News Archives


Predator-free plea: 'We need more than just a rallying cry'

14 July 2017

One year on, support for Predator Free 2050 – the bold government-backed project to rid NZ of possums, rats and stoats by 2050 – is gathering pace, but scientists are warning it's an impossible goal.

As well as numerous rural projects around the country, Wellington, Picton and Auckland have launched predator-free strategies, with Dunedin and Nelson about to follow suit.

Yet ecologists say that even with public backing, the government's initial $28 million investment is not enough because pulling off the goal will require significant scientific advances.

Andrea Byrom is the director of New Zealand's Biological Heritage, which is trying to find new scientific solutions to deal with pests.

While she likes the aspirational vision, we need to make a distinction between eradication and suppression, she says.

Eradication is getting pests to zero, which we do really well on islands and are respected around the world for.

With the current tools and technology, the eradication of predators on mainland New Zealand is not possible, although incremental improvement in existing technologist like ZIP is promising.

Community support and involvement are an essential part of the movement, she says.

"Part of the reason why there's been such a groundswell of interest around this is exactly because the government decided to back Predator-Free 2050. We can argue all we like about the amount of funding that's been put out there for that – we know $28 million is not enough – but the point is we need to tackle this issue on a number of fronts."

Victoria University's Dr Wayne Linklater, who has come up with a new lure for trapping pests, isn't convinced the war will be ever be won.

Introduced predator control will always be part of conservation in New Zealand, he says.

"We need to do it better, we need to do it more humanely, we need to do it with less poisons."

The government's Predator-Free 2050 policy is based on a science-fiction rather than science, he says.

Some of the tools it proposes, such as genetic manipulation, carry biological uncertainties and risks that the public hasn't heard about, he says.

"I think we're being conned.

"As an ecologist, I would be much more inclined to engage with the realities, and the realities are that goal can't be done."

We need to develop new tools and learn to implement them better, he says.

And while the community is doing awesome work, a strategic national vision is needed, he says.

"I really would like to see conservationists stand up and say, 'Stop giving us the unreal and start giving us the real. Start giving us freshwater standards that work. Stop trading conservation lands for poorer quality lands."

Kaipara couple Gill and Kevin Adshead are bringing back kiwi to their Mataia farm and working on community pest control projects like the Forest Bridge Trust.

Kevin applauds the government for putting a line in sand and says we need to keep the momentum up.

"Eradication may never be possible, but certainly suppression is."

"We strongly believe kiwis should be able to live in this environment without being especially fenced in."

It may be unachievable to rid New Zealand of predators by 2050, but it's this 'line in the sand' that is galvanising community groups, says Jill.

"When we were smokers there was a fantastic programme in schools and our kids came home and said to us 'Mum and Dad, why do you smoke?' We want kids in shools to go home and say to their parents 'Why arent you trapping pests, Mum and Dad?' I think if that happened all over New Zealand – our population is five million – then we'd get five million pests if everybody set a trap."

If you are interested in what's being done to combat predators in your community, the PFNZ Trust has mapped over 1,000 community groups and individuals throughout the country involved in predator control.

Innovative lures to improve rat control

A Victoria University of Wellington research project has been awarded more than $360,000 to develop more effective lures to manage rats, one of New Zealand's, and the world's, most damaging mammal pests.

12 July 2017

The Department of Conservation has invested in research to improve predator control through its Tools to Market fund, that are designed to support New Zealand’s Predator Free 2050 goal to eradicate possums, rats and stoats in the coming decades.

One of its funded projects is being led by Victoria researcher Michael Jackson.

“Traditional lures for rats and other pest species like possums are foods—things like peanut butter, chocolate and cinnamon. The problem with these foods is they’re perishable. They are only attractive for a few days, meaning more cost and time to keep monitoring devices and traps replenished,” explains Michael.

“We have identified five chemical compounds found in a variety of foods that are attractive to rats, and will develop these into long-life lure products.”

Michael, who recently submitted his PhD thesis, will work with Associate Professor Wayne Linklater and Dr Rob Keyzers from Victoria’s Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology to transform their research into viable products. Turning the five compounds into a low-cost, easy-to-use product is the projects main focus.

“There are many options for how these compounds could be dispensed, such as aerosol sprays, emulsions or aromatised plastic blocks. We will carry out trials in different devices, and in both urban and forest environments, to help us determine the best option,” says Michael.

“The ultimate aim for our project is to develop a product that ensures traps will be consistently attractive over a prolonged time period without the need for human intervention. The lures will also be easy to handle and store, cost-effective, and able to be manufactured on a large scale.”

Michael says wild rodents are a significant pest issue internationally, and a new tool to lure rats offers a substantial export opportunity for New Zealand.

“Rats are a problem not just for conservation but also for agriculture, food storage and processing, and human and animal health. In Asia, for example, the estimated rice lost every year to rodents could feed about 200 million people. Rats also transmit diseases like leptospirosis and salmonella.

“We’re delighted to receive funding from the Department of Conservation, and excited about the impact our new lures could have.”

Targeting tiny terrors in the Pacific

Ants in New Zealand might be annoying, but in the Pacific, invasive ant species are tiny terrors that are destroying food crops, blinding pets and livestock, and forcing people off their land.


Pacific Biosecurity, a non-profit organisation operating out of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences and supported by Viclink, Victoria University’s commercialisation office, is halfway through a five-year project funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme to improve capacity to deal with invasive ants.

The researchers involved say the results so far are positive.

“We’ve been collaborating with regional and in-country partners over the last two years to control yellow crazy ants on Atafu, Tokelau and eradicate them in Kiritimati, Kiribati,” says Dr Monica Gruber, Pacific Biosecurity’s programme manager.

“We are delighted to report that we have significantly reduced ant numbers so that they are no longer causing problems.”

The acid-spraying yellow crazy ants are capable of mass attacking and killing animals over 500 times their size—including crabs, and nesting seabirds and their chicks—posing a significant threat to local ecosystems.

“Despite the huge impact of these pests, communities weren’t able to do anything to manage the ant populations because they couldn’t afford pesticides or other methods of ant control,” says Dr Gruber.

The New Zealand Aid Programme funding enabled Pacific Biosecurity to help with control of the ants, and develop the Pacific Invasive Ant Toolkit (PIAT), a website and a collection of resources designed to help biosecurity staff, consultants, village councils and homeowners to prevent and control invasive ants in the Pacific.

Currently, the toolkit is being rolled out to in-country and regional agency partners through a series of workshops. The workshops cover how to prevent ant problems, including community awareness-raising and biosecurity improvements, and how to manage problems when they occur, including determining the best practice method of treatment and the safe and effective use of pesticides.

“The results we’ve experienced, and the feedback we’ve been getting, show that our work is having a positive impact,” says Dr Gruber. “Our in-country partners appreciate the resources we’ve created to enable them to more easily identify invasive ants, carry out risk assessments, and undertake programmes to control invasive ants.”

Pacific Biosecurity will also be using some of the New Zealand Aid Programme funding to deal with the yellow crazy any problem in Tuvalu.

Additionally, later in the year, the team will work with colleagues from the Biosecurity and Trade Support Team at the Pacific Community (SPC) to implement an integrated pest management programme for mealybugs in Fakaofo, Tokelau.

Dr Gruber says the team is grateful for support from Viclink.

“It was Viclink that advised us to set up our group as a distinct entity, and then helped us to apply for funding. There’s always a risk involved in any new initiative, but they’ve shown complete faith in us all along, and given us the freedom to be creative about designing and implementing solutions.”

