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PhD student a finalist for this year's Wellingtonian of the Year awards!

19 October 2016

A huge congratulations to Victor Anton for being announced as one of this year's finalists for the Wellingtonian of the Year awards in the Environment category.


Victor is a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University investigating the impacts of predators on native biodiversity in urban areas.

To carry out his research, he has placed motion-activated cameras in Wellington locations to capture images of animals, and asked members of the public to then identify them online.

The project, in its second year, has so far collected over 160,000 photos.  

“People have been really responsive, and most importantly the results appear reliable. When we compared experts with other volunteers and how accurately both groups were able to identify species from photos there wasn’t any meaningful difference. Each image is checked by at least two different people, this helps correct for small mistakes, like clicking the wrong button.

“The benefits of citizen science with this type of research are not just the ability to categorise data faster, it’s also about getting people involved—the more you involve them the more they care, and the more they learn about the species around them. People have been surprised to see rabbits in their garden, and other animals they didn’t know were living around them.”

Over the course of the year, motion-sensitive cameras were placed in approximately 50 green areas around Wellington, such as parks and reserves. Each area was recorded for one month per season to allow the researchers to understand how changing weather and seasons affected the biodiversity in these areas.  An additional 20 cameras were placed in residential backyards and recorded year-round.

“We chose these based on criteria such as size, and connectedness to other green spaces—both of these factors are important for whether the space will support native birds, such as kākā, and they also influence the presence of pests,” says Victor.

Victor’s supervisor, Dr Heiko Wittmer, says: “This project is one of many examples of how research conducted at Victoria aims to improve biodiversity conservation in urban environments. Victor’s results will be vital for local constituents and to help the Wellington City Council develop more effective management strategies to protect threatened native wildlife.”

For more information see

For more information about this years awards, click here

You can reach Victor at

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Why Tuatara are so unique

17 October 2016

Tuatara expert Nicky Nelson of Victoria University spoke with RNZ about everything you need to know about one of the world's most unique animals.

Tuatara are in an order of their own, one of four types of reptile. They are not dinosaurs as some have suggested, but date back 230 million years.

tuatara nicky

Listen here:

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Local botanist awarded the Allan Mere

14 October 2016

Retired SBS botanist Dr John Dawson was presented the Allan Mere today. This award, administered by the New Zealand Botanical Society, recognises botanists who have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand botany.

john dawson

ohn’s research as an academic at Victoria University of Wellington focused on the plant families Apiaceae (carrot family) and Myrtaceae (myrtle family). John wrote eight books on New Zealand plants, including New Zealand’s Native Trees (co-authored with Rob Lucas), which took seven years to write and won New Zealand Post’s Illustrated Non-fiction Award as well as Book of the Year in 2012.

John also made a significant contribution to botany through his public outreach. He taught adult education classes, which inspired many people to further their interests in plants. He regularly gave talks and tours at Otari-Wilton’s Bush.

Te Papa’s herbarium has more than 500 plant specimens collected by John, including six type specimens.

Congratulations John on this well-deserved award.

Story sourced from Te Papa

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Systematically Surveying the Ants of Tetiaroa

13 October 2016

Ants are some of the best hitchhikers in the world. This is so true that in the Pacific, it’s hard to unravel whether the ants on even remote motu are native or ancient introductions with original voyagers. There are now countless examples of where introduced ants have gone on to become highly invasive, such as the ‘stinging rain’ in the Pacific. Luckily, scientists are now developing the ability to eradicate ants from islands. Given what we know about the potential impacts of introduced ants, and how little we know about the ants of Tetiaroa, our research team this week are visiting the Tetiaroa Society Ecostation at the Hotel Brando on Tetiaroa to systematically survey the ants of Tetiaroa.


By systematically sampling we will be visiting every motu of the atoll to construct its individual ant species list using standardised comparable methods. Today our team of ant experts, Dr Monica Gruber from Pacific Biosecurity in New Zealand and Dr Herve Jourdan from the Institute of Research and Development in New Caledonia have visited the five most isolated south-eastern motu of Tetiaroa. On each motu we set-up pitfall traps across the motu to maximise spatial coverage as much as possible, and also undertook visual surveys to identify ants. Where time allowed bait cards were also used to attract ants in to the open.


From these motu today about 20 ant species have already been identified, although final confirmation will have to wait until they are properly identified under microscope back in the laboratory. From this census of the ants of Tetiaroa we hope to provide recommendations to the Hotel Brando on managing introduced ants on the atoll. This could include biosecurity to prevent new ant species, such as the stinging rain, arriving at Tetiaroa, or recommendations to prevent the further spread of existing ants to other motu in the atoll. If we are really lucky, we may even find a rare potentially native ant species in this far-flung corner of the Pacific.

Sourced from National Geographic

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Sponges potential ‘winners’ in the face of climate change

29 September 2016

Holly Benett collecting samples

New research from Victoria University of Wellington suggests some sea sponge species are likely to go the distance in the face of global climate change.

The research examined the physiological responses of four Great Barrier Reef sponge species in response to rising ocean acidification and seawater temperature.

It found that while all four species are sensitive to predicted ocean warming, this sensitivity reduces under ocean acidification for sponges who receive their nutrition from symbiotic organisms which get their energy from the sun.

The study was carried out by PhD student Holly Bennett, Associate Professor James Bell and Professor Simon Davy from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, alongside Dr Nicole Webster from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

"Our results show that some sponges may be able to deal with future predicted ocean conditions, making them future ‘winners’ under global climate change,” says Ms Bennett.  

The study also found that early-life stages of sponges exhibited greater tolerance to ocean warming than their adult counterparts, which is likely to be crucial to the survival and adaptive capacity of some sponges.

“This finding is novel, with most studies demonstrating early-life stages of other organisms such as corals are more vulnerable than adults,” says Ms Bennett.

