Sharing knowledge: tuakana/teina

One of the best parts of doing this Fulbright project in a different country and culture is that I receive daily lessons on what I do not yet know. Having been an adult, a parent, a naturalist, and a teacher for most of my life now, I have become accustomed to knowing certain things, and to sharing them with assurance that I have some level of authority.

Here, I have been transported back into a state of personal uncertainty and often downright ignorance. Schooled by 7 year olds in the names and characteristics of plants, I find myself watching and listening to them closely for other clues about nature here. Would you touch a bee? Is it safe to play in streams? Can you go barefoot? When you find a feather, can you keep it? The answer to all these, by the way, seems to be yes. The Maori have a term – tuakana/teina – for the learning relationship that occurs between older and younger people. It is also “where the notion of learning/teaching is shared, and where the tutor is also learning in the programme.” (Te Puni Kōkiri 2001). It is the reason for mixed-age groupings in schools, and for other kinds of community mentoring that happens between children, youth, and adults.

I had another opportunity to learn from and with children at Zealandia last week. It was a mixed age group, ranging from 5 to 12. We started off in the indoor classroom with a Smartboard exercise in matching birds to their names – “just to see what you know” said the leader, Ann.

smartboard 3

At first, there was considerable hesitation, and then one brave girl marched up and slid a picture over to a name. Others followed reluctantly. Meanwhile, other kids in the audience were murmuring in dissent. Ann then invited them to come up with a friend, and to fix anything they thought wasn’t correct. This brought a flurry of action, and soon all of the birds – with a little coaching – were matched with the correct names. This exercise was a precursor to heading out into the valley with a checklist of the same birds. So, it was not so much about “what you know” as it was “what you can know together.”


We broke into small groups, the school principal Lynda and I joining one led by a fellow named George. George and I had spoken before the school group arrived; he is an enthusiastic birder who volunteers several days a week at Zealandia guiding groups of visitors. I asked him where I might go to see kiwi in the wild. “Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “What do you mean by wild?” I received a long and detailed explanation of the different species of kiwi and their status in different locations. George was deep into the history of Zealandia’s kiwi management when the school group arrived and we had to put that subject on hold.

fence heights

Walking down into the Valley, George showed the kids the protective fence and answered their questions directly. “What if someone threw a cat over the fence?” It would be caught and taken to a shelter. “What if a tiny, tiny mouse crept in?” It would probably get caught in a trap (he showed them several different types, including poison bait). “What if a bird got sick from eating poison?” Birds can’t get to the poison. “Why don’t you like possums?” I like all animals, but possums don’t belong in here.

tuatara beads

We continued on, finding tuatara by their burrows. “Why are they wearing beads?” To identify them. “Do only boys get to wear blue beads?” I don’t know, but we can find out when we get back.

spotted skink 1

Then George got very excited: “Look beside that burrow! See that lizard? It’s a spotted skink! They are very rare on the mainland, but that is one that I helped bring over from Somes Island, where they have a healthy colony. This one is pretty far from where we put them. Oh, I wish I had my camera!” he sighed, as he pointed to the skink. A group of adults nearby saw his enthusiasm and came over to look and exclaim. George beamed.

pied shag2

The students were not having much luck finding the birds on their checklist, so George whispered, “I know a place,” and led us down into the bush toward the lake. There, we spotted not only the takahe feeding, but also pied and little black shags. Curving around to return, George paused beside a bush, picked a leaf, and asked, “What do you think this smells like?” Several of the kids said lemon, and George nodded. “Yes, and if you said toilet cleaner, you would also be right!”

lemonwood george2

A bit further on, he asked, “Anyone like spicy food?” Assuming it was the kawakawa I had tasted before, I tried some and found it much hotter. “Horopito,” said George, laughing at our expressions. “Otherwise known as hot pepper tree. Sorry, I forgot to tell you that before.”

horopito Pseudowintera axillaris

Around the next corner, he paused and pointed out two birds flitting around in the brush – a saddleback and a NZ robin – and when we came into a clearing, showed us the Australasian harrier soaring overhead. On the way back, one of the boys found several feathers on the ground, which George identified as tui, and said he could keep.


