Do outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease always follow floods?

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Water, water everywhere…and mosquitoes soon to follow. It makes sense that with more water you’ll get more mosquitoes and with more mosquitoes you’ll get more mosquito-borne disease. Right? Well, not always.

With floods hitting parts of inland NSW, health authorities have issued warnings about mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease.

Western NSW, has been substantially impacted by flooding this month and the region has been declared a natural disaster zone. The Lachlan River at Forbes has reached a level not seen for 25 years. There is a lot of water about. 35,000 mega litres of water has also been released from Wyangala dam resulting in further flooding. There could be more to come as “Superstorm 2016” continues to bring rain to south-east Australia. Evacuations continue.

The flooding has come at a time when the weather in warming up and there are already reports of mosquito numbers increasing. The biggest concern is that once the flood water recede, how long will pools of water remain, have mosquitoes got a “jump start”on the season?

On the other side of the world, Hurricane Matthew is threatening Florida. The Bahamas and Haiti have already been hit and more than 2 million people in the US have been told to evacuate their homes. Flooding is expected.

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Mosquitoes need water

There is no doubt that mosquito populations can increase rapidly following flood. There is even a group of mosquitoes commonly called “floodwater mosquitoes“. The desiccation resistant eggs of these mosquitoes are laying dormant in the cracks and crevices of flood plains, just waiting for the water to arrive. When it floods, the eggs hatch and in about a week or so, swarms of mosquitoes emerge.

For the most part, it isn’t immediately following the flooding, but in the weeks and even months following that can provide the most ideal conditions for mosquitoes. If temperatures aren’t high enough to drive rapid evaporation of ponding (or if additional rainfall keeps them topped up), mosquitoes can start building impressing population abundances. With more mosquitoes, the risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreak can increase.

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Rainfall records provided by the Bureau of Meteorology indicate that over the three months to September 2016, some regions of NT, QLD, NSW and Victoria received some of their highest rainfall on record for the period. (Bureau of Meterology)

A look back to floods and mosquito surveillance

In 2011-2012, QLD, NSW and Victoria saw incredible flooding. For those of us working in the field of mosquito-borne disease, we’re well aware of what that flooding can cause. Our attention was sparked when stories starting coming out from locals about this being the biggest flooding since the 1970s. Why was this important? Following flooding in the 1970s, we saw one of the biggest outbreaks of the potentially fatal Murray Valley encephalitis virus Australia has seen. This outbreak, and the response to the actual and potential health impacts, was essentially the genesis of many mosquito-borne disease surveillance programs across the country.

One of those programs was the NSW Arbovirus Surveillance and Mosquito Monitoring Program. Following the flooding in early 2012, there was a huge jump in mosquito populations in western NSW and one of the largest collections of mosquitoes in the history of the program was recorded with over 18,000 mosquitoes collected! Fortunately, we didn’t see any substantial activity of Muray Valley encephalitis virus but elsewhere in Australia, cases were reported.

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Mosquito-borne disease outbreaks need more than just mosquitoes

There is little doubt you need mosquitoes about for pathogen transmission. However, for many mosquito-borne diseases, the pathogens that cause the illness in people are naturally found in wildlife. Person to person transmission may occur but for pathogens such as West Nile virus, Ross River virus or Murray Valley encephalitis virus, the mosquitoes that inject their virus-filled saliva into people have bitten birds or mammals previously.

The role of wildlife is important to consider as the flooding may influence mosquito populations but they can also influence wildlife. While kangaroos and wallabies may be adversely impacted by floods, flood waters can provide a major boost for waterbirds.

In some instances, as is the case for Murray Valley encephalitis virus, floods provide ideal conditions for both mosquitoes and birds!

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Do floods really cause outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease?

There are few studies that have demonstrated that outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease always occur following floods.

Studies in North America had previously concluded that there wasn’t a direct link between hurricanes and flooding and mosquito-borne disease. But, that doesn’t mean there won’t potentially be a boost in nuisance-biting mosquitoes following flooding.There is often widespread spraying to control these pest mosquito populations.

Interestingly, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there was an increase in mosquito-borne disease with more than a 2-fold increase in West Nile neuroinvasive disease. However, other reports noted no significant increase in cases of either West Nile or St. Louis encephalitis viruses. Surveillance for 6 weeks following the hurricane, authorities found no arboviruses circulating in local mosquito populations. These results highlight that much more than water and mosquitoes are required for outbreaks of disease.

In Australia, a recent review looked at the influence of flooding on cases of Ross River virus disease. They found that the evidence to support a positive association between flooding and RRV outbreaks is largely circumstantial. The trouble in predicting outbreaks of Ross River virus disease is that there can be complex biological, environmental and climatic drivers at work and, irrespective of local flooding, there may be other region-specific issues that either increase or decrease the potential for an outbreak.