For more information visit the Pacific Biosecurity website, or contact Dr Monica Gruber on 04-463 5026 or

First evidence of rhinoceros’ ability to correct gender imbalance

Research led by Victoria University of Wellington has demonstrated the ability of rhinoceros to modify the sex of their offspring to avoid the dominance of one gender and limit severe competition for breeding.


The study, led by Associate Professor Wayne Linklater from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, provides the first experimental evidence in the wild that unbalanced population sex ratios can result in a compensatory response by parents to ‘correct’ the imbalance.

“This is called a homeostatic sex allocation (HSA) response—a biological theory first proposed in 1930,” explains Associate Professor Linklater.

“Almost all population models assume birth sex ratio is fixed. Our evidence indicates that this may not be the case.”

The study, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, was co-authored by Dr Peter Law from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, Pierre du Preez from Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and former Victoria University postdoctoral researcher Dr Jay Gedir.

The research team examined 24 years of rhinoceros data, gathered during the course of 45 reintroductions of the animals across southern Africa.

Sex-bias is especially important in rhinoceros populations due to their critically low numbers, says Associate Professor Linklater.

“But because of the evidence of HSA, we need not be so concerned about that misbalance, because parents appear able to ‘correct’ it when they breed.

“HSA has an especially strong effect when the gender imbalance is very large. In fact, the further it is from an even-sex ratio, the stronger the response is by parents.”

Associate Professor Linklater says that those populations where HSA is possible will be more resilient. “Their small populations will have improved establishment and greater viability. Such species will populate habitats faster, and be less susceptible to random demographic processes and genetic drift.”

Explaining the allocation of resources by parents among male and female offspring is a leading issue in evolutionary biology, says Associate Professor Linklater.

“Extreme sex ratios commonly occur, so the incidence of HSA will significantly impact our understanding of a range of ecological processes including invasion biology and conservation management.”

The study was completed with funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund.

Associate Professor Linklater now plans to do further research into how an HSA response works in Australian brushtail possums. This includes how competition to breed triggers the effect and at what point in the reproductive process the mother is able to control the sex of her offspring.

“Possums are ideal subjects for such a study because their offspring are born into the marsupial pouch at an extraordinarily young age—very early in development—and so can be studied in great detail,” he says. “Possums are also invasive mammals in New Zealand. Understanding their reproductive processes can provide new ways of managing population numbers.”


Wiping out invasive wasps a 'critical issue' for New Zealand's environment

7 November 2016

Nelson wasp

A pest control method inspired by Greek mythology is one of the latest weapons being developed in New Zealand's war on invasive wasps.

Professor Phil Lester of Victoria University spoke at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology on Tuesday night about a research project he is leading aimed at wiping out wasp populations.

Lester, an expert in insect ecology, said it was appropriate that he was giving the talk in Nelson, which he said was the "wasp capital of New Zealand".

He said the German and common wasp have been wreaking havoc on New Zealand's native birds, insects and other wildlife since they were accidentally introduced in the 1940s and 1970s respectively.

They are most prevalent in beech forest where they feed on honeydew, a sugar-rich liquid secreted by aphids and a popular food source for birds, lizards and insects. But they have also caused major problems in residential areas and tourist hot spots like Abel Tasman and Nelson Lakes national parks.

Pest wasps also cost the country an estimated $130 million a year, impacting on farming, beekeeping, forestry and tourism.

"Certainly these wasps are one of the critical issues in New Zealand," Lester said, "especially around your neck of the woods."

Lester said research, funded by the Government as one of its National Science Challenges, was underway into four new pest control methods for the wasps.

One of the methods being investigated was called "the Trojan female technique", inspired by the Greek myth about the Trojan Horse.

It works by raising, and introducing into the wild, large populations of female wasps with mutations in their mitochondrial DNA, which might render their offspring sterile.

The other studies were looking at manipulating wasp behaviour using pheromones; using mites to deliver harmful pathogens into wasp nests; and RNA interference, also known as gene silencing, which Lester described as the "next generation of insecticides".

The research project was expected to take close to 10 years, Lester said.

In the meantime, he recommended that people used the protein-based bait, Vespex, developed by Nelson man Richard Toft, to reduce wasp populations in residential areas.

"If streets in Nelson get together and think, 'Let's get a program together' ... you'll be able to largely control wasps in your population with [Vespex]," he said.

The Department of Conservation has had success using Vespex, reducing wasp populations in parts of Abel Tasman National Park by 98 per cent.

In December, Nelson-based company Merchento announced the release of Vespex for public use.

Lester came to Nelson through the NZ Biological Heritage Challenge and his visit was supported by the Nelson Science Society.

- Stuff

PhD student a finalist for this year's Wellingtonian of the Year awards

19 October 2016

A huge congratulations to Victor Anton for being announced as one of this year's finalists for the Wellingtonian of the Year awards in the Environment category.


Victor is a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University investigating the impacts of predators on native biodiversity in urban areas.

To carry out his research, he has placed motion-activated cameras in Wellington locations to capture images of animals, and asked members of the public to then identify them online.

The project, in its second year, has so far collected over 160,000 photos.

“People have been really responsive, and most importantly the results appear reliable. When we compared experts with other volunteers and how accurately both groups were able to identify species from photos there wasn’t any meaningful difference. Each image is checked by at least two different people, this helps correct for small mistakes, like clicking the wrong button.

“The benefits of citizen science with this type of research are not just the ability to categorise data faster, it’s also about getting people involved—the more you involve them the more they care, and the more they learn about the species around them. People have been surprised to see rabbits in their garden, and other animals they didn’t know were living around them.”

Over the course of the year, motion-sensitive cameras were placed in approximately 50 green areas around Wellington, such as parks and reserves. Each area was recorded for one month per season to allow the researchers to understand how changing weather and seasons affected the biodiversity in these areas. An additional 20 cameras were placed in residential backyards and recorded year-round.

“We chose these based on criteria such as size, and connectedness to other green spaces—both of these factors are important for whether the space will support native birds, such as kākā, and they also influence the presence of pests,” says Victor.

Victor’s supervisor, Dr Heiko Wittmer, says: “This project is one of many examples of how research conducted at Victoria aims to improve biodiversity conservation in urban environments. Victor’s results will be vital for local constituents and to help the Wellington City Council develop more effective management strategies to protect threatened native wildlife.”

For more information see

For more information about this years awards, click here

You can reach Victor at

Systematically Surveying the Ants of Tetiaroa

13 October 2016

Ants are some of the best hitchhikers in the world. This is so true that in the Pacific, it’s hard to unravel whether the ants on even remote motu are native or ancient introductions with original voyagers. There are now countless examples of where introduced ants have gone on to become highly invasive, such as the ‘stinging rain’ in the Pacific. Luckily, scientists are now developing the ability to eradicate ants from islands. Given what we know about the potential impacts of introduced ants, and how little we know about the ants of Tetiaroa, our research team this week are visiting theTetiaroa Society Ecostation at the Hotel Brando on Tetiaroa to systematically survey the ants of Tetiaroa.


By systematically sampling we will be visiting every motu of the atoll to construct its individual ant species list using standardised comparable methods. Today our team of ant experts, Dr Monica Gruber from Pacific Biosecurity in New Zealand and Dr Herve Jourdan from the Institute of Research and Development in New Caledonia have visited the five most isolated south-eastern motu of Tetiaroa. On each motu we set-up pitfall traps across the motu to maximise spatial coverage as much as possible, and also undertook visual surveys to identify ants. Where time allowed bait cards were also used to attract ants in to the open.


