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 5: Bitterns
Emma Williams knows a lot about bittern/matuku. This is impressive because they’re very difficult to find. She calls them the ‘ninjas of the wetland’. In this episode, Nic and Emma talk about tracking bittern and embarrassing yourself in Mitre 10.
Listen to Emma’s tales of her adventures with bittern dog Kimi, as the duo work to protect wetlands’ precious conservation values. Plus, Emma teaches Nic how to do a bittern mating call, which will be a treat for your ears. Sort of.
The birdsong used this episode is the Australasian bittern/matuku boom.
Music is is Let’s get down to business by Cast of Characters.
[Australasian bittern/matuku boom]
Nic: Kia ora koutou I’m Nic Toki, New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador, and this is the DOC Sounds of Science podcast!
Nic: Kia ora! Ko Nic Toki tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki nga Sounds of Science.
Nic: Every episode, we talk about work being done behind the scenes by DOC’s technical experts, scientists, rangers and the experts in between.
Nic: Today on the show we have the wonderful wetland bird ecologist, Emma Williams. Kia ora, Emma.
Emma: Kia ora, Nic. Ko Emma Williams tōku ingoa, kei Te Papa Atawhai e mahi ana. Hi, Nic. My name is Emma Williams, and I work for the Department of Conservation.
Emma, tell us a little bit about what your role is at DOC.
Emma: So I'm a science advisor. So basically, I do science and I try to address knowledge gaps with some of the species that DOC works on.
Nic: And primarily, you are, and have always been, a bit of a bird nerd, aren't you?
Emma: I have. I have mostly specialized on cryptic species, and wetland birds because a lot of wetland birds are cryptic.
Nic: Tell me a bit about what cryptic means. To me, it sounds like they've got old Harry Potter's invisibility cloak on over their heads. What does it mean to be a cryptic species?
Emma: That's pretty accurate. A cryptic species is one that's difficult to detect. So there's four different ways that a cryptic species can be cryptic. One is they can be visually cryptic, so difficult to see. As it's like your camouflage, like your chameleons. And they can be vocally cryptic, where you can't hear them. And then, there's two other that are more to do with us, like we can't find them because they're inaccessible. Spatially cryptic we call that. And then, temporally cryptic because maybe they only call at certain times of the day when we're not there.
Emma: So wetland birds do that quite a lot. They call around sunrise and sunset when we're not really out in the wetland that much.
Nic: So what is a wetland?
Emma: That's a tricky question because there's so many different types that if I was getting all science-y on you. There's ephemeral wetlands and coastal wetlands, so there's a huge variety. But basically, it's anywhere that's swampy and muddy.
Nic: What is it that got you into wetland birds, specifically?
Emma: Because wetlands aren't that accessible. Especially large wetlands, getting into the heart of them is really difficult. You've got to get a boat in and you're quite loud when you move through a wetland. And so it's got that extra element of a challenge. So that was what attracted me to it.
Nic: Does it have, also, the extra element of the challenge that we've managed to destroy most of the wetlands in New Zealand in the past 100 years or so?
Emma: Yeah, so we've-- and particularly in New Zealand, we've got the need to work on wetlands because we've lost 90% of our wetland habitats here in New Zealand, and the remaining 10% is severely under threat.
Nic: So I know, for example, that one of your great loves in terms of species is the bittern. And I'd almost guarantee there will be people listening right now who've never heard of one. Can you tell us a little bit about a bittern and what makes it special?
Emma: So bittern are in the heron family. They're about knee high. And it's not a surprise that some people won't know about them because they are masters of disguise. They're amazing. And I call them the ninjas of the wetlands. And it's just because they've got all those problems that I described about being cryptic. They've got all of them. They live in an inaccessible habitat, they've got this beautiful plumage that makes them blend perfectly into their background. So basically, they look like the reeds.
Emma: And they can actually manipulate that plumage, that coloration, to do whatever they want to do. So if they want you to see them, then they'll be more relaxed in their body, and the lines across their body won't actually line up with the vegetation so they stand out.
Emma: And as soon as they don't want you to see them, they straighten their whole body up, they put their big up to the air, so they look really silly if they're standing on a road or something further than the wetlands. The lines move perfectly so that they line up with the reeds and they're gone. So they can disappear right in front of your eyes.
Nic: This is where I'm actually cursing the fact that this is a podcast and not a video cast because I am not very good at impersonating many animals, but I do know that when a bittern doesn't want to be seen it does this.
Emma: Yes! So Nic is, right now, put her hands above her head.
Nic: Staring the ceiling.
Emma: And is staring at the ceiling, yeah. Amazing.
Nic: Another thing that fascinates me about bitterns is that the noise they make.
Nic: Tell me about that.
Emma: It's only the males that do this. But they boom, which-- so to fully appreciate the sound, you have to understand the morphological-- the body change that they actually go through to be able to produce this sound. So it's to do with testosterone, hence why it's something the males do it. So as he approaches the breeding season, the male-- his testosterone will start to build up and then his neck will thicken. So can if you ever have one in the hand you can feel it. It feels like jelly.
Emma: And it thickens because, basically, they're going to become like a bagpipe. So they need to be able to cope with a lot of air being squeezed out of them within a short space of time.
Nic: I'm sorry. I just have a picture in my head. I've seen pictures of you holding bittern, and now I have a picture in my head of you squeezing one.
Emma: That is not recommended. Please do not do that at home. No, the bittern does it themselves.
Emma: So what he does is he does these big inhalations, gets his chest full of air, and then he'll make himself an amphitheatre by squishing down the vegetation around him. He'll hunker down-- so I'm actually doing this right now. And then, he'll just suddenly make a wooo noise.
Emma: So he'll do that in a sequence. So that's what we call a boom, it's actually a sequence of those noises. So do you want me to teach you how to do it?
Nic: Yes, please. I would definitely want to learn this. This will be my next pub trick.
Emma: OK, so you have to suck in as much air as you possibly can. You ready?
Nic: Yup. [BREATHING]
Emma: More, more! And then go: [WOO SOUND]
Emma: And that, friends, was a poor train boom sound at the end there, which also happens with bittern. So what they're trying to do is they're competing with each other. So you and I were basically having like a little standoff there where you were you're telling me you're the sexiest male ever, and I'm going no, no, no, no, I'm the sexiest male ever.
Emma: And to be sexy, you have to get the best sounding woo boom, and the most of them within a train. And the longer you go for, the more likely you are to kind of go ‘ugh’. That's what they're competing to do. So they're trying to make the other birds collapse-- go beyond his abilities.
Nic: And is it like kākāpō, who also boom, but slightly different technique? And for a kākāpō, they're going for the Barry White, where the lowest boom is the sexiest boom. Is it the same or is it just the volume and trying to outcompete the fellow down the road?
Emma: We think with bittern it's the volume. They're actually trying to advertise the furthest. They want to get their message out across the whole of the wetlands. And then, you have the quality of the call and the length of the train is there because you've got to be good at it to be able to do that.
Emma: In September until December time is when they're booming. And at the beginning of that season, they will have to practice. Because they're going through that morphological change-- that body change. And so even if they were good at it, normally, and they're an old male that's generally quite sexy, at the beginning of the season he will need to practice still. So you can hear them going [UGH] and making all sorts of noises.
Emma: And the ladies will be going around checking them out, going, oh, he's not so good. I'll try this one.
Nic: That is fantastic! I’m actually a little bit cross because bittern is on a list of very few species in New Zealand that I have not seen.
Emma: You will have to come out with this at some point, Nic, to see them. Yeah, for sure.
Nice: Well, I want to come out with you because I understand you've just found out some pretty amazing information about bittern.
Emma: We have. So since I've been working on bittern, which is quite a while now, we've had two big, I guess, ground-breaking discoveries. One was in 2016. We discovered that there were a lot rarer than we originally thought. They used to be nationally vulnerable, and now we know they're nationally critical, which is the same threat classification as the kākāpō. And the only way it can go if it gets worse is extinction. So there's a lot that needs to be done with them.
Emma: And so we started managing them then. But we thought at that time that they were quite localized in they're movements. That they would stay within a region, and just use a small network of wetlands. But very recently, thanks to GPS technology, we've actually worked out that they go very long distances.
Emma: So this happened last October time. We put a GPS on our first Canterbury bittern. And it disappeared off-- all of a sudden it turned up in Blenheim, and that was new information for us. So that's 330 kilometers, and that's showing that, actually, these are national birds.
Emma: We haven't had one go between the North and the South end yet, but this is early days. But basically, the whole of the North Island is the same population of birds.
Nic: What kind of population is there do you think roughly?
Emma: So the official estimate that was from the 80s, and was that we had 1,000 birds, 1,000 bittern. But that was not doing any national census, so they will have been double counting some birds. So that was, basically, a bunch of experts get together from different regions going, oh, well we've got about 20 in our region. We've got about-- and then the other region saying, OK, we've got about 30. And then adding it all up.
Emma: And so now that we know that they move across regions--
Nic: They could have been counting the same guy twice.
Emma: Yeah. And they're doing this across the breeding season, so within a relatively short space of time. Yeah.