What should we expect in Australia as summer approaches?

There is no doubt mosquito repellent will come in handy over the coming months. There are already reports of increased mosquito populations in some parts of the country. While nuisance-biting impacts will be a worry, if mosquito populations further increase following flooding, authorities need to remain mindful of a range of other health risks too.

The good news is that unless higher than normal mosquito populations persist into the warmer months, we may not see major outbreaks of disease. It typically isn’t until November-December that we start to see pathogens circulate more widely among wildlife and mosquitoes. Hopefully, if some hot weather arrives, the flood waters will quickly evaporate and abundant mosquitoes populations won’t continue.

Current outlooks suggest that between now and December 2016, south-eastern regions of Australia are likely to receive above average rainfall. Temperatures, though, are likely to be a little cooler than normal. We’re probably lucky that this cooler weather will keep the really big mosquito population increases that we saw a few years ago at bay.

On balance, we’re expecting plenty of mosquitoes to be about as summer starts, hopefully not “mozziegeddon” but enough to ensure the community should stay aware of the health risks associated with mosquito bites and how best to avoid their bites.

Have you seen mosquitoes about already this season? Join the conversation and tweet some shots of local mosquitoes!

Could a podcast stop mosquito bites?

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This week I’m attending OzPod 2016: the Australian Podcast Conference, a workshop at the ABC, Ultimo. Celebrating International Podcast Day, the workshop brings together podcasters for “an event for the expanding podcast industry to escape the studio or office and meet with peers to share experiences, information, insights and ideas around audience acquisition and retention, new technologies, the rise of the podcast in traditional media, monetizing and of course the fine art of storytelling.”

 So, why am I going? I don’t even have a podcast!

I may not have a podcast now but I hope to start playing around with the platform soon as a complement to my other efforts to spread the word on science communication and public health awareness.

I’ve been thinking about kicking off a podcast for a while but have been a little reluctant due to time commitments. More importantly, I’ve also wanted to have a clear idea of what exactly I want to do.

In a previous life, I co-hosted a radio show on FBI Radio (during their test broadcast days) with my wife called “Good Morning Gidget”. It was a Saturday morning show of surf music and interviews with professionals involved in a wide range of coastal-based activities, from marine biologists to surf shop owners. Despite the early start on a Saturday morning, it was a load of fun. I’d also worked behind the scenes producing a couple of music shows. If I had more time, I really would have liked to pursue more work with community radio.

Perhaps podcasting will be the backup plan.

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It’s great to listen back to packaged interviews with radio, like the Health Report (I’m talking zika virus) but I was also lucky enough to have a chance to contribute to a few podcasts this year. I spoke with Science On Top about the outbreak of Zika virus and the implications it has for Australia, Flash Forward on what will happen if we eradicate mosquitoes from the planet and ArthroPod on what its like to study mosquitoes for a living!

All these were a lot of fun and were really motivating for me to want to get started with podcasting myself.

I feel like my experience with sound recording and ongoing engagement with media provides a solid background in most of the technical skills I need to get started. I’m hoping I’ll leave the OzPod 2016 conference with a few more tips on story telling and structuring a podcast too.

What I’ve been struggling with is format. I like the conversational nature of most podcasts but as I’ll probably be doing everything myself, perhaps a more structured and edited podcast is the go?

There are very few podcasts I listen to that are built around a one-person show. I’m not sure I could pull it off. Does anyone really want to listen to me ramble on for 20 mins about mosquitoes? 40minutes?

Sometime over the coming summer I hope to launch a short series of podcasts covering some of the basics of mosquito biology and how that relates to the ways we protect ourselves and our families from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne disease. I want to share my fascination with mosquitoes and explore some of the gaps in our understanding of mosquitoes, particularly their role in our local environment. 

Hopefully I can recruit some of my colleagues from around Australia for a chat too so we can share a little about the science behind our public health messages and what life is like to be chasing mosquitoes around swamps all summer

Sound like a good idea? Join the conversation on Twitter and let me know what you think, would you listen to a podcast about Australian mosquitoes?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social media and blood suckers showcased at the International Congress of Entomology

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Digital technology is changing a lot about how we undertake entomological research and communicate the results of that research to the community and policy makers.

This week in Orlando, Florida, is the International Congress of Entomology (ICE). A huge gathering of entomologists from around the world. While it was a great pleasure to be invited to participate, I couldn’t get over there this time.

I will, however, have a chance to present my work in the Symposium “Entomology in the Digital Age”  Friday, September 30, 2016 (01:30 PM – 04:45 PM), Convention Centre Room W222 A.

