conservation, Interviews

Interview with Kiwi freshwater ecologist, Emily Demchick

Despite good intentions to write a blog and newsletter every month, my workload over the last few months has made it impossible. Having to shut my website and transfer the data to the online store, working on several urgent and very time-consuming projects and trying to push my wildlife illustration business to the next level has kept me flat-out busy (and this isn’t counting my tutoring commitments either).

FYI, if you search AuntieBettyIllustration.com, you will automatically be transferred to my online store, www.bumble-beesartandcrafts.com where you can now find my portfolio and other website information.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I am please to add, that several exciting development announcements will be made soon. So, watch this space!

To get back to our interview. I am so excited about today’s chat.

Emily is a good friend of mine.

Thank you, Emily, for your willingness to share your ecology and art journey with our readers. I have wanted to interview you for a long time, to share your love and knowledge of the tiny, water creatures that are invisible to the rest of us and so important for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Emily is a freshwater ecologist, with a love for New Zealand’s unsung microorganism heroes, which are fascinating and beautiful.

What is your background?

I did my academic studies at Massey University in Palmerston North, with an undergraduate in Ecology and Zoology, and an Honours in Ecology. I did my Honours thesis on freshwater macroinvertebrates (more on them later!).

What inspired you to become a biologist?

I think I have been on track to becoming a biologist for as long as I can remember! I have always had a strong interest in biology (particularly in animals), love being outdoors, and love being able to do practical, hands-on work. My interest in laboratory science was no doubt aided by having parents who are both biologists and educators. Much of my after-school time as a kid was spent at the university where my dad was a microbiology lecturer, and we were encouraged to be involved in whatever he was working on (a great learning opportunity for us, and free labour for my Dad!). When I discovered, during high school, that ecology was something you could actually study and get a job in, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind that it was what I wanted to do.

© Emily Demchick, EOS – Emily measuring a surprisingly cooperative shortfin eel before returning it to the river

What inspires your work now?

As many people are becoming increasingly aware, protection of freshwater resources is a crucial issue, both from a conservation perspective but also from a human health and wellbeing perspective. To make good decisions about how to manage water, it is essential to have good scientific data on the state that water ecosystems are in and understand the complicated combination of factors that affect these systems. It is my hope that the work I do will contribute to understanding this bigger picture and help with good decision-making for the future. 

© Emily Demchick, EOS – An Oniscigaster mayfly larva under the microscope. These mayflies are very sensitive to water quality, so finding them in a waterway is good news.

On a personal note, I am also inspired simply because I love the work that I do and am fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues that also love their work. I always get excited when I can talk to other people about the cool critters that I work with – it reminds me how lucky I am to do the type of work that I have always wanted to do.

It is special when you can discuss with others what is important to you. They understand what makes you tick and share your enthusiasm. We can also trade ideas and help each other.

What does your job involve?

I am a freshwater ecology scientist, which means I study and report on the health of freshwater systems (mostly rivers and streams), am involved in giving advice about how to maintain or improve these ecosystems, and sometimes I get to be involved in the practical elements of protecting native species and improving the habitat that they live in. Our projects can involve a range of things, and I really enjoy the variety. On some days I might be wading in a river taking samples and measurements or catching fish or invertebrates. On other days I am in the laboratory identifying invertebrates under the microscope, or at the computer doing administration or writing reports.

What is your greatest challenge as a biologist?

I suppose one of the biggest challenges for ecologists is prioritising and finding ways of working on the most critical conservation issues with the limited time and resources available. As with many things, one of the major limitations is funding – someone must be willing to pay for a project for it to be made a reality! Another big challenge comes at the end of a project, and that is finding ways to clearly communicate scientific findings so that people understand and care about the results and change their behaviour in response.

If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only take the most necessary equipment, what would it be?

A good net and a bucket to catch freshwater critters, and then some way of recording what I find. 

