During winter, dozens of seabird species take flight from New Zealand on epic migrations across the planet—and recent advances in tracking technology mean we can now follow them. What we’re learning has upended scientists’ ideas about the lengths animals will go to in order to raise a family.
For four years, I edited a photography magazine that featured interviews with professional photographers from around the world. For four years, I was every day amazed and convicted by their work, and the culture of photography that they talked about in their home countries: exhibitions, grants, support… respect. That culture seems to be lacking in New Zealand today.
Look at the pictures that New Zealand photojournalist Melanie Burford made of communities affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Or the pictures that New Zealander Robin Hammond has made of daily life in Lagos. They are among our best photographers, and neither has worked in this country in decades.
We have little work like this in New Zealand because we have few publications that can afford to pay a photographer to spend months on a story. New Zealand Geographic photographer Richard Robinson began collecting images for his feature on seabirds in this issue nine years ago. Neil Silverwood has been working up his West Coast feature since 2018. But there is not enough income from New Zealand Geographic to support an entire industry.
Photojournalist Adrian Malloch once made the bulk of his income taking pictures for magazines published by Bauer Media, which ceased publishing in April this year. He has turned his attention to commercial photography, but it’s a poor substitute.
“There’s so much photography of people now, but it’s all curated by advertising agencies, publicists, marketing people,” he says. “Whatever it is they want to tell us is everywhere for us to see. But who are we and what we care about, what matters to us, that’s what documentary photography is able to do if it’s done properly.”
Today, one of New Zealand Geographic’s best and longest-standing photographers is working in a kiwifruit packing house to make ends meet. Another has a full-time job in healthcare.
Eleven years ago, New Zealand Geographic inaugurated Photographer of the Year to stimulate pros, encourage emerging photographers, and involve the public in a more critical visual examination of our environment and society. The finalists of this year’s competition are online now, and will be exhibited at the Maritime Museum later in September. It’s a reminder of what we look for in photography, and what is usually available in the media. News photography covers dramatic events and famous people. Disasters and dignitaries.
But it’s the slower pace of documentary photography that records everyday life—beautiful, with dignity and grace.
Internationally, there are structures in place to support documentary photography. Aspiring photographers can win places in workshops to discuss art and ethics. Documentary photography is exhibited in art galleries and professional photographers can apply to non-profit funding bodies such as the Pulitzer Centre or ProPublica which allow them to pursue stories over the long term.
Photojournalism is in crisis in New Zealand, and yet our major media and arts funding agencies don’t support it. If NZonAir supported photojournalism like it supports screen production we would have a compelling and important new view of our nation. If Creative New Zealand recognised documentary photography as a valuable visual art, our galleries would be as full of challenging and relevant photography as those overseas.
Recognising the importance of documentary photography, before it is gone, would bolster an entire industry of creative professionals. But perhaps more importantly, it would give us a better view of who we really are as a nation, because pictures give us something that words do not.
The timing of events in the past is about to become a whole lot more precise. International scientists have created new “calibration curves” that will make radiocarbon dating more accurate.
Living organisms sample the levels of radioactive carbon-14 in the atmosphere during their lifetime and store it in their cells. Once they die, it begins to decay at a steady rate.
By measuring the amount of carbon-14 left in an object, scientists can estimate its age. But because the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere fluctuates slightly over time, the dates can be out by 10–15 per cent. To correct this, scientists need to assemble a reliable historical record of its variation—a calibration curve—so they can translate radiocarbon ages into calendar dates.
Researchers—including Alan Hogg, the director of the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Waikato—spent seven years assembling data from natural archives that record changes in radiocarbon levels over time. The new curves are based on 15,000 measurements taken from stalagmites, corals, lake beds, ocean sediments, and tree rings—such as those of swamp kauri logs found in Northland and Auckland. “It’s now much higher resolution than we thought possible,” says Hogg.
More accurate dating will help scientists to track past climate change, and make better models for the future. Archaeologists, in particular, are thrilled.
“Sound chronologies are crucial to our understanding of the past, so any improvements are quite an exciting prospect,” says Nick Sutton, an archaeologist at the University of Otago. Given New Zealand’s short human history, he says, “even changes in the chronologies of a few decades could be significant in terms of our understanding”. The revised dates given by the new curve could lead to new insights into when people first arrived here, the timing of extinctions (such as the moa) and the origins of pā.
