Nic Toki at Burwood Takahē centre
Image: Julie Harvey | DOC
The DOC Sounds of Science podcast is hosted by our Threatened Species Ambassador Nic Toki.
Nic interviews our conservation experts and scientists to bring you a deep dive into some of the work happening in the conservation space.
With an extensive career in conservation, Nic’s mission as Threatened Species Ambassador is to advocate for our threatened native plants and animals. Day to day, she’s also on the senior leadership team for the Biodiversity Group in DOC.
She believes that while New Zealanders’ sense of self-definition is bound up with the love of the natural world, there can be a disconnect between what we think and what is really happening out there.
She always has the mantra of her hero, David Attenborough, in the back of her mind: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no-one will care about what they have never experienced.”
Episode 2: The DOC vet
From kākāpō to kiwi, Kate McInnes is vet to all of New Zealand’s native species. It’s a one-of-a-kind job! Listen to Kate talk about avian lesions, kākāpō sperm and birds with salmonella.
Kate and Nic also reveal the humble origins of the now infamous ‘sperm helmet’, on display at Te Papa National Museum.
The birdsong used in this episode is a dawn chorus with tui in the foreground.
Learn more about what to plant to support birds and wildlife.
Music is Let’s get down to business by Cast of Characters.
Te reo translation:
- Kia ora! Ko Nic Toki tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki nga Sounds of Science.
Hi! My name is Nic Toki and this is a podcast about Sounds of Science
- Tēnā koe Nic. Kō Kate McInnes tōku ingoa, Kei Te Papa Atawhai ahau e mahi ana.
Hello Nic. My name is Kate McInnes and I work at the Department of Conservation.
[TUI DAWN CHORUS BIRDSONG]
Nic: Kia ora koutou I’m Nic Toki, New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador, and this is the DOC Sounds of Science podcast!
Kia ora! Ko Nic Toki tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki nga Sounds of Science.
Every episode, we talk about work being done behind the scenes by DOC’s technical experts, scientists, rangers and the experts in between.
Today, I am very excited. We have our Department of Conservation vet on the show, Kate McInnes!
Kate: Tēnā koe Nic. Kō Kate McInnes tōku ingoa, Kei Te Papa Atawhai ahau e mahi ana.
Nic: Tino pai! I want to talk to you desperately, because I've always been a big fan of you and your work, and especially because you've got such a unique role in the Department. So, can you tell us a bit about what your role is and what it entails?
Kate: Yeah, Nic. I mean, I have the most amazing job. It's incredibly varied. There's no typical day. So one day, I might be writing a document with bureaucratic language. Next day, I'm out in the field collecting swabs from a lizard.
And then the day after that, I'm teaching some people how to bandage a bird's wing. So really, my job is massively varied and it just covers anything to do with wildlife disease, health, preventative medicine, that kind of stuff.
Nic: That is such a huge array of work and there's only one of you, so how on earth do you make that work?
Kate: Yeah, really good question, Nic. So there's actually 1.2 of me now. I have another vet one day a week, and she takes care of all the wildlife rehabilitation stuff. So that is her portfolio, and I deal with everything else.
But I like to see myself as a cog in a wheel. So it's not actually just me. I have this fantastic network across DOC, MPI, conservation workers, universities, vets who do wildlife work. So really, I'm just there making it all happen and giving a central focus to it, but then like farming the work out to all the fantastic people who are interested.
Nic: How did you start your kind of career in this field?
Kate: When I was a kid growing up outside of Brisbane, Australia, I loved Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. And I wanted to be a park ranger, like Ranger Hammond and have my own helicopter and fly around. And then I got into vet school because I had lots of pets and loved animals.
So I did that for five years-- did dogs, and cats, and whatever wildlife came in the clinic. And then I came to New Zealand because I wanted to be a park ranger. I wanted to get back to what I wanted as a kid.
And so I did that for a couple of years, working for DOC. And then the Kākāpō Team came along and said, would you like to be a ranger and a vet? And I was like, dream come true.
So they put me in a helicopter, flew me out to Whenua Hou and my career began.
Nic: Oh. And you would've just been imagining old Skippy the Bush Kangaroo--
Nic: --that whole trip.
Nic: As a little aside, someone told me that-- because I used to watch Skippy the Bush Kangaroo … I imagine, some of our listeners probably never heard of it. But it was a great show, for those of us in the slightly older, Gen X …
Kate: Oh no, I've given my age away.
Nic: --kind of bracket.
All you millennials out there might be struggling. Someone told me that you know those scenes where you see Skippy, like flying the helicopter, that it was one of those bottle openers that had kangaroo paws as the handle.
Kate: Yeah, it wasn't the whole kangaroo flying that helicopter. No.
Nic: Childhood dreams crushed in an instant.
Nic: So what's the difference, I suppose, from being a wildlife vet, particularly for New Zealand native species-- you're probably the only person in the world, really, with those kinds of skills-- to domestic animal vet?
Kate: Yeah, completely different. And I guess, it's a big mind switch, especially-- so you've got vets in clinic who do dogs and cats, and it's all about you and the pet and the owner. So it's a fairly small group of people making decisions.
Then you get vets who work in a clinic who do wildlife. And they then have to consider what DOC wants for the wildlife. And then you have me, and I'm dealing with populations. So I'm not dealing with just one lizard or one kākāpō.
I'm dealing with the whole group of them, either on the island or on the mainland. And so, I've got to be a bit of an ecologist as well as a vet. And it's quite a mind switch to come around to that. But it's something that I'm really comfortable with, and I really enjoy doing.
Nic: Actually I want to pick up on that point about populations versus individuals, because it's something that we strike often in conservation that's quite hard for the general public, I think, sometimes to understand. That we are focusing on net benefits to populations.
So what is the greater good for the whole of the population? And I think that can be really challenging when you've got an individual animal that can't be fixed, for people to understand how that fits into that broader picture.
