It’s probably no surprise that the least popular species in Te Taiao | Nature are unexceptional birds, drab fish, and obscure insects. Science communication intern Caitlin McLean was given the challenge of sharing the stories of these under-loved creatures and why we should still care about Aotearoa’s most boring animals. Let’s hear their stories!
This is not the story that I thought I was going to write.
As a science communication intern at Te Papa I was given a challenge – find a way to bring some love to the least popular creatures in Te Taiao | Nature. The way to do this felt obvious – write a blog post pointing out these creatures’ most fascinating traits and why they deserved attention!
Instead, I was taught a lesson in the beauty and value of all of Aotearoa’s creatures (even those that may seem truly boring at first glance).
Investigating the least-popular species: grey-faced petrel, Crans Bully, and giant hatchet fish
You might be wondering how we know which creatures in Te Taiao | Nature are the ‘least-popular’. Throughout the exhibition spaces there are touch screens with pictures of the animals on display, and we’re able to pull the data on how often each species is viewed.
I dived into this story by researching the least-popular bird, the grey-faced petrel. Honestly, if you were going to describe the most generic-looking bird you’d probably describe the grey-faced petrel. It’s is not particularly large or small, it’s not colourful, it doesn’t have a special call, and it’s not endangered.
The least popular freshwater fish didn’t have many traits to write a story about either. The Crans Bully is a sandy-brown to brownish-olive creature whose most interesting fact is that it’s often mistaken for the Common Bully fish. The least popular deep sea fish was the giant hatchet fish who is just your typical deep-sea chum, eerie looking with slick brown scales and cloudy eyes. In summary – they were all boring.
Insects with a story: the Mahoenui giant wētā and huia louse
Next I looked into the least-popular invertebrates on the list. Finally, here were some creatures with interesting tales to tell! The Mahoenui giant wētā has a unique story in that it was actually saved by one of Aotearoa’s most invasive weeds. In 1987 this species of wētā was found to be confined to a small area of farmland that was overrun with the weed gorse. The barbed gorse provided protection from predators like rats, hedgehogs, and possums.
Watch a video from the Department of Conservation about the Mahoenui giant wētā
The other invertebrate on the least-popular list, the huia louse, has an even more remarkable history. It is a louse that is so specialised that it is only found on huia, a hauntingly beautiful endemic bird and precious taonga that was hunted to extinction by 1907.
The huia louse wasn’t discovered by humans until after its own extinction. Years after the huia’s demise a scientist studying the birds’ skins came across a previously undescribed louse.
As I researched the huia louse I had a thought that unsettled me; if a species departs unnoticed and unmourned by humans, was it really important? Would people even be interested in reading about such an inconsequential and specialised creature?
Seeing beyond the human gaze
Ready to learn more about the Mahoenui giant wētā and huia louse I arranged to speak to Julia Kasper, Te Papa’s Lead Invertebrates Curator (read Julia’s blogs).
Something that bothers Julia in her job is the anthropocentric, or human-centred, perspective that people take to the importance of bugs. Invertebrates (animals without backbones) are not something that most people naturally take an interest in, we see them as nuisances unless they provide us with some kind of service (such as bees producing honey) or are pleasing to look at (like a butterfly).
But Julia feels passionately that the bugs she works with day in and day out should not have to justify why they are important; they are worthy of our attention and protection even if we might see them as a bit yuck or dull.
As I spoke with Julia I felt her enthusiasm for creepy crawlies wash over me. I realised that she did not love these bugs because they were helpful for their research or because they were pleasing to look at. Julia sees these creatures as fascinating simply because they are a part of Earth’s many complexities.
Changing my perspective on Aotearoa’s ‘boring’ creatures
I had been searching for the least-popular species with enough interesting features to tell an entertaining story. But these creatures don’t have to provide some amusement or service to humans in order to be worth writing about.
If you need convincing that te taiao is interesting simply because it exists, you could take the view of Julia’s intern, Anton Hovius: it is extremely unlikely that there is another creature like this one in the entire universe – once it is gone it is truly gone.
Even though the huia louse is one of a multitude of extreme-specialist lice species, its death is still the loss of an entirely unique species that will never be seen again. Perhaps this thinking sets off the existential dread, but it is a good reminder not to take earth’s complicated and specific biodiversity for granted.
Creatures don’t have to be remarkable to be valuable
I had thought of the grey-faced petrel as boring, something that no one would want to read about. But when I am reminded of the millennia of selective evolution and chance events that led to the creation of this bird I am entranced by it.
This has been a lesson to me, a reminder to love nature simply because it exists, not because it meets the human idea of ‘interesting’ or provides some service to us. It is enough that these creatures are members of our shared world to make them worthy of our attention.
So next time you pass by a boring brown fish, try to appreciate it for its subtle complexity and uniqueness in this universe. (And next time you’re at Te Taiao | Nature give the Crans Bully label a click for me.)
Bird lice have an interesting story. Each bird species has its own lice species, I understand. Why? Because they live on their own eco-island on their host? They migrate to the chicks in the nest and then live and breed on the chicks as they grow up to be adults themselves. I understand that some bird species have been identified by the lice species. Can someone tell this story?
A great engaging perspective Caitlin, well done Te Papa for highlighting often forgotten undervalued collection / species
I love nature in all its forms, but I must admit to having been bored to the back teeth when among some fellow homo sapiens!
I beg to (seriously) differ that the Grey-faced petrel is a “most boring creature”. It is endemic to New Zealand (breeding nowhere else), a member of the globally threatened gadfly petrels, the most oceanic of seabirds (roaming farthest offshore), all superlative fliers, the stormier the better. One breeding bird tracked from the Aldermen Islands travelled 15,830km in a single 37day foraging trip, ranging up to 2,587km from its nest. They find their burrow among sometimes thousands on the forest floor in pitch darkness, guided when near the nest by their excellent sense of smell, not that common in birds. And they are drab brown for a reason. Gadfly petrels are rather shy, and thus far down the bullying scale when having to fend off competitors. So as there is nowhere to hide on the sea surface once having located some dead squid or other, the only defense for a shy creature is to wear a camo suit. And the hardest sitting birds to spot on a blue sea surface (grey-faced forage mostly over southern subtropical seas) are definitely brown ones. I speak with some experience here, having counted birds from ships in the Southern Ocean for years. I hope I have convinced you to have this case of “boring creature” dismissed – and in defense of the others, I have yet to come across a so-called boring creature once I have enough information on its life history. Greetings!
Very nicely put!