Here we are—a nation of parents, grandparents and children all in the same boat, together at home. He waka eke noa. Every day of the lock-down we will post a story or video that can be shared among your family. The first few are below, and with them some talking points to fill our days at home together. Mauri ora.
Take a seat: these stories are immersive. From shooting fish with bows and arrows to poachers, sponges, show dogs and dinosaur birds: this is a selection of some of New Zealand Geographic's most popular longform journalism.
New Zealand has a government-funded research organisation that studies and monitors our volcanoes. It’s thanks to GNS Science data that, following an earthquake, we can immediately turn to GeoNet to look up its magnitude and where it struck. GeoNet also lists volcanic alert levels—as I write this, White Island is at level two out of five, while Ruapehu is at level one.
GNS scientists are the people who painstakingly measure rocks hurled out of vents and run computer models to figure out how and when those rocks were ejected. This information is published online and distributed to other government bodies, such as Civil Defence, which have the ability to prevent access to volcanoes or high-risk areas.
Given that GNS volcanologists are the experts on Whakaari/White Island, journalist Geoff Chapple wanted to speak with them for our story on the December 9 eruption. After three weeks of delays, GNS refused to be interviewed.
Before this issue went to print, I approached GNS once more to fact-check our story, and was refused access to scientists. GNS representatives suggested that we should publish it in six months, or a year, and that it was inappropriate to pursue it now.
I disagree. Following an event like this, questions abound. What happened, and why wasn’t there any warning? Will it happen again? What’s a hydrothermal eruption? How do the authorities charged to protect us manage the risk of volcanic activity?
It seems reasonable that the volcanologists whose job it is to understand our volcanoes be able to talk about them. They should be able to describe what we know about the complex systems beneath Whakaari—and what we don’t know.
Similarly, our feature on fairy terns in this issue also involved a delay. We were ready to produce this story in 2018, and when a DOC representative offered us access, we leapt at the opportunity to observe the birds.
Then other DOC staff shut us down. “Come back next year,” they told us.
I argued that the matter was urgent. Fairy terns nest on public beaches, and one of the main threats to them is disturbance by people and their dogs. People can’t care about what they don’t know about, I said.
“Most people don’t know what a fairy tern is,” recovery group leader Troy Makan told me this February. It was 21 months after I’d first spoken to DOC about producing a story.
DOC staff were generous this summer in allowing us to shadow them, and photographer Richard Robinson went above and beyond in terms of the time he dedicated to the birds to document their lifecycle, shooting through a long lens in order not to disturb them.
Both of these instances speak to an increasing tendency for government agencies to restrict information until it’s convenient for them to release it, rather than when it’s crucial for the story to be told. I thought the plight of the fairy tern was critical enough that it deserved to be introduced to you sooner. I think the tragedy of Whakaari provides an opportunity to understand how our volcanoes function and the risks they pose—now, not in a year’s time.
Why is it important for this information to be freely available? Because a lack of understanding is also a form of risk.
Governments around the world have experimented with keeping their people in the dark, and so far, the results of having an uninformed public are not encouraging.
GNS Science studies one of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of our country, and if it released its experts to speak freely, they’d be in demand. The information they produce is important—almost all of us are vulnerable to seismic forces, invisible and beyond our control. You deserve to hear what they’ve learned.
In the wake of Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season, the country’s forests face yet another pressure: logging.
While it may seem reasonable to salvage timber from ravaged eucalypts, evidence suggests otherwise. Semi-burned trees and scorched logs are crucial to ecosystem recovery, offering shelter and food to surviving wildlife.
“Many trees that look dead will still be alive. In the months ahead, buds will sprout from under the blackened bark,” says David Lindenmayer, a professor at the Australian National University. Already, a peppering of rain across the Blue Mountains has seen tiny buds of new growth appear after bushfires razed millions of hectares across the UNESCO World Heritage Area and multiple national parks.
