Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Increasing diversity of COVID-19 strains: insights into evolutionary divergence and public health

 To be clear, I am not a virologist, nor am I a public health expert. But I do know how to analyze patterns of evolutionary diversity. Research into the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has given rise to the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly enhanced our understanding of global disease dynamics, mRNA vaccines and public health responses to a global crisis. But the COVID-19 pandemic also has the potential to provide fundamental insights into basic ecological and evolutionary processes. 

While a lot has been written about how COVID-19 lock-downs have had noticeable repercussions on air quality and wildlife in cities, the virus lends itself as a microcosm into natural world dynamics. SARS-CoV-2 is now the most studied non-human organism on Earth, and we've witnessed its spread across the globe (which provides insights into invasion biology), it has spread exponentially in populations at times (showcasing the power of models to predict spread), and its rapid diversification is evolution in real time.

Understanding how SARS-CoV-2 strain diversity is generated is of fundamental importance for public health policies. And SARS-CoV-2 is evolving and diversifying. In Ontario, Canada, we have a wonderful resource from Public Health Ontario that publishes data on the evolution of strain diversity and provides a wonderful graphical interface. This interface focuses on the SARS-CoV-2 phylogeny (that is the evolutionary family tree connecting strains to their ancestors) in Ontario.

An example phylogeny

Using their open data, I addressed a simple question, is the evolutionary diversity (measured by the distances separating strains) increasing over time?

To test this, I calculated a statistical measure called the standardized effect size of the mean pairwise distances (SES.MPD) which quantifies the average distances separating strains standardized by random permutations (in this case 500 randomizations) so that a SES.MPD value of 0 means that the evolutionary diversity of a group of strains is no different than a same number of strains randomly selected from the phylogeny. Negative values mean that strains are more closely related on the phylogeny than you expect by chance (referred to as under-dispersed), and positive values mean strains are more distantly related (over-dispersed). I did these calculations for each month since the pandemic hit Ontario (March 2020) and for the seven different regions of Ontario.

Analysis of the standardized effect size of the mean pairwise distances (SES.MPD) of SARS-CoV-2 strains across the seven regions in Ontario since the start of the pandemic. The dashed horizontal line indicates a value of 0 (no different than random expectation) and points outside of the grey box are statistically significantly different than random.

What I found was that early on in the pandemic, the strains were under-dispersed, meaning that they were more closely related and genetically similar than expected by chance. But over time the dissimilarity between strains increases and by May 2021 (the last data in the graphs), many of Ontario's regions had significantly over-dispersed strains. This means that strains found in the populations in May 2021 were generally more dissimilar from one another than early on.

Why this matters is that vaccines and other treatments are typically developed on a single strain or from samples collected at a specific time point. If strains are relatively genetically similar, then it is highly probable that treatments will be successful across the strains. However, as strains diversify and become more dissimilar, then treatments might become less effective overall. 

Had the spreading infection been dominated by single strains, with very few newer strains replacing older ones, we would expect that the SES.MPD values remain below zero, and would make it easier to track strains and adapt treatments.

These patterns are also valuable for insights into ecology and evolution. We often look at SES.MPD values to interpret how different processes structure diversity (like competition, predation, pollution, etc.), but we often don't have good evidence of how historical evolutionary processes can drive SES.MPD differences. The plots above show that rapid evolutionary diversification results in linearly increasing SES.MPD values.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Podcast: Burrow-dwelling solitary bees and the winter of their demise



Guest podcast by UTSC Biology students: Gillian Sauder and Nyx Radu

Burrow-dwelling solitary bees determine their entry into winter diapause based solely based on temperature, this raises the question; are rising global temperatures delaying diapause in these bees? And how will these diapause delays impact their limited energy reserves and survival rates? Find out on the first and only episode of the hit podcast that one person described as "as educational and depressing as a real conservation biology degree" and which alien archaeologists will describe as "an exemplary demonstration of humanity's damning tendency to joke about their problems rather than fix them."  Life: How It's All Dying (Winter Edition) is available now on a blog near you.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

COVID-19 and nature: Is wildlife conservation also in “lockdown”?

Guest post by Nina Adamo, Masters of Environmental Science Candidate at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

Within the surge of news coverage for the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have heard about the increase in the reporting of wildlife sightings in some urban areas across the globe, such as in this CBC article. With less people venturing outside of their homes in efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the media in multiple countries around the globe have been reporting more sightings of wildlife that are usually rarely or uncommonly seen in suburban and urban areas.6,7 This was the case when a herd of Kashmir goats were seen strolling through the deserted streets of a town in Wales during the lockdown.7

A herd of Kashmir goats roaming the empty streets of a town in Wales.3

This also happened in Toronto, Canada this past summer, where foxes were seen denning in typically busy areas of the city during lockdown.2 To read more about the Tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes, check out this article in Maclean’s magazine. What does this unusual and greater number of wildlife sightings in urbanized areas mean for wildlife behaviour and wildlife conservation as a whole?

