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How do they do it?!

How do they do it?!

By Olivier (Olly) Ball
NorthTec Tutor in Conservation and Environmental Management
26 February 2014

How would you feel if you were trapped on a small desert island in the middle of the ocean and your little piece of terra firma was rapidly disappearing from under your feet into the ocean? This is similar to the situation faced by the freshwater animals trying to eke out a living in the streams of Hauturu (Little Barrier Island), but in reverse.

Being a relatively small and steep sided island, Hauturu’s streams can turn from raging torrents into dried up river beds with just a few scattered pools, in a matter of days. Which species can handle these conditions and how do they survive? These are two of the questions that NorthTec Bachelor of Applied Science student, Lyn Wade, is attempting to answer in her third year research project.

Lyn is focusing on the creepy crawly residents such as mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, the so-called macro-invertebrates, for her study. These are the engineers of the eco system and are good indicators of conditions in any freshwater system. With assistance from freshwater expert and former NorthTec student, Steve Pohe (currently working towards his PhD at the University of Canterbury), Fiona McKenzie from Ngati Manuhiri, and myself as her supervisor, Lyn recently surveyed several streams on Hauturu for macro-invertebrates.

I have to admit, it was often difficult to concentrate on the task at hand as distractions from the wildlife were relentless. Dark shore skinks scurried amongst the rocks as we hopped from one boulder to the next along the coast. The mournful cry of the kokako, the teasing laugh of the tieke or saddleback, and the piercing call of the hihi or stitchbird were almost constant companions.

At night it was no different. Every close encounter with the impossibly massive but super-friendly wetapunga or giant weta felt like a brand new life-changing experience. The geckos clinging to the tree trunks appeared more like hanging pieces of art than something living. Also life-changing was sitting in a whirlwind of noisy Cook’s petrels returning from a hard day’s work at sea. Occasionally, a black petrel would swoop over our heads like the silent shadow of a stealth bomber, while we strained to hear the distant booming of the kakapo or night parrot.

It reminds me of what we have lost on the mainland, because that is what it was once like. And that’s the point. We forget. We get used to walking through life with no kokako, kiwi, tuatara or wetapunga, and instead think that rats, stoats and starlings are our normal companions in New Zealand.

But times are slowly changing. We now know that we can indeed do many things to gradually turn this unfortunate ecological state of affairs around and slowly but surely, we are achieving this.

But I digress.
Lyn managed to get some quality work done on Hauturu and is currently working through her samples in the laboratory. She expects to add to the list of creepy crawlies already recorded from the island, and maybe, just maybe, she will find out the answer to her second question: how do they do it?

If you are interested in finding out more about our environment right here in Whangarei and gaining a bachelor’s degree at the same time, visit our website at


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