In the presentation I’ll share some of the reasoning behind my use of social media to engage the community with both entomological research and public health communication. Most importantly, it will focus on some of the metrics I’ve recorded alongside my use of social media, maintaining a blog of research and writing for outlets such as The Conversation.

I’ve written about my use of social media and how it can help extend the reach of public health messages and presented on the topic alongside a range of great speakers at the 2014 Entomological Society of America meeting in Portland.

This time around, technology is playing an even more direct role in my presentation! I’ve pre-recorded my presentation and it will be shown to the audience on the day among other presentations. I’ll also be checking into the session to answer questions. Despite the fact I’ll need to be up around 1:30am due to time differences, it should be fun.

See the abstract below…

Taking entomological research from the swamps to the suburbs with social media

Cameron E Webb

Connecting scientists and the community is critical. This is particularly the case for medical entomologists working in the field of mosquito-borne disease where the translation of entomological research into improved public health outcomes is a priority. While traditional media has been the mainstay of public health communications by local authorities, social media provides new avenues for disseminating information and engaging with the wider community. This presentation will share some insights into how the use of social media has connected new and old communications strategies to not only extend the reach of public health messages but also provide an opportunity to promote entomological research and wetland conservation. A range of social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress, were employed to disseminate public health messages and engage the community and traditional media outlets. Engagement with the accounts of traditional media (e.g. radio, print, television, online) was found to be the main route to increased exposure and, subsequently, to increased access of public health information online. With the increasing accessibility of the community to online resources via smartphones, researchers and public health advocates must develop strategies to effectively use social media. Many people now turn to social media as a source of news and information and those in the field of public health, as well as entomological research more generally, must take advantage of these new opportunities. doi: 10.1603/ICE.2016.94611


If you’re at ICE, you can also catch up with my PhD student David Lilly who’ll be presenting our research into the development of insecticide resistance in bed bugs as part of the symposium “New Insights into Biology, Resistance Mechanisms, and the Management of the Modern Bed Bug” Friday, September 30, 2016, 01:30 PM – 04:45 PM, Convention Center, West Hall F4 (WF4).

Novel insecticide resistant mechanisms in the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius

David Lilly, Cameron E Webb and Stephen Doggett

Introduction: Research on field strains of Cimex lectularius from Australia has identified widespread resistance to pyrethroid insecticides, but variability in the magnitude expressed. To determine if differences in resistance mechanisms exist, collected strains were examined for the presence of metabolic detoxification and/or cuticle thickening. Methods: The presence and relative contribution of detoxifying esterases or cytochrome P450 monooxygenases were assessed. Bed bugs collected from Parramatta (NSW), Melbourne (VIC) – 2 strains, ‘No.2’ and ‘No.4’, and Alice Springs (NT) were exposed in topical bioassays employing deltamethrin and two pyrethroid synergists: piperonyl butoxide (PBO) and EN16/5-1. PBO inhibits both monooxygenases and esterases, whereas EN16/5-1 will inhibit esterases only. Thus in a comparative bioassay, the results can infer the dominant enzyme system. The Parramatta strain was then selected to study the potential presence of cuticle thickening. Nine-day-old male bed bugs were exposed to filter papers treated with the highest label rate of Demand Insecticide®(200mL/10L of 25g/L lambda-cyhalothrin) and were grouped according to time-to-knockdown (< 2 hours, ≥ 4 hours, and survivors at 24 hours). Measurements of mean cuticle thickness at the transverse midpoint of the second leg tarsus were taken under electron microscope. Results/Conclusion: All strains possessed resistance that was inhibited by the synergists, with the Parramatta and Melbourne No.2 indicating esterase-dominance, and Alice Springs and Melbourne No.4 indicating cytochrome P450 monooxygenase-dominance. Cuticular measurements demonstrated that bed bugs surviving deltamethrin exposure had significantly thicker cuticles, denoting a novel form of resistance in these insects. doi: 10.1603/ICE.2016.92553

 

You can also see Stephen Doggett (co-author and photographer of A Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia) speaking on photographing mosquitoes to in the symposium “Insect Photography Symposium: Bringing the Small to the World.


You can join the conversation on Twitter and keep an eye on all the fun in Orlando by keeping an eye on the tweet stream!

 

Taking Australian wetland research to China

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My PhD student Jayne Hanford has been super busy this year. Not much more than a year into her candidature and she has already locked away a summer of research and has been presenting her findings at conferences here in Australia as well as overseas.

After recently sharing our research at the Society for Wetland Scientists Annual Conference held in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA and the Mosquito Control Association of Australia conference on the Gold Coast, Jayne is off to China for the 10th INTECOL International Wetlands Conference.

Her research is focused on understanding the links between wetland vegetation, aquatic biodiversity and mosquito populations. Better understanding of these links will assist management strategies that minimise actual and potential pest and public health risks associated with mosquitoes and urban wetlands.

