Pigeon Spotting

Years ago, I was at an ecology conference where scientists were sharing the results of a study on our native pigeon or kererū. They’d been tracking the long-term decline of kererū in native forests; some of the birds they’d been monitoring had been killed by predators during the study; others had been poached by hunters. Their conclusion was that kererū were in trouble.

Kererū, kūkū, or kūkupa are known to scientists as *Hemiphaga novaezelandiae*, the “New Zealand half-eater”, for the way they gobble up fruit and poo out the undigested seeds.

Kererū, kūkū, or kūkupa are known to scientists as Hemiphaga novaezelandiae, the “New Zealand half-eater”, for the way they gobble up fruit and poo out the undigested seeds. Photo: CC-BY-SA, Angrysunbird/Flickr

Someone in the audience stood up: a local. How could these scientists say that kererū were in decline, he asked. Why, just the other day he’d seen a flock of twenty five!

To the local, the evidence of his own eyes counted for more than years of research by scientists. But our own observations can be misleading. We tend to remember the day we saw twenty five kererū, and forget all the days we saw none at all. Also, our memories don’t stretch back very far. A few generations ago, flocks of dozens or even hundreds of kererū were not uncommon; today they’re very rare.

It matters if kererū are less common than they used to be. Our native pigeons play a vital role in the forest’s ecology: they’re the only bird species left with a big enough mouth to swallow the fruit of native trees like karaka, tawa, and matai. These trees have evolved to have their fruit eaten by birds, and the seeds passed out the other end some distance away. Now that larger birds like moa are extinct, we rely on kererū to help native forest regenerate.

The 2015 Great Kererū Count results, reflecting the distribution of observers as much as pigeons. From: greatkererucount.nz

The 2015 Great Kererū Count results, reflecting the distribution of observers as much as pigeons. From: greatkererucount.nz

One way to find out where kererū are – and aren’t – is the Great Kererū Count, a citizen science project that enlists members of the public to look for kererū locally and note down whether they’re regularly seen there. It runs September 16th to 25th. To take part, you just need to make an observation for 5 to 30 minutes, which could be in your backyard or walking in the park. You note down how many kererū you see, or if you saw none (equally important data) and enter the results at the Great Kereru Count site. You can add what the birds were doing or eating, and how common is is to see kererū in your area. You can even download an app to help count kererū on the go, or join up with the Great Kererū Count project at NatureWatch NZ.

Enlisting thousands of volunteers means kererū numbers are no longer just one person’s opinion. Last year there were over 8,700 observations, and over 19,000 kererū counted. It’s not the absolute numbers that matter, but the trends over time. As the data accumulate over the years, ecologists will be able to build up a picture of regional trends in kererū population: where numbers are healthy, and where the birds are in trouble. Most participants are in cities, so observers from out in the country are especially valuable. Looking at the map from last year, there are very few observations between Kai Iwi and Hawera, so I’ve been asking people around Whanganui to consider volunteering for half an hour and keeping their eyes peeled for kererū.

(This post appeared in the Whanganui Chronicle, 10 September 2016)

Slowly Saving the Longfin Eel

New Zealand has two species of native freshwater eel, longfins and shortfins. Longfins are found nowhere else. They live further inland than shortfins, and get older and bigger: over a century old, for ones that are 2 m long and as thick as your leg. They’re down to about 20% of their former numbers, and the population has been declining for decades from overfishing, pollution, and forest clearance. If it drops any more, DOC will have to declare them an endangered species.

800px-NZ_eelEvery longfin eel in NZ is a virgin. At the end of their lives, some time between 30 and 100 years old, they head out to sea, spawn in the ocean near Tonga, and die. The tiny fry make their way back to NZ and work their way up rivers as elvers, where they settle down and slowly grow bigger. So every eel we catch is one that has yet to breed.

And yet, amazingly, there’s a commercial export industry in longfin eels. It’s perfectly legal to catch tonnes of them every year, and export them alive to countries who long ago wiped out their own eel stocks but still think eels are a delicacy.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment prepared an excellent and very readable report on the longfin eel in 2013, looking at numbers, threats, and the commercial fishery. She concluded:

“It is critical that we stop fishing longfin eels. It is not just fishing that is a problem, but stopping it is the only action that has immediate potential to reverse the decline of this extraordinary creature.”

The commercial eel industry employs maybe 100 people, mostly part-time eel fishers, and is worth only $0.5 million a year: a tiny fraction of our exports. Quite a bit of taxpayer money is spent propping up this industry though. Apart from the PCE report, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) assembled a panel of international experts to comment on the longfin monitoring, ran workshops, consulted, and has now prepared a discussion document on the South Island quota, which it will have to administer, collect data on, make regular reports, monitor… It seems like a lot of effort so that 30 full-time eel processors can keep making private profits off a public resource.

One of the recommendations was that the MPI set up a separate quota for the South Island longfin stocks (they’d been lumped in with shortfins) so the fishery could be at least monitored and controlled. The MPI are setting the quotas for different regions in the South Island right now, and are inviting public submissions, deadline Monday 11th, 5pm – although submissions opened on June 13, fisheries biologists were apparently only told a week or two ago, and the word’s hardly gotten out. There’s a Forest and Bird blog post with some advice on making a submission (it’s quick and easy, just write a clear, concise email stating your interest in this and your opinions and suggestions). Here’s mine.