Nic: So I suppose what you've just told us just demonstrates that value of science advice, doesn't it? Because that whole learning new things, throws the management process we had for bittern before out the window essentially, doesn't it? And it just says, ‘whoops, instead of managing the small area which we thought was going to be good for bittern, you now have to manage the whole lot’. How does that work?
Emma: Yeah, so it's completely thrown everything out because DOC's whole system of managing wildlife is by a site by site basis. We have these things called EMUs, which are Ecological Management Units, and we have SMUs as well, which is—
Emma: Species management units, yes. That's right. And unfortunately, that means that we're managing on a site by site basis. So basically, says Whangamarino wetland is an EMU for bittern. But Kopuatai wetland, which is actually quite close to Whangamarino wetland, isn't for bittern.
Emma: But we know now that bittern need both of those sites, and also need the sites in the Bay of Plenty, and also need the sites of the Northland. It's the same bittern. So if you're only managing a tiny proportion of an animal's habitat, it's like, in humans terms, having good health and safety in one part of your-- just being safe at home, but the rest of the time when you go to work you're doing crazy things and not being safe. It's not going to work.
Emma: I've worked out of one site that in one year the bittern were spending 70% of their time outside of the managed site, and the rest of the time they're on farmland, and they're in drains. And there's no predator control in those places. There's no protection. People don't even know they're there. I had one farmer in the Hawke's Bay when I told them that a bittern was in a little patch of raupō at the bottom of their land, they were really, really excited. And they were like, oh, well thank god we found that out because we were going to remove that patch of raupō.
Emma: And that's the only little patch that that bird has throughout the whole winter. So it was hanging on that one patch if they'd removed it, it wouldn't have had anywhere else to go. So it's really significant to us, and makes a big difference.
Nic: So you've just touched on something which I think is almost the key to a lot of your success, which is around advocacy. Because you love to get out and tell people about bittern and get people excited about these invisible species we've never heard of. And you've got a bit of a partner in crime in this, haven't you?
Emma: I have.
Nic: Tell us about Kimi.
Emma: She's actually better than I am. She's awesome. So I have a conservation dog, Kimi the bittern dog. And she comes round and does school visits with me. And yeah, she loves bittern just as much as I do. But she has some quirky little-- she does some little tricks for the schoolchildren, and we get her out to help demonstrate how hard it is to be in the wetland and that kind of thing.
Nic: So how did it come about that-- because I've met Kimi. We've been lucky enough to have a school visit at work with Kimi. How did it come about that she became a bittern dog?
Emma: It was completely random. She actually started out as a search and rescue puppy-- not a bittern dog-- for the first six months of her life. So what happened was I was in Palmerston North doing my masters on bittern. Early days. So I'd only just started on bittern.
Emma: I was, at the same time, doing a bit of work for DOC, and also in my spare time doing search and rescue. And I was helping hide for the search dogs, and it was great fun and I loved it. It's fantastic. And decided I wanted to learn how to train a dog. And so they supported me and encouraged me. And we got Kimi.
Emma: And Kimi was a little bit too quiet as a search and rescue. If you've ever met a search and rescue dog, they have to bark manically at people until the handler gets to them. And if that person moves, they stay with the person and they just bark and bark and bark. And Kimi was this quiet little lovely puppy. I think she absolutely could have done it, but she wasn't naturally-- didn't fit the mould. It will be--
Nic: She’s not an extrovert.
Emma: She's a totally introverted dog. And all these dogs barking like crazy all the time, and she's like, what on Earth is going on? And at the same time, it just happened to be-- for my master's-- I had to write a piece on what an ideal-- or the different ways that we could start trying to find bittern. Because my task was, actually, not about saving bittern at that time, they weren't considered to be endangered. And that's how can we find them, and find out more about them?
Emma: And there's four different ways that you can detect a bird. Seeing them, hearing them, of course, through booms, and through their heat, so using thermal imagery. And then, there's through scent as well. So I was writing a little piece about scent, and I had to write the ideal characteristics of a dog. And Kimi was lying on the floor in front of me at my feet as I was writing this.
Emma: And the other thing she used to do as a search and rescue dog when we were training, she was always running off and standing in wetlands because she loves water.
Nic: Because she's a Lab, isn't she?
Emma: She's a Lab. And she's a black Lab, so on a hot day she just loves to be in the water. That's her happy place. So I was writing this, and it was coming out so-- must be a-- she's also a small Labrador – it must be a small dog, light, quiet, commonly introverted nature, not too barky, and then loves water. And there she was.
Nic: So you literally had that light bulb over your head while you were finishing your chapter.
Nic: I'm a massive fan of the conservation dog program, and it's supported by Kiwibank.
Emma: It is, yes. It is. They give a lot of support to all different types of conservation dogs because we have a variety of different types of dogs.
Nic: What makes a conservation dog different from any other dog on conservation land?
Emma: OK, so conservation dogs are official certified dogs. So here in New Zealand, we have the Conservation Dogs Program, which is run by DOC. And so Kimi and I have a series of mentors and trainers and assessors, which make sure that we're up to a certain standard. So safety of the bird is paramount. And Kimi always wears a muzzle, even though she is specially trained, so she doesn't touch the bird.
Emma: Even then, just to make sure there's no mistake because at the end of the day, we're talking about an animal and wildlife, and the bird can be just as bad as the dog sometimes. So she always just wears a muzzle to just make sure there's absolutely nothing that can happen.
Nic: So tell me a little bit about what a bittern dog does.
Emma: So she's helped me recapture birds, and find birds that don't have transmitters on. So we have, at the moment, we have some great methods that we've developed for catching male bittern because they're easier to get into traps. But we haven't got good methods for finding the females or the chicks. Ones that aren't booming and that won't respond to playback. Because that's how we attract them into the traps is through playing their calls. Getting really wound up that testosterone so they think it's another male. And then, they come in to investigate that other male, and that's how we catch them.
Emma: So she helps with that. And she also helps me recapture radio tagged birds. Because while I'm in the wetland, I can follow them with the radio transmitter to a certain extent. But as you get really, really close, it gets very hard to localize them. And they also tend to start hiding. So one of the things they do is really hunker down and sit-in the water. And it suppresses the sound of the transmitter. And so then, she helps me find that, and it helps me catch them.
Nic: So she's trained to smell out bittern, and ignore all the other wonderful smells around her.
Emma: Yes. And she's trying to take me to it, so take me to the live bird.
Nic: But she doesn't pick it up or do anything.
Emma: No, she's not allowed anywhere near it. And actually, she doesn't want to because of that introverted nature, she's frightened of them. She is a little bit frightened of them, it's true. When you get really close to them, I could tell because she starts looking back at me like, come on, come on. You take over now. And it's because bittern are actually quite aggressive. So if you're ever picking up a bittern, I would totally recommend that you put safety goggles on. And because they are part of the ninja of the wetlands style behaviors are that they're very, very fast at stabbing things.
Emma: And there was this one occasion where I was releasing a bittern, and we name them all after deceased crooners. So this one was called Bing Crosby. And I came to release it, and I had it tucked under my arm. And me and the bird were quite relaxed, and I was just looking around for a nice quiet place so I could put it down and let it go.
Emma: And by the time I had realized that-- so just to explain how you hold a bittern, I've got it under my arm and then my hand around the base of its neck.
Nic: Like a bagpipe.
Emma: Like a bagpipe, yes. And this bird managed to get out. And by the time I realized it got his head out of my fingers, it had already hit my glasses by the eye. So they do go for the eyes because your pupils look like something that's--
Nic: They should attack.
Emma: Yeah. And they can watch it moving. Like a cat, they've got really sensitive eyesight.
Nic: Actually, on that note, I think people really underestimate bird ecologists and birds scientists in terms of how strappy and dangerous birds can be. We tend to think in New Zealand we don't have lions and tigers and bears and so everything's all benign. And birds are fine. A little blue penguin chick gave me a black eye once. And when I was doing my dissertation I was studying penguins. And I didn't like to hold them too hard because I didn't want to hurt them, but you do have to hold birds quite firmly.
Nic: And the first day of my fieldwork, a penguin wiggle its arm out and smashed me in the face. So birds are dangerous, and have to be very tough-- you have to be like a lion tamer to work with some of our birds.
Emma: Bitterns are definitely one of those type of birds though. Yeah, they can be quite stroppy if they don't want you doing something to them so, yeah. And so Kimi is totally aware of that. And when we get really close to the bird she's like, it's your job now. You grab the bird!
Nic: You deal with this!
Emma: Yeah. I found it, I showed you where it was.
Nic: Yeah, it’s your job now.
Nic: Bitterns are the apex predator in a wetland, aren't they?
Emma: Yes. So
Nic: What does that mean? If you lose bittern from the wetland, what does that mean in terms of the function of the ecosystem overall?
Emma: I mean, they're very important in that tree. I mean, they eat mice and rats as well as their native food. So they're important for keeping those kind of populations down. And they're an important part of the balance in the wetlands ecosystems Yeah, without them, you'd have other species-- a lot of their prey would become out of control.
Nic: Even this one will probably be a bit hard for you because you do tend to have quite a few of these, but can you tell us a little bit about one of your greatest conservation science success stories?
Emma: I think it's got to be when we finally caught our first bittern. Because before we started the project that's now the bittern project, the DOC bittern project, there had only been one person that had caught bittern before in the past, and that was in the 80s. Philip Teal, who works now for fish and game. He did his masters on bittern at Whangamarino wetland. And he was tasked with trying to catch them.