Undertaken on the Great Barrier Reef, Ms Bennett had access to the leading global coral reef research institute AIMS, which is home to the recently constructed National Sea Simulator.

“Because of the extent of the Great Barrier Reef system, the research we conducted is highly relevant for global tropical reef ecology.

“Our research confirms the importance of studying the combined effects of ocean warming and acidification, and demonstrates the importance of examining the response of a species across different life-history stages when determining an organism’s overall response to environmental change.”

Associate Professor Bell, a lecturer in Marine Biology, says “This research provides us with a basis for understanding the likelihood of future coral-sponge regime shifts, and gives us an idea of how some future ecosystems might function.”

The study, published last month in high-ranking journal Global Change Biology, is part of a wider project led by Associate Professor Bell and Dr Webster, supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding, managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Ms Bennett will now be researching the relationships between sponges and their associated microorganisms and how these are affected by ocean warming and ocean acidification.

“This next stage of our research will provide us with a greater insight into the importance that sponge associated microorganisms have to sponge’s survival in a high carbon dioxide world.”

For more information contact Holly Bennett on, or Associate Professor James Bell on

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The influence of Māori and Pasifika ancestry on health

18 August 2016

European and Polynesian genepools are different and should be treated differently when matching tissues for transplants or prescribing medicines, says a Victoria University of Wellington researcher who has just completed an extensive 30-year study.

The study by Dr Geoff Chambers, a molecular geneticist in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has revealed that differences between Māori and Pasifika genepools, compared with those of European ancestry, could have significant medical consequences.

“Our studies into tissue typing and blood group analysis show Māori and Pasifika are more likely to find donors from someone within their own ancestral background,” says Dr Chambers.

“This also concerns people of first generation mixed ethnicity—those who have one European genome and one Māori or Pasifika genome. The only people who are likely to be good prospects for tissue donors for them, are people who share a similar genetic make-up.

“The more blended our ethnicities become, the better the chance of finding a match in New Zealand but the poorer the chance of finding an overseas donor. The latter has a much larger register of donors.”

Dr Chambers says the research has implications for the public health system and transplant success.

The 30-year study, co-authored by Dr Hisham Edinur from the University of Science, Malaysia, and Dr Paul Dunn from University Hospitals of Leicester in the United Kingdom, has just been published in the New Zealand Science Review.

“Our data help to explain why some diseases are more common in one group than another, and show how immune systems from groups may respond to diseases in different ways—ways we don’t even know yet,” says Dr Chambers.

“These results open the door to many future studies—if we want to use new medicines effectively, then we have to do it differently and based on our new knowledge about genetic ancestry.”

Dr Chambers’ earlier investigations identified genetic markers that traced the origin of Austronesian people (Polynesian, Māori, Melanesian, Micronesian and people from parts of Southeast Asia).

“Because of their genetic commonality, medical genetic studies done in Southeast Asian populations are likely to be of interest and concern to Māori or Pasifika, and likewise. They’re part of a very big whanau—and it is an area where we could be looking for further insights into health and medications.”

For more information contact Dr Geoff Chambers on 04-562 8450 or 04-463 6091, or

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New Zealand’s biosecurity threat from corrupt and poorly governed countries

15 June 2016

fire ants

New Zealand could dramatically reduce outbreaks of invasive species if it selectively chose its international trade partners, research from Victoria University of Wellington suggests.

New Zealand receives imports, including those with unwelcome invasive species, from all around the world—but these invaders come at different rates from different countries, and are a leading cause of extinctions and the current biodiversity crisis.

The study, published today in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, reveals that a country’s levels of governance and development strongly influence their risk of exporting exotic species.

“We found counties with poor regulation and low political stability pose more of an invasive species risk,” says Evan Brenton-Rule, a PhD student from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences.

“If New Zealand carefully selects trade partners based on these factors, we could expect up to nine times less invasive species coming to the border.”

Co-author Professor Phil Lester says biological invasions cost New Zealand hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“When you consider the amount that is spent on biological invasions in New Zealand, anything we can do to target our biosecurity resources and limit the number of invaders at our border would be extremely beneficial. For example, the eradication of just three small nests of the red imported fire ant into New Zealand cost in excess of ten million dollars.”

The study analysed international trade volumes from Statistics New Zealand, and ten years of data on trade interceptions at the border from the Ministry of Primary Industries. Over this time there were nearly 50,000 interceptions.

“Although an extreme option, it’s interesting to look at how selectively trading with certain countries could dramatically influence the number of biological invasions in New Zealand,” says Mr Brenton-Rule.

“It’s worthwhile thinking about how international trade deals and a change in trading partners may impact the number of exotic species knocking on our country’s door. There are millions of dollars of control or eradication programmes at stake here, as well as potential biodiversity loss”.

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Million-dollar funding to fight antibiotic resistant superbugs

15 June 2016

owen ackerley

Victoria University of Wellington researchers have been awarded nearly $1.2 million in funding to find new and improved antibiotics from previously untapped sources.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand has granted $1,195,267 to Dr Jeremy Owen and Associate Professor David Ackerley from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences for their three-year project.

“The project will use DNA sequencing and synthetic biology to discover new drugs. These techniques allow us to extract new molecules from bacteria that can’t be grown in the laboratory,” says Dr Owen.

“Just because we can’t grow a bacterial species in the lab doesn’t mean we can’t access an antibiotic it makes. The instructions for how to build that antibiotic will be somewhere in its DNA—if we can find these instructions, we can make the antibiotic.

“Currently, scientists can culture less than one percent of bacteria that exist on Earth and this one percent has provided most of the antibiotics we currently use in medicine. But resistance to these antibiotics is spreading, so we need to turn to the unculturable bacteria to find new drug candidates.”

Associate Professor Ackerley says antibiotic resistance is a significant threat, with the World Health Organization recently describing humanity as being in a race against time to develop antibiotics against multi-drug resistant superbugs.

