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We’ve all heard of moa, and probably the enormous Haast’s eagle, too, but there were a lot more giant flightless oddities running around the forests of New Zealand when people first stepped ashore, and it’s a mystery to me why we’re not talking just as much about the adzebill. The adzebill was, as far as anyone can tell, a giant flightless killer in the shape of a goose. It had a formidable beak shaped like a pick, very strong legs, and probably weighed around 20 kilograms. We don’t know what it ate, but from its skeleton, it looks perfectly capable of running other species down, tackling and stabbing them—the All Black of the bird world, if you don’t count the stabbing. I first heard of it because ‘adzebill’ is one of the online pseudonyms used by Mike Dickison, former curator of natural history, current professional improver of Wikipedia. “They were just the most amazing skeletons, if you studied bird anatomy—super chunky and robust,” he told me. “They must have been doing incredible damage to something. And almost nobody in New Zealand has heard of them. “To me the adzebill is symbolic of the gulf between what scientists know and what the public knows. They were one of the things you would almost have certainly encountered 750 years ago when you walked ashore. And any New Zealand palaeontologist—well, there are about six of them—knows about all the other things that used to be wandering around, that you were just as likely to meet as the moa.” Have you heard of the snipe-rail, the owlet-nightjar, the musk duck? How about the laughing owl, the wren that ran around the forest like a mouse, or the other giant predator of the skies, Eyles’s harrier? New advances in DNA technology are telling us more about how these species lived (Kate Evans investigates six of them) but all deserve a better introduction to the public in the first place. So it’s fitting that our story on recent discoveries about prehistoric birds sits alongside our story on citizen science. Citizen science is about the public contributing to research, but it’s also about removing barriers of access between professionals and amateurs, experts and enthusiasts. These days, Dickison works full-time at getting knowledge that’s common among scientists out into the world—by putting it on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. (Yes, anyone. Including you.) Its accuracy is preserved by the millions of people who act as its caretakers—vandalistic attempts to introduce false information are generally corrected within minutes, if not seconds. Facts must be supported by citations, and if not, they’re excised. Dickison recently spent three weeks at New Zealand Geographic, adding information from the magazine’s archive to the site. While he was here, he organised a group of experts and volunteers to spend an evening dramatically improving the Wikipedia page about kauri dieback, incorporating research references sourced for our story on the subject. (Creating a detailed, accurate Wikipedia page is something that the government agency charged with informing the public about kauri dieback could have done for free.) Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited website in the world—when you Google something like ‘kauri dieback’, a Wikipedia page is one of the first things that comes up—but we lag behind other developed countries in terms of Wikipedia’s coverage about New Zealand. We live in a world with all the tools for more open and inclusive sharing of information, but many of the old walls between institutions, professionals, experts and the rest of us still exist. Let’s keep dismantling them.
Birds that evolved on islands, such as the North and South Island, tend to have bigger brains than those that evolved on large continents, even if the species are close cousins. A study published in Nature Communications in July compared brain size relative to body size in more than 1900 bird species, spanning 91 per cent of bird families. The researchers then analysed several bird lineages that had relatives on both islands and continents. Having a large volume in some areas of the brain enables adaptability—the pallial regions, for instance, help with pattern-finding and planning. Because island environments are unpredictable, say the authors, adaptive capability is a significant advantage. “For instance, the Galápagos finch uses tools, instead of the more frequent gleaning technique, when there are droughts and insects are only found in wood crevices,” says lead author Ferran Sayol. The New Zealand tomtit, Petroica macrocephala, has a much larger brain than its closest mainland relative, and the kea has an unusually large brain for a parrot.
If a root is above ground, how can it take in water? The Lord Howe pandan has evolved a solution: it has developed grooves that function like aqueducts, according to Victoria University researcher Matt Biddick. Pandans are found on tropical and subtropical coasts around the Pacific. They have weak trunks, but grow tall by sending roots down from the canopy that form stilts when they reach the ground. Most pandans grow to less than five metres high, but a Lord Howe Island species, Pandanus forsteri, grows to more than 15 metres, so it takes years for the aerial roots to reach the ground. Without being able to draw moisture from the earth, the roots gather it by other means. The leaves of P. forsteri are shaped like gutters, and funnel water toward the trunk. Then, grooves on the top surface of the roots channel the water to the roots’ tips, where spongy absorptive tissue carries the collected rainwater to the rest of the plant.