This day at Zealandia was the embodiment of the tuakana/teina learning/teaching relationship, thanks to George, a 12 year old home-schooled nature enthusiast with a talent for teaching. When I said goodbye after the tour, George’s mother was waiting to pick him up. “Did you learn a lot?” she asked, when I told her what an amazing job he had done. Yes, I did, and I also extended an open invitation for George to come check out the wildlife in Maryland.  So be on the lookout for the guy in the bird shirt and Zealandia hat; he can teach you a thing or two.



Straight to the heart

When I was talking with my Jemicy students last fall about my upcoming journey to New Zealand, I asked them to imagine they were explorers setting out to learn about the living things in a different world.  What would they need to take with them?  What would help them understand the biodiversity that they encountered and share it with others back home?

The kids’ responses ranged from cameras to candy, from pencils to iPhones. I have had the chance to see this question addressed a few times now in the microcosm of the Zealandia sanctuary, which is very much like another world. The first time I observed a school group there, I met beforehand with staff to get a briefing on the program.  Darren, the lead educator, was a bit skeptical about the group coming in and how much they would get out of their visit.  They were middle schoolers who had just arrived from Tacoma, Washington that morning, without any of the usual preparation that happens in a local NZ school before it makes the trek to Zealandia. I joined Kerry, another educator, as he went to collect a tuatara from its enclosure.  As he took Tane out, he noted that these reptiles rarely made an personal appearance, but this was a special occasion. “Seeing and touching a living fossil like this … well, it sends a beam of love straight into your heart.”


The school group arrived, appearing dazed from their 18-hour trip from Washington, and we headed off into the valley. They had cameras, notebooks, and a Zealandia bird field guide/checklist.  The  kids gaped at the massive tree ferns, took pictures of quail chicks crossing the path, and – as Kerry had predicted – were awestruck by the chance to stroke a tuatara. They chewed on kawakawa leaves as they role-played traditional use of medicinal plants, and spotted five endangered birds. As they wrapped up their tour, one of the boys stood still in the middle of the path, gazed up and down the steep, lushly forested valley walls, and said, “Everywhere I look, there’s beauty.”

My next observation of kids experiencing Zealandia came when I was invited to join a group of Year 12 (upper high school) students receiving a presentation on the biogeography of New Zealand and the ecology of the takahe.  Anne, the Zealandia educator emphasized New Zealand’s amazing uniqueness: “70% of its birds, 50% of its trees, 90% of its fish and insects, and 100% of its frogs, reptiles, and bats are endemic.” She shared data describing the sudden, severe decline of the takahe population following the introduction of stoats to New Zealand, and described the two major steps that were taken to bring back a species once thought extinct: isolation, and mammalian predator control.

Zealandia jump heights2
Predator-proof fence, showing jumping heights of different mammals

As I followed the group out to observe the takahe, I took note of the “essentials” that they had brought with them to this sanctuary where the takahe could live much as they had before humans arrived.  The students tossed each other candy that they had brought, texted, and took selfies with their phones as the educator pointed out different features in the valley.  Once they reached the takahe habitat, though, their attention was riveted by the two colorful birds who had been lured out of the grasses for public viewing.  They gathered around respectfully, questions flowed, notes were scribbled, cameras focused on the takahe. One of the accompanying teachers said that only half of the students had been to Zealandia before, despite its relative closeness to the school.

takahe pair

The more I work to discern and articulate the tools that are an essential part of learning about biodiversity, the more I return to the heart of our attachment to living things: the things themselves. Many people in New Zealand will never touch a tuatara, or get close enough to look a takahe in the eye, stand marveling under the beautifully patterned shade of a tree fern, or taste the lingering spicy flavor of a kawakawa leaf.  That “beam of love straight to the heart” may come instead from having a pet at home, from working in a family garden, or from getting familiar with animals at the zoo.



This morning I joined a group of primary students at the Wellington zoo “Hero HQ” exhibit as Tom the educator talked with them about habitats.  The images on the walls surrounding the animal exhibits were huge, bright, and exciting.  In contrast, their inhabitants were generally small, camouflaged, and inactive, advertised superpowers notwithstanding. But after Tom brought out one of the five leopard geckos (all named for Disney characters) and had the kids touch it – “with your zoo finger, like it’s tissue paper” – they raced back to the exhibits to try to find more of these inconspicuous beings who now felt familiar, like friends, sending that beam straight to the heart.

