Nature’s Secrets Exposed
Out in the field and in the lab, Te Papa’s scientists are expert detectives. They make surprising discoveries about species, and even classify new ones. Investigate their scientific exposés.
‘Flagfin’ was already a great name for a fish – but not dramatic enough for Te Papa’s Carl Struthers and Andrew Stewart. They recently confirmed a long-suspected new species, Hime pyrhistion – the flaming flagfin!
It was recreational fishers who gave Te Papa our first specimens of this new fish. Fishing enthusiasts are important partners for us. Our scientists sometimes feature in the New Zealand Fishing News, showcasing findings and putting the call out for more specimens. Keep that in mind next time you’re out fishing!
How did a high-flying bird meet an unfortunate end?
When a bird collides with a plane, it’s disastrous for the bird – and dangerous for the plane too. Airlines want to find out more about the types of birds involved, to prevent bird-strike occurring. Te Papa scientists Alan Tennyson and Lara Shepherd were sent ‘snarge’ – what remains of a bird after it collides with a plane – to identify. Using external features and DNA, they determined the snarge was from a long-tailed skua (pictured).
The skua’s fatal rendezvous with the plane occurred 4 kilometres above the Coromandel. Until this unlucky incident, no one knew that skua flew so high above New Zealand.
Te Papa scientist Phil Sirvid snoops into the private life of spiders. He’s analysed DNA to confirm the correct pairings of males and females for crab-spider species. Previously there had been some confusion – among scientists, that is. (The spiders had it right!)
The spider at the top left was thought to be the male of Sidymella angulata, but it turned out to be the male of Sidymella angularis. Phil found that the real Sidymella angulata male is the spider at the bottom left, and the female is to the right. Can you spot the differences between the three?
Scientists often use drawings to show the key features of an organism. This is a tanaid (ta-nay-id), a type of tiny crustacean. Tanaids dwell mostly in the sea. Though hard to spot, they’re everywhere! In a handful of sand, collectors might find 100 tanaids.
The tanaid in this illustration, from the Macrolabrum genus, was recently identified as a new species by Te Papa’s Rick Webber and tanaid expert Graham Bird. Most tanaids build tubes to live in, but a few, including Macrolabrum species, use empty snail shells. They have coiled bodies for a snug fit, just like hermit crabs.
It turns out New Zealand has 80-plus tanaid species – and counting. The large number of tanaids indicates that they are ecologically important. Identifying the species is an essential first step to caring for them and their habitats.
Spider orchids are common in New Zealand forests. When these small ground-dwellers flower, they reveal a sinister streak!
Te Papa’s Carlos Lehnebach has been studying how the orchids trick fungus gnats into pollinating them. The gnats usually lay their eggs on mushrooms, which the larvae later feed on. It’s believed that spider orchids attract gnats by mimicking the scent of the mushrooms.
The amorous gnats mate on the orchids, and then the female looks for a spot to lay her eggs. She picks up pollen in the process, which she may transfer to another orchid. When her eggs hatch on the orchid, the larvae simply starve. It’s unfortunate for the gnats, but another excellent example of nature’s complexity!
Te Papa scientist Ricardo Palma is still discovering new species of lice, such as this bird louse, Halipeurus pelagodromae. All birds and most mammals carry lice. These parasitic free-riders hitch a lift and a meal at the same time.
Different bird and mammal species have their own species of lice, which have evolved with them. Halipeurus pelagodromae, for example, parasitises the white-faced storm petrel. If the host becomes rare, so do the lice living on it. Their blood-sucking lifestyle may not appeal to us, but lice are still part of the rich diversity of life on Earth.