Emma: And he tried so many different methods, which were the latest at the time, and didn't succeed with them. It's a very difficult site to work in. It was just why we didn't start there. And we learned from him. But he did manage to catch three in the end, but using a helicopter and a net gun from a helicopter. So flying over top of the bird, and the downdraft meant that they didn't want to take off. And then he would get the net gun out.
Emma: Nobody nowadays is going to let me do that. I failed as a student to convince anybody to give me a helicopter to just try-- and we don't want to do it anyway because it's not the best way for the bird. So luckily for me, since then, the British team and the American team had come up with different methods of catching their bittern, which are different species from ours.
Emma: So one of them is using mist nets, and then you play calls. And so you're trying to attract the bittern towards a net, and then you use calls either side of the net to make it fall into the net.
Nic: We use mist nets a lot through forest-- across New Zealand, don't we? Primarily forest birds, bats also. They basically look like-- just for the listener-- a badminton net strung between two sites, and then we're trying to do everything we can to lure them in. Does that sound about right to you?
Emma: Yeah. And the other method that the Americans have used was a cage trap, which is quite large. It could fit Kimi in there. It's got a mirror in the back of it. I don't put Kimi in there just to—
[Laughter]. Nic: Great disclaimer!
Emma: She did once accidentally walk in because I'd set in the field. Because it's going a mirror at the back, and then we smash a track, which has this trap in the middle of it. As you're walking down the track, all you can see is the mirror. That's the purpose of the track is to line them up with the mirror.
Emma: So when we went to check a trap once and she was with me, she saw her reflection and she was like, oh, it's a Labrador, hi. It's like no, no, no, no, no.
Emma: Kimi no! Anyway, I digress. So there's these two different methods. So we started off with trailing those. And with the mist nets, we spent two weeks battling away trying to get a bittern into a mist net.
Emma: And the one that we've now caught-- we called Barry White-- was the first one that we ever caught. And we got him so wound up with this mist net that he was walking up and down it, he was going around it, over it, under it, everything but going into it. It was a really frustrating time for us as a team. Because we were right there with almost catching but not catching, and at the same time we weren't getting any success with the traps.
Emma: And then we realized through the process of working on the mist nets, and getting that behaveour where the bittern-- because what a bittern actually does-- we only worked this out through trying it and failing miserably. Is when you play a call, if you're trying to catch a kaka or a morepork, they will fly in and then be around the net.
Emma: But a bittern doesn't actually do that. If you boom at a bittern, it will just boom back. And say it's 400 meters away, it will then-- after an hour of booming, it will move maybe another 100 meters closer. Then, after an hour, it might move another 100 meters. But basically, they just sit there for ages yelling at each other because they're having that standoff.
Emma: So that meant it took a long time to get the birds near the nets. And we were, as a team, staying up until 3:00 in the morning trying to catch these birds and being exhausted. So that was also-- through seeing that, we realized why the traps weren't working as well because ethically, we were checking the traps every hour. So the same thing is happening to the traps in that it's taking the birds a long time to come in to the traps.
Nic: And then you stomped past and scare them all away.
Emma: Exactly. But of course, you don't know that because you don't see the birds. This is one of the difficult things about working on a cryptic species. You don't even see what they're doing, and how they're responding. And so from this experience, we finally-- it's actually one morning after four days of trying to catch Barry White and getting all these behaviours. The whole team is absolutely knackered from these early mornings. And we decided, OK, we're just going to have to have a day off. And I sent the team home.
Emma: But I thought I had one person that was on standby that lived locally. And so when I got off after having a bit of a lie-in it just kind of came to me that the trap-- because the bird had been attacking the speaker the night before and walking up and down. I've got the right behaviour that I wanted, but it wasn't the right tool using the mist net. So I just randomly decided, OK, I'll go and stick this trap out and we'll see what happens.
Emma: I still wasn't expecting it to work because we'd had so many failures. It was like moving down a decision tree and that was just the next step to try to see what happens. And so I stuck this trap out. And then, as I was walking back, I thought, I better check in that my standby person is there because ethically, we needed two people to handle the bird.
Emma: So I rang him up. And I didn't realize is he'd gone to the airport to pick up a family relative, so he wasn't around. So I went back to this trap to close it because I didn't have the standby person. And when I arrived there, in this trap was a bittern. And I honestly couldn't believe it. I was in a state of shock.
Emma: And I started running back. We covered the trap to keep the bird quiet, and make sure that nothing can harm the bird. So a harrier can't hurt it. And then I started dashing back to the field center in an absolute panic because we can only keep the bird for a certain amount of time before we have to release them. So I needed somebody else to come and help.
Emma: And I rang Daniel Winchester who works for DOC, and at the time he was working out of the Napier office. And what I didn't realize at the time was he still had his mobile phone on Bluetooth mode from the night before because he'd been out with us at the mist nets. And we'd been Bluetoothing the speakers and the sound across to the speakers from our phones.
Emma: So my voice-- he told me this later-- came broadcasting out from his car as he was driving because it's synced with the radio. So he gets me on loudspeaker going, Dan-- I was running so I couldn't breath-- Dan I've got a bittern!. And he apparently went [SCREECHING NOISE], almost crashed his car. Had to pull over so that he could be safe, and he was like, you've done what? I was like, I know. I thought I had John on standby, and there's been a miscommunication, and I caught a bittern. I need somebody to get here ASAP. And he said, don't worry about it Em, we'll be there.
Emma: And then, it was like a DOC SWAT team just descended on us. Just like, whompf, and we got the job done. So yeah, and because you need a little success like that to be able to-- I mean, we were really demoralized at that stage.
Emma: We'd been working so hard and then not appearing to get anywhere with these birds. And then, all of a sudden catching one. And from there, everything got easier because once you put your first transmitter on, then you're able to follow birds, you're able to test methods on a bird that you know is there, you can train your dog on a bird that you know is there. And yeah, everything goes easier.
Emma: So I think that's probably the greatest-- what I'd say was my best success story.
Nic: Well done. Can you tell us a little bit about what's been your weirdest day at work?
Emma: Because every day is different, that's a really hard question because every day is weird. But it's not weird, it's actually normal to us science advisors. And when I knew you were going to ask me this question, I thought about it. And actually, the days that stand out as weirdest are the ones where somebody else-- you've done something in the presence of somebody else, and they've you've what you've done through their lens, and you've realized, oh, that's not normal.
Emma: So these things have happen time to time too, so I could give you a couple examples of them. It usually happens every time I go into my Mitre 10 because when you're buying pieces of equipment for-- we're doing the weirdest things. We're trying to create a cage trap or putting harnesses on birds, and we're using everyday items to do this.
Emma: So I think every science advisor will have a story where they've got it into Mitre 10 or Bunnings, and they've gone, I need this little piece of plastic that's about a centimetre long. It's got to be soft. It's got to have a hole that's three millimetres. They're looking at you and go, OK. So they'll show you various things. None of them will be what you want because it's so specific what you need. Eventually they'll go, what do you need it for? And you'll be like, oh yeah, it's for a weak link of the harness of a bittern. You know. [Laughter] whaaaaat?
Nic: What do you wish that the New Zealand public understood more when it comes to wetlands and a wetland bird species like bittern?
Emma: I wish they understood how valuable wetlands are. It is true how they're the kidneys of the environment. And so it's essential that we do look after them, but they're seen as swampy, mosquito infested places. A lot of the wetlands that I visited people would dump stuff in them, and it's just tragic really.
Emma: And I also wish that people understood more about how tragic it is to lose things. Because not only is it irreversible, but even if you can get some of that back, the cost of getting that back is so much more. And we do have a water quality problem here in New Zealand, which is receiving some attention now, thank goodness. But the cost of us now recovering that is-- it just would have been better 30, 40, 50 years ago if we just hadn't have got to that situation in the first place.
Emma: So yeah, I just wish everybody knew how wonderful wetlands are, and protected them. Even those small patches that are around the bottom of your land that you just think are just nothing. That's probably where bittern are hanging on.
Nic: That's so true. And there was a Colmar Brunton report that came out recently that demonstrates that 70 something percent of New Zealanders consider fresh water quality the highest priority issue. So second only to concerns about housing. But there's a disconnect, right? So we're all really, really, really worried about freshwater quality, and yet, we've got this ecosystem over here of wetland, which filters water and makes it high quality, and we haven't quite worked out how to value those.
Emma: Yeah. It's really tragic.
Nic: So given those concerns, what is something that we could all do to help protect wetlands?
Emma: OK, so talking about wetlands, and wetland birds, and the water quality issues. So advocating for your wetlands. Looking out for your local wetlands. So you all know where they are. And making sure that they are protected. That nobody's destroying them because we've got hardly any left. So we really do need to protect every single little bit now.
Emma: It's everybody's job. Everybody can do that. Everybody can advocate, and everybody can try to do trapping and predator control in their back gardens. And everybody can try to recycle. And just be more sustainable in the way that we are as a nation is a really important thing.
Nic: I think that's very good advice, and a nice way to finish off what has been, as usual, a fascinating series of ripper yarns. We didn't even get onto half a dozen of the other species that you're working on. So I should bring you back in. Thank you very much, Emma, and all the best with the future work.