Fox kits on the boardwalk of Woodbine beach in the city of Toronto, Canada.4

The “rolling lockdowns” implemented as strategies to contain the novel coronavirus have severely restricted human activities, and have had cascading effects through public health systems and economies.6 What is less clear however, is what impacts this sudden change in human behaviour may have on wildlife and what the long-term implications are for the fate of wildlife conservation across the globe and into the future. The interaction between our societal response to COVID-19 and wildlife is a novel and emerging topic that scientists have only just begun to investigate. Unsurprisingly, initial findings tell a complex story, where lockdowns have had both positive and negative impacts on wildlife and the conservation of biodiversity.1,5,6

Initial positive effects of lockdowns on the environment, in general, include reductions in industrial activities and manufacturing, and restrictions on the transport of natural resources, leading to a decrease in global emissions and an increase in air and water quality.1,5 Other studies report decreases in noise pollution leading to an increase in sightings of animals in cities and harbours, along with reduced numbers of animals being killed by ships in waterways and by vehicles on roads.1,6 Similarly, a study conducted in Italy, the first country to implement a lockdown, found a greater proportion of sightings of species such as the crested porcupine in suburban and urban areas in 2020 compared to previous years.6 The same study also found evidence for an increase in the abundance and breeding success of certain species of birds during lockdown in urban areas, likely due to general decrease in the presence of humans.6

A crucial point to consider about all of these positive observed effects is that many of these effects, such as the presence of uncommon animals in urban areas, are likely to only be temporary and prone to reversal once restrictions are lifted and humans begin to revert back to pre-lockdown behaviours.5,6 It is also worth noting that many observed increases in animal numbers under lockdown conditions could have resulted from an increase in observation effort with more people participating in hobbies such as birding due to restrictions on other activities during lockdowns.6 Similarly, the greater detection of bird species could have been attributed to an increase in detection rates because of a reduction of background traffic noise with less traffic volume in lockdown conditions.6

There is great concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will severely hinder efforts to conserve biodiversity in the present as well as in the long term.6 During lockdown, there have been substantial delays in both species at risk management efforts and invasive species control programs,6 reduced funding available for conservation because of overstressed economies, reductions in wildlife-based tourism due to travel restrictions, and governmental capacity generally being prioritized for COVID-19 relief measures.1,5 The pandemic has undoubtedly put a strain on our capacity for conservation, and many initiatives will be playing catch-up to make up for precious lost time, where many of these conservation efforts are focused on species that are already teetering on the brink.

Increased human threats to nature are also expected to occur as a result of the lockdowns.5,6 As more people, especially in rural areas, are forced to navigate pandemic-driven economic downturns, they may have no choice but to turn to protected areas for resources.5 In addition to this, the reduced funding available for hiring patrol staff such as park rangers in protected areas can result in a lower likelihood of detecting poachers and can lead to an increase in illegal killing of wildlife, which has been the pattern already observed in multiple places across the globe including Europe, Africa, and Asia.1,5,6

Schematic of the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on different areas related to the conservation of wildlife in Africa, with the arrows indicating the directionality of these impacts.5

The surge of research examining the interaction between societal response to COVID-19 and wildlife tells a complex story.6 Although there were some positive effects of the lockdown observed on wildlife, these will likely only be temporary until restrictions are lifted, but the potential negative impacts could have long-lasting effects on the conservation of biodiversity.5,6 Furthermore, activities focused on the conservation of species and habitats can also help to reduce the risk of future pandemics as the restrictions put in place to protect certain species and their habitats can help to reduce our exposure to species that are a high risk for virus transfer to humans, leading to a lower risk of future outbreaks and subsequent pandemics.5

Overall, although the COVID-19 lockdowns have shown some initial positive impacts on the environment and wildlife, there are significant risks associated with these lockdowns that may negatively impact the effectiveness of wildlife conservation. In order to effectively prevent the accelerated loss of biodiversity that could result from lockdowns, countries must ensure funding for conservation actions is not neglected.



  1. Bates, A. E., Primack, R. B., Moraga, P., & Duarte, C. M. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown as a “Global Human Confinement Experiment” to investigate biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation, 248, 108665. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108665
  2. Dhopade, P. (2020, July 7). The tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes. Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/society/environment/toronto-boardwalk-foxes-coronavirus-lockdown/  
  3. Furlong, C. (2020, April 5). A herd of Kashmir goats invaded a Welsh seaside resort after the coronavirus lockdown left the streets deserted. Wildlife take to the streets as people stay indoors. [Getty Images]. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/photos-wildlife-animals-take-to-streets-as-people-take-shelter-indoors-1.5519538
  4. Lautens, R. (2020, July 7). A few of the young kits at Woodbine Beach in Toronto; when passersby began taking selfies with the animals, a local wildlife centre intervened. The tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes. [Image]. Retrieved October 23, 2020 from https://www.macleans.ca/society/environment/toronto-boardwalk-foxes-coronavirus-lockdown/
  5. Lindsey, P., Allan, J., Brehony, P., Dickman, A., Robson, A., Begg, C., Bhammar, H., Blanken, L., Breuer, T., Fitzgerald, K., Flyman, M., Gandiwa, P., Giva, N., Kaelo, D., Nampindo, S., Nyambe, N., Steiner, K., Parker, A., Roe, D., … Tyrrell, P. (2020). Conserving Africa’s wildlife and wildlands through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4(10), 1300–1310. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1275-6
  6. Manenti, R., Mori, E., Di Canio, V., Mercurio, S., Picone, M., Caffi, M., Brambilla, M., Ficetola, G. F., & Rubolini, D. (2020). The good, the bad and the ugly of COVID-19 lockdown effects on wildlife conservation: Insights from the first European locked down country. Biological Conservation, 249, 108728. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108728
  7. Wildlife take to the streets as people stay indoors. (2020, April 5). Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/photos-wildlife-animals-take-to-streets-as-people-take-shelter-indoors-1.5519538

Monday, March 1, 2021

The fork in the road: science versus denialism and conspiracy theories

The world is awash in information. Never before have people had as much access to humanity’s collective knowledge as we do today. You want to know when the Normans conquered England? How many people use Weibo? Or what Machu Picchu would have looked like in its glory days? Simply pull out your phone and ask Siri. 