Following the deadly Black Saturday fires in 2009, post-fire logging in Victorian forests destroyed emerging seedlings and removed tree hollows, which are important for endangered species such as the Leadbeater’s possum and red-tailed black cockatoo. A 2016 study found that tree fern numbers plummet by 94 per cent after post-fire logging, while another study found that soils fail to regain their nutrients and fungal communities even 80 years after fire and logging. Fire risk also increases in areas that have been logged after fires.
“At a time when habitat is so scarce,” says Lindenmayer, “practices like burning or mulching remaining timber, salvage logging and mop-up burning rob landscapes of the features that wildlife will need to recover.”
The rarest bird in this country is the fairy tern, with perhaps 36 adults left in existence. It’s got everything going against it: weather, cats, its own DNA, and the fact that humans love the white-sand beaches where it raises its young. Only a small group of people, many of them volunteers, stand between it and oblivion. What will we lose if it vanishes altogether?
Last century, firearms flooded into New Zealand with returning servicemen, and during peacetime guns became synonymous with an honest, healthy way of life in the hills. Now, there are thought to be 1.5 million firearms in New Zealand—one for every three people—used as conservation or farming tools, or simply for sport. To some, firearms symbolise self-sufficiency and responsibility. To others, they’ll never be more than instruments of death.
But is this issue as clear-cut as it seems?
How does a cephalopod see the world? If you’re a cuttlefish in this experiment, you see it through a pair of 3D glasses, and your world is lit by videos of shrimp.
This was the unlikely experimental set-up of a research project in the United States that investigated just how the cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) is able to snatch prey with its tentacles while its eyes swivel independently. The cuttlefish’s relatives, octopuses and squid, don’t have 3D vision, but researchers suspected that cuttlefish do.
Humans see in three dimensions thanks to a process called stereopsis, or depth perception: each eye, when looking at the same scene, perceives each object being in a slightly different position. Our brain triangulates, allowing us to accurately measure the objects’ distance from us. But what happens when your eyes look in different directions at the same time?
This is where the 3D-spectacled cuttlefish come in. Participants were dubbed Supersandy, Sylvester Stallone, Long Arms and Inky, and introduced to their underwater movie theatres. Like 3D cinema technology, two identical images of shrimp were projected so that each cuttlefish eye would perceive them in a slightly different position. Some of the shrimp would appear to be in front of the screen and others behind it. If the cuttlefish were using stereopsis, their eyes would combine the two images to give 3D information, and they would strike with their tentacles accordingly.
This is exactly what happened. When the cuttlefish ‘saw’ a shrimp projected up close, they reversed and shot their tentacles out in front of them. Then, when the shrimp appeared to be further away, the cuttlefish swam right into the wall of the tank in pursuit of it.
The cuttlefish were seeing with stereopsis, but they weren’t using the same neural circuitry to process the images as humans. For instance, they didn’t have perception problems when one of the two images was brighter than the other, as humans would, or when one eye looked in a different direction. This suggests that what the cuttlefish visualise is different from what humans perceive.
Another recent study that delved into the complex brains of cephalopods mapped the mind of the bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana) with MRI, creating an atlas of its neural connections. The researchers, from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland, identified new connections among the squid’s 500 million neurons, the majority of which were connected to vision or movement. Their brains, say the researchers, approach those of dogs in their complexity: squid can count, solve problems, recognise patterns, and camouflage themselves, despite being colour-blind.
Many of our skinks and geckos are so new to science that they don’t even have names. Much of what we do know about our lizards is thanks to an amateur herpetologist from Invercargill with no academic training.
As some humans ponder their own extinction, others are figuring out the best places to run when the bomb drops, or the power goes off, or the supermarkets shut their doors.
In a study published in the journal Risk Analysis, researchers Matt Boyd and Nick Wilson rated the appeal of the world’s islands as sanctuaries from a catastrophe such as a global pandemic. “The results indicate that the most suitable island nations for refuge status are Australia, followed closely by New Zealand, and then Iceland, with other nations all well behind,” they concluded.