Nic: That's it for this episode. If you like what you heard, show us some love with a five star rating. The DOC Sounds of Science podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts, so subscribe now and never miss an episode.
[Australasian bittern/matuku boom]
Episode 4: Conservation Tech
Technical advisor Stuart Cockburn talks to us about his scientific innovations, which are world-firsts and have been critical in protecting native species.
Stu’s responsible for kākāpō snarks, track counters, seabird soundscapes, grasshopper detectors and much, much more. He also once got into a one-way fight with a great spotted kiwi (the bird started it,) and is directly responsible for Nic getting questioned by airport security. All in a day’s work for Stu.
A snark is a device that records transmitters on kākāpō.
The birdsong used this episode is the Australasian gannet.
Music is Let’s get down to business by Cast of Characters.
[Australasian Gannet bird song]
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.
Kia ora, everybody. And welcome to another exciting episode of the DO C Sounds of Science podcast. And today, we have the privilege of having our inventor extraordinaire, Stu Cockburn on the show. Kia ora, Stu.
[Stu] Kia ora, Nic. Ko Stu Cockburn toku ingoa. Hi, my name's Stu Cockburn. I'm a Technical Advisor for the Department of Conservation with a focus on conservation technology. I guess my main role is developing technology for doing conservation work where that technology just doesn't exist.
[Nic] Because we tend to think of conservation work as something that's out there, hands on, hands on the birds, letting them go, and not so much about the tech. But what you guys are doing is kind of revolutionary. And to me, you are like the Q from James Bond for the Department of Conservation, right?
[Stu] Yeah, I guess so. We're not necessarily building the highest technology things in the world all the time, but the tools we build are built for purpose. And like I say, they're for doing things that only we do. So they have to be built for a specific task. And we get to do something really satisfying.
[Nic] If you can talk me through some of the kinds of creations that you guys build and then test out in the field, it would give us a real sense of what you're doing.
[Stu] Yeah. OK. I've been doing this a long time, nearly 20 years. It's mostly around wildlife. So I've done things-- that I like to tell people that one of the first things I ever built was a 90 kilo camera that went 900 meters underwater to film sea lions and nets. And I've done everything from that to a variety of tiny little devices that hang around various animals that weigh a few grams.
So one of the other big areas that we work in which we don't do for wildlife is visitor counters. So we've built a network of devices that count people moving around the tracks that DOC manages.
[Nic] What does it mean? Why do you need a visitor counter?
[Stu] Well, you know DOC invests a lot of taxpayer's resources into managing these tracks and these facilities. And we need some background information on how much they're being used, when they're being used, how they're being used. And this is one of the main tools we use for doing that. And it can be to make investment decisions about upgrading tracks or even closing tracks down because they're not being utilized a lot. Yeah. So that's a useful tool for informing the management.
[Nic] One of the stories that I've always loved about the technical program is the doorbells, for example. Can you talk me through some of the tech that's used to make sure that we can look after kākāpō?
[Stu] So the way I kind of think about the work we do for kākāpō; is the kākāpō team, the scientists behind kākāpō; have developed a series of interventions they use on kākāpō, things they do to improve the success of kākāpō so that they survive longer and that they breed better. What our technology does is provide them the information to make decisions on what interventions are necessary.
Nic: Like snarks.
Stu: Like snarks. So snarks is a crazy name we came up with. It's actually named after a kākāpō chick from many years ago. It's just basically a device that records the presence of kākāpō using the transmitters they all wear. So every kākāpō we know of has a radio transmitter on it. And these things to take the presence of the kākāpō and record it.
Or they can make decisions like we have a device that unlocks a feeding station. And so we can choose to feed one particular kākāpō out of a feeding station using this technology. We also hook scales up to the feeding stations, so we not only know who's been there, we know how much they weigh as well, which is really important for managing their health. If we detect a mix of loss and weight, we can go and actually go and say maybe there's a problem here.
The doorbells you're talking about is in the kākāpō nest. We also have of technology now that monitors the nest. So the doorbell is a doorbell. It's a little beam sensor that sits across the entrance. And as the mums come and go, the doorbell goes. And it lets either people on the site that the bird's left or arrived. Or what we have been doing in the last couple of seasons is that data is actually transmitted remotely to the hut. And so back at the hut we know that the mum has come and gone to help us help the rangers make decisions to go and intervene or do things if they need to.
[Nic] I understand that you've also, when you've been out in the field, you've been able to assist them as prod boy. Tell us what that means.
[Stu:] Oh, yes, this is a day with Kate McInnes who you interviewed a few weeks ago.
[Nic] A wildlife vet.
[Stu:] Yes. All days with Kate are a little bit weird, but this one was particularly weird. There was some of the early experiments in trying to produce kākāpō sperm from male kākāpō and that used an electrode ejaculation system. And I got to be the ground prod. So I spent a day holding a copper rod up the cloaca of male kākāpō. That was one of my weirder days at work.
[Nic] I bet.
[Stu] It had nothing to do with my electrical qualifications. It was just I happened to be the boy on the spot. So.
[Nic] It wasn't part of your engineering requirements?
[Stu] No, no. I was just a helping hand that day.
[Nic] Or a helping prod.
[Stu] A helping prod.
[Nic] Well, I don't know many people that can add it their CV. So I'm pretty impressed with that. It seems like, you know, you say you've been doing this for 20 years. This is a very niche being the wildlife inventor designing the tech to save the things. Is this something that you decided as a kid was going to be your career pathway? How did this happen?
[Stu] I was brought up in Ashburton where there's not an awful lot of wildlife. So it wasn't something I'd sort of come across. And I had no interest in electronics. So quite how I ended up here, I don't know. But I guess the story started with somebody you met not long ago as well, Lynn Adams. So Lynn has known that she's wanted to do this since she was a little girl. And Lynn and I went to school together. And not long after school, we got together and have been together ever since. And that's how I discovered conservation, basically.
I already started my engineering career, but once I discovered conservation I knew that's what I wanted to do. And then this job appeared. And now I consider myself a conservationist not an engineer. My next job will be in conservation.
[Nic] What has been-- apart from, obviously, having been with your childhood sweetheart for all of this time--
[[Stu] oh go on!
[Nic] And she is a sweetheart. We did interview Lynn. She's one of our favorite herpetologists. But what's been your greatest achievement? If you look back on the last 20 years in this role, what are some of your greatest achievements in terms of the things you've been able to design to turn things around?
[Stu] Yeah. It's kind of hard to pick one thing out.
[Nic] Pick a few.
[Stu] Pick a few? I think from an engineering point of view, one of the things I'm most proud of is the bat recorder we developed seven or eight years ago. It's kind of interesting that it was only in the 1960s (PS: Stu would like to add post recording that apparently he’s found out there might have been in the 1920s) some time that humans discovered that bats used ultrasound for navigation, which isn't very long ago. And since then, we've been developing techniques for capturing those sounds as a method of detecting bats.
And in all that time, there's only a handful of methods that have ever been developed, bat engineering sensor for detecting bats. And we created a new one. So we developed a new technology. And I will always remember the day we went up to Pureora, an amazing place, and we put out these new recorders which theoretically we thought would work. Put them out in the field. And then we went and gathered them the next morning, put the recordings into the computer. And there was exactly what we'd expected and intended as theory by not just the engineering theory, but also what we'd read about the biology of bats and what we should be seeing. That was a pretty good moment.
[Nic] Are you able to describe how they work?
[Stu] Yeah. So the trouble with recording bats, obviously, is that they use ultrasound and humans can't hear ultrasound, of course. So what you need to do is develop a technique so that we can electronically convert the ultrasound into something humans can interpret. And there's several methods of doing that. Some of them involve shifting the sounds down electronically so that we can hear them or just recording them and interpreting them on a computer. And ours is a form of that.
As the bats pass by, we record them. We convert it into a thing called a spectogram, which is an image representation of sound. And then we save that as an image. The trick with it is because of the high recording rates, you end up with huge files. And we've compressed those images in a way that makes them much smaller and easier to handle. So it's kind of a new technique, a new way of doing it. And it works.
[Nic] So as a conservationist engineer, what does that mean for the bats? Because bats are tricky, A, most people don't know they exist, B, when you know they might be around, they're really hard to pin down, and, C, because they move around so much, really tricky to try and look after. So what does your technology mean for those bats?
[Stu] It solves a lot of those problems that you just talked about. So what it's done is it's meant we've been able to produce a cheap, easy to use tool. We've made 3,000 of them. And so they used all over the country. And people use them to identify the locations of bats where they are. At least two new populations of bats have been discovered using our recorders.
So really what it means is it puts a detection and monitoring tool into the hands of our conservationists, our field staff, in an easy to use and cheap format. We can build them for our own staff for about a quarter of the price as we can buy something commercially. So it gives us this incredible tool that we can just go out and use, find where they are.
[NIC] What was it like for you guys the first time you trialed them waiting to see those results pop up?
[Stu] It's always a little bit fraught when you develop something new. Yeah. I think I made the point at some stage that there's a billion ways of making things that don't work and very few of making ways of things that do work. So you've always got an expectation of having problems. So on that first morning where it just worked perfectly the first time we put it out to record bats was, yeah, yeah. It's a bit of a buzz.
