30 April 2009

BioBlitz Lincoln 2009: 1637 species in 24 hours!

On the 3–4 April 2009 hundreds of people gathered at the Liffey Stream in Lincoln to experience the chaos of exploration and discovery that is a BioBlitz. This 24 hour scientific race against time and educational event was held in conjunction with Lincoln Envirotown, Lincoln University and Landcare Research. The BioBlitz aimed to find and identify as many species as possible of everything within 24 hours, including plants, plant viruses, fungi, lichens, microbes, spiders, mites, insects, birds, worms, fish, and mammals. Yes, everything!

At 3.15pm on the Friday, Selwyn district councillor Lindsay Philps welcomed the crowd and New Zealand's famous bugman, Ruud Kleinpaste, kicked it off with an inspirational speech about biodiversity before stripping off his top to reveal his Bioblitz t-shirt underneath. The 24 hour countdown had begun. Swarms of primary school children ran to the first scheduled event with Ruud, collecting invertebrates. Vials were given to all willing participants and children were soon collecting invertebrates and running back to base camp to get the scientists to identify their bugs. The line was long but enthusiasm was high. From this point, base camp was a hive of activity. Displays of Canterbury mudfish, aquatic invertebrates, weta and more were scattered around the marquee for the public to see while biologists got to work as the specimens poured in.

The Lincoln BioBlitz in full swing
Photo by Andrew Goodger, Lincoln University.


Water testing, lizard, plant and bird walks, mammal tracking and many more activities were offered throughout the event. These were popular, especially the mammal spotting at night led by Lincoln University's James Ross. There were so many children on this walk that it was too noisy to spot anything so they had to go out again!

The Lincoln BioBlitz found an amazing 1637 different kinds of life, almost half of them species of bacteria. That’s a lot of things for a small stretch of stream side in a small rural town. They include many surprises. Peter Johns of Canterbury Museum identified a native flatworm species (Newzealandia agricola) that had not been recorded in over a hundred years. Jerry Cooper from Landcare Research identified the first ever New Zealand collection of a European acorn fungus. Cor Vink of AgResearch identified a Banks Peninsula endemic spider usually found in forest. An unusual native earthworm is still being identified but may be something new. There may be more as collation of the data is now occurring and a final report will be available later this year.

While most of the little creepy-crawlies like mites and spiders were native species, the plants and fungi they crawled on were mostly wild exotic species. While 20% of the plants were native, most of these have been recently planted. Of the wild plant species found, only 13% were native. This is a reflection of the massive transformation to the flora that has occurred on the Canterbury Plains in the past two centuries. It is promising that some natives have been recently planted back into the area. There is great potential for improvement.

Most birds were also wild exotics, a reflection of how much the Canterbury Plains has changed. Only three of New Zealand’s native forest birds were found in the area: one singing bellbird, a grey warbler, and several fantails. There was a surprise sighting of a white heron.

Similarly, none of the butterfly species unique to New Zealand were found. Only the European cabbage white butterfly and the North American monarch butterfly were present, both abundant.

Table 1. The number of species counted at the BioBlitz Lincoln 2009, separated by groups of taxa and, for those species known, how many are endemic (found nowhere else in the world but New Zealand), non-endemic indigenous species (also native elsewhere), and introduced exotic species. The count in the "All" column is often more than the sum of the previous columns because it includes species where status has yet to be determined.
GroupEndemicsIndigenousExoticAll% native
annelids and molluscs28
lizards and frogs0
plant viruses6
protists and algae47

The Bioblitz was a fun way to teach the wider community about the vast diversity of species that live in their backyards. The excitement, enthusiasm and willingness to become involved made this event very popular and a huge success. While it is sad that the proportion of natives is small, especially for plants, fungi, and birds, the efforts by the locals to increase the planting of native plants, and so increasing the suitable habitat for native animals, is encouraging. We hope that this BioBlitz will help to further inspire the Lincoln community to celebrate their local native biodiversity.

More photos of BioBlitz action:

Entomological celebrity Ruud Kleinpaste entertains the crowd.
Photo by Mike Bowie, Lincoln University.