© Emily Demchick – A Stenoperia stonefly larva found under a rock in the Maruia River. Travelling with a freshwater ecologist means lots of stops to turn over river rocks

I know what you mean. My dad is a mining engineer, who studied geology. The back seat of the car was always loaded with a variety of interesting rocks found on our holidays. He later became an Environmental Systems Manager and occasionally let us hang out with him while he was water testing. This is partly why I find your work so fascinating because he loves the work you do.

What do you think are the greatest conservation needs in New Zealand?

I think habitat loss and degradation is one of the biggest issues in conservation in New Zealand (and worldwide). One of the key reasons that populations of so many species are declining is that there is a decreasing amount of suitable space for them to live, find food, and reproduce. In the freshwater ecosystems that I work in, habitat loss can happen in a range of ways, including drying of waterways caused by excess water consumption; building of dams, weirs, and other structures that block movement of fish upstream and downstream; removal of vegetation along riverbanks that animals rely on for shelter; pollution of waterways to the degree that they can no longer support sensitive wildlife; and draining of flowing waterways and wetlands to make space for human land use. There is an urgent need to stop further habitat loss and look at ways that we can restore degraded habitats.

Looking at it from the positive side, the advantage to focusing conservation efforts on protecting and restoring habitat is that it benefits an entire ecosystem and all the indigenous animals within it.

Which New Zealand creatures do you think need greater exposure?

Most of the animals that I work with are smaller and less glamorous than the bigger, cute, and/or cuddly animals that we are used to seeing in conservation media campaigns. For example, most native New Zealand freshwater fish are small, not particularly brightly coloured, and are mostly active at night. These characteristics can mean that they are overlooked when it comes to conservation efforts, and yet 76% of our native freshwater fish species are considered to be threatened or at risk of extinction.

Aside from our native fish, anyone who knows me well will know that my real soft spot is for freshwater macroinvertebrates. Invertebrates are animals without a backbone (like insects, snails, worms, etc.). There is a huge diversity of invertebrates that live in lakes, rivers and streams – these are often referred to as freshwater “macro ”invertebrates, because they are invertebrates that are generally big enough to see with the naked eye (compared to “micro” invertebrates that are only visible under a microscope). Many freshwater macroinvertebrates are the larvae or nymphs (babies/juveniles) of flying insects like mayflies, stoneflies, midges, and dragonflies. There are also some freshwater invertebrates like water bugs, beetles, snails, and crustaceans that live their whole life cycle in the water. 

Freshwater invertebrates are an important part of the food chain (the aquatic stages are eaten by fish, and the flying adult insects are also eaten by birds) and they help to break down plant material that falls into streams. They are also valuable to freshwater ecologists as indicator species – we can look at what types of invertebrates are living in a particular place, and it gives us an indication of how healthy the stream is. I think most people would be surprised at how many different things are living in our rivers, and how interesting they all are!

What advice or tips can you give people interested in improving the chances of endangered species in New Zealand and around the world?

As I mentioned before, I think advocating for habitat protection and restoration is one of the key ways that people can help endangered species. First and foremost, this can mean speaking up against further habitat loss by whatever means are available to you. For example, if your local council has opened public consultation on any issue which will impact on at-risk species, take the opportunity to speak up. 

Community groups can also provide a great opportunity to get involved with conservation issues in your local area. Well-established community groups will often have people with a great wealth of knowledge, and they can be an excellent tool for learning about issues that you are interested in.

If you are interested in pursuing ecology as a career – absolutely go for it! Most people working in jobs like mine have some sort of tertiary qualification in ecology/zoology/environmental science, but I would strongly recommend making sure that you do your research into what kind of jobs a given degree will lead towards, as it might not always be what you think! In addition to getting a qualification, the most important thing you can do is seek out any opportunity you can to get practical experience. This might mean volunteering or getting summer work in an area that interests you. This will help you to figure out what kind of work you are most interested in and will also give you practical skills to make you stand out to future employers.