This cornucopia of knowledge should mean that people are in the position to make the best decisions possible. From the insurance plans that best fit their needs to voting for candidates or political parties that support policies that return optimal outcomes for individuals and society as a whole. Beyond individuals, this wealth of information should mean that evidence-based policy would be easy to pursue and outcomes for nations continually improving.


However, this is clearly not the case. The availability of knowledge doesn’t mean that evidence, fact and truth are utilized. Preconceived belief and ideology are important filters through which evidence is evaluated. Yet, what is really disheartening about the use of knowledge and evidence is how others (individuals and organizations) with political and economic agendas filter and manipulate what is channelled to various audiences.


While we might naively refer to the modern era as one based on information and the democratization of evidence and knowledge, the reality is that we live in the era of disinformation. Disinformation is the active and knowing creation and spread of false information, like politicians saying a fair election was stolen. Misinformation is the cancerous offspring of disinformation, where this false information is shared by those unaware of its nefarious origins. Disinformation and misinformation have the power to derail robust democracies and motivate atrocities.


The study of the origins and valuation of knowledge is a complex, convoluted and challenging area to say the least. But it is not esoteric nor just academic. Knowledge and understanding are the cornerstone of societal well-being, technological development and ultimately underpin democracy. Public policy driven by misinformation and dismissal of basic facts is simply ill-equipped to deal with many of the problems we face. This is easily showcased by the dismal, and frankly embarrassing, chaotic COVID-19 response in the United States -a clear failure for proponents of evidence-based policy.


Knowledge and belief arise through a number of different endeavours that span social influences, logic and reasoning, and, importantly, the empirical claims of science. Science is the process by which we assess testable claims about the world. Scientists use accumulated knowledge and evidence to formulate questions or predictions and then ultimately assess these against experiments and observation. We commonly ascribe science to the scientific method, but what scientists actually do and how they go about developing explanations and testing them is actually quite a bit more complicated. Philosophers of science, from Popper to Kuhn to Lakatos and on to Lauden have argued about what demarcates science from other knowledge-gaining exercises and these debates have, in some ways, been mired by the reliance on a scientific method that may or may not exist (see Lee McIntyre’s The Scientific Attitude for a wonderful overview).


The best way to think about science is to use McIntyre’s lead, where science is both a process and worldview. It is a process because it has rules in place to guide how we assess claims about the world. Perhaps more importantly, as a worldview that scientists subscribe to, we are willing to test our explanations against fair and unbiased evidence and are willing to alter our belief in light of countervailing evidence. Explanation and belief are constantly assessed and refined, or in some cases completely dropped, because we allow the real world to correct us. I’ve certainly gone through this process and have changed my thinking about the theories that I work on. More than once.



As the figure above indicates, there are multiple avenues to gain knowledge and empirical science is one of them. I take a broad view of science, so that it would include a lot of what is done in social sciences. Economics, for example, can certainly answer the question, based on more than 80 years of empirical evidence from neoliberal policies, of whether tax cuts or infrastructure investment result in greater economic growth (it’s the latter).


Science is one route to knowledge, insight and introspection about ourselves and our place in the universe. However, on matters of the observable world, it is the most important. Science starts with testable questions which necessitate the collection and assessment of evidence (‘facts’), but something can go wrong here. People who don’t follow the rules of science (like objectivity, honesty and transparency) and have a pre-ordained conclusion can simply use only evidence that confirms their belief (confirmation bias) while downplaying damning evidence that shoots their theory full of holes (refutation bias). Once we hit this fork, we go down the path to denialism, pseudoscience and conspiracy theory.


We throw around these last three terms a lot when talking about anti-science and anti-fact movements like QAnon, anti-vaccine movements and flat-Earth proponents, but they are not actually synonyms. Though these three terms are clearly interrelated, and many irrational movements invoke all three.


Denialism refers to the refusal to believe empirical evidence that casts doubt on one’s belief or ideology. No amount of negative evidence can change the mind of an adherent. Positive evidence is given extremely high weight, often without critically examining the origins of evidence.  But evidence is often not an important ingredient, it is just convenient when it reinforces belief. 


Pseudoscience uses the language of science and even purports to uses empirical evidence and experimentation. However, the preferred explanation is assumed to be true, and all that is required is the evidence support it. Opposing explanations are assumed to be wrong, regardless of empirical support. A classic example was the shift from young-Earth creationism (which usually fell firmly in the Denialism camp) to intelligent design (ID). ID attempted to avoid the language of creationism and instead used technical-sounding concepts like ‘irreducible complexity’ to conclude that a creator was a necessary ingredient to explain life. Unfortunately, for ID, proponents’ claims have not been able to withstand rigorous testing, but proponents will still cling to fragile evidence to support their beliefs. 


Finally, conspiracy theory has much in common with denialism, and it can be argued that you need to be a denialist in order to truly be a conspiracy theorist. However, in order to support their claims, they go a step further and see a vast collusion of nefarious actors whose primary agenda is to undermine the ‘truth’. Take for example the recent claims of election fraud in the USA. Adherents to this conspiracy theory are willing to believe that dead dictators, Democrat leaders and a vast network of thousands of election volunteers are all part of an organized attempt to change the outcome of an election. Without e-mails. Or social media posts. Or any other evidence. Compare this to the fact that average people could easily figure out the identities of members of the mob that stormed Congress because of extensive social media threads and verbal communication with friends and neighbours. This strange juxtaposition can only lead us to one of two conclusions. Either there was no election rigging conspiracy, or those who stormed the Capital are idiots and the thousands of election stealers are just so much smarter.


