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Tuatara are returning to the mainland—but feeding the hungry reptiles could be more difficult than expected

Tuatara's dietary secrets revealed in new research. Sarah Lamar, Diane Ormsby, and Nicky Nelson explain.

Tuatara on brown leaves

Comment: Following the settlement of Aotearoa New Zealand, many native species were wiped from the mainland. It’s a familiar story—one that has affected species such as the iconic flightless kākāpō and the tuatara, a reptile in a category all its own.

As the New Zealand government moves towards the goal of Predator Free 2050, the reintroduction of native species back into predator-free areas on the mainland is becoming increasingly common.

However, these reintroductions from offshore islands to the mainland can have unexpected outcomes.

A recent study led by researchers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington raises questions about the impact habitat differences will have when we are reintroducing taonga species of special cultural significance to Māori.

The study focused on tuatara, which have undergone extensive recovery efforts. But the process of reintroducing these reptiles back onto the mainland may not be as straightforward as previously thought.

An icon of Oceania

Tuatara are reptiles so unique they are the sole surviving species in Rhynchocephalia—one of the four reptile orders.

Long-lived, slow to reproduce, and laying their eggs in the ground, tuatara are vulnerable to predators such as stoats and rats. Natural populations of tuatara remain only on predator-free offshore islands.

However, tuatara have been settled back onto the mainland inside several fenced ecosanctuaries, a trend that’s likely continue as the impact of invasive mammals is reduced across the country.

New research on the diets of tuatara living on Takapourewa Stephens Island reveals that larger individuals are eating a surprising amount of seabirds—or at least seabird matter.

Using carbon signatures to assess diet, we found that as much as 40 percent of the dietary carbon in sampled tuatara had marine origins—explaining the headless seabird carcasses often encountered across the island.

For a tuatara with a mouth large enough to fit around a seabird, and a territory in the burrow-pocked forest floor, this might mean one fledgling head a week.

The seabird situation

Seabirds represent a crucial food source on offshore islands, providing the opportunity for animals that can consume seabird eggs, fledglings or adults with a boon of nutrients like polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

These fatty acids are important for egg hatchability, embryo development, and juvenile growth in other reptile species.

However, seabird colonies like the ones found on the Takapourewa are absent from mainland New Zealand, which poses a couple of questions: what are populations of tuatara reintroduced to the mainland eating, and are there physiological implications from this dietary lack of seabirds?

We currently don’t know how much of a benefit to growth and development the large role of seabirds in the tuatara diet provides or what the lack of these nutrients may mean for tuatara living on the mainland.

In ecosanctuaries, where biodiversity is high, skinks, geckos and ground-nesting native birds may provide some supplementation of PUFAs. However, PUFAs trend higher in marine environments than terrestrial systems.

Dietary disparity

This new research sheds light on an important facet of reintroducing native species to the mainland.

The biological communities on offshore islands are often very different from those on the mainland and the species living there are part of a complicated, interwoven web of predator and prey interactions.

While New Zealand is the undisputed seabird capital of the world, the mainland is very different from the time when tuatara were widespread. Once covered in either seabird colonies or the guano from seabird colonies, the mainland is now a patchwork of bush, agriculture and urban areas.

This research supports the need for a holistic view of restoration and a measured approach to reintroductions.

For many mainland ecosanctuaries, the resources to restore seabird populations are extremely limited. Located near cities with large amounts of light pollution, and with poor or missing records of which seabirds historically inhabited the space, the possibility of large-scale seabird restoration to the mainland is difficult.

What will the lack of seabirds, which make up a significant portion of the diet of large tuatara on offshore islands, mean for mainland populations? And will we see physiological effects of this disparity at our ecosanctuaries?

With lifespans of well over 100 years, setting up tuatara restorations is aiming for success well beyond our lifetimes. While we don’t yet know how this dietary disparity is affecting the viability of tuatara populations, the sheer number of seabirds being consumed by large tuatara offshore makes it a pressing question for restoration—and raises questions about how we approach translocations in Oceania.

Read the original article at The Conversation.

Sarah Lamar is a PhD candidate, Diane Ormsby is a senior lecturer in Reproductive and Developmental Biology, and Nicky Nelson is professor of Conservation Biology at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.


New research aims to prevent loss of alpine plant species

Alpine areas contain a rich biodiversity of plant species that are both culturally and ecologically important. A new study co-led by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Julie Deslippe has shown which plants are most at risk of decline or extinction due to global warming.

Alpine plants in bloom

“Alpine ecosystems have historically been extreme environments, where only high alpine specialist plant species could establish and thrive,” Dr Deslippe says. “Climate change is rapidly impacting these extreme environments.”

