How to fix the Mackenzie Basin
A unique New Zealand landscape is at risk of losing what sets it apart. Here’s what needs to happen.
A unique New Zealand landscape is at risk of losing what sets it apart. Here’s what needs to happen.
New Zealand has 123 statues of named people on outdoor public land. Over 2018 and 2019, a team from the University of Otago, Wellington studied whether these statues had ever been attacked. Almost a quarter of them had. The weapons of choice? Hammers, axes, concrete cutters, and paint: gold, red, blue. Seven per cent of statues had had their noses damaged or knocked off. (Robbie Burns, in Hokitika, is still missing his.) Six had been decapitated, some repeatedly. (A statue of King George V in Matakana has lost his head five times.) Three statues were destroyed entirely. The study found that 93 per cent of statues were of European people, and 87 per cent of them were men. Only one statue on public land featured a person of Pacific ethnicity: that of rugby player Sir Michael Jones. This research is thought to be the world’s first study surveying a country’s attitude towards its public statues. It wasn’t funded; the four authors carried it out in their spare time, out of personal interest. Its publication comes at a time when we’re asking ourselves: Who do we venerate? Who are our cities and streets and maunga named after? The answers to these questions can be rather dismaying. Recently Wairarapa resident Raihānia Tipoki looked into the namesakes of five of the region’s towns: Joseph Masters, Charles Carter, George Grey, Isaac Featherston and John Martin. All were active in displacing the area’s original inhabitants. “So as the many kāinga throughout Wairarapa slowly shrank behind the billowing smoke of the growing colonial towns, new streets were created, monuments erected,” writes Tipoki, “and now as I drive north to visit my friends in Masterton, my eyes are subjected time and time and time again to the names of the people riddled throughout our region who sought and succeeded to suppress the indigenous peoples of this land.” A former mayor of Hamilton is calling for a referendum on restoring the city’s original name, Kirikiriroa, which means “long stretch of gravel” in reference to the Waikato River. A statue of Captain John Hamilton was removed by the city council in June after a request by the confederated iwi of Waikato-Tainui. A statue of George Eden, Lord Auckland, only ended up in its namesake city after being kicked out of West Bengal. (Eden had been Governor-General of India; he never set foot in New Zealand.) When one state government in India decided in 1969 to retire all colonial statues, a New Zealand insurance company offered to ship Lord Auckland over here. His statue, which usually stands near Aotea Square, is presently in storage due to construction work. Some of our public figures are not connected to this country at all. Some of them were responsible for terrible things. What do we do with these monsters of history, looming at us all of a sudden out of the dark? As more than one nation is learning, it isn’t possible to move on from a racist past by pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t just switch the lights off and hope the darkness makes our monsters disappear. Ocean Mercier, profiled here, suggests we tell the full story of people that our statues commemorate, crucial as they were to New Zealand history. The George Edens and the George Greys alike. But my favourite solution to the problem comes from Tūhoe activist Tame Iti, who wrote on Twitter: “Don’t destroy the statues! Put them in a place all together where people can talk about them... like a racist museum... having them altogether in one space as racists and no longer as upstanding citizens is way more useful than having them at the bottom of a river.” Let’s turn the lights on. Let’s remember the racism of our past, so that we can recognise it when it looms up again, and turn with confidence to a different future.
Dragonflies can’t hear, but they still don’t like noise. When Japanese and American researchers played traffic sounds in areas without roads, and measured the effects on local wildlife—birds, grasshoppers and dragonflies, which sense only vibrations—they found that the sounds reduced the number and diversity of species present. “These results suggest that noise pollution not only affects acoustically oriented animals,” write the researchers, “but that noise may reverberate through biological communities.”
The pitch of your voice is unique, whether you’re talking, screaming, shouting, or crying, according to a small study by a team of French and British scientists. Though pitch varies as you speak, differences between people’s voices are preserved across different types of communication. Pitch can also transmit certain personal traits, such as the sex and age of the speaker, their hormonal status and even their social status.
Do coastal earthquakes affect whales? Until recently, the sum total of scientific knowledge on the subject was one paper describing a single fin whale fleeing after an earthquake off California. But the 7.8-magnitude Kaikōura earthquake provided an unprecedented opportunity for University of Otago marine mammal researcher Marta Guerra to examine how top predators respond to widespread disturbance of their environment. On the night of November 14, 2016, faults ruptured from the mountains to the sea—right into the head of the Kaikōura Canyon, a sperm-whale hotspot. That triggered massive underwater mudslides, which transformed the sea floor and carried away the communities of invertebrates that live in the mud, feeding a rich food web—with sperm whales the apex predators at the top. The University of Otago has been studying Kaikōura’s sperm whales since 1990, and Guerra already had detailed data on whale behaviour. After the earthquake, there were some obvious changes. Whales stopped frequenting the upper canyon—usually a prime foraging spot—and they changed how often they dived. Sperm whales normally spend 45 minutes to an hour diving up to a kilometre into the deep before resting at the surface for ten minutes to catch their breath. After the earthquake, the whales consistently rested for 25 per cent longer. “That maybe doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a sperm whale that time at the surface is very carefully balanced—it’s a trade-off between air at the surface and food at depth,” says Guerra. “It’s a sign that they’re going to more effort while they’re diving.” Guerra thinks the whales were getting used to an unfamiliar landscape, and facing food shortages in the places they were used to hunting. After a year, their behaviour began returning to normal, a sign of the population’s resilience.
