31 December 2014

Unrootedtreeman - paraphyletic

This is the last of the Unrootedtreeman cartoons that I found. Who knows, I may be able to find others (or convince Cor that we could do more...). Have a Happy New Year!

26 December 2014

Unrootedtreeman - short branches

SYSTANZ newsletters came out about twice a year back in the 90s and we would try to include a Sandwalk or Unrootedtreeman in each issue. Unfortunately, the association ceased as an entity in the early 2000s as systematics became an integral part of all ecological research.

25 December 2014

Unrootedtreeman - Xmas

Unrootedtreeman even had a Christmas message....

24 December 2014

Unrootedtreeman - ravaging homoplasy!

For a while we had Unrootedtreeman merchandise (well a teeshirt)! I wore one at an evolution conference, maybe at Chico, California, and was surprised at the number of Americans who knew about the cartoon. The SYSTANZ newsletter only went to our members (mostly in NZ).

23 December 2014

Unrootedtreeman - Looks like a job

Unrootedtreeman was fun to create. Back in the 1990s, phylogenetics felt like doing research on the frontier. I suppose it still is, but back then almost everyone new the same methods and so on. So you could put a joke in about Hennig86 and most people would get it . (Hennig86 was a DOS-based program with cryptic commands - instead of 'exit' or 'end' you wrote 'yama' to close program. Yama is the hindu god of death and rebirth...) No wonder we needed Unrootedtreeman!

22 December 2014


In addition to our Sandwalk cartoons, Cor Vink and I also ran a series of cartoons on a phylogenetic superhero Unrootedtreeman in our SYSTANZ newsletters of the late 1990s. I recently found a bunch of those as well. This was back in the day when PAUP was king, parsimony and cladistics ruled, Mac Quadras were state of the art, maximum likelihood was in its infancy, when models of nucleotide substitution were developing. Heady times! One slow day during an analysis I was looking at a four taxon unrooted tree and realised that by adding a circle for a head that we had a stick figure. I showed my PhD student Cor and Unrootedtreeman was born. So, with a nostalgic fanfare....

18 December 2014

Shadow chasing – When monitoring tui requires the mindset of a Ghostbuster

Vanessa Mander is a post-graduate student studying for an MSc in conservation and ecology at Lincoln University. Here she tells us about radio-tracking tui.

Ever since I was a young girl I have always wanted to be a scientist, long before Lego could influence my choice of career with their ‘female’ scientist figure. I was not drawn to being a Barbie (those that know me will be rolling on the floor laughing right now), nor a fashion editor (again, people are struggling to breathe for laughter) as my heart was always drawn to New Zealand's wondrous and unique flora and fauna. Initially, I thought I would work in a lab, I always had a knack for chemistry and so my first stint in university around 15 years ago produced a run-of-the-mill BSc in chemistry.

Life intervened and I found myself working for the government in tax issues and tax law, working as an accounts nerd and being the ultimate domestic child-wrangler/executive/CFO. Not the career I had envisioned but one I am still immensely proud of. It was a family holiday to Stewart Island that led to an epiphany of sorts. We took the kids on a trip to Ulva Island, a predator free island where many species of endemic New Zealand birds find a safe haven. While walking amidst the beauty of the forest we encountered a South Island saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) collecting nesting material in preparation for breeding. I was spellbound, elated and excited all at the same time and I knew that this field was the science career I wanted to embark on. After some personal research, I enrolled for the Master of Science at Lincoln University, where Dr Laura Molles presented me the opportunity to participate in a research placement tracking tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) in conjunction with the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust (BPCT). I felt that I had been given a gift, one that would provide me with valuable skills and a taste of a dream coming true.

Most of my work in this placement involved radio telemetry. The receiver and aerial combo is reminiscent of the 1980's Ghostbusters films. Five tui had transmitters fitted, two of which had been recently attached so the likelihood of getting a signal appeared high. The three older transmitters were either found on the ground or ‘missing-in-action’, which left me tracking the female ‘Putiputi’ and the male ‘Yeah Right’. (Naming rights are given to individual sponsors of the Tui Reintroduction Programme through the BPCT. In the case of the male, by someone with an interesting sense of humour.)