As the climate warms, lowland species can expand their range upslope in alpine areas, putting pressure on the species that live higher in the mountains.

“While some alpine species may benefit from milder growing conditions, others may not, and all will have to contend with increased competition by the new plants moving upslope. This combination of climate change and species invasion potentially puts huge numbers of alpine species at risk of decline and extinction.”

The study involved 20 collaborators from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and China. The New Zealand branch of the project was led by Dr Deslippe with support from Professor Kath Dickinson from the University of Otago. The researchers each spent two summers tramping through mountain ranges to collect their data: “We wore out a lot of tramping boots,” says Dr Deslippe.

The data researchers collected in their respective countries showed similar types of alpine species are at risk of decline due to climate change.

“We found that plants that live at lower elevations and have a wider area in which they can grow are generally more resilient,” Dr Deslippe says. “Plants that grow higher on mountains and can only grow in a small area are more likely to suffer due to climate change.”

Climate change is associated with biodiversity loss in many ecosystems around the world. Dr Deslippe hopes the data collected in this study will help land managers identify the species that will likely require conservation interventions to survive, as well as help them support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems in alpine areas.

“Our work has provided broad and general guidelines for land managers about which species may be at risk. But local conditions, such as land use and management actions, are huge factors dictating the persistence of native plant communities in the face of emerging threats, such as climate change and species invasions.”

The research team now plans to collect data from other mountainous regions around the world.

“Globally there remains a lot of work to be done to secure the future of species that live in habitats at risk from human-induced climate change,” Dr Deslippe says.

“The UN has declared the 2020s as the Decade of Restoration. We must conserve and restore habitats, and take actions such as habitat protection, seed banking, captive breeding, and weed control to prevent species decline.”


Wetlands for sustainability

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Master of Science graduate Shannon Bentley (Ngāti Kahungungu ki Wairarapa) remembers a childhood swimming in the Ruamahanga river every summer.

Wetlands
Image credit: Dr Stephanie Tomscha

“I whakapapa back to the Wairarapa, and spent every summer as a child swimming in the Ruamahanga,” Shannon says. “As I got older, however, the river would frequently be too polluted to swim in, partly from farming run-off.”

This experience made Shannon realise the importance of finding ways to make farming more sustainable.

“Growing up around farms, I saw their importance, but I also saw the need to make them more sustainable to protect our environment.”

With this goal in mind, Shannon came to study science at the University. In 2018, a Summer Research Scholarship gave her the perfect opportunity to more forward with her goal, working with Dr Julie Deslippe and Dr Stephanie Tomscha to study wetland restoration on farms in the Wairarapa.

“Wetlands are like the kidneys of the land,” Shannon says. “They suck the pollutants out of the water, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, help abate floods, and can increase biodiversity.”

However, 90% of wetlands in Aotearoa New Zealand have been lost, so the only way to get the many benefits from wetlands is through wetland restoration.

“Small scale restoration in happening on private property, but until now there hasn’t been much information on how successful this restoration has been,” Shannon says. “My work with Dr Deslippe gave me the chance to investigate how successful these projects have been and share the benefits of wetland restoration on farms in New Zealand.

“I met all sorts of inspirational farmers who are working to improve their land and the environment.”

After completing her Summer Research Scholarship, Shannon continued her work on wetlands through her Master’s degree.

“After spending more time on farms in the Wairarapa, I was able to prove that the small-scale wetland restoration farmers undertake is effective at increasing soil, plant, and microbial wetland restoration indicators,” she says.

Shannon’s Master’s research found that in the areas where farmers practised restoration, plant diversity increased by thirteen plants, soils became more wetland-like, and carbon absorption and microbial diversity increased. She says the wettest locations, particularly those in river-adjacent areas, showed more improvement, suggesting that flowing water may improve the chances of restoring wetland areas.

Shannon plans to continue her research through a PhD in the future, but her current focus is on her role as a policy analyst at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). “Through my work at MPI I can now look at ways we can use policy to encourage the sustainability of our farming sector,” Shannon says.

Shannon says both her Summer Research Scholarship and her Master’s were extremely rewarding and worthwhile.

“I spent my time in laboratories and in the field learning all sorts of crazy methods I never thought I would be capable of doing,” Shannon says. “I also learned how to code in R—a computer coding language used to record scientific results—and overcame a fear of statistics to discover it was my favourite part of the research process.”

Unsurprisingly, Shannon recommends trying both a Summer Research Scholarship and postgraduate study.

“It seems scarier than it is—postgraduate studies are very achievable as long as you’re committed enough!”


