Introduction

Three Department of Conservation (DOC) scientists have joined an expedition to the Kermadec Islands that expects to find new species of animal and plant life.

Three Department of Conservation (DOC) scientists have joined an expedition to the Kermadec Islands that expects to find new species of animal and plant life.

Diver with fish.
Diver with two-spot demoiselles and drummer, Meyer Is, Kermadecs

The 20-day expedition, led by Dr Tom Trnski, the marine curator at Auckland Museum, left Tauranga on the research vessel Braveheart yesterday (Tuesday May 10) and will take two days to reach the Kermadecs, 1000 km north east of New Zealand.

The Kermadec region is one of the last relatively untouched wilderness areas in the world. It teems with marine life - whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and sea birds - with a high proportion of animal and plant species that exist nowhere else. Yet the region remains largely unexplored by scientists.

“It’s an amazing place for scientists to explore because you don’t know what you’ll find or its significance,” says expedition member Peter de Lange, an endangered plants specialist at DOC. “With plants you never know. You may find something that has major significance in an area like medicine.”

Fellow expedition member Clinton Duffy, a marine scientist at DOC, says the Kermadec region provides a sentinel site between the tropics and the temperate zone of mainland New Zealand that is ideally placed for monitoring climate change.

The Kermadecs are also at the heart of New Zealand’s largest marine reserve, 745,000 hectares of unfished ocean. This provides a source of information that could be used to help sustainably manage New Zealand’s marine environment that earns the country more than a billion dollars a year in exports.

The third DOC scientist on the expedition, Warren Chinn, an invertebrates ecologist, says the Kermadecs are globally significant as evolution laboratories where unique species have evolved in ecological niches unmodified by humans for millions of years.

”Each species is a book with new information. We need to protect these species and the places they live so the world can learn from them.”

The Kermadec Islands and the marine reserve that surrounds them are managed by DOC. Twelve of the islands are uninhabited. Four DOC staff and four volunteers live and work on Raoul, the largest island in the group.

The 15 scientists on the Kermadec expedition are from Auckland Museum, DOC, Te Papa, NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) and the Australian Museum in Sydney.

“New discoveries will be made on the Kermadec expedition,” says leader Dr Tom Trnski.

“The remoteness and isolation of the Kermadecs means only a fraction of information has been collected about its marine life. The species have been left to their own devices without intrusion from humans. It is like a journey back in time.”

Warren Chinn and Peter de Lange are the only scientists on the expedition carrying out research on land. They hope to get onto all the islands to collect plant and animal life.

Warren Chinn will be collecting invertebrates such as beetles, spiders, weta, crickets and grasshoppers. “It’s the first significant invertebrate collection on the Kermadecs. I’m sure I’ll be finding new species.”

Peter de Lange says one of his goals on the expedition is to save a critically endangered species of daisy that exists only on Esperance Island. He’ll be gathering seed material on the 4.8 hectare island for preserving in a seed bank for threatened plants in Palmerston North. 

Clinton Duffy will be collecting baseline data to determine the abundance of spotted black grouper that is protected in New Zealand waters. The Kermadecs is the only area where the spotted black grouper has never been fished. Clinton says the fact the area is unfished enables scientists to examine marine food chains undisrupted by human activity which can provide valuable information for managing fish populations.

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