A tui dude with attitude.
Used with permission from Patsy Dart.
Tracking tui is like a shadow hunting expedition. You spend many hours believing that they must be close by because the receiver tells you that they are, and then there are the moments that you strain to hear what you believe is a distant tui call, only to second guess yourself and think that maybe your mind is playing tricks and maybe these birds aren’t real. There were weeks where a signal was obtained but sightings of the bird eluded us. Taunting seems an appropriate word but I realize that this is somewhat forces a human personality to this behaviour. To be honest, sometimes it’s hard not to.

The ‘shadow chasing’ experience was the single most challenging aspect of this work as you often went unrewarded and somewhat unsatisfied, knowing that the target bird was in the area yet not sighting it. Frustrations don’t end there. Reading a bird’s unique combination of leg bands is often the only way we can confidently identify a bird. This only works if you are: close enough to pick the band colours and order (binoculars are ok), AND the birds orientation is sufficient that both legs are visible and not obscured by the tail, AND the tui are perched on appropriate materials that do not obscure the leg, AND bands are even present – unbanded birds appear to flaunt this a bit. In most circumstances where one or more of the conditions above are not met, there would be a fair bit of fist-shaking at the sky.

The study conducted over twelve weeks found that Putiputi remained mainly within the Akaroa region, her excursions away from the core Stony Bay Rd area (in Akaroa) decreased as breeding season approached. In this time she appeared to entertain the idea of pairing with ‘Charlie’, only for him to be replaced with ‘Laurie’ a few weeks later, she is picky apparently.

Yeah Right proved to be a traveller. He was banded and originally tracked around the Akaroa area too… handy for me doing the tracking to be sure. However, we lost the signal after a few weeks and I was a little sour about that. Fortuitously, I happen to be looking for some lost transmitters in the Okuti Valley, near Little River, and picked up a signal… from Yeah Right! His story was that he had migrated to the Okuti Valley and remained there right up to the breeding season.

Tui at the sugar water feeder in a private garden.
Used with permission from Patsy Dart.
Honestly, there were times that I would despair that I would see any tui. This was generally when the weather was less than optimal and the ‘shadows’ seem relatively distant. However, you were rewarded, just often enough, with glimpses into their lives… whether it was a territorial display, a soft chortle between potential pairs or just the pleasures of watching them feed, to nourish you for the dry times ahead.

The knowledge and insights I will take away from this experience include:
1. Fitness is everything (mine and birds… but mainly mine),
2. Patience is a virtue (birds have it but I am still working on that one),
3. Tui are not people no matter how much they seem like they are,
4. New Zealand is so much richer for having such a beautiful and charismatic bird.

I choose to use the term shadow-chasing because, although it accurately describes my tui experiences, it also has parallels in my life to date, except now I am glimpsing parts of the ‘career’ shadow owner and I hope to catch up with them soon. 

As the saying goes “the early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese”! (Willie Nelson).

Darwin and the Sandwalk - Upgrades

Here's an issue that certainly causes problems today!

17 December 2014

Darwin and the Sandwalk - Cousin

Another Sandwalk. I always thought it ironic that Darwin married his cousin and then spent a lot of his later life worrying about the wisdom of this from a 'fitness' point of view. I guess he was the first to have this worry! For the other Sandwalk cartoons, click on 'cartoon' in Labels below.

16 December 2014

Darwin and the Sandwalk - Sponsors

Another Darwin cartoon from the old SYSTANZ newsletters. The cartoons were put together by Cor Vink and I. At the time Cor was an invertebrate technician and later my PhD student. Cor now is a curator at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. Cor would do the drawing and I would usually come up with the idea. In this one we wondered what it would be like if Darwin worked in today's environment.

