New In-depth Report Ecosystems provide a multitude of benefits to humanity, from food to recreation. In our latest In-depth Report, we explore four core facets of the ecosystem services concept: the links between biodiversity and ecosystem services; techniques for mapping and assessing ecosystems and their services; valuation of ecosystem services and the importance of considering all services; and biodiversity as part of an interconnected system. Download issue
The Value of Natura 2000
New Future Brief The Natura 2000 network encompasses nearly a fifth of EU territory and provides protection for more than a thousand rare and threatened species. In this new Future Brief we examine the ‘value’ of Natura 2000 from different angles: in terms of biodiversity conservation, the benefits for people, and economic value. Download issue
Biodiversity offset policy: dangers that must be avoided Biodiversity offset policies may inadvertently incentivise behaviours which actually accelerate biodiversity loss, new research has found. The study’s authors identify four ways this can occur and make recommendations for prevention.
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Nanocoating on buildings releases potentially toxic particles to the air Weathering and abrasion are reported to cause titanium dioxide nanoparticles to escape from a self-cleaning coating for buildings. These particles may be toxic to humans and wildlife. The researchers have developed three indicators from the test results to help predict levels of nanoparticle release from these coatings.
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Drones can be used to study birds without affecting their behaviour — with some precautions Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — may be used in close proximity to bird populations without causing disturbance, finds a new study. Drones hold the potential to monitor species and areas that are difficult to reach. The authors advise that, when used with caution, drones could become a valuable tool in the monitoring of species, particularly in protected areas.
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New tool developed to highlight and help prevent declines in freshwater biodiversity Biodiversity is declining in freshwater ecosystems across the globe, a new study has shown. The researchers created a mathematical model, called GLOBIO-aquatic, which builds a picture of the threats to the biodiversity of rivers, lakes and wetlands that are posed by a variety of human activities. The most crucial of these are land-use changes, nutrient and chemical pollution, and disturbances to the water cycle — which could be from infrastructure such as dams, or from climate change. The authors hope that the model will help policymakers identify regions which are most at risk from these pressures.
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In response to the study upon which this article is based, further dialogue has since been published, articulating a debate between the study’s authors and other researchers concerning the methods used and the conclusions drawn by the study. To find out more, please see the links in this updated version of the article:
Greater risk of heart defects for babies born near unconventional gas wells in Colorado
Pregnant women living within 16 km of unconventional gas wells in Colorado, US, are up to 30% more likely to give birth to a baby with a heart defect, new research has found. These findings suggest that more research is needed to understand the potential health impact of natural gas developments, say the researchers.
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Biodiversity offset policy: dangers that must be avoided
Biodiversity offset policies may inadvertently incentivise behaviours which actually accelerate biodiversity loss, new research has found. The study’s authors identify four ways this can occur and make recommendations for prevention.
Biodiversity is declining worldwide. Much of this is the result of developments, from roads to buildings, which destroy and fragment habitat. ‘Biodiversity offset schemes’ — in which the developer creates, restores or protects habitats elsewhere — are intended to compensate for these negative effects, with the ultimate aim of achieving ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity.
However, concerns have been raised regarding these schemes, with some studies showing that biodiversity is likely to be lost because the schemes are ineffectual, or that sites do not have long-term protection and therefore are only likely to achieve no net loss initially, and are then later degraded. For this study, researchers investigated the possibility that biodiversity offset policies, even if well designed and properly implemented, might result in ‘perverse incentives’, i.e. encouraging behaviours which actually result in a net loss of biodiversity. The authors identified incentives for:
1) Entrenching or exacerbating baseline declines.
In order to assess whether no net loss of biodiversity is achieved, a baseline must be set from which to measure biodiversity losses and gains. At the time when a development occurs, net biodiversity drops; the aim is that over time, as the offset site develops, this should return to the baseline. However, the outcomes for conservation could differ drastically, depending on where the baseline is set, and how it changes over time. If, for example, background levels of biodiversity are assumed to be declining rapidly, and this is used as the ‘business as usual’ baseline, then fewer gains are needed from the offset site. This is because the offset is only required to maintain the trajectory of declining baseline across the impact and offset sites collectively. This can then create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if biodiversity is assumed to be declining, offsetting does not need to achieve as much, and thus can entrench these assumed declines.
