The Centre for Fortean Zoology was founded in the UK in 1992 - nearly 20 years ago. Over the past two decades it has expanded to become a truly global organisation. We opened our American office in 2001, or Australian office in 2009, and now - in our 19th year - we are proud to welcome CFZ New Zealand to the CFZ global family.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Happy Feet heading home at last

You might remember the sand-eating Emperor Penguin that literally washed up on a Kapiti Coast beach in New Zealand in June.

Nicknamed 'Happy Feet', after the popular children's movie character, the penguin will be shipped out to sea on Niwa's research vessel Tangaroa on August 29.

The penguin, who has lived at Wellington Zoo since he was found on Peka Peka beach, will be released in the Southern Ocean four days into the ship's month-long trip to the Campbell Islands, 700km south of New Zealand.

On Sunday at Wellington Zoo Happy Feet will go under anaesthetic for the final time so a GPS tracking device can be attached to him.

Friday 19 August 2011

Is this a UFO? An Unidentified Feline Object?

A 3News television film crew sent to record a weather story in the back blocks of North Canterbury about recent snowfalls got more than they bargained for when they filmed a cat - a BIG cat - running across a snowy paddock.

"That's not a f****** cat - that's huge!" exclaimed one of the witnesses, a television cameraman.

"It was a cat the size of a German Shepherd!"

Pawprints the trio later found in the snow measured 10cm in circumference.

The local zoo Orana Park dismissed the footage as domestic cat - but the witnesses say if that's the case, it's one monster moggy!

The mid-Canterbury area is well known for its big cat sightings and was the setting for Prints of Darkness, a documentary about New Zealand's big cats by New Zealanders Mark Orton and Pip Walls.

The area also featured in Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers by Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang, which includes a chapter about New Zealand's big cats.

You can view the footage here:

Thursday 18 August 2011

Moa exhibition impresses the experts

A combination of team work, community funding and a Waimate archeologist skilled in the field of skeletons and anatomy, has meant the town has a moa exhibition that has impressed some of New Zealand's moa research elite.

The Waimate Historical Museum exhibition which runs until November, received a visit from a group of top moa experts, including from Te Papa, who were on their way to a key moa site at St Bathans. Intending to stay only five minutes, instead they stayed 90.

The exhibition is special to Waimate because of the Kapua moa excavations of 1895. Kapua, at one end of the Waimate gorge, was the resting place of 800 moa skeletons.

English archaeologist, Joy Langston, who now lives in Waimate, was charged with using her expertise to help create the exhibition.

She said the Kapua moa site was initially discovered by a farmer, a Mr MacDonald, who was digging a sink hole for water. He told Captain Frederick W Hutton, the curator of Christchurch Museum(as it was called), who put the museum taxidermist in charge of the dig.

"They literally just dug a hole to bring as many bones out as they could. Excavations then weren't scientifically done."

Local workmen helped.

Beside the dig were heaps of bones rather than sets of complete birds, but the bones amounted to 800 birds.

There is a kill and butchery site at the Waitaki mouth, but the Kapua birds had all died naturally, over several generations.

The Kapua swamp was a feeding area dotted with spring holes connected to a ground water supply.

Unlucky Moa grazing across the swamp, where vegetation covered the holes, would fall leg and bottom first into a hole, and be unable to lever themselves out, being wingless.

They would die, and after the birds decomposed, the bones would fall down the spring hole. The birds at Kapua have been dated from 1014-714BC.

"It wasn't a mass `let's walk on to the swamp and kill ourselves', it happened over a long long time," Dr Langston said.

The exhibition team, with the help of Dr Langston and her scientific research expertise and contacts, are presenting some of the latest research.

Wikipedia has the number of moa species at 11, but researchers now know that there were nine, adapted to different environments such as the swamp, the uplands, the forest or the coast and climates as differing as the West Coast from the East.

Dr Langston said early researchers believed the skeletons of the male and female, with the latter being somewhat larger than her mate, belonged to different species. But with access to DNA testing, the science world has been able to accurately pinpoint the different species.

The different habitats of the moa meant they evolved differently, with the upland species being smaller, with feathers down to their toes for instance, or the stout legged moa suited to forest living.

South America (rhea), Africa (ostrich), Australia (emu and cassowary) and Madagascar (elephant bird – extinct) all have or had large flightless birds called ratites, of which the moa is one. The kiwi is also a ratite.

Interestingly the moa is genetically more closely related to the South American tinamou than it is to the kiwi.

Although moa are unique to New Zealand, indications are that the ancestor ratite bird was living when ancient continent Gondwana was one land mass, and well-distributed throughout, Dr Langston said.

All this suggests the ancestor moa was on New Zealand when it drifted away 86 million years ago, but with New Zealand having been submerged in water and going through ice ages, the fossil evidence dates back about 20 million years.

The oldest moa bones date back only two million years, but the work at St Bathans revealed the older fossil evidence.

When the Southern Alps formed five to eight million years ago, the different habitats created meant the moa evolved into the nine different species.

Dr Langston said the ability to get ancient DNA samples has revolutionised science for humans and "all sorts of species".

Moa have no evidence of ever having had wings – unlike the kiwi which has tiny wing bones. Researchers have been able to work out that centuries old feathers have not faded and moa were probably shades of brown like the kiwi. Some had a a speckled appearance and others had streaking. With barbless feathers they were probably quite shaggy, rather than smoothly preened.

Their only predator before Maori arrived was the haast eagle, which could have a wing span of more than three metres, and which crushed bone with its powerful talons, she said.

However, after Maori arrived (in 1280 according to a 2010 carbon dating of campfire charcoal), it took only a few generations of human habitation, until 1400, for moa to become extinct.