TO: FMSubmissions@mpi.govt.nz

I am writing this submission on discussion paper 2016/15, Review of Management Controls for the South Island Longfin and Shortfin Eel Fisheries (LFE 11–16 & SFE 11–16) in 2016, to comment specifically on the South Island longfin eel fishery.

I am a biologist, and Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum. Whanganui has a deep connection with tuna and their harvest, and local iwi have resolved to improve the health of the river so stocks can recover; in my job I talk to the community about freshwater health and the biology of our native fishes. And of course as a South Islander, and a New Zealander, I’m a stakeholder in the health of South Island freshwater ecosystems, including longfins.

The independent panel commissioned by MPI in 2015 concluded that, although longfin numbers had probably dropped 80% from its original level, the decline may have slowed or “perhaps even slightly reversed” in the last five years. I am concerned that MPI has represented this as evidence that longfin eel stocks in the South Island are now recovering and can continue to support a commercial eel harvest.

There could be numerous explanations for the small uptick that is being used to claim longfin stocks are now recovering. Given longfins take well over a decade to reach a commercial catch weight, any real population increases would have to have begun at the height of mass dairy conversion and degradation in water quality we are observing in the South Island. Conversely, impacts being made today on breeding success and the recruitment of elvers into waterways will not affect the commercial eel harvest for over a decade. So it is unlikely that variations in catch per unit effort now, in isolation, are actually giving us good information on longfin population trends.

The independent experts commissioned by MPI found numerous problems with measures currently being used to assess eel numbers, and recommended that an integrated, long-term monitoring process begin, using a wide range of techniques and assessing all potential threats to longfins. Even adjusted for unit effort, catch rates represent the behaviour of fishers as much as the number of eels present – eel fishers are highly mobile and target just the areas where eels can be most easily caught, which can mask pervasive declines in the population.

There appears to be a difference of opinion between MPI and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as to whether the longfin population is at a harvestable level, and whether it is continuing to decline. It would seem impossible to allow a commercial fishery until, at the very least, both of these questions are settled to the satisfaction of the research community.

My opinion, speaking as a scientist, is this:

  1. The South Island longfin quota for 2016 should be reduced to zero (0) tonnes, and maintained thus for 20 years, during which longfin populations will be monitored to determine if they are in fact recovering.
  2. The quota should be uniform for the entire South Island, as elvers do not return to a specific stream, and so the entire breeding population of New Zealand is a single management unit, with harvestable eels in a few areas supporting the eel population of the entire country. It seems odd to allow effectively unrestricted harvest of longfins in areas like the West Coast (LFE 16) when these populations are supplying elvers, and thus determining stock levels, for the rest of the South Island.
  3. If the quota is not reduced to zero, it should be reduced to a level well below the current commercial take, as one of the few methods available to immediately help reverse the decades-long decline of longfins. The “nominal catch” levels indicated for LFE 11, 12, 13, & 14 would be appropriate, and should be extended to LFE 15 and 16, instead of the proposed levels of half the current average commercial catch (LFE 15) or an unrestricted continuing commercial catch of 25 tonnes (LFE 16).
  4. MPI should take the initiative in supporting a research programme, run by all fisheries biologists and ecologists with expertise in longfin eels, that will clearly determine a) a population level of longfins able to support a commerical harvest (for example, 30% of the pre-fishery stock) and b) robust, well-accepted methods of determining whether that level has been reached.
  5. Until those methods have been settled on, and until the population has recovered to that agreed level, the TACC should remain at 0 or nominal.
  6. This research programme should be totally or substantially funded not by the New Zealand taxpayer, but by the commercial longfin industry. If the commercial eel industry is not willing to help determine if longfin stocks can be sustainably harvested, they should no longer be allowed the privilege of taking and exporting this publicly-owned resource. Other extractive industries are responsible for determining the environmental impact of their activities: the eel fishery should be no exception.
  7. Recreational and traditional quota should remain unchanged if not reduced to a nominal level, but a consultation and education programme should begin with iwi to give each region the option of setting traditional harvest levels to 0 – effectively, a rahui – for a similar period, and working with ecologists to monitor the health and population levels of their local longfin stocks.

Quite apart from the scientific arguments, though, about methods for assessing stock levels, I would like to propose another reason why the South Island longfin quota be set to zero.

It is abhorrent.

I believe that if most New Zealanders understood the population trends and breeding biology of longfins, and that this species was nevertheless still being caught and exported for profit, they would vote to shut the industry down tomorrow. If it were similarly-threatened native birds being harvested for export, there would be public outrage. Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief that we allowed a commercial longfin industry to carry on into the 21st century, long after the decline of this species was clear; just as we do today when we recall New Zealand was still carrying out commercial whaling into the 1960s.

Thank you for considering this submission. I am happy to be heard in person in support of it if required.

Dr Mike Dickison
Whanganui Regional Museum


Some useful info:

Basically Everything is Worms

I was reading a piece by Melissa Hogenboom on the currently-recognised 35 different…well, let’s call them kinds of animals. A few years back I’d have been happy calling them phyla, but a phylum, like other rigid taxonomic ranks, is becoming unfashionable these days, as is the idea than all evolutionary trees fit neatly into same hierarchical categories. It’s a bit like how forms that want your postal address assume you have a state and ZIP code. (New Zealand has never has states, and when I was a kid there were no postcodes either.)