[caption id="attachment_398079" align="alignnone" width="600"] Alan Hogg distils history from timber in the radiocarbon lab at University of Waikato.[/caption]
Fire season is coming, and first responders will soon be on high alert around New Zealand. With climate change causing more intense weather, we can expect more extreme wildfires in the future, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage and endangering homes and lives. What is New Zealand’s risk from fire, and how can we better protect ourselves?
In 1902, the steamship Ventnor was carrying the bones of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand to southern China when it sank off the coast of Northland. For more than a century, no one knew where the ship lay. Its discovery seven years ago kindled questions and disputes that blazed into controversy earlier this year. Who decides what happens to a wreck on the bottom of the sea? And what’s the rightful resting place of men who never made it home?
Parasites don’t get great publicity—they tend to drink blood or make their home inside intestines—but there’s a lot to value in this vast and varied group of organisms. In the journal Biological Conservation, an international group of scientists, including Allen Heath from AgResearch in New Zealand, describe their importance and present a plan to conserve them.
Parasites are animals which spend at least part of their lives feeding on or making their home inside living hosts. This freeloading approach to life is so popular that perhaps 40 per cent of all species may be parasitic, and parasitism may have evolved independently at least 200 times. Parasites are incredibly diverse, too—one study estimates parasitic worms number as many as 300,000 species, substantially more than the 70,000-odd vertebrate species that host them. Their presence isn’t necessarily negative for their host. Some parasites can regulate their host’s immune system, while others store heavy metals that might otherwise prove poisonous.
Around four per cent of known parasites infect humans, often to our detriment. The report suggests that parasites could be biomedical resources that help humans. We have already used leeches medicinally for many years, and some researchers are investigating helminths (worms) as a therapy for some autoimmune conditions.
In New Zealand, geographic isolation has led to a proliferation of endemic parasite species. The tuatara has its own resident tick species; the hihi is home to a unique coccidian, a microscopic single-celled parasite that dwells in the intestine. But we still have lots to learn and discover about the parasites that dwell in the nooks and crannies of Aotearoa.
Otago Museum is amassing parasites as part of a collection that already contains thousands of specimens. “Because the museum attends to many strandings of marine fauna across the South Island, they end up collecting lots of rare parasites that you wouldn’t find otherwise,” says parasitologist Anusha Beer, who recounted finding a three-metre-long intestinal worm while dissecting a stranded sunfish.
Such collections enable research into the fascinating lifecycles and myriad strategies devised by parasites. They may also become a compendium of disappearing biodiversity, says Beer: “It’s thought that about half of all parasites will become extinct without ever being discovered.”
The new coronavirus probably started life in a bat, and passed through another species on its way to humans—though we don’t yet know.
Rather than blame animals for making us sick, we need to acknowledge our role in creating the conditions for diseases to jump from animals to humans, say the authors of a new paper.
Veterinary epidemiologist Peta Hitchens from the University of Melbourne and colleagues from the University of California, Davis combed through scientific literature on “spillovers”, or transmissions of diseases from animals to humans. They identified 139 viruses that had made the jump, but limited their study to instances where the host species was known.
The highest risk of virus spillover came from domesticated animals, because they live in closest proximity to us. Among wild species, virus transmission risk was highest for two groups of animals: those that thrive in human company and modified landscapes, and threatened species that are declining because of exploitation or loss of habitat. “They are the ones we hunt and traffic, because as they get rarer, they’re becoming higher value,” says Hitchens. “We can definitely do a lot more to reduce the risk of another COVID-19-type virus occurring. This is a global problem.”
Solutions include minimising our interactions with wildlife, reducing contact between wild and domesticated animals, and improving biosecurity where animals are intensively farmed.
The pandemic is a symptom of a wider problem, namely “the exploitation and disregard that leaves animals living lives of confinement and stress in fractured environments”, says University of Sydney philosopher Thom van Dooren. “We need to reimagine those relationships.”
Larvae of different sunfish species all look alike: tiny, spiky balls with googly eyes, just two millimetres across. Eventually, they’ll grow into colossal fish several metres long, but at this early life stage, they’re impossible to tell apart based on their appearance.
In fact, even the hefty, round adults have been challenging to classify. It wasn’t until 2017 that the different species were untangled by Marianne Nyegaard, who identified three: the ocean sunfish (Mola mola), the bump-head sunfish (Mola alexandrini) and the hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta).