In all three of these cases, some form of authority or ideology is given more weight than reality. I have a couple of hypotheses why this happens, and especially in the USA, where the nationalistic hubris creates a large gap between the belief about how great one is compared to their reality, and so instead of accepting reality, feelings and scapegoats trump fact.


The dismissal of evidence has become commonplace in political life. No one said it better than Newt Gringerich. He basically says that conservative voters believe America is more dangerous today than in the past, and when the newsperson confronts him with the fact that crime has been on a downward trajectory for a long time and that we are statistically safer today than a couple of decades ago, he responds that ‘Liberals’ might have facts that are theoretically true, but his facts are true too. Remember Sean Spicer’s ‘alternative facts’, and this thinking has been around for a while. Have conclusion, need fact.


Christmas day 2020, Wisconsin pharmacist Steven Brandenburg purposely destroyed hundreds of dosesof the Moderna COVID19 vaccine. Turns out that Mr. Brandenburg believes that the world is flat and that the Moderna vaccine was designed to harm people and also includes microchips for tracking. While we might chuckle at the absurdity of these believes, there is a deeper, more troubling issue at play. Mr. Brandenburg is a pharmacist. Meaning that he not only has scientific training, but also needs to make evidence-based decisions to help patients. As a supposedly scientifically literate person, he could have easily devised ways of testing his claims. For example, take a plane to Asia, then another to Europe, and then back to the USA. There, the world is not flat. As for microchips in vaccines, a simple compound microscope ought to be enough to observe these.


So, if a pharmacist is not willing to put the effort into testing easily refutable claims, why would we expect our bank teller, auto mechanic or Ted Cruz? This goes to the core of the problem. Given the politics of Truth and fact, science and scientists no longer have any authority for many people. In fact, just being a scientist might be enough to get you dismissed as an agenda peddler or a member of some number of absurd conspiracy theories.


There is no doubt that vaccines have saved more lives than almost any other medical technology. Yet no other medical treatment or intervention has elicited more skepticism and outright rage than vaccines. And yet there is no rational reason for this, the evidence is very clear. But, there is a denialist and alarmist reason that plays on parents’ anxiety about the health of their children and mistrust of science. 


In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the prestigious journal, Lancet, in which he reported a link between MMR vaccines and autism. This paper should have never been published. It was based on a sample size of 12 children, and from which there was evidence that Wakefield altered data and records. This paper was retracted by the journal, which is pretty much the worst public humiliation a scientist can experience. It is a recognition that you broke the sacred rules of science and it is a shame you wear for the rest of your career. Despite this public shaming, non-scientific audiences gravitated to his messaging in books and paid lectures.


Today, many thousands of people believe that vaccines are bad for children and might cause autism. Of course, these same people would probably have no problem taking antibiotics for an infection, receiving chemotherapy for cancer or eating a hotdog when hungry, despite the fact they probably can’t tell you what exactly is in these. Why vaccines? That is an interesting question. Maybe it’s just serendipity that this was the fraud target of Wakefield, or maybe it’s because of the violation of having a needle pierce your skin, or maybe it is because of the undeniable success of vaccines.


This vaccine denialism not only resulted in the re-emergence of nearly eradicated childhood diseases in places like Paris and Los Angeles, but it wasted money and time that could have been put to better use research new therapies. The response required ever increasing numbers of studies to show that there were no links between vaccines and autism. In one of the largest assessments, Anders Hviid and colleagues examined and analyzed the health records of more than 650,000 Danish children for more than 10 years and they simply didnot find any links between MMR vaccines and autism.


If you happen to be one that doubts the safety and efficacy of vaccines, ask yourself why, and where you are getting your information from. Then ask yourself if you were, unfortunately, diagnosed with cancer, would you trust your doctor’s request that you start radiation or chemotherapy? If so, despite not really understanding what constitutes ‘chemotherapy’, you’d trust your doctor's knowledge and expertise. Why would you dismiss this same doctor when it came to vaccine advice? You can’t have it both ways, that is irrational.


So, where does this leave us? In a quagmire for sure. But it also means that those of us who practice, use or teach empirical science have the knowledge and scientific understanding to engage in dialogues about important issues, whether that is about climate change or vaccines. It doesn’t mean we need to be political (but we should engage with political structures), and we don’t need to be dismissive. We can ask questions to understand peoples’ mistrust or where they are getting their information from. I find that the best way to engage is to be affirmational and dispassionate (which can be hard for me). I recently engaged in a conversation with someone who wasn’t going to get a COVID vaccine and asked a bunch of ‘why’ questions and then started my statements with phrases like “I can understand why you’d be unsure…” and I laid out the medical and public health facts about vaccines.


The only way to counter disinformation is with the light of evidence. Not everyone will abandon their conspiracy theories, but many have been fed misinformation, and scientific understanding and fact can really help people make better decisions for themselves.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A crack in the green: when ecosystem services become drivers of inequality in cities

Guest post by Marylouisse Feliciano, recent MEnvSc Graduate from the University of Toronto-Scarborough

Can health-related ecosystem services actually increase health inequality? What does the uneven distribution and varying quality of urban green spaces say about social justice in urban environments? Not all park spaces and green spaces are created equal. As urbanization marches forward, steps have to be taken to address inequalities and prevent this pattern from continuing.

