Hundreds of Japanese species have now rafted to the United States on debris following the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami—the biggest biological rafting event ever witnessed. Scientists say this is due to the rise of plastics and other synthetic materials, which create highly durable rafts. The 2011 magnitude 9.1 earthquake off eastern Japan created a tsunami of up to 40.5 metres. In the past six years, US scientists have collected 620 pieces of debris from the tonnes that washed up after crossing the northern Pacific Ocean. Within the debris were more than 300 species from Japan—invertebrates and fish, swimming in boat compartments. Larger debris such as buoys, crates, posts, beams, boats and docks supported a higher number of species. Some short-lived species bred for several generations aboard the debris. Life forms have always rafted to other continents, especially after natural disasters. But while natural rafts are made of materials such as tree and kelp debris, modern debris from coastal development contains non-biodegradable materials such as fibreglass and plastic—tough rafts that last longer distances. When it comes to spreading invasive species, say the authors of the study, published in Science, these rafts are even more effective than boat ballast. They are slow-moving, giving the hitchhikers aboard time to grow and adapt to new conditions, and they can wash up on pristine coastlines. Lead investigator James Carlton says this transporting of invasive species by marine debris is set to become more common, with the increase in climate-change-driven storms likely to send more debris into the ocean.
What’s an albatross’s favourite food? New research looking at DNA in albatross droppings found up to 50 per cent of it was jellyfish. An international group of researchers studied eight black-browed albatross colonies dotted around the Southern Hemisphere, including one on New Zealand’s subantarctic Campbell Island. Certain types of jellyfish (hydrozoa and scyphozoa) had been devoured in 42 per cent of samples—and up to 80 per cent in some sites. Some jellyfish was even fed to chicks, which surprised researchers as jellyfish is low-energy food compared with fish. Moreover, albatrosses chose jellyfish whether jellyfish were blooming or not—or in other words, they were not just making do when fish were crowded out by a jellyfish bloom. Previous studies of albatross diet focused on their stomach contents—hard beaks of cephalopods, crustacean exoskeletons and fish bones. Gelatinous sea life wasn’t found, probably because it is digested quickly.
Most introduced mammals have had a devastating effect on native wildlife, but one species is bucking the trend. About 80 conservation dogs are deployed around the country, helping to protect vulnerable native species by leaping into action at a single command: Seek!
Kauri create shelter and nourishment for other species to grow, but now, a disease without a cure is killing these forest giants one by one. In the past five years, the infection rate of kauri has more than doubled in the only forest where it's monitored—the Waitakere Ranges. At least one in five trees there are doomed. Can we save the species?
Old barn owls have young ears, still sharp at an age when mammals would be deaf, according to new research by Germany’s University of Oldenburg. This is because all birds can regrow damaged hair cells in the inner ear, while mammals have lost the ability to do so. Barn owls (Tyto alba) locate and catch prey in darkness using their hearing alone, and their ears specialise in high frequencies—the region where humans and other mammals usually lose their hearing. When a range of barn owls of different ages were tested, all had flawless hearing—even an extremely old 23-year-old. Studies on elderly starlings and invertebrates have also shown inner-ear hair-cell regeneration. The human body has the ability to repair the ear’s vestibular system, which means that we retain our sense of balance, even in old age. Study author Ulrike Langemann says this suggests the genetic switch for hearing regeneration is still there in humans, but in “off-mode” for our inner-ear hair cells. The quest to switch it on is an active field of research.
This issue of New Zealand Geographic went to print almost 20 years to the day after a science-fiction film by a young screenwriter and director from Paraparaumu opened in cinemas in the United States. It envisaged a future where people are genetically engineered, creating an upper class of physically ‘superior’ humans and an underclass of ordinary people whose parents couldn’t afford to tweak their DNA. Gattaca was Andrew Niccol’s first film. It bombed at the box office, but has since acceded to the rank of a classic. In 2012, it topped NASA’s list of the “most-realistic” science fiction films ever made. I was dubious about paying a return visit to its vision of the future, but I discovered that Gattaca has barely aged: its concerns about genetic engineering are the same ones we are still facing today. Since 1997, we haven’t come any closer to answering the question: If we can edit our DNA, where do we draw the line between the eradication of disease and the improvement of other physical qualities? We can’t wait another 20 years to decide. Since 2012, we’ve all of a sudden become really, really good at editing genes. Though we’ve been able to tinker with DNA for decades, only recently has it become possible to make very precise changes very quickly. That’s because the tools are different: we’re using a scalpel rather than an excavator claw. The technology described in Kate Evans’s story is going to dramatically reshape the world around us. So we need to make up rules for how we will use it, and fast. Trouble is, the technology for editing genes—known as CRISPR—has outstripped our understanding of genes themselves. “A geneticist said to me, ‘It feels like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it’,” said ethicist Josephine Johnston, at a public talk in Auckland about gene editing. Data deficiency is a bit of a theme in this issue of the magazine. We don’t know very much about whitebait, except that we’re probably on the cusp of losing them, and we’ll need to make a number of decisions in the absence of complete data if we want to be scoop-netting them every spring for the next 20 years. Nor do we know very much about what lives in the vast blue expanse of our territorial seas, or how our actions impact those species, yet we will increasingly be called to make decisions that affect them. We cannot let the unknown prevent us from taking action. As Jennifer Doudna, the first person to demonstrate how CRISPR works, said of the tool she helped invent: “People will use the technology whether we know enough about it or not.” One place to begin is to address the values that we, as a society, hold close. When we lack data about the species in the world around us, we make decisions—such as decisions to learn more—based on those values. Concerns over gene editing causing discrimination against certain people or characteristics exist because those attributes are already discriminated against. Gattaca’s gene-edited humans are tall and strong and healthy and beautiful because we’re biased against the sick, the weak, the short, the ugly. Social views dictate our use of science, not the other way around, and we should begin any decision-making process by taking a careful, open-minded look at our values and the shape of the society that we want.