Tom gecko 1Tom gecko 3




Plants from another planet, Part 1

“New Zealand is as close as we will get to the opportunity to study life on another planet.” Jared Diamond, 1990

Today’s excursion report features another Wellington sanctuary – this time, one dedicated to native plants. Otari-Wilton’s Bush is a 100-hectare botanic garden and reserve of native forest that was protected from the timbering and clearing for farming that were common after European colonization of New Zealand.

My biophilia – love of living things – is admittedly skewed toward the animal kingdom, but one of the ways that I have learned to pay better attention to plants is by listening for their stories.  These are intricately and inextricably woven into those of humans and other animals, so whenever I introduce myself and my students to a new plant, I try to make sure it happens with ecological and cultural narratives. A story does far more than provide an ID; it is one of the best tools I can think of for understanding and remembering how a plant fits in an ecosystem.

This walk through Otari-Wilton’s Bush felt like reading a collection of gripping short stories featuring narrow escapes, daring rescues, unrequited love, murder, and generosity. I had to wear earplugs to tolerate the racket of the cicadas, but that was perhaps a good thing, as it also kept me from listening for birds. In fact, as I started down the main trail, I was startled to see a large kereru, or wood pigeon, perched calmly overhead.


The kereru turned out to figure heavily as a seed disperser in many of the stories I encountered. It was only fitting that he launched me down the trail of trees.


Beilschmiedia tawa is a large canopy tree whose wood has been heavily harvested for construction. Tawa is the Maori word for “to be purple,” which likely comes from the tree’s plum-colored fruits. Tawa evolved in association with large-beaked birds, such as the moa and kakapo. The keruru is now one of only two bird species left in New Zealand (the other is the kaka parrot) capable of ingesting and dispersing the seed of the tawa in the wild.


I rounded a corner and found Nikau palm, the only palm tree native to NZ. When the Maori first came to New Zealand, they left behind a homeland with many varieties of palms that had been used for diverse essential materials. In this new place, the Nikau palm was called into service, providing leaves for thatch, basketry and cooking purposes. Its nectar-laden flowers and berries attract numerous pollinators and birds. I could see bees flying around the berries, and of course, it makes a great runway for cicadas trying to reach high places to sound off.


The story of Pennantia baylisiana (Three Kings Kaikomako) was heart-wrenching. It is endemic to the Great Island (Manawa Tawhi), of the northern Three Kings Islands. Only one wild tree remains there, discovered in 1945 – the last survivor of goat proliferation on the island. The lone female tree was unable to produce seed, so cuttings were taken in an attempt to propagate more. This effort was successful, and the species is now being widely cultivated. Otari-Wilton’s Bush has one of the offspring. It was moving to touch the leaves of this plant that so narrowly escaped extinction.


The kauri, Agathis australis, is New Zealand’s largest and one of its most revered trees. In one Maori creation story, Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, clasped each other so tightly that their children were trapped between them in darkness. Their son, Tāne Mahuta (the god of the forest), pushed his parents apart using his legs of giant kauri trees and let light and life into the world. A northern species, kauri forests were nearly decimated after European settlement, where they were the timber of choice for everything from dams to ship masts. The oldest known kauri (fittingly named Tāne Mahuta) is estimated to be between 1250-2500 years old.


Northern rata, Metrosideros robusta, begins its life as an epiphyte, a plant living on the branches or trunk of a host tree. It sends down roots that eventually surround the host tree and create a “pseudo-trunk.” When the host tree dies, the rata assumes its place as one of the canopy species. This sounds suspiciously like strangulation, but since it can take up to 1000 years for this cycle to unfold, it is an epically slow death.


Pseudopanax crassifolius, horoeka, or Fierce lancewood, is an odd-looking plant, whose unwelcoming form evolved as an effective defense against large browsing birds such as moa. Like many New Zealand trees, lancewood also has the interesting adaptation of looking like two entirely different plants between its juvenile and adult stages.  When it reaches a height beyond the reach of a moa, the lancewood assumes a more benign, tree-like shape along with leaves lacking spikes.


Put a bookmark here; stories of Plants from Another Planet to be continued!





Putting the pieces together

My Fulbright project in New Zealand focuses on how primary schools teach sustainability, particularly through the lens of biodiversity. As I was thinking about how to find schools that were doing this, my advisor at Victoria University suggested contacting the Wellington Zoo to find out about their education and outreach programs.  A primary school that he had also recommended visiting was scheduled to visit the zoo for their introduction to “Bush Builders,” so it was a perfect opportunity to see biodiversity education in action.