Lizard-woman, Marieke Lettink, wrangles a lizard.
Photo by Mike Bowie, Lincoln University.

Ecological action for all ages.
Photo by Mike Bowie, Lincoln University.

NIWA scientists electrofishing to sample fish (do not try this at home)
Photo by Mike Bowie, Lincoln University.

Bobbing for eels!
Photo by Mike Bowie, Lincoln University.

Max Whyte holds a Canterbury Plains tree weta (Hemideina femorata).
Photo by Mike Bowie, Lincoln University.

This blog post was written by undergraduate student Sam Rowland as part of her research placement course (Ecol399), supervised by Jon Sullivan.

13 April 2009

Tui are back! Returning Banks Peninsula's lost birds

The lowlands of Canterbury, New Zealand, have gone through about as complete an ecological transformation as can be imagined. Before Polynesian settlers arrived, around 800 years ago, the Canterbury lowlands were cloaked with diverse native forest. By the time European settlers arrived, 650 years later, most of this forest had been burned off. It has since been almost entirely replaced with farms and towns, dominated by foreign species imported by settlers and their descendants. Banks Peninsula botanist Hugh Wilson has likened the arrival of people here to a harpoon hitting a whale.

With the almost complete loss of forest and the arrival of foreign pests, lowland Canterbury lost a lot of its bird species. Lincoln ornithologist, Kerry-Jayne Wilson, collated the native terrestrial birds that we've lost from lowland Canterbury's Banks Peninsula in her 2004 book, The Flight of the Huia. Between Polynesian settlement and European settlement, we lost at least eight species, including several moa species and brown kiwi. Since European settlement, we lost a further 15 species, including the New Zealand quail (Coturnix novaezelandiae) from which Quail Island in Lyttelton harbour takes it name. For some of these species, like the quail, all we have left are specimens in museums. They are lost forever, unless future molecular biology labs can one day rebuild them from their DNA. Others survive elsewhere in New Zealand, like kaka, buff weka, and yellow-crowned and red-crowned parakeets. As native forest regrows on Banks Peninsula, these lost birds can be returned.

And so it was, on 9 April, 2009, on a wet stormy day in a forest clearing low down in Hinewai Reserve, that 30 tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) were released back onto Banks Peninsula. Kerry-Jayne had not included tui in her list of lost birds, since solitary birds have been sighted occasionally on the Peninsula. However, ecologically they were certainly among the lost, as there hadn't been a breeding population of the birds here since at least the 1980s.


Hinewai Reserve (see map) and many other Banks Peninsula forest reserves and covenants have regrown and matured substantially over the past 30 years. An ecological assessment in 2007 by Hugh Wilson concluded that there was now sufficient food year-round to support a tui population. Banks Peninsula's original tui populations may have missed the development of Hinewai Reserve, founded in 1987 to restore a large area of native forest to the south-eastern corner of Banks Peninsula. Now they have an opportunity to explore it. The 30 released birds are being radio-tracked and carefully watched by Lincoln University behavioural ecologist, Laura Molles, and her team. She hopes that the released tui will found a new breeding population, and will be the first of many successful reintroductions of our lost birds.

View Hinewai Reserve in a larger map

It is a long way from Banks Peninsula to the nearest healthy tui population. The nearest populations in Canterbury are about 130 km away in the Lake Sumner area, separated from the Peninsula by the deforested pastoral expanse of the Canterbury Plains. The Lake Sumner population was not considered healthy enough to spare birds. Indeed, the nearest healthy tui population living in a forest type comparable to Banks Peninsula was on Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds, a predator-free reserve managed by the Department of Conservation 320 km to the north.

In the week prior to the Banks Peninsula release, a team of experienced bird handlers, led by Wayne Beggs of the Department of Conservation, caught 30 Maud Island tui, a mix of male and female adults and juveniles. They were housed in temporary aviaries before being placed in cardboard cat boxes, two to a box, and flown by helicopter directly to Hinewai Reserve. If these 30 birds stick around, they will be joined by a further 50 birds from Maud Island next year to ensure a genetically diverse founding population.