From these motu today about 20 ant species have already been identified, although final confirmation will have to wait until they are properly identified under microscope back in the laboratory. From this census of the ants of Tetiaroa we hope to provide recommendations to the Hotel Brando on managing introduced ants on the atoll. This could include biosecurity to prevent new ant species, such as the stinging rain, arriving at Tetiaroa, or recommendations to prevent the further spread of existing ants to other motu in the atoll. If we are really lucky, we may even find a rare potentially native ant species in this far-flung corner of the Pacific.

Sourced from National Geographic

New Zealand’s biosecurity threat from corrupt and poorly governed countries

15 June 2016

fire ants

New Zealand could dramatically reduce outbreaks of invasive species if it selectively chose its international trade partners, research from Victoria University of Wellington suggests.

New Zealand receives imports, including those with unwelcome invasive species, from all around the world—but these invaders come at different rates from different countries, and are a leading cause of extinctions and the current biodiversity crisis.

The study, published today in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, reveals that a country’s levels of governance and development strongly influence their risk of exporting exotic species.

“We found counties with poor regulation and low political stability pose more of an invasive species risk,” says Evan Brenton-Rule, a PhD student from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences.

“If New Zealand carefully selects trade partners based on these factors, we could expect up to nine times less invasive species coming to the border.”

Co-author Professor Phil Lester says biological invasions cost New Zealand hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“When you consider the amount that is spent on biological invasions in New Zealand, anything we can do to target our biosecurity resources and limit the number of invaders at our border would be extremely beneficial. For example, the eradication of just three small nests of the red imported fire ant into New Zealand cost in excess of ten million dollars.”

The study analysed international trade volumes from Statistics New Zealand, and ten years of data on trade interceptions at the border from the Ministry of Primary Industries. Over this time there were nearly 50,000 interceptions.

“Although an extreme option, it’s interesting to look at how selectively trading with certain countries could dramatically influence the number of biological invasions in New Zealand,” says Mr Brenton-Rule.

“It’s worthwhile thinking about how international trade deals and a change in trading partners may impact the number of exotic species knocking on our country’s door. There are millions of dollars of control or eradication programmes at stake here, as well as potential biodiversity loss”.

Making a mockery out of our native plants

15 June 2016

A Victoria University of Wellington study has revealed remarkable similarities between two New Zealand plants, and shown possible use of an age-old defence mechanism previously seen only in animals.


The study compared the size, shape and pigmentation of hundreds of leaves on horopito and small toropapa plants, and found a perfect match.

“Small toropapa is often mistaken as horopito—also known as the New Zealand pepper tree,” says Karl Yager, a PhD student in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences.

“Over a third of the leaves of the two species cannot be statistically distinguished from one another. Unless the plants are flowering or fruiting, the only fast way to tell them apart is to taste a leaf.”

Mr Yager says this exact match between horopito and small toropapa provides tantalising evidence of what is called Batesian mimicry.

“Batesian mimicry is a common evolutionary tool where unprotected species imitate harmful or poisonous species to protect themselves from predators. Because of horopito’s pungent, hot peppery taste, that leaves one with a numb tongue when a leaf is chewed, it is unpalatable to predators,” he says.

“On the other hand, the small toropapa is highly palatable and largely defenceless. It is possible that the small toropapa has evolved its leaves to resemble the horopito and confuse would-be predators.

“To date nearly all the research on mimicry comes from animals and although this research does not prove Batesian mimicry in plants, it provides the first detailed evidence consistent with Batesian mimicry.”

As small toropara were possibly eaten by moa it is likely that it evolved in response to moa domination, Mr Yager says. “Unfortunately we can't directly test this but it provides an exciting hypothesis for future studies on Batesian mimicry in plants.”

The study, published online today in Botany, was co-authored by Karl Yager and Professor Kevin Gould from Victoria University, and Dr Martin Schaefer from the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Studying the behaviour of potential rhino horn poachers

23 May 2016

From the African savannahs to Kelburn is a leap of both distance and imagination, but a group of Victoria University of Wellington biology students is carrying out an experiment to learn about the behaviour of potential poachers of rhinoceros horns.

The BIOL 328 Behaviour and Conservation Ecology students are working to understand how poachers may change their behaviour if rhino horns are poisoned.

“There’s an idea to try to reduce the number of rhinos being killed for their horn,” says student Sean Rudman.

“This is to poison the rhino horn so that it becomes worthless on the international traditional medicines market. This will hopefully reduce the demand for rhino horn. But then a problem occurs—if you’re poisoning horn, the remaining unpoisoned horns become more valuable. We’re looking at how human behaviour and decision making around killing a rhino for its horn may change if it’s poisoned horn.”

To study this, the students have conducted a role-playing experiment, where they’ve hidden a number of stakes (representing rhino horn) around Victoria’s Kelburn campus.

“We’ve randomly selected twenty people from our class to be poachers, and go and find those stakes. This hunt takes place four times—the first time all twenty of the stakes are worth $5 each if found, and the second time half of them are worth nothing, but the other half is worth $10,” says Sean.

“The third time only two stakes are valuable, but worth $50 each to the poacher. And the fourth time all the stakes go back to being worth $5, to control for class engagement changes over the length of the experiment. Additionally, if a poacher finds a poisoned horn, they can choose to ‘kill’ it or not.

Three guards are also hired to protect the stakes from being found, or to catch the poachers in the act. They receive the money of any stakes that remain at the end of each experiment.

“Essentially we’re looking at how people behave in response to these different scenarios, and how the behaviour of our poachers changes when the monetary reward is larger but more effort and risk is required,” Sean says.

“We’re getting feedback on how many rhino horns were found, how many were killed, and the effort our poachers went to to find the stakes. We’re also interested in if the participants made any agreements, for example, between the poachers and the guards—because that’s quite informative for understanding people’s motivation and behaviour.”

Sean has been working on the experiment with fellow students Adam Sive, Caitlin Jackson and Pip Fauvel.

Rhino conservation has personal importance to Sean. “My family is from South Africa, and my uncle lives on a game reserve with white rhino. It’s quite close to home.”

BIOL 328 lecturer Associate Professor Wayne Linklater says the experiment has proved a great learning exercise. “The students have enthusiastically involved themselves in the different scenarios. It’s been great to see them learning about the interaction between humans, economics and wildlife conservation.”

The students will individually produce a report about their findings, as well as a scientific poster.

A video of the students can be found at:

Kaka conflict: conservation icon to pest

10 May 2016


The sound and sights of kaka – cries across the valley, dog-fighting in the sky, and cart-wheeling in my kowhai tree – simply awesome.

But amongst growing numbers of people with damaged trees, fruit and, increasingly, their buildings, kaka are changing from a delight to a problem.

Kaka had been extinct in Wellington for over 100 years. They were restored in 2002 when six captive-raised kaka were released into the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Their successful reintroduction and further captive releases may also have attracted kaka to Wellington from Kapiti and the Wairarapa. Provided with artificial food and nest boxes, the population has grown to over 200 birds today.

And the kaka population continues to grow rapidly. Outside Zealandia, the city has proved to be rich with natural foods and cavities for nesting, and their predators are controlled. Residents have begun feeding kaka too. Twenty-two per cent of residents visited by kaka report feeding them.

