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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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Best Student Publication Awards 2015

17 December 2015

Congratulations to this year's recipients of SBS Best Student Publication Awards!

Ecology & Marine Biology

First: Alexandra Sebastien.  “Invasive ants carry novel viruses in their new range and form reservoirs for a honeybee pathogen” in Biology Letters.

Second: Shaun Wilkinson. “Intra-genomic variation in symbiotic dinoflagellates: recent divergence or recombination between lineages”  in BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Third: Amanda Taylor.  “Epiphyte community development throughout tree ontogeny: an island ontogeny framework” in Journal of Vegetation Science.

Cell & Molecular Biology

First: Namal Coorey. “Pleiotropic drug-resistance attenuated genomic library improves elucidation of drug mechanisms” in Molecular Biosystems.

Second: Gagandeep Jain. “Betalain induction by L-DOPA application confers photoprotection to saline-exposed leaves of Disphyma australe” in New Phytologist.

Third: Ingrid Richter.  “Detection of marine microalgal biotoxins using bioassays based on functional expression of tunicate xenobiotic receptors in yeast” in Toxicon.

All of the papers we received this year were of very high standard, which made judging extremely difficult. Prizes were awarded on the novelty of the questions asked, approaches used,  broad generality of the contribution to the field, as well as generating interest and excitement in the reader. Well done to all!

All full citations:

Coorey, NVC, Matthews, JH, Bellows, DS, Atkinson PH. 2015. Pleiotropic drug-resistance attenuated genomic library improves elucidation of drug mechanisms.  Molecular Biosystems  11, 3129-3136. DOI: 10.1039/c5mb00406c

Jain G, Schwinn KE, Gould KS. 2015. Betalain induction by L-DOPA application confers photoprotection to saline-exposed leaves of Disphyma australe. New Phytologist 207: 1075-1083.

Richter, I, Fidler A. 2015. Detection of marine microalgal biotoxins using bioassays based on functional expression of tunicate xenobiotic receptors in yeast. Toxicon 95:13-22.

Sebastien A, Lester PJ, Hall RJ, Wang J, Moore NE, Gruber MAM. 2015. Invasive ants carry novel viruses in their new range and form reservoirs for a honeybee pathogen. Biol. Lett. 11: 20150610.

Taylor A, Burns KC. 2015. Epiphyte community development throughout tree ontogeny: an island ontogeny framework. Journal of Vegetation Science.  Doi: 10.1111/jvs.12289

Wilkinson SP, Fisher PL, van Oppen MJH, Davy SK (2015) Intra-genomic variation in symbiotic dinoflagellates: recent divergence or recombination between lineages? BMC Evolutionary Biology 15:46.

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Bigger is better for Zealandia’s tuatara

17 December 2015

They may be one of the world’s oldest species but the tuatara at Zealandia are good as new, a recent survey has indicated.

The size and health of the tuatara population was assessed this month in a joint project by Victoria University of Wellington and Zealandia—the first time many of the iconic creatures will have been handled since the species were introduced to Zealandia 10 years ago.

“Over three nights we managed to track down 69 tuatara, of which 21 were born at Zealandia at some point over the past decade,” says Associate Professor Nicky Nelson from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences. “This is fantastic news and confirms that tuatara are successfully breeding in Zealandia.”

A decade of no disruption

The tuatara at Zealandia are the first wild population of tuatara on mainland New Zealand in over 200 years. In 2005, 70 tuatara were transferred from Stephens Island in the Marlborough Sounds and another 130 released in 2007.

Over the decade, baby tuatara have been spotted at Zealandia, the first in 2009. This was thought to be the first case of tuatara naturally breeding on the New Zealand mainland since they were reintroduced.

Healthy and hearty

The recent survey—carried out 10 years to the day that the first tuatara arrived—found a number of females about to lay eggs, in addition to the 21 sanctuary-born tuatara.

“We now know the group is breeding annually, a sign of a healthy population,” says Dr Nelson.

“We also found the tuatara have increased in size. The heaviest tuatara was over one kilogram—1010 grams, more than the recently weighed tuatara on Stephens Island. The interesting thing is that he had not grown in length since he was released 10 years ago, he just got bulkier.

“One of the longest tuatara had a 30 centimetre long tail—the length of our rulers. He grew three centimetres in a decade, and put on over 250 grams.”

The survey team also discovered that the tuatara still have ticks, which translocated with them from Stephens Island.

“The ticks are hanging in there after 10 years—we weren't sure they would survive in a less dense population like Zealandia,” says Dr Nelson. “There are no major issues identified with having ticks, and the young tuatara don't seem to have them.”

Team effort

The survey group spent three days searching release sites, known burrows and other sites to weigh and measure the endemic reptiles.

“The group was made up of people from Zealandia, Victoria University, volunteers and iwi—it was a really great community effort,” says Dr Nelson.

“This survey has given us a good understanding of how the tuatara are doing and a base to build on for future surveys.”

The tuatara population at Zealandia is likely to be resurveyed every five years.

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Hidden danger in our rivers

16 December 2015

mark heath

Summer for most of us is a time to embrace the warmer weather, but it also provides the perfect growing conditions for a potentially lethal blue-green alga that’s found in many New Zealand rivers, and which is the subject of new research by a PhD graduate.

The alga, known as Phormidium, can produce a potent neurotoxin that’s as toxic as cobra venom. It has become increasingly prevalent in the last 10 years, and in that time has been responsible for the deaths of about 100 dogs in New Zealand. While there have been no human deaths as a result of ingesting the neurotoxin, there have been anecdotal reports of people becoming very sick after coming into contact with it.

But Mark Heath, who graduates from Victoria this week with a PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity, is trying to identify why this poisonous alga is on the increase, and what can be done to lessen its impact.

“In 2005 when five dogs died after ingesting this algae from the Hutt River, there was very little known about it internationally, and therefore very little guidance about what to do. So when I started my research as a Masters student in 2008 I tasked myself with finding out exactly what these toxic blooms were and what environmental conditions were causing Phormidium to grow.”

Over a 12 month period, Mark examined five rivers in the greater Wellington region, and found Phormidium was far more widespread than previously thought.

“The Greater Wellington Regional Council in 2005 only found Phormidium in small pockets of the Hutt River, but in 2008 I discovered the extent of proliferations had increased and were occurring throughout the river covering many kilometres of riverbed, which was obviously a big worry. So I focused on establishing whether human influences were causing the increase.”

During his PhD, Mark looked at nutrient levels in the rivers and found that the alga grew best in rivers with elevated concentrations of nitrogen and moderate to low levels of phosphorus. “This toxic alga appears to have a competitive advantage over other algal species in that it can source phosphorus from sediment, whereas other species rely on the water itself for their phosphorus source.”

He says changes in the way land is being used and managed may have a big impact on the prevalence of toxic Phormidium blooms.  “In some rivers, phosphorus is being reduced through the construction of wetlands and upgrades to waste water treatment plants—such is the case in the Tukituki River in Hawke’s Bay—and it may inadvertently create favourable conditions for toxic algae development.”

Mark, who is now employed by the Greater Wellington Regional Council, says the coming warm El Niño summer will undoubtedly see the problem rear its head again. “These algal mats grow rapidly over summer when it’s warm and water flows in the rivers are lower. The toxic alga accumulates and grows, and the mats eventually slough off the rocks and get caught in the river margins. They start to decay and produce a really distinctive musty odour that dogs just love—a piece as small as a 50 cent coin can be enough to kill a 20kg dog within half an hour of eating it.

“The warmer weather is obviously also a time when people want to use the water to cool off, so there’s a real need for the public to know the risks. There’s been a big push by regional councils to raise awareness and I encourage all river users to check their respective council’s websites for the latest information on toxic algae—Wellington river users should check out the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Summer Check website.”

Mark has received support from six regional councils across the country to complete his studies, and has also worked with academics in France who wanted to know more about why dogs and fish were dying in rivers there. “That collaboration really highlighted how little was known about this toxic alga, and how important this work is internationally,” says Mark.

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Footage captures kiwi destroying robin nest

4 December 2015

A kiwi destroying a robin nest and causing the death of the chicks in it has been caught on camera by a Victoria University of Wellington researcher.

The footage, taken at Zealandia over two consecutive nights, shows a little spotted kiwi pushing the robin nest down a slope, pecking the chicks, and returning the next night to tear the nest apart.

Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences was the first to see the footage, which is thought to be the only recording of this behaviour in Kiwis.

“That morning I went to band the nest of robin chicks, when I discovered the nest had been pulled out from its location and the chicks were dead,” she says. “I noticed the chicks had peck injuries on their bodies.”

Dr Shaw, who is studying the robin population at Zealandia, decided to investigate the incident and checked the footage from the camera that was monitoring the nest.

“I was shocked to find it was a kiwi. I was expecting a morepork or other bird to have destroyed the nest,” she says.

“Although the kiwi doesn't directly kill the chicks, they had pretty severe injuries. The video shows that the chicks were still alive after being pecked by the kiwi and then fell out of the nest, most likely to their deaths.”