 Health, urbanization, and parks: what we know

            Nature is good for your physical and psychological health and wellbeing. The benefits of spending time in nature is a subject that continues to gain traction, both in research and among the public sphere. However, as more and more of the population moves towards urban living, spending time in nature has increasingly become something of a luxury. Although access to healthcare and health resources has increased, urban living itself can lead to more sedentary behaviours and increased exposure to pollution. In addition, there are mental and emotional aspects of city life that impact public health. Of particular note are the trends in psychological well-being associated with cities.

            Consider the CAMH Monitor survey in Toronto, which finds that reports of fair or poor mental health increased from 7.1% to 10.1% between 2016 and 2017. Furthermore, reports of suicidal thoughts have almost doubled in the same timeframe, and visits to the CAMH Emergency Department have increased by 70% between 2012 and 2017. Are there within city trends that we should be paying attention to? One of the most studied risk factors affecting urban mental health is socio-economic status (SES). Its association with mental health has been consistent—a 2017 literature review observed that mood disorders were more frequent among residents of large cities in Germany (Gruebner et al., 2017). There are several reasons for this, from the heightened difficulty in building and sustaining supportive social relationships in disadvantaged areas to the possibility that people with poor health or life difficulties move to more “deprived” areas due to lower rent costs.

A greenspace planning workshop in Victoria, BC. Retrieved from: https://www.oala.ca/ground_articles/the-powers-in-the-process/

What role do urban parks and associated greenspace play? The list is long. At its most basic, urban parks provide space for citizens to participate in physical activities, such as running and exercising. These spaces provide more opportunities for people to engage in an active, healthy lifestyle. While physical activity in urban green spaces is no doubt essential, its increasing noted that the psychological benefits of urban park space should are of equal importance. In addition to being a place where physical activities can occur, parks can act as a space for relaxation and reprieve from noise. As urban lifestyles becomes more stressful, having a place to distance oneself from that aspect of modern life can help in preventing emotional distress and crisis. These spaces can also foster community and relationship building. The positive mental health values of park space can be broadly described as “psychological ecosystem services”.

What we know but don’t admit: park space quality is not equal

            Socio-economic status doesn’t just directly affect health. It plays a role in the quality of park-space, especially in the context of a city. For park space to provide the psychological ecosystem services they are touted to have, they must be maintained and cared for (Branas et al., 2011; Hunter et al., 2019). Park spaces that are available to low-income communities are often poorly maintained, vandalized, or even unsafe. Some parks even become hotspots for drug use, sometimes acting as a gateway to substance abuse and associated health risks. In light of this, access to the positive psychological ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide are inequitably distributed through many cities around the world.    

A used needle found in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Retrieved from: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/02/opioid-epidemic-data-drug-addiction-deaths-urban-rural/582502/

            The issue is more complex than mere park space availability. Whether or not disadvantaged groups have more or less access to park space is less clear—these neighbourhoods tend to be in less developed spaces, meaning that they might have more access to forested park space than people living in typically higher income city centres. However, the quality of park space has a more predictable trend—it’s typically of poor quality in disadvantaged communities, and access tends to be negatively associated with average income. For example, a study in Portugal found that, although the majority of neighbourhoods had accessible greenspace, distance to them increased with neighbourhood deprivation (Hoffimann et al., 2017).

          Yet, the group of people who could most benefit from the health aspects of park space are the disadvantaged, and good access to park space and associated green space can reduce observed socio-economic and mental health inequalities between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Having good park space puts people living in cities on a more even playing field health-wise (Mitchell et al., 2015). However, although this pattern is known, issues with the quality of park space make it hard to believe that planners are taking the potential health benefits of park space seriously. 

            Although findings are mixed regarding geographic access to greenspace and socio-economic status, the aspect of park quality is less ambiguous. City planners need to consider both proximity and quality if they wish to address inequality in access to park space, and the associated health-related ecosystem services they should to provide to everyone.

A conceptual rendering of Rail Deck Park in Downtown Toronto. Retrieved from: https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/planning-development/planning-studies-initiatives/rail-deck-park/

When ecosystem services are not for everyone: the cracks we fall through

            Urban park spaces provide health-related ecosystem services, and their quality tends to not be distributed equally across cities. Put the two together and it becomes clear that socio-economic factors are leading to park spaces not benefitting all urban citizens equally. Of course, there is the issue of “which came first”: are disadvantaged neighbourhoods provided with poor quality park space, or does the installation of quality green space lead to housing prices increasing, making them only affordable to the advantaged population? Fundamentally, what led to what is less important than taking action to prevent and remove this trend.

Urban planning and design can and must do better if it wishes to utilize park space in a way that doesn’t amplify health inequalities that already exist. Ecosystem services that are not spread equitably across a populace do a disservice to the communities that need them the most.


CAMH Monitor Survey

National Recreation and Park Association – Parks & Recreation Magazine


Branas, C. C., Cheney, R. A., MacDonald, J. M., Tam, V. W., Jackson, T. D., & Ten Have, T. R. (2011). A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space. American Journal of Epidemiology, 174(11), 1296–1306. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwr273

Gruebner, O., A. Rapp, M., Adli, M., Kluge, U., Galea, S., & Heinz, A. (2017). Cities and Mental Health. Deutsches Ă„rzteblatt International, 114(8), 121–127. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.2017.0121

Hoffimann, E., Barros, H., & Ribeiro, A. I. (2017). Socioeconomic Inequalities in Green Space Quality and Accessibility—Evidence from a Southern European City. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(8). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080916

Hunter, R. F., Cleary, A., & Braubach, M. (2019). Environmental, Health and Equity Effects of Urban Green Space Interventions. In M. R. Marselle, J. Stadler, H. Korn, K. N. Irvine, & A. Bonn (Eds.), Biodiversity and Health in the Face of Climate Change (pp. 381–409). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-02318-8_17

Mitchell, R. J., Richardson, E. A., Shortt, N. K., & Pearce, J. R. (2015). Neighborhood Environments and Socioeconomic Inequalities in Mental Well-Being. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 49(1), 80–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2015.01.017

Monday, December 21, 2020

Bright Goes North

Guest post by Kate Davies, a recent MEnvSc Graduate from the University of Toronto-Scarborough

She could feel the pull in her body. It was time.