The potential, therefore, is for hundreds more kaka in Wellington, if not thousands, because the world's parrots like living in cities. They can reach higher densities in cities than they do in their native forest habitat.

Kaka damage to the Botanic Garden's collection of rare, and historically and culturally important trees was noticed first in 2009. Kaka were seen tearing bark from trees and gouging the wood deeply to feed on sap and insects.

Most of the Botanic Garden's pine, cypress and cedars will not survive the kaka onslaught. Then someone noticed the deep gouging of eucalypts and limb death in city parks and the costs of park-tree management increased.

In a 2012 survey of Wellington residents, a quarter reported problems with birds on their properties and a quarter of those problems were attributed to kaka. Fourteen per cent of respondents described the problems as moderate to severe and costly because they required the removal of damaged trees. In 2013, in the suburbs around Zealandia, 26 per cent of residents reported property damage from kaka.

Kaka are now also damaging the roofs of older city residences. We know this because, like kea in the south who have a taste for lead flashings and headed nails, some kaka are dying of lead poisoning.

Remarkably however, the contemporary attitudes of Wellington residents to kaka were positive. Over 80 per cent of people thought native birds should be in the city and that inconveniences or minor damage should be tolerated – we are a city of people highly supportive of native wildlife.

But we are much less united when it comes to managing native species that cause more serious damage. Half of us thought a native species damaging property should be controlled. The release of kaka into Wellington has initiated a new, costly and protracted human-wildlife conflict.

Perhaps reintroducing kaka to a city wasn't such a good idea – a tremendous mistake by conservationists?

As the rate and severity of damage by kaka grows, I expect support for kaka, and perhaps conservation generally amongst some, to suffer. Indeed, in a recent study residents who suffered kaka damage were less positive about kaka being in Wellington City.

Worse still, will some of those seek compensation, or for kaka to be removed or a flock destroyed?

Kaka can't be owned. Under Section 57 of the Wildlife Act, they are the property of the Crown and the Crown is not liable for the damage they may cause. But history tells a different story. If 'pushed' the Crown does sometimes, eventually accept some liabilities or at least responsibilities for solving the problem, as they have when Kaikoura seals sleep on State Highway 1 or kea mutilate high-country sheep.

Consider too that if kaka had recolonised Wellington City without assistance they would have been in small, unsupported numbers. Instead kaka are here in large and growing numbers because they were reintroduced and artificially fed and bred to be abundant by conservation organisations.

Might those organisations also, then, be responsible for kaka damage?

Like organisations that mine or harvest our natural resources, conservation organisations are also responsible for their environmental and social impact. I fear the potential of a political and legal backlash against conservation if property damage by kaka grows. This aspect of New Zealand environmental law has not been tested but it might be.

What can be done? Zealandia and local residents could stop feeding kaka and providing nesting boxes. We shouldn't be encouraging the extreme numbers that artificial food and nests supports.

And, if numbers and damage continues to grow, Kaka will need to be managed. Troublesome birds might be captured and rehomed far away. We should prepare ourselves for a time too when flocks may need to be destroyed, although perhaps usefully as a routine cultural harvest. But rehoming and culling are only temporary fixes because some kaka will find their way back and others will take their place.

Eventually and at cost, residents will need to modify their gardens and buildings so that they are less vulnerable to kaka damage.

Most importantly, conservationists must learn from the Wellington-kaka experience.

Wellington is now a city, not a forest. Just because kaka lived here once, it does not follow logically that they should live here again. Conservationists should consider people before native species are restored.

I love kaka. But their introduction to Wellington City is proving to have been a mistake.

Wayne Linklater is Associate Professor of Conservation Science and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University.

How munching Moa affected plant evolution

18 January 2016

The snacking habits of the now-extinct Moa may have influenced the way certain plant species evolved, according to new research from Victoria University of Wellington.

For his PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity, Patrick Kavanagh compared plant species on offshore islands to their close relatives on the mainland to assess differences in size and growth patterns.

“I found that island species tended to produce larger seeds, which may be advantageous on an island because if the seeds are too easily dispersed they could end up in the ocean,” says Patrick.

The rest of his thesis was focused on the role that herbivores play, which led him to the Chatham Islands to conduct fieldwork.

“In New Zealand we have plants that develop a unique growth form— characterised by high-angled branching, leading to a tangled mass of branches, and very small leaves. But in the Chathams that sort of growth form is nowhere near as prevalent—many related species don’t show it at all, with branches that are more upright and which don’t cross over so much. The leaves are bigger too.”

Patrick says there have been a variety of hypotheses over the years to explain this. “It’s been suggested that the high-angled tangle of branches we see on mainland New Zealand provides protection from wind and frost, but it’s a lot windier on the Chatham Islands.”

However one known difference is that Moa never reached the Chatham Islands. “It seems quite logical—a reduction in herbivory pressure on the plants would have relaxed the need for small leaves that are hard to reach, meaning that the island species were able to grow bigger leaves to intercept more light and be more productive.”

For the last part of his thesis Patrick narrowed his focus to one species: the lancewood, also known as horoeka or Pseudopanax crassifolius.

“The lancewood is pretty amazing and unique. It starts out with rigid, saw-like leaves when it’s juvenile but at about three metres in height, the leaves become wider and more rounded in shape. It’s no coincidence that three metres is the same as the maximum height that the largest Moa species was able to reach.”

While this theory has been around for some time, Patrick has added weight to the argument with his examination of the changes in colour to the lancewood leaves as the plant matures.

“There are small green spots on the top side of the leaves which are associated with the lateral spikes down the sides. These spots are most conspicuous when the plant is poorly developed and therefore most vulnerable to predators—the spots act as a kind of untruthful signal to deter moa and other herbivores from eating it.

“I also noticed that the underside of the lancewood leaf changes colour as the plant develops. Small seedlings are light green underneath the leaf, but that turns dark red when it reaches sapling stage. It changes back to green when the plant is fully grown.”

Patrick used spectral analysis techniques to test whether the dark red colouration makes the leaves more conspicuous to herbivores looking up from below. “The higher contrast of dark red against the other green foliage happens when the leaves are most spikey and therefore best defended. In this phase of the plant’s life, it’s a more truthful warning to any bird planning to eat it—there’d be painful consequences.”

Patrick has been working at the Ministry for the Environment, and in 2016 will carry out post-doctoral research at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the United States.

For more information contact Amy Holmes on 04-463 5269 or


Bigger is better for Zealandia’s tuatara

17 December 2015

They may be one of the world’s oldest species but the tuatara at Zealandia are good as new, a recent survey has indicated.

The size and health of the tuatara population was assessed this month in a joint project by Victoria University of Wellington and Zealandia—the first time many of the iconic creatures will have been handled since the species were introduced to Zealandia 10 years ago.

“Over three nights we managed to track down 69 tuatara, of which 21 were born at Zealandia at some point over the past decade,” says Associate Professor Nicky Nelson from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences. “This is fantastic news and confirms that tuatara are successfully breeding in Zealandia.”

A decade of no disruption

The tuatara at Zealandia are the first wild population of tuatara on mainland New Zealand in over 200 years. In 2005, 70 tuatara were transferred from Stephens Island in the Marlborough Sounds and another 130 released in 2007.

Over the decade, baby tuatara have been spotted at Zealandia, the first in 2009. This was thought to be the first case of tuatara naturally breeding on the New Zealand mainland since they were reintroduced.

