A tribute to lizard conservationist, Tony Whitaker

Department of Conservation —  01/05/2014

By Rod Hitchmough

Tony Whitaker passed away in February 2014. He was a herpetologist (studied reptiles and amphibians); a passionate advocate for conservation of, and research on, lizards; and a great friend of the Department. 

Tony providing a temporary perch for the largest living gecko species in the world (Rhacodactylus leachianus from New Caledonia). Photo: Marieke Lettink.

Tony providing a temporary perch for the largest living gecko species in the world (Rhacodactylus leachianus from New Caledonia)

Tony worked for Ecology Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in the 1960s and 1970s and, since then, had done contract research, writing and biological surveys.

When Tony started his work, he and Joan Robb of the University of Auckland were the only ones working on lizard ecology and taxonomy in New Zealand.

In his Ecology Division days Tony made numerous discoveries and had many insights which were revolutionary at the time but are now accepted as common knowledge.

Tony and DOC Science Advisor James Reardon photographing the rare Rangitata skink in its scree habitat. Photo: Marieke Lettink.

Tony and DOC Science Advisor James Reardon in their element photographing the rare Rangitata skink in its scree habitat. This species was discovered by Tony in 2004

He was the first to see that lizard faunas were extremely different on islands with and without kiore (Pacific rats). Kiore had been previously regarded as “harmless vegetarians” (apparently no one had wondered whether they had any impact on plants, which we now know they do).

He was the first to use baited pitfall traps for lizards and also the first to survey/monitor nocturnal species by locating their eye-shine using a head-torch and binoculars. He was the first to suggest that lizards might be important pollinators and seed dispersers for some plants, and that pale-coloured small berries carried in the centre of dense divaricating shrubs would be difficult for birds, but very easy for lizards to access.

Black-eyed gecko. Photo: Dave Timmerman-Vaughan.

Black-eyed gecko

He carried out a series of island surveys which greatly improved our understanding of the distribution and conservation status of many species, and discovered many new populations of uncommon species and some new species.

His collections from those trips and other survey trips on the mainland are now a very important component of the Te Papa lizard collection. He also named and wrote the formal description for the black-eyed gecko.

With Bruce Thomas, he prepared and published the first Bibliography of New Zealand lizards, an invaluable research resource which includes even the most obscure publications.

Tony also began the systematic recording of reptile and amphibian distribution records, leading to the development of the current Herpetofauna database, now one of the best sets of distribution data for any group of animals or plants in New Zealand.

Tony’s contribution to lizard conservation was huge. He was a member of every lizard-related recovery group DOC has had, including the Lizard Technical Advisory Group.He was a member of the reptile expert panel for all four assessments of lizard status which have been carried out using the New Zealand Threat Classification System, and earlier contributed to the Molloy and Davis species conservation priority listings.

He prepared lizard action plans and identification guides for many conservancies, and carried out many surveys and research contracts.

In the last few years he was extremely involved with biosecurity issues and had a Ministry for Primary Industries contract to identify all reptiles and amphibians intercepted at the border. Tony and his wife Viv also spent a lot of time in New Caledonia, carrying out surveys of areas proposed for mining. In the process he was also involved in the discovery and naming of many new species of skinks and geckos there.

Tony was a valued personal friend and mentor for many at DOC. As well as knowing a huge amount about lizards and always being willing to share his time and expertise, he was a warm, kind, interested, very humorous, non-judgemental friend. We will miss him enormously.

3 responses to A tribute to lizard conservationist, Tony Whitaker

  1. 

    I had the pleasure of meeting Tony for the first time shortly before he died. A huge loss to the conservation movement of NZ…thank you Tony for everything you contributed.

  2. 

    what a sad day for our lizards etc & NZ Doc! Reminds me of the guy who saved the Black robin population….pioneers of thier time & ours……Thank you to his family for sharing such wonderful knowledge and expertise on these beautiful creatures…….

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Common lizard with tick problem, video | Dear Kitty. Some blog - May 15, 2014

    […] A tribute to lizard conservationist, Tony Whitaker […]