Kate: Yeah. It's, I guess-- for me, it's quite helpful to have Janelle Ward, my .2 vet taking on the wildlife rehabilitation, because that's the one-on-one stuff. And it is still really important.
I think we need somewhere for injured wildlife or sick wildlife to go to be helped. And sometimes, it can make a difference. So like for a Kererū, they spread seeds. And so if we can keep them going in urban populations, we will have revegetation going on.
So my backyard is actually half an acre and it's all revegetated, because there's been seeds in the soil or seeds brought in by other birds. So that's just a little local bit of conservation.
But then, the population side is quite a different approach, and it is that big picture thing. And so you need to be able to switch your thinking from ‘I have to save every individual’ to, ‘if I spend $10,000 fixing the leg of this takahe, will that actually fix the population?’
Or should I spend that $10,000 on 100 new traps and someone to run them, and we have 10,000 hectares of land for them to be breeding on. So it's all a bit of a balance really. And I don't think there's one perfect way.
I think we need to respect both and have a bit of both.
Nic: Use all the tools.
Kate: yep, all the tools.
Nic: I imagine-- so, a bit like you, I had a very similar childhood-- lots and lots of pets, loving all the animals, bringing home all manner of things that my mom refused to accept as pets. Very sorry about the rat, mom.
Nic: But one of the reasons that I chose to go on to do zoology and not follow a vet career was I knew that I couldn't deal with some of the aspects of being a vet, that it would break my heart. What is the hardest part of your job, do you think?
Kate: So I guess, it's the ones you can't fix, and the problems that you get to too late. So I think that the, possibly, most satisfying but also worst experience of my kākāpō career was when we had some birds die.
And it was a very, very difficult time. But because we were prepared for it and we had systems in place, we were able to respond very, very quickly. We had external people like Massey University doing necropsies for us so we could diagnose what was wrong.
We had community people donating stuff, whether we needed it or not. They just wanted to be part of fixing the problem. And we had this random company contact us and say, hey, we've got a vaccine that will work for that bacteria. Do you want it? We'll fly it to you tomorrow.
So it was just like everyone got behind that. So it was a massive response. But it meant-- well, it was a great test of our system, and the system worked really well. But it was also just tragic, tragic time.
Nic: What is something about your work that you wish everybody out there in the general public knew or understood?
Kate: The thing I always say to the people and I want them to understand is no one works in a vacuum, and it takes a village to do everything. And so the thing I really enjoy and I want to promote the most is these connections between the researchers and the vets and the conservationists, because the more people you have doing that, the more work we get done.
So for example, when we're investigating a disease, we often don't have a test that will detect it. And so you then go out to these networks and you find oh, someone's doing a PhD on gut bacteria, and they can run a next gen sequencing system, which is just like the gold standard for testing.
And they'll do it for free. And suddenly you've got these amazing technological advances that you can't always know about because you can't know everything. But someone else comes along and shows you a new way to do it, and then you get a diagnosis that you never could have got by yourself.
So yeah, that's one of the best parts of my job really.
Nic: Yeah, I mean, you're kind of lucky because you're right at the cutting edge with those connections of some of the real game changers I suppose in wildlife vet science.
Kate: Yeah. Well, and I think for that-- using the Hoiho example in Dunedin, they're a huge part of the local economy and the local identity. And they are actually in quite a bit of trouble at the moment.
So we've got three different diseases that are affecting them. We've got a corynebacterium, which is a bacteria that they get in the mouth and it causes these big ulcers in the chicks’ mouths. And a lot of them will die.
We haven't got a cure for that yet. And then we've also got avian malaria, which probably came over with exotic species, and it's been spread all around the country because it's in blackbirds and sparrows and thrushes. So it's everywhere.
And last year and this year, we've had a big problem because of the big rains. We've got lots of mosquitoes and malaria has gotten into penguins. And then we also have what we're calling an unexplained mortality, but we think it's a marine biotoxin.
And every now and then, we'll get a few penguins die of it. Or one year, we had many-- like, we had dozens of penguins die. And so the pressures of those diseases-- one of those could be enough to push a rare or endangered species to extinction.
But all three at once hammering these poor little Hoiho in one area, I'm actually really concerned about what the future is for those birds in that area. And so those 24 starving penguins that Lisa Argilla is looking after at the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital, that might be vital to keeping this population in Otago and actually turning around the problem.
So we really rely on people to be doing that work.
Nic: Yeah, in that instance, they matter, don't they?
Nic: They seriously matter. And you just touched on something that I think is really key to your work, my work. So I'm always on the lookout for what's happening to our threatened species. And it's that cumulative impact of things like disease or increased predation or whatever.
A species or a population can track along and it can deal with those kind of stochastic events. It can deal with random things coming and taking out a couple-- because that's part of how population kind of treks.
But what it can't deal with is when those numbers get squished down to really low levels and then they get a disease and then they get another disease, that's almost a fast track towards the extinction cliff, isn't it?
Nic: So therefore, your work and the work of the wildlife vets around the country, becomes priority.
Kate: Yeah. And I mean, I think that's a really good point, because I've talked to ecologists who go oh, no, diseases are natural, so they should be in the population. And therefore, we shouldn't worry about them.
And that's fine if you've got a massive population and they've got all the food and habitat and no predators or natural predators. But as soon as you start tweaking all those factors, you're just putting more and more pressure on. And that's when disease can turn around and become the problem.
Nic: Apart from the unfortunate circumstances of not just one, but three diseases for the Hoiho, what are some of the other diseases that are working on or looking into?
Kate: So we get quite a few undiagnosed things. So we'll have some gulls die off somewhere. And often, it comes back to nutrition. So it'll be a El Nino year and that's just not enough food out there.
We have salmonella cropping up, not usually as a disease, just as an incidental finding when we're translocating animals and we're testing them to make sure they're not going to be Typhoid Mary and spread a new disease where we let them go.
But we did have, actually, salmonella twice in the hihi population on Tiritiri Matangi Island. And so that was really interesting. The first time we'd never detected that before in hihi. And then suddenly we had a mum and her three chicks die.