Our abstract for the conference is below:

Is the Biodiversity Value of Constructed Wetlands Linked to their Potential Mosquito-Related Public Health Risks?

Jayne Hanford1, Cameron Webb2, Dieter Hochuli1

1School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia; 2Department of Medical Entomology, Westmead Hospital and The University of Sydney, Westmead, Australia

 Stormwater treatment wetlands constructed in cities can enhance the sustainability of urban biodiversity by providing wildlife refuge areas and habitat connectivity. However, the creation of wetlands for stormwater infrastructure can increase risks to public health and wellbeing by proliferating nuisance-biting and pathogen-transmitting mosquitoes. In severe cases, this proliferation can erode goodwill in the community for creating and protecting valuable wetland systems.  We compared mosquito assemblages at 24 natural and constructed urban wetlands in the greater Sydney region, Australia. Our aim was to determine if stormwater wetlands constructed with the goal to support high biodiversity value also had reduced associated mosquito risks. Wetlands were located across a gradient of urbanisation determined by surrounding human population density, and included sites with different aquatic and riparian habitat complexity and availability. Adult and larval mosquitoes and aquatic macroinvertebrates were sampled on two occasions through summer and autumn. Aquatic macroinvertebrates were used to derive health indices, as well as being a relative measure of aquatic diversity.  Diversity of adult mosquito species was high, and abundance varied greatly between wetlands. Macroinvertebrate assemblages were also highly variable between sites. Wetlands with greater habitat complexity had lower adult mosquito abundance and greater mosquito species diversity, compared to stormwater-specific wetlands with minimal available habitat. As expected, mosquito assemblages did not respond to urbanisation and aquatic macroinvertebrate assemblages per se, but appeared to respond to a complex suite of coarse and fine-scale features that may affect a wetland’s biodiversity value.  Effectively integrating wetlands into cities requires balancing their design for water infrastructure purposes, biodiversity resources and public health and wellbeing requirements. Understanding the risks as well as the benefits will enhance the value of constructed urban wetlands in sustainable cities while minimising public health risks posed by mosquitoes.

Jayne will be speaking in the “The next generation of wetland science: ecosystems, applications, and engineering” session in the Nanhu Room 1520-1530 on Wednesday 21 September.

You can keep an eye on whats happening in China by following Jayne on Twitter and checking the hashtag

westernsydneywetlands

The Society for Wetland Scientists Annual Conference held in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA back in May included a paper by Jayne titled “Risky Wetlands? Conflicts between biodiversity value and public health” and prompted some great feedback and discussion among wetland scientists at the meeting. It was a successful trip and a timely reminder that I must get to one of the SWS meetings sometime soon, perhaps Puerto Rico?

Keep an eye out for Jayne’s research publications soon!

 

 

 

Moving pictures and managing mosquitoes

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For a few months now I’ve been thinking through some future options for the blog and my science communications activities. I’ve been toying around with starting a podcast or video blog about my work in local wetlands.

#MosquitoWeek has just happened in the U.S. and as it coincided with the close of entries with the Entomological Society of America YouTube competition, I thought what better time to play around with putting together a video.

A year or so ago I had the chance to see Karen McKee (aka The Scientist Videographer) talk about social media and the ways she uses video as a critical component of her community engagement and communications. Since I’m already using Instagram to connect followers with my various wetland sites and mosquito studies (as well as other things), I’ve thought video could be a way to go.

Interesting too since images and video are (or are soon to be) increasingly dominant in social media.

I’m an advocate for mosquito control to be part of overall wetland management. I think I’m sometimes seen as the enemy of wetland and wildlife conservation, not surprising given the perception of mosquito control still influenced by the DDT debate. As we push for the construction and rehabilitation of urban wetlands, the pest and public health risks associated with mosquito populations do need to be considered by local authorities.

I’m often arguing that ecologically sustainable mosquito management is actually critical to wetland conservation. If you’re encouraging the community to visit your wetlands, what happens when they’re chased away by mosquitoes? What about the community living around the wetland? Will nuisance-biting erode the good will of the community for wetland conservation?

You can watch my video, “Why is mosquito management important in our local wetlands?”, at YouTube or below:

You can check out some of my other posts of wetlands, mosquitoes and social media below:

Should we start pulling out mangroves to save our wetlands?

Does wetland rehabilitation need mosquito control?

Can social media help track environmental change?

Mosquitoes, constructed wetlands, urban design and climate change: Some workshop resources

Let me know if you’d be interested in seeing more videos! Send me a tweet.

Summer summary of mosquito media madness

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Summer is always a busy time for me. As well as plenty of time sloshing about in the wetlands, there is often lots of interest from mosquito-curious media. There has been some intense bursts of activity in previous summers but the 2015-2016 was particularly interesting.