In particular, they considered subnational islands, such as Australia’s Tasmania, Japan’s Hokkaido, and New Zealand’s South Island.
“Nevertheless, some key contextual factors remain relatively unexplored,” they cautioned, such as the willingness of those islands to accept refugees. And would we have enough cheese rolls for everyone?
Tens of thousands of years ago, grey wolves and humans teamed up, and as time passed the wolves’ bodies shrank, their temperaments became friendlier, their ears flopped and they learned to interpret human commands.
Over the course of millennia, dogs were shaped by human need and whim, resulting in a motley line-up that runs from tireless herder to teacup pup. And humans have been training dogs for so long that some human instructions appear to be embedded in dogs’ brains.
A recent study, published in Frontiers in Psychology in January, detailed an experiment which took place across several cities in India. Researchers offered two covered bowls to stray dogs and pointed at one of the bowls. About half of the dogs did not approach the bowls, which the researchers attributed to anxiety from previous unpleasant encounters with humans. But, of the dogs that did advance towards the bowls, about 80 per cent followed the pointing finger, indicating that the dogs had an innate understanding of human body language.
In another study, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden conducted a series of behavioural experiments with eight-week-old wolf pups. In one, a person who was a stranger to the pups threw a ball for the 13 youngsters. The researchers didn’t expect much to happen, but three wolf pups did something surprising: they fetched. They even brought the ball back to the stranger with minimal encouragement.
Human-directed behaviour in canines was thought to have resulted from domestication, but the surprise game of fetch suggests this behaviour may have preceded—and even aided—the taming process. Wolves that fetched would have been more valuable to early humans than pups that displayed no aptitude for retrieving.
It started with an insect preserved in amber. A round, shiny beetle a couple of millimetres long was found in Myanmar, encased in its golden tomb. It lived about 100 million years ago, in the mid-Cretaceous period, in a forest ecosystem on Gondwanaland.
Upon close examination of the fossil, scientists from China classified it as part of the Cyclaxyridae family, a group of beetles with just two living relatives, both found in New Zealand. They inhabit the sooty mould ecosystem peculiar to New Zealand’s beech forests. In this community of organisms, scale insects live within the bark of beech trees, eating their sap and excreting glittering beads of honeydew. Bats and birds such as tūī and kākā feed on the honeydew, while excess dew fuels the growth of dense black fungus. This ‘sooty mould’ is eaten by beetles, including the two living cyclaxyrid species, Cyclaxyra jelineki and Cyclaxyra politula.
Upon the Burmese amber discovery, scientists, including Richard Leschen from Manaaki Whenua–Landcare Research, re-evaluated another beetle fossil from Baltic amber, placing it in the cyclaxyrid family too. This trio of cyclaxrids suggests that sooty mould beetles (and the associated ecosystem) were once widespread across the supercontinent Pangaea. Now, they survive only on the semi-submerged Zealandia as relics.
The search is on for more sooty mould beetle fossils—including here in New Zealand.
Like bubbles in a pot of boiling water, this solar close-up shows convection cells on the sun’s surface. Hot plasma (bright white) rises from the sun’s interior, then cools and sinks (dark outlines). Each convection cell is around 2.5 times the size of New Zealand.
It was photographed from a new solar observatory, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), which looks sunward from the summit of Haleakalā (literally ‘the house of the sun’), a 3000-metre peak in Hawai’i. The facility has a four-metre-wide mirror to resolve our nearest star in intimate detail. Features as small as 30 kilometres across can now be photographed.
Looking directly at a burning ball of gas is tricky. Sunlight focused by the telescope generates enough heat to melt metal so, to keep the telescope cool, the facility makes a swimming pool’s worth of ice every night, then distributes it via more than 10 kilometres of piping.