Finally, although it can seem like a bit of a cliche, there is a great deal of value in educating kids from as early an age as possible about our incredible wildlife and the importance of conservation. I think most kids have a fascination with some aspect of the natural world, and the more you can encourage and foster that with any kids in your life, the better! 

Are you able to tell us about the project you are currently working on?

Working for a private consultancy, I tend to have lots of projects on the go at any given time. A few examples of the types of projects that we work on include long-term monitoring projects (in rivers, streams, and estuaries), AEEs (Assessments of Environmental Effects – looking at how a proposed human activity will impact the health of a waterway), and processing macroinvertebrate samples from waterways all over the country to identify the invertebrates living there as an indicator of how healthy the waterway is. 

One slightly more unusual type of work that we do on a regular basis is fish relocation. When there is an activity (like construction in a waterway) that may impact on the fish, we are often called upon to temporarily move them out of harm’s way. We usually shift them to an area close by so that they can naturally swim back to the area that they came from when the work is finished, and temporary construction barriers are removed.

I also get to work with school kids as part of education and engagement programmes developed and run by the company that I work for. This usually involves taking kids down to their local stream and teaching them how to monitor stream health using the same types of methods that we as ecologists use in our own surveys. This empowers the kids to collect their own scientific data and participate in understanding and improving the health of their stream. Teaching the kids and seeing them get excited about what is living in their local streams is one of the great joys of my job.

What is your favourite endangered animal and why?

I would probably give a different answer every time I was asked this question because there are so many to choose from and I am always learning about new ones! In case I have not already made it clear, I have a bias towards invertebrates, and one problem for these little guys is that for many of them we still don’t have enough data to know which ones are endangered and which are not. 

Some of my favourite invertebrates are the cased caddisflies, and there are some species of these in New Zealand that are endangered. Caddisflies are aquatic in their larval stage and are flying insects as adults. Fly fishermen will know caddisflies because they are commonly used as a model for fishing flies. 

Cased caddisflies are really cool because they build themselves protective cases that they carry around with them (a bit like a snail or a hermit crab in that respect). These vary from straight cases to spiral cases (such as species in the genus Helicopsyche). Different species use different materials — some use hollow sticks, while others spin cases out of a silky substance and cobble together tiny bits of plant material or stones into amazing mosaics! They will use all sorts of unusual materials too, depending on what is available to them. I have seen cases that have incorporated tiny snail shells, with the snails still living inside them (I do wonder how the snails feel about that!). I have also seen cases where an individual caddisfly has taken an empty case from a completely different species of caddisfly, and then made its own additions to the top end – like someone building an extension on a house. Sadly, we also sometimes find cases that include pieces of plastic rubbish, a sign of just one of many impacts humans are having on our waterways. I love caddisflies not only because they have such cool behaviour and are fantastic to look at, but they are also generally sensitive to degradation of streams; wherever we find them, it is a positive sign for the health of the stream. 

© Emily Demchick, EOS – An adult caddisfly recently emerged from its pupal case (traces of the case are still visible on its hind legs)

You are also a talented painter. Are you painting anything now?

Thank you – that is quite a compliment coming from an incredible artist such as yourself! I have been dabbling a bit in watercolour painting recently, but I generally feel much more at home working with acrylics. My paintings are all wildlife-based, although no freshwater critters yet. As far as New Zealand species go, I have painted quite a few of our native birds. My most recent subject however was an introduced bird species, the California quail.

© Emily Demchick – A small pair of acrylic paintings depicting the lovable and critically endangered kakapo – one of my first paintings of New Zealand wildlife.

© Emily Demchick – An acrylic painting of a cheeky Stewart Island kaka.

© Emily Demchick – Watercolour paintings of a California quail adult and chick.

Do you have any other hobbies?

I love veggie gardening and bread baking, and I have been working on improving my sewing skills. I also enjoy dancing and rollerblading.

If we return to being stranded on a desert island, please share your favourite book, movie, food and music, if you could take these with you.

Book – ‘War and Peace’ because it is my favourite, and because at close to 600,000 words long it would give me plenty of reading material to keep me busy for a while!

