Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Tuatara

Conservation staff at Wellington’s world-first conservation attraction ZEALANDIA, which is managed by the groundbreaking Karori Sanctuary Trust, have found what is almost certainly the first confirmed baby tuatara to have hatched in the wild on mainland New Zealand in over 200 years.

The discovery came during routine maintenance work, when conservation officer Bernard Smith found the 8cm-long hatchling in an area where nests had been discovered. The animal is thought to be around one month old and is likely to have hatched from eggs laid around 16 months ago.

"This is an extremely significant discovery" said conservation manager Raewyn Empson.

"We knew our tuatara were laying eggs, but we didn't dare hope to find any young. Monitoring the nests 24/7 just wasn't practical. We certainly didn't expect to see them so soon and perhaps not until they were adults. We are all absolutely thrilled with this discovery. It means we have successfully re-established a breeding population back on the mainland, which is a massive breakthrough for New Zealand conservation. He is unlikely to be the only baby to have hatched this season, but seeing him was an incredible fluke".

The youngster was caught briefly for a photoshoot and then released back in the spot he was found. He faces a tough journey to adulthood. Not only will he have to run the gauntlet of cannibalistic adult tuatara, he would also make a tasty snack for species like morepork (native owl); kingfisher and weka (New Zealand's endemic flightless rail).

"Like all the wildlife living here, he'll just have to take his chances" said Ms Empson

"However, hatching within the safety of of mammal-proof fence has already given him a far better chance of survival than he would get outside our mammal-proof fence. Out there, the survival rate would be almost zero".

Tuatara are the only extant members of the Order Sphenodontia and endemic to New Zealand. Every other species in this Order became extinct about 60 million years ago, leading scientists to refer to tuatara as ‘living fossils’.

Tuatara are thought to have been extinct as a breeding population on the three main islands of New Zealand for around 200 years. They were wiped out, primarily, by the kiore (Pacific rat) which arrived with the first Polynesian settlers around 700 years ago.

In 2005, 70 animals were translocated to the Karori sanctuary, New Zealand's first fenced mainland conservation project from one of their last offshore island refuges - Takapourewa/Stephens Island in Cook Strait, with the blessing of the animals' Maori kaitiaki (guardians) Ngati Koata. A further 130 animals were traslocated two years later. These two transfers marked a major breakthrough in re-establishing this species in the wild on mainland New Zealand. It has also made the species a lot more visible to the public.

In late 2008, staff identified a number of nest sites. At least two contained clutches of leathery, ping-pong ball-sized eggs. The eggs were immediately covered up again to avoid disturbing their incubation. Although only four eggs were unearthed, it is likely that there are more in the nest – an average clutch contains around ten.

Other than guarding the nest for a few days after laying to prevent other females digging the nest up, that is the end of maternal responsibility. All being well, the tuatara could hatch any time between now and March. The hatchlings will break out of the eggs using a special egg-tooth that will fall off after about two weeks. For the first six months or so the legendary ‘third eye’ for which the tuatara is most famous will be visible as a white patch on the forehead. This too will disappear as the tuatara grows.

As with some other reptiles, soil temperature will determine the animals’ gender. Warm soil (over 21 degrees) results in males, and cool soil (under 21 degrees) females.

ZEALANDIA: The Karori Sanctuary Experience was recently acknowledged as one of Australasia’s top 25 ecological restoration projects by the Australia-based EMR Journal.

Additional information on tuatara breeding behaviour

o Tuatara breed only every two to four years.
o Unlike lizards, the male tuatara does not have a pe_nis. He mounts the female and passes sperm straight from his cloaca to hers (the cloaca is a small opening that serves the intestinal, urinary and genital tracts of certain reptiles and birds).
o Female tuatara become fertile at about 13 years age.
o She will carry up to 12 eggs for nine months.
o The leathery eggs will be laid between October and December; buried and abandoned.
o After about 12-15 months the eggs hatch, the young using an egg tooth to break out of their shells. From day one, tuatara take care of themselves.
o Like alligators, crocodiles and turtles, a tuatara’s gender is determined by the temperature at which it was incubated in the egg. Eggs laid in warm soil hatch into males, those in cool soil hatch into females, and those in moderate or oscillating temperatures into a mix of both.
o Tuatara are born with a legendary ‘third eye’ (actually a light-sensitive pineal gland) on the top of their skulls. This slowly closes over as they mature.