And we knew that because there is people there monitoring every single bird and every single nest box. So it was a site where we actually knew what was going on.
Nic: How does a hihi get salmonella? Do they eat a bad sushi or something?
Kate: Such a good question.
Kate: That's right.
Nic: Because I remember salmonella from my student flatting days.
Nic: But how does it get into our wildlife?
Kate: That one was really, really interesting, because the, I guess, the health department is really interested in what salmonella we have when it turns up. So if you send a swab to a lab and they grow salmonella, it will go to ESR and they will type it and tell you exactly which salmonella it is, because there are hundreds of different strains.
And this was a strain that had only once been seen in New Zealand, in Tauranga. And all we could surmise was that it had come in through-- and this is horribly blaming the tourists-- but we were trying to come up with a logical explanation.
You get lots of tourists on Tiritiri Matangi. It had only been seen once. It was probably in someone who had been visiting the country. And so we think somehow they hadn't used the toilet properly on the island, and it had gotten into the water supply, or something like that, and gotten into these hihi.
And then once it got into the hihi, because we have feeders for them, that was a site where they could spread it to others. So once again, it's difficult to know exactly how many it affected, because you don't always find all the bodies, because they're out in a forest.
But there was an ecologist working on them at the time and he calculated that up to 25% of the population would have died in that outbreak, which is an outrageous number when you've got such a small number on an island.
Nic: Well, and again, a population or a species that had actually gone extinct on the mainland and been extinct for 100 years.
Nic: Just touching on weird equipment-- you mentioned equipment, and I have a favourite exhibit at Te Papa. And every time I go to Te Papa, I go and see it. It is by far the most bizarre conservation tool. You couldn't make that stuff up.
And my favourite thing about it is there is a photo of a person wearing this particular piece of equipment, and in that photo is you.
Kate: [LAUGHING] Hmmm …
Nic: So can you please tell us a little bit about the-- what is it called-- the kākāpō ejaculation helmet?
Kate: Yes …
Nic: That you were wearing and that now resides in our national museum.
Kate: I think this is my greatest claim to fame. And whenever my family or friends come to visit, I take them to see it. And they think I'm extremely strange. So this was a genuine and serious conservation tool, okay? So let's just put that out on the table first.
Nic: Don't believe you.
Kate: We wanted to find out if kākāpō were duds or studs. So we had a bunch of boys who had never managed to father a baby, and we didn't know if they were fertile or not. And so we wanted to get sperm and have a look at it.
And one of the ways they do that in other endangered species programs -- so it's not something I made up -- is if they have an imprinted boy who thinks he's actually a human, he will come down and try and mate with people.
And they've done this with kestrels. I think it was the Mauritius Kestrel, where they would wear a hat and the boy would bonk the head and they could collect the sperm.
It was like-- it sounded very simple.
So we thought well, the Mauritius Kestrel, I think, is about 250-300 grams. It's really light. A kākāpō is four kilos. And we had one in our sights-- Sirocco, the spokesbird of New Zealand conservation.
Nic: Me old mate.
Kate: We've seen him on lots of media where he's done his bonk the head thing.
Nic: He's done it to me.
Kate: Yeah. Well, me too.
Nic: Wasn't pleasant.
Kate: I wasn't prepared to have a four kilo kākāpō sitting on a little hat on my head. And I thought the hat might fall off. So I decided that a rugby helmet would be the way to go. And this is New Zealand rugby-- I'm going to embrace it.
So I went down to the shop, bought a rugby helmet, and I thought it's not very attractive. And if he does produce the goods, it's just going to fall off. So I got a big tube of silicon sealant and I covered the hat with silicone and then I made little rings of silicon.
So there were little wells where the business could be done and I could collect it afterwards.
Nic: You made the helmet.
Kate: I made the helmet in the backyard of my Berhampore house, one sunny afternoon.
Nic: That is amazing.
Kate: So then we took it down to the island and we went and visited Sirocco, and he got very excited by the whole business. And so for about three nights in a row, I was out there in the evening with him bonking my head. He's quite heavy.
He goes on for a very long time. He grunts the whole time he's doing it. And he didn't produce a thing!
So I'm not sure if that concept was a failure, or he just didn't like how we'd done it, or if he just was never actually going to do it. But yeah. So then, we ended up with a photograph of it, and Te Papa heard about it, and were doing a big exhibit on New Zealand, and we gave them the helmet.
Nic: That is the best work story I've ever heard. It is amazing. And you made the helmet. That's now my-- that's a piece of information I did not have. Well, I feel like you should have some kind of award for that. I mean, I feel like that's a New Year's honour.
Kate: I felt there was like a bit of number eight wire going on there. We did it ourselves. We didn't pay someone $10,000. We just got a tube of silicon and went for it.
Nic: I imagine you're in that position that lots of tradies are. Everybody wants advice on how to build their new deck or how to plumb in their new taps, if they've got mates who are specialists in that field. Do you get lots of requests for random diagnosis from people?
Kate: Oh, all the time. All the time. And actually, you could go, oh, this is just too much or you could go, this is fantastic. This is like an unpaid network of people doing surveillance.
So there's the individual need. They want to know what's wrong with that bird. But I get masses of information through the process of getting sent all these photos or videos of you know things that are going wrong.
And so I'll get one, one year, and two years later, I'll get one exactly the same. I can go, hey, you've got the same thing as these people had. This is great.
But it can be a bit dodgy, because they'll send it to me and I'll be out of the office. So I'll download it on my phone and have a look and have a chat to them and we'll work out what to do. And that photo has gone into my gallery.
And then I'll be showing some of my holiday photos and I'll be flicking through, and then this disgusting lump on the leg of a bird will appear as like a massive closeup photograph, which is kind of a little bit off-putting.
And in fact, it went to the extreme once where I had been making dinner, and I was making nachos. And I opened up the bag of corn chips, and there was something wrong with them. So I took a photo, being a good citizen, and I sent it to the company.