Healthy and hearty

The recent survey—carried out 10 years to the day that the first tuatara arrived—found a number of females about to lay eggs, in addition to the 21 sanctuary-born tuatara.

“We now know the group is breeding annually, a sign of a healthy population,” says Dr Nelson.

“We also found the tuatara have increased in size. The heaviest tuatara was over one kilogram—1010 grams, more than the recently weighed tuatara on Stephens Island. The interesting thing is that he had not grown in length since he was released 10 years ago, he just got bulkier.

“One of the longest tuatara had a 30 centimetre long tail—the length of our rulers. He grew three centimetres in a decade, and put on over 250 grams.”

The survey team also discovered that the tuatara still have ticks, which translocated with them from Stephens Island.

“The ticks are hanging in there after 10 years—we weren't sure they would survive in a less dense population like Zealandia,” says Dr Nelson. “There are no major issues identified with having ticks, and the young tuatara don't seem to have them.”

Team effort

The survey group spent three days searching release sites, known burrows and other sites to weigh and measure the endemic reptiles.

“The group was made up of people from Zealandia, Victoria University, volunteers and iwi—it was a really great community effort,” says Dr Nelson.

“This survey has given us a good understanding of how the tuatara are doing and a base to build on for future surveys.”

The tuatara population at Zealandia is likely to be resurveyed every five years.

Hidden danger in our rivers

16 December 2015

mark heath

Summer for most of us is a time to embrace the warmer weather, but it also provides the perfect growing conditions for a potentially lethal blue-green alga that’s found in many New Zealand rivers, and which is the subject of new research by a PhD graduate.

The alga, known as Phormidium, can produce a potent neurotoxin that’s as toxic as cobra venom. It has become increasingly prevalent in the last 10 years, and in that time has been responsible for the deaths of about 100 dogs in New Zealand. While there have been no human deaths as a result of ingesting the neurotoxin, there have been anecdotal reports of people becoming very sick after coming into contact with it.

But Mark Heath, who graduates from Victoria this week with a PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity, is trying to identify why this poisonous alga is on the increase, and what can be done to lessen its impact.

“In 2005 when five dogs died after ingesting this algae from the Hutt River, there was very little known about it internationally, and therefore very little guidance about what to do. So when I started my research as a Masters student in 2008 I tasked myself with finding out exactly what these toxic blooms were and what environmental conditions were causing Phormidium to grow.”

Over a 12 month period, Mark examined five rivers in the greater Wellington region, and found Phormidium was far more widespread than previously thought.

“The Greater Wellington Regional Council in 2005 only found Phormidium in small pockets of the Hutt River, but in 2008 I discovered the extent of proliferations had increased and were occurring throughout the river covering many kilometres of riverbed, which was obviously a big worry. So I focused on establishing whether human influences were causing the increase.”

During his PhD, Mark looked at nutrient levels in the rivers and found that the alga grew best in rivers with elevated concentrations of nitrogen and moderate to low levels of phosphorus. “This toxic alga appears to have a competitive advantage over other algal species in that it can source phosphorus from sediment, whereas other species rely on the water itself for their phosphorus source.”

He says changes in the way land is being used and managed may have a big impact on the prevalence of toxicPhormidium blooms. “In some rivers, phosphorus is being reduced through the construction of wetlands and upgrades to waste water treatment plants—such is the case in the Tukituki River in Hawke’s Bay—and it may inadvertently create favourable conditions for toxic algae development.”

Mark, who is now employed by the Greater Wellington Regional Council, says the coming warm El Niño summer will undoubtedly see the problem rear its head again. “These algal mats grow rapidly over summer when it’s warm and water flows in the rivers are lower. The toxic alga accumulates and grows, and the mats eventually slough off the rocks and get caught in the river margins. They start to decay and produce a really distinctive musty odour that dogs just love—a piece as small as a 50 cent coin can be enough to kill a 20kg dog within half an hour of eating it.

“The warmer weather is obviously also a time when people want to use the water to cool off, so there’s a real need for the public to know the risks. There’s been a big push by regional councils to raise awareness and I encourage all river users to check their respective council’s websites for the latest information on toxic algae—Wellington river users should check out the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Summer Check website.”

Mark has received support from six regional councils across the country to complete his studies, and has also worked with academics in France who wanted to know more about why dogs and fish were dying in rivers there. “That collaboration really highlighted how little was known about this toxic alga, and how important this work is internationally,” says Mark.

Footage captures kiwi destroying robin nest

4 December 2015

A kiwi destroying a robin nest and causing the death of the chicks in it has been caught on camera by a Victoria University of Wellington researcher.

The footage, taken at Zealandia over two consecutive nights, shows a little spotted kiwi pushing the robin nest down a slope, pecking the chicks, and returning the next night to tear the nest apart.

Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences was the first to see the footage, which is thought to be the only recording of this behaviour in Kiwis.

“That morning I went to band the nest of robin chicks, when I discovered the nest had been pulled out from its location and the chicks were dead,” she says. “I noticed the chicks had peck injuries on their bodies.”

Dr Shaw, who is studying the robin population at Zealandia, decided to investigate the incident and checked the footage from the camera that was monitoring the nest.

“I was shocked to find it was a kiwi. I was expecting a morepork or other bird to have destroyed the nest,” she says.

“Although the kiwi doesn't directly kill the chicks, they had pretty severe injuries. The video shows that the chicks were still alive after being pecked by the kiwi and then fell out of the nest, most likely to their deaths.”

Dr Shaw says she can’t say for certain what motivated the kiwi to destroy the nest, but speculates it may have been acting defensively.

“One possibility is that the robin may have lined the nest with kiwi feathers, because robin do like to use these as nest lining. Kiwi are highly territorial, so it may have reacted to the smell of that nest, as if it were an intruder on its territory.

“While it’s sad for the robins it’s exciting to be make new scientific discoveries like this, and potentially uncover a new behaviour that might change the way we look at our national icon.”

The footage can be viewed at:

For more information contact Megan Sellars on (04) 463 6208 or

A bright idea to protect local wildlife from cats

4 December 2015

catBright-coloured collars that could reduce the amount of prey caught by cats will be trialled in a joint Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington City Council project.

The collar covers—a tube of brightly-coloured fabric which slips over a cat’s collar— are designed to make hunting cats more visible to birds.

“Many birds have advanced colour vision and see bright colours especially well, even in low light,” says Victoria University researcher Dr Heidy Kikillus.

“The collar covers have been tested overseas with promising results, and we would like to investigate if they have the same success in New Zealand.”

Domestic cat owners are being invited to take part in the study, which will be conducted over summer.

“Participants will be provided with a collar and attachable cover from United States-based company Birdsbesafe, and are asked to keep a record of the prey caught both with and without the collar over an 8-week period,” says Dr Kikillus.

The results from the study will be collated and analysed, and may be used as part of a more comprehensive study of cat behaviour in Wellington.

“Cats have received a lot of attention in the media due to their potential negative impact on native wildlife, and it will be interesting to see if the collar covers have an impact,” says Dr Kikillus.

“We’ve been delighted at the level of interest from cat owners, and we look forward to including them in this study. It’s a neat opportunity to partner with the community to learn more about cats together.”

More information on participating in the study

More information on Birdsbesafe® collar covers

For more information contact Dr Heidy Kikillus on (04) 463 5233 extn 9847 or

Cougar promiscuity may be all for the kids

2 November 2015


Cougar mums choosing to mate with multiple mates could have their kittens' best interests at heart, new research suggests.

