But what has their colour-changing ability got to do with their tendency towards violence?
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But what has their colour-changing ability got to do with their tendency towards violence?
It doesn’t make sense that octopuses can camouflage themselves so well—because they can’t see any of the colours they’re matching.
Even by avian standards, bitterns are wickedly shy. They’re quick, too, and very good at vamoosing in the raupō wetlands they favour. Their camouflage is such that even if an exceptionally brazen bittern stalked up and stood right in front of you, you might not see it. “People who’ve managed to photograph one are pretty happy about it,” said Craig McKenzie, who took on the tough assignment of shooting a whole feature’s worth of frames. In 20 years of photographing New Zealand birds McKenzie had only seen a single bittern. The first one he saw on the ground—stalking in a pond as he came around a corner—flew off in the few seconds it took to get his gear set up. The key, McKenzie realised, was to lie in wait. We heard of a birdwatcher who’d found the perfect stake-out spot. She shared her secret, but asked us not to reveal the location. So, picture a rural road beside a wetland on the West Coast. Picture a pair of bitterns wandering along a drainage channel beside that road, every dawn and dusk. Stay in the car, we were told, and they’d stay put. Beauty. McKenzie did, one morning in the car, but he didn’t like the angle, sat up above the wetland. No bitterns came close enough that first day, anyway. The next morning he arrived in the dark, crawling under a camouflage net thrown over a bush the previous evening. “I could see some of the open water and the drainage channels they were using,” he said. If a bittern came through there, he’d get a good shot. Nothing on the second morning. McKenzie had been watching this patch of wetland for something like 10 hours now. Then, two hours after dawn on the third morning, boom. He saw a bittern, just its head, bobbing along in the distance above the reeds. Closer. Closer. Finally, the bird wandered over to the channel McKenzie was staking out, and started to walk towards the perfect spot. It came almost within range—then pivoted and walked away. “A bitter disappointment.” But wait—it turned again. The bird walked straight past the photographer, twice. Must have been a very silent sort of yahoo moment? “Oh yes,” said McKenzie. “It was all very internal.”
Speargrass has a fearsome reputation among those who venture into the high country, owing to its needle-sharp, lance-like defences. Its name, taramea, literally means “spiny thing”. Surprisingly, it belongs to the carrot family. Early accounts record Māori hauling the plants out with a rope and cooking the roots and the flower stalk in an umu—or eating them raw. Some claimed the roots tasted better than turnips. But the plant’s most important use for Māori was as a key ingredient in perfume—its fragrant gum gives off a pleasant and lasting scent. The whole process of extracting gum from the plant was subject to tapu. “It was the work of the women to prepare it and they went about this in the old time-honoured way,” wrote James Herries Beattie in Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Māori. The tia, or gum, was only collected by young girls after appropriate karakia were performed. Collectors of the gum had to sleep with their knees drawn up; if they slept lying straight, the gum would flow from the plant and be lost. The plant was cut in the evening and the gum was collected at dawn while the dew was still on it. Sometimes a fire of dry grass was lit under the plant to hasten the flow of the semi-transparent gum, which was then fixed in fat—usually refined from weka, tūī, kereru, tītī, kurī or kiore. Scent recipes were many and varied. Taramea gum could be blended with oil from miro berries, pia tarata (gum extracted from lemonwood stems), mokimoki (an aromatic fern), karetū (fragrant grass), hioi (New Zealand mint), kōpuru moss collected from rocks in the dampest and deepest part of the forest, or the fragrant flowers and roots of pātōtara. It was sometimes suspended around the neck in a hollow piece of wood or bone, a bunch of feathers, or a scent bag (hei-taramea). The wearer’s body heat slowly melted the scent, wafting perfume up to their nostrils. In the last decade, a Ngāi Tahu rūnanga began developing a commercial taramea scent venture, and its first products were released under the brand name Mea in 2019.
Record low Antarctic sea ice in the spring of 2022 caused four emperor penguin colonies to suffer “catastrophic breeding failure”. Since 2009, Peter Fretwell and colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey have used satellite imagery to monitor penguin colonies at five remote sites in the Bellingshausen Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. These birds have never seen a human, but we can detect the brown staining of their poo from space. The scientists estimate about 9000 chicks typically hatch on the ice here each spring, with 6000-8000 surviving to fledge in December. But in 2022, Fretwell watched anxiously as the waves edged closer to the animals. Well before the chicks had developed their waterproof feathers, the ice melted underneath three of the five colonies. The thousands of young penguins likely drowned, or froze to death due to their lack of insulation. If they did manage to scramble onto a drifting iceberg, there was only a slim chance of their parents finding them again. A fourth colony was perched high on the ice shelf. Penguins there were not pitched into the frigid ocean—but the melting sea ice dissolved a snow ramp the adult birds used to climb to the colony after they’d been fishing. Unable to reach their chicks, the adults were forced to abandon them. Only the Rothschild colony, containing perhaps 800 chicks, avoided disaster. This spring, Fretwell says, is looking “worse still”. As this issue went to press in mid-October, the scientists had already watched the ice melt beneath one colony, and several others looked vulnerable. Multiple years of breeding failure spells trouble for emperor penguins long-term—and they’re just the canary in the coalmine. “Emperor penguins are the things we can see,” says Fretwell. “They’re our window on this world.”
