Over several years, Heidy Kikillus attached tiny GPS collars to cats and recorded their movements. Each cat wore the collar for a week, so Heidy and her colleagues could better understand feline behaviour.
Like tiny tangles of wool, the squiggles on this page show where Marmite, Zeus, Smudgy Bum and 100 other cats ventured over seven days. Some cats are homebodies, rarely venturing beyond their own backyard. Others roam suburban streets and parks, travelling over half a kilometre from home. The most mobile cat lives in a rural area, which is not shown on the map, and travelled 2.25 kilometres from home.
Life in the subantarctic is difficult enough for those who arrive prepared. In 1864, castaways from two storm-wrecked ships, the Grafton and the Invercauld, landed on opposite ends of Auckland Island. Survival became a daily challenge. Each group tackled it differently: one fell to violence and cannibalism, while the other became a close-knit brotherhood. Were the wildly different fates of men of the Grafton and the Invercauld down to luck—or leadership?
“To an outsider it may seem like some kind of climber’s secret society in which everyone knows the real name of the mountain,” says Gavin Lang, “as the name ‘Mount Humdinger’ won’t be found on any map.” Perhaps the name is a play on its neighbour, Mount Haidinger, or a reference to its high-quality rock. Lang, a photographer and mountain guide, spent an easy afternoon scaling it, the day after completing his goal of traversing the rarely climbed Ayres Ridge. Pat Gray leads into the second pitch of ‘Kahu’, a route first established in 2011. “This little outcrop of solid rock is indeed a humdinger of a mountain.”
Cats provide comfort, companionship and connection to the wild. Nearly half of all New Zealand households include a feline member. But now the country is at a crossroads—should we introduce stronger rules governing how we look after our most beloved companion animal?
During the two devastating earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, land in the suburbs east of Christchurch sank by a metre. What’s a city to do when an apocalyptic landscape appears right on its doorstep?
My family has always had cats, but never on purpose. Our first cat was left behind by our neighbours when they moved. We made the mistake of naming him, and after that, he was one of us. When he died, there was a respectful pause of a few months, as if the local feline community knew how much we’d loved him.
Then another cat started hanging around. She moved in, and after a while, we accepted the fact. She was terribly afraid of fires, and that made us wonder what her past held. When she started wobbling as she walked, and then had a stroke, it took even less time for another cat to turn up on our doorstep. This one was smaller, with patches of grey and white fur. It looked up at us imploringly, as if to say: “I’m here to apply for the cat vacancy.”
We don’t know where these cats came from. Our new cat doesn’t have other owners, we’re sure of it. It sleeps 23 hours a day in the basket of clean laundry, and runs pointlessly back and forth across the lawn. Somewhere in Auckland’s suburbs, it seems, there’s an inexhaustible supply of unloved cats.
A house is different with a cat in it. You’re never alone. Slowly, you learn each other’s idiosyncrasies. If you live alongside one another for long enough, you may even convince yourself the cat has a sixth sense for human emotion. From its muteness you will infer that it understands either everything or nothing.
Animals, and cats in particular, are a small piece of the wild embedded in our homes: inscrutable, unfathomable, nonsensical.
Most importantly, they don’t judge humans in the same way that humans judge each other. Being required by an animal is a meaningful experience, more important to us than it sounds.
It’s hard to reconcile wanting a house with a cat in it with wanting a forest resplendent with birds, but as Hayden Donnell points out, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. We can love our cats and give them rules, too.
New Zealand’s most famous feline embodies the difficulty of cat management. Every day, an enormous ginger cat called Mittens wanders central Wellington. He slopes into offices, rides elevators, leaps into cars, inspects shops. He is fearless and indiscriminate with his affection, and as a result he is much loved by the internet. His roaming is the very thing that cat-control advocates are trying to prevent.
But I think Mittens’ popularity also speaks to the desire for something wild in the middle of a city, something untameable. This issue investigates a few other aspects of the urban wild.
Christchurch has a massive park-in-waiting, one so large it’s hard to wrap your head around its scale. The Red Zone is almost twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, its razed suburbs a space for all.
And in all our cities can be found a network of rebel plants, growing despite attempts to manage them. As I discovered this spring, many of them are delicious.
The wild is here, alongside us. We just need to know how to see it.