Californian populations of the large American cat species, also known as a puma or mountain lion, were closely monitored in new research for the interactions and communications between male and female cougars.

One in seven females mated with more than one male, said Victoria University's Heiko Wittmer, a co-author of the study released last week in the PLOS ONE journal.

"In large carnivores infanticide does happen ... [A male] will kill [another male's] young because it gets the female into oestrus and he gets a mating opportunity.

"Multiple paternity is another way for the female to confuse males about who the father is."

Having offspring with different fathers, and therefore a mix of genes, also boosted the overall chances of her kittens surviving, he said.

The amorous encounters were caught on robotic video cameras placed at what are known as "communal scrapes", where multiple cats come to scent-mark and sniff out other males and females in the area.

"These areas ... we call them a billboard," he said.

"They are a solitary cat species, like most cats but not all. They live in a social structure where bigger males try to establish territories that encompass multiple females who live in smaller territories."

Recording over a two-year period from 2011, the researchers were able to get a better understanding of when both male and female cougars visited these scrapes and what they did while there, Wittmer said.

"Males are constantly using those community scrapes, constantly advertising, all through the year. Females are very selective in when they advertise, when they're in oestrus, but when they do they actually do it more frequently than the males," he said.

While males tended to scent mark at the scrape areas, the females caterwauled. "We think that is basically encouraging males, maybe from outside the territory, to come in and investigate."

Little was known about cougar communication before the study, and the information gathered was likely to help biologists trying to estimate population sizes of the cats, found in both North and South America.

"In cats that are that size and secretive, it is just very difficult to observe them."

World first footage of elusive 'vampire squirrel'

30 October 2015

A Victoria University professor has helped obtain the world’s first video footage of the rare and elusive ‘vampire squirrel’ found in the rainforests of Borneo.

Dr Heiko Wittmer, a specialist in conservation and restoration ecology, has been collaborating with Dr Andrew Marshall from the University of Michigan to investigate species interactions across different habitats in Borneo’s Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

In June, Dr Wittmer and Dr Marshall installed 35 motion-activated cameras in the park and within a month were “astonished” to discover video footage of the tufted ground squirrel (Rheithrosciurus macrotis), which is only found in the rainforests of Borneo.

It is the first time anyone has ever obtained video footage of the squirrel.

The tufted ground squirrel has been dubbed the ‘vampire squirrel’ after the discovery of deer and chicken carcasses where only the heart and liver had been eaten. Some local Dayak have attributed the attacks to the squirrel, which is one of the few species able to open the hardest of nuts with their teeth.

Dr Wittmer says the legend is unlikely to be true. “I seriously doubt it, we don’t have any carnivorous squirrels”. He says the squirrels are more interesting from a scientific perspective for their bushy tails. The squirrel is said to have the bushiest tail of all mammals, with one report estimating the tail to be 130 percent the mass of the rest of the squirrel’s body.

Dr Wittmer says the bushy tail has several potential biological functions. “It can likely use the tail to distract and avoid predators, but the tail may also play a role in communication.”

The video footage shows the squirrel foraging under a tree. While this does not confirm or deny the vampire theories, Dr Wittmer says it is a reminder of how little we know about many of the rainforest’s species.

“These forests are continually being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, and this highlights the possibility that we may be losing species that we don’t even know about.”

The researchers have captured other rare species on film such as clouded leopards, bearded pigs and diminutive mouse-deer that on average have a shoulder height of just 35cm.

Dr Wittmer says the project provides unique data as the cameras operate without human assistance, and so allow researchers to observe animals’ behaviour in an undisturbed environment.

“There’s also a valuable side objective. We know we have an issue with poaching in the area. With camera footage as evidence, we can start to evaluate if poaching is contributing to the decline of certain species,” he says.

IQ tests show individual differences in bird brains

28 September 2015

robinResearch from Victoria University of Wellington has revealed that birds may possess a ‘general intelligence’ similar to humans, with some individuals able to excel in multiple cognitive tests.

Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, conducted a study on a group of wild North Island robin based at Zealandia to examine the mental skills of individual birds.

The birds participated voluntarily in six cognitive tasks, which focused on colours, symbols, spatial memory, inhibitory control and motor skills.

“Our results suggest that if an individual did well in one test, it was likely to do well in others,” says Dr Shaw. “There has been little research into whether general intelligence exists in non-humans, and our statistical analyses show that robins may have something like it and that these patterns are highly unlikely to have happened by chance.”

Dr Shaw says setting a variety of tasks was imperative for measuring the structure of the birds’ intelligence.

“Completing a one-off task may be dependent on other factors like the animals motivation to participate, and doesn’t provide a reliable measure of cognitive ability.

“We carried out a series of tests to see if you could get consistent measures from an individual. It’s a similar process to running an IQ test or psychometric test on humans.”

Dr Shaw checked the robins were motivated to do their best by teaching them to jump on a scale and eat a worm before and after each test.

“The end check is really important because if a bird is failing a task, you want to ensure that they still want food rewards,” says Dr Shaw.

The animal behaviour researcher spent five months testing 20 robins. Computer analysis and statistical techniques were used to tease out correlations in the performance of the birds and see whether it was underpinned by a general intelligence factor.

Dr Shaw now plans to investigate how individual cognitive abilities are linked to reproductive success and survival.

“I think it’s intriguing that you pick up patterns in performance in birds that are similar to the patterns we see in humans—it has the potential to tell us more about brains and how brains work. It would be great if more people ran similar studies that incorporated more data,” says Dr Shaw.

Dr Shaw’s research was recently published in leading international journal Animal Behaviour and is supported by a Rutherford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and a Marsden Fast Start grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

For more information contact Dr Rachael Shaw on 04-463 5233 extn 8139 or

Exotic invaders dominating native species

22 September 2015

kc burnsExotic plants are taking over and they’re here to stay, according to new findings from Victoria University of Wellington.

Until relatively recently, New Zealand ecosystems were dominated by native plants, but a study by Associate Professor Kevin Burns has shown that the balance has now tipped in favour of exotic species.

Dr Burns, from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has published his findings in the prestigious scientific journal The American Naturalist. Over an eight year period, Dr Burns examined the plant species present on an archipelago of small islands off the south coast of Wellington, which dot the sea from the airport to Ōwhiro Bay. Basing his study on the theory of island biogeography (an influential conservation model developed in 1967 by American biologists Edward O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur), Dr Burns devised a modified version which better reflects the increasing rate that exotic plants are invading, and takes into account the differences between exotic and native species.

Over the course of his research, he found that the cumulative numbers of exotic plants making their home in New Zealand is increasing quickly.

“The beaches of New Zealand are being absolutely overrun by a massive wave of invasions,” he says.

“In 2005 there were only nine species of exotic weeds present on the islands in my study, and 14 native ones. But by the time the project ended eight years later the total number of exotics (taking into account the ones that had immigrated then died out within that timeframe) had doubled, while there was only a small increase in the number of native species.”

Dr Burns says while foreign species have been making their way to New Zealand via wind currents for millennia, the presence of people has accelerated the rate at which new species are being brought in, and where those species are arriving from.

“It’s like a tsunami of exotic invaders,” he explains. “We’re at the point in time where we’ve shifted from being native-dominant to exotic-dominant. My modified model predicts that the exotics will eventually take over. It’s the new norm.”