Click here to listen to the interview with Alan Dicks, the Marketing Director of Zealandia

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Oryx

Oryx is one of three or four large anteloper species of the genus Oryx, typically having long straight almost upright or swept back horns. Two or three of the species are native to Africa, with a fourth native to the Arabian Perninsula . Small populations of several oryx species, such as the "Scimitar Oryx", also exist in Texas and New Mexico, USA as captive populations on wild game ranches.

The Hebrew word re' em may refer to the Arabian Oryx, although this word could also refer to the extinct Aurochs, or some other type of horned mammal. In the King James version of the Bible the word “re’em” is translated as “unicorn", and the legend of the Unicorn may have originated in part from the Arabian Oryx, which when seen in profile frequently appears to have only a single horn.

Click here to find out more about the Oryx.

The Helmeted Honey Eater

The Helmeted Honeyeater is endemic to Victoria, and is also the only bird species to be endemic to the state. For this reason, the Helmeted Honeyeater became Victoria's bird emblem in 1971.
The Helmeted Honeyeater is approximately 20 cms in length (tail to tip). They range in colour from black to olive-brown to yellow. They have a yellow crest which sets them apart from other honeyeaters.
Currently (2006) the Helmeted Honeyeater is listed as critically endangered. There were only 50 of this species left in 1990. The numbers are steadily increasing, but the species is still critically endangered.
The honeyeater is currently found in a captive release colony in the Bunyip State Park Reintroduction Site. They also inhabit a very small range between Ferntree Gully and Yellingbo in the wild.
The diet of the Helmeted Honeyeater consists of mainly manna. Manna is a sap-like substance produced by trees through the bark and at points of injury. They also feed on nectar from eucalypt flowers, berries from the prickly currant bush, insects, spiders and lerps.
Breeding occurs from August to February. The gestation period is two weeks where 2 to 3 young are born.

Breeding and moult were sequential unimodal annual events, whose timing was highly consistent between years. However, overlap of breeding and moult was frequent, and some individuals even commenced primary moult before laying their final clutch. The timing of the post-juvenile moult was coincident with that of adults. Early-hatched young moulted within a few months of hatching, but late-hatched young deferred moult for a year. Helmeted Honeyeaters were heaviest in autumn and early winter, and lightest in spring and early summer, a cycle most consistent with the redirection of all available resources to reproduction. The long breeding season (seven-and-a-half months) of the Helmeted Honeyeater, extensive overlap of breeding and moult, and other life-history attributes including small clutch size, are more consistent with the described bio-rhythmic patterns for birds in the humid tropics than the temperate zone. However, the Helmeted Honeyeater has a fairly rapid primary moult rate, unusual amongst species that overlap moult and breeding. This combination of attributes reflects the stable, somewhat seasonal environment occupied and the resource monopoly established by this tightly territorial subspecies. We speculate that extension of the breeding season, by overlapping breeding and moult, is one of the few options available to vary life-history strategies amongst 'old-endemic' Australian birds of the temperate zone.

Click here
to find out more about Victoria's Bird Emblem.

The Red Panda

The Red Panda, also called the Firefox or Lesser Panda (Latin name: Ailurus fulgens, "shining cat"), is a mostly herbivorous mammal, specialized as a bamboo feeder. It is slightly larger than a domestic cat (40 - 60 cm long, 3 - 6 kg weight). The Red Panda is endemic to the Himalayas in Bhutan, southern China, Pakistan, India, Laos, Nepal, and Burma. There is an estimated population of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals. Their population continues to decline due to habitat fragmentation.

Check out the below video of a Red Panda:

Click here to listen to the interview with Molly Flora of Melbourne Zoo.

For more information on the great work Melbourne Zoo does, please visit