Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 1. Come join us!

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 1. Come join us!

On August 13th scientists at Te Papa hosted their first Science Live event.  The public were able to accompany some of the Museum’s ichthyologists into the lab to watch them dissect and process a sunfish that was over 2m long!  Now they didn’t have crowds of people marching into the Tory Street labs (there just isn’t the room for that!).  Instead, using live streaming, they brought the public in virtually.  There was a virtual audience of over a 100,000!  If you are curious about sunfish science you can see what it was all about on our blog site…

Now it is the ornithology team’s turn to host the second Science Live event: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders.  On October 22nd, we will be bringing people into the lab with us for an hour via a live stream internet feed, blogging, and tweeting.  We will be showing what goes into processing 888 whalebirds, also known as prions.

Fairy Prion in flight. Photo © Phil Battley.
Fairy Prion in flight. Photo © Phil Battley.

Prions are small, bluey-grey seabirds.  They are one of the most abundant seabirds of the Southern Oceans.  There are six recognised species- four of which breed on islands throughout New Zealand’s waters.  Some of the colonies are absolutely massive- there are over 1.8 million fairy prions breeding on Stephens Island alone!

Even with these large numbers, you might be wondering how we ended up with over 800 prion carcasses at Te Papa!  In July 2011 New Zealand experienced over a week of wild, windy weather.  That was nothing new to Kiwis but what was new were the strangers that it brought to the shorelines, and sometimes right to people’s doorsteps.  The storm beach-wrecked hundreds of thousands of prions all over the entire west coast of the North Island.  On July 16th my husband and I walked just over 1.5 km of Waiterere Beach and counted over 530 dead prions.  It was a pretty horrific sight!  This scene was not localised – similar accounts came in from all over the island.  Through various channels (e.g., Wellington Zoo, Ornithological Society of NZ members, Massey University) many of the carcasses made their way to Te Papa’s freezers.

A small sample of prions collected during the 2011 wreck. © Alan Tennyson
A small sample of prions collected during the 2011 wreck. © Alan Tennyson

On the 22nd a team of six Te Papa scientists will explain what they are trying to learn from these seabirds.  We’ll show you how we dissect the birds and take samples for analysis.  Because the event will be live streamed via YouTube you will be able to ask questions directly to the scientists via Twitter (#ScienceLiveTePapa) and Facebook! (

As a lead-up to the event I will be posting prion related blogs throughout the next week so keep your eyes on this space!

Watch live from 1:50pm NZ time on October 22nd.

(permanent, non-live link)

For more information regarding the wreck please visit:

And for more information about prions keep your eyes peeled for our prion blogs and visit:


  1. This is a wonderful idea. Using the internet for education, especially Youtube is sheer brilliance. Kids will be able to experience what we all experienced when dissecting our first frogs in school. The Prion birds (not to be confused with the deadly prion viruses) can offer us a lot of insight into sea bird life and what it takes to exists in such a harsh environment.

    1. Author

      Hi Ted, Thank-you for your kind words! I am pretty excited about it all 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *