Tony Whitaker (or ‘Whit’ to his many friends) was the godfather of modern herpetology in New Zealand. Following more than half a century of fieldwork to the remotest corners of New Zealand, there were few lizard species that he had not seen, nor lizard researchers that he had not cheerfully assisted.
Tony’s passion for, and knowledge of, cold-blooded beasts were legend. But it was the warmth of his compassion for his wide network of contacts that resulted in him being both loved and respected by so many in the conservation community.
I first met Tony during a Department of Conservation survey for goldstripe geckos (Woodworthia chrysosireticus) on Mana Island in 1993, and was privileged to participate in several lizard surveys with him over the following 15 years. Our lizardly correspondence by phone and email grew over time, and became even more frequent after I joined the Te Papa team, with curatorial responsibilities that included reptiles and amphibians. Tony was always generous with his time and knowledge, and my own interest in and enthusiasm for New Zealand’s herpetofauna continued to grow as a result.
Te Papa, as an institution, is also greatly indebted to Tony. He contributed far more New Zealand lizard and frog specimens to the national collection than any other individual (1674 specimens – the next largest contribution is 576). Most of these specimens were donated to Te Papa (then the National Museum of New Zealand) when Tony resigned from Ecology Division, DSIR in 1977 (see A gift of lizards – 35 years to completion).
Many of the Ecology Division specimens collected by Tony came from dozens of islands off northern New Zealand during a 5-year period (1968-73) when he was periodically seconded to the Wildlife Service to assist with island surveys. Tony made many new discoveries during this time, including the skink that bears his name, discovered on Middle Island, in the Mercury Islands, in June 1970. During the same 3-day visit, Tony also discovered the Mercury Island tusked wētā (Motuweta isolata). In his last phone call to me he expressed his delight at hearing how tusked weta were thriving following their introduction to Ohinau Island.
Although Tony named only one lizard species himself (the black-eyed gecko, now Mokopirirakau kahutarae), eight other New Zealand lizard species were named by other scientists based on specimens that he collected. Using their current names, Tony collected the holotypes of Oligosoma whitakeri, O. chloronoton, O. stenotis, O. longipes, O. townsi, M. kahutarae and Leiolopisma pachysomaticum (the latter is now synonymised with O. oliveri). He also collected paratypes for O. hardyi and O. toka. There is little doubt that many more ‘Whitaker’ specimens will be selected as type specimens during the revision of New Zealand gecko taxonomy that is underway.
Tony was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 2010, for services to herpetology. At the time, he commented that one of his biggest achievements had been to recognise the threat that rodents posed to New Zealand reptiles. This referred to his 1973 paper “Lizard populations on islands with and without Polynesian rats, Rattus exulans (Peale)”. Tony’s hypothesis that Pacific rats (kiore) were major predators of lizards has since been corroborated by numerous island pest eradication operations followed by successful translocations of at least 12 lizard species to sites cleared of Pacific rats.
In addition to the many scientifically invaluable specimens collected by Tony, the Te Papa collection also includes specimens that were more personal to him. The earliest were single specimens of common skink (Oligosoma polychroma) and Wellington forest gecko (Mokopirirakau silvestris nov. comb.), collected near his home in Pinehaven, Upper Hutt in 1955, when Tony was just 11 years old. But the specimens with the best back-story were not collected by Tony himself…
Tony was a foundation member of the Society for Research on Amphibians and Reptiles in New Zealand (SRARNZ), and a long-time editor of SRARNZ Notes. He was invited to give a plenary lecture on ’Reminiscences of 50 years in New Zealand herpetology’ to the 14th biennial SRARNZ conference at Tautuku, Catlins in February 2011. Tony contacted me a few days before, and asked whether Te Papa still held some Nelson green geckos (Naultinus stellatus) collected by Ray Clarke at Tophouse circa 1950. Indeed we did, but it wasn’t until I heard his talk that I learnt their significance. Tony described to the audience how, during a family holiday to the Marlborough Sounds at the age of 12, he convinced his mother to let him hitch-hike to St Arnaud by himself in search of Nelson green geckos. He managed to get to St Arnaud, but failed to find any geckos. However, when the publican at Tophouse (Ray Clarke) learnt of his interest, he gave the young Whit a jar containing five long-dead geckos pickled in vodka! (They have since been transferred to 70% ethanol.)
Tony was, of course, deeply proud of Viv, their children Kim and Mike, and their grandchildren. I was delighted to receive his call last year describing how he and “the F2s” (his term for his second generation of descendants = grandchildren, for any non-geneticists reading this) had seen some royal spoonbills on Motueka Estuary, and had looked them up on the newly-launched New Zealand Birds Online website. That phone call encapsulated Tony – passionate about wild things, but even more so about sharing his enthusiasm and good humour with family and friends.
Thank you Tony.
[Tony suffered a heart attack while mountain-biking at his home at Orinoco, inland from Motueka, on 20 Feb 2014, and could not be revived. He was the dearly loved husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather of Viv, Kim, Mike, Darren, Megan, Sam, Maddie, Ollie and Hannah. Aroha nui]