Rod Morris

Crouching Spider, Hidden Beetle

A green crab spider lurks in a well defended hideaway among flowers of the stinging tree nettle, Urtica ferox, ready to seize not just the day, but whatever prey passes by. Crab spiders, modest in size and always well camouflaged, are wait-and-pounce hunters with good vision. Like many of our invertebrates and small plants, they are invisible to all but the sharpest-eyed of human observers—all the more reason to celebrate their existence.

Written by       Photographed by Rod Morris

The unusual New Zealand fairy lantern, Thismia rodwayi, is related to orchids, and is the only member of its family to occur outside the tropics. For most of the year, the plant exists as a white root devoid of chlorophyll and deriving its nutrients from association with a mycorrhizal fungus. For three weeks over summer, the plant sends up 1.5 cm flowers shaped like a bishop’s mitre—the only time the species can be detected.
Springtails (the Collembola family) are minute insects common in leafmould and decaying wood. New Zealand possesses the world’s largest springtails, among them Holocanthella paucipinosa, a handsome 15 mm beast that looks like a cross between a hedgehog and a peripatus. Unlike many springtails, these local giants do not leap, lacking the propulsive structure beneath the tail that gives the group its name.
Many insects, including the two shown on these pages are camouflaged to near invisibility. The green cranefly, Macromastic viridis, is one of at least 500 species of “daddy-longlegs” known from New Zealand, and they are probably our largest family of flies. Ironically, many species are flightless. Craneflies are most abundant near water; this individual was photographed at Lake Kaniere, on the West Coast.
The male in this mating couple has a particularly massive jaw. The 8 mm Powelliphanta snail eggs from Golden Bay sat for eight months in captivity before hatching, and the process of hatching took another 10 days. A fine crack appeared around the equator of the egg, and over successive days it was widened by the infant snail’s radula rasping away from the inside. Eventually, a large amount of the shell—similar in composition to that of a bird’s egg—was ingested, for calcium is a valuable resource for a young snail needing to grow its shell.
The flower fungus, Aseroe rubra, belongs to a strange family of fungi called stinkhorns, named for their use of unpleasant odours to attract the flies which spread their spores. The red fruiting body of this widespread species emerges from a 3 cm puffball-like case.
The filmy delicacy of lacewings belies their rapaciously predatory habits, and the 2 cm Kempynus incisus here devouring a mayfly is entirely typical of the group. Lacewing larvae are often known as antlions, in recognition of their powerful pincer-like jaws used to seize other insects. Kempynus, here photographed at Ohakune, flies after dark, deep in native forest.

When we think of native plants and animals, it is invariably the large species that spring to mind first. And these days, with our increased awareness of the havoc wrought by human activity on nature’s domain, our second thought will be for conservation. Few of us can be unaware that many of the birds which in prehuman times fluttered or strutted about Aotearoa have become extinct in the past 500 or so years.

Then there are the whales, hunted to the brink of extinction over the past two centuries to oil the wheels of commerce. In this country, marine mammals and birds are at the heart of our conservation concerns.

Descending a branch or two down the phylogenetic tree, a few lizards and frogs kept the birds company on the road to oblivion, but, perhaps surprisingly, not a lot else has become extinct that we know of.

The truth is that recent extinctions have afflicted mainly larger species, while the vast bulk of our biodiversity resides with more primitive and smaller organisms—the fungi, plants, bacteria and invertebrates that still populate our forests, fields and waters.

Compared with the 230-240 species of birds still inhabiting these islands, there are estimated to be 20,000 species of fungi in New Zealand. Of these, no more than 4500 species are even slightly known. It is estimated that 90 per cent of New Zealand’s 2500 species of vascular plants depend on fungi for their existence, the plants’ roots forming beneficial symbiotic associations with the fungal mycelium.

"The small, the unusual and the insignificant have always appealed to me,” says Dunedin-based photographer and film-maker Rod Morris, here photographing a native earthworm in Fiordland.
“The small, the unusual and the insignificant have always appealed to me,” says Dunedin-based photographer and film-maker Rod Morris, here photographing a native earthworm in Fiordland.

About 20 per cent of fungi form lichens—fungi with algae living within their tissues. At an estimated 1500 species, our lichen flora is rich by world standards.

Thirty-four of Earth’s 35 animal phyla are invertebrates. Largest among them in terms of spe­cies numbers is the Arthropoda, consisting of four main groups: myriapods (centipedes and millipedes), arachnids (spiders, mites and scorpions), insects and crustaceans. Some 10,000 insect species have been described from New Zealand, but the true tally of our insect species is likely to be closer to 20,000. As many as 600 species of millipedes may exist here, and 2600 species of spider are so far known from our islands, with more awaiting description—an unusual wealth compared with many other parts of the world.

We are also rich in flatworms, with probably 200 local species. (By com­parison, Europe has six species.) Land snails, too, are a major group in the forests of New Zealand. Those species large enough to make a decent morsel for a rat or pig have been sharply curtailed in range, but rarely completely exterminated, while there could be 600 or more tiny species, often occupying very localised areas.

Then there are roundworms (nematodes), regular worms (annelids) and countless groups of minute or aquatic species such as tardigrads.

With large organisms it is feasible to take measures to protect or enhance the survival of a single species (such as the stitchbird, reported on elsewhere in this issue), but as species diminish in size, this approach becomes less practical, hence the value of protecting habitats by setting aside parks and reserves. Although we often still think of these as habitats for large species, their real value lies in their significance to the many small and little appreciated species that make up most of our biota.

Given that we probably possess well over 50,000 terrestrial species in New Zealand, most of them little known, the 15 species shown in this sampling of images, captured by photographer Rod Morris’s perceptive lens, can give only the barest of glimpses into the microcosmos that surrounds us.

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