[Nic] Nailed it
[Nic] Yeah. Who inspires you in terms of your work and how you go about it?
[Stu] I knew this question was coming. And so I had a bit of a thought about it. And I decided I'd tell you a story about Raoul Island. So I was really lucky that before I started this job-- so over 20 years ago-- I spent most of a year on Raoul Island. And I was extra lucky that, as part of this job, I got to go back almost exactly 10 years after I left almost to the day. And I arrived on Raoul Island.
And in that time, DOC had cleared all the pests off it, the rats and the cats. And that had been done about four years before. And the weed program, which was the main program under area had carried on. And that was just a great day, because I arrived on the island 10 years after I'd left. And the island was booming. It was full of birds where it had been pretty empty. And the weeds were not gone, but had a big hole in them.
And I think what inspires me about conservation is that it was just the effort of a whole lot of people who just kept on going and don't stop. And that's how conservation wins. It's endless effort from lots of people over a long period of time. And we get there. And that was a great day to see just what the outcome can be.
[Nic] I completely agree. And there is something really special about and-- hopefully more will be able to see more of this on the mainland-- but the minute you set foot on one of those islands and kōkako just starts trilling off in front of you or you trip over a takahe on your way up the track, that's the moment where are all the pieces come together, isn't it, about what you're doing and why.
[Stu] Yeah. And it's inspiring to me that just so many people can put so much effort in over a long period of time and get that result. In the time I spent on Raoul Island in the '90s, I didn't see a single parakeet. And four years after the eradication, there were flocks of them around on the lawns beside the house. They were everywhere. I found a nest six meters off a track that I'd walked 10 times every day for most of the year and not seen a thing. It was an incredible place.
[Nic] It makes it all worth it. I heard a little rumor-- I'm a little bit jealous about this. I heard a rumor that your work-- I mean a lot of your work has been sort of recognized internationally and picked up in various papers. And other people are doing stuff like what you guys do-- but I heard that your work has been discussed in another podcast. You want to tell me a bit about that?
[Stu] Oh, yeah. My favorite podcast is The Infinite Monkey Cage. It's a BBC science podcast.
[Nic] Also my favorite podcast.
[Stu] Yeah. It's great. I was randomly listening to it in the car one day. And I'd actually just come back off Codfish Island. And they started talking about kākāpō. And someone mentioned kākāpō. And we're back to kākāpō.
[Nic] They always end up in the conversation.
[Stu] Yeah. And this woman on the podcast said, oh my god, kākāpō, they're my favorite and started raving about the scales and the snarks and all the equipment. It was, yeah, it was pretty cool to hear yourself talked about on your favorite podcast.
[Nic] That is amazing. So one of the things you guys are renowned for is the Number 8 Wire approach to some of the inventions that you come up with, right? Like you're pretty kind of flexible and agile and creative with the materials you use to build things for DOC staff who might need something really quickly. Can you tell me a little bit about the devices that you created to track endangered grasshoppers in the Mackenzie.
[Stu] Happy to tell you about it. But engineers tend not to like hearing their equipment described as Number 8 Wire.
[Nic] Well, the only reason that I'm, perhaps, being a little bit casual about this one is that I had the privilege of having to take this particular invention on an airplane and make all kinds of explanations about what I was carrying in order to get it down to Christchurch and across to the Mackenzie. So how do you track a robust grasshopper?
[Stu] Shall we shall we call it reusing existing technology in a cunning way, rather than Number 8 Wire? The problem was trying to find these tiny little grasshoppers in this landscape when they're very well hidden, of course.
[Nic] This is the Mackenzie?
[Stu] This is in the Mackenzie. And you know they have evolved to hide themselves from all their avian predators. And so they're hard to find. And so this project required a way of finding them, and detecting them, and tracking them, and understanding the fate of our grasshoppers.
So what we decided to use was the little microchips that people inject into cats and dogs. But we used them in a slightly different way. Instead of using it to identify that this individual was-- this dog was this dog and this cat was this cat, we used it as a detection tool. So the scientists involved glued the tag to the grasshoppers. These are tiny little grains of rice. They're slightly smaller than the ones that are used in dogs. And we build them a thing that looks a lot like a metal detector. But rather than detecting metal, it read the RFID tags.
[Nic] And does it read it-- basically, it reads it like a supermarket scanner, doesn't it? It's the same principle.
[Stu] Sort of.
[Nic] No. You can explain.
[Stu] Well, so the supermarkets scanners use a bar code. Obviously, it's printed onto the device. We didn't go print bar codes onto the grasshoppers. This is exactly the same technology as goes into a cat. So it's a little electronic tag which has an antenna. And the reader powers the tag up. And then it transmits its identity up.
And so the end result of this thing was that you could walk around scanning it over the landscape. And it would be able to tell you to tell you that you'd just passed over a grasshopper that you would probably never have seen. It may even be under a rock. And it just enabled them to catch a large areas of the landscape quickly, not on their hands and knees groveling around looking for grasshoppers, but just getting this little beep and away they go. So it sped up their work quite a lot.
[Nic] And what was it made of, Stu?
[Stu] It was made out of an off-the-shelf RFID reader. And I know you're getting at here--
--and a custom made coil, and a crutch from a hospital.
[Nic] And the reason that I'm getting at this is that I had the privilege of transporting said grasshopper detector on an airplane back to Christchurch in order to get it across to the Mackenzie. And so I had all manner of crazy questions around what was I transporting and why. And when you're trying to explain to airport security that don't worry, it's just a grasshopper detector, people are falling about laughing left, right, and center.
And also the scientists at the time phoned me and said would you mind just picking something up from Stu and the guys in the workshop, because I need to take it across the Mackenzie? I said no problem. And I know that a lot of the stuff you make is really tiny. So I was expecting like maybe a lunchbox. But no, instead I get gifted this hospital crutch with a big kind of loop welded on the end of it.
[Stu] Yeah. Getting questioned at security for airplanes is a big part of my job.
[Nic] I can imagine. So let's close the loop. Was it successful? Did it work?
[Stu] Yes, yep, yep. No, it's been really successful. So we've built a few more. And they're out being used pretty regularly. We've used them for snails as well. And it's one of those technologies that probably once the word gets around a little more, they'll be utilized more widely.
I think one of the technology that people tend to use for that stuff is to buy tiny, tiny little transmitters that cost a few hundred dollars. And the battery goes flat after a couple of weeks anyway. And so this was kind of an alternative way of doing that.
The chips themselves cost about $0.90, I think. So.
[Stu] Yeah. And last forever. So it's kind of a nice reuse of technology to do things in a slightly more cunning way.
[Nic] Stu, can you tell us about maybe what your weirdest day at work has been.
[Stu] Yeah. There's been a few. One I thought I might mention, because it was kind of an interesting day as well, was helping out with the Great Spotted Kiwi Project one time on the west coast and the Taramakau Valley. And we were trying to catch this great spotted kiwi. And I made the mistake-- maybe I was led into it-- of going underground into this large burrow to try and catch this great spotted kiwi which turned around and had a go at me so. Yeah. So being underground in a kiwi burrow and then suddenly finding yourself being attacked by this large, capable animal was not your standard engineer's day.
[Nic]: Were you getting pecked in the eyeball? Because I've seen colleagues go down those burrows, and so you're jammed in there, right? Shoulder to shoulder. You can't do much else but wriggle. And all I can picture is your face and an angry kiwi just like going for it.
[Stu] Yeah. This burrow was so big, I wasn't jammed in. I was just underground. And you know, a kiwi will take you a few leagues. They're capable animals. I've worked with great spots or that. People have this idea of kiwis being these little, gentle beasts of the forest. But not at all, they're big, and capable, and fast, and aggressive.
[Nic] And a great spot has got a foot span the size of my hand span.
[Stu] Yeah. They’re sizable animals. Yeah, yeah. My boss at the time said he didn't know people could reverse so quickly.
[Nic] That's brilliant. And it is true, isn't it? Just to sort of go sideways for a second, I know a ranger on the west coast who was working on maybe the rowi or create a rowi program. And there's a kiwi there they call Bruce Lee.
[Nic] Because all kiwi have different personalities. And they would send her in to sort out Bruce Lee, just for fun I think. And it became like a traumatic experience getting attacked by a much smaller kiwi, in this instance.
[Stu] Yeah. I mean I've worked on-- I lived on the West Coast for a few years and helped out with the Okarito program with the rowi program of it. And in those days, there was a bird called Scooter who sounds a lot like Bruce Lee.
[Stu] Yeah, yeah. Some of them are quite sneaky little fellows.
[Nic] Which is good, right? That's the whole-- you know, part of my job means I'm often involved in kiwi releases of young chicks that have been raised to a particular size. You want them to be the fighty ones, don't you, so they've got a much better chance of survival.
[Stu] Yeah, yeah. The stuff I've done with kiwi, I've always been amazed what capable animals they are. Another night of memory of great spots, a much more pleasant night, where I heard a great spot call over the other side of this massive beach log. And I climbed up on the beach log just to basically have a look. And it vanished in the dark.
And a few minutes later, I heard it moving way down the river. And this bird had moved off several hundred meters across loose gravel on a riverbed without shifting a stone. They're just so capable. And then they can be loud and aggressive when they want to be as well.