Nevertheless, the idea of fundamental difference in basic body plans is an interesting one; currently there are 35 different ways of being an animal. Some of these ways are enormously successful, others barely exist. There are over a million species of arthropods, 100,000 chordates (including us), 11,000 cnidarians, 1,200 ribbon worms, 100 comb jellies, 11 species of horseshoe worms, and a single kind of placozoan.

Most of these 35 groups contain just a few hundred species, or even fewer; the animal kingdom seems to have a “long tail”. In the literal sense, too, since the most common animal body plan is some kind of worm.

all35kindsofanimals

Hogenboom apparently had some difficulty preparing her story, particularly having to extract usable photographs from the one or two researchers working on some of the more obscure groups. I feel her pain. Still, when you’re the world expert on a family of tiny parasites that only live in squid kidneys, I doubt you have a press kit ready.

Sympathy for the Wētā

Mercury Islands tusked weta on Korapuki Island, May 2016. Photo by Rob Chappell/DOC

Mercury Islands tusked weta on Korapuki Island, May 2016. Photo by Rob Chappell/DOC

The Mercury Islands tusked wētā is an insect the size of a mouse. Its long curving tusks are weapons that males use to joust and grapple with each other in ritualised combat over mates. This bizarre species was discovered in 1970, living on one small island off the Coromandel Peninsula in northern New Zealand. It very nearly went extinct, saved in the nick of time by heroic conservation work, yet hardly any New Zealanders have even heard of it.

Middle Island is tiny, only 15 hectares, but in 1970 had the distinction of being the only one of the Mercury Islands with no introduced mammalian predators; in particular, the Polynesian rat or kiore. In the decades after tusked wētā were discovered on Middle Island there seemed to be plenty of them living there – you could see dozens in a single night. Then in the 1990s the population plummeted to less than 200, possibly because of a severe drought. Fewer and fewer were recorded each year. The last time a tusked wētā was spotted on Middle Island was in 2001: eight subsequent searches between 2009 and 2012 turned up nothing. Just 31 years from discovery to demise.

But not quite. In the 1990s the NZ Department of Conservation ruled out relocating any tusked wētā to other islands, worried about the effect of taking even a few from the tiny population still surviving. Instead, they captured two females and a male and tried to breed them in captivity – without success. They tried again with three more wētā in 1998, but this time everything went right: the insects bred prolifically, producing 181 hatchlings. In 2001, just as the species was going extinct on Middle Island, DOC released young wētā on two other islands in the Mercury group they’d newly cleared of mammals through poisoning and trapping. Since that release, hundreds more wētā have been bred and released onto four other pest-free islands, and all seem to be doing well. Every Mercury Islands tusked wētā in the world is descended from those three individuals captured in 1998, in a last-ditch, and fortunately successful, attempt at captive breeding.

This is a particularly New Zealand story: a species gets down to a handful of individuals and is heroically pulled back from the brink. It’s almost our trademark: we don’t get out of bed until the species is down to double figures. But when we do heroic conservation feats with birds, like the kākāpō and black robin, sponsors line up to be associated with the rescue, and TV crews fly in from all over the world to make inspiring documentaries. Even though the Mercury Islands tusked wētā story is just as inspiring, even though DOC’s earnest publicity drive in the ’90s managed to get it onto a postage stamp, it isn’t a household name.

UnknownThat’s a shame, because the wētā story is much more representative of what we’ll need to do to save New Zealand’s biodiversity. Most of our endangered species are not birds. They are fungi, lichens, insects, worms, shrubs, and snails: things TV crews overlook. They don’t require heroic multi-million-dollar conservation battles. Rescuing the tusked wētā cost a few thousand dollars a year; they were reared in recycled ice cream containers. Many of our critically-endangered species could be saved by similarly small projects: potting up cuttings in a back yard, fencing a patch of forest to keep cows out, trapping all the predators on a tiny island.

With its budget being reduced almost every year, DOC simply doesn’t have the personnel or funding anymore to rescue everything, and increasingly depends on the public’s help. The small-scale projects that could save obscure endangered species would be perfect for these sorts of partnerships. But instead, the public conversation about conservation seems obsessed with saving cuddly celebrity animals, ones people would perhaps secretly like as pets. It’s as if we don’t trust New Zealanders with the facts.

Slugs and spiders are just as endangered, and count just as much, as penguins and dolphins. If we’re tallying biodiversity, a species is a species. Last year I wrote about how we can prioritise species conservation to get the biggest bang for the buck, and Jesse Mulligan interviewed me about it on the radio. Jesse got quite impassioned about the neglect of uncharismatic species, and started a Critter of the Week slot with DOC’s Nicola Toki to highlight the plight of the rare and overlooked; these days I help by beefing up the corresponding species’ Wikipedia page each week. Perhaps by telling these stories we can help people care about all New Zealand’s threatened flora and fauna. Even the prickliest wētā.

(A version of this piece originally appeared in the Wanganui [sic] Chronicle, 16 May 2016, unfortunately stripped of all its carefully-applied macrons.)

