Huia are one of Aotearoa’s most well-known birds, despite going extinct over 100 years ago. Early European scientists were fascinated by the radically different bills of the male and female huia, a feature called sexual dimorphism. More recently scientists recognised the New Zealand wattlebird family, which includes huia, as one of three families worldwide containing the most extreme variation in bills. A new study by Massey University’s Gillian Gibb and Te Papa’s Lara Shepherd used DNA sequences to determine when the New Zealand wattlebird family and the extraordinary sexual dimorphism in huia evolved.
With large areas of the city protected in reserves, Wellington is known for being rich in biodiversity. But beyond the highly-visible kākā, tuī and pōhutukawa, how well do you know the plants and animals with which we share the city? Wellington recently competed in the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge, an annual competition to see which city can record the most species during a four day period. Science Researcher Lara Shepherd thinks what we found lurking in our backyard might surprise you…
A few years ago, our Vertebrate Curators Alan Tennyson and Colin Miskelly challenged Te Papa’s geneticist Lara Shepherd to identify a couple of penguin heads recovered from Antarctic toothfish stomachs. This year, Colin had another penguin puzzle for Lara to solve – what species was the headless penguin he found on a remote Rakiura | Stewart Island beach?
Last spring, Te Papa’s Leon Perrie, Lara Shepherd and Bridget Hatton travelled to Whanganui to collect plant specimens from the garden of the late Ian and Jocelyn Bell. Many of the plants in the garden are rarely cultivated in New Zealand and were not represented in our botany collection. Research Scientist Lara Shepherd takes us behind the specimen-collecting scenes.
This year Wellington is competing against over 400 cities worldwide, and five other New Zealand cities in the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge. The aim of this friendly bioblitz-style competition is to record as many species as possible in the four days from 29 April to 2 May. With our fabulous array of forest and marine reserves, we hope Wellington can show the rest of the country, and the world, what a biologically diverse city we live in.
Norway rats and house mice are two of the most widespread invasive species worldwide. But where did the Norway rats and house mice in New Zealand come from? Our geneticist Lara Shepherd and colleagues from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, University of Waikato, and Place Management NSW have shed some light on this question by sequencing DNA from rodent bones from a 19th-century archaeological site in Sydney.
Tapa, or barkcloth, is an important textile in the Pacific. Tapa is made from the beaten inner bark of some plant species, but once the tapa is made then identifying which plant species was used is difficult. Our genetics researcher Lara Shepherd teamed up with Catherine Smith from the University of Otago and colleagues to create a DNA reference database for identifying the plants used to make tapa.
Being in lockdown in Wellington didn’t mean an end to fieldwork for some of our staff. Botany Curator Leon Perrie and Researcher Lara Shepherd – who are in the same bubble – used their lockdown walks to collect roadside weeds for our herbarium. But what did they find within only a short walk from home?