Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor is a conservation genetics researcher at the University of Otago in Dunedin. She is interested in what happens to the genetics of populations when they get very small, and how factors like loss of genetic diversity and increased inbreeding might affect species’ persistence via impacts on their reproductive success and survival. Helen’s research mainly focusses on threatened birds. In New Zealand, she has focused on little spotted kiwi, South Island robin, and hihi (or stitchbird), but she has also worked with threatened birds in Europe and the Peruvian Amazon. Helen’s time is currently split between remote islands around the country, and the lab/office in Dunedin. You can track her down on twitter @HelenTaylorCG

Kiwi and tuatara could be ancient foes - Wild Science

Jan 25, 2019

What happens when you reunite two species that have been separated for centuries by human activity? According to our latest research, they might turn out to be old rivals. A landscape of species separation New Zealand is a pretty unique place when it comes to biodiversity. However, it’s unique in some negative ways too. Thanks to human activity, many of the country’s native species have experienced big reductions in both numbers and the range they occupy. This means that some species in New Zealand that used to encounter one another regularly have been kept apart for hundreds of years by human actions. When we bring species like these back together via conservation translocations, the results can be tough to predict. Kiwi pukupuku/little spotted kiwi (LSK) and tuatara are perfect examples of this. These iconic native species had not encountered … Read More

Betting on bird sperm in a race to help hihi - Wild Science

Mar 26, 2018

It’s well known that funding for conservation is seriously lacking, so we’ve had to get creative when it comes to raising money to protect New Zealand’s little ray of sunshine, the hihi. The hihi – a taonga in trouble Have you seen this bird? Probably not – the hihi is pretty hard to find (Image credit: Helen Taylor) Research careers are funny things. One minute you’re planning out how you’re going to secure a permanent position and a Prime Minister’s Science Prize (#dreams). The next you’re encouraging people to bet on bird sperm races to raise much needed cash for a taonga species. As a researcher, I measure sperm quality across several New Zealand bird species (wondering why? Fair enough – read this, related post.). One of my study species is the hihi or stitchbird, perhaps one … Read More

Weird Science: Why I study bird sperm - Wild Science

Mar 21, 2018

When I was little, I wanted to be David Attenborough, but here I am at 35 hanging out in the bush and collecting bird sperm samples. I feel like I owe everyone (including my younger self) an explanation. An interesting career choice Me in the field, loving my work. Sorry, mum! (Image credit: Robyn White) My mum doesn’t like to tell people what I do. She generally states that I work in bird conservation and allows me to remain a mysterious avian Jane Goodall figure in people’s minds. What my mum refuses to tell people is that, after several years of studying and a hard-earned PhD, my current research involves sampling sperm from male birds and checking it out under a microscope to see how fast it’s swimming. And I love it. When I talk to people about … Read More

How eco-friendly is your ecotourism experience? - Wild Science

Nov 28, 2017

An increasing number of travelers and holidaymakers are paying for nature-based trips and experiences under the ecotourism banner, but do these activities do more harm than good to the nature concerned? According to the Nature Conservancy, ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the internationally massive tourism industry. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has a working definition of ecotourism that states it must (among other things) be “environmentally responsible” and have “low visitor impact”. Does every trip or tour we might think of as ecotourism meet these criteria? Almost certainly not. When should you be concerned that your ecotourism activities are having a negative impact? Below, I take a look at some of the problems associated with nature tourism and how we can try and be responsible tourists. Overcrowding As the popularity of nature-based tourism … Read More

Paying the price to see “Super Scientists” - Wild Science

Aug 09, 2017

Tickets for “rockstar” particle physicist Prof. Brian Cox’s Auckland show went on sale this week. With seats priced from $90 to $215, are big popular science shows fostering elitism? Super scientists, assemble! Jane Goodall and friends wow the crowds in Dunedin. Image credit: Otago Daily Times New Zealand has been blessed by visits from four big names in science this year already, and is set to play host to a fifth in November. It started in February with an Auckland show from my personal hero, David Attenborough. Then, we had theoretical physicist and mathematician, Brian Greene also speaking in Auckland, in March. Conservation advocate and primatologist Jane Goodall toured the country in June, presenting shows in four major cities; Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. Dr Goodall was closely followed by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who blew … Read More