[Nic] Yeah. I've had a couple of lovely nights sitting in the middle of winter on the side of a hill in Arthur's Pass listening for great spots. Always amazed by great spots, because the girl great spots, to me, they kind of sound a bit like Paddy and Selma off The Simpsons, aye? They have a much more gravelly call. They sound like they've just smoked a packet of Holidays or something. And then they just kind of crack off into the night. But it's still a very surreal and exciting experience.
Can you tell me a little bit about your seabird sound systems?
[Stu] Yeah. It's again one of those bits of gear that aren't exactly high tech, but you can't go buy just anyway. So these are sound systems that were developed mostly for bringing seabirds into islands that have had pest eradications done. So these are islands that would have once been teeming with seabirds, been wiped out after years of rats, and cats, and the rest of those nasties. So after some people come through and removed all the pests, which is obviously the hard bit, this piece of equipment gets installed.
And fundamentally, what it is a big speaker that sits on the side of a hill and plays seabird calls. It sounds ridiculous, but they can be incredibly effective. And so they draw seabirds back to the islands that have been eradicated so we can get the populations established sooner.
One of the other things we do with them is there might be birds just starting to come back to the island anyway, and the seabird sound systems get them all into one place. So that makes them a bit easier to manage, and deal with, and establish their sort of colony ecology a bit sooner.
[Nic] The Taiko program would be a good example of that, wouldn't it.
[Stu] And they've been used on Taiko. Yeah. Chatham Island Petrel, I think is another one that they've been used for. I think we had an ad up a while ago. It must be about a hundred of them. And they're in Hawaii, and Australia, and Fiji, and Tonga. And I think we've sent some systems off to the Seychelles many years ago. So they're quite widely spread around the country and around the world.
[Nic] And they obviously have to be specific to the song or the call of that particular species.
[Stu] Yeah. So they use just a memory card that people put the files onto, the sound files, and the thing sits on the side of the hill. Sounds trivial, but making something that can sit on the side of a hill in Cook Strait or you name it for years on end playing calls without getting blown to pieces is a little bit of an engineering challenge.
[Nic] So tell me about that. What does it look like? Because you're right, I would just go, oh, yeah, you made a system and you stuck on the hill. But you're right. You've got to put it in some pretty rough climate kind of areas and habitats. What does it look like to engineer that?
[Stu] Everything's just in a waterproof case, bolted down very well, and waterproof connectors, all those kinds of things.
[Nic] So when it comes to the seabird sound systems, the one that kind of made headlines almost around the world was the story of Nigel the gannet. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your gannet sound system?
[Stu] Yeah so the gannet system on Mana Island was one of the first ones I ever installed. And so this one was a sound system. So it was sitting and playing gannet calls. But it also included some concrete gannets that had been built and painted by schoolkids. I had nothing to do with that part of it.
[Nic] As a visual sort of cue.
[Stu] As a visual cue as well. And poor old Nigel turned up after a few years, the only gannet that even turned up and got quite close to some of the concrete gannets. And I don't think it went very well for Nigel in the end.
[Nic] Stu, if we talk about some of your acoustic recorders, you've been in the news recently for discovering a whole new population of haast tokoeka one of our rarest species of kiwi, right? Tell me about that.
[Stu] Well, I can't really take credit for it. We made some recorders. And we put them in a box. And we sent them to some people who went and found some Haast kiwi.
[Nic] who put them in the bush and found a whole new population of our rarest species of kiwi! That's amazing.
[Stu] Oh, yeah. It's pretty exciting. Yeah, yeah. And the team's chuffed when they hear those stories. These things that they've built and they're developed in this very dry environment in the workshop are going out there and doing amazing things.
[Nic] Saving the things.
[Stu] Yeah, but we have to give some credit to the people who actually did the work.
[Nic] And I suppose that to me that's the interesting part. If we're looking into the future of inventor HQ, whatever you want to call it, what does this big data look like out there? You're, essentially, you guys are creating the eyes and the ears of what's happening on the ground where rangers may not even get to or scientists. So what's it going to look like in the future?
[Stu] Yeah. That's a good question. I mean the some of the technologies that are coming along now are just going to be such huge gains for conservation. So some of the satellites that are being put up are going to provide low-cost data from anywhere. It just means that we can start really thinking about looking everywhere and knowing what's going on all the time. It has to be applied in a scientific way and a careful way that we're not just gathering data for the sake of gathering data, but the potential is huge for us to know so much more about what's going on.
[Nic] And that's the whole thing, right? We're not gathering data for the sake of gathering data, because what you're doing is you're creating-- and like I'm a visual person. So in my mind, I can see a map of New Zealand with little lights going off. You know, like Bing. We just found a yellow-bellied sapsucker over here. And then you can divert your resource to protect the thing. So you're actually making us more and more efficient at saving more of the things more of the time.
[Stu] It's about giving the people who are doing the work the information so that they can choose the right interventions at the right time to make the best effect. And conservation is always resource limited, always will be. There's always going to be more than we can possibly do. And so making ourselves as efficient as possible in what we choose to do is always going to be crucial.
[Nic] Well, I think we're in very good hands. I have a particular bent for saving the little things. And if we can be sticking little transmitters the size of a grain of rice onto a grasshopper to protect where it lives, then the world's our oyster for saving the x thousand others that we need to look after as well.
[Stu] Yeah. One of my focuses at the moment, we have been doing bird conservation for so long. And we've got so many well-evolved tools and things that we need, whereas for the little guys, maybe it's something we haven't thought about so much. And so there's a lot of room for me there in developing tools that we just don't have. Some of the basic tools for managing some of the little species, some of things that have maybe been under the radar for a while, so quite focused on doing those sorts of things at the moment.
[Nic] Brilliant. Thank you so much, Stu. That's just been absolutely fascinating. And we look forward to hearing where you guys take your inventions next. Thank you.
[Stu] OK. No problem. Thank you.
[Nic] That's it for this episode. If you like what you heard, show us some love with a five star rating. The DOC Sounds of Science podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts, so subscribe now and never miss an episode.
[Australasian Gannet bird song]
Episode 3: Our Lizards
Lizard expert Lynn Adams shares tales from the world of reptile conservation – including two near misses for the “curly wurly” tailed Chesterfield skink.
Lynn and Nic also discuss the main threats to lizards - mice, hedgehogs, habitat loss and climate change. They finish up on a positive note, with what we can do to help protect our native reptiles.
The birdsong used in this episode is kaki/black stilt.
Find out more:
- Learn about New Zealand’s lizard species
- How to identify lizards
- Report your alpine lizard sightings
[KAKI/BLACK STILT BIRDSONG]
Nic: Today we have lizard expert Lynn Adams on the show. Lynn, let's talk lizards.
Lynn: Kia ora Nic. Kō Lynn Adams tōku ingoa, Kei Te Papa Atawhai ahau e mahi ana. My name's Lynn Adams, and I work for the Department of Conservation.
Nic: Kia ora Lynn, let's talk a little bit about your role. From my understanding, you're the lizard queen. But can you [LAUGHTER] just tell us a little bit about your role at DOC.
Lynn: I often get princess, but not queen. [LAUGHING] So, I'm a technical advisor here at Department of Conservation which essentially means that I give advice to people around conservation programs and how to recover things. But my specialty is around lizards, New Zealand lizards.
Nic: What got you into that? What did you study? What was your passion that led you here?
Lynn: Well, to be honest, my passion was birds and I shouldn't tell my lizard friends that. [NIC LAUGHS] And it's possibly still true. And so, I went to university for about five years. I did a Masters degree. And I did it on kaki/black stilts, because I really loved birds. [LAUGHS]
And then I got a job in the department and realized that, actually, we've got quite a lot of people who are really good at looking after birds. But we had very few people looking after lizards. So, I got a real insight into some of the problems that we've got with New Zealand lizards and realized that we've got this big gap in our conservation management. And so that lead me down the path around conservation management of lizards, New Zealand lizards.
Nic: I think birds do get a lot of attention so I for one am quite glad that you kind of diverted course off the birds and onto the lizards. How many lizard species have we got in New Zealand? I know this is a very complex, controversial kind of question. But roughly, ballpark, what are we looking at here?
Lynn: So, you're right. You'd think that someone who's an expert on lizards would know that sort of basic question but it's actually really hard. So, we've probably got around 109.
Lynn: Species. 109 species. And the reason it's really hard to know exactly how many is we're still finding new ones. So, I'm not quite sure in that 109 whether I've have accounted for the new species that we've found in Kahurangi a year ago. And then there's three new species found in Central Otago and I'm pretty sure that's not on the account too. So, we might have to add four more species to that in the near future.
Nic: How can it be possible though that in this modern world-- you know New Zealand isn't terra incognito, we kind of have mapped out most places in the country. How on Earth could we still be stumbling over new species and not have seen them before?
Lynn: Actually, in the lizard world, we probably are a little bit terra incognito. In that there's lots of places that we don't go and of the few people who do go there, they're possibly doing other things and not looking at their feet where the lizards are.
The other thing about it is that lizards are super sneaky. So, they're really good at hiding in vegetation and they're really good at avoiding detection. And so even when we go out looking for them, we really struggle to find them when we're looking for them. And it's actually one of our big problems, that we can't reliably find them. So, we can't ever say that there's definitely none here.