Since humans arrived in New Zealand, we’ve lost nearly half of our native terrestrial bird species. Some of those extinct icons are well known, while others are recalled only by myth and bones. We will probably never know the full polyphony of that primordial dawn chorus, but old bones and new science are giving us a richer picture of life in the land of birds, back when they still ruled the roost. For the first time, we’re able to answer questions about what they ate, where they came from, how they were related to each other, and how they got so much bigger, heavier, and weirder than their ancestors.
Mike Dickison wants to fling open the vaults of the country’s museums and research institutions.
One of the world’s smallest nations is transforming its economy from subsistence to sustainability. Will Niue’s brave new plan work?
Tawaki, or Fiordland crested penguins, have plenty of food along the coastline where they breed, yet every year they make a trip to the Subtropical and Subantarctic Fronts and back to feed—a swim of nearly 7000 kilometres. “One would think that the birds try and conserve as much energy on this trip as possible,” says researcher Thomas Mattern from the University of Otago. “But what we found is, simply put, crazy.” In 2016, Mattern and his team put GPS trackers on 17 adult tawaki and watched them travel from their rainforest colony to the subantarctic, an eight-week trip during November and December—a time when the availability of food on the Fiordland coastline is at its peak. The birds must gain weight during the journey because they undergo a ‘catastrophic moult’ immediately following their return, shedding and replacing their entire plumage at once, which requires them to stay on land for three weeks without going out to sea to feed. Mattern thinks this trip is undertaken by instinct—an impulse left over from ancestors that bred on islands close to the Subantarctic Front. Most other crested penguins still breed on those islands.
You don’t need a PhD to find a new species, unearth a rare fungus or name an asteroid. New Zealanders with no specialist training are contributing to scientific research by monitoring streams, spotting rare plants, counting the birds visiting their back gardens, and putting GPS trackers on their cats.
The Earth has always had a dynamic climate, but it has never changed as fast as it is changing now. What forces are driving this massive flux? How can we reduce carbon emissions caused by human society, and mitigate the effects of climate change? How can we adapt to the new normal?
Retreating glaciers and thinning snow and ice are the future of New Zealand’s mountains. Climate change is predicted to warm the country’s atmosphere by 1–4°C by the end of the century, altering the natural water cycle—how much is frozen as snow, how much falls as rain, and how much flows in rivers. Climate researchers are seeking to predict what will change, and when. What will be the impact on hydroelectric power stations and irrigation schemes? Which areas will be hit hardest by flooding, or increasingly severe drought? The Deep South National Science Challenge is taking a lead role in helping decision-makers plan for the coming century.
The parasite found in cat poo that can drive humans to suicide, car accidents and neuroticism can also make them more entrepreneurial. According to a study of 1495 students published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, carriers of Toxoplasma gondii were 1.4 times more likely to study business, and 1.7 times more likely to focus on ‘management and entrepreneurship’. Moreover, people from countries with higher levels of the bug, which is carried by two billion people worldwide, report less fear of failure than less-infected nations.
This year, it took the human race 212 days to exhaust what the planet generates in 365.
It took just 13 generations for quolls to forget about their major predator, the dingo, according to Australian research published in Biology Letters in June. After noticing that northern quolls were eating toxic cane toads, with lethal results, researchers moved a group of quolls to a toad-free, dingo-free island in 2003. The quolls were trained to avoid cane toads and reintroduced to their native territory in 2016, where they were promptly eaten by dingoes. They had forgotten how to identify and avoid the dingoes’ scent.
52 of the finest and freshest visions of New Zealand's environment and society.
A fossilised earthquake is preserved in rock along the Livingstone Fault, which slices through both the North and South Islands. It’s the first time the fossilised remains of tectonic movement have been found in serpentinite, a type of rock that resembles snakeskin. When University of Otago PhD student Matthew Tarling and his team studied shards of Southland serpentinite under electron microscopes, they found a 0.001-centimetre layer of olivine and pyroxene within. Friction from the earthquake had heated the serpentinite to more than 800°C, dehydrating it and forming the two minerals. Fossilised earthquakes are rare finds, and this discovery confirms the theory that serpentinite would behave in this way.