“We’re in danger of going back to the time when people would routinely die of the most mundane things, like infected scratches from rose thorns while gardening.

“Our work aims to discover new molecules that have antibiotic activity and it is our hope that these will be developed into new medicines. We desperately need new antibiotics to fight drug resistant bacteria but we also need to use these antibiotics more responsibly to prevent the development of resistance.”

Once the new molecules are tested for antibacterial, anti-fungal or anti-cancer properties, the team plans to take promising molecules forward as new drug candidates.

“So many promising drug candidates never make it to the clinic because there is not enough supply,” says Associate Professor Ackerley.

“Our synthetic biology approach ensures we will be able to make lots of whatever we find. Plus, the classes of molecule we are looking for do generally have strong antibiotic potential, so we think we have a good chance of finding something useful.”

Dr Owen and Associate Professor Ackerley will work with Dr Rob Keyzers and Associate Professor Peter Northcote in Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences.

Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research (based at Victoria's Kelburn campus) was also awarded just over $1 million of funding. Professor Berridge will work with Dr Melanie McConnell from Victoria University and Professor Mark Hampton from the University of Otago, Christchurch to investigate the transfer of mitochondria between brain cells.

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Making a mockery out of our native plants

15 June 2016

A Victoria University of Wellington study has revealed remarkable similarities between two New Zealand plants, and shown possible use of an age-old defence mechanism previously seen only in animals.


The study compared the size, shape and pigmentation of hundreds of leaves on horopito and small toropapa plants, and found a perfect match.

“Small toropapa is often mistaken as horopito—also known as the New Zealand pepper tree,” says Karl Yager, a PhD student in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences.

“Over a third of the leaves of the two species cannot be statistically distinguished from one another. Unless the plants are flowering or fruiting, the only fast way to tell them apart is to taste a leaf.”

Mr Yager says this exact match between horopito and small toropapa provides tantalising evidence of what is called Batesian mimicry.

“Batesian mimicry is a common evolutionary tool where unprotected species imitate harmful or poisonous species to protect themselves from predators. Because of horopito’s pungent, hot peppery taste, that leaves one with a numb tongue when a leaf is chewed, it is unpalatable to predators,” he says.

“On the other hand, the small toropapa is highly palatable and largely defenceless. It is possible that the small toropapa has evolved its leaves to resemble the horopito and confuse would-be predators.

“To date nearly all the research on mimicry comes from animals and although this research does not prove Batesian mimicry in plants, it provides the first detailed evidence consistent with Batesian mimicry.”

As small toropara were possibly eaten by moa it is likely that it evolved in response to moa domination, Mr Yager says. “Unfortunately we can't directly test this but it provides an exciting hypothesis for future studies on Batesian mimicry in plants.”

The study, published online today in Botany, was co-authored by Karl Yager and Professor Kevin Gould from Victoria University, and Dr Martin Schaefer from the University of Freiburg in Germany.

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Multiple sclerosis trial begins at Wellington Hospital

13 June 2016

clinical trialA Victoria University of Wellington researcher is leading a clinical trial that may offer new hope to multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers.

The trial will test two commonly used antipsychotic medications in secondary progressive MS. This form of the disease, for which there is currently no effective treatment, affects over one-third of all MS sufferers and causes significant life-long disability.

The trial, based at Wellington Regional Hospital, is actively recruiting for participants.

Victoria University immunologist Professor Anne La Flamme says repurposing medications is common for treating MS.

“The majority of agents used to treat the most common form of MS—relapsing remitting MS—were originally used for something else, like viral infections and leukaemia.

“We’re looking at two medications, clozapine and risperidone, which were designed to treat a variety of health disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism.

“Clozapine and risperidone have always been targeted to mental illness but our studies show they are able to tone down the immune system in the brain, which is what causes MS, and this anti-inflammatory action is promising.”

Professor La Flamme is working with neurologist Dr David Abernethy from Capital & Coast District Health Board, and Associate Professor Bronwen Connor from the University of Auckland.

“The trial will be randomised, blinded and placebo-controlled, to closely monitor any potential adverse effects from the drugs as well as measure any changes to MS disease,” says Professor La Flamme.

The study has been funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and supported by the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand and the Great New Zealand Trek Charitable Trust. Professor La Flamme has also received additional funding from a Research for Life grant to investigate how these medicines affect the immune system during secondary progressive MS.

For more information about enrolling in the trial contact Liz Goode, trial nurse,

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Too many kaka? What nonsense

24 May 2016


OPINION: Conservation has a new frontier. Its location may surprise some New Zealanders, because it's not an isolated beach or distant alpine valley. Long silent, these places remain so, their birdlife and dawn choruses destroyed as predatory mammals invaded over the past two and more centuries.

Wellingtonians will not be surprised - their city is the spearhead of the new frontier. Zealandia's abundant birdlife is moving beyond the safety of its mammal-proof fence and re-claiming the city, made safe for native birds after 20 years of committed pest mammal control by Wellington City Council and the regional council.

The Zealandia movement has gone national. Fenced sanctuaries now dot the length of the New Zealand landscape, often within easy flight distance of a city: Orokonui (near Dunedin), the Brook Waimarama (Nelson), Cape Sanctuary (Napier/Hastings), Shakespeare and Tawharanui (Auckland).

Rotokare (New Plymouth) and Maungatautari (Hamilton) are only slightly further from their cities. Tui, bellbirds, kereru, and even kaka are colonising an urban frontier that is safer habitat than our native forests.

Why has this happened? Many reasons. Most importantly, people love nature. Nature inspires us  - as Associate Professor Wayne Linklater recently said, "The sound and sights of kaka... are simply awesome."

Nature galvanises and rejuvenates our spirits. A rapidly growing body of research also tells us that connections to nature are essential to human and economic health and well-being.

Almost 90 per cent of New Zealanders now live in cities. We will experience nature on a daily basis only if nature returns to cities. Local and regional councils understand the benefits of biodiversity.