Research provides hope for tropical sponge survival as our oceans become more acidic

New research from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington shows that tropical ocean-dwelling sponges may have a good chance of survival even as Earth’s oceans are impacted by climate change.

The research, led by Professor James Bell from the School of Biological Sciences and Dr Riccardo Rodolfo-Metalpa from the Institute for Research Development, was recently published in Global Change Biology.

Professor Bell and his colleagues travelled to Papua New Guinea in 2019 to study sponges in coral reefs surrounding shallow water carbon dioxide seeps—places where carbon dioxide bubbles from the sea floor

“Sponges are very abundant near these seeps in the ocean floor,” Professor Bell says. “The carbon dioxide from the seeps makes the ocean more acidic in this area, which is something that will happen to all of Earth’s oceans due to climate change. That means we can use this area as a proxy to see how sponges might cope with more acidic oceans.”

Previous research has suggested that sponges are well-suited to surviving in acidic ocean conditions because of their higher tolerance for both acidic conditions and warmer temperatures. Many sponges also contain photosymbionts which could potentially thrive in more acidic oceans due to greater access to carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.

“We were able to show that sponges that contain photosymbionts in this area can offset the metabolic costs of dealing with ocean acidification,” Professor Bell says. “This means while the sponges might not thrive under climate change conditions, they will survive.”

Despite bleached sponges being reported in cold-water sponges in New Zealand last month, tropical sponges might fare better in changing ocean conditions, Professor Bell says.

Essentially, the sponges were still stressed by the acidic conditions. However, because the symbionts were more productive thanks to higher levels of carbon dioxide, the sponges could draw more energy from them to survive in the acidic water.

“Sponges are really important on current coral reefs and our research continues to support the hypothesis that sponges will still be found on future reefs, even if corals were to completely disappear,” Professor Bell says. “These changed ecosystems will have major consequences for the resources people take from corals reefs. Sponge-dominated reefs will not be able to provide as many resources as coral-dominated reefs, but it will be better than no resources at all.

“While our understanding of the impacts of climate change on marine organisms is increasing, we still have limited ability to manage these impacts. A global concerted effort to rapidly eliminate carbon emissions is the only way in which we will keep ocean acidification and warming to a level that won’t fundamentally alter marine ecosystems forever."


Flora, fauna, and family

Between father and son, Dr Geoff Park and Tim Park have spent more than 50 years protecting New Zealand’s natural environment.

Tim Park at Otari Wilton
Tim Park at Ōtari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton's Bush Reserve. Image credit: Wellington City Council.

Dr Park first developed an interest in the outdoors and plants through a connection with a childhood neighbour, acclaimed botanist Tony Druce. This passion led him to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington (then Victoria University) in the mid-1960s, where he completed an undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology and a Master’s in Ecology and Soil Science.

Thirty years later, Tim Park also came to the University to study. Tim started his degree while also completing his last year of high school. His first papers were in religious studies, although he also studied geography, biology, and photography.

“I’ve always been interested in the link between nature and humans, especially the spiritual benefits people get from nature, and how we use spirituality to organise ourselves as humans,” Tim says.

Tim says this link between humans and nature was also central to his father’s study of ecology.

“Dad was studying old alpine beech forests in the Tararua ranges, and while he was studying he found evidence of old human firepits under the forest topsoil,” Tim says. “This really changed his life and the way he thought.

“Often we try and separate humans and nature and forget about the millennia of interplay between them, to the detriment of both humans and the natural world.”

Tim’s mother Lindsay also studied ecology and taught art classes, giving Tim another link between science and spirituality.

As well as studying at Te Herenga Waka, Tim also made a connection to the University in other ways, including with Salient, and involvement with the campus environment group. He worked at the university library and made connections he has maintained to this day with landscape architects.

Tim also remembers covering several protests, as well as a number of controversial issues in Salient. Protest is also somewhat of a family legacy, with Dr Park acting as the first president of radical student protest group Ecology Action, as well as leading a group of Hutt Valley High School students to protest the widening of SH2 through native bush near Silverstream, ultimately leading to the preservation of much of that bush through the creation of the Keith George Memorial Park.

After graduating (Tim finished his degree at Lincoln University), Tim went straight into an extensive career in ecology. First, he started work with the Department of Conservation (DOC), “getting paid to tramp around and ID plants.

“We were paid to boat and helicopter around Stewart Island and identify the plants there, which was a fantastic experience and not something many people get to do.”

Here lies another family connection—Dr Park founded and led the New Zealand Biological Resources Centre, which was incorporated into the Conservation Department (that would become DOC) in 1986.

