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.

Resolving a genetic mash-up: reconstructing an accurate evolutionary history of kākāriki - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Sep 10, 2021

Prioritising species conservation and over-stretched government funding is built upon an accurate understanding of evolutionary relationships and taxonomy. But what if that evolutionary history is wrong? More importantly, what are the consequences for endangered biodiversity as conservation funding and resources are re-assigned? Numerous examples have come to light in recent years where genetic techniques have shown previously recognised endangered or threatened birds do not exist, such as the Cape Verde kite which was formally considered to be the world’s rarest feathered predator. One of these birds is not like the other: Once thought of as just a red-crowned parakeet, the Norfolk Island lineage is a species in its own right. In Aotearoa New Zealand as elsewhere, a change in taxonomic status can become an emotional issue. For instance, on a recent ecotour of Akaroa Harbour with the … Read More

Out of the fire and into a mad world: How human arrival in New Zealand resulted in a flightless insect - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Aug 22, 2021

When most people think of the consequences of humans arriving on an isolated island paradise, it wouldn’t be making an insect flightless. Most people would think about the rapid extinction of biodiversity and environmental modification that inevitably follows human arrival. In Aotearoa New Zealand this includes the sad loss of the giant megafaunal moa, pouakai Haast’s eagle, and the huia to name a few, as well as the widespread burning of forest. Others will mention the introduction of novel mammalian predators like the kiore Pacific rat, kurī Polynesian dog, and the myriad of sharp-toothed beasties Europeans brought with them. If people even think about the insects, it will be to wonder how many were munched into extinction by rats as they rapidly spread throughout Aotearoa in waves. Once were treelines: There are few … Read More

From Aptornis to Zosterops: What can be done about an extinction crisis 50,000 years in the making? - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Jun 28, 2021

Conservation comes down to values. Do we only focus on the charismatic animals and the things we can see, or do we conserve the out-of-sight, out-of-mind Lilliputs? If that world collapses, you can be sure ours is next. I’m standing in the basement of our National Museum Te Papa Tongarewa surrounded by the ghostly remains of New Zealand’s bygone bird fauna. Around me are row upon row of subfossil bones of giant moa to tiny wrens. Vividly preserved bird skins stare at me with vacant eyes as if awaiting word to stand up as sentinels to the currently unfolding biodiversity crisis, like those in Bill Hammond’s famous birdman paintings. A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away: The South American Macrauchenia is just one of the enigmatic South American megafauna that went extinct around … Read More

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