Dr Shaw says she can’t say for certain what motivated the kiwi to destroy the nest, but speculates it may have been acting defensively.

“One possibility is that the robin may have lined the nest with kiwi feathers, because robin do like to use these as nest lining. Kiwi are highly territorial, so it may have reacted to the smell of that nest, as if it were an intruder on its territory.

“While it’s sad for the robins it’s exciting to be make new scientific discoveries like this, and potentially uncover a new behaviour that might change the way we look at our national icon.”

The footage can be viewed at:

For more information contact Megan Sellars on (04) 463 6208 or

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A bright idea to protect local wildlife from cats

4 December 2015

catBright-coloured collars that could reduce the amount of prey caught by cats will be trialled in a joint Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington City Council project.

The collar covers—a tube of brightly-coloured fabric which slips over a cat’s collar— are designed to make hunting cats more visible to birds.

“Many birds have advanced colour vision and see bright colours especially well, even in low light,” says Victoria University researcher Dr Heidy Kikillus.

“The collar covers have been tested overseas with promising results, and we would like to investigate if they have the same success in New Zealand.”

Domestic cat owners are being invited to take part in the study, which will be conducted over summer.

“Participants will be provided with a collar and attachable cover from United States-based company Birdsbesafe, and are asked to keep a record of the prey caught both with and without the collar over an 8-week period,” says Dr Kikillus.

The results from the study will be collated and analysed, and may be used as part of a more comprehensive study of cat behaviour in Wellington.

“Cats have received a lot of attention in the media due to their potential negative impact on native wildlife, and it will be interesting to see if the collar covers have an impact,” says Dr Kikillus.

“We’ve been delighted at the level of interest from cat owners, and we look forward to including them in this study. It’s a neat opportunity to partner with the community to learn more about cats together.”

For more information on participating in the study go to

For more information on Birdsbesafe® collar covers go to

For more information contact Dr Heidy Kikillus on (04) 463 5233 extn 9847 or

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Diving into research thanks to award

6 November 2015



Dr Shaun Wilkinson has received one of the prestigious awards for a project titled A bioinformatics approach to assessing diversity and hybridization in coral symbionts. The awards provide early career support to New Zealand’s most promising young researchers.

The award includes a $75,000 stipend per year for the next two years, plus up to $10,000 each year for research related costs.
“Global climate change is having a devastating effect on the world’s coral reefs, with declines predicted to escalate sharply in the near future,” says Dr Wilkinson. “This creates severe socio-economic impacts, including the loss of food security, coastal stability and tourism income for many of the world’s most vulnerable people. 

“Coral reefs are complex systems so it’s important to understand how the entire system evolves and adapts to environmental change to assist corals in developing resilience to changing conditions.”

“I've been mad about science since I was a kid, when my Dad taught me to dive and appreciate the ocean. We know very little about its millions of inhabitants and how they interact with each other, and I'm hoping that a better understanding will help us to respect and protect our marine environment,” says Dr Wilkinson.

The Head of Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, Associate Professor Simon Davy, is proud of Shaun’s achievement. 
“He’s an exceptional young scientist, and his project will provide important information on the evolution and adaptive capacity of corals in the face of climate change”.

Shaun graduated with a PhD from Victoria and is pleased to be continuing with this post-doctoral studies at the University. 

“The School of Biological Sciences is a wonderful place to study. There is a really collegial atmosphere, and no one hesitates to provide a little extra help or advice to a researcher in need. The academic staff have a tremendous amount of expertise, and encourage students to develop a broad range of skills, leaving them well equipped for a career in science.”

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Biology wins big in Marsden Fund grants

6 November 2015

Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences is a big winner in the latest round of Marsden Fund grants.

Staff in the School have received five of the 13 grants awarded to Victoria this year, confirming the School’s standing as a world-class centre for biological science research and the research leader in New Zealand in this field.

This builds on endorsement of Victoria’s strength in the field earlier this week, when postdoctoral academic Dr Shaun Wilkinson, also from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, received a Rutherford Foundation Trust Award for his research on the effects of climate change on coral reefs. The award provides more than $150,000 in funding over the next two years.

Victoria’s Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath says both are outstanding results in an area where Victoria has a sustained track record of success.

Overall, Victoria received Marsden funding of more than $8 million, which goes towards leading-edge projects in the Faculty of Science (five grants to the School of Biological Sciences, one to the Antarctic Research Centre and one to the University’s world-leading Ferrier Research Institute), the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (four grants) and the Faculty of Engineering (2 grants).

Marsden funding has also been awarded to a researcher from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at Victoria’s Kelburn campus and is a key partner of the University.

Victoria received 10 Standard grants from the Marsden fund and three Fast-Start grants, which help to support researchers in the early stages of their career.

Professor McGrath says the University is particularly proud of recipients who have received multiple Marsden funding over the years, notably Professor Kevin Gould who receives his fifth Marsden grant and Associate Professor Jeff Shima who has been awarded his fourth Marsden.

“Marsden funding recognises excellence in leading-edge research. To receive multiple Marsden Fund grants is an outstanding achievement.”

Associate Professor Shima’s research investigates the role parental investment, the timing of birth and ongoing development play in an organism’s reproductive fitness. His new research focuses on coral reef fish, and explores the ecological and evolutionary drivers of
parent and offspring decision-making, to better-understand the life-history strategies which shape the diversity of life on earth.

“These grants are a critical part of our diverse research portfolio,” says Professor McGrath. “Given the component of international assessment in the Marsden process, our success gives us assurance that our research is of the highest calibre.”

Victoria has received $32 million from Marsden Grants in the last three years, making it the third highest recipient of grants and funding in New Zealand during that period.

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government.

Biological Sciences recipients of Marsden Grants (with funds to be distributed over three years) are:

Standard grants:

• Professor Kevin Gould (Biological Sciences): Salinity Tolerance and Betalain Pigments: Unlocking how an extraordinary plant alkaloid combats salt stress, $810,000

• Associate Professor Jeff Shima (Biological Sciences): Born at the right time? Disentangling the effects of birthdate and developmental trajectories on fitness, population dynamics, and the evolution of life-history strategies, $840,000

• Associate Professor David Ackerley (Biological Sciences): Better, Faster, Stronger: Bionic enzymes for artificial substrates, $825,000

• Associate Professor James Bell (Biological Sciences): Soaking it Up: Unlocking mechanisms of sponge acclimation in a changing world, $840,000

Fast-Start grants:

• Dr Julie Deslippe (Biological Sciences): First come, best served? The role of generalist and specialist species in the assembly, diversity and productivity of ecosystems, $300,000

More information on Marsden Fund recipients can be found

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Cougar promiscuity may be all for the kids

2 November 2015


Cougar mums choosing to mate with multiple mates could have their kittens' best interests at heart, new research suggests.

Californian populations of the large American cat species, also known as a puma or mountain lion, were closely monitored in new research for the interactions and communications between male and female cougars.

One in seven females mated with more than one male, said Victoria University's Heiko Wittmer, a co-author of the study released last week in the PLOS ONE journal.

"In large carnivores infanticide does happen ... [A male] will kill [another male's] young because it gets the female into oestrus and he gets a mating opportunity.

"Multiple paternity is another way for the female to confuse males about who the father is."

Having offspring with different fathers, and therefore a mix of genes, also boosted the overall chances of her kittens surviving, he said.

The amorous encounters were caught on robotic video cameras placed at what are known as "communal scrapes", where multiple cats come to scent-mark and sniff out other males and females in the area.

"These areas ... we call them a billboard," he said.

"They are a solitary cat species, like most cats but not all. They live in a social structure where bigger males try to establish territories that encompass multiple females who live in smaller territories."

Recording over a two-year period from 2011, the researchers were able to get a better understanding of when both male and female cougars visited these scrapes and what they did while there, Wittmer said.

"Males are constantly using those community scrapes, constantly advertising, all through the year. Females are very selective in when they advertise, when they're in oestrus, but when they do they actually do it more frequently than the males," he said.

While males tended to scent mark at the scrape areas, the females caterwauled. "We think that is basically encouraging males, maybe from outside the territory, to come in and investigate."

Little was known about cougar communication before the study, and the information gathered was likely to help biologists trying to estimate population sizes of the cats, found in both North and South America.

"In cats that are that size and secretive, it is just very difficult to observe them."

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World first footage of elusive 'vampire squirrel'

30 October 2015

A Victoria University professor has helped obtain the world’s first video footage of the rare and elusive ‘vampire squirrel’ found in the rainforests of Borneo.


Dr Heiko Wittmer, a specialist in conservation and restoration ecology, has been collaborating with Dr Andrew Marshall from the University of Michigan to investigate species interactions across different habitats in Borneo’s Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. 

In June, Dr Wittmer and Dr Marshall installed 35 motion-activated cameras in the park and within a month were “astonished” to discover video footage of the tufted ground squirrel (Rheithrosciurus macrotis), which is only found in the rainforests of Borneo. 