Regenerative agriculture is supposed to save us from climate change, freshwater pollution, soil erosion, drought, the invertebrate apocalypse and poor mental health. Does it live up to the hype?
This animal lived on the island of Madagascar 66 million years ago, a time when dinosaurs ruled and most mammals were the size of mice. It was about the size of a cat, with robust claws, suggesting it was capable of digging. Newly named Adalatherium (or “crazy beast” in a combination of Malagasy and Greek), it’s the first complete skeleton to be found that belongs to a group of mammals called gondwanatherians, indicating what this unknown southern hemisphere family may have actually looked like. “This is the first real look at a novel experiment in mammal evolution,” says Alistair Evans from Monash University, one of the study’s authors. “The strangeness of the animal is clearly apparent in the teeth—they are backwards compared to all other mammals, and must have evolved fresh from a remote ancestor.”
Ocean Mercier’s journey from physics to the science of her ancestors.
A common beehive pest could be redeployed to chew plastic bags instead of honeycombs. Canadian researchers fed plastic bags to wax moth larvae and found that the larvae’s gut bacteria thrived on the new diet. In fact, some bacteria could live exclusively on polyethylene for more than a year. Researchers tried growing the bacteria by themselves on a petri dish, but found the microbes weren’t as effective at breaking down plastic as they were when they lived inside the guts of larvae.
Australia’s critically endangered night parrot may not be very good at seeing in the dark, according to new research from Flinders University. An international group of researchers CT-scanned a night parrot skull, as well as skulls of related bird species, and found that the night parrot had smaller optic nerves and lobes than the others, suggesting it had limited visual processing ability. The parrot’s vision appears to be sensitive but low-resolution, meaning that it struggles to distinguish predators or obstacles in the dark—raising concerns that it may be crashing into fences in its outback home.
In March, researchers around New Zealand dropped what they were doing to begin studying the novel coronavirus. Some realised that, if an effective immunisation is found, there will immediately be a long queue of nations jostling to buy billions of doses. So they resolved to make a vaccine themselves.
Exposure to a common herbicide can alter the minds of fish, researchers at the University of Otago have found. Atrazine, which is frequently used in New Zealand to kill weeds, was found at low levels in about three quarters of 36 streams and rivers sampled by another University of Otago study. Low levels of atrazine in water doesn’t kill animals, according to research. But does the poison affect them in other ways? To find out, master’s student Simon Lamb added atrazine to a tank of male zebrafish, the lab rats of the aquatic world, to a level frequently found in water sources in the United States. Next, Lamb bred the males with female zebrafish from a non-atrazine tank. Then, he rated the parents and their offspring on a variety of behavioural tests. “What most fish do when you put them in a new environment is they’ll settle down to the bottom, and then once they feel comfortable enough, they’ll swim up through the water column to the surface,” says Lamb. By measuring how long it takes a fish to start exploring, behavioural researchers can get an idea of its anxiety levels and appetite for risk. Lamb also recorded how the fish responded to a mirror, which measures aggression. “We use these proxies to understand what sort of behavioural processes are going on.” The zebrafish that had been exposed to the atrazine were less aggressive and had different risk-taking behaviour. The same was true for all their offspring—even though one parent hadn’t been affected by the chemical. This has implications for whether atrazine should be used in New Zealand, says Sheri Johnson, Lamb’s supervisor. (Atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2004 due to high levels in groundwater.) It’s not known how the fishes’ personality changes may affect their lives—will it alter their ability to find a mate, or to survive, or to evade predators? But the zebrafishes’ behaviour is thought to be widely indicative. “If we’re seeing these effects in zebrafish in the lab,” says Johnson, “that means we’re likely to see these same effects in our native fish in our rivers and streams as well.”