I certainly covered some new ground this summer. I responded to over 160 individual media requests in the past 6 months. From flies and food safety to the emergence of Zika virus. Here is a wrap from my media adventures and some valuable lessons learned for future science and public health communication.

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The good news of new virus discoveries

Usually, the discovery of a new mosquito-borne virus brings with it new concern for public health. This time though, there was some good news.

Towards the end of 2015, a paper reporting on a collaborative research project between University of Queensland, QLD Health and University of Sydney was published in Virology. This was the first publication detailing the discovery of Parramatta River virus, an insect specific virus that exclusively infects the mosquito Aedes vigilax. This virus does not infect people and poses no health risk.

A joint media release was issued by University of Queensland and University of Sydney and there was plenty of media attention. Not surprising given the usual negative associations with mosquito-borne pathogens!

There were dozens of articles, much of the attention focused on the team at University of QLD. Dr Jody Hobson-Peters was kept busy with local media including ABC and Brisbane Times. It was a great experience sharing the research with colleagues in Queensland, particularly great seeing so much exposure for PhD student Breeanna McLean and her newly published research.

I was surprised at how little attention there was in the news from Sydney media. The lesson here though was more about bad timing than uninteresting research. A couple of weeks after the initial media release, I forwarded around a few emails and sent out a couple of tweets and next thing you know, we made the front page of the local newspaper, the Parramatta Advertiser (see above). It was some great local coverage, not only about the virus discovery but it also provided an opportunity to raise awareness of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease on the eve of summer!

Lesson learned: A good reminder that if your research isn’t picked up immediately, give it another shot a few weeks later. Timing may make all the difference but perseverance does too!

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To stop sickness, swat or spray

Just in time for Christmas lunch and summer holiday picnics, I published an article on flies and food safety at The Conversation. I really expected this article to slip under the radar of most people. Coming out on Christmas eve doesn’t seem likely many would be clicking about on the internet but within a few days over 600,000 people had clicked on the piece!

Many of those clicks were thanks to the article being shared by IFLS but there was also plenty of interest from local media and I was busy with interview requests from ABC Local Radio across the country. Who doesn’t love hearing about how flies poop and vomit on your food? I was even interviewed by Grey Nomad Magazine!

Lesson learned: Applying a little science to seasonal urban myths and common uncertainties can prove popular and may be a good opportunity to promote a little science!

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Rain, rain everywhere with mozzies soon to come

With all the talk of El Nino and predictions of a hot and dry summer for the east coast of Australia, the summer was actually reasonably mild and extremely wet. Sydney was particularly battered by a series of storms and intense rainfall early in 2016.

More water generally means more mosquitoes. In response to the rain, many media outlets were interested in chatting about the prospects of a bumper mosquito problem. As well as talking about the prospects of an increase in mosquito-borne disease risk, it was a great opportunity to talk about personal protection measures.

There were some radio, print and tv spots that provided opportunities to talk about how to choose and use the right repellents.

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In 2015 I published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia explaining that health authorities need to provide more guidance on how the community can get mosquito repellents working more effectively.

Typical health warnings and media release from health authorities (usually limited to grabs on news bulletins) but when there is an opportunity to do longer form radio interviews, there is a chance to put an emphasis on aspect of public health messages. The hook to get these longer spots is giving more than just warnings, by mixing up some interesting things about mosquitoes, you can catch a little extra attention and sneak in the public health messages between the fun and fascinating facts about mosquitoes!

One news outlet was really insistent in grabbing a hold of me for some comments ahead of the evening bulletin. They even sent a crew to meet me in the city while I was taking the kids along to the Sydney Festival!

Lesson learned: When doing tv for the evening news, it is ok to wear a t-shirt, shorts and runners just so long as you have a rain jacket handy to make you like like you could have just stepped straight out of the wetlands!

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From African forests to South American cities

While many of us were keeping our eyes on the developing outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika virus in South America towards the end of 2015, it wasn’t until February 2016 that the situation really grabbed the attention of the world’s media.

In late January, I published a piece at The Conversation titled “Does Zika virus pose a threat to Australia?” It prompted a little interest but it was the media conference coordinated by University of Sydney Media and Communications together with Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) that coincided with the announcement of the World Health Organization that the Zika virus outbreak was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Together with colleagues from the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Disease and Biosecurity, I spoke at a media conference broadcast nationally on ABC News 24. There was a huge amount of media stories stemming from this media conference with over 500 individual articles identified across radio, tv, print and online. During the days and weeks following, I felt like I was spending more time at the ABC studios in Ultimo than I was in our lab! There were days when I spent hours on the phone doing radio interviews.