She had done this journey before, but even the first time it felt familiar. Like a memory that she was born with.

She was called Bright because she was known by the others for her deeply golden tail feathers and her clear eyes. Bright was late leaving her winter home this year, and many of the others had left already, departing at the first signs of change. The air had started to feel heavy signaling that the rains would come soon. She had to start north before daybreak. Bright hopped around the tree canopy from branch to branch. She dropped her wings by her sides and fanned her tail to spook the insects and quickly grab them in her beak. She had spent her winter in brushy scrubland that was not the best feeding grounds, but she was older now and had less energy to defend her place in the boggy wetlands filled with ripe insects. She ate her fill before she spread her wings and started to carry her small light body out over the immense open waters. Crossing the gulf was frightening the first time, but she knew even on her first trip that the sky would end, and she would see green again. She traveled in a loose flock with some other Redstart females, some yearlings and others Bright knew from previous flights. She hoped some of her daughters were here, now grown she would not have known their calls. The males always left first; they would meet them in the northern home.

Illustration by Kate Davies

The journey across the gulf lasted into the night, the winds were not favourable this year. Bright and the others she travelled with were weak and needed to eat. There was a wetland they had visited as a stop every year, but Bright was worried they had taken a wrong turn. This was the right place but there was not water, few plants, and it had been filled with stone, humans and a glowing hum. It seemed as she flew north every year there were more angular stone forests filled with humans. Some could tolerate these stone forests but Bright and her companions preferred trees and grass. The birds who lived there like pigeons and house sparrows spoke a different language than the other birds she knew, and some said they came across the water bigger than the gulf. So, despite their exhaustion the females kept flying until they could find somewhere to eat and sleep. They had to settle for an area where the plants all grew in rows, a farm, but there was a river and some insects so it would do for today. These human places had different dangers and predators than in the forests and fields. Bright knew to be cautious of owls, hawks and snakes but where there were humans, other dangers were lurking. They were too tired to find anywhere else to sleep. Bright noticed that her party had shrunk by a few - some were so tired they may have rested in the stone forest. Bright hoped the others would be alright and would catch up to the group.

They travelled for a few more days, finding quiet places to rest. They avoided the stone forests as much as they could with their bright lights, constant noises and hums. They rested at another farm on the fifth night. Bright and her companions were huddled in a dense thicket of bushes near a field and river. They had fallen sound asleep for the night. In the nearby tall grasses, a pair of green eyes shone in the moonlight. A barn cat had been stalking the birds, she moved quietly, softer than the wind. The cat slinked under the low branches of the bush without a sound and spotted a bird on a low branch she could easily reach.  Bright opened her eyes to see one of the yearlings was in the cat’s fangs - she was lost. Bright and her companions moved to another row of bushes closer to the stream, they were all shaken and tired. Fear and anxiety overtook the small flock, they didn’t sleep anymore that night. Bright was relieved when the sun crept over the horizon and they could continue northward.

Illustration by Kate Davies

The air was warm, and they had been lucky that there were no storms along the way. They started to see some males that day, and a few of her companions ended their journey to find a mate. Bright continued her northward flight as did most of the females until they made it over the big lake. It was not as big as the gulf, but it could be dangerous, as there were many humans and stone forests around the water. There were predators near every shore, some had been here all winter and were eager for the small songbirds to return so they could fill their bellies.

Since Bright had left late this year, she was eager to build a nest and find a mate. She decided to end her journey on an island at the north shore of one of the long lakes. Most of the others continued north. She was near a stone forest but on an island that was far enough away that the sound of the waves drowned out the hum and noise. It was the time of year where the air was filled with song from many different birds. She fluttered around the island listening for males of her kind, trying to find one who sang strong and clear. She followed a song to a male high up in a red maple tree. In her mind she identified him as Flicker - he was very expressive in the way he flicked his tail. He took her to the sites he had scouted for nesting to see if she approved of any. She was happy that she would be his first and maybe only mate, which would afford her more protection. She picked the third site he showed her. It was a dense area of red dogwood that was covered in fresh young leaves. They were close to a pond in an area rich with insects. She started to gather twigs and build her nest there while Flicker stayed close singing to warn others away from his mate and territory. Together they had four eggs and Bright was happy with her clutch size; it was more than last spring. She left the nest to find some food in early morning and Flicker guarded the eggs. She was chasing a particularly acrobatic fly though the bushes when suddenly a great force stopped her flight and she fell to the ground. She could feel and taste the warmth of blood in her mouth, her beak was fractured, her head pounded, and she could not catch her breath. She had only seen branches before her, it was like a reflective pond in the air made of stone. Bright wanted to live, she wanted to get up go back to Flicker and the young. She could not move; she let out her last breath and died.

The new gardener came around back of the building to trim the forsythia that was long overgrown. At the base of the bush under the window lay a female American Restart, she was dead. The garden gasped and cried out ‘Oh no!’ Another window strike, this was the sixth one this month and perhaps it would encourage management to finally birdproof the windows, thought the gardener. She buried the bird in the garden with a tear for its loss of life and trimmed the forsythia. On her break she reported the window strike on the Fatal Light Awareness Project (Flap) website and continued her duties.