Reintroductions are not easy. The often complex logistics, community and inter-agency organisation and consents combined to require several years of planning for the tui release. A large team of volunteers and staff from a menagerie of Canterbury agencies and Ngai Tahu have worked hard over the past several years to bring about the tui release. Then there is an enormous amount of ecological uncertainty involved in what happens next. Once the birds are let go, how do you encourage them to stay put? Their natural instinct after a long and stressful journey is often to scatter and head for home. One famous male tomtit promptly flew home, a journey of over 60 km, after being part of a group of 32 birds moved in 2004 from the Hunua Ranges in southern Auckland to Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf. In February of 1993, 15 South Island robins, another species lost from Banks Peninsula, were released in Hinewai Reserve. The last sighting was of one bird on 2 July 1993. Where they went, nobody knows.

Laura Molles together with colleagues at the University of Waikato has pioneered the use of acoustic anchoring as a technique to encourage released forest birds to stay where they're released. Her idea is that if the released birds hear the songs of other birds from their home population, they will conclude that the release site is good habitat (and contains potential mates) and they'll stay to explore rather than dispersing. Acoustic anchoring has been associated with several successful kokako reintroductions (also called translocations) in the North Island and is being used with the Banks Peninsula tui release and a release of North Island Robins back into the Coromandel Peninsula.

For the Banks Peninsula tui release, the team have also placed well-stocked bird feeders in forest clearings around the release site. These feeders are of the same design that the birds got used to using on Maud Island prior to the release. Everyone hopes that this, combined with hearing the songs of Maud Island tui every morning, will be sufficient encouragement for the released birds to stay and explore Hinewai.

So far, the results are promising. Three days after the release, the birds were still in the release area. They had discovered several fruiting kahikatea trees and were feasting and singing. Singing! This was the first tui song heard in Hinewai in a very long time. It's as good a start as anyone could have hoped for.

The big test will be what they do in the spring, when they want to breed. Will the adults try to head home to their Maud Island territories, or will they be content to set up territories in Hinewai? Will adult and juvenile birds differ? Lots of Cantabrians hope they'll all choose to stay.

Tui feeding on flax
Originally uploaded by Mollivan Jon
Over the past decades, Hinewai Reserve has seen the spreading of a native forest cloak back over a corner of lowland Canterbury. Now, tui song at Hinewai heralds a return of the lost birds. With that song comes a great hope that some of the past centuries' ecological transformation of lowland Canterbury can be undone to make room for wild native nature.

More information on the Banks Peninsula tui release can be found at TV3 News and Radio New Zealand.

02 April 2009

Talking about the drowning

I had the unnerving experience of watching myself give a conference presentation yesterday. In February I attended the BioEd Darwin 200 conference held in Christchurch, New Zealand and gave a talk in the teaching evolution symposium entitled "Drowning Zealandia, flying moa, ancient mammals: teaching the controversies from current New Zealand evolutionary science ". The presentation was recorded and can be viewed at the Allan Wilson Centre site, just scroll down to the talk by Adrian Paterson - click and enjoy (?). In this talk I focussed on teaching the messiness of science, especially evolution. If more people understood that changing knowledge about particular examples is the natural state of science then I think we would have better understanding from the general public.


I illustrated this messiness by talking about the current state of New Zealand biogeography with the current controversy about the Oligocene drowning (blogged previously here and here). If you want to hear my overview then see the talk! I finished by saying that is incumbent on scientists to use technologies like blogging to get their research out to a wider audience. Several ecologists from Lincoln gave talks and a couple, Steve Wratten (The educational oportunities associated with restoring functional biodiversity to agricultural land) and Marco Azon-Jacometti (Enhanced soil biodiversity increases biological control of Botrytis cinerea), also have their talks on the site.

So what did I think of my talk? Well I know I move about but it's interesting to see just how much! Stay still, already! Otherwise it seemed OK. Hopefully somebody will find it useful.