Dr Langston said there were thought to be around 160,000 moa in New Zealand at the time Maori arrived (a figure based on scientific modelling).

Being a K species, long-lived and bearing a small number of young at a later age, they were also vulnerable to extinction. Humans and elephants are other K species.

The giant birds, naive about humans, were a good package of easy meat to a hunter. Big adults were hunted out first, cutting out the breeders. Younger ones followed, before they could breed. Moa eggs were also being eaten.

Interestingly, museums all over the world still have moa skeletons posed with their necks stretching straight up. Now knowing more about anatomy and bones, researchers know their necks curved horizontally, in line with their backs.

The exhibition features a bone from the Kapua dig which still has its hand-written metal tag attached. Other items come from museums further afield. The Canterbury Museum's contribution was halted, days before it was to be transported, by the February earthquake. Fortunately, Otago Museum was able to step in.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Rat Island documents NZ birds' fight for survival

A new book, Rat Island, documents the desperate rescue mission of two feathered NZ treasures - the flightless Kakapo and the tiny lesser-known Least Auklet, both island-dwelling birds being edged out by introduced species such as rats, weasels, stoats and ferrets - many of them introduced in the mid-1800s, ironically, to tackle the out-of-control rabbit population!

An endangered Kakapo on Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

Read this excellent review of Rat Island by Michael Scott at Plain Dealer.

A Least Auklet, the smallest species of Auk.
And watch this impressive display of hundreds of Least Auklets wheeling through the evening sky as they come home to roost, to get a sense of what could have been lost to us all forever:

Monday 8 August 2011

Fish discovery off nearby Kermadec Islands

D brachypterus - Shortfin lionfish, first recorded from the Kermadec
Islands (and New Zealand) in 2004.

Three fish new to science are among those discovered by an Australian and New Zealand research team which returned recently from a successful expedition to the volcanic Kermadec Islands, 1000km northeast of New Zealand.

The three new species include a bright orange lotella cod; an ‘orange spot’ pipefish; and, a left-eyed flounder – all of which are just 10 cm long.

Three Australian Museum marine scientists are amongst the team which also recorded 12 species of fish that have never been documented anywhere in the New Zealand region before, and collected a further five fish species that are new records for the remote Kermadec Islands – New Zealand’s largest marine reserve.

Dr Penny Berents, Head of Natural Science Collections at the Australian Museum, said Australian Museum scientists are also expected to identify new marine invertebrate species among the thousands of specimens they have collected.

“Expeditions such as this are vitally important for gathering research specimens and data to improve our understanding of marine biodiversity and provide critical information for understanding and predicting the effects of climate change,” said Dr Berents.

Expedition leader & former Australian Museum scientist, Dr Tom Trnski, now with Auckland Museum, said the expedition was a resounding success.

“We really feel we have been working at the frontiers of marine research, both physically in the sense of working somewhere so remote, and also biologically in the sense of making new discoveries,” he said.

“Every day was exhilarating, as we never knew what we might find.”

While formal identifications will take many months, some of the creatures collected – such as the mysterious sea hares - have already created much interest.

Sea hares get the name ‘hare’ because - like rabbits - they are constantly munching their way through the small plants that grow on rocks.

Australian Museum Scientist, Dr Mandy Reid, said while most sea hares are generally no bigger than the palm of your hand, she found one that was the size of a football.

“They’re a real mystery because no one onboard the boat was a sea hare expert and we couldn’t find any of them in the books we had so we think they may well be a new species,” she said.

The research team - which included scientists from Auckland Museum, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the Australian Museum, and the NZ Department of Conservation - collected more than 4300 specimens on the three week expedition.

The specimens have been readied for shipment to the three participating museums where work will now begin in confirming the identity of all the fish and invertebrate material collected. A final report confirming all the expedition’s findings will be published next year.

The Australian Museum’s participation in the Kermadec expedition was funded by the Australian Museum Foundation.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Callousness of Abundance.

It’s amazing how some creatures are taken for granted, a classic case in point is the Passenger Pigeon. Once in flocks that stretched for miles and were so dense they darkened the skies, now a few sad scruffy museum specimens are all that remain.
The New Zealand grayling -Prototroctes oxyrhynchus was nothing spectacular to look at.

It is described as 20 – 4 cm in length, so not a large fish, very similar in shape to the Australian species – P. maraena - but of a more russet colour with reddish orange fins.

The major problem is though this fish was extremely abundant there are no actual preserved specimens that have retained colouring or artwork of these little fish, so we must rely on oral description only.

These small fish made a large part of the favoured Whitebait haul and were very abundant before European settlement. By the time Europeans arrived they were already in decline as they were a popular part of the Maori seasonal food source. However, still abundant enough to be caught in such quantities as along with other Whitebait they were used as fertiliser on pastoral land.

The fish used to be so abundant the Maori name for one of the local rivers literally translates to “River that ripples with Grayling”. Catches dwindled year by year and by 1920 they were a very rare catch in the Whitebait net, though they seemed to hold out longer in the South Island than they did in the North, perhaps as with most Whitebait species they preferred the cooler Alpine fed waters.

It was the same with New Zealand’s only freshwater fish to receive official protection, in this case in typical governmental style, after it had become extinct. The last recorded specimens were handed over to the British Museum in the 1930’s and the grayling was seen no more.
It is funny as the same sort of practise is still happening today, this time not with whitebait but apex predators, yes, sharks.

The demand for Shark fins for soup and the high price paid for the harvest of these items are putting many shark species including top apex predators like Great Whites to the brink of extinction. Once our ocean teemed with various species of sharks are they too going to be reduced to just a specimen in some museum. But unlike the little Graying this will impact right down the food chain.

I guess man doesn’t learn from his mistakes - he just makes bigger ones.