Michael Knapp

From Past to Present is the blog of Dr Michael Knapp, Rutherford Discovery Fellow and Associate Professor in biological anthropology at the University of Otago.

Moa’s Ark or flypaper of the Pacific – New Zealand’s place in the biology of the Pacific - From Past to Present

Jun 17, 2021

It was the year 2002 and I was sitting in the shiny new office of our Biogeography Professor for my oral Diploma exam. It was going well, when I was asked to name an example of a Gondwanan distribution pattern, or in other words a species or group of species whose present-day distribution goes back to the ancient Gondwanan supercontinent that joined southern hemisphere landmasses during the age of the dinosaurs. Without hesitation, I named the southern beeches, the charismatic group of species that dominates most of what is left of New Zealand’s forests today. Surely, if anything was a Gondwanan relic in remote places like New Zealand, it would have to be those supposedly poorly dispersing trees. The Professor agreed, giving me full points for this answer. Ironically, I spent the following two years putting together a molecular … Read More

The Loch Ness monster – and why it matters - From Past to Present

Sep 07, 2019

Earlier this week, my colleague Neil Gemmell released the results from his year-long hunt for the Loch Ness monster. As expected, the story attracted enormous media attention. Also, as expected, it attracted some criticism from fellow scientists pointing out how unnecessary it is to conduct such a large-scale experiment to find something that every sane person and certainly every serious scientist will agree is not there. Much of this criticism comes from colleagues who I greatly respect and whose work I admire, and the criticism will not change that. But, dear colleagues, on this particular occasion you are wrong. Studies like this are not only necessary, but overdue. To understand this, we need to look a bit more closely at what this study was meant to achieve. On a scientific level, it is one of the most exhaustive biodiversity … Read More

The discovery of a Denisovan jaw bone and what it can tell us - From Past to Present

May 09, 2019

Last week the discovery of a lower jaw bone of a Denisovan hit the headlines all over the world. Denisovans are a now-extinct species of humans that were closely related to us as well as to Neanderthals. To an outside observer, the excitement of researchers about this find might have appeared a bit over the top. After all, Denisovans have been discovered nearly 10 years ago, their genome has been sequenced and their relationship to our own species analysed. So, what is all this fuss about? The jawbone was found in Baishiya Karst Cave, on the Tibetan Plateau, in 1980 by a monk. Supplied/Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University The relatively large amount of recent, high-profile research on Denisovans means that they have become a rather well-known entity in our family tree, if not a household name like Neanderthals. This familiarity … Read More

New Zealand, the place that makes giant birds - From Past to Present

Mar 20, 2019

Fourteen years ago, I was a PhD student somewhere half-way through my degree and had just published my first paper. As I proudly flicked through the hard copy of the journal, I noticed another article that caught my interest. Using DNA extracted from ancient bones, an international team lead by researchers from Oxford University and Palaecol Research in Christchurch had managed to reconstruct the DNA sequence of a small fragment of the legendary Haast’s eagle’s mitochondrial genome. With a weight of approximately 15 kg and a wingspan of close to three meters, the extinct New Zealand Haast’s eagle is the largest known eagle to have ever lived. By comparing the Haast’s eagle’s DNA fragment to the same fragment from other eagles, the authors had expected to confirm that the New Zealand giant was a remote cousin of the … Read More

TB or not TB: origin and antiquity of tuberculosis in New Zealand - From Past to Present

Oct 25, 2018

Recently, our team at the University of Otago embarked on a quest to identify how and when Tuberculosis (TB) reached New Zealand, by looking for the genetic signature of Tuberculosis bacteria in ancient human and animal remains from across the country. Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease which has been called a “global health emergency” by the World Health Organization, killing 1.7 million people a year. Despite being treatable, it has surpassed HIV/AIDS as the most deadly infectious disease on the planet. So, clearly, it is a major health problem around the world, including New Zealand. But why should we care how and when TB arrived in New Zealand? It is here now, so shouldn’t we spend all available resources into research directly leading to better treatment and prevention? Let’s compare the situation with a street brawl. If you are unexpectedly … Read More