It is the first time anyone has ever obtained video footage of the squirrel. 

The tufted ground squirrel has been dubbed the ‘vampire squirrel’ after the discovery of deer and chicken carcasses where only the heart and liver had been eaten. Some local Dayak have attributed the attacks to the squirrel, which is one of the few species able to open the hardest of nuts with their teeth. 

Dr Wittmer says the legend is unlikely to be true. “I seriously doubt it, we don’t have any carnivorous squirrels”. 
He says the squirrels are more interesting from a scientific perspective for their bushy tails. The squirrel is said to have the bushiest tail of all mammals, with one report estimating the tail to be 130 percent the mass of the rest of the squirrel’s body. 

Dr Wittmer says the bushy tail has several potential biological functions. “It can likely use the tail to distract and avoid predators, but the tail may also play a role in communication.” 

The video footage shows the squirrel foraging under a tree. While this does not confirm or deny the vampire theories, Dr Wittmer says it is a reminder of how little we know about many of the rainforest’s species. 

“These forests are continually being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, and this highlights the possibility that we may be losing species that we don’t even know about.” 

The researchers have captured other rare species on film such as clouded leopards, bearded pigs and diminutive mouse-deer that on average have a shoulder height of just 35cm.

Dr Wittmer says the project provides unique data as the cameras operate without human assistance, and so allow researchers to observe animals’ behaviour in an undisturbed environment. 

“There’s also a valuable side objective. We know we have an issue with poaching in the area. With camera footage as evidence, we can start to evaluate if poaching is contributing to the decline of certain species,” he says.

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Commonwealth Scholarship success for Victoria graduate

30 October 2015

Examining the best ways to minimise the bycatch of protected species in fishing operations will be the subject of PhD research by a Victoria University of Wellington graduate, who has been awarded a prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford.


William Arlidge, who has a Masters in Marine Biology from Victoria, currently works for the Department of Conservation’s Marine Species and Threats team as a technical advisor, where his focus includes Māui dolphins and cold water corals.

He will be departing for the United Kingdom in January, and says the Commonwealth Scholarship—which covers university fees, travel, and an annual stipend for living expenses—presents the opportunity of a lifetime.

 “I was eager to direct my research efforts towards finding solutions to sustainable resource use in the marine environment—I knew of some cutting-edge work in this area by a conservation scientist, Professor E. J. Milner-Gulland, who is currently based at Oxford. I approached her and she was happy to take me on as a student. Subsequently I successfully applied for the scholarship which is allowing me to take the opportunity to study under her supervision.”

William says the appeal of Professor Milner-Gulland’s approach is the awareness of needing to take into account the entire ecosystem—both ecological and social systems—to tackle issues, rather than targeting areas in isolation.

“My PhD will seek to develop an innovative framework for reducing the number of protected species such as seabirds, turtles, sharks and rays that are inadvertently caught by fishers. There are a number of different technologies that have been developed to minimise protected species captures, but the uptake of these practises is often low, especially in developing nations. So my goal will be to firstly develop a conceptual framework for bycatch reduction, followed by a couple of case studies exploring proposed solutions in a real-world context. Finally, I’ll be seeking to implement these new approaches into science and management.”

William says a great thing about the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme is that successful applicants are required to return to their home country once their study is completed, which ensures their newly gained expertise is put to use in a New Zealand context.

William is set to arrive in the United Kingdom to begin his studies early next year. He has registered to run the London Marathon for charity in April, with a goal of raising $10,000 for the New Zealand Cancer Society. For more information and to donate see his fundraising page.

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Local high school students try science on for size

30 September 2015


A group of secondary school students spent the first Saturday of their holiday break in a Victoria University of Wellington laboratory sampling the life of a scientist.

Over 60 students and their teachers attended a workshop last weekend hosted by the School of Biological Sciences, where they learnt about DNA sequencing and local ecology.

“A key purpose of the day was to give students a taste of studying biology at university and an understanding of what scientists do, and to stimulate their thirst for knowledge,” says workshop organiser Associate Professor David Ackerley.

“The students said they were really excited to be able to use some new scientific tools, in particular kits for extraction of DNA from soil, polymerase chain reaction tests that can detect the presence of tens of thousands of bacterial species that cannot be grown in the lab, and e-gels which provided a particularly rapid means of analysing their DNA.”

The attendees extracted DNA from soil samples collected from around New Zealand and analysed the bacterial communities that were present through computational analysis. They also heard short lectures from staff on aspects of metagenomics—the study of genetic material extracted directly from a complex environment.

“DNA sequencing has changed radically over the last ten years to the point that it is now possible to sequence an entire human genome—over three billion base pairs of DNA—in under a week, for only a few thousand dollars,” says Dr Ackerley.

“It’s been estimated that only one percent of all living bacterial species can presently be cultured in a laboratory, but using DNA sequencing as part of a “metagenomic” study allows us to examine the unculturable organisms too.

“My research team has a strong interest in trying to access this unculturable majority to recover their genetic blueprints for novel antibiotics and other drug candidates. This research was an ideal fit with the workshop, and the students got to interact directly with PhD students and postdoctoral researchers who are conducting this work.”

Dr Ackerley says he would particularly like to thank the School of Biological Sciences for providing food for the day. “60 hungry high schoolers can eat an impressive amount of pizza!”

The workshop was sponsored by Victoria, Auckland, Massey, Otago and Waikato universities, Custom Science, Kapa Biosystems, Omega Bio-Tek and the Allan Wilson Centre, and attended by eight secondary schools from around the Wellington region.

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IQ tests show individual differences in bird brains

28 September 2015

robinResearch from Victoria University of Wellington has revealed that birds may possess a ‘general intelligence’ similar to humans, with some individuals able to excel in multiple cognitive tests.

Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, conducted a study on a group of wild North Island robin based at Zealandia to examine the mental skills of individual birds.

The birds participated voluntarily in six cognitive tasks, which focused on colours, symbols, spatial memory, inhibitory control and motor skills.

“Our results suggest that if an individual did well in one test, it was likely to do well in others,” says Dr Shaw. “There has been little research into whether general intelligence exists in non-humans, and our statistical analyses show that robins may have something like it and that these patterns are highly unlikely to have happened by chance.”

Dr Shaw says setting a variety of tasks was imperative for measuring the structure of the birds’ intelligence.

“Completing a one-off task may be dependent on other factors like the animals motivation to participate, and doesn’t provide a reliable measure of cognitive ability.

“We carried out a series of tests to see if you could get consistent measures from an individual. It’s a similar process to running an IQ test or psychometric test on humans.”

Dr Shaw checked the robins were motivated to do their best by teaching them to jump on a scale and eat a worm before and after each test.

“The end check is really important because if a bird is failing a task, you want to ensure that they still want food rewards,” says Dr Shaw.

The animal behaviour researcher spent five months testing 20 robins. Computer analysis and statistical techniques were used to tease out correlations in the performance of the birds and see whether it was underpinned by a general intelligence factor.

Dr Shaw now plans to investigate how individual cognitive abilities are linked to reproductive success and survival.

“I think it’s intriguing that you pick up patterns in performance in birds that are similar to the patterns we see in humans—it has the potential to tell us more about brains and how brains work. It would be great if more people ran similar studies that incorporated more data,” says Dr Shaw.

Dr Shaw’s research was recently published in leading international journal Animal Behaviour and is supported by a Rutherford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and a Marsden Fast Start grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

For more information contact Dr Rachael Shaw on 04-463 5233 extn 8139 or

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Exotic invaders dominating native species

22 September 2015

kc burnsExotic plants are taking over and they’re here to stay, according to new findings from Victoria University of Wellington.

Until relatively recently, New Zealand ecosystems were dominated by native plants, but a study by Associate Professor Kevin Burns has shown that the balance has now tipped in favour of exotic species.

Dr Burns, from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has published his findings in the prestigious scientific journal The American Naturalist.

Over an eight year period, Dr Burns examined the plant species present on an archipelago of small islands off the south coast of Wellington, which dot the sea from the airport to Ōwhiro Bay. Basing his study on the theory of island biogeography (an influential conservation model developed in 1967 by American biologists Edward O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur), Dr Burns devised a modified version which better reflects the increasing rate that exotic plants are invading, and takes into account the differences between exotic and native species.

Over the course of his research, he found that the cumulative numbers of exotic plants making their home in New Zealand is increasing quickly.

“The beaches of New Zealand are being absolutely overrun by a massive wave of invasions,” he says.

“In 2005 there were only nine species of exotic weeds present on the islands in my study, and 14 native ones. But by the time the project ended eight years later the total number of exotics (taking into account the ones that had immigrated then died out within that timeframe) had doubled, while there was only a small increase in the number of native species.”

Dr Burns says while foreign species have been making their way to New Zealand via wind currents for millennia, the presence of people has accelerated the rate at which new species are being brought in, and where those species are arriving from.

