Expedition Snares Island: why do we care?

Recently some of our scientists carried out fieldwork on the Snares Islands,100 kilometres south of Stewart Island. They’ll be talking about their work live on Science Live: Expedition Snares Island, 18th March, 2.00pm.

But why do Te Papa scientists care about the Snares Islands? What’s so special about them that we’d send a team to travel hundreds of kilometres from Wellington, journeying via air, land and some very rough seas?

It’s all about the biodiversity.

The Snares Islands are one of the most unspoilt areas of New Zealand. The Department of Conservation is doing a fantastic job to protect the islands and their wildlife, and landing on the islands is only possible with a special research permit. Introduced land mammals, the scourge of native plants and wildlife on mainland New Zealand, never made it to the Snares, allowing flora and fauna to thrive relatively undisturbed.

In addition, there are several species on the Snares Islands that are found nowhere else in the world – or even New Zealand! The Snares Island snipe, the Snares Island fernbird and the Snares Island tomtit are all endemic to the Snares Island. The Snares crested penguin, which sports a very fetching yellow crested hairdo,  breeds only on the Snares Islands.

Adult Snares crested penguin standing in profile. Station Point, The Snares, November 1986. Photographer: Alan Tennyson © Alan Tennyson

Adult Snares crested penguin standing in profile. Station Point, The Snares, November 1986. Photographer: Alan Tennyson © Alan Tennyson, courtesy NZ Birds Online

There are numerous invertebrates found only on the Snares Islands, from the leaf-veined slug Pseudaneitea huttoni, to the jumping weta Insulanoplectron spinosum. Even the plants get in on the action, with at least one (the megaherb Anisotome acutifolia) being found nowhere else but these small rocky islands.

What about the research?

With such a high degree of biodiversity (the number of different species in a given location), the Snares Islands are a fantastic place to carry out a variety of scientific studies. Not only do our scientists research endemic Snares species, they are also investigating whether there are any species new to science on the islands. In addition, they can compare species found in the Snares Islands to species found elsewhere in New Zealand to determine their evolutionary history.

A pair of fairy prions looking deceptively peaceful in a rock crevice on The Snares. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

A pair of fairy prions in a rock crevice. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

Scientists can also assess populations of species found on the islands to study the population declines and environmental impacts on species elsewhere. On this recent trip, Colin Miskelly and Alan Tennyson surveyed the huge population of sooty shearwaters and prions, in part to determine whether the prions on the Snares Islands were affected by the prion wreck in 2011. You’ll have to watch Science Live: Expedition Snares Island to find out what their research revealed!

In short, the Snares Islands are a valuable resource, both for their intrinsic biodiversity value and as an aid to scientific research. We’re grateful to DOC for protecting the islands and the wildlife within them, and for permitting Te Papa scientists to carry out research.

Do you want to know more? Get involved!

So what exactly did Te Papa scientists do on the islands? How did they count millions of squawking seabirds? What new species were found? And what in the world is Cook’s scurvy grass?!

The next exciting installment of Science Live will answer these questions – and yours!

On 18th March, we’ll broadcast live from Te Papa – so you can ask your questions!

Ask your questions:

Find out more: www.tepapa.govt.nz/sciencelive

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