When Juliet Arnott came across a pile of red-painted timber labelled ‘Firewood’ in the Christchurch suburb of Mount Pleasant, she paused. The stack of wood was on land that had once belonged to a church. The church had been badly damaged in the second Canterbury earthquake, along with the homes of many of its parishioners. In fact, so many people had moved out of the suburb that it wasn’t feasible to hold services, even though the church was repairable. So the building was sold and torn down to make way for a private house.
Thus the pile of rimu weatherboards. Arnott, an occupational therapist, had started a social enterprise, Rekindle, which aimed to make use of waste materials from the many residential demolitions taking place around Christchurch. Concerned about the loss of useful materials, especially native timber, Arnott set about showing how they could be repurposed. Foraged wood, such as the former gable ends of the Mount Pleasant Church, became tables and chairs.
Today, Rekindle operates according to the same kaupapa, though there isn’t the same influx of waste wood that first sparked Arnott’s imagination. Now, her focus is on education. Rekindle runs workshops in Christchurch’s Arts Centre teaching people how to use repurposed or foraged materials. Arnott calls these “resourceful crafts”.
Since then, Te Papa has acquired one of the red weatherboard chairs and a side table made of salvaged wood for its permanent collection: a record of a moment in time and a person who made the best of it.
Kūmarahou is a shrub that bursts into yellow blossoms in September, and plays an important medicinal role in rongoā Māori. Unfortunately, the plant’s scientific name, Pomaderris kumeraho, contains a crude insult in te reo Māori: “kumeraho” translates as “wanker”.
Botanist Allan Cunningham named the species in the late 1830s based on the field notes of his brother Richard Cunningham, who asked locals what they called the plant, and wrote down the name as he heard it—noting that Māori used its springtime flowering as a signal for planting “their Koomeras or sweet potatoes”. But the way he spelled it references other words in Māori: kume, meaning to pull or slide, and raho, meaning human genitalia.
Te Ahu Rei from Ngāti Tama pointed this out to Department of Conservation botanist Shannel Courtney, and with Unitec botanist Peter de Lange, Courtney put in a proposal to the governing body for plant taxonomy to change the name to Pomaderris kumarahou—the name they believe the Cunninghams intended.
Rude words aren’t unusual in botanical names. The word orchid derives from the Greek word for testicles, and plenty of plants are named for their phallus-like forms. One member of the pea family was named Clitoria ternatea after the suggestive shape of its flowers, while “coprosma” means “smells like poo”. Hūpiro, or Coprosma foetidissima, apparently had such a stench that the botanists who named it mentioned its smell twice, in both the genus and species name.
A committee will vote on the kūmarahou name proposal in 2023, when the next International Botanical Congress meets in Rio de Janeiro.
“What we’re trying to do is rectify an unfortunate misinterpretation or misspelling,” says de Lange, “rather than saying this is an offensive term.
“In the annals of New Zealand botany it is unique—a case of a Ngāti Tama elder coming to us with a problem that they kind of thought was funny, but that they really would like fixed—and us going through the appropriate channels to try to fix it.”
In search of nectar, a bumblebee must manoeuvre through an obstacle course of foliage—a surprising feat for a stubby insect. This flying skill is due in part to the bumblebee’s awareness of its own form.
Researchers trained bumblebees large and small to walk through a tunnel to retrieve sugar water. Every so often, the researchers would place a wall in the tunnel with a gap of varying width. The bee would buzz side-to-side, assessing the size of the opening, then adjust its position so its fuzzy body could angle neatly through. On occasion, the bee’s wingspan was larger than the gap. In these cases, the bee would spin wing-on to clear the tight gap.
By closely examining more than 400 flight paths down the tunnel, the researchers found that the extent of reorientation depended on the size of the gap relative to the individual’s wingspan. While smaller bees would flit through a mid-sized gap with no adjustment, bigger bees rotated to fit through, seemingly aware of their larger stature. This suggests that bumblebees have perception of their own size: an intriguing ability given the tiny size of the bee brain.
Size awareness is just one component of bee flight. Previous research revealed that bees navigate by measuring how fast the environment whizzes past them—a finding that has inspired the design of autonomous robots and drones.
Some female sharks and rays living in the deep ocean can store sperm inside their bodies for years at a time, until the moment is just right for conception.
Adèle Dutilloy from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) examined the reproductive organs of 147 female sharks and rays from nine species.
Inside three of those species—the longnose velvet dogfish, the leafscale gulper shark, and the smooth deep-sea skate—were microscopic tubes of sperm, hidden in a tiny gland that produces the egg case. Dutilloy suspects most deep-sea sharks and rays have this feature, but the tubes are tricky to find.