Wellington City's widely reviewed biodiversity strategy, Our Natural Capital, "recognises that healthy biodiversity contributes to healthy environments and that creates healthy people," as well as contributing to economic sustainability, tourism, and our quality of life - hence the council's substantial investments in environmental restoration and pest control.

Achieving the ambitious goals of Our Natural Capital requires a concerted effort. Led jointly by Wellington Zoo and Zealandia, the Nature Connections programme brings together 10 Wellington region environmental partners to advance the region's ecological goals.

The Department of Conservation actively partners with Nature Connections and nationally supports hundreds of local environmental groups.

Wellington is a leading player in the international Biophilic Cities Project, which aims to foster, protect and grow "deep connections and daily contact with the natural world."

To contributing cities, "Nature is not something optional, but absolutely essential to living a happy, healthy and meaningful life." Wellington's partners include such forward-thinking cities as Oslo, Singapore, Perth, and San Francisco.

None of this might need mentioning, except that Associate Professor Linklater's enthusiasm for nature appears measured. Despite noting that over 80 per cent of Wellingtonians support kaka and other wildlife in the city, he asks if "reintroducing kaka... was a tremendous mistake?"

Because of the damage kaka have caused to some trees, gardens and buildings, he concludes that it was.

Nature can indeed be bothersome. In 1856, the great English naturalist AR Wallace observed the famously foul-odoured but much loved durian fruit in Borneo falling from trees and injuring or killing people who sought to obtain them.

He remarked that "all the varied productions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, have not been created solely for the use and convenience of man."

Like kaka and durian, trees can be inconvenient. They drop all those annoying leaves, and their roots damage urban infrastructure. But we treasure and manage urban trees because they make our lives better.

Neighbourhoods with more trees have happier, healthier residents and less crime.

Let's keep the return of kaka and other birds to our cities in perspective. As environmental stewards, our challenge is to make our cities safe for both nature and people. Internationally, designers are creating high rise buildings that minimise birdstrikes.

Canadians have learned to co-exist, mostly peacefully, with grizzly, black and polar bears, fearsome predators that sometimes wander down city streets. Swedes love their moose, despite 5000 road accidents annually involving moose, a few fatal to humans.

In Nepal, community development programmes include initiatives for co-existence with tigers that are safe for humans and tigers.

Wellingtonians have committed to a visionary plan for a better, nature-rich future for its citizens.

The occasional inconveniences that nature in cities may bring are bumps in a long journey and sure signs of success. The challenges that birdlife will bring to New Zealand cities are modest in comparison to the joy, pleasure and benefits they bring.

We will find new, imaginative ways to manage their return.

So now is not the time to flinch. We have much to gain from a biophilic future. Congratulations, Wellington. Too many kaka? Don't be ridiculous.

Charles Daugherty is Professor Emeritus of Ecology at Victoria University of Wellington.  He is a former Trustee of Zealandia and is presently a Trustee of Predator Free New Zealand, and a Board Member of Zero Invasive Predators.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Conservation.

- The Dominion Post

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Studying the behaviour of potential rhino horn poachers

23 May 2016

From the African savannahs to Kelburn is a leap of both distance and imagination, but a group of Victoria University of Wellington biology students is carrying out an experiment to learn about the behaviour of potential poachers of rhinoceros horns.

The BIOL 328 Behaviour and Conservation Ecology students are working to understand how poachers may change their behaviour if rhino horns are poisoned.

“There’s an idea to try to reduce the number of rhinos being killed for their horn,” says student Sean Rudman.

“This is to poison the rhino horn so that it becomes worthless on the international traditional medicines market. This will hopefully reduce the demand for rhino horn. But then a problem occurs—if you’re poisoning horn, the remaining unpoisoned horns become more valuable. We’re looking at how human behaviour and decision making around killing a rhino for its horn may change if it’s poisoned horn.”

To study this, the students have conducted a role-playing experiment, where they’ve hidden a number of stakes (representing rhino horn) around Victoria’s Kelburn campus.

“We’ve randomly selected twenty people from our class to be poachers, and go and find those stakes. This hunt takes place four times—the first time all twenty of the stakes are worth $5 each if found, and the second time half of them are worth nothing, but the other half is worth $10,” says Sean.

“The third time only two stakes are valuable, but worth $50 each to the poacher. And the fourth time all the stakes go back to being worth $5, to control for class engagement changes over the length of the experiment. Additionally, if a poacher finds a poisoned horn, they can choose to ‘kill’ it or not.

Three guards are also hired to protect the stakes from being found, or to catch the poachers in the act. They receive the money of any stakes that remain at the end of each experiment.

“Essentially we’re looking at how people behave in response to these different scenarios, and how the behaviour of our poachers changes when the monetary reward is larger but more effort and risk is required,” Sean says.

“We’re getting feedback on how many rhino horns were found, how many were killed, and the effort our poachers went to to find the stakes. We’re also interested in if the participants made any agreements, for example, between the poachers and the guards—because that’s quite informative for understanding people’s motivation and behaviour.”

Sean has been working on the experiment with fellow students Adam Sive, Caitlin Jackson and Pip Fauvel.

Rhino conservation has personal importance to Sean. “My family is from South Africa, and my uncle lives on a game reserve with white rhino. It’s quite close to home.”

BIOL 328 lecturer Associate Professor Wayne Linklater says the experiment has proved a great learning exercise. “The students have enthusiastically involved themselves in the different scenarios. It’s been great to see them learning about the interaction between humans, economics and wildlife conservation.”

The students will individually produce a report about their findings, as well as a scientific poster.

A video of the students can be found at:

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A final wave for Dave after 50 years at Victoria

11 May 2016

dave burton

Half a century is something to be celebrated—in marriage, birthdays, cricket, and for Victoria University’s Dr David Burton, in teaching.