Museum Myopia

The Museums Australasia conference, MA 16, is happening right now in Auckland, and I’m not there, although three of my colleagues are. It’s a typical large museum/gallery conference, with inspiring keynote speakers and parallel streams, and participants from museums large and small in both Australia and New Zealand.

IMG_1908What’s odd is that a major part of the museum sector in both countries has been excluded. In today’s session I counted 54 speakers. Every single talk was on cultural history, art, indigenous culture: the humanities. There were no presentations at all by scientists or about natural history.

That’s surprising, because natural history collections and research are a major part of museums in New Zealand and Australia. These institutions hold millions of specimens and dozens of curators, collection managers, and researchers. Many of them were founded as natural history or geology collections, by directors who were scientists and believed that understanding the natural world was part of a museum’s core mission. Today, with climate change and an ongoing biodiversity crisis, the research they do and the collections they hold are more important than ever.

Why were there no scientists presenting at MA 16 today? Anyone would think museums didn’t do natural history.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons the organisers could offer. Scientists don’t go to these sorts of conferences. Humanities people like to hear from other humanities people. Scientists only want to talk about science. Scientists don’t put themselves forward to speak or run plenaries (perhaps they’re shy). Scientists aren’t interdisciplinary enough; they should act more like humanities people. If these sound familiar, they’re the same excuses rolled out to explain why there aren’t women speaking at a conference.

IMG_2665

Some of this is obliviousness and insularity. Some of it, though, is the asymmetry identified by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures. It’s the idea that a grounding in the humanities is sufficient to be a well-rounded “cultured” person, but that understanding science is an esoteric unnecessary specialisation. This manifests in the museum sector as someone curating an exhibit on, say, insects (almost always characterised as “bugs” [sic]) despite having no background in entomology or even science. But hey, how hard could it be? Natural history exhibits are for children, aren’t they?

Slide03Slide04Imagine if someone with a geology degree, perhaps an MSc in the stratigraphy of Devonian trilobites from Canada, was hired to curate a show on Victorian wedding ceremonies or Aboriginal artworks. There’d be an uproar; and rightly so. Not having any background in such a nuanced and complex field means the exhibition could end up wildly oversimplified, or even full of awful mistakes. But the reverse happens all the time: museum professionals with Arts degrees are curating galleries (or managing collections) of snails, birds, and butterflies. This seems to be perfectly acceptable.

It looks like one of the five concurrent sessions on Wednesday has a couple of science speakers, but that’s about it. It’s really not good enough. The conversations at MA 16 today were about the battle between colonial and indigenous presentations of stories, about which group of people should have their worldview acknowledged. And yet this scope is so shortsighted, and so humanocentric, encompassing just a few thousand years. The story of the universe is physics, geology, life; people are such a very small part of that, yet we seem to think the conversation is all about us.

A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator

I’ve been working at a smallish provincial museum for two years now, one of a dozen staff. People outside the museum profession (or hoping to enter it) sometimes wonder what a curator’s job entails, so here’s an account of a typical day.


06:00 Up, thanks to my ruthless internal clock. Check Twitter, news, and emails while still in my dressing gown. Sometimes I reply, but people who are obviously clearing their In tray at 07:30 are depressing.

08:20 Bike to work, only five minutes away. The joys of living in a small city.

08:30 More battling against the tide of emails. Once I adhered to the doctrine of Inbox Zero. No longer.

IMG_7656We’re sending out some mounted birds and moa bones as a short-term display elsewhere, responding to a loan request. I’ve made a shortlist of the specimens we could use, most of which need to be properly registered, photographed, and condition-reported. Two of them are huia, which are extinct and quite valuable. One of us will have to accompany the loan and install them in secure museum cases so there’s never a moment when they’re unsupervised. Then I check the cases everything’s supposed to go in and discover there’s no way the birds and bones I’ve sorted out will fit. Back to the drawing board.

10:30 Phone call: someone has turned up at the front desk with a mysterious insect. Now that it’s summer, I’m getting identifications of this sort about once a day, usually garden bugs, spiders, fossils, or things discovered on the beach. The visitor presents me with a small brightly-coloured insect wrapped in plastic, and he wants to know if it eats kiwifruit vines. I promise to get back to him. I remember seeing something like this in a Facebook group devoted to bug identification, find it, and double check in Andrew Crowe’s book to confirm. It’s a lichen bag moth, an Australian import. The larvae spend their lives in a bag they make themselves, eating lichen (not kiwifruit), and eventually hatch out as adults that live just a few hours – long enough to mate. The females are flightless and look a bit like brightly-coloured beetles. While calling the visitor back, I reflexively clean up the moth’s Wikipedia page and add a reference. Then I pin it for the collection, and log the “visitor interaction” in a Filemaker database for our stats.

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

12:00 Just before lunch I meet up with the organiser of the Whanganui Science Forum. There’s a talk at the museum next week by a visiting Massey professor, on poisons in the environment, and I need to publicise it via Twitter and Facebook; I maintain the Museum’s Twitter account, help with the Facebook page, and sporadically feed Instagram with odd museum-related objects.

During lunchtime I have to take my new bike round for a checkup, as the pedals keep falling apart. While they switch out new pedals I try lunch at the Indian place round the corner, and find out why you don’t order the Indian Pizza lunch special.