And I said oh, just letting you know, there was something wrong with this batch. [I] wrote down the batch number off the bag, and this is what I found in the bag. I've attached a photo. Except I didn't attach the photo of the corn chips. I attached a photo of a dead bird and I didn't realise.
And I only found out after they'd sent me a big box of corn chips-- no note. No nothing. Just these corn chips arrived by courier. And I mentioned it to my wife. And she went, yeah, I wondered why you sent them a photo of a dead bird. And I was like, what dead bi-- why didn't you tell me!?
So some poor customer service person at the corn chip factory got sent this horrible, horrible email from me. And I never knew who it was. And I hope it didn't ruin their day.
Nic: Well, you could have shut the factory down. Imagine that.
Nic: Them going, holy … we found a dead bird in a bag of nachos. This is a national incident.
Kate: I think I'm on their list of complete nutters.
Kate: Just send them the chips and they'll go away.
Nic: That is brilliant.
Kate: So I'm much more careful now.
Nic: As well you should be. And you should probably always feel a wee bit guilty for that.
Nic: It's not all a glorious job. It's not all wrapping bandages around blue ducks, and nice things happening, is it? You work with a lot of stuff that's kind of disgusting.
Kate: Well, I think it all comes from your perspective, hey? So one person's disgusting is another person's ‘oh my god, this is the best lesion I've ever seen. I'm sending it to all my vet friends’. They're going to be jealous.
And so I think perhaps, that's why I ended up a vet and not a park ranger, because I know gory is sad for the animal, might be really hard to fix, could be a massive problem, but there's also this morbid fascination with how big can an avian pox lesion on a leg get.
And so when you get a really big one, you do actually share it with other people. And part of that is like, oh my god, look at this. But part of it is, wow, it can get this big. Have you seen one this big?
And so something got sent to me like three days ago. And I looked and I went, and they said, oh, it can't be avian pox, because look at the size. And I could go back and go actually, we've seen bigger.
Nic: So one thing that I've always liked about you, is you're prepared to talk to anyone about anything, pretty much all the time. But that's been to your advantage, hasn't it? Because you've been able to gather more knowledge than you probably would have if you were a sort of in-a-box scientist just looking at your samples.
Kate: Yeah. It's an interesting thing, because I mean, I would class myself more as an introvert than an extrovert. But when it comes to my job, I'm a massive extrovert, because I love it. And so I think when you're doing something you really love, it can make you a much more outgoing, want to connect, let's all get together and do this stuff.
Nic: Couldn't agree more. I'm actually a shrinking violet most of the time.
Kate: [Laughs] That's what I thought.
Nic: if you’re worried that there might be an outbreak of some heinous disease. How many bird samples does it take to--
Kate: To know what's going on?
Nic: To hand on heart be able to say, actually, we've got a problem here.
Kate: Yeah. So I think there's no fixed and fast rule. But the way we do it, and I think it's a really sensible way, and I've heard other countries doing it similarly, is one or two could just be a coincidence. When you hit three, you've got a pattern.
Something's happened. It's not random. Have a look. And then even if you have a look, and you find it was three different things, at least you know what that was. But if you find all three had the same thing, like those kākāpō chicks, then you know this is a serious outbreak in that population and you need to do something about it.
Nic: Just to change tack for a second, we're here in Wellington today, and one of the growing privileges of living in Wellington now is this kind of plethora of wildlife leaping over the fence at Zealandia and making itself at home in people's backyards.
Kaka are an obvious one. Tui we've been used to for a long time now. But people obviously get very excited. I had a mate ring me about 10 years ago, and she works for some massive company here in Wellington. She's not a conservationist.
But she likes the nature, kind of like most people. And she phoned me, and she was just screaming down the phone. Kea! Kea! I was like, ‘what is going on?’
And she said there's kea in my backyard. And she was so excited. It was about 7:00 o'clock in the morning. And she said, there's five kea in my backyard. And I was like, OK, first of all, that's amazing. Second of all, they're not kea. They're kaka-- also cool though!
And that was really the start for me of seeing that starting to happen around here. She was so excited and wanted to know what she could do. People want them to hang around, and they often want to feed them.
Let's talk a little bit about that and particularly with regard to kaka, because I got involved a bit on this one when we heard the Kaka Cam with Wellington City Council. So what is the issue with people feeding wild birds like kaka?
Kate: Yeah, so there's quite a few things. So we do, do feeding as a conservation tool. We'll use it to anchor birds to a new location, we'll use it to boost productivity by feeding them something that's nutritionally balanced and promotes breeding.
And we'll use it if we're having a really bad drought or something and they need to be supplemented to carry them through. So there are good reasons for feeding them.
People do it because they like having them in the backyard. Sometimes, it gets a bit more extreme than that, and they feel that the birds rely on them, and they have to feed them. So I know of a person who can't go on holidays because they're worried that the birds will die because they rely on the food.
So that's extreme. These are wild birds, and they should be able to survive in the wild, and they shouldn't need the food. So a few problems occur with feeding them. We get poor nutrition. So particularly with that Kaka Cam example, kaka will feed their chicks on stuff that's not nutritionally balanced.
So if I put out lots of cobs of corn, they love corn. It's sweet. It's yummy. It's juicy. But it's full of phosphorus and doesn't have calcium. And so as soon as they feed that to the chicks, they get a calcium-phosphorus imbalance. Their bones won't grow properly.
They'll get bent beaks. They'll get weak bones. And they'll actually get broken bones. And they're called folding fractures where the bones are so weak they just kind of fold. It's awful.
So these chicks are going to die. And so that's from-- it doesn't have to be corn. It can be a whole lot of other things.
Kate: Yes, nuts-- some have a bit more calcium than others, but it's not a balanced diet. And they're more like chippys and ice cream. It's like yay-- big, fatty, nutty food. Mmmm. But if that's what you ate all day, you're not going to have a good diet, and you're going to get fat.