Dr Burton, who has been lecturing in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences since 1966, gave his final lecture on Friday 6 May. He formally retired from the University in 1999, but has been returning to give extremely popular lectures to first year students since then.

Introducing Dr Burton’s final BIOL 114 lecture in front of more than two hundred students, Professor John Miller gave praise to his colleague and friend.

“Dave is a phenomenal role model with a wicked sense of humour. He has his own teaching style—one that involves humour and enjoyment, and one that attracts students.”

A biologist and slug specialist, Dr Burton completed a Bachelor of Science and a Master’s degree at Victoria, and a PhD at the University of Adelaide before being appointed as a lecturer at Victoria University in 1966. In that time he has taught numerous courses, and in particular introduced one of the School’s core courses on Sex and Evolution. He’s won a number of teaching awards, and has been largely involved in connecting with high school students at the University’s annual Open Day.

The 79-year-old says he’s learnt to never underestimate students.

“I’ve learnt as a teacher of first year students to make it enjoyable, and I think I’ve done that over the years. I have really enjoyed my time here and lecturing. I still remember going into my first lecture and how nervous I was. But about ten minutes into it I knew I’d love it.”

Dr Burton’s daughter, Diana, is a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies.

Dr Burton has taught a number of current staff members, including Associate Professor Ken Ryan and Dr Diane Ormsby.

“Dave was my supervisor for my PhD, and I was one of his first PhD students,” says Dr Ormsby.

“He’s inspirational—always finding innovative ways to explain difficult concepts. His students came away not only learning the concepts, but with stories to tell. Students even invited their friends who weren’t even taking science courses to come to his lectures, just for the experience.

“In one lecture he crawled over the surface of the desks past rows of seated students, and then pretended to “eat” a student’s hat just to demonstrate how an amoeba moves.”

Chris Thorn, a technician in the School of Biological Sciences, worked with Dr Burton for a decade. “Dave is just fantastic. He’s always accommodating and approachable. He will be missed.”

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Kaka conflict: conservation icon to pest

10 May 2016

kakaThe sound and sights of kaka – cries across the valley, dog-fighting in the sky, and cart-wheeling in my kowhai tree – simply awesome.

But amongst growing numbers of people with damaged trees, fruit and, increasingly, their buildings, kaka are changing from a delight to a problem.

Kaka had been extinct in Wellington for over 100 years. They were restored in 2002 when six captive-raised kaka were released into the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Their successful reintroduction and further captive releases may also have attracted kaka to Wellington from Kapiti and the Wairarapa. Provided with artificial food and nest boxes, the population has grown to over 200 birds today.

And the kaka population continues to grow rapidly. Outside Zealandia, the city has proved to be rich with natural foods and cavities for nesting, and their predators are controlled. Residents have begun feeding kaka too. Twenty-two per cent of residents visited by kaka report feeding them.

The potential, therefore, is for hundreds more kaka in Wellington, if not thousands, because the world's parrots like living in cities. They can reach higher densities in cities than they do in their native forest habitat.

Kaka damage to the Botanic Garden's collection of rare, and historically and culturally important trees was noticed first in 2009. Kaka were seen tearing bark from trees and gouging the wood deeply to feed on sap and insects.

Most of the Botanic Garden's pine, cypress and cedars will not survive the kaka onslaught. Then someone noticed the deep gouging of eucalypts and limb death in city parks and the costs of park-tree management increased.

In a 2012 survey of Wellington residents, a quarter reported problems with birds on their properties and a quarter of those problems were attributed to kaka. Fourteen per cent of respondents described the problems as moderate to severe and costly because they required the removal of damaged trees. In 2013, in the suburbs around Zealandia, 26 per cent of residents reported property damage from kaka.

Kaka are now also damaging the roofs of older city residences. We know this because, like kea in the south who have a taste for lead flashings and headed nails, some kaka are dying of lead poisoning.

Remarkably however, the contemporary attitudes of Wellington residents to kaka were positive. Over 80 per cent of people thought native birds should be in the city and that inconveniences or minor damage should be tolerated – we are a city of people highly supportive of native wildlife.

But we are much less united when it comes to managing native species that cause more serious damage. Half of us thought a native species damaging property should be controlled. The release of kaka into Wellington has initiated a new, costly and protracted human-wildlife conflict.

Perhaps reintroducing kaka to a city wasn't such a good idea – a tremendous mistake by conservationists?

As the rate and severity of damage by kaka grows, I expect support for kaka, and perhaps conservation generally amongst some, to suffer. Indeed, in a recent study residents who suffered kaka damage were less positive about kaka being in Wellington City.

Worse still, will some of those seek compensation, or for kaka to be removed or a flock destroyed?

Kaka can't be owned. Under Section 57 of the Wildlife Act, they are the property of the Crown and the Crown is not liable for the damage they may cause. But history tells a different story. If 'pushed' the Crown does sometimes, eventually accept some liabilities or at least responsibilities for solving the problem, as they have when Kaikoura seals sleep on State Highway 1 or kea mutilate high-country sheep.

Consider too that if kaka had recolonised Wellington City without assistance they would have been in small, unsupported numbers. Instead kaka are here in large and growing numbers because they were reintroduced and artificially fed and bred to be abundant by conservation organisations.

Might those organisations also, then, be responsible for kaka damage?

Like organisations that mine or harvest our natural resources, conservation organisations are also responsible for their environmental and social impact. I fear the potential of a political and legal backlash against conservation if property damage by kaka grows. This aspect of New Zealand environmental law has not been tested but it might be.

What can be done? Zealandia and local residents could stop feeding kaka and providing nesting boxes. We shouldn't be encouraging the extreme numbers that artificial food and nests supports.

And, if numbers and damage continues to grow, Kaka will need to be managed. Troublesome birds might be captured and rehomed far away. We should prepare ourselves for a time too when flocks may need to be destroyed, although perhaps usefully as a routine cultural harvest. But rehoming and culling are only temporary fixes because some kaka will find their way back and others will take their place.