13:00 Finished checking a case full of bones from the Makirikiri moa excavation of the 1930s, when the Museum recovered thousands of moa bones from a farm swamp a few miles upriver. Part of my job is to register, photograph, and display the entire collection in visible storage in its own dedicated gallery. I discovered that some suspicious-looking bones I was about to register were in fact from a horse, which must have fallen or been dumped in the swamp some time after the moa met their demise. To be sure, I checked them against Google image search, which is an excellent anatomy manual, and the mounted horse skeleton we happen to have on display at the moment.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

15:00 A meeting at the Department of Conservation offices for Friends of Gordon Park, a community conservation group looking after a local forest remnant. I want to do a collaborative research project with an Auckland researcher on the occurrence of Mecodema beetles in the remaining fragments of forest around Whanganui. Chatting with DOC about collecting permits on reserves gives bad news; the permit-processing backlog is currently four months, so I doubt I’ll be doing any collecting before next spring. Ah well. Perhaps I can find some forest on private land that won’t need a permit.

Tweets over the course of the day: celebrating Hector Day, a discussion with the Cawthron Institute on whether river restoration is so great if it’s just for nasty introduced trout, the awful comments posted on the newly-available TVNZ documentary Ghosts of Gondwana, a possible title for the new Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Interminable Festschrift), the flag referendum, and the unbearable sogginess of Indian Pizza.

16:15 Flip through some other projects: another loan request, valuing the moa collection for insurance purposes, drafts of new Collection and Documentation policies for the natural history collection, and more emails.

17:30 Biked home in the rain, checking at the PO box to see if Monday’s Film Society movie had arrived yet (no; so much for overnight delivery). I’m on the committee of the Film Society, and handle the projection; movies screen IMG_2110at the Museum’s lecture theatre, downstairs from my office, which makes setup convenient.

19:30 After dinner, I bake granola, and correspond with Nicola Toki about this week’s Critter of the Week segment on the radio. Nicola picks a different endangered and uncharismatic species to talk about each week, and I make sure the Wikipedia page is spruced up and informative. Sometimes this involves writing a new article from scratch, but this week’s critter is the longfin eel, which is great, because the Wikipedia page for longfins is pretty good and only needs a little tidying up. I suggested Izatha caustopa, Chevron skink, and Pimelea actea as future Critters for Nicola. I add a news-story reference to the Hutton’s Shearwater page, and some nice photos supplied by DOC to the Powelliphanta article.

21:00 It’s Hector Day – Sir James Hector’s birthday – which reminds me I was supposed to write a review of Simon Nathan’s new Hector biography months ago. Refresh my memory by going through the Te Ara bio. Took the book off the shelf, flick through, make a couple of edits to his Wikipedia page instead.

21:45 Remember, at the last minute, that tomorrow I’m rostered on to supply the staff Thursday afternoon tea, so hurriedly whip up a tray of fly cemetaries. While they’re baking, Twitter and more emails. And so, eventually, to bed.


That’s my day: a mixture of curation, collection management, outreach, identification, exhibition, volunteer work, with research, reading the literature, and collecting mostly happening in my spare time. Pretty typical for a small museum with a limited budget. But if you’re ever in Whanganui, be sure to come and say hi. My office is right in the moa gallery, so you can tap on the window and I’ll wave back, in much the same way museum specimens don’t.

Earthquake Lesson #2: Biking

It’s more important for a bike to have a basket than gears.

Look, I said to the soldier. Those civil defense guys, with their hard hats and axes? That’s my apartment they’re about to go into. He relented and escorted me to my own door, in time for me to greet the team searching my home for bodies. I apologised for not being able to make them a cup of tea; there was no water or power.

This was February 24, 2011, two days after 185 people had died in the Christchurch earthquake.

Getting a car through the central city at that point was a nightmare (and was for many months to come). Roads were buckled and potholed, the biggest hummocks and cracks marked with spray paint and maybe a road cone. Immediately after the quake, recycling wheelie bins with bright yellow lids served as impromptu hazard markers. It was impossible, from my apartment, to drive north without going south and west.

P1020241I lived in Cashel Street, near the Arts Centre, just inside a Red Zone cordon staffed by police and soldiers. You had to pick your moment. The police were older guys, usually serious and not open to negotiation. The army were younger, more relaxed, and multinational – many countries had sent Search and Rescue teams to help clear buildings, leaving cryptic sigils in fluorescent paint on the front of each. The Army’s transport was light armoured vehicles (LAVs) draped with camouflage netting. In the months to come, I had a couple of particularly eerie experiences when these rumbled past at night on darkened streets.

I’d been camped at a friend’s for a couple of days, and this morning thought I would try my luck at getting back into my flat. It was a solid Art Deco block, probably built after the Napier earthquake. There were some minor cracks in the walls, but Civil Defense had just green-stickered it, so I felt safe being in there. I carefully emptied fridge and freezer, and propped them open with towels, assuming I wouldn’t be back in my home for a couple of months. What could go on my bike? In the end, I packed a backpack of clothes, filled the basket and carrier with food including a frozen rabbit, slung one of my ukuleles and carried the other. Gumboots were the fashion footwear of #eqnz, so I wore mine. And so, biking one-handed, I wobbled carefully back through the cordon towards St Albans. The sentry was trying to suppress a smirk, I think.