You're going to get obesity problems. But you also probably don't get enough vitamin A and vitamin E. So it's a really complex thing trying to come up with actually a good food for wildlife, in whatever circumstance you're working in.
One of the other problems, dear to my heart, is the disease side of things. So if you put out a feeder, birds are going to congregate in a way that doesn't happen in the wild. And you need to keep that feed absolutely spotlessly clean, or it becomes a source of disease.
So they'll be pooping on it. They'll be leaving feathers there. They'll be fighting with each other. And so, you just get this whole change in the disease exposure, and also the social behaviour.
You're changing their social behaviour. And you might have more stress in the less dominant birds. And actually, more stress in the dominant birds, because they're trying to fight to keep the feeder. And they're not going out and doing their natural thing, which is eating a little bit, preening, sitting around, eat a bit more, preen, and sit around.
And then the other problem we get is because they've got all this fantastically nutrient-- well, not nutrient-- energy-rich food … it's like if you give your kids, red cordial before dinner?
Nic: Raspberry fizz!
Kate: Raspberry cordial before dinner! They're not going to go to sleep that night. So these kaka end up with so much energy and nothing to use it on. They don't have to spend it going looking for food, so then they start chewing on things. And then they chew on lead head nails, which are on lots and lots of roofs around the country, because we still have old roofs, and then they get lead poisoning.
And they may even pass that lead poisoning onto their chicks. So it's this whole, I guess, snowball effect of you've changed their behaviour. You're giving them the wrong food. And then they start doing stupid things.
Nic: They also end up annoying neighbours.
Kate: Yeah, that's right.
They'll turn up at 3 o'clock in the morning waiting for their 5:00 AM feed. And they're noisy birds. And they can do a lot of damage.
Nic: And they're ripping into people's trees. And then we get loud out at them for doing something that we have essentially encouraged. I think about the raspberry cordial is just a great example, isn't it?
Because if you've got wild neighbours in Wellington, and you love having your kaka and stuff around, it's like you wouldn't give the neighbour’s kids raspberry fizz, unless you really didn't like them.
And so it's that feeling of-- that feeling of responsibility, of looking after that maybe might make people think a little bit more.
Kate: So you can do it in a more natural way. I've got a rewarewa tree in the backyard. And I regularly get kaka in that when it's flowering. And so I'll only see them for a few weeks or a month every year in that tree, but that's fantastic.
And that's my little dose of ‘I've got kaka in my backyard’. So on the DOC website, there is a link to what plants you can grow in your garden to attract birds.
Nic: Year round, aye?
Kate: Yeah. So you can make a bird garden. You don't have to then be spending a fortune on nuts or other things. You don't have to look after a feeder. You don't have to clean it or anything. You just let the birds be birds.
Nic: That is a really great piece of advice. Well, I used to live here in Wellington. I lived in Naenae, and I had a beautiful kōwhai tree in my back yard. And at particular times of year, it was just full of kererū and tui.
I had a tui that mimicked my landline though, and I think he did it on purpose. So he would-- he would ring, and I'd be outside. And I'd run inside to get the phone. It would stop. I'd come back outside again. And then I'd hear this-- [RINGING]
I'd be like, what? What? And I swear, he was sitting up there laughing.
Kate: That's brilliant.
Thank you, Kate. And look, thank you for this really fascinating discussion. I could talk to you all day and probably all week-- not so much about the gross stuff, even though that seems to be your favourite topic.
But in particular, I think a lot of the things that you've talked about, even though I know a lot of the stuff you do is really technical and really scientific, I think the value that you bring is you're talking about things that people can do themselves, whether it's in relation to planting trees around their backyard to encourage those birds, and how to avoid disease, and why we must keep our wildlife safe from disease.
I just really want to thank you and acknowledge you for your hard yaka! Your mahi.
Kate: My pleasure.
Nic: I look forward to seeing where you go next. Thanks, Kate.
Kate: Excellent. Thank you, Nic.
Nic: That’s it for this episode. If you liked what you heard, show us some love with a 5 star rating. The DOC Sounds of Science podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts; so subscribe now and never miss an episode.
[TUI CHORUS BIRDSONG]
Episode 1: Marine mammals
Marine species expert Hannah Hendriks talks whale strandings, post-mortems and crucial data.
The birdsong at the start of this episode is the North Island robin.
Find out more:
Nic: Kia ora everybody, I'm Nic Toki. I'm the Department of Conservation's Threatened Species Ambassador. And I'm very proud to bring you this Sound of Science podcast.
Nic: The purpose of this podcast is that we want to tell you all the stories of our amazing scientists and technical experts out there looking after ‘the nature’, working with us to make sure that we know everything there is to know about our threatened species. Today I have the privilege of having my colleague, Hannah Hendriks, who's a Marine Species Support Officer from our Marine Team in the Department of Conservation. G’day, Hannah, how are you?
Hannah: I’m great thanks, Nic. How are you?
Nic: I'm very well. I thought it was a really good idea to talk to you now, at this time of year, because the topic of your work really is starting to bubble up again. So maybe if you could start by telling us a little bit about what you do and what's involved.
Hannah: Sure. So I provide national support for marine mammal incidents around the country, supporting our Rangers on the ground who are responding to strandings and things like that. I provide a link between DOC and researchers, coordinate our protocols and procedures that we follow, and manage the data that comes out of these events.
Nic: Strandings are always a hot topic, particularly in New Zealand, aren't they?
Hannah: They are.
Nic: We seem to get a lot of them. Do we get more in New Zealand than perhaps other countries get?
Hannah: We are a hotspot for marine mammal strandings. That's mostly because we just have so many species that come past our shores, whether they live around here or they migrate past us. We get about half the world's marine mammal species coming by New Zealand at some point.
Nic: What is it, do you think, about-- there's something about whales and dolphins, isn't there, that just makes people kind of ‘feel all the feels’. So, do you get caught up in people's emotional connection to what's going on, particularly with regard to strandings?
