Insects of Takapourewa / Stephens Island

Te Papa vertebrate curator Dr Colin Miskelly recently led a team that visited Takapourewa / Stephens Island Nature Reserve, to select and gather up 100 fairy prion chicks to move to Mana Island near Wellington. This is the fourth in a series of blogs about the project and the wildlife of Takapourewa.

Takapourewa holds a treasure-trove of rare and interesting wildlife, but this is only a fraction of what it could have been like, but for a fateful quirk of timing and geography. The 154 ha island lies off the northern tip of D’Urville Island, making it the outermost island of the Marlborough Sounds, and the first chunk of rock that seafarers encounter as they approach Cook Strait from the west. This meant that it was ideally suited for construction of a lighthouse when these proliferated around the New Zealand coastline in the late nineteenth Century. Unfortunately the technology of the time required lighthouses to be manually lit and watched over throughout the hours of darkness. This meant that the island needed people and houses, and a farm to feed them. And people like companion animals – in this case cats.

Takapourewa / Stephens Island from the north, with the lighthouse in the foreground. January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Takapourewa / Stephens Island from the north, with the lighthouse in the foreground. January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The combination of forest clearance and the introduction of cats on Takapourewa during 1892-94 led to the rapid extinction of several bird species (including the only surviving population of Lyall’s wren, and the last viable population of South Island piopio). Cats were eradicated by 1925, but the forest clearance continued to diminish the island’s biodiversity as salt-laden winds lashed the remaining patches of scrub-forest, causing further die-back and drying of the forest interior.

One of New Zealand’s largest ground beetles (Mecodema punctellum) was last collected on the island in 1931 and is likely to be extinct. Fortunately many other impressive insects survived, probably because rodents were never introduced. We were able to see some of the more notable inhabitants during our 4-day visit (but not all – the dry conditions in mid-January meant that some species stayed hidden).

A female Cook Strait giant weta on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A female Cook Strait giant weta on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The largest insect on Takapourewa is the Cook Strait giant weta (Deinacrida rugosa). This gentle giant survived naturally on Takapourewa, the Trio Islands and Mana Island, and has been introduced or reintroduced from these islands to many other sites (including Maud Island, Matiu/Somes Island, Titi Island, Wakaterepapanui Island, Zealandia, Long Island, Puangiangi Island, and Young Nicks Head). We found several giant weta while checking fairy prion burrows.

A male Wellington tree weta clings to the underside of a ngaio branch on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A male Wellington tree weta clings to the underside of a ngaio branch on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens) on Takapourewa grow to a similar body-length as the giant weta, but are not quite as robust and heavy. They are mainly seen on tree trunks at night, very rarely descending to the forest floor, where they would be vulnerable to predation by the very dense tuatara population.

A pair of Wellington tree weta on Takapourewa, January 2015 (male on left). Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A pair of Wellington tree weta on Takapourewa, January 2015 (male on left). Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A pair of Wellington tree weta mating (male bent in half on left) at night on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A pair of Wellington tree weta mating (male bent in half on left) at night on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Several species of jumping weta are also present on Takapourewa, the largest of which is the striped, long-legged Gymnoplecton edwardsii. This species is common in the northern South Island and throughout much of the North Island.

A colony of jumping weta (Gymnoplecton edwardsii) in their daytime retreat on

A colony of jumping weta (Gymnoplecton edwardsii) in their daytime retreat on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Among the large flightless beetles that survived on Takapourewa are several species of nocturnal weevils. The flax weevil (Anagotus fairburni) is the same species that survived as relictual populations on several islands from the Poor Knights Islands south to a few outer islands in Fiordland. On Takapourewa, flax weevils cause only superficial damage to native flax (wharariki), in contrast to the population introduced to Mana Island, which has killed many hundreds of flax plants.

A flax weevil nibbles on wharariki at night, Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A flax weevil nibbles on wharariki at night, Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The ngaio weevil (Anagotus stephenensis) is a related, slightly larger species of weevil that feeds only on ngaio. Known to have survived only on Takapourewa, subfossil remains from South Canterbury indicate that it occurred on the New Zealand mainland before Pacific rats (kiore) were introduced. Ngaio weevils have recently been translocated from Takapourewa to nearby Te Kakaho Island.

A ngaio weevil nibbles on a ngaio leaf at night on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A ngaio weevil nibbles on a ngaio leaf at night on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

One of the hazards to people visiting Takapourewa is the abundance of the giant tree nettle (ongaonga) along tracks and forest margins. This is the main host plant for admiral butterflies in New Zealand, and red admirals were common on the island during our stay.

Red admiral butterfly on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Red admiral butterfly on Takapourewa, January 2015. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Related blogs

A box of fluffy birds – moving fairy prions from Takapourewa / Stephens Island to Mana Island

A box of fluffy birds – the sequel. Fairy prion chicks fly from Mana Island

Birds and mammals of Takapourewa / Stephens Island

Reptiles of Takapourewa / Stephens Island

Critters of Titi Island Nature Reserve, Marlborough Sounds

Critters of the Poor Knights Islands

A plague of flax weevils – a conservation hyper-success story

3 Responses

  1. mark anderson

    Its very interesting that Flax Weevils have ‘infested’ the release area on Mana, but not elsewhere. You may be onto something about the plants being more palatable or could they be adapted to a boom/bust cycle like Hadramphus spinipennis? I would guess that the Flax weevils are very capable of migrating large distances when the food source is depleted – Ngaio Weevils live for at least 3 years, so they have plenty of time to move from plant to plant if they have a similar lifespan. Keep up the great blogging and great photo of the Ngaio Weevil!

    Reply
  2. Stuart Nicholson

    Interesting, Colin – especially the link to the transfer of flax weevils to Mana Is. Any update on that 2013 blog? No starters for the suggested thesis work? 🙁

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Hi Stuart

      The situation on Mana Island is reaching a very interesting stage. The weevils are flightless, and so are spreading out from their release site like ripples on a pond. The main ‘infestation’ is now roughly 400 metres in diameter, having obliterated essentially all the hybrid Phormium cookianum/tenax near the release site. The outer edge of the occupied zone is now touching on natural cookianum on the south-west clifftop, and planted cookianum grown from Mana Island seed further inland on the plateau. A quick inspection on 22 January (I had only a few minutes to spare) suggested that these ‘pure’ Mana cookianum were not being browsed as heavily as hybrid plants growing alongside them.

      The next step is experimental plantings of flaxes of different provenance. To this end, I have made initial inquiries about sourcing cookianum seed from the same source as the weevils.

      There is an ironic back-story to this tale. While working on the Mana Island Ecological Restoration Plan in the mid 1990s, I had long debates with the late Robin Gay, who was the landscape designer in the same Department of Conservation office that I worked in. Robin’s involvement with the Mana Island restoration programme dated back to Lands & Survey days (pre 1987). He was adamant that the tenax (planted as windbreaks when the island was farmed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, before Lands & Survey) and the resulting cookianum/tenax hybrids should all be grubbed out. Everyone else involved in the discussion (myself included) were of the opinion that this was too big a job, had too many ecological downsides (including removal of goldstripe gecko habitat), and was a far lower priority than many other demands on limited resources.

      Now, perhaps, the introduced flax weevils are doing the job for him!

      Regards
      Colin

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