The rabbit was from Waimate, bought from a farmer at the tiny French Market in central Christchurch, in a brick lane that’s almost certainly now a levelled empty lot, filled with parked cars.

The rabbit went onto the freezer-emptying earthquake barbecue the next day.

The rabbit went onto the freezer-emptying earthquake barbecue the next day.

I wish I’d biked to work the day of the quake. Trying to get home in the confusion, I got stuck in the interminable snarl and had to ditch the car; a bike proved to be the transportation mode best suited to a broken city, able to navigate kerbs, slip through fence gaps, and weave around cracks in the road. Mine was a used Japanese mamachari with no gears but a sensible chain guard, basket, and pannier.

When my grandmother was little, her family escaped the WWI German invasion of the Netherlands by bicycle. As I wobbled away from my apartment, with two ukuleles and a defrosting rabbit, I imagine them all neatly dressed, ties and overcoats, on sensible black Dutch bicycles. As Marx said, history repeats – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

February Reading

Books Acquired

  • What If? | Randall Munroe

Books Read

  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • Latin for Birdwatchers | Roger Lederer and Carol Burr

I stumbled across Latin for Birdwatchers in the New Books section of the library, and it seemed like the perfect nerdstorm; I enjoyed it so much I wrote a whole page for the local paper about birds’ Latin names. The Whanganui Central Library is really pretty good for a town of 40,000: they have a reasonable acquisitions budget, good taste, and seem to take notice of patrons’ suggestions for purchase. 

The other good read this month was George Saunders’ latest collection. I’d really enjoyed Pastoralia, Persuasion Nation, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. He’s a postmodern writer uncannily like David Foster Wallace in tone and use of language, except without the footnotes. The style is fizzing and inventive, and good at slowly revealing a horrid truth bubbling away under the bland conversations of his characters. There are bleak character studies of damaged people put in impossible situations, in a disturbing America, sliding into dystopia or already there. The only thing I didn’t enjoy were the brief bits of science fiction seemingly written, just like DFW’s, by someone who thinks SF is a joke and an excuse to make up silly futuristic brand names. But most of this collection is haunting and memorable.

I started H is for Hawk, and finally opened Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, which had been sitting on my shelves for many years. The Penguin History of New Zealand is rather like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, an account of the long history of Aotearoa told from the perspective of penguins. Since I hate penguins, this may be a challenging read, and I’m not expecting too much to happen for the first few million years.

Dead Language, Living Names

latinbird.png Latin for Birdwatchers
Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Allen & Unwin, 2014
9781760110642

Recently I helped fill a display case at the Museum with native birds of the Whanganui area, and we were preparing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. For example, which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. But when I mentioned including the Latin name on each label, I could sense the resistance from the non-scientists on the team, and stopped to ponder where that came from.

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

Harrier Hawk

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey. | GaryNZ / Flickr

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right, but even so I’ve blogged a fairly-exhaustive Latin names style guide for journalists.

This book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, which I’ve been dipping into for the last few weeks, sounds like the most boring in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). There are seven different species all called Bellbirds, but the New Zealand one, Anthornis melanura, has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (ours). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name.

kereru300

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow. | digitaltrails / Flickr

New Zealand Robins or toutouwai aren’t robins either, but close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica. Our robin, Petroica longipes, is named for its habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. Because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. And sometimes Latin names just don’t make any sense: the Vermiculated Fishing Owl is in the genus Scotopelia, which means “pigeon of darkness” (what?). But for all their flaws, Latin names are full of stories, charmingly brought out by this book’s many sidebars and anecdotes; these, plus the abundant 19th century illustrations, would make it a great gift for a bird lover.

(A version of this appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015)

January Reading

Books Acquired

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • A Handbook of Biological Illustration | Frances Zweifel
  • Father and Son | Edmund Gosse
  • A Heart So White | Javier Marías

Books Read

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • What’s Become of Waring | Anthony Powell

The Crack-Up, a collection of memoir and short fiction, was one of those books recommended on Twitter in a flurry of knowing tweets, possibly calculated to make you feel like a philistine if Gatsby was the only Fitzgerald you’ve read. It’s a short collection and certainly worthwhile: the title essay is particularly good, an exploration of Fitzgerald’s alcoholic breakdown with some pithy introspection. Of the short stories, I thought “Pat Hobby Himself” and “Financing Finnegan” were a pair of little gems, perfectly-formed satires of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The corresponding European Golden Age is captured by an elegant sample of Stefan Zweig’s cultural history, autobiography, and fiction. Zweig was a journalist and biographer, and his moving evocation of pre-WWI Vienna, and what it was to be a cosmopolitan young writer amidst it all, is taken from his memoir The World of Yesterday. I first came across Zweig in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, an alphabetical examination of art and politics for which Zweig and his 1942 suicide provides the capstone; James praised his portrait of Vienna—a city I spent two summers in and adore—so I decided I’d read it “one day”. Which would probably not have happened but for this sampler, compiled by Wes Anderson to accompany The Grand Budapest Hotel—hence the twee pink hand-lettered cover and the twee title (a reference to a fictional society of concierges in the film, nothing to do with the author himself). But if the movie tie-in acts as a gateway to reading more Zweig, I can forgive it.