Step 5, release your mammoth: NZ scientists tackle de-extinction consequences - Wild Science

May 09, 2017

Most research on de-extinction focuses on the technology behind making it happen. It’s refreshing to see a group of conservation scientists examining what happens when you release these species into the wild. What comes after de-extinction? The latest issue of the  journal Functional Ecology has a special feature on de-extinction. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you won’t have missed the media excitement around so-called de-extinction projects recently. I’ve even shared my (largely cynical) thoughts on the topic on this very blog. Interestingly, almost all the conversation and research around de-extinction focuses on how we can bring these creatures back. The science of de-extinction gives little consideration to what happens after that is achieved, but the conservation implications are huge. If we release resurrected species into the wild, then this is essentially a conservation re-introduction. Professor Phil Seddon at the … Read More

The search for Nessie showcases an exciting new conservation tool - Wild Science

Apr 13, 2017

I was sceptical about my lab head joining the hunt for the Loch Ness monster, until I realised it was an excellent way to promote the amazing possibilities of environmental DNA. Making a splash Last week’s news was full of tales of how my boss, Professor Neil Gemmell, was going to take on the challenge of tracking down the infamous Loch Ness monster. It’s easy to see why people are so excited about finding any evidence that the monster exists. It’s the same reason they are excited about “de-extinction”: it’s where science meets magic. The really exciting part though, is that we now have the technology to detect the presence of pretty much any species in an ecosystem just from a water or earth sample. This is invaluable for understanding how much biodiversity we have, where it is, and … Read More

De-extinction: more hype than hope - Wild Science

Mar 08, 2017

Efforts to resurrect extinct species could divert funding away from conserving extant species, but a more basic issue with “de-extinction” is the misinformation surrounding the topic. A recent study by New Zealand and Australian researchers puts a price on “de-extinction”. The team also estimate how many native extant species might be lost by directing these funds away from existing conservation efforts. (Read more about this on the Sciblogs News blog). The take home message is that “de-extinction” could come at the cost of preserving native species. An excellent point, but this is only one problem with the quest to revive long-dead lineages. “De-extinction” is not actually a thing “De-extinction”: an overused and highly misleading term The very word “de-extinction” encapsulates perhaps the biggest misconception around talk about bringing back moa and mammoths. The word conjures up Jurassic Park-like … Read More

Get ready for CRISPR conservation - Wild Science

Feb 09, 2017

New Zealand is known for its bold, proactive conservation strategies. Are we ready to use advanced gene editing techniques to save native species? Imagine being able to turn genes on and off, or change their code and alter their function. This is the reality of gene editing technologies facilitated by enzymes like CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR is essentially a pair of molecular scissors. These scissors can be programmed to target a particular stretch of DNA and then modify it in any of the ways described above. Gene editing has obvious implications for human health. Unsurprisingly, the idea and now practice of editing the genes of human embryos has generated considerable controversy. No less controversial is the idea of using CRISPR for conservation. As a new paper points out, conservation scientists and practitioners need to engage with gene … Read More

‘Conservation by numbers’ hides genetic dangers in endangered species - Wild Science

Jan 18, 2017

How do we know when a threatened species is ‘safe’? A new study featuring one of New Zealand’s iconic kiwi species suggests increasing population size might not be enough – an increase in numbers doesn’t always cut it for conservation… Saving threatened species tends to be a numbers game. We often use population growth as a proxy for population security. The more individuals of a given species exist, the less endangered we perceive that species to be. Population size and growth/decline are the major criteria for deciding how a species is classified on the IUCN Red List – arguably the most influential international ranking of threatened species. But what happens when the numbers are misleading? What if population growth hides damaging factors that could threaten the future persistence of a species? Kiwi hiding inbreeding depression A little spotted … Read More