After working with DOC and with several regional Councils, Tim joined the team at QEII National Trust. The Trust helps people who own private land to protect natural areas of significance by putting them under a legal covenant that preserves them in perpetuity.

Tim says they were able to protect over 1500 different natural areas during his time there, with the average size of each area being 50 hectares (about 50 rugby fields in size, to put it into a New Zealand perspective).

“Both the government and private landowners really wanted to invest in protecting natural areas at the time, so we were able to achieve a lot,” Tim says. “It was a real privilege to be able to help protect these amazing places forever.”

After doing similar work for the Kāpiti Coast District Council, Tim took his expertise to a completely different part of the world, volunteering with an ecological organisation in Tanzania to grow eco-tourism.

“It was an incredible place to work—we were near the border with Kenya, so we were close enough to visit the Serengeti and climb Kilimanjaro on the weekends.”

After that it was back to Wellington, where Tim joined Wellington City Council. During his time there, Tim was involved with several new projects and partnerships including the WellyWalks—which help Wellingtonians get out and walk in the city and surrounding areas—and helping the Conservation Volunteers get established locally. Perhaps his best-known achievement, however, was enabling the establishment of Predator Free Wellington in 2016.

Tim is now the manager at Ōtari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton's Bush Reserve.

Throughout his career, Tim has maintained his connection with Te Herenga Waka. Alongside the Sustainability Office, Tim helped establish the Growing Futures programme, which allows staff and students to volunteer in an environmental setting.

“It was a great challenge to create a programme where staff and students could get hands-on experience in the environment, and that also could help the University off-set its carbon emissions,” Tim says. “This was a complex project to set up and deliver, but it’s going to leave an amazing legacy for Wellingtonians.”

Tim also works closely with the Landscape Architecture staff and students at the Wellington School of Architecture.

“I aim to challenge students to think different about plants and landscapes, especially how we can effectively integrate native plants and the urban environment,” he says.

As well as guest lecturing, Tim has also been involved in several Summer Research Scholarships, including one on the Pā Harakeke at Te Papa Tongarewa that was one of the Summer Gold award winners for 2022.

Dr Park also maintained a connection with Te Herenga Waka. After graduating, he worked first at the DSIR (now divided into Crown Research Institutes, including NIWA and GNS Science), and then at the New Zealand Biological Resources Centre (now part of DOC). He then returned to Te Herenga Waka as a Stout Research Fellow. It was during this time that he began research on perhaps one of New Zealand’s best-known ecology texts: Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life, Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape.

Beginning with James Cook's Endeavour party on the Hauraki Plains, and then covering the New Zealand Company's arrival in the valley that became the Hutt, the book covers how colonial settlement transformed the original forests and swamps in these and other river flatlands in New Zealand. Apart from small reserves and parks, New Zealand bears very little resemblance to the country colonial settlers first saw.

Dr Park also published Theatre Country Essays on Landscape and Whenua with Victoria University Press in 2006.

Dr Park passed away in 2009. Tim remembers one moment in particular from his father’s funeral, when Te Herenga Waka Religious Studies Emeritus Professor Paul Morris—who taught Tim when he was a student—commented on Dr Park’s legacy.

“Paul said Dad contributed a lot to our identity and spirituality as New Zealanders, and our relationship to the bush, particularly for New Zealand Europeans,” Tim says. “It was really special to have my father respected by Paul in this way.”

So, what is next for the Park family and ecology? Tim is currently focusing on his work at Ōtari, but as for the future, he says they’ll just wait and see.

“I’m not sure if my kids will continue the legacy—we’ll see. But they certainly get their dose of nature.”

Find out more about Ōtari Wilton's Bush.


Department of Conservation Supports Postgraduate Excellence

Te Herenga Waka students Emma O’Malley and Aiden Reason are recipients of the Department of Conservation’s Te Papa Atawhai Postgraduate Scholarships for 2022, which are awarded to postgraduate students to support outstanding conservation research.

A nest of wasps
A nest of polistes chinensis (paper wasps), image by Aiden Reason.

Both Emma and Aiden are exploring missing research links that will support better conservation of Aotearoa taonga species and reduce biodiversity loss.

“I feel very honoured to have been selected for this scholarship,” says Aiden, who is completing a Master of Ecology and Biodiversity. “The funding has already supported over three months of field work studying paper wasps on Onetahua, and this year will go towards laboratory expenses and provide cover for tuition fees. I hope that my future career may be bolstered by this connection to and support from Te Papa Atawhai.”

