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.

It’s a Friday night in Invercargill for eastern moa during the Ice Age - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

May 11, 2022

In the depths of winter, most people from southern New Zealand head to warmer climes for a much-needed dose of Vitamin D. Yet during the height of the last Ice Age, one species of moa did just the opposite.  I’m reminded of Bill Bailey’s En Route to Normal tour that visited Dunedin last year where he was performing one of his great comedic songs. On this night he was singing about being at a dark deserted crossroads, framed by a lone street light, with only a kiwi for company. The punchline, delivered to peels of laughter from the audience, is that it was a Friday night in Invercargill. This comically disparaged city is New Zealand’s southernmost, just a few hours down the road from here, and the butt of many local jokes. I strongly suspect Bill’s song was about Dunedin … Read More

From the smallest of bones come the biggest of secrets - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Apr 04, 2022

Ask any museum curator if you could destroy the only known bone of a diminutive extinct animal for genetic research, and the answer, once the curator had regained their composure…well, I’ll leave that one to your imagination. Walk into the behind-the-scenes collection at any museum in Aotearoa New Zealand and you’re immediately drawn to the big things, whether that’s historical taxidermy, like imposing carnivores with their glassy eyes that eerily follow you around the room, or the skeletons of marine leviathans that once explored the ocean’s depths. Yet tucked away, dwarfed by the adjacent shelves upon shelves of carefully curated moa drumsticks, is a single non-descript wax-lined box full of tiny treasures. Hundreds of precious fossil gecko bones from before the arrival of humans, some thousands of years old. A menagerie of the minutiae: Hundreds of gecko bones … Read More

The long night: how the Ice Age drove blue-eyed shag evolution - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Mar 28, 2022

The first snow had started to settle on the bare ground. Soon the shag will have to make a choice. Should it stay to battle the elements and potentially face death during the long night, or attempt a perilous journey to find a new home? By the time sea-ice surrounds its craggy island, creeping up from the south like an army of white walkers, it may be too late. Beware white walkers: Chatham Island shags (L. onslowi) on watch at the refugial Rēkohu Chatham Islands. Photo courtesy of Oscar Thomas. Scientists know a lot about how the Ice Age affected animals in the landlocked Northern Hemisphere. Vast kilometre-high ice sheets covered large parts of Eurasia and North America. Animals migrated into refugia and when the ice finally released its cold grip on the world, they … Read More

Something old, something new: meet St Bathans newest fossil duck - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Mar 10, 2022

“Alan, Alan, Alan, we have a big one”. And sure enough, in front of the kids and me was the brown outline of a bone that hadn’t seen the light of day for millions of years. It’s big country out here. And baking hot, even this early in the morning. Driving out of Alexandra up the Manuherikia Valley the views are vast, and big, with your eye drawn to the horizon. The sky is that dark blue-black that heralds an impending thunderstorm later in the day. Black clouds stretch in banks across the sky like zebra crossings for the gods. Dotted throughout this brown hill country with its rocky schist tors, are seemingly out-of-place lurid irrigated fields – bright green interlopers in an otherwise dry landscape. The kids and I imagine what this place must have been like when Polynesians … Read More

Reconstructing ancient genetic jigsaws: palaeogenomics comes of age. - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Feb 28, 2022

On the computer screen, little pieces of genetic code are being slotted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Slowly but surely, the genetic whakapapa of an extinct creature from the distant past is being stitched together in front of your eyes.    Far from being Frankenstein’s monster risen from the dead, these genetic blueprints offer a unique opportunity to push through the mists of time to examine lost worlds and vanished lives in unprecedented detail…any maybe learn a thing or two in the process.   With the release of the latest trailer for Jurassic World: Dominion, palaeogenomics, the sequencing of the complete genetic blueprint of historical and ancient creatures, is back in the spotlight. And with that, the … Read More

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