15 December 2014

Darwin and the Sandwalk - Origin

Back around the start of the earthquakes I was putting some old cartoons of Darwin on the Sandwalk (his private walk around the woodland at his estate which he ambled about most days to get in some serious thinking time) online. I have been doing my once a decade office tidy and came across some more Darwin on the Sandwalk from 15 years ago or so. The idea was that it would be useful to know what Darwin thought about as he paced the Sandwalk. Another complementary theme was using this to explain why Darwin took so long to write and publish 'On the origin of species'. These cartoons first appeared in SYSTANZ newsletters in the 1990s. I also found the short-lived Unrootedtreeman cartoons. Expect to see them soon. Enjoy.

11 December 2014

Let's stick together

It's been just over four years since the Greendale 7.1 earthquake that shook us up here in Lincoln and almost four years since the major aftershock that destroyed a good chunk of Christchurch. Time flies and time heals. There are few signs around Lincoln of the quakes (although the local Catholic church was only demolished this week after being empty and forlorn for all of this time). Around the university we still have several large buildings that have been closed since the quakes and are yet to be demolished. Overall, though, Lincoln and its surrounds are going well. It's a different story in Christchurch. While much of the demolition around the city centre has finished and there is a forest of cranes and building sites, as we move out further east towards the seaside we come to major areas of damage that are little changed since the fateful day in February 2011. I travelled through these suburbs on the weekend and it is genuinely distressing to do this. The people living in these areas with wrecked roads, poor infrastructure, no real drainage and so on must be truly resilient (or numb). Probably one of the most affecting sights are the large tracks of suburbs where scores of houses have now been removed and the land is becoming unkempt wilderness. Whole streets of houses are gone. Dotted in amongst these wild areas are houses and families who, through the oddities of these kinds of events, were fortunate to be living on a slightly rocky substrate, or a fractionally higher rise. As I drove around, feeling slightly seasick on the undulating roads, I wondered how these isolated homes could keep a sense of connection in these areas that once had tightknit communities.
High Street, Christchurch

A lot of the people from these areas have moved to various outlying towns like Rangiora or Rolleston. So are there now little bits of New Brighton in Amberley? Or pieces of Parkland in Halswell? That's unlikely as people from this diaspora have gone in all directions. They will have to adapt and change to the communities that they move to. There seems to be a number of links between what has happened in Christchurch and issues that we have in conservation.

As populations decline you have a few options. You could halt the decline and then grow the population again (in New Zealand this often means controlling introduced predators). You could move the local population to another safer or more productive site (in New Zealand such translocations have often been to offshore islands). In the near future you will be able to clone and artificially generate genetic variation in individuals. However, much of this work involves single species translocations. This is like moving one family out of their suburb. Will they like and flourish in the new site? Time will tell. Will they retain the attributes of their original community? Unlikely. What if we could relocate whole streets of families to new streets elsewhere? Will they like and flourish in the new site? Again, time will tell. Will they retain the attributes of their original community? The chances are much higher.

Stephane Boyer from Lincoln University has suggested that conservation translocations would be much more successful if they are community translocations. He has published in Science on this topic. Stephane has worked in mitigating the effects of open mines. One of the techniques that they have shown to work is in taking soil, plants, and the invertebrates and microbes that come along with them, and placing the whole lot in a different site. This is remarkably successful in allowing these communities to survive and to remain functioning much as they have always done. He argues that in conservation translocations, we should also be more focussed on moving multiple species from an area and not just an endangered birds or plant. As we move into a period of climate change, where whole local habitats are threatened, we may need to increasingly think about using these techniques. There might also be some ideas that we could take from this to help with preserving human communities.

Postscript: Less than a day after writing this piece we were woken in the wee hours by a magnitude 4.5 aftershock centred more or less under Lincoln. That was the 542nd aftershock quake since September 10 2010 to register over 4. As I lay in my bed wondering whether this was going to escalate in something nastier I did think back to this article and thought that one doesn't have to go over to the centre or eastside of Christchurch to be reminded of the legacy of the quake.