Anthony Powell to me is a wodge of tasteful bricks that make up A Dance to the Music of Time on other people’s bookshelves, one of those forbidding series of novels we always mean to read when we have a good long span to concentrate in, perhaps whilst in exile on St Helena. But younger Powell was a comic writer, and a couple of his short early amusements sounded worth a read. What’s Become of Waring is an entertaining jaunt, with a cunning structure that looks even more cunning in retrospect; Evelyn Waugh without the manic flashes of silliness or the blackest cynicism.

I Hate You. I Hate You. I Hate You.

“Sheila taught me a survival technique for getting through seemingly intolerable situations – boring lunches, stern lectures on attitude or time management, those necessary breakup conversations and the like: maintaining eye contact, keep your face inscrutable and masklike, with the faintest hint of a Giaconda smile. Keep this up as long as you possibly can, and just as you feel you are about to crack and take a letter opener and plunge it into someone’s neck, fold your hands in your lap, one nestled inside the other, like those of a supplicant in a priory. Now, with the index finger of your inner hand, write on the palm of the other, very discreetly and undetectably, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you…” over and over again as you pretend to listen. You will find this brings a spontaneous look of interest and pleased engagement to your countenance. Continue and repeat as necessary.”

— David Rackoff, Fraud

Reading List for 2015

In 2012, making a to-read list had the interesting effect of dramatically increasing the amount of miscellaneous reading I did, even though I only polished off half of it. So I’m trying it again. Some of these are professional (Simon, Berentson, Campbell-Hunts), some the books-of-today (Macdonald, Hager, Gibson, Link), and some classics I’ve always meant to try (Powell, Bulgakov, Gosse). A mix of fiction and non-, but only 7 female authors out of 26. They’re collected from the year’s best-of lists, some recommendations of well-read friends, and the enthusiasms of strangers on Twitter.

  • Nina Simon | The Participatory Museum
  • Meg Wolitzer | The Interestings
  • Javier Marías | The Infatuations
  • Simon Rich | Spoiled Brats
  • Anthony Powell | What’s Become of Waring
  • Anthony Powell | The Afternoon Men
  • Joe Sacco | Bumf
  • Helen Macdonald | H is for Hawk
  • Mikhail Bulgakov | The Master and Margarita
  • Nicky Hager | Dirty Politics
  • Quinn Berentson | Moa
  • Ryan Reynolds et al. (eds.) | Once in a Lifetime
  • Mark Miodownik | Stuff Matters
  • William Gibson | The Peripheral
  • Marilynne Robinson | Gilead
  • Stefan Zweig | The Society of the Crossed Keys
  • Charles Stross | Accelerando
  • Edmund Gosse | Father and Son
  • Mary Renault | The Last of the Wine
  • George Saunders | Tenth of December
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald | The Crack-Up
  • Svante Pääbo | Neanderthal Man
  • Randall Munroe | What If?
  • Diane Campbell-Hunt & Colin Campbell-Hunt | Ecosanctuaries
  • Andrew Mack | Searching for Pekpek
  • Kelly Link | Get in Trouble

Latin Names 101 for Journalists

Newspapers always get Latin names wrong. Over the years, I’ve submitted lots of correctly-formatted copy to editors and watched it get mangled. No more. Here are the rules (rules! not guidelines!) for using scientific names; share them with a journalist you care about.

Genus and Species

Latin names are in two parts, the genus and the species; sometimes there’s a subspecies or variety tacked on the end. “Species” is both a singular and plural noun, by the way.

The New Zealand dolphin, Cephalorhynchus hectori, has a North Island subspecies, C. hectori maui.

Capitals

The genus always starts with a capital letter; the species never does, even if it’s named after a person’s proper name (like Cephalorhynchus hectori).

This is the first solid evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbours.

Italics

Scientific names are always (always) written in italics. Higher-level groups (which have names like family, class, and order) are never italicised.

Nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is the only New Zealand member of the Arecaceae or palm family.

When you’re talking about a whole genus of plants or animals, like Brassica, it’s also italicised. (Once a newspaper told me it’s “not AP style” to use italics and stripped them out, but set my byline in italics.)

Abbreviations

The first time the name’s used, genus and species are spelled in full. Subsequently you can abbreviate the genus.

Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis share 99.7 percent of their DNA.

If you don’t know exactly what species is referred to, or you want to talk about more than one, you can use sp. or spp. (plural) after the genus. Note: no italics.

Campylobacter spp. commonly contaminate food, and five species cause gastroenteritis in humans.
On New Year’s Day, Heaphy noted in his journal that he had shot and skinned some kind of kiwi (Apteryx sp.).

Articles

Journalists often wrongly refer to species with a definite article. It’s better to think of a Latin name as a name, like Dave Smith or Sauron.

The Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [WRONG]
Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [RIGHT]

Special Cases

  • The fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, beloved of geneticists, is just referred to as Drosophila. It’s become the vernacular name, so doesn’t need italics.
  • The gut bacterium Escherichia coli is almost always referred to by its abbreviation, E. coli, for obvious reasons. Note: italics.
  • T. rex is the dinosaur, T Rex is the band.
  • Economists sometimes talk about the supposedly “rational human” homo economicus, which is really just a Latin phrase, not a proper biological name, so doesn’t need a capital.

Test

How many things are wrong with this quote?