Eventually and at cost, residents will need to modify their gardens and buildings so that they are less vulnerable to kaka damage.

Most importantly, conservationists must learn from the Wellington-kaka experience.

Wellington is now a city, not a forest. Just because kaka lived here once, it does not follow logically that they should live here again. Conservationists should consider people before native species are restored.

I love kaka. But their introduction to Wellington City is proving to have been a mistake.

Wayne Linklater is Associate Professor of Conservation Science and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University.

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PhD student’s revolutionary cell research to fight brain diseases

27 April 2016

A Victoria University of Wellington PhD student hopes his Neurological Foundation of New Zealand scholarship will lead to new treatments for brain diseases.

mitochondriaMatt Rowe received a 2015 Neurological Foundation W and B Miller Postgraduate Scholarship worth just over $100,000 to carry out research on mitochondria—the tiny structures that generate the energy to power a cell.

The research is likely to have implications for treatment strategies for degenerative brain disease like Alzheimer’s as well as brain cancer.

While it has been known for several years that mitochondria can transfer between cells, the reasons why a cell might give or receive mitochondria are largely unknown.

Matt’s research, carried out under the supervision of Dr Melanie McConnell from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, will help to determine the drivers of this phenomenon.

“We’ll examine the mechanisms of mitochondria transfer in diseased cells in response to injury. We’re interested in the survival mechanisms of brain cells, what they do when injured, and how this relates to the movement of mitochondria,” says Matt.

A team including Dr McConnell and Professor Berridge have found that cancer cells will acquire mitochondria from the normal surrounding tissue in order to prosper.

“It’s not yet clear why this happens, it could be to resist treatment. We will be examining mitochondrial transfer in two related diseases—neurodegeneration and neurological cancer. Each disease involves the same neural tissues, however the outcomes for cells in each are vastly different,” says Matt.

Over the past few months Matt has been developing a set of tools to study the mitochondria’s movements.

“Mitochondria are normally labelled with fluorescent dyes, but this method is tricky to control and is not accurate,” says Matt.

“I’ve used a genetic approach to develop a new system that will enable us to measure these transfer events with high levels of precision. Sometimes there are thousands of mitochondria and a few have transferred between cells.

“We’re using unique genetic signatures to give us strong, quantifiable results. This system will allow us to see whether injury drives mitochondrial transfer in diseased cells.”

For more information contact Matt Rowe on

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Research funding to test the waters

22 April 2016

shalenA three-year Victoria University of Wellington research collaboration with Chinese partners has been granted $300,000 to develop tools to detect harmful molecules in the environment.

Victoria researcher Dr Shalen Kumar has been awarded the funding through a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) Catalyst Fund.

The project will see Dr Kumar work with colleagues from Huaqiao University in China to further develop a suite of sensory tools to detect contaminants in waterways.

“The sensors use synthetic bio-receptors that allow us to determine the presence of molecules, which have been known to have harmful effects on humans and wildlife. The molecules are present in trace amounts, and we want to see in what levels” says Dr Kumar, a Research Fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences.

“The bio-receptors can bind to any target molecule that one may be interested in, and be put on a sensor platform to measure how much of the target was present.”

Having already developed the tool to detect oestrogen, Dr Kumar will develop new sensors and refine the sensitivity of the sensor to new targets. He is working with Professor Ken McNatty, Dr Peter Li, and Dr Janet Pitman from Victoria, and Dr Jun Sheng Lin from Huaqiao University.

Dr Kumar says the research will lead to a better understanding of exact levels of these contaminants in the environment.

“Scientists already know these molecules are harmful—what we would like to do is find methods to measure them that are cost-effective, ultra-sensitive, and user-friendly.”

Dr Kumar is the co-founder and chief technical officer for new company AuramerBio Ltd, which was established by Viclink (Victoria’s commercialisation office) with investment from PowerHouse Ventures.

“The sensors generated as part of Shalen’s research will eventually be incorporated into the AuramerBio product portfolio and taken to market,” says Jeremy Jones, AuramerBio chief executive. “It’s a very exciting time for the company and for research in this area.”

Dr Kumar’s funding is part of MBIE’s Catalyst New Zealand-China Strategic Research Alliance fund.

For more information contact Shalen Kumar on 04-463 6440 or

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Health Research Council funding for Victoria University researchers

19 April 2016

Victoria University of Wellington researchers have been awarded $300,000 in funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) for projects that will aid chronic pain suffers and the disabled.

Dr Bronwyn Kivell from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Bruno Marques from the School of Architecture are the recipients of Explorer Grants in the HRC’s 2016 funding round, each worth $150,000 over two years.

Explorer Grants are awarded for research that advances ideas considered to be transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact.

Dr Kivell, a researcher in physiology and neurobiology, will use her grant to develop new, improved painkillers that don’t cause addiction or become less effective over time.

“Chronic pain affects one in six New Zealanders, robbing them of their quality of life. It is poorly treated with current medications, which become ineffective with long-term use and have high abuse potential,” says Dr Kivell.

“Our project is focused on a novel chemical called Salvinorin A. With considerable therapeutic benefits over traditional morphine-like compounds, Salvinorin A painkillers promise to transform the treatment of chronic pain, while the potential social and economic benefits of developing such a therapy are enormous.”

Dr Kivell is working with medicinal chemist Professor Thomas Prisinzano from the University of Kansas.

Landscape architecture researcher Bruno Marques will work alongside Jacqueline McIntosh, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Architecture, looking at the design of open space to aid disabled people and their rehabilitation.

“New Zealand’s disabled population is projected to grow at a disproportionate rate over the next few decades, and we need to prepare for types of disability which are more common with ageing, like mobility disabilities,” says Mr Marques.

“Our research seeks to develop design parameters for a series of walking paths that measure and track the progress and regress of the physically disabled. We hope to create safe, functional, therapeutic outdoor spaces for people with disability, which they could use in local parks for free.”