2) Winding back other conservation actions.
Other conservation initiatives essentially make offsetting schemes more difficult and expensive for the developer. If conservation programmes succeed in reducing biodiversity loss, this raises the baseline from which to measure biodiversity gains, making it more difficult to attain no net loss of biodiversity by offsetting. If a decision maker has an interest in facilitating development, there may be an incentive to advocate the use of overly steep declining baselines, as this reduces the required biodiversity gains and thus the expenses associated with offsetting activities. The offset policy then ‘locks in’ these declines. In addition, designating land as protected reserves also means it is not available for use as an offset site. Similarly, if conservation actions reduce the threats to populations of a threatened species, these can no longer be targeted under offset schemes as ‘averted losses’ — no loss is being averted if the species is not threatened and therefore not expected to decline.
3) Crowding-out of conservation volunteerism.
Volunteering has boosted conservation worldwide, and in some cases, volunteers have been invited to assist in offset actions. In a case in Australia, the outcomes of volunteer work to restore a park were used retrospectively as an offset for an urban development, but it was unclear whether the volunteers knew the conservation gains they were achieving were allowing equivalent destruction of biodiversity elsewhere. If offsetting projects redirect volunteer efforts from other conservation projects, the volunteers are then contributing to actions that would not have otherwise been required. This would also reduce the gains those other projects would have made, therefore exacerbating biodiversity loss.
4) False public confidence in environmental outcomes due to marketing offset actions as gains.
Conservation gains resulting from offset actions are often described as conservation gains in their own right. For example, the proposed UK biodiversity offset scheme was described by the government as “an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy”. However, this is not the case. Offset schemes, even if they fully achieve their goal of ‘no net loss’, are not positive improvements but entirely neutral in terms of biodiversity gains. Describing offset schemes in this way could result in the public perception that offset activities are gains in their own right. This could then reduce public pressure on governments to invest in conservation, further eroding biodiversity and again representing a net loss.
To avoid these perverse incentives researchers recommend that the process to set the baseline should reviewed every 10 years. However, as detailed in the first point, if schemes fail to achieve no net loss, the baselines may then be recalculated as steeper declines. This will mean that fewer gains are required from offset schemes, and biodiversity declines further. They also recommend that calculations for baselines, and the wider biodiversity declines from which they are drawn, should all be stated clearly. It may be useful to use a flat baseline, which would assume no background declines over time. Finally, they recommend better education and outreach regarding offset policies, that would help explain how offset activities are not ‘conservation gains’ but are making up for losses elsewhere and are thus neutral at best.
Source: Gordon, A., Bull, J. W., Wilcox, C. & Maron, M. (2015). Perverse incentives risk undermining biodiversity offset policies. Journal of Applied Ecology. 52: 532–537. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12398.
Nanocoating on buildings releases potentially toxic particles to the air
Weathering and abrasion are reported to cause titanium dioxide nanoparticles to escape from a self-cleaning coating for buildings. These particles may be toxic to humans and wildlife. The researchers have developed three indicators from the test results to help predict levels of nanoparticle release from these coatings.
Photocatalytic coatings containing nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide are increasingly applied to the outside of buildings for their antibacterial and self-cleaning properties. Weathering and wear can cause them to disintegrate and there are concerns about the subsequent release of nanoparticles into the environment. Various studies have found that some types of titanium dioxide nanoparticles have damaging effects on humans and animals. For example, experiments have shown that they can damage DNA.
This study investigated weathering and wear’s effects on a photocatalytic nanocoating to help predict levels of nanoparticle release into water and air. The coating was comprised of 1.1% titanium dioxide particles by volume, which were around 8 nanometres in size.