But why hoard sperm?
It’s possible that in the dark, lonely depths of the sea, males and females don’t run into each other very often, so keeping some sperm for later allows females to reproduce more regularly.
The second hypothesis is more disturbing. “Basically, there are gangs of male sharks, and when they encounter a solitary female, it’s all quite aggressive,” says Dutilloy. “When you see a female that’s been recently mated, she’ll have bite marks on the top of her back or on her fins. Females actually have more flesh on their backs than males do, to help account for that.”
Dutilloy and study co-author Matt Dunn think that long-term sperm storage means female sharks don’t mate as often, and suffer less physical injury.
Understanding the sex lives of these creatures gives scientists more insight into their life cycles—which in turn may shed light on whether they’re under threat from New Zealand’s trawl fisheries. “We know very little about them,” says Dutilloy.
A citizen-science project asking New Zealanders every Monday whether they had flu symptoms in the past week shows the impact of 2020’s COVID-19 lockdowns (bottom graph). Flu season failed to launch last winter, compared to previous years, with fewer people recording a cough, sore throat or fever. Government health data based on calls to Healthline paints a similar picture (top graph). Spikes in reported symptoms coincide with COVID-19 lockdowns, but overall, New Zealanders were less sick in 2020 than in previous years.
When rats are away, the reptiles will play. Twenty years after rats were eradicated from Kāpiti Island, a survey has revealed that native geckos and skinks are flourishing on the offshore wildlife haven.
Two sampling missions conducted 20 years apart—in 2014-15 and in 1994-96—provide a striking comparison.
In the island’s coastal grasslands, the abundance of northern grass skinks and brown skinks has doubled, while copper skink numbers have exploded—there are 28 times as many. Skinks were also found in new places: brown and grass skinks slinking in the kānuka forest, copper skinks atop the grassy ridges. A single specimen of the rare and cryptic ornate skink was recorded in the recent survey, too.
Meanwhile, geckos had increased nearly four times compared to pre-eradication numbers. Most were brown-grey Raukawa geckos, while a lone forest gecko was recorded in the high forest. Two brightly coloured Wellington green geckos were spotted.
Kāpiti’s reptiles don’t live a completely carefree life: the abundant weka on the island are voracious lizard-hunters. The omnipresent threat of a sharp weka beak forces the cold-blooded animals into low, dense vegetation for protection—which is where the survey team found most of the reptiles. The study provides strong evidence for the value of island eradications.
It’s April 15, 2020. Ashley Bloomfield reports 20 new cases of COVID-19 at the 1pm briefing. Everyone except essential workers is confined to their bubbles.
Looking back, if you felt stressed at this point of the lockdown, you weren’t alone. A survey of 2000 New Zealanders between April 15 and 18, 2020, revealed that Alert Level 4 negatively affected our wellbeing. In this snapshot, captured by researchers at the University of Otago, one-third of people surveyed felt moderate to high distress, with young people more likely to feel anxious. For some people, the lockdown intensified serious issues, with rates of family violence and suicidal feelings increasing. Our alcohol consumption patterns changed, too: 20 per cent of people drank more, and 20 per cent drank less.
For many, social media became the primary means of connecting with people beyond their bubble. Social media has a reputation as a driver of poor mental health, but new research suggests that how we socialise online affects us in different ways. Young people who spend more time posting updates, links and photos publicly have a higher risk of self-harm. Those who tend to compare themselves negatively with the highly curated online personas of others also report higher risk. In contrast, using social media to privately message friends appears to have a protective effect, associated with lower risk of self-harm.
Bacteria could mine rare-earth elements from space rocks, according to a study conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and published in Nature Communications.
There are 17 rare-earth elements essential to many aspects of modern life: they fuel rechargeable batteries in electric cars, illuminate smartphone screens, and enhance the efficiency of computer hard drives. But they’re tricky to extract from mineral deposits, as they tend to be fragmented and jumbled up with other elements.
Enter the humble microbe. Some microorganisms can separate rare-earth elements from rocks in a process dubbed “biomining”. Astronauts aboard the ISS put three bacteria species to the test, evaluating the microbes’ biomining skills in zero gravity and simulated Mars gravity.
The species Sphingomonas desiccabilis (pictured), found in arid Colorado soil, caused rare-earth elements to leach more quickly from the test rock, a slab of basalt.