Movie – Probably the original ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. It has always been one of my favourites and seems appropriate to watch on a desert island.

Food – I am going to go with comfort foods – my dad’s falafel and my mum’s challah (a Jewish/Eastern European bread). And Rooibos tea. Lots and lots of tea!

Music – Bach’s cello suites, or almost anything by Josh Garrels.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, and for sharing your fascinating work and beautiful paintings.

In next month’s blog, I be sharing ‘A Day in the Life of an Artist’.

Until then…

conservation, Interviews

Interview with Kiwi herpetologist, Carey Knox

In today’s blog, I am delighted to share the interview with Carey Knox, a herpetologist (reptile and amphibian researcher) based in Otago.

Hi Carey,

Thank you for your willingness to be interviewed. 

No worries 😊

Generally, I review art products, books and relate my art adventures on my blog, however, I have just started interviewing conservationists, photographers, artists and others who love New Zealand and our flora and fauna.

I enjoy seeing your Instagram posts and can’t wait to share your work with others and hope you will gain a few more followers too. 

I am interested in getting more followers, but only genuine wildlife enthusiasts or photographers. I tend to get a lot of foreigners trying to follow me, some of whom would like to illegally hold our native reptiles as pets. I block them as soon as I see them. I don’t want people (who are only interesting in keeping reptiles as pets in small terrariums) looking at my stuff and thinking that they might like to have this or that NZ lizard as a pet. I advocate for the conservation of wild NZ lizards. I reckon, wherever possible, lizards should be wild and free and not in captivity!

I could not agree more.  What is your background?

I grew up in Fairlie (South Canterbury) on the back doorstep of the Mackenzie Country. As a kid I used to enjoy exploring the mountains, finding lizards, spiders, grasshoppers – as some kids tend to do. I was fit and had good stamina. I used to run up and down mountains jumping over matagouri bushes like a wild goat (still do!). That is where I first learnt to be competent and confident in the outdoors, which definitely helped A LOT with my eventual career path.

When I was 16, I moved to the coast (Oamaru) and then Dunedin at 18 for University. Being next to the coast, I took a strong interest in fishing and marine science, so my obsession switched from ‘high country’ to ‘marine world’. I was a reclusive teenager, not having lots of friends, or fitting in with the “cool kids”. Nature was the one thing that gave me real enjoyment though, so I held onto that, and hung out in nature whenever I could.

What inspired you to become a herpetologist?

I was a C to D student right through high school, not because I wasn’t smart, but because I didn’t enjoy it there, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I scraped together enough grades somehow to go to Otago University at the age of 20. At University I studied Biology, then Ecology, Marine Science, and Zoology. I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, only that I liked nature and animals, so it seemed like the logical thing to do. After making some good friends at uni and getting into the party scene the ‘C’ and ‘D’ grades continued. Then, eventually, at the age of around 23, I started to think that I might need to try and make something of myself. So, for the first time in my life, I fully applied myself. I turned the C’s and D’s into A’s and B’s, and after I finished my third year (in about my fifth year!), somehow, I had done ‘enough’ to be invited onto the post-graduate diploma in Wildlife Management course. So, I did that in 2008.

The course was excellent, and I highly recommend it, but like most of conservation in New Zealand it was heavily biased towards birds, with very little lizard content. Hopefully that bias is a little less pronounced these days! Anyway, it was during this course, back in 2008, when the lizard obsession started. We had to do a 6-week placement project with a community group or conservation organisation. This could be done anywhere in NZ, or even overseas, and my dozen or so other classmates were going off all over the place to work on various things – mostly rather dull things, like birds or marine mammals, of course 😉. I wanted to stay in Dunedin –because I was about to get married, to a lovely girl named Michelle, who is still my wife and the mother of my three children. Therefore, I was looking for a project local to Dunedin. The only opportunity was a project on jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus) with a community group on Otago Peninsula (Save The Otago Peninsula Inc. Soc.) – who wanted more information on the gecko population they were trying to look after.