Bush Builders is a program that first introduces students to biodiversity concepts on the zoo grounds and then follows up with several visits to the school to teach students how to implement concepts there, including long-term monitoring.  It is a model of community collaboration: A registered class is led through the program by the zoo, and the Wellington City Council sends experts to evaluate and propose a restoration/conservation plan for the school grounds. Zoo staff work with teachers and students to determine the state of their school grounds at the outset, teach them restoration and conservation strategies, and then help them evaluate the changes that occur over time.

I arrived early to meet the zoo staff, and soon two double-decker buses arrived to unload around 40 “Years 3-4” students, who are roughly equivalent to 2nd and 3rd graders in the US.  Every student wore a hat, required gear for any outdoor activity in New Zealand (UV radiation is about 40% greater than in Maryland).  Kim, the Bush Builders director, gathered students, parent chaperones and teachers, gave a quick overview of the morning, and we were off to a brushy area that had been recently cleared of invasive plants.  Native species had regrown, so Kim handed each small group a sample leaf and challenged them to locate and identify certain ones that were marked by quadrats.


I joined a group and found myself in the unfamiliar – but wonderful – position of knowing far less than the students. They examined their designated plant and the leaf key they’d been given and noted important features, like the leaf’s wavy margin.


“Isn’t this tarata?” one student asked me. I looked at her blankly. “The one that smells of lemon?” she persisted. All I could do was shrug and honestly say I had no idea, but maybe we could sniff it just to be sure.  It did smell lemony.  Turns out its English name is … lemonwood!  As the kids completed the activity, they received large puzzle pieces to take with them.

During this activity, I had the luxury of being able to step back from a teacher role and observe “off-task” behavior from a different perspective. One girl was absorbed with finding acorns on the ground and matching caps to nuts.  She pocketed several, which she proudly showed off later.  An adult reminded her that acorns were the seed of an invasive plant that the zoo did not want, so she should not drop them where they might grow. “I’m going to take them home and paint faces on them,” she decided.  Yes, oaks are introduced and considered invasive in some places here.  Another girl collected a handful of the very abundant cicada shells and carefully stored them in an empty snack bag.  She had a brother who liked them, so she was bringing him back a present from the zoo.  Who needs a gift shop?

The second part of the morning was spent with another ranger, Toni, who brought out a real (taxidermied) kiwi and stoat (introduced, weasel-like mammal), and a replica kiwi egg. She discussed the concepts of introduced species and competition, and then had the kids role-play scenarios with the animals.  I was impressed that these artifacts were handled so casually, but it was clear that getting to touch real kiwi feathers and stoat fur made a strong impression on the students.

kiwi stoat egg

She then brought out a live female tuatara and let the kids stroke her.  “She’s so soft!” marveled one boy. “Like jelly!” More puzzle pieces were handed out.

We ended the program at the “Meet the locals” area, which has a farmyard, penguin habitat, kunekune (furry pigs) and free-ranging sheep and chickens. The kids gathered for a wrap-up of what they had experienced, and also for the chance to meet some wild locals: forest geckos, and tree weta.


Kim passed around a weta that she had taken from a “weta hotel,” along with some valuable information for weta-holding enthusiasts: “Females have a long, sword-like ovipositor that can’t hurt you; males have big nippers on their mouth that can.”


The weta made the rounds, and when it came my way, the girl who passed it to me was reassuring. “It won’t hurt you.  She’s a girl.”  The weta ran up and down my arms waving its long antennae before settling on my hand.  Why it didn’t use those long legs to jump away is a mystery. While some of us were holding weta, others were completing the puzzle with the pieces gathered throughout the morning. The kids did this on their own, with one insightful group moment when they all shouted, “It’s a circle!”


I left the zoo today feeling as though I had once again found my people: curious kids, engaged teachers, enthusiastic staff – all focused on learning more about how to sustain a place’s living systems. I’ll be joining the lead teacher, her students, and the zoo’s Bush Builder staff as they continue this journey over the next several months.  My “biodiversity backpack” is starting to acquire some great new tools.