Why are we looking so closely at our star? Although the sun is nearly 150 million kilometres away, its weather can cause chaos on Earth. Solar flares and storms emit streams of charged particles that interfere with satellites and power supplies. By zooming in, astronomers hope to understand the magnetic processes behind such phenomena.
As social researchers seek ways to defuse hostility towards “outgroups”, one United States study has found a simple means to get people to rethink their attitudes towards, in this case, Muslims.
First, the researchers asked their Spanish study subjects whether they considered themselves responsible for the actions of white supremacists such as Anders Breivik. Overwhelmingly, they felt that they were not.
Then the researchers asked whether individual Muslims should be held responsible for the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, which were committed by Islamic extremists. The subjects again said no.
People’s natural desire to be consistent, say the authors, moderates prejudice and delivers more considered views on conflict.
Picture the moa. A flightless feathered giant, reminiscent of an emu or cassowary.
Over the last decade, genetic and skeletal evidence has begun to trace its family tree back to the age of the dinosaurs. Some 80 million years ago, the first ratites—the ancestors of today’s kiwi, emu and cassowaries—emerged.
But the closest cousins of the moa were not kiwi, nor the cassowaries next door, but appeared to be an odd family of quail-sized birds an ocean away.
The ground-dwelling tinamou is found across Central and South America, and can fly (although it prefers not to).
With such a relationship, you would expect these birds to have some morphological similarities. But these have eluded scientists—until now.
It was a serendipitous discovery. A research group at Flinders University in Australia were investigating the enigmatic cassowary, a rainforest-dwelling titan from northern Queensland.
The team, including New Zealander Trevor Worthy, used cutting-edge scanning technology to 3D-image the cassowary’s throat structures—those involved in breathing, eating and vocalising.
“Scanning lets us see details that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise, including the shapes of internal structures, without causing damage to them,” says the lead author on the paper, PhD candidate Phoebe McInerney.
As part of the investigation, the team also imaged the throats of other birds in the palaeognath (“old jaws”) family, an ancient lineage separate to all other living birds. They found that tinamou and moa had comparable throat anatomy—a morphological similarity that can’t be seen in skeletons. The tinamou and moa were singing the same tune after all.
The discovery further disproves “Moa’s Ark”—the idea that moa have inhabited Zealandia since the time of Gondwanaland. Instead, it’s possible that the moas’ ancestor flew to Zealandia from America (perhaps via Antarctica) after the southern continents drifted apart.
When an undulating curve lit up the night sky above a group of Finnish aurora hunters, they flipped through their guidebook to identify it—but the aurora didn’t look like any of the 30 distinct forms pictured within. So the northern lights enthusiasts turned their cameras skyward, capturing the strange shape, which they called “the dunes”.
“They told me I had excluded one aurora form from the book,” says Minna Palmroth, a space physicist at the University of Helsinki and author of the guide.
Most aurora appear as shimmering green or pink curtains, stretched vertically. But the dunes were horizontal, like fingers of light reaching hundreds of kilometres towards the equator. Researchers from the University of Helsinki, including Palmroth, joined forces with the citizen skywatchers to document the new form, and their findings were reported in AGU Advances in January.
Using the aurora hunters’ photos, scientists calculated the altitude of the dunes to be 100 kilometres above sea level. This suggests that the dunes are a visible manifestation of atmospheric waves—specifically, mesospheric bores, a type of wave that behaves like a ripple on the surface of a pond.
“For the first time, we can actually observe atmospheric waves through the aurora. This is something that hasn’t been done before,” says Palmroth.
Studying the dunes may help scientists understand the dynamics and interactions of Earth’s atmosphere in more detail.
The new discovery echoes that of strong thermal emission velocity enhancement, or STEVE, a purple-green sky-glow phenomenon first documented by aurora seekers in Canada in 2016. Subsequent observations have confirmed that STEVE occurs in New Zealand skies—while photos captured by aurora seekers down under suggest that the dunes may also be part of the southern lights spectacle.