Flicker realized that Bright would not return - what had become of her? He could not care for the babies alone. He would have to leave them. He sung a mournful song for Bright and flew off in search of a new mate hoping that it wasn’t too late.



Further Reading and References

Further reading: Online resources

The Cornell Lab - All about birds – American Redstart

Overview: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Redstart/overview and

Species account: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/amered/introduction

Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. The American Redstart: A Bird On the Rise In the GTA https://trca.ca/news/the-american-redstart-a-bird-on-the-rise-in-the-gta/

Boreal Songbird initiative. A guide to boreal birds https://www.borealbirds.org/bird/american-redstart

Ontario Nature. Migratory Birds https://ontarionature.org/campaigns/migratory-birds/

North American Birds Declining as Threats Mount By Mel White for National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/6/130621-threats-against-birds-cats-wind-turbines-climate-change-habitat-loss-science-united-states/

Birdwatchers Digest. Your Bird Questions Answered: Flight and Migration https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/connect/youngbirders/your-bird-questions-answered-flight-migration.php


 Further reading: peer reviewed literature

Cohen, E. B., Rushing, C. R., Moore, F. R., & Hallworth, M. T. (2019). The strength of migratory connectivity for birds en route to breeding through the Gulf of Mexico. Ecography, 42(4), 658–669. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.03974

Cooper, N. W., Sherry, T. W., & Marra, P. P. (2015). Experimental reduction of winter food decreases body condition and delays migration in a long-distance migratory bird. Ecology, 96(7), 1933.

Hill, G. E. (2004). A Head Start for Some Redstarts. Science, 306(5705), 2201–2202.

Germain, R. R., Marra, P. P., Kyser, T. K., & Ratcliffe, L. M. (2010). Adult-Like Plumage Coloration Predicts Winter Territory Quality and Timing of Arrival on the Breeding Grounds of Yearling Male American Redstarts. The Condor, 112(4), 676–682. https://doi.org/10.1525/cond.2010.090193

Norris, D. R., Marra, P. P., Bowen, G. J., & Ratcliffe, L. M. (2006). Migratory connectivity of a widely distributed songbird, the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). The Auk, 123(4), 14.

Norris, D. R., & Marra, P. P. (2007). Seasonal Interactions, Habitat Quality, and Population Dynamics in Migratory Birds. The Condor, 109(3), 535–547.

Marra, P. P., & Holmes, R. T. (2001). Consequences of Dominance-Mediated habitat segregation in American Redstarts during the nonbreeding season. The Auk, 118(1), 92–104.

McKinnon, E. A., Stanley, C. Q., & Stutchbury, B. J. M. (2015). Carry-Over Effects of Nonbreeding Habitat on Start-to-Finish Spring Migration Performance of a Songbird. PloS One, 10(11), e0141580.

Morris, S. R., & Glasgow, J. L. (2001). Comparison of spring and fall migration of American Redstarts on Appledore Island, Maine. The Wilson Bulletin, 113(2), 202.

Smith, R. J., Mabey, S. E., & Moore, F. R. (2009). Spring Passage and Arrival Patterns of American Redstarts in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 121(2), 290–297. https://doi.org/10.1676/08-051.1

Wuethrich, B. (1998). Songbirds Stressed in Winter Grounds. Science, 282(5395), 1791–1794.



Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Targeting Biodiversity Conservation: A Post-2020 World

Guest post by Connor Kendall, recent MEnvSc graduate from the University of Toronto-Scarborough

The world is currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction where global vertebrate populations have declined by 60% over the past 40 years and human pressures are impacting a vast 75% of the Earth’s surface1. If we continue along the path of business-as-usual, we will have a lot more to be concerned about than just living underwater in the next 30 years. If we lose most of the world’s pollinators, 40% of which are facing extinction1, you can say goodbye to your avocado toast and pumpkin spice lattes. If bats continue along their current trajectory and become extinct, you can say hello to endless summer nights with countless mosquito bites. This is why we need global action towards conserving, restoring and sustaining biodiversity, which is exactly what the Aichi Biodiversity Targets hoped to accomplish back in 2010.

Source: UNDP (2013). Charting pathways for biodiversity and sustainable development (retrieved from: https://www.slideshare.net/equatorinitiative/charting-pathways-for-biodiversity-and-sustainable-development)

At the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in 2010, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 was implemented and the 20 internationally agreed upon Aichi Biodiversity Targets were formulated. The goal of this plan was to “take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity” by 2020. The years have since gone by and it is now 2020, so what does that mean for the targets and biodiversity conservation? We are still experiencing unprecedented species declines – and despite global commitments towards achieving these targets, as a whole – we fell short and a lot still remains to be done. There is no point dwelling on the past but rather, it is important to learn from our failures and look to the future in order to adapt and create revised targets. We need to refocus our efforts, now more than ever, so that we can transform our relationship with nature and save the things we hold dear (even if that is just avocado toast).

Before we can look to the future, we must first look to the past. Where did we fall short? What can we learn from our failures? Did we miss something? These are the questions that need to be answered if we want to succeed in the future. In writing this blog about the past and future of International Biodiversity Targets, I hope to draw attention to the issue of biodiversity loss and highlight the importance of not only creating these targets but also achieving them, in the years to come.

Where did we go wrong?

It’s been 10 years since the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets were agreed upon and we have fallen short of almost all of them. The targets have been criticized for being too ambiguous leaving room for interpretation, not being quantifiable enough making it difficult to track progress, and not being binding which allowed countries to create individualized targets that don’t meet the global targets. Together, these may be a couple of the reasons why we have failed to meet the majority of the goals globally.