Over a seven-month period, the researchers exposed a brick painted with the coating to UV light and water to recreate the effects of weather. At four intervals — two, four, six and seven months — they measured titanium levels in the runoff water. Titanium was measured as it is not possible to measure the relative number or percentage of titanium dioxide nanoparticles specifically. However, the coating’s nanoparticles were the only type of titanium in the experiments.
At each of the four intervals, the brick was placed in a test chamber and rubbed with an abrasion technology commonly used in the paint industry to test products. The technology recreates friction levels found in a typical domestic environment, i.e. the same stress levels that being walked on or knocked, for example, would cause. The researchers then analysed the chamber’s air for particles.
Weathering changed the coating’s surface, which became increasingly cracked and lumpy over the seven months. Weathering alone did not appear to release nanoparticles into water; titanium was not seen above a detection threshold of 0.5 micrograms (µg) per litre of water at any stage. However, a longer period of weathering may produce different results.
Combined with weathering, abrasion did release titanium into the air, however. There was a big jump in release rates between four and seven months. Around 500 particles (including particles from the coating’s polymer and the brick itself, as well as titanium particles) were recorded per cm3 of air throughout the study. At four months, around 7% of all particles were titanium, but the figure was 55% at seven months.
Significantly, most of the titanium particles were ‘free’ (90% by mass). This means that they are no longer bound in a material, but are loose and could pose a health or ecological risk. This is particularly important, the researchers say, as many previous studies have suggested that particles remain bound, even if to smaller pieces of the main material.
From these results, the researchers developed three indicators to help predict the release of nanoparticles from coatings:
1. Emission Transition Pace (ETP): the rate of change in particle concentrations in relation to weathering duration. The ETP in this study accelerated after four months of weathering, for example.
2. Stable Emission Duration (SED): this is a score which indicates the coating’s lifetime; the higher the score, the longer the lifetime. The coating in this study fell from an initial score of 320 to 110 after 4 months, and to 0 after 6 months. A score of ‘0’ suggests that the coating will disappear as soon as abrasion starts.
3. Stable Emission Level (SEL): the concentration of particles for a corresponding SED score. It increased with weathering duration in this study. For example, at the start of the study the SEL was around 75 particles per cm3 of air when the SED was 320. It rose to around 200 particles per cm3 of air after 4 months when the SED was 110.
The researchers therefore consider four months of accelerated weathering to be this coating’s ‘nanosafe lifetime’ — a form of ‘best-before date’. The findings of this study can be extended to other forms of nanocoatings, to help inform safe design.
Source: Shandilya, N., Le Bihan, O., Bressot, C. & Morgeneyer, M. (2015). Emission of Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles from Building Materials to the Environment by Wear and Weather. Environmental Science & Technology 49(4): 2163–2170. DOI:10.1021/es504710p.
Drones can be used to study birds without affecting their behaviour — with some precautions
Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — may be used in close proximity to bird populations without causing disturbance, finds a new study. Drones hold the potential to monitor species and areas that are difficult to reach. The authors advise that, when used with caution, drones could become a valuable tool in the monitoring of species, particularly in protected areas.
Drones are increasingly used in ecological research to study wildlife, because of their ability to reach inaccessible populations and habitats. Despite the increasing use of drones to observe bird populations, there are no ethical guidelines for the potential impact of drones on animal welfare.
In this study the authors aimed to determine the impact that drones have on the behaviour of birds, in order to provide guidelines for the continued use of drones in this type of research.
During March and April 2014, the researchers used quadricopter drones, each with four spinning blades, to approach three different bird populations: mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) in a zoo, and flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) and common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia) in their natural habitat. The birds were approached at different speeds (2 metres per second, 4 m/s, 6 m/s and 8 m/s) and angles (20°, 30°, 60° and 90°) using three different coloured drones (white, black and blue), and their responses noted according to three categories (no reaction; small amount of movement; or, flying away).
The researchers found that in 80% of the experiments they were able to fly a drone to within four metres of a bird population without noticing any visible signs of behavioural change. The speed at which the drone approached, the colour of the drone used and repeated approaches did not appear to affect bird behaviour in a significant way.