Emma is conducting her research as part of a Master of Science in Marine Biology with a focus on Fisheries Science. “Having this funding available will help to provide stability and alleviate financial stress for me during my studies. This financial freedom will allow me to focus on and prioritise my research,helping me produce the best work that I can,” she says.

Aiden’s research will focus on ‘Invasive paper wasp biology and invertebrate conservation on Farewell Spit,’ a project crucial to developing conservation tactics to protect native invertebrates from paper wasps.

“Through the help of the HealthPost Nature Trust I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the field. Onetahua is a highly protected area of unique landscapes and amazing biodiversity. Particularly exciting has been the identification of two species of insect-pathogenic fungi infecting paper wasps in the study population, which will make this the first published record of these associations in Aotearoa,” says Aiden.

“A DNA metabarcoding analysis has also revealed the fascinating diversity of invertebrates that these wasps are preying on, which will tell us a lot about how they threaten the conservation of native taxa and ecosystems.”

Emma’s research will look at the ‘Influence of nocturnal illumination on the early life history traits and behaviour of inanga.’ This research will be ground-breaking in the understanding of the development of inanga—a species of whitebait.

“I am particularly excited about the species that I am working with. Inanga are a taonga species, with high cultural significance for Māori and Pākehā. They have a very exciting life cycle that crosses between marine and freshwater ecosystems. As a result, we currently know very little about their early life at sea or the pressures influencing their success,” says Emma.

“During my research, I will be hatching inanga eggs and rearing them at the Wellington University Coastal Ecology Lab so that I can closely observe their early ontogeny. It is really exciting to be looking at a missing piece of the puzzle, and potentially one that could have significant applications for their conservation.”

Department of Conservation Chief Scientist Ken Hughey recognises the high calibre of this year’s recipients. “We need top-notch natural and social science research to tackle biodiversity loss, climate change and the search for better tools to boost collective conservation action,” he says.


Can buildings provide habitat for native species?

Rapid and increasing urbanisation results in habitat loss and degradation and is a primary threat to global biodiversity. The loss of biodiversity negatively impacts ecosystems and the resources and services they provide, and this in turn exacerbates climate change and has negative implications for human well-being.

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD student Maggie MacKinnon is investigating the role buildings could play in enhancing urban green infrastructure and reducing the urbanisation threat to biodiversity.

“Protecting and restoring large areas of native habitat outside of urban environments is critical for species conservation, but we also need to provide more habitat for biodiversity in our cities,” Maggie says.

Cities often have limited ground-level space for vegetated habitats, so Maggie wants to find out how buildings could provide a solution. Though most buildings are detrimental to ecosystems, regenerative architecture strategies—such as green roofs—could enable them to provide food and shelter for urban biodiversity, purify the air, moderate temperature, absorb noise, and help reduce disturbances.

To begin researching how buildings could provide habitat for native species, Maggie looked at how the quantity and connectivity of habitat in central Wellington could be increased using existing building roofs. Wellington was selected as the research site because of the urban densification, population growth, and climate change challenges it is facing.

Using habitat quantity and connectivity targets set by previous New Zealand researchers, Maggie tested the performance of the existing green space network in Wellington’s Te Aro neighbourhood to determine where buildings could supplement it.

Her initial findings revealed insufficient green space in Te Aro to meet the minimum habitat targets to stop native species decline. The small sizes of most of the green spaces and their uneven distribution throughout the neighbourhood resulted in several areas isolated from vegetated habitat. A lack of connectivity between green spaces can make it challenging for species, such as birds, to disperse across cities.

A spatial analysis of the roof area in Te Aro revealed a surplus of roofs that could be converted to green roofs.

“The strategic utilisation of less than 10% of Te Aro’s roof area could increase the amount of vegetated habitat in the neighbourhood and improve habitat connectivity across the central business district,” Maggie says.

Implementing regenerative design strategies, such as green roofs, could also help improve building performance and help Wellington mitigate and adapt to climate change, which will be crucial for the current and future well-being of its urban residents.

“Buildings and cities are not often included in urban green infrastructure plans or biodiversity conservation strategies, but they could play more of an important role,” Maggie says.

As she continues with her PhD research, Maggie will draw upon the expertise of ecologists, conservation biologists, and botanists to determine how buildings can provide habitat for native plants and birds in Wellington.

“Advancing research in this area is crucial for urban biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, climate change mitigation, and human well-being in cities.”

Maggie MacKinnon is a PhD candidate in the Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation under the supervision of Dr Maibritt Pedersen Zari and Professor Daniel Brown.

Contact Maggie to learn more about her research at maggie.mackinnon@vuw.ac.nz.