We’re not sure exactly how the bacteria do this. Researchers suggest that S. desiccabilis may produce a lot of sticky sugar molecules that bind to heavy metals.
With accessible supplies of some rare-earth elements dwindling on our own planet, microbes could enable extraterrestrial mining to fulfil Earth’s demands, conclude the study’s authors. Yet, whether using bacteria or other means, the question of who has the right to pilfer rare metals from space rocks is still up for debate.
The soft mudstone cliffs of south Taranaki hold clues to creatures past. Fossil collectors unearthed seven specimens of an unknown species here, including a complete skull. Close analysis revealed this ancient animal was a monk seal—now extinct, but new to science.
The seal would have been a bit bigger than a sea-lion, reaching two and a half metres in length and weighing 200 to 250 kilograms, and would have frequented the waters around New Zealand some three million years ago. Researchers gave it a pop culture-inspired name: Eomonachus belegaerensis, after the largest ocean, Belegaer, in JRR Tolkien’s mythical world of Middle-earth.
The new seal has already rewritten history. Before now, monk seal fossils had been found only in the northern hemisphere, and the two living monk seal species are found in Hawaii and the Mediterranean. Monk seals are part of a sub-family called Monachinae, which also includes elephant seals and Antarctic seals.
There are several stories explaining seal evolution. The prevailing one goes that Monachinae evolved in the North Atlantic and travelled south. But with the discovery of a South Pacific monk seal, the scales tipped in favour of a different origin story. Perhaps all three types of Monachinae evolved in a “southern cradle”, and then some of the monk seals headed north.
Felix Marx, curator of marine mammals at Te Papa, is anticipating more finds. “New Zealand is incredibly rich in fossils, and so far we have barely scratched the surface,” he says. “Who knows what else is out there?”
New friends ARE more important than family traditions when it comes to finding food, according to new research on hihi/stitchbirds.
Hihi behaviour makes them perfect for investigating how songbirds communicate information to each other. Young hihi stick with their parents for around two weeks after learning to fly. Then they join a social group of other young juveniles, where they hang out for about three months. (Exactly why hihi form these temporary youth clubs is unknown.)
Researchers set up feeding stations near hihi nest boxes on Tiritiri Mātangi, a predator-free island sanctuary 30 kilometres north-east of central Auckland. The stations had a variety of openings through which the birds could find sugar water.
Young hihi initially copied the behaviour of their parents, following their choices of feeding station and entry point.
But once the hihi juveniles farewelled mum and dad and joined a group, they switched their habits to match the group—changing feeding stations or the opening they used. If one hihi swapped to a different group, its routine would change again to align with that of the new group.
Adult hihi, who might fleetingly tag along with a youth group, did not alter their habits to fit in with the majority.
Why did scientists name our iconic forest giants Agathis australis when the trees have been called kauri for hundreds of years?
Most of New Zealand’s iconic species were given scientific names by botanists during the colonial era, and the names they chose reflect the priorities and attitudes of the time.
Some species were named for people whom scientists wanted to impress or insult. (That trend continues today: in 2019, a newly discovered blind, burrowing amphibian was named Dermophis donaldtrumpi, in a nod to the United States president’s climate change denial.)
There are scientific names using racial slurs, like many South African species names deriving from “kaffir”. There’s Maoriblatta novaeseelandiae, in which scientists labelled a stinky black cockroach a “Māori bug”.
In a comment paper in the journal Communications Biology, biogeographers Len Gillman from AUT University and Shane Wright from the University of Auckland argue that taxonomic protocol should allow scientific names worldwide to be changed to get rid of irrelevant or offensive names, replacing them instead with long-held indigenous ones.
For example, Agathis australis could become Agathis kauri. Wright, who is Māori, would like to see another endemic conifer, Prumnopitys taxifolia, renamed Prumnopitys mataī—the Māori name implying chiefly leadership.
Meanwhile, botanist Peter de Lange, who reviewed the paper, foresees some problems with the proposal. Which Māori dialect would prevail? Would Moriori names get a look-in? Should tūī be incorporated into Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae, when before the 1930s most Māori called the birds koko? What about mānuka, which until the 1930s was used to describe kānuka? (Mānuka was called kahikātoa.)
Gillman and Wright point out that the concept would only work in the small number of cases where there is one consistent indigenous name across the whole of a species’ range, or where groups can agree on a name to use.
So far, the idea has seen both pushback and support from the international taxonomic community, which doesn’t surprise Gillman. “Before you get change, you have vigorous debate.”