wetlands? Could it assist in crowd sourced tracking of environmental change?

After the fire comes the photos

Using photography to track post-bushfire environmental change is common in Australia where bush fires are a part of life. Scientific publications and technical reports produced across the country have used “before and after” photos to highlight the dramatic change, and equally dramatic recovery, seen in the Australian bush after fire.

How can we incorporate social media in tracking this post-fire recovery? Perhaps it could even play a role in boosting the spirits of the local community seriously impacted by bushfire? The recovery of communities is as important as recovery of the environment. A recent study has highlighted the importance of social networks in the community and perhaps opportunities to share interactions with the environment through social media would provide further opportunities for engagement.

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian environment and photography plays a key role in reminding us that our vegetation can respond remarkably after even the most intense fires (Source: CSIRO)

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian environment and photography plays a key role in reminding us that our vegetation can respond remarkably after even the most intense fires (Source: CSIRO)

An example of engaging social media in bushfire recovery comes out of California. I’m particularly taken by the use of social media as a critical component of the program tracking recovery from bush fires that swept through Mt. Diablo in 2011. The project is coordinated by the Nerds for Nature team, inspired by the initiative of Sam Droege and his Monitor Change project.

The idea is based around members of the community taking photos at set locations with set perspectives and compiling those photographs shared through social media, to create a crowd sourced time lapse animations of post-bush fire recovery (you can read a little more about it here). What makes this so neat is the simplicity. Clear signage and a simple bracket for lining up your camera/phone. The website interface is great too. The team behind the project have provided some detailed instructions that form a great basis for adapting this approach to a local environment (they also point out that this project may not be as simple to implement as you may think…).

Tracking bushfire recovery with crowd sourced photographs! (Originally tweeted by Sergei Krupenin in reference to Nerds for Nature program)

An Australian take on crowd sourced “environmental change” photography

Another example of using photography to track environmental change is the Australian Fluker Post project. Similar to the approach by the Nerds for Nature team, this project, coordinated by Dr Martin Fluker at Victoria University, is a “citizen science system designed to allow community members to contribute towards the ongoing care of various natural environments by taking photographs”.

“Fluker Posts” are installed at key locations and members of the community can use their own cameras to take photos and then email them to coordinators. As well as collecting material to assist local land managers, this project may have a more subtle influence on conservation by engaging the community with the local environment. By providing an opportunity for local residents (as well as regular visitors) to track the changes in their local environment, it would be hoped that a connection and care for the local environment would increase. As well as directly changing behaviour that may threaten local habitats or wildlife, the community (and by extension local decision makers) are more likely to be supportive of rehabilitation efforts.

An example of a newly installed Fluker Post ready to help track environmental change (Source: The Fluker Post Project)

An example of a newly installed Fluker Post ready to help track environmental change (Source: The Fluker Post Project)

You can see examples of photos from the various Fluker post locations here but you can also keep up to date with various projects at the Fluker Post Facebook page. A relatively new venture has just kicked off using this “technology” to engage with school students – a great idea!

Tracking tidal changes

Another great example of crowd-sourced tracking of the potential environmental change is the  Witness King Tides program. The program is coordinated by Green Cross Australia and calls of members of the community to submit photos taken during king tide events (the highest of the spring tides each month) to help generate an indication of what may happen in the future with sea level rise. There is a wonderful collection of photo albums here from across Australia.

This idea of a crowd-sourced collection of photographs tracking tidal events has been tried in the past. Most notable was a collection of photos contributed to by over 250 people taken during a major tide event in 2009. A useful document was produced by NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. It highlights an important issue in relation to potential impacts of sea level rise. The first wave of impacts may not be catastrophic but they will be disruptive.

While images of major cities underwater often accompany media reports of rising sea levels and plans for adaptive responses, in many parts of Australia, increasing frequency of these “higher than usual” tides will cause disruption to cities and townships in other ways. Blocking stormwater systems, forcing the closure of roads and delays with ferry services. In addition to this, there is the increasing risk of coastal erosion and loss of amenities in coastal regions.

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“Before and after” shots of a cycleway through Sydney Olympic Park in January 2014. Higher than expected spring tides flooded many of the pathways, cycleways and boardwalks in the local area causing much disruption; perhaps a sign of things to come if rising sea levels make these event more frequent.

One of the problems with this method, however, is that these photographs end up being “one offs”. Without a comparison to “normal” conditions, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge the significance of tidal inundation without being familiar with the local area. Fortunately, there are many examples where contributors send both “before” and “after” tidal inundation shots and they do provide a stunning visual representation of the disruption sea level rise may cause. Perhaps the incorporation of “photography points” (following the examples from the Flucker Post or Nerds For Nature teams) at key locations would be a useful addition to the program?

This approach has been adopted bytThe City of Manduarh in Western Australia with their  Tidal Image Mandurah Project. The community has been asked to take photos at key locations with a view that images of tidal events such as storm surges, high tide and erosion will help track change. Nothing too fancy in these locations either, just a strategically placed spray painted blue camera!

An example of the spray-painted blue camera on a beachside post inviting members of teh community to take and share a photo of Florida Beach (Source City of Mandurah)

An example of the spray-painted blue camera on a beachside post inviting members of the community to take and share a photo of Florida Beach (Source: City of Mandurah)

Tracking constructed wetland change

Where would I like to see this implemented? I’ve had the opportunity to work in and around many newly constructed wetlands. These have ranged from small freshwater wetlands in urban areas to extensive rehabilitated estuarine wetlands. The common denominator across all these sites has been vegetation change. I cannot be out there every week taking photos but it would be great if there was a collection of photos being shared by the local communities that I could tap into.

There are some great examples of interpretive signage around our local wetlands. There is also a shift in thinking from traditional interpretive signage to take advantage of new technologies so why not include social media to engage visitors and local community further? Perhaps social media networking should be included in wetland management plans?

Signage at Gungahlin Wetlands, ACT

Signage at Gungahlin Wetlands, ACT. An example of structures associated with urban wetlands that can be modified to include opportunities for social media use through the use of recommended hashtags (for Twitter or Instagram) and/or brackets for placing cameras/smartphones

A simple addition of a bracket and details on sharing photographs could easily be incorporated into local signage as it is installed and/or updated. As well as tracking changes in vegetation growth in and around constructed and rehabilitated wetlands, the encroachment of mangroves into mudflats or sandy shores along urban estuaries could be a focus too. Of course, storm events and unusually high tides could be documented too. An added bonus would be if some rare or unusual wildlife popped up in photographs.

Educational signage of this nature are common place around wetlands in Sydney, could the inclusion of some guidelines for social sharing images help track mangrove incursion into shoreline habitats?

Educational signage of this nature is common place around wetlands in Sydney, could the inclusion of some guidelines for social sharing images help track mangrove incursion into shoreline habitats?

There are plenty of other ways social media can assist environmental conservation and rehabilitation. Pozible and Landcare have recently announced the launch (and called for the submission of proposals) of a new global crowdfunding partnership called The Landcare Environment Collection, an opportunity to showcase and support the crowdfunding campaigns of environmental groups in Australia and around the world.

Perhaps I need to prepare a proposal for the installation of some “social sharing” camera stands…

Why not join the conversation on Twitter and help share other examples of where social media could help track environmental change.