It’s harder to turn a language off than on. When a bilingual person changes between languages, the most effort lies in deactivating one language, not picking up the other. In research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2018, United States researchers studied bilingual people fluent in English and American Sign Language who often used both at once. They were able to leave one language on while turning off or turning on the other—and engaging the other language showed no more activity in cognitive control areas than not switching languages at all. Using two languages, the study concluded, is no more difficult for the brain than using one.
The first Europeans to reach Sāmoa—aboard three Dutch vessels in 1722—reported that the locals who paddled out to them were dressed from waist to heel in fringes and “a sort of artistically made silk cloth”. A later visitor, Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, realised that this “ornament” was actually a series of indelible marks, very likely made permanent by puncturing the skin and applying the juice of herbs, “as I have seen practised by the natives of Canada”. For many years after, these early encounters, explorers, traders, and missionaries struggled to understand the social function of the Sāmoan tatau. One of the world’s most elaborate and richly symbolic systems of body decoration, it was carried out by master tattooists (tufuga), who employed sophisticated tattooing tools of various sizes, tapping them rhythmically with a wooden mallet to apply the designs. The tool itself consisted of a small comb made from pig’s tusk or bone sharpened to needlepoints and attached with coconut fibre to a turtle-shell plate, both of which were lashed to a wooden handle. The tufuga was assisted in his work by helpers (toso), who stretched the skin of the client and administered therapeutic massage. For a young male, getting a tatau, or pe’a, which covers the body from waist to knee, was not to be undertaken lightly (the female malu is lighter and its application less ritualised). Engaging a tufuga was expensive, requiring gifts of food and fine mats, and the procedure, which lasted many weeks, was painful and cloaked in formalities. But pain was more or less the point. It was, after all, a rite of passage; one with deep cultural significance, as Te Papa curator Sean Mallon and French anthropologist Sébastien Galliot make clear in Tatau, their landmark cultural history of the subject. For an individual, the tatau was, in the words of one Sāmoan religious leader they quote, “a literal inscription of his socioreligious identity, beliefs, and duties”. And its formalised patterns and imagery were “a visual depiction of his embodied life... his environment, family and God... cultural pride, beauty, bravery, ability, and potentiality”. Acquiring it created a cohort of young warriors, bonded by the experience, who were ready to fight, and if necessary to die, for their group. Western missionaries took a dim view of such things, and from the 1850s actively suppressed the practice of tā tatau. Where it survived, it was as a private ritual rather than a communal one. But it would be wrong to think of it as a rigid, unchanging cultural expression destined for inevitable extinction. For one thing, it exerted a powerful appeal to Europeans and Americans. The markings were painstakingly documented by foreign scholars and Sāmoan travelling troupes were fêted. The German governor of Sāmoa, along with some of his senior administrators, went so far as to receive the pe’a themselves. Sāmoan independence led to a revival of tā tatau, and in the 1960s and 1970s, Sāmoans arriving in New Zealand in search of work introduced it to this country. As it spread beyond its island shores, it adapted to novel conditions by harnessing new materials. Kerosene soot or Indian ink was substituted for the traditional burned candlenut-soot pigment, turtle shell was replaced by Perspex and other plastics, and sennit by nylon fishing line. In the interests of hygiene, tufuga began to use steel needles that could be sterilised in place of bone, and took to wearing latex gloves and covering pillows with plastic. Yet even as Sāmoan tā tatau became a global cultural phenomenon valued for its authenticity, it embraced new motifs and forms and was taken up by Western tattooists apprenticed in the art. As a result, it began to attract a wider range of interpretations, often loosening its ties with ritual and morphing into an expression of individual identity. Tatau celebrates—or, at least, acknowledges the inevitability of—these evolutionary departures, seeing them as the fruit of an endless search for personal and cultural meaning. Exhaustively researched, and enriched with interviews and striking documentary photography, it is a fitting tribute to a vital 3000-year-old tradition.
The NZ-VR team is trying to make New Zealand more real, using virtual reality.
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