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.

Critically endangered but not lost: the fight to save Te Papa’s collections from extinction - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Jul 23, 2018

In an unassuming building at the top of Tory Street in Wellington lies buried treasure: the remains of a lost world that rivals Smaug’s hoard, but the equivalent of the five armies is closing in. The proposed restructure of our national museum means we are in danger of losing the key to unlocking the secrets these biological taonga hold. I meet Alan Tennyson, the Curator of Vertebrates, at Te Papa’s offsite collections facility. This home away from home holds a special place for me as a self-confessed fossil nerd. I owe my career and my lab’s research programme to the treasures housed in its basement and those of other New Zealand museums. I have been visiting Te Papa’s collections for nearly 15 years, working on everything from birds to seals, from cetaceans, (whales and dolphins), and … Read More

Fossil Lucky Dip from a Lost World - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Jul 10, 2018

I’m lying on a beautiful golden sand beach. The bright sun is beating down upon me. I could be on an isolated, tropical island, if not for the lone giant moa sculpture looming above my head. This sentinel to a lost world stands at the aptly named Old Bones Backpackers at Awamoa, (originally named Te Awa Kōkōmuka), south of Oamaru. It was erected as if to remind us of what was and what we have lost, guarding the remains of its brethren. Archaeology old school: In the days before four-wheel drive vehicles, “carrying off of the fragments that remained” from Awamoa was no doubt an arduous task, especially just before afternoon tea. Photo courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library. Awamoa is a ‘moa hunter’ site where one of New Zealand’s first archaeological excavations, conducted by Walter Mantell, took place in … Read More

Back to the Future in Northland: Fossils illuminate a flight path towards ecosystem restoration - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Apr 18, 2018

Ground control to Major Tom: The otherworldly Herangi Hill at Motu i Pao/Cape Maria van Dieman where Fred found the ancient Moho skull. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Carol. In the pouring rain, surrounded by flowing sand lava and cascading lahars, Fred Brook gingerly walks towards Matt Rayner and me. He’s sliding across a steep sand dune, his hands carefully cupped before him. Whatever he is holding appears precious. It is; Fred has hit the jackpot. Through the rain, we get a glimpse of a powerful beak, possibly thousands of years old. Fred has found the ancient skull of a Moho, the extinct North Island Takahē (Porphyrio mantelli), that died out shortly after the arrival of Polynesians in Aotearoa. This fossilised taonga represents what we have come here to find. It is also providing a rare glimpse at what … Read More

Through the looking glass: Fossils reveal a Miocene Wonderland at St Bathans - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Mar 19, 2018

It’s the height of the Central Otago summer – barren, dry and dusty. Driving down the gravel road to St Bathans, we’re travelling back in time, down the rabbit hole to a world long gone. Only ghosts remain of this lost world and that’s what we’ve come here to find. The fossilised bones of a myriad of animals dating back some 16-19 million years from the Miocene period can be found in the sediments of the surrounding area. Turning off the gravel road and down a farm track, we’re met by the sight of several four-wheel drive vehicles parked up next to a small hill. The “hill” is actually a large, gravel, spoil heap on the banks of the Manuherikia River. This morning, it’s surprisingly quite cool on site, enough that I wish I’d brought a jersey with me. In … Read More

A tale of two penguins: Bice and Rosie - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Mar 05, 2018

New Zealand has long been considered the cradle of penguin evolution. But two new fossil discoveries, affectionately known as Bice’s, (pronounced Bee-chee’s), and Rosie’s Penguins, are rewriting early penguin evolution and have taken the world by storm. Move aside Penguins of Madagascar; there are some new and cool kids on the block! But how did we get to this point and what is Bice’s and Rosie’s tale? It was a typical, sunny day north of Dunedin, wildlife capital of New Zealand; a good day for combing the beach looking for the ghosts of biodiversity past. Te Papa’s Alan Tennyson and Canterbury Museum’s Paul Scofield were on the hunt for fossils from a lost world; a time shortly after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs (i.e. not birds, otherwise known as avian-dinosaurs) and large predatory marine reptiles, some 65 million … Read More