For more information contact Dr Kevin Burns on 04-463 6873

Victoria’s green space – you can help with research

16 September 2015

francesEcological restoration Master’s student, Frances Forsyth, from the School of Biological Sciences, is nearing the end of her research looking at the biodiversity on Victoria’s campuses and how staff and students use and value green space.

As part of her research, Frances is conducting a survey (which has Human Ethics Committee approval) to investigate how staff and students use green space on Victoria’s campuses and what value green space provides. It includes questions on where people go and what they would like to see more and less of in the green spaces. The results from the survey will contribute to a green space management plan which will be provided to Campus Services.

Participate in the green space survey

The other component of Frances’ research includes the compilation of an extensive inventory of trees on Kelburn campus and a partial inventory of trees on Karori campus.

“I was not surprised by the variety of tree species that there are on the Kelburn campus. There are some quite unusual species reflecting the choices of a number of grounds superintendents and botany staff over many years.

Along with these I have also found some weed species that can limit biodiversity,” Frances says.

Frances’ initial findings from this research have already been discussed with the grounds maintenance team that is developing a plan to support enhanced biodiversity.

This project is the result of collaboration between the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology and Campus Services, with scholarship funding from the University’s preferred office products supplier, Staples.

“The collaborative approach of this project has meant that we have already had a high level of engagement from staff across the University. We are really hoping that we’ll also get high numbers participating in the survey as the more information we have from staff on what they value about our green spaces, the better informed planning for the future will be,” says Dr Wayne Linklater—Frances’ Master’s supervisor.

For more information contact

Why our native plants are not so special after all

16 September 2015

burnsNew Zealand’s native plant life is renowned by botanists the world over for its uniqueness. But scientists at Victoria University of Wellington are calling into question a long-held belief about our flora, saying that maybe it’s not so different after all. Associate Professor Kevin Burns from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences is working with student Matthew Biddick to study dioecy—or the separation of sexes between plants.

“There are several characteristics of New Zealand flora that are iconic—early botanists that visited New Zealand were astounded by how unusual the flora was,” says Professor Burns. “One of its distinctive characteristics is dioeciousness, where some plants are female and others are male. Dioeciousness is a guarantee that a plant can’t mate with itself—they must ‘outcross’ because they are separate sexes.”

Dr Burns says while dioecy is common in New Zealand, it’s not widely seen in most other parts of the world. This distinctive feature of New Zealand’s natural history has led to the development of a theory over the years that dioecy is more likely to occur on oceanic islands.

“The traditional explanation was that dioeciousness must be useful on isolated islands because it reduces the problems associated with inbreeding. However, other botanists have argued that this didn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t it be better for the colonising population to be hermaphroditic? That way plants could breed with themselves, which would go a long way to helping the founding population become established.”

Dr Burns says he and Matthew have brought together a range of evidence which shows that high incidence of dioecy occurs by chance—it’s a passive by-product of a chain of events that occurs around the world, rather than a distinctive attribute of New Zealand’s flora.

“New Zealand’s flora falls into a pattern that’s visible around the world, where wetter areas have fleshy-fruited plants with bigger seeds, and bigger seeds tend to be outcrossed. Dioecy is the best way of ensuring that outcrossing happens. We have simply collected data, connected the dots and completed the cycle of logic for the first time. We’ve shown that New Zealand flora is not as special as was once thought, in terms of dioecy anyway.”

For more information contact Dr Kevin Burns on 04-463 6873 or

Invasive ants found to carry novel virus and honey bee pathogens

16 September 2015

ants antsA group of scientists, led by Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Phil Lester, has discovered that invasive Argentine ants frequently carry a previously undescribed virus. These exotic ants also host a virus widely associated with honey bee deaths.

Argentine ants (Linepthema humile) are an invasive pest spread throughout most of New Zealand. They are listed in the 100 of the world’s worst invasive species, with abundant and widespread populations found on every continent except Antarctica. The ants negatively impact on crops and are a household problem in urban areas.

The research team includes biologists from Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences and a group known as “Virus Hunters” from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

The team spent three years collecting and analysing genomic data of Argentine ant populations in New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

Professor Lester says the results revealed nearly all of New Zealand’s Argentine ant populations carried the Deformed Wing Virus, a pathogen associated with colony collapse of honey bees.

“This discovery tells us that Argentine ants are much more of a problem than we previously thought. They host the same Deformed Wing Virus strain found in bees and wasps in New Zealand, and this virus has contributed to declines in honey bee populations around the world. Argentine ants are known to raid beehives and also forage in the same environment as honey bees. Such close contact is bad for bees, as their association promotes pathogen exchange,” he says.

The presence of this honey bee virus brings a new dimension to concerns over invasive species. The ants’ abundance and wide distribution, together with their ability to carry devastating viruses, means that such invasive species may have much more of a negative impact than previously thought.

But the researchers also discovered an entirely new virus in the invasive pest species that could assist the ants’ own population decline.

“This virus hasn’t been seen before, but it’s related to other viruses that can devastate populations of other insect species. If managed correctly it could be used as a biopesticide both in New Zealand and overseas,” Professor Lester says.

Victoria’s commercialisation office Viclink is supporting the group translate its finding into a marketable product. “This is an exciting opportunity to develop a naturally-derived species-specific insecticide that could reduce reliance on chemical products, which often indiscriminately kill all insects,” says Viclink senior commercialisation manager Jeremy Jones.

“It could be a game-changer for our fruit and wine industries where controlling this ant is a growing problem.”

The research team, comprises Victoria University postdoctoral research fellow Monica Gruber, PhD student Alexandra Sébastien, and ESR’s Dr Richard Hall, Jing Wang and Nicole Moore.

The team has already begun the next phase of research investigating the novel virus as a biopesticide and its potential to be used for the control of Argentine ants.

Their research can be read in full in the latest issue of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

For more information contact Professor Philip Lester on 04-463 5096, or

Island field course wows science students

27 July 2015

lord howe

A week-long biology field trip to Lord Howe Island gave 10 Victoria University science students a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.

From 4-13 July the students travelled alongside Dr Kevin Burns, Deputy Head of the School of Biological Sciences, exploring the island’s ecology, evolution and conservation.

Located 1300km northwest of New Zealand, Lord Howe Island is officially declared a World Heritage Site of global natural significance by UNESCO, with approximately 75 percent of its original natural vegetation intact and undisturbed. Only 400 visitors are permitted on the island at one time.

“Lord Howe Island has a unique mix of species both from mainland Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, all of which have arrived on the island in different ways,”, says Kirsty Yule, a PhD student and trip organiser.

“It the perfect place to investigate island biology and how flora and fauna have evolved in isolation compared to that on the mainland.”

The group consisted of second-year, third-year and postgraduate students, with backgrounds in statistics, ecology, biology, marine and conservation.

“We looked at all manner of plants and animals, as well as the unique marine life and how the different ocean currents bring species to the island”, says Kirsty. “The entire trip was about giving students a hands-on experience with what they had been studying.”

The group was shown around the island by tour guide Ian Hutton, which included hiking and tramping excursions.

“We got up close with seabirds that flocked in their thousands in the sky, but would come and land at your feet if you made loud noises”, says Kirsty. “We also looked at the various rock types and investigated the creatures on the seashore at low tide.”

The field trip is run each year during the mid-trimester break. Kirsty says the students found the experience invaluable.