There were a couple of great longer form interviews that I really appreciated the opportunity to contribute to such as ABC Radio National’s Health Report and Rear Vision. There were also a couple of podcasts too, check out Science on Top and Flash Forward.

This flood of media requests also exposed me to a few more new experiences. There were live tv appearances on Sunrise, ABC News 24 and Sky News but probably one of the most interesting was my spot on Channel Ten’s The Project. It was interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I was warned early on that one of the guests on the panel was comedian Jimmy Carr, a somewhat controversial figure notorious for jokes a little too close to bad taste. I’m not typically one to play the “wacky scientist” during interviews but what I was most cautious of was not being seen to be treating a very serious disease outbreak too lightly. I was determined to play the straight guy. In the end the interview turned ok but there were a couple of awkward moments that, luckily, ended up being edited out.

Secondly, simply doing the interview was unusual. It was a pre-recorded interview with me in a tiny room at the Channel Ten studio in Sydney and the panel in the Melbourne studio. I was sitting in front of a green-screen, staring down the camera with an earpiece blasting away in my ear. I have done live crosses before but they’re all been one-on-one interviews. This time it was with the panel and I found it incredibly difficult to get the feel for each of the panelists when they were asking questions. Missing that eye-to-eye contact was a disconcerting experience. Luckily, all turned out well in the end.

Lesson learned: Lots (I mean LOTS) learned while dealing with the interest in Zika virus! Probably another post in itself…but I would say that managing this volume of media wasn’t easy and it did eat up a lot of time (even though communicating public health messages is central to my “day job”) but this was important work.

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A morning with Dr Karl!

When it comes to science communicators in Australia, there are few with a higher profile than Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. We’d spoken on a number of occasions about mosquitoes but I’d never actually met him in person before. “Dr Karl” invited me to hang out for a morning recording interviews for ABC News 24, ABC Local Radio and also guest on his national “Science Talk” segment on Triple J’s Mornings Show with Zan Rowe.

The experience of a behind-the-scenes perspective on Karl’s hectic schedule and how he manages the frenetic pace of work at the ABC was an eye opener. Doing the hour long segment on Triple J was great, enlightening to get questions from a slice of the Australian community I don’t usually cross paths with when doing the usual community engagement. I good reminder of just how much anxiety there can be within the community when news of international disease outbreaks occur. Not surprising given the thousands of Australians travelling to South America each month….with more to come later this year when the Rio Olympic Games kick off!

You can listen to the segment here and you can also follow Dr Karl on Twitter.

Lesson learned: From a public health perspective, this is a great reminder that the concerns and anxieties around infectious disease can change depending on the sector of the community you’re dealing with. The core messages may remain the same but you’ll always need to consider your audience when fine tuning your public health messages.

TripleJ_Zika_Feb2016

So, was all this worth it?

It was stressful. It was fun. It eroded much of my time that may have been spent in other ways but I see this as “doing my job” perhaps a little more than pure research scientists do. But how does all this convert into tangible metrics. How do you measure the reach and economics of all these media activities?

I’m fortunate to be supported by the University of Sydney media and communications team that helps out by providing some data on the metrics of my media activities each summer. What was all this time and effort worth?

Between November 2015 and Match 2016, I was quoted in over 160 media items. This adds up to a cumulative audience of around 8.9 million people, that is quite some reach! How much was it worth? Based on current advertising rates, about $1.6 million.

I’ve written before about how we can better value science and public health communication. Collecting these types of metrics can be useful for a range of purposes. Recently, I’ve been including media engagement as an “in kind” contribution to grant applications with valuation calculated on average media coverage that may be expected.

The lesson here is to take the time to record your media activities, not just so you have a list to demonstrate quantity but also so you can assess audience and value to your media activities. Work with your media and communications departments to see what extra information you can collect.

Got any other tips? Share them via Twitter!

 

 

 

 

 

Should we start pulling out mangroves to save our wetlands?

mangroves_webb_SOPA_November2015

You have no idea how badly I wanted to jump down into the thick black mud.

I don’t remember much about primary school but I do have strong recollections of an assignment on the importance of mangroves to the ecology of the Parramatta River. Perhaps not the assignment itself, but I do remember Mum and Dad taking me down to the river and I drew some pictures of the twists and turns of branches and trunks and the finger-like pneumatophores punching up through the thick dark grey mud. It may only have been 10 minutes drive from home in Western Sydney but it was a glimpse into a world so strange and alluring, how could it not have made an impact on me?

I remember the great disappointment of my parent’s stern words keeping me from jumping down below the high water mark and into the mud. The same feelings of frustration and disappointment when stopped from doing other fun things like playing in stormwater drains, letting off firecrackers or swimming in rips!