I went out to Otago Peninsula with a Masters student (who had just completed a thesis on jewelled geckos) and a local guy who did surveys in his own time (who ironically would later become my mums’ partner!). Alf and Rosi taught me how to spot and photograph jewelled geckos in the shrubs. At this point, I still hadn’t quite caught the lizard bug, but my level of interest was growing! The lizard obsession really took hold when I went out on my own and found a previously unknown population on an area of farmland. When you are going through University you have this idea in your head that almost everything is already known and has been done before, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. With New Zealand lizards, we still know very little, and the time of discovery is really ‘here and now’. For example, eight new lizard species have been discovered in the last 10 years! Back to the story…. After the thrill of spotting this jewelled gecko at a new site, I captured the gecko to obtain a photograph of the dorsal patterns on it (jewelled geckos are able to be identified to individual level based on their individually unique dorsal patterns). Holding this beautiful bright green gecko in my hands and looking at the bright white diamonds on it, the obsession finally took hold of me and I pretty much knew, from then on, it was lizards all the way! Twelve years later the obsession continues (photo of the gecko on that day in November 2008 below).

BHTO#1, OR the jewelled gecko that began the obsession
©Carey Knox

It is so exciting to hear of the recent discovery of so many lizard species. Hopefully, there will be more discoveries in the future. It is fascinating knowing about the unique patterning of individual jewelled geckos. Does this occur in other lizard species?

­­­­The individually-unique patterning occurs in more than half of our gecko species and also some of our skink species, such as Otago skink. It is incredibly useful for monitoring and it is always fun to reencounter old friends! (i.e. lizards you have seen several times over many years)

What does your job involve?

After finishing my master’s project on jewelled geckos and doing a few short-term lizard-related contracts, I was looking for something more permanent. I always saw myself as working for DOC, but it soon became clear that DOC didn’t really hire full-time herpetologists – especially those just starting out. The only viable option, if I wanted to work on lizards alone, seemed to be going into consultancy work, so that is what I did. By that stage lizards had my full focus, and I wasn’t interested in working on anything else. I have been an ecological consultant specialising on New Zealand lizards for about nine years now. Basically, that means anyone can hire me to do anything on lizards. I remain very flexible and open to possibilities, to enable me to work for a wide range of clients.

Examples of the work I do involve desktop assessments (letting people know what lizards MIGHT be in an area without setting foot in it), field surveys, Lizard Management Plans and AEE’s (Assessment of Environmental Effects) for development projects, monitoring programmes to assess population trends, research projects (including DOC research and assisting students from Otago University), taxonomic work (describing new lizard species), reporting, advice on habitat restoration, and advocacy/public education.

Your work sounds as if it has a lot of variety, which must make each day enjoyable. What inspires your work now?

Currently, the majority of my work is for the Department of Conservation, working on ‘Threatened’ and ‘Data-Deficient’ lizard species, and this is where my real passion is centred. Trying to improve knowledge of cryptic (lizards which look very similar, but genetic studies show they are different and cannot inter-breed) and poorly known species, which often live in harsh, remote places. This work takes me all over the South Island to remote and beautiful, but challenging places up in the mountains and so on.  My survey team have also come across a few species new to science, which is very exciting, of course.

A lot of NZ’s recognised 124 extant lizard taxa (species and probable species that are awaiting scientific description) are quite endangered, or at least thought to be in decline. Many of these species are genuinely rare and are in rather urgent need of a bit of protected habitat or relief from introduced predators. Others we think might be rare, but don’t really know for certain, usually because the species are highly cryptic and/or hard to find. For example, we have skink species which are only found on vertical rock walls in Fiordland and nocturnal geckos that live on rock bluffs above 1,600 metres, but are only detectable on warm nights. You can imagine the difficulties involved in doing a population census!