“[The forestry worker] discovered a large native spider from the stanwellia species.”
(NZ Herald, August 14, 2014)

(Answer: four. “from”, missing italics, genus and species confused, and not capitalised)

Corrected version:

The forestry worker discovered a large native spider belonging to the genus Stanwellia.

or, better,

The forestry worker discovered a large native trapdoor spider (Stanwellia sp.).

Another Test

How many mistakes?

“A 24-cm-long giant amphipod, the alicella gigantean, has been found in the Kermadec Trench.”
(modified from Stuff.co.nz, 23 Oct 2013)

(Answer: four. It should be Alicella gigantea, so missing italics, no capitalisation, needless definite article, and a species name which should look dubious even if your Latin is a bit rusty.)


Does it matter that newspapers get all this wrong? Yes. Geranium and Geranium aren’t interchangeable. The rules are set up so it’s as clear as possible exactly what plant, animal, or bacterial infection you’re referring to. Mess up the Latin name, and you end up talking about something else entirely, and cause confusion or even harm. Journalists pride themselves on getting things right; Latin names are easy to get right.


What the Heck, While I’m Here

CO2: No.
Co2: Nope, that’s two atoms of Cobalt.
CO2: Ugh, seriously no.
CO2: Correct! But almost never seen in a newspaper.

See also: H2O, O2, and so on.

And At No Extra Cost

Phosphorus (n.): the element.
Phosphorous (adj.): Full of phosphorus; compare with sulphurous.

Further Reading

Making a Better Conference

Next week I’m going to a two-day professional meeting, a chance for all my peers to get together and compare notes, discuss burning questions in our field, network and arrange collaborations for the coming year, and so forth.

At least in theory. whale1 In practice, it’s:

  1. Two solid days of PowerPoint presentations, most just ten minutes long
  2. Forty-five minutes for lunch, two 15-minute tea breaks, and a generous 10-minute “stretch break/discussion time” each day, rather like primary school kids get to stop them fidgeting
  3. No informal get-togethers, poster session, dinner, or excursions at all
  4. A few “panel discussions” but with only one participant listed

I’m getting a bit weary of this model of conference organisation: packing as many unrelated one-way infodumps into the day as possible so everybody can get credit from their institution for presenting. In most cases they’re not sharing any actual new research or findings, it’s just a status update. Despite most of the presenters being curators of visual arts, I predict there will be lots of bullet-pointed text.

I’ll be talking about our moa project for ten minutes, just enough time to mention the 3D-scanning Kickstarter we’ll be doing but not enough time to answer more than one question about it. I’m at the end of a block of ten-minute talks which will inevitably go over time, so will have to choose between dropping the questions or stealing people’s tea break. (Telling people to keep to time in these things is useless; it requires the MC to actually cut people off before they’ve finished, which never happens, does it?)

Please, can we just toss this entire mode of professional interaction in the bin and set it on fire? whale2 2 I know it’s easy to come up with suggestions, and good ideas tend to fall apart when subjected to the brutal realities of conference planning. Nevertheless, here are some possibilities:

  • Six-minutes-forty-seconds pechakucha talks would be one way to keep people to time. And you actually have to rehearse for a pechakucha, which would be a nice change. Yes, it’s a bit more stressful, but (horrible statement coming up) people who don’t feel confident enough to give a pechakucha shouldn’t be giving public talks, or rather should be sharing their ideas in some other way.
  • An unconference with no scheduled talks and spontaneously-assembled sessions would be a better alternative for this small group. Everyone says what they want to share, the schedule is put together with Post-It notes or on a Google-doc spreadsheet, and people gravitate to what interests them. Everybody participates.
  • Having a particular goal: in my area, it might be thrashing out a joint statement on the trade in moa bones, collectively developed from discussions as a Google document, with everybody signing their names at the end. For others, it might be developing the initial concept for an app, or brainstorming an object list for a collaborative exhibition, or adding to a tips/trick list for Vernon, our database software. The idea is to produce something tangible at the end.
  • Panel discussions that are actual discussions, where people argue with each other, rather than deliver mini-lectures in parallel. The chairperson should be actively stopping people, inviting contributions from the audience (comments, votes, thrown objects), intervening with questions of their own, and grilling panel members. Even the conventions of a formal debate would be an improvement: yes/no to a stated proposition, time allocated for rebuttal.
  • Half the conference time—no less—devoted to networking, with empty rooms and projectors available for meetings and spontaneous workshops.
  • Adventurous use of Twitter: questions taken from the projected twitterstream, sessions formed in response to questions using the hashtag, Twitter handles first and largest on conference badges.
  • No conference pack stuffed with junky fliers and jellybeans, no comb-bound conference book. The programme should be a dynamic website, viewable on a mobile device (and loaner tablets should be available for people without sufficiently-smart phones).
  • Sketchnoting for every session, by volunteers or even a professional, collected together as a PDF and sent to all the attendees as a memento.
My sketchnotes from Hans-Martin Hinz's talk at ICOM in Auckland.

My sketchnotes from Hans-Matin Hinz’s talk at ICOM in Auckland.

These ideas wouldn’t solve all the problems of the traditional conference format, but in a small meeting, where collaboration is more important than formal presentations, they’d make for a more valuable use of everybody’s time.