Wanted dead or alive – Our Natural History interns’ work with Wellington lizards

Wanted dead or alive – Our Natural History interns’ work with Wellington lizards

Between November 2022 and February 2023, Natural History interns Tobia Dale and Ben Carson assisted with the curation of three major donations of New Zealand frogs and lizards. Following their first blog on processing pickled pepeketua (native frogs), this second blog describes their processing of a large collection of native lizards from the 1980s, and an opportunity to see several of these species in the wild on Mana Island.

Ruth Ainsworth’s collection of New Zealand lizards

The second collection in the amphibian and reptile acquisition was donated by the late Dr Ruth Ainsworth of Victoria University, Wellington. Ruth completed both a Master’s in Science (MSc) and a PhD between 1981 and 1992, investigating the internal parasites of Aotearoa New Zealand’s native lizards. Her research required collecting large numbers of lizards of several species and dissecting them to find and describe the parasites that lived inside them.

Four mason storage jars with lids and labels on the lids. The jars are full of lizards.
Jars of lizards from the Ruth Ainsworth donation. Photo by Ben Carson. Te Papa

Ruth began her research in the same year that most New Zealand lizards became legally protected under the Wildlife Act. However, the three species that were the main focus of her work did not receive legal protection until 1996. This means that it is unlikely that future researchers will be authorised to collect lizards on the scale that was permissible in the 1980s.

The addition of the Ainsworth collection to Te Papa’s reptile collection means that future researchers will be able to investigate aspects of lizard anatomy, biology, and their genetic relationships, without requiring further collection of wild animals.

A man in a lab coat and blue gloves is pouring liquid into a jar full of lizards.
Ben Carson measuring the alcohol concentration in a jar full of lizards. Photo by Tobia Dale. Te Papa

A confusion of names

Both the common names and scientific names of nearly all New Zealand lizards have changed since Ruth Ainsworth collected and labelled her specimens, with dozens of new species recognised and described over the last four decades.

Ruth referred to the three main species that she investigated as the common gecko (Hoplodactylus maculatus), common skink (Leiolopisma nigriplantare) and copper skink (Cyclodina aenea). In the Wellington region, these species are now known as Raukawa gecko (Woodworthia maculata), northern grass skink (Oligosoma polychroma), and copper skink (Oligosoma aeneum).

Several other species in the Ainsworth collection also required a bit of research and consultation with lizard experts to match her names with the names currently in use.

A brown and green stripey gecko on a leaf.
Raukawa gecko, Mana Island. Photo by Anthony Whitaker MNZM; 2008. Gift of Vivienne Whitaker, 2020. Te Papa

A visit to Mana Island

While these three species persist on the mainland, they thrive on predator-free islands. Mana Island (off Wellington’s west coast) was an agricultural research facility in the 1970s. It has now been restored and is predator free (see the post From farm to forest).

Many geckos swarming on a dirt mound.
Raukawa geckos on Mana Island. Photo by Colin Miskelly

Our supervisor Dr Colin Miskelly visits Mana Island several times a year to monitor populations of three translocated seabird species. Luckily for us, one of these trips was scheduled for late January, with the aim of banding chicks of fairy prions and fluttering shearwaters before they fledged.

After four weeks of working with Ruth’s specimens it was time to see some of these lizards in their natural habitat and not under the fluorescent lights in the lab.

A green gecko with stripes on a flax leaf.
Goldstripe gecko, Mana Island. Photo by Anthony Whitaker MNZM; 2008. Gift of Vivienne Whitaker, 2020. Te Papa

We managed to see seven lizard species during our brief trip. The most abundant species were those that we had been working on (Raukawa gecko, northern grass skink, and copper skink). The other species seen were Tohu’s gecko, goldstripe gecko, McGregor’s skink, and the glossy brown skink.

The first observations of a new species!

One of the most exciting moments of the trip was seeing the newly-named Tohu’s gecko (Hoplodactylus tohu, Scarsbrook et al., 2023). This species was only named and described the day before our visit to Mana Island. Before then, they were known as Duvaucel’s gecko (Hoplodactylus duvaucelii).

Cook Strait populations are now known to differ from the northern populations of Duvaucel’s geckos, which occur on islands in the Bay of Plenty, Hauraki Gulf, and off the east coast of Northland. It was a thrill to be the first people to see this species in the wild following it receiving its own name.

A speckled gecko with horizontal stripes sitting in the sun on a rock.
The newly-named Tohu’s gecko on Mana Island. Photo by Tobia Dale. Te Papa

It was a huge privilege to go to Mana Island. Many thanks to the Department of Conservation, and to Mike and Christine Jacobson who took us there on their yacht Sergeant Pepper.

Related blogs

Processing pickled pepeketua – how many frogs can you fit in a jar?

From farm to forest –the transformation of Mana Island

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

Leave a Reply

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