Nic: Just as a side note, I'm also a lizard nerd. I have quite an affinity to our lizards particularly our geckos. But it fascinates me that New Zealand always gets described as a land of birds. I suppose because they're so visible to us. Do you think in reality we would best be described as a land of lizards?
Lynn: We're just unique in everything so our lizards are super unique. Certainly, pre-European times, there would've been lizards everywhere. For a lot of us who go to the high country on the South Island, there's some really amazing hotspots up in the high country there. And that's a sort of diversity and abundance that we would have seen before predators hit New Zealand.
Nic: What is it about our geckos and skinks that make them different to their cousins in the tropics, for example?
Lynn: So, there’s the obvious things, like they give birth to live young. Most of the lizards oversees lay eggs and then they hatch. Our New Zealand ones don't. They give birth to these beautiful little miniature lizards. And then quite a lot of the species have some quite intensive parental care, we suspect. So, we just don't know that much about most of our species. But I won't be surprised if a lot of our species have quite intense parental care, which is kind of not a thing that we associate with reptiles or with lizards.
We kind of think that they're cold and they don't do much thinking and that they don't do the things that mammals and birds do. But I actually suspect we're a little bit off on that thinking.
Nic: So, you were a bird specialist, actually on one of my favourite species, the black stilt or kaki. How long have you been involved with lizards and what was it that really kind of grabbed your attention and made you realize that somebody needed to care about them?
Lynn: Well, to be honest, I spent most of my childhood roaming around the Canterbury high country. And s,o I was constantly encountering lizards. And so, I admit that I was right into lizards right from an early age. But I think the thing that really grabbed from a conservation perspective was over time seeing some of those populations disappear. But then also, seeing some of the amazing diversity that we've got.
So, on some of our offshore islands that I got to when I started working for DOC, I started seeing some of those massive skinks that were completely different from anything I've ever encountered on the mainland. And they were awesome. Big. Big dinosaurs who look at you as if they might eat you. [NIC LAUGHS] They look over their shoulder and look up at you and I feel a little bit uneasy when they look at me. [LAUGHS]
And to give you a sense of scale, they're not huge though. So, if you think about some of the Australian reptiles, they're nothing like that. My understanding is that the one animal that's kind of the record length, if an average sized person lays out their arm and measures from their elbow to their tips of their fingers, that's how long the animal is. So that's an animal called a robust skink. It's in captivity, which is why we know it so well. And I might have to admit that it's possibly been looked after too well. It might be a wee bit overweight. But it's huge, really big animal.
Nic: There was a bigger one though, wasn't there? A bigger species of gecko.
Nic: Do you know about that one?
Lynn: So, it's called a Delcourt's gecko. It's extinct. So, it was this huge gecko that roamed around New Zealand. And who knows what it did. But it's gone. And I suspect that there is a lot of species that have gone that we have never recorded and that we will never know about. Because they're so small, relatively. So small we don't get the fossil records. We don't get bone deposits in our limestone caves like we do with a lot of our birds.
Nic: What's the hardest part of your job in terms of looking after these lizards?
Lynn: Oh, the hardest part is that we don't know how to manage them. So, when I say that, it's a little bit of a headline statement. But it feels like we're in the place that bird conservation was in the 1960s. And by that, I mean we actually know a lot about ecology in New Zealand that we didn't know the 1960s. But we don't have management tools to protect lizards from predators.
So, the predator control that we do around the country which is amazing and super effective at protecting our birds is just not good enough for lizards. And so, our lizards are declining, still, in the places that we're doing pest control. And so, in that way, I feel a little bit helpless in that we don't just have an instant solution for management of lizards. So, when people come to me and say, we want to look after our lizards in their backyard, I don't have a silver bullet. I don't have a magic answer.
That's kind of sad. But it's also where I get a lot of the energy for the job as well because that's where we need to go. We need to develop those tools. And we need to develop our techniques. We need to get better at pest control.
Nic: Yeah. And I think when it comes to lizards, the real challenge for people is understanding it's not your normal suite of predators necessarily that are impacting on them. Is it?
Lynn: That's right. And so, we think of predators in New Zealand, commonly the first thing that comes to mind is stoats and rats and maybe we might be thinking about cats in the lizard context. But actually, the information that we've got suggests that mice are the worst predators. And it's because they're super productive. They can produce lots of babies. And they have lots of litters every year. And they feed on stuff that's common, like grass seed. And they just go through these crazy explosions that our pest control tools just can't get on top of.
Nic: How does a mouse eat a lizard?
Lynn: Lizards are cold blooded. They work by sitting in the sun, as we know. We've probably seen them sitting in the sun. And that's the way they warm up. So, on a cold day, they literally can't move. And so, on a cold day, there’s these little bundles of protein that mice can come up and nibble on.
And we occasionally see lizards that we've caught that have been preyed on by mice. And they'll just be chewed away. It's a little wee gnawing chews on the side of the body that ultimately kills them.
Nic: While it's still alive.
Lynn: Terrible. It's terrible.
Nic: That is awful.
Lynn: That's what's happening in New Zealand, just with ordinary sized mice with our lizards. We just don't see it.
Nic: Yeah, that's a major. And I do know that it's something that our scientists in the department are wrestling with right now, isn't it? Is how we're going to get our heads around what we do about the mice. I think another predator that always goes under the radar and always ends up being controversial every time I mention it-- and boy does that Beatrix Potter have a lot to answer for-- is the blimmin hedgehog. Tell us about what hedgehogs do to lizards.
Lynn: So, hedgehogs are pretty cute. But they do exactly the same as the mice. So, when those lizards are cold and they can't move, those hedgehogs will be the opportunistic feeders. And they'll be gnawing away at the lizard.
Nic: I'm always fascinated by people who-- and this will be controversial, so I look forward to your feedback. Often people will talk about leaving out bread and milk for the hedgehogs or cat biscuits or whatever. And my response to that, is would you leave something out for a stoat or a rat?
Nic: Because it's the same thing.
Lynn: It's exactly the same thing. And it's just that we're not seeing it. But like they don't attack things in the middle of day when we can see it. They are gnawing away those lizards when they can't move. And so, yeah, we just, yeah--
Nic: Because they shut down at night, don't they? They're basically solar powered. So, they're just like lying there while a hedgehog on its stumpy legs is just-- ugh. So, take home message, get your hedgehog feeding off your--
Lynn: Stop your hedgehog feeding.
Nic: Off your menu. Put a trap in your backyard. I think the most obvious impact that you can see or experience in terms of predators on lizards is when you go to places where there are no predators. And so not to show off, but yesterday I was on Hauturu-o-Toi or little barrier island. And I think there's something like 14 species of reptile on that one island, all happily co-habitating in their various ecological niches right across the island. And all doing really well because there's no predators, right?
Lynn: Exactly. And so there would have been-- there's heaps of species, lots of diversity. And I bet you when you jumped off your boat, you were almost kicking them out of the way as you walked through the grass. And that's the sort of abundance that we just don't see in the mainland. But that's normal. That's how New Zealand should be. We should be flushing them away as we walk through the grass.
Nic: What's something about the work that you do that you wish everybody out there knew?
Lynn: I wish they knew a lot more than they do just about lizards, realize how amazing they are and they're not just the little brown jobs in your backyard. In fact, there's an amazing book out that everyone should have at home. It's a handbook. And you can flick through it. I flicked through it for hours on end and looked at every single lizard. And you'll see the diversity there.
I also really wish people could see some of the habitat destruction that's still happening. So, we're absolutely losing populations through predation. But we've also got habitat loss. And habitat in New Zealand, we generally don't think that we're losing habitat. But actually, in the lizard context, we are. And it's because there's so many species they live in such diverse places.
Nic: I think you've touched on something really important there Lynn. Because I think we're a bit simplistic in New Zealand in terms of what we think the conservation areas are. We tend to think they're at the bush. So, if they're the bush, the forest, that's where the nature is. And it's not everywhere else and of course, the lizards are everywhere else aren’t they. They’re in the bush, but the places that I think of in terms of being perfect homes for particularly some of our green gecko species are generally what farmers would consider scrub. You know? So, the sort of manuka, kanuka, coprosma, matagouri that kind of Muehlenbeckia here, that stuff is a bit messy. It's kind of the stuff you want to tidy up.
Lynn: The good news about that, though, for gardeners is that messy is great. Lizards love messy.
Nic: I think maybe that's why I have such an affinity to lizards then. Because it's that messy is good.
Lynn: You're allowed to be messy. You're allowed.
Nic: Mess is good. Get out there and mess up your gardens. Great. So, what do you think's been your most satisfying experience professionally when it comes to all the lizard work that you've been involved with?
Lynn: So that's a tricky one. Maybe I need to wait a few years. But I think Chesterfield skink's been a pretty amazing project. And we're still a wee way away from saving those species. So, Chesterfield skink lives on this fairly unremarkable piece of beach just north of Hotikika. It's a nationally critical species. And we've done a reasonable amount of research on it over the last three to four years.
Nic: Is it the one with the curly wurly tail?
Lynn: Curly wurly. [LAUGHS]
Nic: I love this one.
Lynn: Yes, curly wurly. So that was a name that we gave to a skink. It curls its tail. Its whole body actually curls up into this-- it's like a curly fry.
