Strategic Initiatives


What Was Here? An Audit of Prehistoric New Zealand


Did human arrival in New Zealand lead to the extinction of a previously unrecognised 'treasure trove' of unique coastal animal species? How many of our iconic coastal species are actually new arrivals from overseas? What opportunities arise from extinction? Recent research by PI Professor Jon Waters has demonstrated that native species can respond rapidly and dynamically to human impacts. Ancient DNA analyses of subfossil bones by Jon and colleagues revealed that New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguins are not in fact a declining remnant of a once abundant species, but rather recent colonisers from the subantarctic. This example prompted Jon to consider what other species may have been lost following human colonisation, and replaced by newcomers filling in the environmental gaps.

The ‘Audit of Prehistoric New Zealand’ Strategic Initiative co-ordinated by Jon is examining other species for similar patterns of extinction and re-colonisation. This exciting project potentially re-writes recent ecological history and creates and fosters valuable links between AWC investigators, Ngāi Tahu iwi, the Department of Conservation, and researchers from Canterbury Museum.

Key Benefits

  • Improved knowledge of conservation status and population connectivity for Little Blue Penguins
  • Improved conservation status knowledge for King Shag
  • Increased understanding of the importance of density-dependent processes in structuring biodiversity

Jon discusses the ‘Audit of Prehistoric New Zealand’ project with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme, 13 June 2012.
‘Relict or colonizer? Extinction and range expansion of penguins in southern New Zealand’ by Sanne Boessenkool, Jon Waters and colleagues describes their research showing yellow-eyed penguins to be relatively recent settlers in New Zealand. This open-access scientific paper was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2009 and can be read here.