Biodiversity is us @ Wellington Zoo

With another beautiful morning to explore, I stopped by the zoo again.  Joining an audience to watch wild animals in enclosures, even when I understand and support the various missions that keep them there, is usually difficult for me.  Often visitors have a consumer-focused expectation that zoo residents and staff are there solely for immediate entertainment purposes, with little appreciation for the careful design and maintenance of habitats, exhibits, and programs that nurture and inform the visitor-resident relationship.

Today’s experience was a bit different, as most of my weekday visitor cohort were under the age of four, accompanied by parents who appeared relaxed and interested in whatever their kids paid attention to. Going through the red-lit (thus no photos) kiwi hut for the second time, I paused to enjoy the conversations centered on Tahi, a North Island brown kiwi rescued after an encounter with a trap left him with only one leg. Tahi (Maori word for”one”) was hopping around, vigorously probing the leaf litter, and the kids watching him were at first dismayed at his condition, baffled as to why someone would hurt him, then comforted by his obvious ability to compensate in captivity. A tiny girl suggested they should take him out for a walk/hop in the bush “away from these red lights.”

Here is a bit of the biodiversity I encountered on a leisurely stroll around the zoo, complete with early morning routines:

Australian pelican 37
Australian pelican, doing what it takes to preen properly
capuchin eating
Breakfast time for the brown capuchin


serval cat
Serval cat with its breakfast
bolivian squirrel monkey
Bolivian squirrel monkey
giraffe 2
Rothschild’s giraffe
giraffe 1
Enter a caption


sun bear
Sun bear
Sleepy boar who enjoyed a scratch behind the ears
Ostrich, possibly wondering if I had breakfast for it
Kitwe, the youngest chimpanzee, sampling different items
caracal cats
Caracal cats eyeing the serval cat’s breakfast
Tasmanian devil
Tasmanian devil
Agouti breakfast
Free-ranging emu, intent on getting to the “dig like a dingo” sandbox for some grit

This entire zoo is clearly oriented toward children, unlike others I’ve visited that designate specific areas for the under-12 crowd.  Active play spaces are scattered throughout, and access to both creatures and content is remarkable.  During my first visit, which was just before schools started, I saw lots of kids going through the zoo without adults in attendance. This is the norm in many public places in New Zealand, and the zoo design assumes that kids can independently interpret what they are experiencing. The comprehension level of the signage remains fairly high, however – so it is available and interesting to all audiences. I also appreciate the directness of conservation messaging and acknowledgement of the zoo’s evolution.  Wellington Zoo had a single female elephant, Kamala, for 30 years.  Originally a gift from India, Kamala was a beloved institution in her own right at the zoo, but when she died in 1983, a decision was made not to replace her. Elephants need elephant companionship, and there was not enough room to house more than one in Wellington. The elephant habitat was removed, but there is a unique space and information dedicated to explaining its absence.

One of my very favorite things about this zoo – probably because I always dreamed of being a zoo vet – is The Nest, the zoo hospital.  It is completely visible to the public, and even has an intercom so you can ask the doctors questions as they are working.  I don’t know how common this sort of transparency is in the zoo world, but to me it is another example of New Zealand’s refreshing willingness to engage openly with all sorts of public opinion.Today they were operating on the tail of a golden lion tamarin, and the preschoolers (and I) who were watching were totally mesmerized.

Next door is the aquatic rehabilitation center where injured marine wildlife like penguins are treated.


Baltimore’s zoo has (or used to have) a “walk like a chimp” mirror display near the chimpanzee house.  Here’s Wellington’s version by the baboon habitat:

baboon mirror


On the way out, a set of posters caught my eye, promoting a global biodiversity app. I think the Wellington Zoo does a great job of connecting visitors with the inhabitants and new information that they encounter here, and I’m looking forward to getting involved with their school programs, starting tomorrow!