“It’s like a tsunami of exotic invaders,” he explains. “We’re at the point in time where we’ve shifted from being native-dominant to exotic-dominant. My modified model predicts that the exotics will eventually take over. It’s the new norm.”

For more information contact Dr Kevin Burns on 04-463 6873 or

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Victoria’s green space – you can help with research

16 September 2015

francesEcological restoration Master’s student, Frances Forsyth, from the School of Biological Sciences, is nearing the end of her research looking at the biodiversity on Victoria’s campuses and how staff and students use and value green space.

As part of her research, Frances is conducting a survey (which has Human Ethics Committee approval) to investigate how staff and students use green space on Victoria’s campuses and what value green space provides. It includes questions on where people go and what they would like to see more and less of in the green spaces. The results from the survey will contribute to a green space management plan which will be provided to Campus Services.

To participate in the green space survey go to:

The other component of Frances’ research includes the compilation of an extensive inventory of trees on Kelburn campus and a partial inventory of trees on Karori campus.

“I was not surprised by the variety of tree species that there are on the Kelburn campus. There are some quite unusual species reflecting the choices of a number of grounds superintendents and botany staff over many years.

Along with these I have also found some weed species that can limit biodiversity,” Frances says.

Frances’ initial findings from this research have already been discussed with the grounds maintenance team that is developing a plan to support enhanced biodiversity.

This project is the result of collaboration between the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology and Campus Services, with scholarship funding from the University’s preferred office products supplier, Staples.

“The collaborative approach of this project has meant that we have already had a high level of engagement from staff across the University. We are really hoping that we’ll also get high numbers participating in the survey as the more information we have from staff on what they value about our green spaces, the better informed planning for the future will be,” says Dr Wayne Linklater—Frances’ Master’s supervisor.

For more information contact 

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Why our native plants are not so special after all

16 September 2015

burnsNew Zealand’s native plant life is renowned by botanists the world over for its uniqueness. But scientists at Victoria University of Wellington are calling into question a long-held belief about our flora, saying that maybe it’s not so different after all.

Associate Professor Kevin Burns from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences is working with student Matthew Biddick to study dioecy—or the separation of sexes between plants.

“There are several characteristics of New Zealand flora that are iconic—early botanists that visited New Zealand were astounded by how unusual the flora was,” says Professor Burns. “One of its distinctive characteristics is dioeciousness, where some plants are female and others are male. Dioeciousness is a guarantee that a plant can’t mate with itself—they must ‘outcross’ because they are separate sexes.”

Dr Burns says while dioecy is common in New Zealand, it’s not widely seen in most other parts of the world. This distinctive feature of New Zealand’s natural history has led to the development of a theory over the years that dioecy is more likely to occur on oceanic islands.

“The traditional explanation was that dioeciousness must be useful on isolated islands because it reduces the problems associated with inbreeding. However, other botanists have argued that this didn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t it be better for the colonising population to be hermaphroditic? That way plants could breed with themselves, which would go a long way to helping the founding population become established.”

Dr Burns says he and Matthew have brought together a range of evidence which shows that high incidence of dioecy occurs by chance—it’s a passive by-product of a chain of events that occurs around the world, rather than a distinctive attribute of New Zealand’s flora.

“New Zealand’s flora falls into a pattern that’s visible around the world, where wetter areas have fleshy-fruited plants with bigger seeds, and bigger seeds tend to be outcrossed. Dioecy is the best way of ensuring that outcrossing happens. We have simply collected data, connected the dots and completed the cycle of logic for the first time. We’ve shown that New Zealand flora is not as special as was once thought, in terms of dioecy anyway.”

For more information contact Dr Kevin Burns on 04-463 6873 or

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Invasive ants found to carry novel virus and honey bee pathogens

16 September 2015

ants antsA group of scientists, led by Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Phil Lester, has discovered that invasive Argentine ants frequently carry a previously undescribed virus. These exotic ants also host a virus widely associated with honey bee deaths.

Argentine ants (Linepthema humile) are an invasive pest spread throughout most of New Zealand. They are listed in the 100 of the world’s worst invasive species, with abundant and widespread populations found on every continent except Antarctica. The ants negatively impact on crops and are a household problem in urban areas.

The research team includes biologists from Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences and a group known as “Virus Hunters” from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

The team spent three years collecting and analysing genomic data of Argentine ant populations in New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

Professor Lester says the results revealed nearly all of New Zealand’s Argentine ant populations carried the Deformed Wing Virus, a pathogen associated with colony collapse of honey bees.

“This discovery tells us that Argentine ants are much more of a problem than we previously thought. They host the same Deformed Wing Virus strain found in bees and wasps in New Zealand, and this virus has contributed to declines in honey bee populations around the world. Argentine ants are known to raid beehives and also forage in the same environment as honey bees. Such close contact is bad for bees, as their association promotes pathogen exchange,” he says.

The presence of this honey bee virus brings a new dimension to concerns over invasive species. The ants’ abundance and wide distribution, together with their ability to carry devastating viruses, means that such invasive species may have much more of a negative impact than previously thought.

But the researchers also discovered an entirely new virus in the invasive pest species that could assist the ants’ own population decline.

“This virus hasn’t been seen before, but it’s related to other viruses that can devastate populations of other insect species. If managed correctly it could be used as a biopesticide both in New Zealand and overseas,” Professor Lester says.

Victoria’s commercialisation office Viclink is supporting the group translate its finding into a marketable product. “This is an exciting opportunity to develop a naturally-derived species-specific insecticide that could reduce reliance on chemical products, which often indiscriminately kill all insects,” says Viclink senior commercialisation manager Jeremy Jones.

“It could be a game-changer for our fruit and wine industries where controlling this ant is a growing problem.”

The research team, comprises Victoria University postdoctoral research fellow Monica Gruber, PhD student Alexandra Sébastien, and ESR’s Dr Richard Hall, Jing Wang and Nicole Moore.

The team has already begun the next phase of research investigating the novel virus as a biopesticide and its potential to be used for the control of Argentine ants.

Their research can be read in full in the latest issue of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.


For more information contact Professor Philip Lester on 04-463 5096, or

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Impact of Pasifika ancestry on health explained

1 September 2015

New findings about the special characteristics of the immune systems of Pasifika people will be presented at a workshop at Victoria University of Wellington this week.

Molecular geneticist Dr Geoff Chambers, who is a researcher at Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has spent the last 25 years researching the impact of peoples’ ancestry on their health.

His earlier investigations identified genetic markers that traced the origin of Austronesian people (Polynesian, Māori, Melanesian, Micronesian and people from parts of South East Asia) back to Taiwan. He has also used molecular methods for forensic identification and as indicators for a range of diseases, including alcoholism and diabetes.

The most recent data to emerge from Dr Chambers’ ongoing research shows that Māori and Pasifika people are genetically distinct from Europeans. “It goes some way to explaining why some autoimmune diseases that are relatively common in people of European descent—such as multiple sclerosis—are virtually unheard of among Māori and Pasifika,” says Dr Chambers. “It also partly explains why diseases such as type-2 diabetes are more common in Māori or Pasifika people.”

Dr Chambers says the findings highlight an existing inequity in medical treatment. “Medicine today is an increasingly genetic field of knowledge,” he says. “Many new drugs have been developed by Europeans for Europeans, but if we are to deliver these advances effectively to Māori and Pasifika people then we need new information, which we must uncover ourselves. This requires knowing something about their genetic make-up.”

Dr Chambers says the idea behind the workshop, which will be held on Friday 4 September, is to share his findings with people who volunteered to take part in his study. “These people gave up their time to help me with the research in the first instance by providing clinical samples—this is a fantastic opportunity to be able to give something back in the form of new information.”

Also presenting at the workshop will be Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, a lecturer at Victoria’s Graduate School of Nursing Midwifery and Health. Dr Sika-Paotonu completed her PhD in Biomedical Science while at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at Victoria University, specialising in immunology. She will be presenting her doctoral research on how the immune system can be trained to recognise illness, and the potential for a cancer vaccine.

“It will be a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the connection between Victoria University and the Pasifika community,” says Dr Sika-Paotonu. “It will also be a great way to share important findings around Pasifika health research and keep Pasifika researchers connected with the community.”

For more information about the event and the research being presented, please contact Dr Geoff Chambers on 04-463 6091, 04-562 8450 or, or Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu on 04-463 6150 or

Please RSVP to Bailey Tuiomanufili on 04-463 9522 or to

For the event flier please see Pasifika Health Workshop - translating research into action.


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Island field course wows science students

27 July 2015

lord howe 

A week-long biology field trip to Lord Howe Island gave 10 Victoria University science students a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.

From 4-13 July the students travelled alongside Dr Kevin Burns, Deputy Head of the School of Biological Sciences, exploring the island’s ecology, evolution and conservation.

Located 1300km northwest of New Zealand, Lord Howe Island is officially declared a World Heritage Site of global natural significance by UNESCO, with approximately 75 percent of its original natural vegetation intact and undisturbed. Only 400 visitors are permitted on the island at one time.

