Research

various images of students in outdoor environments

Directed Research Projects (DRPs) [semester programs only] provide students with the opportunity to work in small teams (4-6 students) to study individual aspects of larger ecology and resource management issues. Directed Research Projects are carried out in the last four-five weeks of the semester. Projects can focus on terrestrial, fresh water, or coastal and marine environments and resource management issues. All projects offered as part of the EcoQuest-UNH program have both scientific and societal relevance. The outcomes and findings of the students' projects can therefore contribute to 'real-time' research and management. Students work closely with faculty members on experimental design, field work, data collection, and analysis. Academic staff and highly skilled field leaders accompany and guide students during all Directed Research Projects. Students are required to produce a written report and give an oral presentation of their findings.

Terrestrial & Fresh water

There is an obvious need to protect the remaining biodiversity of New Zealand through the restoration of ecosystems. Pest control is an essential component of any ecological restoration project in New Zealand due to the immense threat posed by introduced mammals. Because of the nature of the conservation and resource management issues in New Zealand, several of the EcoQuest terrestrial projects focus on the ecological restoration of habitats, impacts of introduced pests and predators, and monitoring of recovery of native flora and fauna following the control or eradication of mammalian pests. EcoQuest students carry out research in the Hunua Ranges and, further from home, in the Waitakere Ranges, on Maungatautari Ecological Island and as far away as East Cape.

Population dynamics of Hochstetter’s frogs (Leiopelma hochstetteri). New Zealand’s native frogs are among the most primitive anurans living in the world today and are of significant ecological interest. Of the seven species known, three are extinct and the four extant species are restricted to scattered locations and occur mostly in small populations. Although the most widespread and abundant of the extant species, Hochstetter’s frog is classified as an “at risk” species by the Department of Conservation based on rarity, ecological vulnerability and high taxonomic distinctiveness. Discovery of Hochstetter’s frogs on Maungatautari by EcoQuest students and staff in November 2004 led to collaborative efforts between EcoQuest, the Department of Conservation and Auckland Council in native frog monitoring in the Auckland and Waikato Regions.

EcoQuest has carried out research on the relative abundance and population structure of Hochstetter’s frogs in three locations since 2004: Maungatautari, the Hunua Ranges and the Waitakere Ranges. Because of the status of this species and the potential impact on habitat, research on these frogs is carefully staggered and rotated between sites in order to avoid inadvertent damage and/or loss. Despite intensive searches, very few Hochstetter’s frogs were found on Maungatautari in 2004. Surveys were extended in 2005 and the first re-surveying effort after the construction of the pest-proof fence and mammalian eradication efforts was in 2009. Frog numbers had increased dramatically (almost four-fold), and frogs were also more widespread than in the previous survey. This research is ongoing and the survey will be repeated during 2015.

Size variation and male morph ratios in Auckland Tree Weta (Hemideina thoracica). Male tree weta can mature into one of three different size “morphs”, the larger of which have a disproportionately large head and jaws. This is thought to be related to competition for females. Populations of tree weta released onto some predator-free islands in New Zealand have shown huge changes in the ratio of these three morphs. It is not known how the frequency of these morphs varies across existing populations in the Auckland region, in the presence or absence of mammalian predators. Motuihe is one of several pest-free islands in the Hauraki Gulf; tree weta were already present on Motuihe prior to eradication of mammals. From 2011-2013, EcoQuest students and staff captured and measured live weta and documented male morphs and sexual dimorphism from the Motuihe weta population This was the first step in a long-term project comparing weta populations from around the greater Auckland area. Since Spring 2014 we are repeating this project on the mainland, in Waharau Regional Park. This will allow for a comparison between weta in a pest-free environment and weta in an environment where mammalian pest are present.

Assessment of native biodiversity on private land. One of the great challenges for New Zealand is the maintenance of biodiversity on private land. Much of our lowland areas are in private ownership and as a result the remaining flora and fauna associated with habitats in lowland ecosystems is under-represented in our conservation estate. This project seeks to document biodiversity of a native forest on a lowland coastal farm. Detailed surveys are carried out in order to map and document native and endemic species of plants and invertebrates. The establishment of permanent vegetation plots allows for future monitoring options. Invertebrate survey focus on ground dwelling and arboreal invertebrates. Records are kept of all flora and fauna of note (endemic, native and introduced). This is a long-term project which seeks to contribute information and understanding of an important component of our native biodiversity.