Six legs

I was so hoping that I could lead off this post about insects with a giant weta.  It would have been awesome to hold and photograph this enormous cricket-like beast in my hand, to heft the world’s heaviest insect, found only in New Zealand.  But that privilege will have to wait until I can get to Little Barrier Island, the only place they are found. Meanwhile, you can check out a story about them here:

I did encounter some other weta – more on their terms than mine.  Dan and I took the ferry over to Mantiu Somes Island, a preserve that sits in the Wellington harbor. Biosecurity measures are extra-stringent here and include not only bag checks for rodents and insects, but also examining one’s shoes for weed seeds and other contaminants. It is host to many species (like the spotted skink below) whose numbers have been diminished or disappeared entirely from the mainland due to rats, cats and other predators.

spotted skink Spotted skink (Oligosoma lineoocellatum)

The island has none of the largest weta species, but it does have a thriving population of tree weta (Hemideina sp.), somewhat smaller – though still impressively large – cousins.  Tree weta like to crawl into holes and hide in dark places during the day.  To allow visitors to view them, nature preserves have created “weta hotels,” structures cleverly built of hollow log sections hinged to allow them to be opened, with weta-sized holes the thickness of a finger leading into plexiglas-protected chambers.  When the hotel is closed and dark, weta climb into them, and when the logs are opened, you get a murky view of the weta huddled cozily together, safe here from the spotted skink or the hands of predatory paparazzi like me.

An insect that has, in contrast, been super-abundant recently, is the cicada.  Actually, I am certain that there are several cicada species sounding off in a deafening daybreak-to-sunset chorus, but I have been able to spot and photograph only three. I’m still not sure of their species, but I am in full agreement with the Maori word for one of the common chorus cicadas, kihikihi wawa – wawa: “to roar like the sound of heavy rain.”

cicada 021316.jpg

At home in Maryland, the cicadas that emerge annually are not nearly so abundant and raucous, and when I first heard this, I wondered if New Zealand had something similar to our 17-year phenomenon. Apparently not; people regard this as a typical late-summer event, perhaps heightened by the unusually hot, dry conditions, and hardly seem to notice. One radio program did look into it:

I’ve started carrying earplugs when I know I’ll be walking in the bush.

While cicadas dominate the sound waves, butterflies and moths typically catch my eye more than any other insect.  New Zealand has around 2,000 species of butterflies and moths, and has the highest percentage (90%) of unique native species in the world. 68 species were introduced after Europeans arrived. From what I have observed, the ubiquitous cabbage whites and monarchs top this category, but native yellow admirals and coppers are also plentiful.

cabbage white

common copper pepe para rikibutterflyyellow admiralmonarch2yellow admiral window 1

NZ red admiral Vanessa gonerilla kahukura 6
NZ red admiral, Vanessa gonerilla, kahukura

I have been missing my moth-luring sheet/light setup here, as I’m sure I could find a number of interesting species that way; otherwise, the moths have been elusive. One that we will probably never see in Maryland is the cabbage tree moth (Epiphryne verriculata), whose caterpillar feeds on the leaves of the palm-like cabbage tree, Cordyline australis.  Though I photographed this moth as it rested exposed on a window, it can camouflage beautifully by placing itself in alignment with the dried leaves of the cabbage tree.

cabbage tree moth Epiphryne verriculata

Arriving in New Zealand in the summertime offered the chance to see plenty of pollinators still in action. They appear to include only a few species – although some may, like moths, be nocturnal. I discovered that the bumblebees I have seen, which are in nearly every flower, were intentionally introduced to the country in order to pollinate another introduced species, red clover, used for agricultural purposes. The steel-blue ladybird (Halmus chalybeus) was also brought here intentionally from Australia to help control scale insects.

Bombus terrestris

Halmus chalybeus steelblue ladybird

The idea of bringing in insect species to aid ecosystem services like pollination is not new, but in a place like New Zealand that has seen many introductions gone awry, it’s interesting to think about possible ramifications of such moves.  One of the Fulbright students whom I met at our orientation last week is here studying dung beetle introduction.  Large, grazing herbivores like cattle and sheep were introduced to this place with no natural evolutionary ecosystem capacity for dealing with their production of large amounts of dung, so dung beetles imported from other places are being tested as an option.  I’m sure everyone will be riveted waiting for the results of this experiment.

