I’m on a break…

April 7, 2011

Regular readers of this blog (I’m assuming here I have some) will have noticed a distinct lack of action round these parts lately.  Rest assured I’m still here, but busy with analysing more data than I know what to do with, a paid writing gig, and running around after a fast-crawling toddler.  Which unfortunately leaves little time for this unpaid writing gig, and it looks like thats going to be the case for the forseable future.   I hope I’ll get back to blogging at some point, so will be leaving this site here for all to read in the meantime.


New Zealand forests still threatened, but not THAT threatened

February 8, 2011

Last week Conservation International published its list of the world’s ten most threatened forest hotspots, where biodiversity and endemism is high and less than 10% of the original habitat is remaining.  New Zealand was, somewhat shockingly, number 2 on their list.  I must admit I thought this was a little odd – especially as their list claims we have only 5% of our forest (which is listed as tropical and subtropical broadleaf forest) remaining – and well, it turns out the folks at Conservation International were a little confused.

Apparently New Zealand was confused with New Caledonia, and is actually ranked number 22 on the list, with 22% of its original forest cover remaining.  Easy mistake to make, I guess (although the folks over at Kiwiblog of course think its all a big conspiracy of the part of the Greens).

So its not quite as alarming as we thought, but this is no reason to be complacent about the state of our forests.  A timely bit of research published online in the journal Science last week shows how even small changes in the makeup of our forests, like extinction of one or two key species, can have a cascading effect on biodiversity.  I’m not sure that it matters whether we are number 2 or 22 on Conservation International’s list, when we still have one of the worst records of biodiversity loss in the world.

RIP Richard Henry

January 14, 2011

From Codfish Island this morning comes the sad news of the death of Richard Henry, the last remaining Fiordland kakapo.  Richard Henry was captured in Fiordland in 1975, at a time when kakapo were thought to be virtually extinct.  All other kakapo currently living are descended from birds discovered on Stewart Island in 1977.  A 2003 study* showed that kakapo have low genetic variation, with the exception of Richard Henry who was genetically distinct from all the Stewart Island birds.  Richard Henry had thus become an important player in the kakapo recovery program as the recovery team attempted to boost the genetic diversity of the species. 

This DNA fingerprint of kakapo clearly shows how distinct Richard Henry was. His fingerprint is marked with an asterisk - all the others are from Stewart Is. birds

More from Stuff.co.nz:

One of the key players in the Kakapo Recovery Programme was found dead on Codfish Island yesterday, marking the end of an era.

Kakapo Richard Henry was discovered by one of the recovery team members after what was believed to be an 80-year life.

Richard Henry, who was named after a Victorian conservationist who pioneered kakapo recovery, was originally found as an adult in Fiordland in 1975 when his species was believed to be extinct.

Since that time he has contributed to the genetic diversity of kakapo in the recovery programme and is well known for his efforts.

Department of Conservation programme scientist Ron Moorhouse said Richard Henry would be sorely missed by everyone who knew him.

“Richard Henry was a living link to the early days of kakapo recovery and perhaps even to a time before stoats when kakapo could boom unmolested in Fiordland,” he said.

Richard Henry was showing signs of ageing for some time before he was found, including blindness in one eye, slow movement and wrinkles, he said.

Meanwhile, the kakapo breeding season is under way on Codfish and Anchor islands and the first eggs are expected to appear next month.

*Disclaimer: I was part of that study, and the fingerprint gel is one of my more arty pieces of molecular biology, so I thought I’d post it in tribute.

The reference is: Miller HC, Lambert DM, Millar CD, Robertson BC, Minot EO (2003) Minisatellite DNA profiling detects lineages and parentage in the endangered kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) despite low microsatellite DNA variation. Conservation Genetics, 4: 265-274.


Presence of observers prevents fur seal attacks

December 8, 2010

Further to the recent attacks on fur seals in Kaikoura, comes a timely study just published in Conservation Biology.  Alejandro Acedevo-Gutierrez and Lisa Acedevo of Western Washington University, and Laura Boren, DoC’s national marine mammal coordinator, found that the presence of an official-looking volunteer stationed at a popular seal viewing areas was enough to deter tourists from harassing seals. 

The researchers carried out their study at Ohau stream waterfall, Kaikoura, near the location of the recent attacks that saw 23 animals bludgeoned to death.  Over a period of 9 months they recorded the behaviour of tourists in the presence or absence of a volunteer observer who was wearing a neon vest and made to look “official”.  Tourists were deemed to be harassing the seals when they approached the animals to within a few metres or threw an object at them.  They found that harassment dropped by two-thirds when the observer was present – from 38.4% down to 13% of groups with at least one person who harassed the seals  – even if the observer said nothing to the tourists. 

Viewing of fur seals is regulated by the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1992, but the researchers had previously found that simply having a sign up stating these regulations does nothing to ensure that tourists actually comply.  Having an actual person wearing a neon vest is far more effective at preventing harassment, even if this person is a volunteer with no authority to actually enforce compliance with the regulations. 

The researchers point out that using volunteers in this way is a cheap and effective way of managing tourist-wildlife interactions at popular wildlife viewing areas, and has the added bonus of observers being able to educate tourists about the animals. They found that approximately half the tourist groups approached the observer and asked questions about the behaviour of the seals, and all of them had misconceptions about how to behave around young seals.

Other posts on sciblogs about the fur seal attacks are here and here


Acedevo-Gutierrez et al.  Effects of the Presence of Official-Looking Volunteers on Harassment of New Zealand Fur Seals.  Conservation Biology. Article first published online: 3 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01611.x


Great wildlife photography

November 18, 2010

Some fantastic wildlife snaps from the winners of the GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year (the humingbird is my favourite)


Tuatara tuesday – sex determination in a warming world

November 9, 2010
Seeing as reptile reproduction seems to be a bit of a hot topic right now, I thought it was time to talk about sex determination in tuatara.

Tuatara do things a little differently to other reptiles when it comes to sex determination – not because they have temperature-dependent sex determination (thats common to lots of reptiles), but because their pattern of temperature-dependent sex determination (or TSD) is different from most other reptiles.  For tuatara, incubating eggs at higher temperatures (over 22°C) produces males, while lower temperatures (under 21°C) produce females.  In other reptiles with TSD, you generally either get a pattern of females being produced at high temperatures and males at low temperatures, or females being produced at both high and low temperatures, and males produced at intermediate temperatures.

Tuatara hatchling

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The weird ways of reptile reproduction

November 4, 2010

Two studies on reproduction in reptiles have made me go “wow, thats cool” this week. Read the rest of this entry »