Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Book reveals bizarre lives of NZ's diverse species

Mary Morgan-Richards, left, and Steve Trewick.
Mary Morgan-Richards, left, and Steve Trewick.

The bizarre lives of some of our garden-variety creatures have been revealed in a book by two leading Kiwi biologists.

NZ Wild Life offers strange insights into hundreds of our best-known plant and animal species, and how they mingle together to make New Zealand a naturalist's wonderland.

"We have tried to capture the secret life of ordinary species that New Zealanders will be very familiar with but won't know the details of their natural history and the evolutionary context," said Associate Professor Mary Morgan-Richards, who wrote the book with fellow Massey University evolutionary biologist Associate Professor Steve Trewick.

"For example, harakeke [flax] is endemic to New Zealand and its presence on Norfolk Island is proof that Maori didn't stop travelling after reaching New Zealand, but took harakeke roots with them to Norfolk Island and the Chatham Islands."

In some of the more odd entries, the book chronicled an all-female family of stick insect, the family ties of pukeko, and the way some birds can influence the behaviour of some trees.

"There's a little graph in there about when a tui eats the fruits of a fuchsia, it changes the rates at which the seeds germinate, compared to if the fruit just fell on the ground," Professor Trewick said.

The book, which partly drew on Massey University's research, showed how our biological diversity had developed in an ever-changing natural landscape, he said.

"The evolution of New Zealand's wildlife is a dynamic interplay between isolation and colonisation, and between species formation and extinction.

"Because New Zealand has this old geological history as an island archipelago, it has some very peculiar species, and it also has everything all the way through to species we share with Australia and other parts of the world."

The diversity of our flora and fauna meant new or undescribed species were being found all the time, and would be for a long time to come.

"The amount of information on New Zealand species is very variable, and on the whole, deficient - we know very little about our biology and are still coming to terms with just how many species we've got," Professor Trewick said.

"What we really wanted to do is dig down into the things that are known, and of which attention often isn't drawn to."

The book had deliberately focused on those species which Kiwis were likely to encounter in their own backyards.

"And we didn't deliberately go and find wacky things about New Zealand biology; rather, we just wanted to show how fantastically wacky and complex biology is anyway."

All proceeds from the book will go towards further research at the university.

- NZ Herald

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