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.

The dog is in the henhouse: did the kurī (Polynesian dog) have an impact on New Zealand’s wildlife? - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Dec 16, 2021

The hunter stalks its prey through the forest, following the wafting invisible trail of musky odor straight to the kiwi burrow. Within a few months, the dog has killed over 20 kiwi. You would think this event occurred recently, given the frequent headlines of dogs killing or attacking our unique wildlife, or the feral dog populations causing trouble in northern Aotearoa New Zealand. Rightly these headlines produce collective anger from kiwis (the people, not the bird, though I imagine the birds would no doubt be pretty pissed off at the current situation). But travel back in time to when humans arrived in New Zealand over 700 years ago in the late 13th Century and there is a distinct blind spot when it comes to human’s best friend back then, the kurī (Polynesian dog). The prevailing view … Read More

The mystery of the moa: did these feathered giants call Rakiura Stewart Island home? - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Nov 15, 2021

The scientists shield their eyes from the howling wind and flying sand as they carefully uncover the precious skeleton. If it wasn’t for the absence of giant sandworms, this could have been a scene straight out of Dune. Alex Verry and Matt Schmidt are on Rakiura Stewart Island at West Ruggedy Beach excavating a significant taonga, a moa skeleton. Surrounding them are high, steep-sided golden sand dunes draped over granite tors that stick up out of the dunes like the emergent peaks of buried mountains. Just over the water, tantalizingly close, is the kākāpō stronghold of Whenua Hou Codfish Island. Buried taonga: In a scene from Dune, Matt and Alex uncovered the Rakiura moa (foreground) that had been lost to the mists of time. Photo by Alex Verry. The partial moa is resting in a natural granite … Read More

The little frog with a big legacy - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Nov 11, 2021

In the bowels of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the little frog waited. In 2005 scientists had released its bones from its sediment tomb on the banks of the Waipara River in North Canterbury. The discoverers – Bruce Marshall, Phil Maxwell, and Al Mannering – had carefully collected the tiny bones that remained and deposited them in the museum where they were identified as belonging to a frog before they were gently packed away. There the little frog waited like a heirloom toy waiting for the next generation of scientists to rediscover and treasure it. A few years later the lid was lifted on the little frogs’ new home. Its bones were carefully taken from its box and placed under the microscope. Every bump and groove was described in detail and compared to other frogs from around … Read More

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