“Lord Howe Island has a unique mix of species both from mainland Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, all of which have arrived on the island in different ways,”, says Kirsty Yule, a PhD student and trip organiser.

“It the perfect place to investigate island biology and how flora and fauna have evolved in isolation compared to that on the mainland.”

The group consisted of second-year, third-year and postgraduate students, with backgrounds in statistics, ecology, biology, marine and conservation.

“We looked at all manner of plants and animals, as well as the unique marine life and how the different ocean currents bring species to the island”, says Kirsty. “The entire trip was about giving students a hands-on experience with what they had been studying.”

The group was shown around the island by tour guide Ian Hutton, which included hiking and tramping excursions.

“We got up close with seabirds that flocked in their thousands in the sky, but would come and land at your feet if you made loud noises”, says Kirsty. “We also looked at the various rock types and investigated the creatures on the seashore at low tide.”

The field trip is run each year during the mid-trimester break. Kirsty says the students found the experience invaluable.

“Being able to see all they had learned about in lectures in the real world was an incredible opportunity. Lord Howe is a stunning island with so much beauty—both the students and staff were blown away.”

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Victoria student dances with wolves

24 July 2015

wolfA Victoria University science student spent her mid-trimester break in North America getting close with one of the world’s most fearsome predators.

For a month in June and July, third-year student Dina Wuest completed a volunteer internship at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in New York, helping out with the Center’s ambassador wolves and critically endangered wolf species.

Founded in 1999, the WCC is a private not-for-profit environmental education organisation in South Salem focused on promoting wolf conservation through education programmes. The Center’s 26-acre property is home to 28 wolves, most of which will one day be released back into the wild.

“The trip was absolutely incredible. During my internship I mainly assisted with grounds maintenance, the collection and preparation of food for the wolves (roadkill deer), and helping with the education programme. I wish I’d had time to stay longer and help”, says Dina.

“I also got the chance to visit a rescue facility in New Jersey and get up close with some wolves, which was amazing.”

The WCC also participates in a Species Survival Plan and Recovery Plan in association with the federal government for two critically endangered wolf species—the Mexican Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf.

“I was lucky enough to help with the Red Wolf puppies 8 week vet check, and an examination of an injured yearling female,” says Dina. “These wolves and a number of Mexican Grey Wolves are off-exhibit to the public, so this was a rare opportunity.”

Dina, who studies Marine Biology and Ecology and Diversity, hopes to use her knowledge from the trip for further study.

“I am interested in predator and prey interactions and population dynamics and I’m keen to pursue this in a Master’s project. I gained a lot of useful knowledge on the key structures of wolf pack behaviour, their language, how to behave around them.”

Dina says she has always been passionate about wolves and wolf conservation, and jumped at the chance to volunteer.

“It was great to learn so much about wolf conservation in North America. I really enjoyed meeting a whole bunch of carnivore conservationists. They all had a different story about how they managed to find jobs in this field—it’s a career path I most definitely want to pursue.”

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Taking the sting out of ecosystems

21 July 2015

philVictoria University of Wellington Professor Phil Lester will be leading a research consortium responsible for taking the sting out of one of New Zealand’s most abundant, widely distributed and damaging pests—the common wasp.

With experts from key Crown Research Institutes and other New Zealand universities, the group will explore emerging technologies for reducing wasp populations and undermining the development of their colonies.

A method to be explored is gene silencing, which involves reducing the ability of wasps to produce essential biochemicals, such as proteins. One option for consideration is the disruption of chitin; a key component in the development of the wasp’s skeleton.

Another strategy involves interfering with pheromones responsible for mating. It’s proposed that artificial pheromones which can inhibit wasp reproduction are identified, synthesised, and subsequently applied to the wasps’ environment.

“Wasps are major predators of invertebrates,” says Professor Lester. “When populations are large, it is estimated that the lifespan of spiders and moths, for instance, may be only a few hours. They can even kill bird hatchlings.

“This can mean significant damage to biodiversity, but wasp colonies have negative implications for recreation and tourism as well. In fact, a recent analysis of the economic effects of wasps in New Zealand estimated the cost at $75 million annually.”

Another essential component of the programme will be to assess cultural perspectives and techniques for controlling the wasps.

“We need to develop approaches that are highly effective, but also acceptable to our stakeholders, including Māori.”

According to Professor Lester, it’s likely that, once effective and culturally accepted methods for controlling wasps are developed, it will then be possible to modify the technology for other pests.

The five-year research project is part of New Zealand’s Biological Heritage; one of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s National Science Challenges.

Included in Professor Lester’s research team will be other representatives from Victoria University, as well as researchers from Landcare Research, Plant & Food Research, the University of Auckland, Lincoln University, and the University of Otago.

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Marine biologist nets Senior Scientist Award

10 July 2015

Head of the School of Biological Sciences, Dr Simon Davy, has been awarded $10,000 as the recipient of the 2015 Charles Fleming Senior Scientist Award.

Granted annually by the Royal Society of New Zealand, the award supports the research of a senior scientist at a university, Crown Research Institute, polytechnic or other research organisation in New Zealand.

The funding will see Dr Davy travel to the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis in France in January 2016 to conduct research on the partnership between corals and the symbiotic microalgae that live in their cells.

“Coral reefs are in serious decline. With more than 20 percent of the world’s reefs so degraded they can no longer support fisheries and tourism.

“We know that coral reefs are unable to grow or survive without this partnership.  However we know little about the cellular mechanisms of coral bleaching – a result of global warming – or how corals recover, or their capacity to adapt to warming seas,” says Dr Davy.

Dr Davy’s research will look at how corals recognise their symbiotic algae and form a partnership, or ‘symbiosis’; an example being when they re-establish the symbiosis after a bleaching event. He’ll be investigating a certain type of protein, Niemann-Pick type C, which may play an important role in this inter-partner recognition.

“This research will hopefully build our knowledge on the link between environmental change and coral reef function, and ultimately shape the strategies that safeguard the reefs.”

Dr Davy will be hosted for six months by Professor Paola Furla, as well as researchers at the nearby Centre Scientifique de Monaco, one of the world’s leading coral reef research facilities.

“Professor Furla’s research is closely aligned with mine, though we have never worked together before. This collaboration represents a valuable opportunity to further our understanding of the coral-algal symbiosis at a quicker pace.”

For more information on Dr Davy’s research on corals and climate, see YouTube.

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Funding to research drug abuse and cancer treatment

10 July 2015

Two Victoria University of Wellington PhD students have received 2015 Todd Foundation Awards for Excellence.

The awards, administered by Universities New Zealand, aim to support projects that promote excellence and encourage the development of new concepts, technology or research that will be of benefit to New Zealand.

Dane Aronsen from the School of Psychology has been awarded $9,500 to investigate the effects of the common drugs of abuse, cocaine and MDMA, on brain systems that underlie drug addiction.

Harmful drug use is estimated to cost New Zealand $6.5 billion annually, in the forms of healthcare, crime, lost productivity, and other diverted resources, not to mention the loss of quality of life. Dane’s PhD is supervised by Professor Susan Schenk.

Abigail Sharrock from the School of Biological Sciences has been awarded $5,000 for her research project which seeks to understand how tiny biological machines called nitroreductase enzymes can activate anti-cancer drugs for new cancer therapies.

Abigail aims to develop an improved treatment technology with fewer side-effects to provide cancer sufferers with a better quality of life and a much better prognosis. Her research will also have applications in regenerative cell biology studies. Her PhD is supervised by Dr David Ackerley.

Among the other award winners around the country include research projects on alleviating pressure on stormwater networks, improving the performance of seismic energy dissipation mechanisms during earthquakes and developing a real-time cardiac MRI tracking technique.

Applications for the 2016 Todd Foundation Awards for Excellence close on 1 March next year.

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Marine sponge shows tumour-stunting promise

8 July 2015


A chemical agent found in marine life unique to New Zealand may hold the secret to fighting certain cancers, according to research co-authored by Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor John Miller and associate professor Peter Northcote.

The research, which has been published in the highly-regarded journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, suggests that peloruside A—a substance produced by the marine sponge Mycale henscheli, found mostly in Pelorus Sound—has promising tumour-inhibiting properties when compared to other plant and bacterial-based agents currently used in chemotherapy.

One preclinical trial on lung cancer cells showed tumour growth inhibition greater than 90 per cent with peloruside A, compared with results of 53 per cent and 19 per cent for two current anti-cancer drugs.

A similar preclinical trial on cells of a different type of lung cancer also produced encouraging results, with inhibitions of tumour growth ranging between 50 to 74 per cent, compared to 44 and 50 per cent with the alternatives.

Tests were also conducted on breast cancer cells, with the results suggesting better toleration of peloruside A than the clinically used drugs.

“Although additional research is required, the preclinical results certainly suggest that peloruside A is highly effective in preventing the growth of lung and breast tumours,” says Professor Miller.