Improving health and wellbeing in our communities is one of Victoria’s areas of academic distinctiveness, says Victoria’s Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath.

“The Explorer Grants are a critical way of allowing researchers to develop new avenues of research that have the potential to change people's lives.

“Victoria researchers are committed to ensuring their work will deliver impact to enhancing patient health and wellbeing”.

Nine Explorer Grants were awarded in 2016, worth a combined total of $1.35 million.

For more information contact Samantha Fisher on 04-463 5105 or

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Māori and Pasifika health in spotlight as 25-year genetic study concludes

1 March 2016

The impact of around 5000 years of migration has significant implications for Māori and Pasifika health today, according to a just-completed research programme by a Victoria University of Wellington biologist.

Dr Geoff Chambers, an expert in genetics who is based at Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has led the project, which has spanned more than 25 years.

Now the conclusions are set to be published in four international academic journals which Dr Chambers says marks the culmination of his decades of hard work.

In a paper just published in the Global Journal of Anthropology Research, Dr Chambers investigates the Austronesian Diaspora settlement voyages.

“This really is the big picture story,” explains Dr Chambers. “There are many theories and accounts of Pacific voyaging, but this is the first that brings it all together and provides the only complete description of the origins of Polynesian peoples, their complex ancestry, and how genetic variation was lost as people migrated across the Pacific.”

In another study yet to be published, Dr Chambers explores how these ancient migration events caused the gene pools of Māori and Pasifika people to diverge markedly from Europeans, and explains why this has significant medical implications for present-day New Zealand.

“That genetic distinction explains why people of European descent are more prone to certain diseases than Māori or Pacific Islanders are, and vice versa,” he says. “This research argues strongly for a special, ethnic view of medicine in New Zealand in order for the health system to be effective and equitable.”

Dr Chambers worked on another paper (alongside researchers Paul Callister and Robert Didham) for New Zealand Sociology, which cautions of the complexities around official data-gathering.

“Having firm ethnic boundaries doesn’t provide the full picture,” says Dr Chambers. “The Government collects statistics via the census or its various agencies based on people’s self-declared cultural affiliation—people might be living and identifying themselves as Māori even though they have a relatively small percentage of Māori genes. That’s where this starts to get complex, because that data doesn’t take into account what we now know about the important role genetics plays in a range of health issues.”

A fourth paper Dr Chambers has completed was carried out in collaboration with researchers at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kelantan, and reconstructs the population history of Malaysia.

He is planning a series of public events in which he will present the results of his study, and he has also been invited to share his findings at an event organised by Arthritis New Zealand in early March.

For more information contact Dr Geoff Chambers on 04 562 8450 or

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Biotechnology researcher awarded grant to engineer enzymes

19 February 2016

Associate Professor David Ackerley from the School of Biological Sciences has been awarded a grant worth US$1.5 million to develop enzymes that will enable the study of degenerative diseases in zebrafish. The National Institutes of Health, a biomedical research facility in the United States, awarded the grant to Associate Professor Ackerley and his research partner Jeffrey Mumm, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Firstly, my team at Victoria will engineer some enzymes so that they become extremely efficient at activating certain drugs from a non-toxic to a highly toxic form,” says Associate Professor Ackerley. “If these enzymes are present in a living cell, that cell will become highly sensitive to the drugs and die when it encounters them. Importantly, ordinary cells—even those right next to the sensitive cells— will be unaffected.” The biotechnology researcher will then provide Associate Professor Mumm with a piece of DNA that acts as a blueprint for the engineered enzymes, enabling them to be targeted to any cell type that is desired. “The original concept for this system was invented by Dr Mumm. It worked fairly well, however our improved enzymes will enable him to far more effectively target certain types of cells in zebrafish, to make those cells sensitive to the drugs,” says Associate Professor Ackerley. “For example, if the enzymes are made only in photoreceptor cells in the retina, application of the drugs will then mimic the effects of degenerative blindness in the zebrafish.” The processes underlying regeneration or repair of the photoreceptor cells can then be studied, says Associate Professor Ackerley. “We can screen for new drug candidates that enhance these repair processes. Moreover, the same enzyme tools could be used in a very similar manner in other organs to model other degenerative diseases and to investigate potential cures.”

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How munching Moa affected plant evolution

18 January 2016

The snacking habits of the now-extinct Moa may have influenced the way certain plant species evolved, according to new research from Victoria University of Wellington.

For his PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity, Patrick Kavanagh compared plant species on offshore islands to their close relatives on the mainland to assess differences in size and growth patterns.

“I found that island species tended to produce larger seeds, which may be advantageous on an island because if the seeds are too easily dispersed they could end up in the ocean,” says Patrick.

The rest of his thesis was focused on the role that herbivores play, which led him to the Chatham Islands to conduct fieldwork.

“In New Zealand we have plants that develop a unique growth form— characterised by high-angled branching, leading to a tangled mass of branches, and very small leaves. But in the Chathams that sort of growth form is nowhere near as prevalent—many related species don’t show it at all, with branches that are more upright and which don’t cross over so much. The leaves are bigger too.”

Patrick says there have been a variety of hypotheses over the years to explain this. “It’s been suggested that the high-angled tangle of branches we see on mainland New Zealand provides protection from wind and frost, but it’s a lot windier on the Chatham Islands.”

However one known difference is that Moa never reached the Chatham Islands. “It seems quite logical—a reduction in herbivory pressure on the plants would have relaxed the need for small leaves that are hard to reach, meaning that the island species were able to grow bigger leaves to intercept more light and be more productive.”

For the last part of his thesis Patrick narrowed his focus to one species: the lancewood, also known as horoeka or Pseudopanax crassifolius.