The bittern’s eerie, booming call sounds like a lament, a tangi ringing across the marshes. Now, the birds themselves are in trouble.
Sometimes you need to dress to impress a potential mate—or rival. Mostly, you need to fade into the background so you don’t get eaten.
The market—and human appetite—are often to blame for ecosystem destruction. But in the case of kina barrens, they might be part of the solution.
In Brazil’s once vast Atlantic Forest, Laury Cullen Jr. has created a model for forest restoration that allows wildlife to flourish, local communities to gain employment and landowners to meet their legal obligations.
When we asked Adrian Malloch to go on an armyworm hunt for our feature, he was delighted. A few months prior, he’d found a strange-looking caterpillar in his garden, and fired a photo of it off to MPI. Next day the phone rang. He was the first person in Auckland to report a confirmed sighting of fall armyworm, an invasive and extremely hungry caterpillar. Malloch’s realised that in his garden, the armyworms like to hide under paving stones. Like many gardeners, he has been using BTK (Bacillus thuringiensis Kurstaki) to try to keep numbers in check. Of course, there are other tried-and-true methods. Do armyworms make for a satisfying squish? Malloch laughs. “I didn’t used to love it, but I really do now.”
On a remarkably still winter’s day, photographer Rob Suisted took his six-year-old son out of school to see mollymawks. For once, Cook Strait was a millpond, and the pair set off in Suisted’s boat, planning to photograph the passing albatrosses and send the pictures back to the boy’s class. What they found instead was a feeding frenzy. The pair saw mollymawks, but they weren’t flying past—they were sitting expectantly on the water. Then Suisted saw the splashing. Around 20 Kekeno/New Zealand fur seals were diving into the depths over a seamount, and hauling up glistening silver frostfish the length of a person. “The fish were too big to eat in one go, so they had to eat them like frankfurters—from the tail end first, which was not too nice for the fish!” says Suisted. The seals would thrash the frostfish from side to side, sending water and flesh flying, and attracting petrels and mollymawks to the melée. Over other seamounts nearby, the same thing was happening, and the drama played out all day. “It was definitely an event,” says Suisted. Sword-like pāra/frostfish are common in western Cook Strait says NIWA fisheries scientist Richard O’Driscoll. They are themselves ferocious predators that live at depths of 50-600 metres, but he’s never heard of them getting ripped apart by seals at the surface in this way. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about them,” he says. Before deepwater fishing, pāra were mainly encountered washed up fresh on beaches. In some Māori stories, they ran aground while chasing the moon; early European settlers believed they deliberately stranded themselves on calm, frosty winter nights—hence the name.
Once upon a time, raucous, stinking colonies of seabirds blanketed huge areas of Aotearoa’s mainland, each burrow and poo and eggshell helping fuel the forests. Those birds are gone now—but a new modelling tool gives a fascinating glimpse of what once was.
Armyworms are ravenous. They decimate crops and will take a thriving vege garden down to stalks overnight. Then they’ll come inside and eat your houseplants. They’ve been in New Zealand a long time but this summer, they boomed—and an even hungrier cousin blew in from over the ditch.
Hector’s and Māui dolphins are dying in nets—but their biggest foe might be a virus carried by cats. Can transformative tech cut through the tangle and save the creatures at the heart of it?
How do animals know where they’re going? Humans have been puzzling over the mysteries of migration and navigation for centuries, and our ideas about it have gone from absolutely wild to only slightly less so.
Lines on a map have led to countless conflicts over the centuries. But in Chad, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist and defender of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, is using maps to try and avoid conflicts that are being exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.
At least one important population of orange roughy is in much worse shape than we thought. Submissions on new fishing catch limits close on Monday. Officials say “the status quo is not an option.”
Waitangiroto Nature Reserve is the only nesting area for kotuku in New Zealand. Some 140 birds breed in New Zealand, always within the same stretch of stream, laying three eggs per nest—all eggs hatch but only one or two survive. The birds were discovered by surveyor Gerhard Mueller in 1865, but had diminished to just six nests by 1877 due to demand for feathers for fashion.
Glow worms love damp, dark conditions with little wind, like here the Ananui/Metro cave system, perhaps the largest colony of glowworms in the South Island. The light is the result of a chemical reaction between luciferin (a waste product), the enzyme lucifarse, ATP and oxygen. It attracts prey which get caught in the sticky silk threads. The worms live for only nine months, after which they pupate into a fungus gnat.
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