Let’s take a look at Aichi Target 11 which is one of, if not the most, talked about target. Target 11 falls under the Strategic Goal C and states:


“By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystems services are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecological representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wide landscapes and seascapes.”


As far as the target itself goes, it is one of the most quantifiable and easily tracked targets, providing exact percentages of area that must be conserved. It is specific and uses unambiguous language, providing clear guidance on how to achieve the target. Areas must be ecologically “representative”, “well-connected” and “effectively and equitably managed”. Seems fairly straight-forward, right? Wrong. Because the Aichi Biodiversity Targets are not binding and act more as a guide than a hard-and-fast rule, different government agencies can take these “guidelines” and adjust them into what works for them. For example, in 2015 (five years after the original targets were imposed) Canada came up with their own 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets, giving them just a couple of years to make any real progress. The issue with these targets is that they removed a lot of the meat from the Aichi Targets, solidifying the dreary fate of biodiversity. For comparisons sake, let’s take a look at Canada’s Target 1, to see just how Aichi Target 11 was altered:


“By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.”


What was once 62 words has been condensed down to 32. The main idea of the target and the percentages are still there however, it leaves out the idea of conserving ecologically representative areas that are effectively and equitably managed. By removing these ideas, Canada made a more ambiguous target and set themselves up to achieve the target in all the wrong ways. And Canada is not alone.

The Protected Planet issued a report in 2018 and have since updated it with information from February 2020. According to this report, 15.1% of the global terrestrial area and 7.9% of the global marine area have been conserved. 

Source: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2020). Protected Planet: The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), February 2020 version (retrieved from: https://livereport.protectedplanet.net)

Looking at these numbers, it seems like we are heading in the right direction but, when you dive further you notice that is not the whole picture. Remember in the Aichi Target 11 when it specified the areas needed to be “representative”, “well-connected” and “effectively managed”? The Protected Planet Digital Report looked at the percentage of areas that are conserved that meet each of these criteria and this is what it found: 5% of terrestrial areas and 1% of marine areas are effectively managed, 9% of terrestrial areas are ecologically representative, and 7% of terrestrial areas are well-connected.

Source: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2020). Protected Planet: Aichi Target 11 Dashboard (retrieved from: https://www.protectedplanet.net/target-11-dashboard)

Because the countries had the ability to adapt the Aichi Targets to suit their needs, it left too much room for ambiguity and inadequacy, ensuring that by 2020, there was nothing the world could do but fall short. It is important when we look to the future of biodiversity conservation that we consider the mistakes from the last 10 years and learn from them to ensure biodiversity is around for the generations to come.

What does the future look like?

The future remains uncertain but what is certain, is the need to act now. Many believe that new targets must be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based), should integrate scientific research where applicable, and involve progressive steps and actions similar to a roadmap for achieving the targets.

Negotiations have already been underway and governments have given themselves two years to develop a post-2020 framework that is to be presented at the 15th Conference of the Parties, at the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2020 in Kunming, China. An open-ended intersessional working group, under the leadership of Mr. Francis Ogwal of Uganda and Mr. Basile van Havre of Canada, has already published the Zero Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework as of January 13th, 2020. The framework hopes to provide both the context and structure required to allow diverse stakeholders to communicate and work together towards the common goals.

The zero draft looks to the next decade and identifies a 2030 Mission:


“To take urgent action across society to put biodiversity on a path to recovery for the benefit of planet and people.”


The post-2020 framework also proposes 20 new biodiversity conservation targets. What is interesting about the proposed targets is that there are similarities to the original Aichi Targets and it is evident that the working group considered the mistakes that were made and learned from them when drafting the new ones. For example, the second proposed target mirrors Aichi Target 11 and ups it by creating the more ambitious proposed Target 2:


“Protect sites of particular importance for biodiversity through protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, by 2030 covering at least [60%] of such sites and at least [30%] of land and sea areas with at least [10%] under strict protection.”


The target not only identifies higher percentages of area protected, but also offers up the condition of “strict protection” which was not included in the original Aichi Target 11.

It is also evident in the new proposed targets that the working group listened to the public over the past decade and tried to incorporate issues that people care about like plastic waste in proposed Target 4, climate change mitigation and adaptation in proposed Target 6, and the sustainable use of wild species in proposed Target 7. In order to stand a chance of reaching the goals by 2030, it is clear that the public needs to be engaged with these targets, and what better way to do it than include things that people are already passionate about.

The Zero Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is promising and it has huge potential to have a ripple effect in many countries, but there are some things that need to be reviewed and reconsidered before that can happen. Some of the targets remain to be unquantifiable, such as the proposed Targets 16 and 17. At the very least, the working group should consider including some guidelines as to how to achieve and track these targets, to ensure they do not get lost and forgotten alongside some of the “bigger ticket” targets.

Any new framework that is implemented will have its highs and lows, but to ensure the 2030 Mission and Targets are achieved in the best way possible, it is important that the new framework works on strengthening the existing Aichi Targets, progress and initiatives that are underway and learn from them, as well as have stricter guidelines in place to avoid the ambiguity and inadequacy that came about from the Aichi Targets.  

All hope is not lost, but much still remains to be done. Now, more than ever, we need a drastic shift in the way biodiversity is viewed and valued in order to stand a chance of putting an end to the sixth mass extinction and the post-2020 framework is a step in the right direction.


1.     WWF (2018). Living Planet Index. Retrieved from: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2018