“The lancewood is pretty amazing and unique. It starts out with rigid, saw-like leaves when it’s juvenile but at about three metres in height, the leaves become wider and more rounded in shape. It’s no coincidence that three metres is the same as the maximum height that the largest Moa species was able to reach.”

While this theory has been around for some time, Patrick has added weight to the argument with his examination of the changes in colour to the lancewood leaves as the plant matures.

“There are small green spots on the top side of the leaves which are associated with the lateral spikes down the sides. These spots are most conspicuous when the plant is poorly developed and therefore most vulnerable to predators—the spots act as a kind of untruthful signal to deter moa and other herbivores from eating it.

“I also noticed that the underside of the lancewood leaf changes colour as the plant develops. Small seedlings are light green underneath the leaf, but that turns dark red when it reaches sapling stage. It changes back to green when the plant is fully grown.”

Patrick used spectral analysis techniques to test whether the dark red colouration makes the leaves more conspicuous to herbivores looking up from below. “The higher contrast of dark red against the other green foliage happens when the leaves are most spikey and therefore best defended. In this phase of the plant’s life, it’s a more truthful warning to any bird planning to eat it—there’d be painful consequences.”

Patrick has been working at the Ministry for the Environment, and in 2016 will carry out post-doctoral research at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the United States.

For more information contact Amy Holmes on 04-463 5269 or

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The extraordinary life of Alan Hoverd

15 January 2016


Piecing together dozens of skeletons, helping to design and build the Coastal Ecology Laboratory, rounding up 15,000 rogue bees—Alan Hoverd’s 50 years with Victoria University could never be described as ordinary.

Victoria University's Coastal Ecology Laboratory was practically Alan's second home, where he kept marine specimens, maintained equipment and conducted his own research.

But after five decades he’s ready to hang up his lab coat and farewell the university that gave him many skills, experiences, friends, memories and tasks that he says ranged “from the sublime to the ridiculous”.

It was a very different era when Alan arrived at Victoria as a 16-year-old in 1965. He walked out of Wellington Boys’ College straight into Victoria’s Zoology Department as the University’s first technical trainee.

From his second day, when he found the laboratory’s human skeleton sitting in his chair wearing his lab coat, it was apparent that this was no average working environment.

The young Alan kept undergraduate laboratories in top condition, looked after the two tuatara and in-house rodents and prepared fish, rats and other animals for class dissections.

As the ‘general dogsbody’, he also made coffee for the technicians’ morning tea. This meant boiling water in the billy that rested on an asbestos mat over a Bunsen burner. He always washed the billy thoroughly beforehand, as it was likely he’d boiled items like cats’ heads in it earlier, while preparing teaching specimens.

Alan had always shown an artistic talent, and in an age where publications relied on hand-drawn images, his skills were soon put to good use. He drew and painted illustrations that were used as teaching aids, and many others were published in local and international books and journals.

Early in his career, Alan was afforded extra training opportunities in glassblowing, metalwork and histology, as well as time to study at Wellington Polytechnic, and then London University College on a Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship, while working at the Central Veterinary Centre in Surrey.

He rose through the ranks, becoming a technical team leader who manages staff servicing undergraduate teaching laboratories and coordinates the technical side of things, to keep things running smoothly. He is also involved on a few University committees.

The animal skeletons he has worked on—sharks, orangutans and rodents among them—are testament to some of his many skills. Armed with surgical instruments and taxidermy books, Alan pieced skeletons together, bone by bone, for research and teaching. “One time, an iguana skeleton arrived in a shoe box from Australia, in hundreds of pieces. Needless to say it was a challenge to get that accurate … and to this day I have no idea if the vertebrae are entirely in the right sequence.”

As a founding member of the University’s civil defence team, he was  involved in setting up a flying fox for a training exercise in 1979, which whizzed from the Easterfield building rooftop to the Rankine Brown building.

His ability to find unusual tasks has not waned in his later years. In January this year, he was a key player in rounding up and relocating 15,000 bees that had found a home in the walls of a University building.

Despite this, Alan feels he is now ready to step back from Victoria."I'll miss the students and my colleagues and all the interesting and highly qualified individuals, but I think 50 years is a good innings."

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Tiny enzymes play big role in anti-cancer research

11 January 2016

A $15,000 scholarship awarded to Victoria University of Wellington student Abigail Sharrock will support her quest to develop a new form of cancer treatment.

Abby SharrockAbigail, a PhD student in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, is one of four students around New Zealand awarded a 2015 Earle Scholarship in Technology.

Administered by Universities New Zealand, the scholarships support postgraduate research into aspects of innovation and product development or bioprocess technology.

Abigail’s research will focus on understanding how specific enzymes—bacterial nitroreductase enzymes—can be used to develop new cancer therapies.

“These enzymes are proving an important tool in the development of new cancer therapies, as they can convert a non-toxic ‘prodrug’—a medication that is inactive until metabolised by the body—to a toxic drug that causes cell death,” says Abigail.

“We want to use this property to develop a cancer gene therapy, in which tumour-specific bacteria will deliver genes that instruct an enzyme to specifically kill cancerous cells.

“The research focuses on developing a treatment with minimal damage to healthy tissues. We will be able to confidently see if the enzymes are confined to the tumour—an important safety feature.”

Abigail says nitroreductase enzymes also contribute to understanding how different tissues and cells regenerate.

“Cell ablation therapy can be used to knock out certain cell types that will in turn mimic a diseased tissue state. This means we can look into how this disease state can be reversed or treated by testing compounds that promote cell regeneration.”

Abigail’s research is co-supervised by Associate Professor David Ackerley at Victoria and Professor Vic Arcus at the University of Waikato, and carried out in collaboration with researchers at John Hopkins University in the United States and the universities of Waikato and Auckland.

Conducting research that has a real-world, medical application has always been her goal, says Abigail.

“Biotechnology is an exciting and rapidly advancing field, and I’m excited to be working on this collaborative project that ultimately aims to improve the health and wellbeing of patients worldwide.”

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