Hannah: Definitely. It can be hard for people to separate their emotions from the event. Obviously, whales might be making sounds on a beach or might look like they're crying. And yeah, people find it hard to detach themselves from reality in some of those situations.
Nic: Do we know much about why whales do strand?
Hannah: Short answer is, no, not really. It's really complicated. There are lots of different reasons why whales might strand. And it sort of depends on the species and where you are.
So dolphin species, like pilot whales, common dolphins, they might strand when they're looking for food. Say, there's orcas going by, and they're trying to get away from them. Or if there's places like Farewell Spit, that act like a natural whale trap.
And these gently shelving beaches like in Golden Bay, their echolocation might not work very well. And so they might not know that the water is getting shallower. And then they can be caught out when the tide disappears from underneath them, basically.
Nic: You've mentioned echolocation. Do you want to just explain a little bit more about what that is and why that becomes a problem?
Hannah: Yeah, so basically, they send these sound waves out from their heads. And they bounce off soft substrates. And they are received back by the whales or the dolphins. And they tell them basically what's in front of them.
Nic: So it's like sonar.
Nic: Same as what ships use.
Hannah: Yeah, just like sonar. So they can use those to tell where the shore is, or where food is, things like that. But when these really gently sloping beaches come along, they aren't going to be providing such a strong signal, especially when it's muddy or silty. And that can get them confused.
Nic: How big of a deal are strandings things from a conservation perspective for a species? And I suppose it varies species to species.
Hannah: It will definitely vary species to species. So with pilot whales in New Zealand, they're classified as not threatened. And these things have been happening for millennia. You know, these whales have been stranding on Farewell Spit for as long as we know. And so it's unlikely that they're going to have a big impact on the overall population size. And we haven't seen that as time has gone on.
Nic: And what are some of the other species that strand?
Hannah: Common dolphins, once again-- that's more mistakes being made or being forced up onto the beach from predators. So they can often be re-floated, which is great. Pygmy sperm whale is another really common one, which most people might not even know about. It's this small-toothed whale. They are often washed up in Mahia Peninsula.
And also beaked whales is another one that often washes up on our shores. We've got 13 species of beaked whales in New Zealand. And Gray's beaked whales are the most common ones to wash up around the country.
Nic: Whale standings are huge, right? They're a huge logistical--
Hannah: Definitely. Yeah, especially when you've got like 1,000 volunteers on hand, as well, that you've got to manage. There's a lot going on.
Nic: And so do you get involved in that?
Hannah: No,, not really. That's the lucky job of the Rangers on the ground. But I do just support the Rangers, so they know what protocols they need to follow, if there's any species-specific things. And as I said before, I might get them in touch with the researchers that might be interested in those species.
Nic: When whales do strand, and it becomes apparent that we can't get them back out to the water, and we've dealt with our grief about that, what kinds of scientific information do we want to collect to try and understand what's going on?
Hannah: Standard DOC protocol was to take a tissue sample. So that's basically just a small section of skin from each animal. And that goes into what's called the New Zealand Cetacean Tissues Archive, which is managed by Auckland University on behalf of the Department.
And so that's got samples of basically all the different species they have stranded on New Zealand's shores. There's like over 3,000 samples in there or something like that. It's pretty amazing.
And from that, we can get, obviously, genetics. So you can determine what species they are if it's not clear on the shore-- especially important for our beaked whale species, where there's 13 different ones. And to the untrained eye, you wouldn't know which one it is.
You can get gender. And you can get family relations. And then there's some people doing some work on trying to age them from DNA, as well, which would be pretty interesting.
So that's the standard sample we take. But in some cases with some species-- or depending on what researchers are focusing on-- we might get further samples or get the whole animal to Massey University or another research institute, for necropsy to examine what the cause of death is. So this happens with our Hector's and Māui dolphins, in particular.
DOC's got a contract with Massey University to get all of those animals examined, so we can learn more about why they might have died. Unfortunately, it is actually very hard to determine why things have died. And we may or may not actually get any useful information out of those.
Nic: Given that we've had this database for a long time, particularly for species like Hector's and Maui, do we have any kind of ideas that have come out from the data?
Hannah: Nic: Yeah, definitely so. With the genetics work in particular, we get things like the Māui dolphin abundance estimates. So we know how many there are. That's during mark-recapture work. And then with the necropsy stuff, we can find out if they're dying from certain diseases like toxoplasmosis and work on how we can potentially mitigate those sort of threats.
Nic: So it's a bit, kind of like CSI?
Hannah: [LAUGHING] A little bit. Not so glamorous. Not so fast, either.
Nic: [LAUGHING] Not so fast.
So given that it is summer and that people-- just to stray off the topic of strandings briefly, though-- let's talk about the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Nic: So people are out and about. We've all crawled out from behind our computers and are hanging out at the beach-- for those of us that drive a desk like me. And so there's a lot more seeing dolphins and whales around and interacting with them.
Just generally, what are the rules so that people know how to behave? Because we know people get a bit like “wahh, Justin Bieber, whales, dolphins!” How could people behave that makes them legal?
Hannah: Yeah, so the Marine Mammal Protection regulations, which is under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, basically lays out some regulations that people should follow when they are around marine mammals. Particularly if you're on a boat, you need to give them space. 50 meters to whales is how far you need to stay away, no more than three boats in the vicinity, and you can't swim with whales.
Also, you're not supposed to drive drones 150 meters near a whale, which people often don't know about. And these are quite important to follow. Because it gives these dolphins or whales space to rest, feed, and socialize with each other.
Nic: And particularly if they're got babies with them, as well.
Hannah: Exactly. There are actually specific rules when they have babies with them.
Nic: OK. So it's essentially, just give them space.
Hannah: Give them lots of space, yeah. Don't disturb them. Don't stress them out. And you can cause them harm, and they can cause you harm.
Nic: So back to the beach back, back to the stranding, can whales-- or maybe dolphins-- but can whales cause people harm? If they come across a stranded whale, what are the things people need to do to keep themselves safe? Because you know, I've seen flippers, and tail flukes, and things sort of thrashing around. You wouldn't want to get sconed with one of them.