“In some cases, there was even a decrease in tumour volume.”

The research also indicates that peloruside A may provide an answer to the growing problem of the acquired resistance of some tumours to current medications.

“This is encouraging, because it means peloruside A could increase the range of options available for long-term treatments; particularly if there are fewer side effects with peloruside A compared with drugs currently used to treat cancer,” says Professor Miller.

Professor Miller believes the results give strong support for further trials. However, advancing clinical studies is challenged due, in part, to a limited supply of the marine sponge.

Efforts are underway to provide enough material, either from aquaculture or large-scale chemical synthesis, to commence human trials.

The research was conducted in association with colleagues from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Reata Pharmaceuticals, and the CTRC Institute for Drug Development.

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New findings show the impact of ancestry on health

16 June 2015


A ‘one size fits all’ approach to healthcare is being called into question by a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, who says the immune systems of Māori and Pasifika people are very different from those with European ancestry.

Molecular geneticist Dr Geoff Chambers, who is an alumnus researcher at Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, says the findings are the latest to come out of a research project that has so far spanned 25 years.

Dr Chambers’ earlier investigations identified genetic markers that traced the origin of Austronesian people (Polynesian, Māori, Melanesian, Micronesian and people from parts of South East Asia) back to Taiwan. His work also used molecular methods for forensic identification and as indicators for a range of diseases, including alcoholism and diabetes.

New data from his ongoing research shows that Māori and Pasifika people are genetically distinct from Europeans. “It goes some way to explaining why some autoimmune diseases that are relatively common in people of European descent—such as multiple sclerosis—are virtually unheard of among Māori and Pasifika,” says Dr Chambers. “It also partly explains why diseases such as type-2 diabetes are more common in Māori or Pasifika people.”

Dr Chambers says the findings highlight an existing inequity in medical treatment. “Medicine today is an increasingly genetic field of knowledge,” he says. “Many new drugs have been developed by Europeans for Europeans, but if we are to deliver these advances effectively to Māori and Pasifika people then we need new information, which we must uncover ourselves. This requires knowing something about their genetic make-up.”

Dr Chambers says the research has implications for the public health system. “It’s really important for organisations like the bone marrow registry to know that the immune system markers are different, in order to increase the number of matched donors and help improve the outcome of transplants.

“The important underlying message is that the research demonstrates very clearly that genes which are important in medical genetics have a whole different repertoire in Māori and Pasifika people than they do in Europeans—we need to take account of that to ensure we have equity in medicine.”

Dr Chambers has recently been reporting back on his findings directly to Māori and Pasifika groups so that the information can be shared throughout the communities, and as a gesture of gratitude towards the original volunteer participants.

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

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Enhancing biosecurity against pest threats across the Pacific

10 June 2015


Dr Monica Gruber has been researching invasive ants in the Pacific region since 2008 and is now heading the collaborative endeavour.

“The work had its genesis about 10 years ago when Professor Phil Lester [from Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences] was asked by villagers to help with infestations of yellow crazy ants on two of Tokelau’s three atolls. Then, in 2011, we were told the ants had spread to the third atoll and were causing damage and disruption to the lives of local people. While doing some separate work in Kiribati, we discovered the yellow crazy ant there too.” 

Dr Gruber says these invasive ants can become massively abundant and widespread. “People tell us they are unable to sleep due to ants crawling over them, crop production is reduced, and pets and livestock are affected by ants spraying acid in their eyes or stinging.”

She says despite the huge impact of these pests, many communities are unable to do anything to manage the ant populations because they cannot afford pesticides or other methods of ant control.

Dr Gruber is now leading the project on behalf of, and in partnership with, the Tokelau and Kiribati governments and regional and in-country agencies, including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the Secretariat of the Pacific Region Environment Programme and the Pacific Invasives Initiative. 

With the assistance of Victoria University’s commercialisation office, Viclink, Dr Gruber and Professor Lester formed a non-profit entity called Pacific Biosecurity based in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences to facilitate the partnership. The New Zealand Aid Programme (which is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) has awarded Viclink a $1.5 million contract to enable Pacific Biosecurity and its partners to improve resources for ant management and biosecurity across the Pacific.
Across the region, Pacific Biosecurity’s goal is to help prevent the spread of species like the little fire ant. “These tiny ants have an extremely painful sting, and the effects of the ants can be serious when they are in high abundance,” says Monica. “In some places, the ants have forced people off their land as they can’t tend crops. Because they’re found on both sides of the Pacific, we need to prevent their spread into the rest of the region, and improve the ability to manage them.

“Prevention requires less effort and resources than eradication—which becomes impossible when these ants cover a large area. That’s why we need to focus on biosecurity across the whole Pacific region to prevent the ants—and other invasive species—from spreading. We encourage additional partners to join the initiative as these ants are a region-wide problem, and improved resources will be a benefit for all.”

For more information about the initiative, go to the Pacific Biosecurity website.

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Victoria researcher wins funding for revolutionary research

5 June 2015

melanieA Victoria University of Wellington biology researcher has been awarded over $1 million dollars in funding for a revolutionary research project that will “rewrite the textbooks” and could change the way we treat cellular diseases such as brain cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Dr Melanie McConnell says she was nearly speechless when Health Research Council of New Zealand announced it will provide $1,036,746 to fund her three-year project.

“It is very, very exciting. It secures funding to get a team of people working on my research, and allows them to put their heads down and get on with it. Without the grant, the project wouldn’t happen,” she says.

Dr McConnell says the project is based on a discovery made five years ago during her time at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at Victoria University, and was further developed during her current post at Victoria.

The project centres on the discovery that mitochondria can move between cells.

“It’s a new observation that goes against all the dogma in the textbooks. At first, people refused to accept our data. We’ve always assumed mitochondria have to renew themselves within the cell, but the research conducted at Malaghan with Professor Mike Berridge shows that mitochondria can transfer between cells.

“This is potentially a double-edged sword. Cells that are injured in neurodegenerative diseases could use mitochondrial transfer to survive, but cancer cells could also use this process to resist treatment,” she says.

The outcome of her research could change how we treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, where injured brain cells die, and also brain cancers where injured cells are actively growing and resist attempts to kill them.

Dr McConnell will lead the project’s team of five throughout the three-year research period.

“This is only the first step of what could be a 15-year project. Our ultimate goal is to hack the body’s mitochondrial transfer system to alter cell survival in disease.”

For more information contact Jolene Williams on 04-463 6385 or 

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Collaborate To Map Kapiti’s Submarine Landscape

4 June 2015

A team of marine geoscientists from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research begins mapping the submarine landscape of Kapiti Island and Coast on Friday, 5 June. The project is run in partnership with Victoria University of Wellington, the Department of Conservation (DOC), and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ).

Kapiti is one of the country’s most important small islands, lying 6 kilometres off the coast of the North Island Te Ika a Maui about 40 km north of Wellington. The island is an ecologically important sanctuary and gives its name to the marine reserve that straddles the Rauoterangi Channel separating the island from Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve. Kapiti Marine Reserve is one of DOC’s network of ten iconic coastal gems.

The waters around the 70-metre deep channel were once frequented by whales and are an important breeding area for diverse and abundant fish species and iconic invertebrates such as paua and rock lobster.

But the seafloor has never been mapped using 21st century technology, so that information about the area’s seafloor morphology is outdated and likely to be inaccurate.

NIWA’s capability includes multibeam echo-sounding technology that will be deployed from its inshore research vessel Ikatere over the next three to five weeks. The resulting data will enable the production of highly accurate bathymetry, habitat and biotope maps of the seafloor to a depth of 50 m over an area of 50 square kilometres. Information will also be used by LINZ for the next update of the region’s navigational charts.

Additionally, data recorded throughout the full water column can be used to characterise water masses, identify gas seeps and sediment plumes, and detect schools of fish. The information is essential for informing the management of this nationally important marine area, and will contribute towards assessing the ecological integrity of Kapiti’s marine environment. The mapping project has been widely supported by stakeholders and interest groups.

For more information contact Jonathan Gardner or Alix Lafierriere in the School of Biological Sciences.

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Wellington researcher gives parasitic worm its vaccine comeuppance

29 May 2015

After getting sick from whipworms as a young boy, a Wellington researcher began a personal crusade against parasites affecting more than a billion people.

Malaghan Institute research director Graham Le Gros has long sought a cure for parasitic worms, including hookworm, a blood-sucker that bores its way into people's feet and into a nearby vein. Once there, it migrates up and into the lungs and hijacks a ride by getting coughed up into the throat, where it heads down into the gut.

There, the parasite latches on to the intestines by its teeth and happily makes a blood meal of its host.

"It's a bit like Alien."

When a mate comes along, a female hookworm can produce 30,000 eggs a day, all of which pass out through faeces and grow in the soil into larvae that will infect others.

The human body had no defense against hookworm and other soil-dwelling blood-sucking worms affecting a billion of the world's poorest, Le Gros said.

