The pitfalls of Fiordland field work

Posted by Keely Paler @keely_paler

The first things that people say about Fiordland are that it’s a really beautiful place but the sandflies are the size of elephants. My recent trip to Fiordland proved they weren’t wrong. The sheer number of sandflies means that headnets are now my favourite fashion accessory. However the stunning-ness of the location more than made up for it.

In November, I went down to Te Anau, Fiordland to complete the first part of my master’s fieldwork. This adventure began with hastily rearranging flights to capture the best weather window. Because of New Zealand’s highly changeable weather this is an important part of ecological fieldwork in remote locations. Despite this planning, we arrived to an unexpected layer of snow, but these surprises are part of the fun of working in the field.



Open top chambers in alpine Takahe Valley, looking down to Lake Orbell

In order to get to our alpine study site in Takahe valley (in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland), I had my first experience flying in a helicopter (a lot scarier than I imagined). This site is a particularly awesome place to conduct research because it’s where the ‘extinct’ takahe was rediscovered in 1948. Since this time it has been classed as a ‘special area’, accessible only to scientists and pest-control operators. This relatively undisturbed environment means it is an ideal place to study the effects of climate change on New Zealand’s unique alpine biodiversity. My master’s research will examine how insects respond to climate change using open-top-chambers to experimentally induce localised temperature increases). Insects are captured using pitfall traps, which will be collected during a second trip in March. Despite the sandflies, I can’t wait to go back.


Keely Paler is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Darren Ward, Rich Leschen and Adrian Monks (Landcare Research) examining climate change and alpine insects.

Growing old with caterpillars

Posted by Zane McGrath

For the remainder of these summer months I will be searching far and wide for the kawakawa plant. It isn’t the odour emitted by its heart shaped leaves or berries I am attracted to, but the caterpillars hosted by the plant, which I will attempt to adopt and take back to their new home, the luxurious lab at Landcare Research. Although in highlighting the beauty of ecological research, and just to make things more confusing (see earlier posts by Sam and Carolina on ecological complexity), it is not the plant or the caterpillars that will be the main focus of my Masters research, but parasitoid wasps which emerge from the caterpillars.


The kawakawa plant (top) and kawakawa caterpillar (bottom)


Parasitoid wasps spend part of their life cycle within a host, such as a caterpillar, and basically eat their way out when ready to pupate, eventually killing the host. Fascinating or down right freaky (have a look for yourself in this video), parasitoid wasps have the ability to act as natural enemies for controlling agricultural pests. For my Masters research I will be focusing on whether Meteorus pulchricornis, a species accidentally introduced into New Zealand, is competing with native species for caterpillar hosts.


The culprit, Meteorus pulchricornis (Photo: (top) and its cocoon hanging from a kawakawa plant, which is unique to the species (bottom)


In order to understand this, the caterpillars I collect will be reared until they reach their fate. If I’m lucky, but the caterpillar isn’t, a parasitoid wasp will emerge.

This is where I must hone my husbandry skills. The caterpillars can grow considerably over the period of a month or so before pupating. They will be fed their favourite meal, a kawakawa leaf that is replaced every five to seven days. However, as a parent would say, the growing up process isn’t always a pretty sight. Their homes can become inundated in frass (caterpillar poo), and need I say the larger the caterpillar grows, the larger the frass… but hey, it’s all part of being a parent.


Frass and a caterpillar

Zane McGrath is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is supervised by Darren Ward and Graham Walker (Plant and Food Research, Auckland) examining parasitism by exotic species in native environments.

Takahē folly

Posted  by Josie Galbraith @Josie_Anya

Among the many New Zealand conservation tragedies of 2015, there is one that stands out for me – the shooting of four takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri; critically endangered) by members of the local Deerstalkers Association undertaking an authorized cull of pūkeko (Porphyrio porphyrio) on Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf.  It has been the source of much outrage and disgust, particularly in its being wholly avoidable.  It seems impossible that takahē could have been in the line of fire, given that the hunters were instructed to shoot only pūkeko in flight… and takahē cannot fly…

While we wait to see if there will be any consequences for the buffoons who can’t follow instructions, I have contemplated this tragedy, seeking an explanation that is more fathomable.  An explanation that stands to reason when one considers that the hunters were fully informed of takahē presence on the island and supposedly only shooting birds on the wing.


Galbraith 2016 Goodbye Puk Pie

‘Goodbye Puk Pie’ – Josie Galbraith

Celebrating one year of Ecology Ngātahi

Posted by the Ecology Ngātahi team @AklEcol


We’re turning 1! Image source:

Everybody loves a birthday! It’s a chance to reflect on the year that’s been and make plans for the year to come. Hopefully we are all a little bit wiser too!

In the spirit of reflection, we wanted to revisit some of the highlights on the Ecology Ngātahi blog from our first year. Undoubtedly, the stars of the show have been the postgraduate students and their research. The first student post involved Josie Galbraith bringing together urban birds and teenage mutant ninja turtles. Animated characters were a common theme with Ant-Man and Batman also featuring in posts by Anna Probert and Ellery McNaughton.

Another popular theme was fieldwork. Sam Lincoln, Sam Heggie-Grace and Julia Kaplick shared their experiences as field ecologists. Other experiences shared were Jamie Stavert’s piece on his time in Europe and Carolina Lara’s piece on her experiences as an international student in NZ. Also, Anna Probert learnt all about ants and had fun doing it on her ant course. These three posts make interesting reading for anyone planning on spending time overseas. Something else any ecologist can relate to is frustrations with R and Jessica Devitt suggested some valuable resources she has discovered.

Other more quirky posts included Lloyd Stringer on NZ as a source of invasive species and Rebecca Lehrke’s experiences monitoring swan activity near the airport. Jamie Stavert wrote a fabulous post on the joy of creativity and Alice Baranyovits made a call for citizen scientists to get involved with her kereru project.

The most popular post by far was Jacqueline’s piece on kākāpō. It seems everyone loves a good news story! Cate’s tips for scoring a postdoc were widely shared on twitter. Margaret’s blog on the importance of urban ecology was another popular read and Mick explained the strange case of high genetic diversity in NZ stoat population.

So, it’s been a fascinating and wide-ranging year. I don’t think we expected to cover so many different topics when we started out last year. We have exciting plans for 2016. We welcome Darren Ward onto the Ecology Ngātahi team and we have a great bunch of new students and great projects. We’ll be continuing with weekly posts to highlight student research and topical issues in Ecology. We have recently launched our youtube channel so do look out for more clips about our research and don’t miss Josie’s animation on the impacts of feeding birds. Another new addition is our publications in a nutshell page where we will be posting brief summaries of new publications.

Thanks to you, our readers and followers for engaging with our work. We have had hits from over 110 countries with over 6000 unique visitors (hello world!). We appreciate you taking the time to have a look at the blog and share our stories on twitter and facebook.

Tau Hou hari! Happy new year!