Through dedicated work over several years, occasionally we discover that a species is not quite as rare as we originally thought. That always gives me a good thrill knowing that my work has improved knowledge of a threatened species, found a new population, or even a new species, or assisted in the formulation of conservation plans. Basically, the rare and poorly known lizard species of the South Island are my core focus, and this is where I feel I have the skills and ability to make a worthwhile difference to this world and leave a mark worth leaving.

It is so important that these mysteries of the lizard world are your focus and hopefully more attention can be drawn to them in the future. I plan to paint some of these rare creatures, and hopefully, our joint efforts will help raise awareness of their existence.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy most?

My job involves walking around in the sun looking for cool lizards, so I can’t really complain. Lizards generally don’t get up very early in the morning too, so I can sleep in! Seriously though, I absolutely love the field work. Once I return from a trip I am already looking forward to (and planning) the next one.

Tautuku gecko (Mokopirirakau “southern forest”), Catlins Forest Park
©Carey Knox

What is your greatest challenge as a herpetologist?

I’d say planning and implementing successful lizard surveys around the fickle weather of the South Island’s alpine zone.  A lot of the rare lizards I am working on are found in the sub-alpine to alpine zone (about 800-1,800 metres above sea level). This is partly because a lot of the rarer lizards have been wiped out of the lowlands (due to historical fires and intensive agricultural practices, as well as introduced predators), putting the final nails in the coffin. Above 800 metres, habitats are generally less modified and more natural than the lowlands, although often far from pristine or original in nature. The lizards stand a better chance up high – if they can tolerate the climate and eek out an existence – which many clearly can, albeit at a very slow pace.

My schedule is constantly changing with the weather. At this time of the year, any one fortnight I could have six jobs in mind and which one I end up doing will depend on the weather forecast in various parts of the South Island. I might have something in the Central Otago mountains, another job in Fiordland, and one in the Catlins. One day I might think that I am going to Wanaka tomorrow, but then the forecast shifts, and I am off to the Catlins instead. I have to go with the flow. Often, I am working weekends and sometimes I might have to do 10 days of field work in a row. I get a break when there is a rainy spell all over the lower South Island. This summer I’ll be doing field work right through the Christmas break. I have to go for it when the weather is good, to get the field work done before the end of summer, especially for the alpine work (which can only be done November to the end of March). It can be tough, but there is a price to pay for all of the fun I suppose.

Wow! It sounds intense.

Please tell us about your photography methods. Do you use any specialist equipment?

Nope, not really. I have a DSLR camera with a 60 mm macro lens. I know the basics of how to adjust the settings to get what I am after. Nothing fancy or complicated. I am not technical or fussy with it. I don’t understand fancy camera lingo and my eyes glaze over when people start talking that way!

Probably, the most important thing that I do have is a good eye for what makes a good photo and, also, crucially, I know exactly how to behave around lizards and how they will behave in response. Thus, I can usually get them in the position I want for a good photo without stressing them out or handling them too much. Generally, I can get several good photos within 5-10 minutes and then leave the lizard in peace. The lizard’s welfare is more important than a good photo, so if you can’t get one quickly, it’s best to move on. Some lizards don’t co-operate, so sometimes it’s best to leave them be! The majority of my photographs are taken whilst I am at work and they are important for documenting what I see. They are also useful for report covers, advocacy, and getting people more interested in our lizards. Like I’ve alluded to elsewhere, NZ lizards have nowhere near the profile of NZ birds, despite them being just as special, unique, and diverse – so I hope that what I do goes someway to redressing the balance.

Nevis skink (Oligosoma toka), Nevis Valley
©Carey Knox

Do you have a story about a photograph that means a lot to you?

So many, but here’s a recent one! A university master’s student and fellow lizard enthusiast, Samuel Purdie, and I were planning on undertaking a survey on DOC land in coastal North Otago, but decided not to go ahead last minute, after being advised by the neighbouring farmer that a bunch of hunters were going in there. Rather than risk being shot, or at least annoying the hunters by scaring away their game, we decided to come back to the site another time and go do something else instead.