Octopuses are solitary, except for when they breed. But gloomy octopuses (Octopus tetricus) have been spotted shacking up together in a mass settlement—for the second time. Up to 15 octopuses live within arm’s reach on rocky outcroppings in Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales, in dens they have sculpted from shells and other remains of their prey. The settlement has been named Octlantis. The first one, discovered in 2009 with up to 16 octopuses and also located in Jervis Bay, was named Octopolis—and was considered an anomaly. It’s not clear why the octopuses have decided to keep close company. Interactions filmed between them involve antagonistic colour changes, morphing, and chasing.
Barely seven per cent of New Zealand is land. The rest of it, the wet bit, covers four million square kilometres. In 2016, photographer Richard Robinson won a Canon Personal Project Grant that enabled a dozen expeditions into this vast marine prairie, arguably the country’s last great tract of undisturbed wilderness.
Ancient whales had ferocious teeth—so how did some become baleen-bearing filter feeders? University of Monash researchers have shed light on this evolutionary mystery. Thirty million years ago, their theory goes, some whales began sucking in their prey instead of biting, slowly losing their teeth in the process until only thick, horny gums remained. A fossilied whale tooth, below, shows horizontal marks thought to have been caused by suction rather than biting. When the Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed, small prey boomed, and these more intricate gums filtered it better. Baleen was born.
The sign of a healthy ecosystem is an abundance of top predators. The Kermadecs is thronging with sharks.
There's safety in numbers, and in caves at the Kermadecs.
We have five parakeet species that we can call our own. One lives in the subantarctic, one on the Chathams, and three on the mainland—red, yellow and orange. If you’ve visited a sanctuary, you might have heard their chattering and glimpsed a flash of lime green in the understorey. You might have even got close enough to tell what you were looking at—to see the red mask over their eyes, or a yellow stripe rising over their heads like a mohawk. You probably didn’t see an orange-fronted parakeet—and you’d be able to tell by the pumpkin-coloured band above their beak—because orange-fronts are in a terrific amount of trouble. We’re not very good at protecting them, and it’s not for want of trying. The Department of Conservation has already attempted the interventions that have worked for other species. DOC kills more than 95 per cent of the predators that roam the forest valleys in Canterbury that the orange-fronts call home. A sanctuary breeds the birds in safety, then they’re released on offshore islands, where, free from threat, the birds fail to thrive. Today, the orange-fronted parakeet is widely described as “stuffed”. It looks likely that the destruction of the parakeets’ habitat is driving their decline, and that’s difficult to fix. Whatever the orange-fronted parakeets require has been lost, and we can’t recreate it for them because we don’t know what it was. Perhaps the layer of the forest that they prefer to browse has been stripped by deer and goats. Perhaps their preferred food is no longer available, and, added to all the other environmental changes they have faced in the last century, they can’t cope. DOC lists about 2700 threatened and at-risk species, in varying degrees of trouble. Some of those are clawing back ground—record breeding seasons of takahē, kākāpō, kiwi and whio being among the success stories. But some native wildlife does not have a good prognosis, and this issue’s story on orange-fronted parakeets will be the first in a series examining the fauna most at risk of being lost without dramatic intervention. Keep an eye on nzgeo.com/curtain-call. These species are diverse, but have one thing in common—our one-size-fits-all backup strategy doesn’t work for them. We rely on being able to rescue endangered wildlife by sequestering breeding pairs on predator-free islands. But the species in our curtain call all have habitat requirements that those islands can’t provide. Some of these species might surprise you. Some of them seem numerous now, but their population is in freefall. Some of them you have probably never seen in the wild, but you may have heard their calls, or eaten them for lunch. We look to the Predator Free 2050 moonshoot as the universal saviour of our threatened species, but evidence shows that the orange-fronted parakeet’s problems don’t all have four legs and a stomach. It would be concerning if support for a wide range of conservation services—research, habitat restoration, ecosystem preservation—is withdrawn in favour of predator eradication. And in the case of the orange-fronts, a predator-free mainland won’t make a difference. Either we fund the research and intensive care the parakeet requires, or witness this long goodbye, where conservation staff have just enough resources to try, but not quite enough to make a difference.
Twice the kākāriki karaka has returned from the dead. Orange-fronted parakeets were declared extinct in 1919 and again in 1965, but each time, the birds were concealed deep in the beech-forested valleys of Nelson and Canterbury. Now, the bird is approaching its third extinction, and this time, rangers have already scoured the valleys for hidden strongholds. This time, there isn’t a secret population waiting in the wings.
Every summer, a plague of wasps gathers, ruining picnics, harassing trampers and disrupting ecosystems. Wasps outcompete bees for food, costing New Zealand about $130 million each year in loss of honey and pasture crops. Where wasps abound, biodiversity suffers: butterflies disappear, songbirds stop breeding and invertebrate communities are looted. But there’s hope on the horizon. Scientists are developing weapons, both biological and genetic, in a bid to cure the pestilence, once and for all.
There are some species in New Zealand so neglected, so obscure, so fiendishly difficult to protect that they will likely topple over the edge into oblivion in the near future. Over the next few months we will feature—one by one—the species soon to join the ranks of the disappeared. They may not be the ones you expect...
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