Hannah:Yeah. So the tail of a whale or a dolphin is very powerful. There's lots of muscles in there. And that can definitely cause you harm. so definitely, keeping a meter away from their tail is really important.
Also, obviously, all of these dolphins have teeth. And some of the whales have teeth. So keeping fingers away from mouths is really important, too.
Nic: Right. You don't want to accidentally get-- it'd be like getting your hand caught in a car door-- wouldn't it? -- with teeth. So people have a lot of theories. I've heard people talk about impacts of plastic, maybe climate change, maybe seismic stuff going on in the water. Can you talk us through what we know or don't know, what the evidence is on that stuff?
Hannah: Sure. So with regards to plastics, we actually have only had about one or two instances of finding macroplastics inside whales and dolphins.
Nic: What's macroplastic?
Hannah: Stuff that you can see with the naked eye, basically. So that's different to your microplastics, which is plastics that are broken down into really tiny pieces. And there is some work going on where people are looking into the blubber and stuff of whales and dolphins to see if they can figure out if that's affecting our whale and dolphin species in New Zealand.
Climate change is a big one-- quite hard to comment on. It's so hard to investigate these matters. But it's definitely possible that changes in the ocean temperatures will affect the food sources and all the sorts of things like that will have flow-on effects to these species.
Seismic surveying, definitely a big cause a concern for lots of people. So we do have a code of conduct for seismic survey companies that they need to follow to minimize those impacts on our species.
Nic: And so I presume we're collecting data as we go about what else is going on in the environment when we come across a stranding?
Hannah: Yeah, so each time there's a stranding, the Rangers will collect a range of data about the animal and the conditions. And they'll fill out a form. And it will go into our national database of strandings.
Nic: Sometimes when there's a stranding, even though there might be lots of people there to help, it doesn't go well. And we can't put them back out in the water for whatever reason. And at that point, a decision has to be made in terms of euthanising the whales.
I have talked to a couple of Rangers that have had to do this. And I suspect it might be the worst job in the world. Can you tell us what that's about, and how we make those decisions, and what's involved, just so the public understand? Because I think sometimes it's really hard to read that a bunch of whales turned up, but there were 1,000 people there, but then we had kill them anyway. So talk us through that so that people understand how we come to that.
Hannah: This is, again, going to depend on the species that turns up. Because some, like beaked whales and pygmy sperm whales, if they're washing up, it's probably because they're sick anyway. But for pilot whales and stuff, which we know can be re-floated, our staff are going to be monitoring their condition as the day or days go on. And when they've been re-floated several times over several days, it's quite often that their condition will be deteriorating. And that will be quite obvious.
And so if they decide that their condition means that they aren't going to be able to survive even if they are put back in the water, and if they've come back in several times, they might make the unfortunate decision to euthanise the animal. And that's just so that they don't suffer a long, drawn out death. That's a humane choice. But it's not taken lightly.
Nic: No, it's difficult for the staff involved, isn't it?
Hannah: Very emotional for the staff, very emotional for people who have been helping out on the beach.
Nic: So for the people that do turn up-- and again, it's summer. We're all roaring around, hanging out at the beach. What's the best way that people can help? Let's say that there is a pilot whale stranding. And people arrive en masse to help. What is the best thing they can do to be helpful and not a hindrance?
Hannah: Well, something you can do in advance is take a Project Jonah Marine Mammal Medic Course.
Nic: Oh, I've done one of those!
Hannah: You have? That’s great!
So they will basically teach you all you need to know about how to help in a marine mammal stranding, which includes providing first aid to the dolphins and how to actually re-float them.
Nic: [With] Wally the Whale-- ?
Hannah: I don't know if that's its name. But –
Nic: they have like –
Hannah: There are life-size whales and dolphins there to practice on.
So if you've done that, that's great. You'll be able to be a big assistance. But even if you haven't done that, if DOC's requesting volunteers-- which they'll often do through social media or on the radio-- you can come down. And even if you aren't necessarily helping directly with the whales, we always need people to help with, say, traffic control, food even.
We really need to keep all our volunteers safe and healthy. So assistance with that sort of stuff is great. And we might be making chains to the sea to get water back and forth. All the things like that are really helpful.
Nic: And what kinds of things can they bring down? Is it still the thing they used to say-- you bring sheets down...
Hannah: Yeah, we have a list of everything that you might need to bring on our website. But if you want to be in the water, helping is great if you bring a wetsuit. You need to be self-sufficient.
So your car should have plenty of petrol in it. You need to bring your own water, your food, everything like that. If you're planning to stay the night, you need to be prepared with the tent, sleeping bag, et cetera … and maybe some first aid stuff, as well.
Nic: Right. But the overarching message here is go get through Project Jonah.
Hannah: Yeah, definitely.
Nic: And do a Mammal Medic course.
Hannah: It's the best way to be prepared to help with a whale stranding. And then you'll be called out when there's one happening in your area.
Nic: The other thing I wanted to talk about-- because I've been talking a lot lately with Iwi groups who are involved with whales strandings and what it means to them. And you often hear about the whale bone, particularly jaw bones, that kind of thing. Can you tell us a bit about that process and what's happened for our work with local iwi?
Hannah: Yeah, so iwi treat these species as taonga species. And they see them as their ancestors. And they have a lot of traditional knowledge about recovering the bones and carving them into jewellery and other various things. So we work closely with iwi in each area on establishing protocols that we’ll work with them when the strandings happen.
And we consult them with every step of the stranding, as well. So whether we want to euthanise [the whales], take a sample, bury them, or see them off for a necropsy, iwi is always consulted. Because they are such important taonga species for them.
Nic: Yeah. And as you say, they're their ancestors. You wouldn't want someone making decisions about your grandfather without you having some kind of say.
So you've got a really neat job in DOC. There will be a lot of people out there that would say this would be their dream job, right?
