Nic Rawlence

Dr Nic Rawlence is a Lecturer in Ancient DNA in the Department of Zoology at the University of Otago. He is also the Director of the Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory. Nic did his undergraduate degree and Masters with Honours at Victoria University, and PhD at the University of Adelaide. He then worked at the University of Waikato and the University of Otago, where he established the Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory. Nic's research focuses on using ancient DNA, palaeontology and palaeoecology to reconstruct past ecosystems, how these prehistoric ecosytems were affected by human impact and climate change, and how this knowledge can improve conservation management of New Zealand's unique biodiversity. Nic is on Twitter @nic_rawlence_nz and tweets for @Zoology_Otago.

Land of the chonky birds: How and why did New Zealand have so many feathered giants? - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

May 31, 2021

The eastern moa is stuck fast in the swamp, its thick legs having punched through the peat into the liquid blue clay beneath. Death is inevitable, whether from starvation or from above. Unable to move, the moa can only eat what it can reach around it, if anything. The forests that covered this area during warmer times are but a dim memory in the recesses of time. Instead, the swamp is surrounded by tussock grass and celery pine. Occasionally the moa tries to escape in vain from the swamp’s tight grasp, bumping against the bones of its brethren preserved in this death trap. Suddenly, something slams into the back of the moa, pushing it further into the swamp. Large talons rip through flesh and bone. The moa’s arch-nemesis, the King of the Eagles, has just arrived for … Read More

Lost in translation or deliberate falsification? - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Apr 26, 2021

I’m staring at an evolutionary tree of New Zealand wrens when ‘damn it Travers’ rings out. The infamous Victorian collector Henry Hamersley Travers had just struck again. In front of me also are the delicate historical skins of some of these tiny wrens, frozen in time since the day they were collected. While some are still with us like the pīwauwau rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris), others are extinct like mātuhituhi bush wren (X. longipes) that was only driven to extinction by rats a mere ten years before I was born. More so than fossil bones, these precious skins are hauntingly beautiful in their detail. No need to infer what they looked like alive. It’s skins like these, and other historical museum specimens, that offer scientists and conservationists a unique window into how our unique biodiversity was faring at … Read More

Climate refugee or hardy local? Solving a botanical mystery - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Mar 17, 2021

I’m deep in the middle of the Kā Tiritiri o te Moana Southern Alps with Michael Knapp collecting beech leaves and ripping apart rotting logs on the hunt for giant collembola. Some 17 years later, these precious beech samples would allow Michael and I to answer one of the longest-running debates in New Zealand botany. When Polynesians arrived on that fateful day in Aotearoa New Zealand some 750 years ago, around 80% of the country was covered in large tracts of forest that would have made an Ent proud. However, wind back the clock to the height of the last Ice Age 19,000-29,000 years ago and we enter an alien world. Sea levels were 120 metres lower, connecting the three main islands of New Zealand – you could walk from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland to Ōtepoti Dunedin without … Read More

Skeletons in the closet: my ancestry DNA story - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Dec 17, 2019

‘Are you sitting down?’ the ominous words came down the phone line. Usually, that means something less than happy is about to be imparted. ‘It’s about your grandparents ….’ I grew up in the sunshine capital of Aotearoa New Zealand. My maternal grandparents lived just down the road. My grandfather was always a big part of my life. When not working in his immaculate garden that had featured on Maggie Barry’s Garden Show, he would be pottering around ours. ‘Escaping Grandma’, he would joke. In his workshop (one that would put Father Christmas to shame), he built us the wooden toys my own kids still play with and helped me refurbish my centreboard yacht. Grandpa’s steamed fruit pudding was always a firm favourite and something we, as his grandchildren, have been trying to recreate ever since. He was the … Read More

Footprints illuminate the Dark Age of moa evolution - Unsorted

Jul 30, 2019

A moa walks across a vast flood plain, its feet sinking into the soft mud. Once buried by the next flood, the footprints left behind harden. Millions of years later, a farmhand taking the dogs for a swim on a hot day makes the discovery of a lifetime. Seven footprints, around 25 cm in diameter, were recently discovered in the bed of the Kye Burn River, near Ranfurly, exposed after summer flooding. Such is the importance of this discovery, they represent the first moa trackway for the South Island and potentially the oldest in Aotearoa New Zealand. Thanks to the hard work of Otago Museum and scientists from the University of Otago’s Geology Department, this ara-moa has been saved from being erased from our biological heritage forever. Here’s a movie from @KaneFleury showing the Moa … Read More