I’m still not confident of my insect ID’s yet, so I will add them in gradually as I learn them. Missing my go-to online North American identification guides like, I was reminded during a school tour at Zealandia of a great citizen science resource for all species that is available world-wide: inaturalist.  In New Zealand, it goes by the name of NatureWatchNZ, and I have started contributing some observations that I hope will yield both accurate ID’s and records of species locations.

leaf hopper


carrion beetle
carrion beetle


red damselfly Xanthocnemis zealandica Kihitara
Red damselfly, Kihitara, Xanthocnemis zealandica
New Zealand giant bush dragonfly, Uropetala carovei, Kapokapowai


Welcome to the community

Last Thursday, the US Fulbright grantees in Wellington participated in a traditional Maori welcome ceremony, a powhiri.  Arriving at the Waiwhetu marae (gathering place), we were invited into the local community through a series of rituals involving singing, hongi (pressing noses), and speaking about homeland knowledge, values, and historical issues. We shared meals, conversation, and the same communal space for the night. In spite of some rudimentary instruction in a few basic Maori words and phrases, I was lost listening to the torrent of unfamiliar language that flowed throughout these two days.  However, two words kept resonating: whānau, and hapū.  As I understand these, whānau refers to family, including extended members, and hapū to one’s larger clan.  They featured in every story, every description of the elaborate carvings throughout the marae, every introduction, and every historical reference. They represent the lifeblood of the people who have lived in Aotearoa New Zealand for more than 700 years, and they are at the heart of any effort – political, social, educational, environmental –  to sustain their cultural identity.

At one point during a discussion, a visitor asked about the Maori connection to nature, and the speaker responded, “The land – whenua – is everything.” I was struck by the similarity (to my ears, at least) of those two words for family and land.  In every ancestral tale that we heard, larger-than-life beings interacted with the natural world as if they were one and the same.  They were interwoven throughout the symbolic patterns of the marae’s carvings, the artwork that had been part of a touring exhibition (see header image of birds above), harakeke (flax) mats, and on the albatross feather decorations of the waka (war canoes).  The images on the walls above our beds had eyes of paua (abalone) that glowed with iridescent light, the fierceness of their expressions countered by the fine intricacy of the woven mats that separated them: “a relationship of balance,” as another of our presenters described it.

I came to New Zealand, and to the marae, with many questions about how Maori culture dealt with sustaining biodiversity in this land where they have fought so tenaciously to sustain a cultural identity. I still have those questions, but I am grateful now to also have a clearer sense of the community context that informs efforts to restore and maintain vital cultural elements. I was thinking about this as I once again walked around Zealandia, where every sign for a plant or animal gives its name in Maori, English, and Latin.  These represent three distinct communities and perspectives, and all three languages are crucial to ensure understanding, and that a particular species is regarded and managed in a holistic manner.


The kiwi’s egg

Having been in the land of kiwi (and Kiwis) for several weeks now, I decided that it was time to see one in person.  They are nocturnal birds, so even though I had been hiking through kiwi habitat several times, I would never have spotted one.  There are five species of kiwi, some quite endangered and existing only in sanctuaries, and all protected. Short of taking a guided night hike (which is on my list of things to do) in a sanctuary like Zealandia, viewing captive kiwi in a zoo is the only option.  Fortunately, the Wellington Zoo is a short bus ride away, so I joined the flood of parents with kids in their final days of summer vacation to check out one of the strangest birds ever.

The kiwi exhibit is built to resemble the ruins of a”bush house,” showing some of the equipment that was used in the past to clear kiwi habitat.  It gets progressively darker as you move through, until you arrive at a gateway hung with dog leashes – a reminder that loose dogs are a threat to flightless kiwi.


The kiwi habitat itself was lit dimly with red bulbs, and the effect on the children entering was to immediately reduce them to excited whispers. On the other side of a low fence, rounded, shadowy shapes moved, their long, thin bills probing under leaf litter. Kiwi are omnivores, eating all kinds of small invertebrates, some plant material, fungi, and even eels, but their favorite food is worms. “Chickens!” whispered one small child near me, and his older sister corrected him: “No, kiwi.” “But they are big like chickens!” he insisted. “Kiwi,” she repeated. “Like fuzzy baby chicks with long noses,” he said.  I took no pictures of the birds themselves, but that description was quite accurate. It was the perfect search image to keep in mind for when I do get to go kiwi-ing some night.

Near the exhibit was an incubation viewing box with a plexiglas top.  Inside was one impossibly, unbelievably enormous egg.  The kiwi itself is the size of a small bantam chicken, but its egg is six times what a bird that size would normally lay.  Here is a good explanation:

There was another kiwi egg mystery as well.  In this photo, there is a piece of spaghetti lying on the crumpled paper near the egg. It has a specific purpose. Any guesses?

kiwi egg