However, the angle at which the drone approached the birds did have a marked impact on how they behaved. When approached from directly above (90° angle) all the bird populations either moved, or flew away from the drone, and the authors hypothesise that this was due to the drone being associated with a bird of prey.
The findings are good news for future studies that plan to use drones to record data from wildlife populations; however, the authors urge caution. They note that different species will react differently to the presence of drones, and that animals can still experience stress without showing a change in behaviour. In addition, different drones vary in size and noise generation, and these factors could also have an impact on wildlife.
Following their study, the researchers advise that: drones should always be launched more than 100 m from bird populations; that the distance a population is approached from is adjusted according to the species being observed; and that drones are never used to approach populations at a 90° angle.
Source: Vas, E., Lescroël, A., Duriez, O., Boguszewski, G. & Grémillet, D. (2015). Approaching birds with drones: first experiments and ethical guidelines. Biology Letters, 11(2), 20140754. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0754
New tool developed to highlight and help prevent declines in freshwater biodiversity
Biodiversity is declining in freshwater ecosystems across the globe, a new study has shown. The researchers created a mathematical model, called GLOBIO-aquatic, which builds a picture of the threats to the biodiversity of rivers, lakes and wetlands that are posed by a variety of human activities. The most crucial of these are land-use changes, nutrient and chemical pollution, and disturbances to the water cycle — which could be from infrastructure such as dams, or from climate change. The authors hope that the model will help policymakers identify regions which are most at risk from these pressures.
Lakes, rivers, marshes and other freshwater and wetland areas make up around 9% of the Earth’s land surface. These inland water bodies host a diverse array of species as well as providing a range of ecosystem services, including water purification, climate regulation, food, and recreation. However, it is estimated that, worldwide, wetland areas have been depleted by 60% since the beginning of the 20th century. There is therefore an urgent need to examine future impacts on the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems, which is what this research aims to achieve.
To build the GLOBIO-aquatic model the researchers gathered data from international, peer-reviewed studies on freshwater biodiversity1, and incorporated a range of projection models that focus on drivers such as land use, climate change, economics and human population. This information was combined with maps of the global distribution of water bodies to define catchments and to present the results graphically.
The model showed that, by the year 2000, the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems had already declined dramatically in comparison to their undisturbed state. This state was derived from historical data on the same water body or from data on a comparable water body with minimal human interference. The western, central and southern areas of Europe are among the worst affected in the world, and natural water systems surrounding heavily populated areas may have lost up to 80% of their original biodiversity. In contrast, areas of northern Europe have seen a much less severe impact. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the most extensive land use changes over the next 50 years will take place in central Africa, South America and South-East Asia. Incorporating this information, the model predicted that these areas will experience the greatest losses of freshwater biodiversity, while some areas of Europe have the potential to see a slight improvement on their current degraded state.
The model so far is restricted because data from many studies were presented in a way that meant they could not be used, and the researcher’s access was limited to papers that had been formally peer-reviewed and published, which favoured papers from more developed parts of the world. This means that the results cannot be treated as precise figures; however, they do give an important indication of the state of the world’s freshwaters. In the future, the model has the potential to become more robust with a greater wealth of biodiversity data and a wider scope of research sources.
Alongside biodiversity indicators like the Living Planet Index and the Red List Index, the GLOBIO-aquatic model could prove to be a useful tool in fulfilling ecological criteria set out in the Water Framework Directive, providing policymakers with important information about the kinds of activities which are most damaging to freshwater biodiversity, and identifying the regions which are most vulnerable.
1. The biodiversity of the water systems was expressed in terms of the mean relative abundance of original species (MSA), which can be linked to the Ecological Quality Ratio (EQR), as used in the European Water Framework Directive.
Source: Janse, J.H., Kuiper J.J., Weijters M.J., Westerbeek, E.P., Jeuken, M.H.J.L., Bakkenes, M., Alkemade, R., Mooij, W.M. & Verhoeven, J.T.A. (2015). GLOBIO-Aquatic, a global model of human impact on the biodiversity of inland aquatic ecosystems. Environmental Science and Policy 48: 99–114. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2014.12.007.