Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

The mystery of the moa: did these feathered giants call Rakiura Stewart Island home?

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

The little frog with a big legacy

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

Resolving a genetic mash-up: reconstructing an accurate evolutionary history of kākāriki

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

Out of the fire and into a mad world: How human arrival in New Zealand resulted in a flightless insect

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

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

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

Land of the chonky birds: How and why did New Zealand have so many feathered giants?

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

Lost in translation or deliberate falsification?

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

Climate refugee or hardy local? Solving a botanical mystery

Nic Rawlence 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 … Read More

Aotearoa: Land of the long or short chronology

Guest Author Aug 15, 2019

Lachie Scarsbrook “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me. And no one knows how far it goes”. If you’ve seen Disney’s Moana, like me you probably just sung those first few lines whilst picturing a traditional double-hulled canoe sailing out into the sunny, blue abyss. Discovering new lands: a modern reconstruction of a … Read More