Mangroves don’t just attract the attention of young environmental scientists. Exploiting a unique place between the land and sea, mangroves have intrigued and fascinated many before me with the first descriptions, by Greek mariners, thought to date back to 325BC. What were these plants that seemed to defy logic, growing half submerged in salty water?

Almost thirty years after my primary school assignment, with sandshoes replaced by gumboots, that childhood disappointment of adventure squashed is now matched by the realisation that mangroves aren’t perfect. In fact, they’re a threat to some of the other plants and animals found in our local local estuaries.

Now I spend most of my summer coated in that same dark grey mud, covered in mosquito bites and thinking about how important mangrove management will be for the future of our coastal wetlands.

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More than mangroves

There is little doubt mangroves are an ecologically important habitat. They provide a home for a wide range of creatures, from bacteria to birds. Rich in nutrients and hiding places, mangroves are perfect nurseries for fish and crustaceans. Bird and bats and rodents and reptiles all find a home here too.

They’re threatened by climate change but they may also play a critical role in protecting our shoreline against sea level rise and storm surges. Sea level rise itself may knock out mangrove forests too but mangroves could also mitigate the impacts of climate change by storing carbon. In fact, the role estuarine wetlands may play in keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere could be critical.

Make no mistake, mangroves are important. Thing is, it is also important to also remember that estuarine wetlands are more than just mangroves.

When we talk about estuarine wetlands, we’re grouping together a number of habitats that  include seagrass, saltmarsh, sedgelands and mudflats as well as mangroves. Each of these habitats play an important role in the functioning of the estuary as a whole but they each, individually, provide something specific to the wildlife that utilise the wetlands.

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Saltmarshes are critically important and are in desperate need of conservation. In NSW they’re listed as Endangered Ecological Communities. As well as urbanisation and pollution, a changing climate and sea level rise risk severely degrading the quality of these habitats.

One of the key threats facing saltmarshes is a native plant. A native estuarine wetland plant. Mangroves.

The encroachment of mangroves into saltmashes is a serious problem. This is happening in many parts of the world. It is a strange situation in which one native plant is taking over another and with these ecological shifts, there are knock-on effects to other components of the wetland ecosystem. Most importantly, nesting and feeding shorebirds.

saltmarsh_SOPA

Are mangroves really a threat?

The mangroves are just doing what mangroves do. The reason they’re threatening saltmarshes is due to our modification of local environments.

Urban runoff reduces the salinity of these wetlands and this reduced salinity not only removes the ecological advantages of salt-tolerent saltmarsh plants, such as Sarcocornia quinqueflora and Sporobolus virginicus, but it helps mangrove seeds and seedlings survive the otherwise harsh environmental conditions of saltmarshes. Lower the salinity, increase the invasive potential of mangroves.

Frequent dryness and highly salty conditions are a saltmarsh’s best defense against invading mangroves.

Filling in wetlands and the construction of seawalls, roadways and other infrastructure give saltmarshes little refuge or respite from these threats. While mangroves encroach from the sea, there is nowhere for saltmarshes to migrate to when dealing with sea level rise.

They’re cornered and under attack but even where the plants are persisting, the quality of habitat they provide for local wildlife is slowly degraded by colonising mangrove seedlings.

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There are many waterbirds that use our local estuaries that are under threat. Saltmarshes are great habitats for migratory shorebirds. There are plentiful resources in the form of insects and other invertebrates within the sediments. The birds can nest on the marsh and as they can see all around, predators are easy to spot. They feel safe.

There have been declines in the White-fronted Chat populations around Sydney. Many other populations of wading birds associated with Australia’s coastal wetlands are in decline too. Mangrove invasion isn’t the only thing to blame but it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

For many of these birds, the encroachment of mangroves into mudflats and saltmarshes is a problem. Its a problem for their foraging and nesting. Once mangrove seedlings start popping up on the middle of the saltmarsh, all those advantages of a wide open habitat in which predators are easy to spot are lost.

Imagine you’re a black-winged stilt. You’re trying to find a safe place to nest. A perfect place would be a raised area of saltmarsh surrounded by water. A dead flat saltmarsh with clear lines of sight for dozens of meters around. You’ll be able to see an approaching predator (like a fox or a feral cat) from far enough way to escape with plenty of time to spare. Now, stick a few mangrove seedlings here and there. They start to obscure your view. They’ll give sneaky predators a place to hide. Even if there are not predators about, you’ll probably get nervous. You’ll probably spend more time thinking about the threat of predators and less time foraging for food.

As mangroves move in, the birds will leave. Long before the saltmarsh is over run by mangroves, out-competed by the shade of establishing young mangroves, the quality of the habitat for many shorebirds will have already been lost. There may be some plants remaining but the ecological role of the habitat is gone.