Nic: Yes, or like Mr. Whippy ice cream.
Lynn: Or a turd, I've been told.
Nic: Seems we're always going to go there in this podcast.
Lynn: That aside, so the reason it's got a nice curly wurly tail is because we think it's probably arboreal. So, they use that tail just like monkeys do to grip onto forests. And so, the species is now living on the coast, on the beach. It was probably coastal forest back in the day. And it's all been cut down. It's lost most of its habitat. It's probably been preyed upon by all the mice and cats and hedgehogs in the world. And it's now down to a population of 200.
We had a major setback last year with Cyclone Fehi which I'm sure lots people are going to remember that one. It was a really damaging cyclone. And what happened at our Chesterfield skink site was that on the we thought was safe beach site, there were these massive waves, massive tides which overwashed them. The whole entire population was overwashed over a couple of tides.
And so, I got that news when I was sitting in Invercargill doing some other work. And I actually thought that we'd lost the whole species. So that was my worst day.
Lynn: There were a few tears. [LAUGHS]
Nic: I'm not surprised.
Lynn: There were a few tears. But when we realized the damage that had happened, I jumped on the phone to Auckland Zoo. Auckland Zoo said, hmm I think we could probably help you there. Give me a day to figure out whether we can take some animals into captivity for you as a safeguard.
And a day later, we had a plan to get some animals up into the zoo into captivity where they'd be safe. So, we ended up doing that over a couple of months. And it turned out that the-- I don't know what those skinks were doing during that storm. But it turned out that most of them have probably survived.
Lynn: Yeah. I just don't know what they would have done. Like, that was--
Nic: Under saltwater?
Lynn: Under saltwater.
Lynn: Pounding seas, like anyone on the coast at the time told me the stories of what the sea was like at the time. My best guess is that they live in burrows and they just hang on. And maybe there was some air pockets down there. But I don't even really know how they breathed during that time. [LAUGHS]
So, we've got a secure population up at Auckland Zoo. And they're doing a great job of looking after those. And our next job-- so this is why the story isn't over yet. The next job is for us to build a fence, to find a place that we could put them that's safe from storms and to get those animals in Auckland Zoo back into the wild in a safe place, away from predators.
Nic: So, you've got basically an entire species sitting in the zoo.
Lynn: Not quite. So, we did one of our research trips just down there recently. And we've got-- and there'll be more-- but we found 52 animals down there. So, we've at least got 100 animals. There's probably more. So, between 100 and 200 animals remaining.
Nic: Still, that's getting right down there.
Lynn: It's pretty dire.
Nic: We hear a lot about kakapo. And there are 147 adults. And you know, everybody's pretty freaked out about a number that low. And yet, here are these populations of skinks that probably no one's ever heard of that are down to the same level.
Lynn: And to be honest, because we've been talking about Chesterfield skinks for a wee while, and Chesterfield skinks is probably relatively well known, compared to some of the other species which some of them are in worse situations.
Nic: I think that's the challenge, though, isn't it Lynn, for you guys? When you're working as an ecologist, when you get populations or species down to such low numbers or in such sort of fragmented places, any impact in addition to that becomes essentially a threat to their very survival right?
Lynn: Yeah, and a storm, a cyclone, was the last thing we were thinking of with Chesterfield skinks. So, we were focused from day one. We really knew nothing about those species. We didn't even know how to identify them. So, every animal that we took, we had to have confirmed genetically.
Luckily, we have figured out how to identify them. And we didn't know the breeding. We didn't know the extent of where they were. We didn't know what their threats were. We had some best guesses about mice. So, there were a whole heap of questions that we were trying to answer in those first three years. And storm damage was the last question on our mind. [LAUGHS] And then suddenly, the storm hit. And so, we had to completely change tact and change everything that we were planning for for that species.
Nic: Yeah and I guess another kind of growing risk through climate change impacts on weather is something to keep an eye out.
Lynn: And I just look at all the storms, like I am looking out for storms now. They are getting more frequent.
Nic: You have to get pretty good at lizard identification. And I know that one of the problems with trying to discern what the different species are is they all look the same, particularly some of those skinks. I've talked to you guys before and you've said things to me like, oh, no, you've got that wrong. You count the scales behind the eyeball. [LYNN LAUGHS]
So, your lizard ID has to be pretty switched on, doesn't it? Tell us a little bit about what's involved in visually identifying some of those lizards.
Lynn: It's hard because it's hard. So even our experts who do count the scales, one of the tools we use to figure out who is different and who's not, but even those guys who do that are often stumped. So, they are kind of all the same.
But when you get to know them, they're really different. So, it's like anything, if you know something really well, you can start to see the differences. And sometimes when we're first starting out, we find something new, we think it's new. It of kind of feels different.
And it doesn't look quite the same. And it's doing different stuff. And it's got a slightly-- it's got two more scales than it should have, we often have to conform with genetic techniques. And we've got some really sophisticated genetic techniques now that can tell us definitively the different species.
Once we know that, we can then split them into those two groups or whatever. And we can start seeing the differences by eye. So, we can count the scales. And we can confirm that it should have two extra scales behind its eyeball.
And we can start seeing some of the colour differences. We start seeing differences in the proportions of the body shape. It's really subtle. And it sounds tediously boring. But it's actually really exciting [NIC LAUGHS] when you can tell a lizard apart from another one.
Nic: So, we have had a question come to us from Twitter. And somebody has asked us, what's the biggest threat to tropical lizard species?
Lynn: I suspect habitat loss, to be honest. I think in a lot of countries, habitat loss is still a massive, massive problem.
Nic: And maybe climate change.
Lynn: Climate change. Yes, so interestingly, some lizards can change their sex depending on the temperature that the eggs are incubated at. That still blows my mind. I've known that for a little while. But it still blows my mind. So, climate change will have a massive impact on those sorts of species where warming will create more boys than girls.
Nic: Yeah and we've seen that in tuatara, which is not a lizard, by the way, which is a reptile. I know that in some populations, tuatara are already skewing towards more males hatching as a result of that warming of the soil where the eggs are.
Lynn: Yeah. In that particular case, it's probably because the vegetation has been degraded through various activities through the decades. It's not looking great for tuatara in New Zealand.
Nic: What should people do if they find a lizard?
Lynn: The most common way is that their cat brings in a lizard. So, the best thing to do is obviously to take it off the cat and then release it into a safe area. So, don't release it to a place where the cat can catch it again. But if you've got some of those divaricating shrubs or spiky shrubs that your cat doesn't like going into, that's the place to release it.
The other really good thing to do, if you can, is if you are sneaky, if your cat hasn't got hold of it, is to try and sneak up and take a good photo of it, especially if you're not an urban area. Like urban areas, we pretty much know what species we've got. It's still useful to get information from urban areas.
But if you're in a remote place, you're out tramping in the back blocks of nowhere and you see a lizard, that is actually a really good thing, gives us our first clues about where to look for lizard populations. So, if you could take a photo, please try and make it clear. I know it's really hard. But so many times we get blurry photos of this stick-like thing. It's not helpful. [LAUGHS]
And if you can't get a good photo, because I do understand it's really difficult, they're moving and it's hard to get close to them, definitely send in the report. Send in whatever. Send in an email to your local DOC office and tell them as much as you can about at the location, what sort of habitat it was in, what sort of weather conditions it was, who you are so we can go back to you and talk to you about it if it's something really interesting.
All of that information gives us our best clues. And it's that sort of record that leads us to new species. Like we've had rock climbers who have said, oh, we saw these lizards while we were rock climbing but we never got any photos.
Nic: Sunbathed skinks.
Lynn: New species, sunbathed skinks.
Nic: Yeah. That's awesome. And I think that's really cool to think out there that the public could be contributing to some new scientific discovery and that you guys are really keen to hear from them about what they're seeing out there.
Lynn: Yeah, back country like the South Island in particular, but not exclusively South Island high country and the mountains and the really remote places. We've got no record-- literally no records-- of lizards from Southern Fiordland. So, anyone who's in there and sees anything is going to be hugely significant.
Nic: It's been really amazing talking to you, Lynn. Because you are describing a new generation of conservation pioneers. You know, you were describing things that I read about when the Wildlife Service were out doing the same surveying for birds, trying to work out how to solve the problems of predation, all that kind of stuff. You're quite right. We're kind of poised on the precipice of exactly the same story now, but for lizards.
And I feel like we're in good hands. I feel like the passion that you guys have for these lizards is sitting us in a pretty good stead, given those massive challenges-- the mice, the hedgehogs, the impacts of climate change. I feel like we probably are going to crack this right?
Lynn: Yeah. And you know, the thing that I'm really looking forward to is all of the people after me who are going to stand on my shoulders and look down at me and go, why didn't you guys know this. [LAUGHING] That'll be great. I'd love to have everyone, in a few generation's time, saying, Lynn, why didn't you do this with our lizards and have all those tools available and lizards running all over the lands, us flushing them away as we walk through the grass. Wouldn't that be awesome?
Nic: That would be amazing. I look forward to that, too. And I can't think of a more perfect way to wrap up. So, Lynn, thank you so much for your time and for your passion and energy and expertise. I look forward to hearing about your next discovery. Thank you.
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.