We were keen and enthusiastic to get some field work done, the weather was good, and we had all our gear in the truck. We decided at that moment to have a look at a new area within Oteake Conservation Park. The plan was to follow up a report of a “large black skink” that may have been something exciting, like a scree skink (a threatened skink species) or even an alpine rock skink (a new skink discovered in 2018 and only known from Oteake Conservation Park). As it turns out we did not locate whatever the ‘large black skink” was, but we did find something of even greater significance.

We located only the second known site for the southern black-eyed gecko, a new species within the genus Mokopirirakau, only discovered in 2018. After the initial discovery of this species in 2018 a lot of effort was expended the following two summers attempting to locate them at more sites. These surveys covered 17 potential sites but were unsuccessful in locating these geckos. As a result, there was significant and growing concern that the species may be highly endangered. After so many failed searches and endless pondering over where they may or may not occur in various places within the vast mountainous landscapes of North Otago and South Canterbury, the sheer joy and relief of finding this new site was immense. There were lots of grins and high fives between Samuel and me. The photograph below is a great reminder of this unforgettable moment.

Southern black-eyed gecko (Mokopirirakau “southern black-eyed”), Oteake Conservation Park
©Carey Knox

That is a great story and a big win for NZ herpetology.

If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only take the most necessary equipment, what would it be?

A good torch that I can recharge from a solar panel, so I can go looking for scaly things and creepy crawlies at night!

What do you think are the greatest conservation needs in New Zealand?

Control of introduced predators, but this needs to include ALL mammals including mice, hedgehogs, weasels, feral and domestic cats. If it does not, it may do more harm than good for lizards, as these are all highly significant predators that should not be underestimated. A lot of the predator free goals set by various groups are bird focused and may not benefit lizards at all. 

We are still losing lizard habitats on private farms in the lowlands and forestry blocks. Farmers are still clearing shrubland and burning tussock and lizards alive with it (often with approval and permits from their local council!). Pine trees are being planted right on top of lizard habitats, shading out lizards, and forcing them out of their preferred habitats into areas where the habitat may be less optimal, already occupied by other lizards, and/or they may be eaten by predators. Lizards are only fully safe if on DOC land or other protected land or covenants, and even then, they are usually at risk to introduced predators. 

It is so sad, that even today, there is scant regard for our vulnerable wildlife. Hopefully more people will consider the impact on the environment when planning future projects.

Which reptiles or amphibia do you think need greater exposure?

All of NZ’s endemic lizards really. The fact that we have over 120 probable lizard species. Some species, like jewelled gecko and Otago skink have a reasonably high profile, but these are not the most endangered ones. In particular, I think the small brown-ish, but unique and rare, skink species could do with a higher profile, including: Alborn skink, White-bellied or Rangitata skink, Chesterfield skink, Cobble skink, Whirinaki skink, and Burgan skink. All these species are currently ranked as ‘Threatened-Nationally Critical’ – the highest possible threat ranking, so they can be considered ‘on the brink’.

Another particularly beautiful, but poorly known skink that I am currently working on is the Awakopaka skink (Oligosoma awakopaka) – which is a highly unique, but incredibly cryptic lizard only discovered in 2013 and only known from one site in Fiordland National Park. Only a dozen or so of this species have ever been encountered. I found the second confirmed individual a couple of years after the first was found, which was a massive thrill (pictured below). It was a magic moment locating this animal in alpine scree. Shouts of “yeah baby!” echoed around the surrounding mountains, whilst the kea and rock wren peered over to see what all the fuss was about.

Awakopaka skink (Oligosoma awakopaka), Fiordland National Park
©Carey Knox

I am on a massive learning curve, becoming aware of some of these rare species. I hadn’t heard about several of those ‘small brown-ish’ skink species, so I am thrilled that you have made us aware of them.

What advice or tips can you give people interested in improving the chances of endangered species in New Zealand and around the world?