With the adults sorted, Nyegaard, now a research associate at Auckland Museum, was keen to unravel the next Mola mystery: which baby is which? Genetics could provide the answer, but sunfish babies are hard to come by. “In the last 100 years, there have been 32 larvae collected from all of Australia,” says Nyegaard, “and none from New Zealand.”
Larvae held in museum collections are tricky to study: museum specimens are typically preserved in formalin, which destroys DNA.
Nyegaard’s lucky break came when Te Papa fish expert Andrew Stewart called her from an Australian research vessel, Investigator, while surveying off the New South Wales coast. They had scooped up three Mola larvae. Two had already been fixed in formalin, but a third had been frozen in a bulk collection of samples.
In January 2020, the Mola baby was retrieved from the miscellaneous specimens and sent to the Australian Museum in Sydney. Kerryn Parkinson from the museum’s ichthyology team painstakingly removed a single eyeball, and genomics specialist Andrew King sequenced and matched its DNA to a database. This larva was Mola alexandrini, the bump-head sunfish.
Identifying the larva is just one more step towards uncovering the secret lives of sunfish. We still don’t know where, when or how they reproduce—or why we find so few larvae, given the ability of female sunfish to produce hundreds of millions of eggs.
For now, Nyegaard is using micro-CT scanning to look at the 32 Australian larvae in exquisite detail, investigating their anatomical development. “Understanding how long it takes the larvae to grow from ‘Pokémon’ to ‘huge mum or dad’ will be extremely valuable.”
As winters get warmer, bumblebees are emerging from hibernation earlier. They urgently need sustenance, but many of the plants they rely on haven’t yet flowered. So they force them to.
Consuelo De Moraes, a chemical ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, noticed bumblebees chewing distinctive holes in plant leaves. At first, she thought they were taking leaf material back their nest. But it turns out that by inflicting such damage, bumblebees can prompt flowers to bloom as much as a month early. Researchers still don’t know exactly how, but the behaviour may help bumblebees cope better with the impacts of climate change.
People’s attitudes towards poverty depend on the stories they’re told about it, according to two surveys of more than 32,000 people in 34 countries, including New Zealand. Those who believed poverty was caused by situational factors, or things out of people’s control, supported social-levelling policies. People who believed poverty was due to individual factors, such as merit, were less egalitarian. The study also found that participating in a virtual simulation of poverty increased the weight people gave to situational factors, and prompted more egalitarian behaviour.
Adolescence is just as tough on dogs as it is on humans, researchers have found. What’s more, family dynamics can make it tougher still. A team led by Lucy Asher at the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle University found that when dogs hit puberty at around eight months of age, they get rebellious.
Asher suspects this is down to the conflict between the dogs’ urge to seek out mates of their own kind, and their attachment to human families. Researchers found that, as with human teens, when that attachment is already weak, puberty in dogs sets in earlier, and triggers more conflict. It’s temporary—and yet, more adolescent dogs are handed in to animal shelters than any other age group.
Elephant seals hunt fish and squid in the total darkness of the deep. Biologists think the seals’ eyes are sensitive to the faint bioluminescent light emitted by their prey, but a new study has found that the hunted have a way of turning that to their advantage.
After researchers fitted very fast light sensors to five elephant seals on the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean near Antarctica, they discovered that some fish and squid wait until the seal is almost upon them before dazzling them with very bright bursts of bioluminescence. The scientists also found, however, that one seal had apparently learned how to trick their prey into flashing early—thus giving their position away.
Increasing numbers of New Zealand high school students are suffering from poor mental health. Last year, researchers from the University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Otago and Auckland University of Technology surveyed nearly 8000 young people about their wellbeing, as part of the Youth19 Rangatahi Smart Survey.
The findings were compared to similar surveys carried out regularly since 1999. Some trends are positive; high-schoolers are smoking and binge-drinking much less than they were two decades ago.
But while more than two-thirds of the students reported good mental health, nearly a quarter—23 per cent—said they’d experienced significant depression. Female students and those from minority groups were most likely to be affected—and for many groups, the proportion reporting depression symptoms has doubled since 2012.
Suicide attempts have also increased, especially for boys.
The researchers said there’s now strong evidence that the general mental and emotional wellbeing of New Zealand’s teenagers has worsened over the past seven years. There was no single cause. Social media, loneliness, discrimination, and concern about climate change and the future were all cited by young people as being factors in their distress.