“Being able to see all they had learned about in lectures in the real world was an incredible opportunity. Lord Howe is a stunning island with so much beauty—both the students and staff were blown away.”

Taking the sting out of ecosystems

21 July 2015

philVictoria University of Wellington Professor Phil Lester will be leading a research consortium responsible for taking the sting out of one of New Zealand’s most abundant, widely distributed and damaging pests—the common wasp.

With experts from key Crown Research Institutes and other New Zealand universities, the group will explore emerging technologies for reducing wasp populations and undermining the development of their colonies.

A method to be explored is gene silencing, which involves reducing the ability of wasps to produce essential biochemicals, such as proteins. One option for consideration is the disruption of chitin; a key component in the development of the wasp’s skeleton.

Another strategy involves interfering with pheromones responsible for mating. It’s proposed that artificial pheromones which can inhibit wasp reproduction are identified, synthesised, and subsequently applied to the wasps’ environment.

“Wasps are major predators of invertebrates,” says Professor Lester. “When populations are large, it is estimated that the lifespan of spiders and moths, for instance, may be only a few hours. They can even kill bird hatchlings.

“This can mean significant damage to biodiversity, but wasp colonies have negative implications for recreation and tourism as well. In fact, a recent analysis of the economic effects of wasps in New Zealand estimated the cost at $75 million annually.”

Another essential component of the programme will be to assess cultural perspectives and techniques for controlling the wasps.

“We need to develop approaches that are highly effective, but also acceptable to our stakeholders, including Māori.”

According to Professor Lester, it’s likely that, once effective and culturally accepted methods for controlling wasps are developed, it will then be possible to modify the technology for other pests.

The five-year research project is part of New Zealand’s Biological Heritage; one of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s National Science Challenges.

Included in Professor Lester’s research team will be other representatives from Victoria University, as well as researchers from Landcare Research, Plant & Food Research, the University of Auckland, Lincoln University, and the University of Otago.

Enhancing biosecurity against pest threats across the Pacific

10 June 2015


Dr Monica Gruber has been researching invasive ants in the Pacific region since 2008 and is now heading the collaborative endeavour.

“The work had its genesis about 10 years ago when Professor Phil Lester [from Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences] was asked by villagers to help with infestations of yellow crazy ants on two of Tokelau’s three atolls. Then, in 2011, we were told the ants had spread to the third atoll and were causing damage and disruption to the lives of local people. While doing some separate work in Kiribati, we discovered the yellow crazy ant there too.”
Dr Gruber says these invasive ants can become massively abundant and widespread. “People tell us they are unable to sleep due to ants crawling over them, crop production is reduced, and pets and livestock are affected by ants spraying acid in their eyes or stinging.”
She says despite the huge impact of these pests, many communities are unable to do anything to manage the ant populations because they cannot afford pesticides or other methods of ant control.
Dr Gruber is now leading the project on behalf of, and in partnership with, the Tokelau and Kiribati governments and regional and in-country agencies, including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the Secretariat of the Pacific Region Environment Programme and the Pacific Invasives Initiative.
With the assistance of Victoria University’s commercialisation office, Viclink, Dr Gruber and Professor Lester formed a non-profit entity called Pacific Biosecurity based in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences to facilitate the partnership. The New Zealand Aid Programme (which is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) has awarded Viclink a $1.5 million contract to enable Pacific Biosecurity and its partners to improve resources for ant management and biosecurity across the Pacific.
Across the region, Pacific Biosecurity’s goal is to help prevent the spread of species like the little fire ant. “These tiny ants have an extremely painful sting, and the effects of the ants can be serious when they are in high abundance,” says Monica. “In some places, the ants have forced people off their land as they can’t tend crops. Because they’re found on both sides of the Pacific, we need to prevent their spread into the rest of the region, and improve the ability to manage them.
“Prevention requires less effort and resources than eradication—which becomes impossible when these ants cover a large area. That’s why we need to focus on biosecurity across the whole Pacific region to prevent the ants—and other invasive species—from spreading. We encourage additional partners to join the initiative as these ants are a region-wide problem, and improved resources will be a benefit for all.”
For more information about the initiative, go to the Pacific Biosecurity website.

Visiting researcher exploring bird’s eye view

2 April 2015

kakarikiA visiting Victoria University of Wellington researcher will provide a peep into where bird’s travel in a new project investigating the activities of young kākāriki.

Ellen Irwin, an ecology student from Dartmouth College in the United States, is in Wellington carrying out a year-long study on the red-crowned parakeet, a New Zealand parakeet now breeding at Zealandia.

ellenThe James B. Reynolds Scholarship winner is interested in where the kākāriki go when they leave the wildlife sanctuary.

“Kākāriki can and do travel far. Little is known about what they’re doing, what other animals they run into and what they’re eating once they leave the sanctuary”, says Miss Irwin.

“Up to this point Zealandia has only received scattered information from people in surrounding areas.”

Red-crowned parakeets were first transferred to the sanctuary from Kapiti Island in 2010 as part of the sanctuary’s restoration programme to reintroduce the missing species. Over 500 locally bred birds have been banded at the sanctuary since their release.

With the support of Zealandia, Wellington City Council and Victoria University, Miss Irwin is looking specifically at the activities of juvenile (young) kākāriki.

Some of the juveniles will be attached with transmitters to track their movements, but the project will also rely on observations from the public.

“Once I have a good idea of where they’re going I will look more closely at what they get up to and what they encounter. It would be great if locals could keep an eye out for them—any information is really helpful”, says Miss Irwin.

“If you see someone wandering around with a big blue antenna, don’t be alarmed. I've received some very strange looks and comments over the last few days, including when someone asked if I was tracking aliens, and another person asked if I had lost my television.”

Kākāriki are bright green in colour and the red-crowned parakeet is distinguished by a bright crimson forehead, crown and a streak extending back beyond the eyes. They are usually solitary or found in pairs, although in autumn and winter they may form small flocks.

Miss Irwin hopes results could help the conservation of the species.

“It could give us information about the plants that kākāriki prefer thus encouraging people to grow those in their backyards. Or if we find the birds are caught by predators like stoats or rats, we could encourage extra trapping in those areas to keep them safe”, she says. “The more information we can gather the more we can help them.”

Kākāriki observations can be posted online at Naturewatch.

For more information contact Ellen Irwin on 022 311 5468.

Baby gibbon fostered by Victoria University student

24 March 2015


A Victoria University Masters student became an impromptu foster mother for an endangered baby gibbon during his studies in Cambodia.

Ecology student Naven Hon discovered the infant ape, believed to be one year old or less, all alone. Hon and an assistant were researching gibbons in the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation area when they came across the highly endangered animal on Thursday.

The Northern Buff-cheeked Gibbon baby was hanging off a small tree when they spotted it, Hon said. "It seemed not ill, but scared and skinny," he told university supervisor Ken Ryan.

It should have been part of a group, but there was no sign of this group or the gibbon's mother, he said. Fearing the mother was injured or dead, the pair brought it back to the research station, and it was kept warm in an insulated bag. Being too young to be weaned from its mother, Hon tested out a few foods, including infant formula, fresh milk and bananas.

"He seems to like drinking milk rather than banana."

Hon returned to the area where the infant was found to search for its mother, but with no luck, the gibbon was transported to the Phnom Tamao wildlife rescue centre on Monday. "I hope it can survive with special care."

The species has a small range in south Vietnam, Laos and north-east Cambodia, and is threatened by habitat loss and hunting.