Traditional Chinese medicine: Eye of newt and toe of frog - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Dec 09, 2017

‘Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble’ chant the three witches in the cavern, lightening flashing outside, in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s images like these, conjured up by the great bard himself, that I associate with traditional Chinese medicines and herbal remedies. The implied promise that if I take this concoction, my health and life will improve, is a powerful allure to many people, but does this ‘hell-broth’ really contain the ‘eye of newt and toe of frog’ as it promises or is it just fairy dust, or even something much worse? Now 21st Century, cutting-edge science is indicating that traditional Chinese medicines and herbal remedies are not all they are cracked up to be, but contain a raft of ingredients not mentioned on the Hogwarts’ potions list. ‘Double, double toil and trouble’. Are manufacturers of … Read More

Will the real frog please stand up… - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Dec 05, 2017

Luke Easton, a PhD student from our laboratory studying Conservation Palaeontology, is about to drop into Martinborough’s Cave of Bones. Abseiling into the tomo he is assaulted by the putrid rich smell and sight of rotting sheep carcases that lie between him and his treasure. You see, Luke is on the hunt for the bones of some of the smallest members of New Zealand’s lost biodiversity club: Leiopelma frogs, one of our taonga that few New Zealander’s will be lucky enough to see. Once through the sheep carcass soup and a tight squeeze, laid out before him along the cave passage were the remains of moa, kakapo, kiwi, takahe, tuatara and the tiniest of frogs. Luke Easton enjoys a moment of contemplation down Martinborough’s Cave of Bones next to the daily special of sheep soup (foreground). Photo by … Read More

‘Honey, I’m related to Genghis Khan’: the hype around ancestral DNA testing - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Nov 27, 2017

Television documentaries focusing on the use of ancestral DNA to reveal hidden mysteries in family trees are becoming increasingly popular. However, in our house they are known as ‘the time Daddy rants at the TV’. Quite frequently, you will hear me exclaim to my kids ‘You can’t say that!’ or ‘There’s no evidence to support that’, before I throw my hands up in exasperation. Despite the genomic revolution having swept through science and the popularity of testing for ancestral DNA, there is still a lot of hype and misconception surrounding the field. So, what is the hype and should we be concerned? Ancestral DNA Ancestral DNA doesn’t deal in deep time. Rather, it’s limited to the past 500 years, which is pretty much the limit of conventional family history research. Source: In New Zealand, the company EasyDNA will … Read More

What’s in a name: the importance of naming biodiversity - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Sep 26, 2017

‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other word would smell as sweet’ wrote the bard when he penned Romeo and Juliet. Names are important. They evoke emotions, power, a sense of pride and ownership. Names can transcend language barriers and allow global communication of science. Naming biodiversity is no different. Recently I gave a talk to Year 13 secondary school students about our lab’s ancient DNA research on the confusingly named New Zealand Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri), previously known as Hooker’s Sea Lion, but more on this later. At the time of Polynesian settlement around 750 years ago, there were three genetically distinct lineages of sea lion in the region: one was restricted to the Chatham Islands 650 km east of New Zealand, the second was restricted to mainland New Zealand; and … Read More

Ancient DNA giveth and ancient DNA taketh away: The penguin that never was - Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Aug 18, 2017

Dr Nic Rawlence & Tess Cole, University of Otago Australian politics is mired in a duel-citizenship scandal. Certain politicians have discovered that they are in fact part kiwi and accusations of interference in Australian politics are flying. This trans-Tasman identity shock, however, is not unique to Australian politicians. Now new ancient DNA research has surprisingly shown it’s also found in Australia’s penguins as well. I was lucky enough to be part of an international team, led by University of Otago Zoology PhD candidate (and emigrated Australian) Tess Cole, which included collaborators from CSIRO (Australia), Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, that has just shown the extinct Australian Hunter Island Penguin (Tasidyptes hunteri) is in fact part kiwi. No entry to the Australian penguin parliament for this bird. This is a big … Read More