The Wellington professor spent some of his childhood in Singapore - "before Singapore became what Singapore is today" - where he had a case of whipworm in his gut.

"I remembered the medicine they used in those days to try and get rid of it. You just vomited and were sick the whole time."

Medical researchers had been trying for decades to develop a vaccine for this parasite, Le Gros said.

"It's subtle. It drinks just enough of our blood to not kill us but look after itself. It keeps on going around and around and around. So these people, from birth, are kept in a state of anaemia. Their brain doesn't develop very well."

Researchers believed parasites like hookworm had a special way of turning off the natural immune system response of the human body. So Le Gros and his team had to find a way to overcome this.

They had successfully delivered a vaccine into the lungs of a mouse which makes its immune system react to hookworm, taking advantage of a type of cell they recently discovered.

After receiving the vaccine, mice immune cells attack the worm and burst the parasite before it reaches the gut.

The research was published on Monday in the journal Nature Communications.

"It's got good implications for human disease. We're paying the hookworm back."

Le Gros hoped his findings would be used to create a human vaccine to fight tropical diseases related to parasitic worms.

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Visiting researcher exploring bird’s eye view

2 April 2015

kakarikiA visiting Victoria University of Wellington researcher will provide a peep into where bird’s travel in a new project investigating the activities of young kākāriki.

Ellen Irwin, an ecology student from Dartmouth College in the United States, is in Wellington carrying out a year-long study on the red-crowned parakeet, a New Zealand parakeet now breeding at Zealandia.

ellenThe James B. Reynolds Scholarship winner is interested in where the kākāriki go when they leave the wildlife sanctuary.

“Kākāriki can and do travel far. Little is known about what they’re doing, what other animals they run into and what they’re eating once they leave the sanctuary”, says Miss Irwin.

“Up to this point Zealandia has only received scattered information from people in surrounding areas.”

Red-crowned parakeets were first transferred to the sanctuary from Kapiti Island in 2010 as part of the sanctuary’s restoration programme to reintroduce the missing species. Over 500 locally bred birds have been banded at the sanctuary since their release.

With the support of Zealandia, Wellington City Council and Victoria University, Miss Irwin is looking specifically at the activities of juvenile (young) kākāriki.

Some of the juveniles will be attached with transmitters to track their movements, but the project will also rely on observations from the public.

“Once I have a good idea of where they’re going I will look more closely at what they get up to and what they encounter. It would be great if locals could keep an eye out for them—any information is really helpful”, says Miss Irwin.

“If you see someone wandering around with a big blue antenna, don’t be alarmed. I've received some very strange looks and comments over the last few days, including when someone asked if I was tracking aliens, and another person asked if I had lost my television.”

Kākāriki are bright green in colour and the red-crowned parakeet is distinguished by a bright crimson forehead, crown and a streak extending back beyond the eyes. They are usually solitary or found in pairs, although in autumn and winter they may form small flocks.

Miss Irwin hopes results could help the conservation of the species.

“It could give us information about the plants that kākāriki prefer thus encouraging people to grow those in their backyards. Or if we find the birds are caught by predators like stoats or rats, we could encourage extra trapping in those areas to keep them safe”, she says. “The more information we can gather the more we can help them.”

Kākāriki observations can be posted online at Naturewatch.

For more information contact Ellen Irwin on 022 311 5468.

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Baby gibbon fostered by Victoria University student

24 March 2015


A Victoria University Masters student became an impromptu foster mother for an endangered baby gibbon during his studies in Cambodia.

Ecology student Naven Hon discovered the infant ape, believed to be one year old or less, all alone. Hon and an assistant were researching gibbons in the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation area when they came across the highly endangered animal on Thursday.

The Northern Buff-cheeked Gibbon baby was hanging off a small tree when they spotted it, Hon said. "It seemed not ill, but scared and skinny," he told university supervisor Ken Ryan.

It should have been part of a group, but there was no sign of this group or the gibbon's mother, he said. Fearing the mother was injured or dead, the pair brought it back to the research station, and it was kept warm in an insulated bag. Being too young to be weaned from its mother, Hon tested out a few foods, including infant formula, fresh milk and bananas.

"He seems to like drinking milk rather than banana."

Hon returned to the area where the infant was found to search for its mother, but with no luck, the gibbon was transported to the Phnom Tamao wildlife rescue centre on Monday. "I hope it can survive with special care."

The species has a small range in south Vietnam, Laos and north-east Cambodia, and is threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

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Students to set sail on Anzac voyage

19 March 2015

anzacTwo Victoria University of Wellington students with World War I connections will represent New Zealand on board a square-rigged tall ship as dawn breaks at Gallipoli on Anzac Day.

Isabella Thompson and Bex McMenamin are two of three New Zealanders and 21 Australians selected to crew the Young Endeavour ship across the Mediterranean Sea on the third leg of its world voyage.

After a few weeks on the water, the Young Endeavour will sail to the Gallipoli Peninsula, anchoring for a dawn service on Anzac Day, along with Navy ships from Australia and New Zealand.

Both Isabella, who is studying toward a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, and Bex, a third year law and arts student, have personal connections to World War I—which was part of the criteria for New Zealanders to board the Young Endeavour.

Isabella’s great-great-grandfather fought in Gallipoli along with two great-great-uncles, one of whom died at Quinn’s Post. His name is on a memorial at Lone Pine Cemetery in Gallipoli.

Bex’s great-grandfather and his cousin arrived at Gallipoli and fought in World War I, then moved to Belgium where the cousin passed away.

“To be at the 100th anniversary commemoration of Gallipoli on Anzac Day is going to be really special,” says Bex, who is also looking forward to seeing the sun rise in different places and meeting new people. “The ship is a mini world. You are relying on each other all the time so you do form quite intense, strong friendships.”

Isabella is excited to get out on the water—“there is just something so cool about it,” she says.

The pair had met each other once and chatted online to arrange flights and then, by chance, ended up in the same Spanish class together.

“We will have to take our textbooks with us to keep on top of our uni work,” they say. “It’s going to be crazy, but so incredibly worth it.”

For more information visit or contact Bex on 027 843 7426 or Isabella on 027 757 4795.

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Unique animal communities may need special protection

18 March 2015

rachelboschenNew Zealand’s underwater mountains are home to unique animal communities which need careful environmental management, research from Victoria University of Wellington and the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric (NIWA) reveals.

The collaborative deep-sea study discovered that the hydrothermal activity of these mountains—known as seamounts—helps to create unique sets of biological communities.

PhD student Rachel Boschen, working under the supervision of Professor Jonathan Gardner from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Dr Ashley Rowden and Dr Malcolm Clark from NIWA, says seamounts generate special minerals due to their location near tectonic plates.

“Cold water filters through the seabed, heats up and shoots out as hot acidic water. As this water cools, minerals containing gold, silver, copper and zinc form giant black chimneys on the sea floor. These chimneys collapse and reform, creating large mounds of metal-rich mineral deposits.”

These mineral deposits are hugely valuable, not only for mining but also to deep-sea species, says Rachel.

“Some of the chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide and methane, support communities that exist without sunlight, instead relying on bacteria that metabolise chemicals from the hot water. Animals in such communities can’t survive away from the sites that supply these chemicals.”

The research team studied three seamounts along the Kermadec volcanic arc, each with different levels of hydrothermal activity. By towing a video camera at depth from a ship and using an echo sounder, they were able to gather data on local ecologies as well as the environment and terrain.

“We found that each seamount has unique groups of animals”, says Rachel, “depth and seabed terrain helped explain differences in communities but the most important driver was hydrothermal activity.”

The study, published yesterday as a featured journal article in Marine Ecology Progress Series, may have implications for the mining of these areas.

“To carry out seabed mining you must have protected ‘set-aside’ areas to conserve ecologically important parts of the seabed,” says Rachel. “But because each seamount contains unique communities, you may need to have a number of set-aside areas distributed over multiple seamounts to protect all of them.”

The results also suggest seamounts with low hydrothermal activity may support communities not found elsewhere within the region.

“Previously it was thought the protection of communities at sites where hydrothermal activity was low or had ceased was of less concern,” says Rachel. “But the groups of animals at these sites don’t exist elsewhere, suggesting they need to be protected as well.”

For more information contact Rachel Boschen at

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Putting the ‘P’ in pest control

16 March 2015

possumAnimal urine will be used to make more effective traps for problematic pests like rats and brushtail possum in a research project from Victoria University of Wellington.

A team of scientists, led by Dr Wayne Linklater from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has been awarded $1 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to create ‘super-lure’ pest control technology.

The team has identified proteins and chemicals in rat and possum urine that act as pheromones and trigger an attraction in other animals. The proteins may bond to the chemicals to release them slowly, making them active for longer and suitable as lures.

“We can at least double the amount of contact time an animal has with a trap by using urine compounds, meaning an animal is more likely to be caught,” says Dr Linklater.

“Lures like peanut butter or cheese that have been used by people to trap pests like rats in their homes and businesses, farms, warehouses and factories, can be improved upon.”