Tangikaroro Ecosystem Restoration Project . The site for this ecosystem management project is on the East Cape, in close proximity to Te Araroa. The forest (35ha) is owned by members of the Wanoa whanau, who hope to establish a mainland island: a reserve free of introduced mammalian pests and predators, using a predator-proof fence. Tracking changes over time is an important part of understanding how management techniques affect an ecosystem. In 2010 EcoQuest was invited to be part of this project. Our directed research projects at Tangikaroro are providing valuable information in the planning and development stages of this reserve, and a unique 'before' picture which is typically scarce when projects such as these are launched. Long-term, this project encompasses elements of biodiversity on private land, community input for conservation output, education for sustainability and enhancing species for customary use.

Coastal - Marine

Behaviour of snapper in response to swimmers. New Zealand led the world in establishing marine reserves, which are a vital part of our marine conservation and management systems. Marine reserves are most effective for conservation and scientific research when they represent an undisturbed marine environment, that comes as close as possible to a human-free ecosystem. They function as important “control” sites for research on the ecology and behaviour of marine species when they are not subject to fishing pressure or other human disturbances.

If mobile species such as fish living within marine reserves are responding positively to humans, because of past experiences such as being hand-fed, then this needs to be understood and taken into account during research. This project investigates whether the behaviour of snapper (Pagrus auratus) in heavily visited marine reserves is modified. In particular, we are interested in whether they respond to snorkelers as a potential source of food. Snapper were chosen for this study because they are large, conspicuous, abundant in the Hauraki Gulf, and have little fear of humans in no-take areas.

Rangipo wetland. Rangipo is one of very few remaining tidal wetlands on the Miranda-Kaiaua Coast. Twice a day during high tide, the low-lying Rangipo lagoon and surrounding land floods, resulting in temporary ponding. The specific aims of this research project include documenting the existing wetland biota of Rangipo and comparing this with the well-documented wetland vegetation of other remaining local wetlands. Students also set out to explore the long-term management options for the site, including planting plans, collaboration with local iwi, options for community involvement in managing this habitat and site interpretation.

 

Islands

Monitoring of birds and lizards on Motuihe Island. During periods of occupation by Māori, the forest on Motuihe was partially cleared. Once Motuihe was obtained by Europeans in the mid 1800’s almost all remaining native forests were cleared for agriculture. Restoration of Motuihe began with the establishment of the Motuihe Trust in 2000, which created a comprehensive restoration plan that includes strategic goals for protecting and providing for the interests of Tangata Whenua. Eradication of introduced mammals was successfully achieved on Motuihe Island in 2005. Several native bird species including the saddleback, the bellbird, little spotted kiwi and kakariki have been translocated to Motuihe since 2008. Three species of lizard are known to occur on Motuihe: Copper Skink (Cyclodina aenea), Moko Skink (Oligosoma moco) and the recently introduced Shore Skink (Oligosoma smithi). EcoQuest students contribute to the extensive ecological monitoring takes place to track changes over time and to evaluate the success of species tanslocations.

Assessment of native biodiversity on farm land. The wider framework for this project is sustainable land use. The objectives of this project are to carry out biodiversity assessments of native forest remnants and freshwater wetlands on a farm. Detailed surveys are carried out in order to map and document native and endemic species on farmland.  Other outcomes include: establishing permanent vegetation survey plots, photopoints, bird, invertebrate and fish surveys and surveys to establish presence of weeds and introduced mammals. This is a long-term project and once the baseline surveys are complete, a monitoring programme will be devised to track changes that might result from change in landuse on (parts of) the farm. Stakeholders for this project include Ngati Paoa and Auckland Council.

Education for Sustainability

Place-based learning modules, resources and activities for Education for Sustainability at the Kaiaua Primary School. This project contributes to the development of place-based learning modules for the Kaiaua Primary School. A solid base for these is to be identified in the New Zealand National Curriculum. There are a number of areas in the curriculum that can be linked through environmental education, including science, technology and languages.

Students are required to develop a thorough understanding of Education for Sustainability and the New Zealand curriculum. They are to identify local opportunities for teaching modules that enhance the school students’ understanding of science and the environment. As part of the project, students deliver the modules at the primary school, seek feedback and evaluate the success of the modules.