A common pesticide appears to make tree wētā sluggish and shy, according to a study by Adele Parli, a master’s student at the University of Otago. Parli looked at the effects of the rat poison brodifacoum on Wellington tree wētā. Baits designed to kill mammals don’t kill invertebrates, according to current research, but it’s not known whether these poisons affect invertebrates in other ways. Parli’s study showed wētā found the brodifacoum baits appealing, and those that ate the baits came out of their refuges more often, and had lower levels of activity, less boldness and less aggression, compared to wētā that didn’t partake. But it’s not clear whether this is due to the brodifacoum itself, or whether these effects are caused by the cereal mix the toxin is contained in. (It could be that the wētā are stuffing themselves with carbs rather than their usual protein and becoming nutrient-deficient.) Without brodifacoum, many more wētā would be killed by rats or stoats. But behavioural ecologist Sheri Johnson suggests trying to repel wētā from eating the baits: “We need to know more about the long-term consequences of the changes in behaviour we observed.”
Hundreds of millions of years ago, mantis shrimps evolved technologies we’re still trying to copy.
The ability to change behaviour makes birds less vulnerable to extinction, according to a study of 8641 bird species around the world by researchers at McGill University in Canada. The scientists built a database of more than 3800 published observations of birds incorporating new foods into their diet, or feeding in new ways, then mapped this information against the birds’ risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They found that the birds’ ability to innovate predicted whether or not they’re in trouble. Examples of innovation included the carnivorous Himalayan griffon, which normally eats carrion, feeding on pine needles in India. Yellow-rumped warblers were observed sheltering inside a heated milking parlour during a cold spell in Canada and eating the dormant flies they found there. Black shags in Auckland timed their foraging trips with the Devonport ferry timetable, diving when a ferry had moored at the wharf in order to use the currents generated in the shallow water to catch confused fish. The authors also found that adaptability only helps birds facing habitat loss—it doesn’t improve prospects for birds that are overhunted or affected by invasive species.
Old bones are a staple of museum collections, but only a handful of people in New Zealand have the skills to prepare them for display. Recovering the skeleton of a large animal—rotting it down, preparing, cleaning and articulating it—is a long and demanding journey that only the most dedicated pursue.
Almost all garden snail shells coil to the right-hand side of their bodies. You’ll probably never see a left-coiled snail in your life—so when a retiree found one in his London garden, he sent it in to the University of Nottingham. Geneticist Angus Davison knew he had a rare snail on his hands—and with it, an opportunity to study asymmetry. He named the snail Jeremy (pictured above, on top of the ‘normal’ snail). So was Jeremy’s left-coiling shell a heritable condition? If Davison could get Jeremy to reproduce, he’d be able to find out. Trouble was, he’d have to find another left-handed snail first. Due to the location of snails’ reproductive organs, Jeremy wouldn’t be able to mate with a right-handed snail. Davison launched a media campaign to find Jeremy a mate. Citizen scientists around Great Britain carefully examined their garden snails. A snail farmer sent in a left-coiling snail, and a snail enthusiast found another. When the two were presented to Jeremy, they mated with each other. (Eventually, one mated with Jeremy.) And Davison got his answer. In paper published in Biology Letters in June, Davison found that lefty snails are the result of a developmental accident. In other words, a left-coiling shell isn’t heritable in the same way that left-handedness is in humans. Jeremy died at the age of two (or thereabouts) but was survived by 56 children. All of them have right-coiling shells.
Displaying animal skeletons in museums is just one of many reasons for preparing bones. Museums also maintain extensive collections of bones for the study of comparative anatomy. All vertebrate animals have skeletons based on the same plan, because they involved from a common ancestor. By comparing them side by side, researchers can study the process of evolution and the levels of relationship between species. Medical researchers can also gain insight into our own bodies by studying the anatomy of other animals. For this reason, far more bones are held in museum storage than are ever on display. One of the leading lights of comparative anatomy in New Zealand was Thomas Jeffrey Parker, who from 1880 until his early death in 1897, was a professor of biology at the University of Otago and curator of Otago Museum. Parker was a force of scientific enquiry and a masterful teacher who produced more than 40 scientific papers and numerous textbooks on biology. He was also an extraordinary preparator of animal remains. Many of his exquisite bone articulations are on display at Otago Museum, while a collection of painted skulls, with their individual bones artfully colour-coded, is still in use by university students a century after it was made. Among Parker’s many achievements was the development of a technique for preserving soft, biodegradable animal parts like cartilage and gut tissue using glycerine. The items he prepared in this way are still in a fine state, and provide a great resource for researchers. To this day, no one has managed to match Parker’s skill and prowess at using this technique.
Feijoas have become a New Zealand emblem. So how did they end up in Aotearoa, and how did we end up adoring them—to the point of obsession, for some—when feijoas have not really caught on anywhere else?
Scientists fight over old bones.
Ask your librarian to subscribe to this service next year. Alternatively, use a home network and buy a digital subscription—just $1/week...
Subscribe to our free newsletter for news and prizes