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.

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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.

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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-FQk6ga1K0&feature=youtu.be

For more information contact Megan Sellars on (04) 463 6208 or megan.sellars@vuw.ac.nz.

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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 heidy.kikillus@vuw.ac.nz.

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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."

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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.

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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 rachael.shaw@vuw.ac.nz.

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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 orkevin.burns@vuw.ac.nz

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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 forsytfran@myvuw.ac.nz

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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 kevin.burns@vuw.ac.nz

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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 phil.lester@vuw.ac.nz

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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