The second phase of the project now turns to developing protein-chemical pairs as lures for traps. Various combinations of wild rat and mouse urinary proteins and chemicals will be tested to find the best pheromone attraction, in self-resetting traps from local company Goodnature.

Dr Linklater says effective traps are particularly important to our primary food industries struggling to eradicate pests, or wanting to guarantee that their facilities are pest-free.

“Rodents and brushtail possum carry diseases like Bovine Tb and Leptospirosis, which are a serious problem if they get into agricultural food production and processing systems. New pest-control technologies are needed to reduce those pest and disease risks to our export industries.”

There is also an international demand for pest control that is poison-free and more humane, says Dr Linklater.

“Currently, the most effective pest-controls require widespread and repeated use of poison. Our new invention offers New Zealand better economic and environmental returns.”

For more information contact Dr Wayne Linklater on 027 563 8575 or email

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VUCEL Open Day brings in the crowds

10 March 2015

Saturday’s wild weather didn’t dampen the Victoria University Coastal Ecology Laboratory (VUCEL) Open Day, with more than 1,000 visitors flooding through the doors. The state-of-the-art marine laboratory in Island Bay held its annual opening day, entertaining visitors of all ages with various interactive activities and displays.

vucel“Guests got a chance to test the salinity preferences of whitebait, and estimate the age of baby fish by counting daily growth increments on fish ear bones under a microscope. Younger visitors were guided through science activities with the aid of a scavenger hunt, which was very popular, ” says Dr Jeff Shima, Director of the Coastal Ecology Laboratory.

Visitors also got an insight into the laboratory’s latest research and findings, with 30 dedicated volunteers, including postgraduate students and technical and academic staff from the School of Biological Sciences, generously donating their time. “Their efforts helped to create another fantastic open day,” says Dr Shima. “I think this year’s was the best yet.”

Photographs of the event can be seen here: VUCEL Open Day 2015

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Improving cat welfare may reduce environmental impact

6 March 2015

Scientists are looking to cat owners for solutions to reduce the environmental impact of their pets on native wildlife.

catA team of researchers, led by Dr Wayne Linklater from the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University of Wellington, recently surveyed veterinarians and cat owners to understand their attitudes and beliefs about cat welfare and behaviour.

The survey found that most veterinarians believe keeping cats inside at night would positively impact cat welfare and also benefit wildlife—because cats that are inside from before dusk to after dawn have reduced opportunities to hunt for native insects, reptiles and birds.

“We know cats kept indoors, particularly at night, will reduce the high rates of cat injury from cat fights, disease transmission and vehicle collisions. Importantly, 99 percent of owners surveyed said they would be willing to bring their cats in at night,” says Dr Linklater.

Drawing on expertise from Massey University, the University of Otago and University of Plymouth, England, the second phase of the study will use survey findings to motivate owners to make changes in how they care for their cats that might also address environmental problems.

PhD research by Victoria University graduate, Dr Edith MacDonald, shows cat owners are concerned most for their cats’ welfare. “The question for a wildlife biologist trying to solve a cat-related problem is how we can tap into that concern and motivation,” says Dr Linklater.

Keeping cats in at night might not be the strategy that reduces their impact on native species most, but Dr Linklater says it is a compromise between what needs to be done and what can be done.

For more information contact Dr Wayne Linklater on 04-463 8575 or email




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World’s wildlife—a critical economy

3 March 2015

The following commentary is provided by Dr Wayne Linklater, an associate professor of conservation science and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University of Wellington.

Wildlife is critical to the economies of nations. New Zealand’s wildlife – whales, dolphins, red deer, thar, albatross, kiwi, tuatara, fish and kauri – attract tourists. And the tourists who come to see or hunt our wildlife stay for longer and spend more, especially in our provinces and small towns, than those who come for our casinos and high-end hotels.

In Australia the economic value of koala alone was estimated at A$1.1 billion. There are no estimates for how much wildlife contribute to New Zealand’s economy, but if they contribute as much to our $10 billion tourism industry as they do to Australia’s, then our wildlife are worth about $1 billion in tourist spending.

But when the United Nations launches World Wildlife Day (3 March) it is not us but the world’s poorest nations, especially in Africa, on which attention will be focussed.

Africa’s poorest nations earn critical foreign currency from tourism—US$83 million in Sierra Leone, US$26 million in Malawi and US$66 million in the tiny nation of Eritera.

Between 20 to 40 percent of international tourism is for wildlife. Tourism brought over US$7 billion to the South African economy last year—about 80 percent of which is for wildlife. Only Kenya’s coffee exports earn more each year than the US$400 to 900 million from wildlife tourism.

And, of course, wildlife is food in Africa’s poorest nations—without wildlife, much of rural Africa would be less nourished, even starved.

But the national and household livelihoods of these poorest countries are threatened by heavily armed, well organised international crime syndicates illegally hunting and trading their wildlife to extinction.

The challenge of illegal hunting has grown. Trade between countries has become easier. Rhinoceros and elephant, critically endangered in Africa and Asia from demand for their horns and tusks, are just the small tip of a gigantic illegal trade iceberg.

This is not just a battle for the survival and conservation of species, it is war for a better future in the world’s poorest nations.

In New Zealand, we can feel somewhat removed from all the threat. But we have a role to play—an opportunity to support international wildlife economies and to grow our own.

New Zealander’s are frequent travellers for wildlife tourism and our dollars support wildlife-economies. But Kiwi’s can also be a part of the problem. Returning home with rare corals and shells, butterfly, or plants native to southern Africa and the Asia-Pacific is common.

There is also an ongoing threat from the illegal capture and export of our own wildlife. Thirty-two New Zealand species are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

Although intensely controversial, legitimate trade in wildlife, including endangered species, has to also be a part of the conservation solution. Income from wildlife trade ensures that nations are highly motivated and their economies can afford to protect wildlife. South Africa, for example, should be allowed to sell rhino horn and elephant ivory, albeit in ways that improve wildlife protections.

New Zealand could be doing the same with its wildlife.

Many zoos and wildlife centres would like to have a real life kiwi, kakapo or kokako in their collections and they should pay handsomely for the privilege. Our wildlife could be leased to the world’s public and private zoos and wildlife parks. China has mastered this. It has been several decades since China gave away a giant panda. Nowadays they lease them to the world’s zoos—generating millions of dollars in foreign revenue.

What we need is a legitimate market that can be supplied sustainably. Wildlife conservation should not be a charity but a business. The New Zealand taxpayer should not be a wildlife philanthropist, but a wildlife investor.

Importantly, if we make more money in these ways from our native and exotic wildlife, in addition to that from ecotourism, we increase wildlife’s value to a greater diversity of New Zealanders.

To make this future possible, many of us will need to leave our qualms about exploiting wildlife-as-a-resource behind. New Zealand could learn very much from Africa’s modern wildlife economies and their entrepreneurial and pragmatic conservation industries.

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Survey reveals signs of tuatara recovery

27 February 2015

tuatara babyThe tuatara population on Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island may be recovering, according to results from a recent survey carried out with help from Victoria University of Wellington researchers.

Since the early 1990s, an intensive tuatara conservation recovery programme has been run on the island, where the species had not been seen for 10 years.

In a collaboration between Victoria University, Department of Conservation (DoC), local Mana Whenua Ngati Manuhiri, Auckland Zoo and the Hauturu Supporters Trust, the programme has helped to save a threatened population of tuatara from extinction. The initiative has included eradicating pests on the island, which was declared rat-free in 2006.

During an eight-day survey in January this year, volunteers found four unmarked tuatara. Sue Keall, a technician in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences who helped carry out the survey, says this provides positive insight into how the tuatara are surviving.

“The young tuatara could have been bred from existing wild tuatara that were not seen during the original surveys, or from captive-bred tuatara that had been released on the island by the programme,” she says.

“We aren’t able to tell their age, but it is fantastic to know the wild population might be able to successfully breed again, now that cats and kiore (Pacific rats) have been eradicated.”

A number of areas on the 3,000-hectare island were identified for searching, based around where tuatara had been caught during the first survey period, locations where there had been reported sightings, or sites where they had been released from the breeding programme.

The programme sends tuatara eggs laid on the island to Victoria University to be incubated and hatched.

“Incubation at the university keeps them a bit safer—it stops the eggs from drying out or getting dug up accidentally by other tuatara on the island. We’re simply maximising their chances of success,” says Ms Keall.

The young tuatara are then returned to Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island for release.

Surveyors also spotted the endangered Duvaucel’s Gecko on the island, indicating this species is also in recovery after removal of kiore. Ms Keall, who was in the first survey team 23 years ago, says the island is showing encouraging signs.

“Because it’s such a large island and also is quite high in altitude, it retains a variety of vegetation types making it a really good varied habitat. It’s very exciting seeing species that were really struggling now starting to recover on the island.”

In August last year, Victoria University published rare footage of a tuatara hatching. The tuatara filmed was an offspring from the programme.

Watch it here:

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