Hannah: [LAUGHS] Yes.
Nic: What sort of journey did you go on with your education and perhaps some of your work experience that got you here? What is it that motivates you to want to help out in this particular marine mammal stranding space?
Hannah: So I studied at Victoria University of Wellington. I did an Undergrad in marine biology, and ecology, and biodiversity. And then I did a Master's in marine conservation at Victoria, as well.
And as I was finishing up that degree, I started volunteering for DOC, cleaning up some marine mammal data. I guess what motivates me is thinking about what the marine life around New Zealand used to look like, Southern right whales breeding in Wellington Harbour, and things like that. And the fact that we might be able to see that again in the future is definitely really motivating. And I hope that we get to see that, or at least future generations will get to see that.
Nic: Yeah, Southern right whales is a nice story of just slowly but surely coming back, isn't it?
Hannah: Definitely. And we had our own Southern right whale encounter in Wellington this year with so-called Matariki the Whale spending over a week now in our Harbour, which was really exciting experience for everyone on our team. And that's probably my favourite thing of the year, actually. [LAUGHS]
Because so often, we're dealing with strandings and stuff, and it's quite sad. But this was actually really sort of happy, exciting thing to be dealing with. And all the public was really excited. People were breaking the law, stopping on motorways, and going out in thunderstorms just to look at this thing, like get a glimpse of it.
So that was a great experience. And we got to work with the harbourmaster, the police, and the Council on this. We obviously had to provide advice to the Council about the fireworks, which was a brand-new experience that none of us expected to have to do.
Nic: Did they cancel them in the end?
Hannah: They postponed them to the following weekend.
Nic: Because they didn't want to upset the whale.
Hannah: We didn't know how the whale would react. And with all the extra vessels on the water, we thought it would be safer to postpone.
Nic: Bless. I love that story. That is a real story of Wellington, the wildlife capital, isn't it?
Nic: It puts off its fireworks display, because it doesn't want to disturb the whale. What is the most unusual thing that you have ever experienced washing up around the country?
Hannah: Well, I haven't personally seen it. But this year, there was this thing called a spoon worm that washed up. Did you hear about this? [LAUGHS]
Nic: Somebody sent me a picture of it. [LAUGHING] Because people think that I know what all the things are.
Hannah: What was it described as?
Nic: It was described as looking like a half-cooked sausage with teeth, or a certain male appendage.
Take caution when you're Google Imaging Search this.
Nic: So my grossest marine mammal story-- because they are gross, right? You come across a festering, dead corpse of a marine mammal. It's never Flipper. It smells. It's yuck. The eyeballs hang out. It's not fun.
Hannah: I'm lucky enough not to have smelt a decomposing dolphin yet.
Nic: In this particular instance -- which was a many years ago now, I just want to qualify-- so many years ago; but it was while we were collecting biopsy samples for stranded Hector's dolphins. And the Ranger in question-- I won't even geographically locate it. Somewhere in New Zealand -- the ranger in question who shall not be named, went to a report of a stranded Hector's dolphin. And you know, Hector's dolphins, they're only little aren't they, they're only--
Nic: Thank you! And that's why you're the expert. And so it had been there for some days. So it was sort of blown up. The description I got was it was like a big purple grape.
And so he put on the white suit. And he thought, I'm not going to let this get me. I know what's going to happen here.
So he took his knife to get the biopsy sample, because we really needed them for the database. And he leaned over the dolphin and just gave it a little nick on the other side. Because he didn't want it to burst open. Like, you know [MAKES RUPTURE SOUND]
But it was so distended and so blown up in the hot sun that, as soon as he nicked it, it just split open and exploded into his face! And he had his mouth open. And it went down his throat.
And I said--
Hannah: Is that in Risk Manager?
Nic: Yeah, well, that's right. And so, in hindsight—you know, these days, that wouldn't occur. However, I said to him, ‘what did you do?’ Like, what do you do when it dead dolphin explodes into your mouth? And he said he just waded into the sea, and chundered, and threw up until it was all gone.
That is the worst dolphin work story ever. Anyway, health and safety regulations would dictate that would never happen today. However, it's still one of the grossest stories. That and an exploding septic tank are my two favourite stories. But they both occurred about 30 years ago now.
I’ll save that for another podcast. OK, Hannah, I just really want to thank you for sharing stories about your work and, particularly, for sharing your experience and your knowledge around trying to understand strandings, which, it seems to me-- we don't yet, do we?
Hannah: Unfortunately not. Yes, we are trying to. But we're not quite there yet.
Nic: Yeah. And to help support people, whether they're DOC Rangers, or members of the public, or visitors who want to help-- and knowing kind of what to expect, and how to prepare, how to train, that's been really useful, too. But your message around giving wildlife their space is such an important one. And it is so hard for people when it comes to dolphins and whales. Sometimes I feel like penguins is a subcategory of this.
Hannah: Seals, as well.
Nic: Seals! People go bananas for some reason when they see dolphins or whales. And it almost goes against every kind of fibre of our being to not get up in their grill. But I think that's our message, isn't it?
Just keep your space. Don't be a close talker. Go over there. And watch them enjoying their life from over there, whether that's in your boat, on the beach, with a drone, in any of those.
Hannah: Correct. Yep. Give them their space. We all know we to get close to our marine species. But it's important to keep your distance to avoid stress and harm to the animals.
Nic: And I think the other thing you've done is been a wee bit of a source of inspiration for all those up-and-coming marine specialists and scientists that are out there to show them that there is, in fact, really important work to be done. And I'm sure we might expect to see people like that on our team. So it's nice to have a bit of career inspiration.
Hannah: Yeah, you're welcome. It may not always be glamorous. You might not be out counting dolphins. But it is important and interesting work that can be done behind a desk, too. [LAUGHING]
Nic: Well done. Thank you so much, Hannah.
Hannah: It’s been a pleasure.
Nic: And I look forward to hearing more about your work. Thanks.
Hannah: Thanks, Nic.