Proposal to mine fossil-rich site in New Zealand sparks campaign to protect it - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Jun 17, 2019

An Australian company’s application to mine a fossil-rich site in the south of New Zealand has been met with fierce criticism and a campaign to protect it in perpetuity. Foulden Maar, near Dunedin, is arguably the most important terrestrial fossil site in New Zealand. It comprises a complete ecosystem. This makes it one of the most important sites from the Miocene in the southern hemisphere and comparable to the famous, UNESCO-protected Messel Pit in Germany. A maar is a small deep volcanic crater lake. Foulden Maar formed 23 million years ago after an explosive eruption . It contains tens of thousands of exquisitely preserved fossils of plants and animals, all of which represent extinct biodiversity. The fossils are preserved between layers of diatomite, itself the fossilised microscopic remains of siliceous aquatic algae called diatoms. Plaman Resources, … Read More

How to make a flightless bird - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

May 13, 2019

Visit any major museum in Aotearoa New Zealand and you will see a giant moa skeleton on display. The first thing you notice, apart from its enormous size, is the complete lack of wing bones. The answer to how the tūpuna of moa arrived on our shores and subsequently lost their wings has been one of New Zealand’s greatest evolutionary mysteries. Pin the wings on the moa….what wings? The South Island giant moa skeleton in the entrance of Canterbury Museum that so fascinated my five-year-old palaeontologist. Moa, and our other national bird, the kiwi, are members of an ancient super group of birds called palaeognaths (derived from the Greek for ‘old jaws’, referring to the primitive-looking roof of their mouth), very different to their evolutionary rivals, the neognaths (new jaw) that include all other … Read More

Are deer the new moa revisited: the MythBusters episode - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Apr 21, 2019

In a rockshelter at the base of a giant two-storey house-sized boulder, Jamie and Janet strike pay dirt. A few centimetres under the floor of this dry overhang are the tell tale signs of a prehistoric megafaunal latrine. We’re going on a moa hunt: bones and coprolites can be found under giant boulders like this one. Photo courtesy of Jamie Wood. Jamie Wood and Janet Wilmshurst, from Maanaki Whenua Landcare Research, are deep within an ancient Fangorn-like forest at Daley’s Flat in the upper reaches of the Dart River Valley. Snow-capped mountains, tall enough to make you feel quite insignificant in the geological timescale, surround this U-shaped glacial valley. The floor of this goblin forest, dominated by red and mountain beech, is carpeted in a thick blanket of moss. Put a foot wrong and you’re likely to … Read More

From the mists of time: the enduring mystery of the adzebills - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Mar 07, 2019

As a kid, I remember visiting Canterbury Museum with my Dad. I was fascinated and terrified in equal measure by the giant moa skeleton in the entrance, just as my four-year-old is today. But what really interested me was the much smaller, but not less diminutive, skeleton of an extinct adzebill. The adzebills were built like tanks. They sported massive adze-like beaks and skulls. These were in turn supported on a long neck made up of heavily reinforced vertebrae. With very little in the way of wings, these giants walked around on equally robust legs and feet. My childhood fascination: this South Island adzebill skeleton greets visitors to Canterbury Museum. Weighing in at 16-19 kg, (some estimates place their weight as high as 25 kg), and up to one-metre-tall, adzebills would have been formidable flightless birds indeed. Read More

Are deer the new moa: Ecosystem re-wilding or a flight of fancy? - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Feb 08, 2019

It’s the depths of winter and I’m squatting in the snow, surrounded by southern beech forest, using a pair of tweezers to pick up fresh steaming deer poo. Pooper scooper: Braving the cold in the name of science, these deer droppings are a harbinger of a changing world. Photo courtesy of Jamie Wood. My wife Maria, and palaeoecologist Jamie Wood, from Landcare Research, are doubled over in laughter, having just given me the official job title of pooper scooper. We’re helping Jamie collect deer poo as part of a project investigating whether introduced deer fill the same job vacancy as the extinct moa in what remains of our unique ecosystems – an ecological surrogate to re-wild New Zealand. This long-running and often vitriolic debate has become closely associated with the anti-1080 movement. Hunters have … Read More