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Do historic paintings provide conflicting evidence to the commonly held view that mangroves have always been present along the Parramatta River? (Parramatta River, c. 1837, Conrad Martens (1801-78) via Australian Art Auctions)

Painting the picture of change in the local wetlands

How can we predict what will happen in the future if we haven’t learned from the past?

Tracking change in these wetlands is important. The use of photography has played an important role in tracking environmental change for a long time. Aerial photography and satellite imagery have helped reveal dramatic changes in vegetation associated with Australia’s coastal wetlands. This analysis has demonstrated the encroachment of mangroves into saltmarshes and this encroachment is considered a key threatening process of this endangered ecological community.

How can we track the encroachment of mangroves? While technology has helped reveal current changes in mangrove encroachment, other uses of imagery can explore relatively recent “urban myths” about historic mangrove distribution.

Thinking back to that school assignment, I remember being told how important mangroves were to the local environment. We we taught that, here in Sydney, that mangroves were always part of the Parramatta River estuary, that they have alwasy been a critical component of the river’s ecology. Was this really the case?

There has been some brilliant detective work done to determine the historic distribution of mangroves along the Parramatta River in this paper titled “Estuarine wetlands distribution along the Parramatta River, Sydney, 1788–1940: implications for planning and conservation“. The authors have used old photos and, in particular, some of the earliest paintings from the Sydney region (together with notes from settlers at the time) and found that the estuary was dominated by mudflats and saltmarsh habitats and that extensive areas of mangroves did not occur until the 20th Century.

To quote the author, Lynette C. McLoughlin:

“These historical sources indicate that in the 19th century extensive mudflats and saltmarsh communities dominated the inter-tidal zone, with mangroves more limited to creek fringes and some patches in bays for much of the period. In the upper river from Subiaco Creek to Parramatta, there is no evidence for the presence of mangroves until the 1870s. Following settlement and increased sedimentation, inter-tidal mudflats expanded, mangroves colonised up river and out onto mudflats in bays in the latter part of the 19th century, followed by expansion into saltmarsh in the 20th century.”

It is only relatively recently that mangroves have really flourished along the river.

There is absolutely no doubt they were always present, tucked away in the tiny bays and inlets of what became known as Sydney Harbour but it was the mudflats and saltmarshes that dominated much of the estuary. These habitats, no doubt, provided a rich and productive habitat for shorebirds and other wildlife.

mangroves_Dec2015_HenandChickenBay

So, where to from here?

Globally, mangroves are a critical component of wetland ecosystems. There is little doubt of that, and little doubt that in many parts of the world, even here in Australia, they are under threat. But so is saltmarsh and, saltmarsh is far less likely to be given the chance to demonstrate the resilience that mangroves will to continued changed environmental conditions results from a rising sea level and surging urbanisation.

Not just saltmarsh but mudlfats too.

Coastal authorities are increasingly aware of the need to balance protection of mangrove forests and the benefits they provide but also the conservation of saltmarsh and mudflats that are so critical to shorebirds.

The reality is, there will need to be a program of mangrove culling to sustain conservation of saltmarsh habitat. You need a permit to remove mangrove seedlings but a seasonal program of removal would be greatly beneficial in stopped the spread of mangroves into saltmarsh habitats. Local authorities are incorporating mangrove removal programs in their local wetland rehabilitation programs.

Removing young seedlings is easy, you can pull them straight out of the wet mud. Wouldn’t take much to organise a team of volunteers to move through the local saltmarsh removing seedlings. Perhaps in Autumn when the migratory shorebirds have left and the mosquito populations aren’t so bad?

The idea that native vegetation should be actively removed from habitats sounds at odds with environmental conservation. However, we need to maintain our wetlands for our future generations and the next generations of birds, and fish and crustaceans that rely on them now where few other opportunities exist.

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2 February is World Wetlands Day. Please get out into your local wetlands, or at least make a pledge to visit your nearby wetlands sometime soon.

Learn more about Australia’s amazing mangroves by dropping by MangroveWatch and picking up the excellent Australia’s Mangroves by Norm Duke. There is also an extremely useful text on Australian Saltmarshes that is essential.

Finally, check out one of the most extensive resources on urban wetland management, including estuarine wetlands, via the free eBook produced by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority titled “Workbook for Managing Urban Wetlands in Australia“. Read a brief article on our analysis of the use of this resource in the latest issue of Wetlands Australia, see “Insights from the use of an online wetland management resource” by Webb and Paul (pages 26-27).

What are you doing for World Wetlands Day? Join the conversation on Twitter!

Want to learn more about the amazing world of Australian mosquitoes? Check out “A Field Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia” out now through CSIRO Publishing. Over 200 pages containing a pictorial guide to almost 100 different mosquitoes along with tips on beating their bite and protecting your family from the health risks of mosquitoes. You can order online or through your favourite local bookstore or online retailer.