I’ll concentrate on NZ lizards because obviously that’s my thing! I’d encourage people to go out and see what lizards they can find in their neighbourhood, local bush reserve, beach, or when out tramping; but importantly, to do so in a way that doesn’t overly disturb lizards or their habitats. Report all sightings to DOC or your local herpetologist, so that they can be added into the national database. In particular, please report any lizards seen in remote, alpine areas above 1,300 metres asl.

I’d like to see more conservation groups giving lizards equal treatment to birds and considering them in their conservation planning. Lizards often have different requirements to birds e.g.: they may require non-forested sunny areas to bask or, in order to thrive, they may require control or management of predators that generally aren’t a huge problem for forest birds, like mice and hedgehogs. If you have lizards in your garden, either don’t own a cat, or if you do, consider creating protective retreats for them in your garden and covering basking spots with chicken wire.

If you are keen to see lizards in the wild and learn more about their conservation, volunteer for surveys with DOC or your local herpetologist. Join SRARNZ (Society for Research on Amphibians and Reptiles in New Zealand). Make sure your local council, community group, or landowners are aware of lizards local to your area and how to look after them. Encourage your children to take an interest in lizards, but make sure they are aware that it is illegal to remove them from the wild to keep as a pet and that, just like the kiwi, the wild is where they truly belong.

Are you able to tell us about the project you are currently working on?

I am working on about 20 projects over the next year or so for a range of clients, but over half of my current work is for DOC. This work primarily involves improving knowledge of abundance, distribution, habitat use, detection methods, potential threats, and conservation status for a wide range of ‘At Risk’, ‘Threatened’ and ‘Data Deficient’ lizard species. I am currently working on orange-spotted gecko (Central and West Otago mountains), Tautuku gecko (Catlins), southern black-eyed gecko (Oteake Conservation Park), jewelled gecko (Otago), Otago green skink (Otago), rockhopper, Oteake, alpine rock, and scree skink (all in Oteake Conservation Park), burgan skink (Lammermoor Range), and awakopaka skink (Fiordland National Park). I may also assist with surveys for white bellied skink (Canterbury high country), cascade gecko (South Westland), Okarito gecko (Westland), and Cupola gecko (Nelson Lakes National Park). Needless to say, I am going to be very busy. There are a lot more threatened lizard species in New Zealand than there are dedicated field herpetologists!

Once again, you have named several species of lizards I have never heard of. Clearly, there is a need for more herpetologists.

What is your favourite endangered animal and why?

Currently, my favourite is the southern black-eyed gecko. I was on the field team with fellow herpetologist Tony Jewell when this species was discovered in January 2018. Almost as exciting as initially finding the gecko, was obtaining the genetic results, which proved beyond all doubt that this was a species new to science. Then, again, when we found the second site in November 2020, it was a big thrill. I am looking forward to undertaking further work on this gecko. This gecko ticks all the boxes for me. It lives in highly scenic, remote and difficult to access alpine locations (my version of paradise!), it is cryptic and difficult to locate, requiring dedication and expert skill, little is known about its biology and habitat-use, and it has striking black-eyes and extraordinary galaxy-like spots on its back and sides (a pattern that is not seen in any of the other New Zealand geckos).

The galaxy-like patterns on the back of a southern black-eyed gecko
©Carey Knox

Such an amazing creature! I can see why they are currently your favourite lizard.

Thank you for discussing herpetology and photography with us today. It has been so interesting hearing about the multiple aspects of your work and research. I have really enjoyed learning a lot more about New Zealand’s unique lizards. Do you have any social media links you would like to share with the readers?

Basically, any semi-decent photograph I’ve ever taken of a New Zealand lizard is up on my Flickr page, along with other flora and fauna encountered along the way. There are individual albums for each lizard species, so I like to think that it’s a useful educational resource.

Genus Helastia

I also run a Facebook page on NZ lizards, and you can find me on Instagram:

https://www.facebook.com/NZlizards

May you all have a wonderful, relaxing, safe and healthy Christmas, Hannukah and New Year.

In January’s blog, I will be interviewing the Wellington-based artist behind Squibble Design.  Until then…