Peripatus: New Zealand’s velvet worms/ngaokeoke

Department of Conservation —  14/08/2014

They measure only 2 centimetres in length, so how does a 2 metre long peripatus (velvet worm) come to be found in one of Dunedin’s oldest buildings? DOC biodiversity ranger Amanda Salt explains…

In the dark bowels of the old Athenaeum building, in Dunedin’s Octagon, an exciting event took place to launch a new work on New Zealand peripatus/ngaokeoke, an obscure, nocturnal invertebrate which links back to a common ancestor present on Gondwana.

Peripatiodes indigo from north west Nelson. © Rod Morris www.rodmorris.co.nz.

Purple peripatus from north west Nelson

It was appropriate this event was held in a cold, damp basement, as peripatus enjoy this type of habitat.

The new publications:

Peripatus: A guide to New Zealand’s velvet worms/ngaokeoke (PDF, 673K) and

New Zealand peripatus/ngaokeoke: Current knowledge, conservation and future research needs (PDF, 4,164K)

aim to summarise knowledge, manage peripatus through continued research, raise awareness and secure legal protection for this at risk species.

Tahu the peripatus and Sir Alan Mark.

Tahu the peripatus and Sir Alan Mark

The project to create these publications was a collaboration that began after it was agreed that the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) move a population of peripatus in Caversham Valley to an area nearby, to avoid the impact of state highway improvements in the Dunedin suburb.

It was guided by former DOC staff member, entomologist Michael Wakelin, with representatives from DOC, Ngāi Tahu, Dunedin City Council, Forest and Bird, Dunedin City Council, the New Zealand Transport Agency, and landowners.

Prof Sir Alan Mark, who wrote the foreword, told guests the booklet was an important milestone for DOC and Dunedin.

Dunedin photographer Rod Morris provided the photographs and gave an informative talk and slideshow at the event.

Velvet Worm. Fine, local craft ale in a flagon.

Velvet Worm ale

Local micro-brewer Velvet Worm brought along some of their latest brews and the sounds of The Velvet Underground pumped through the basement.

One highlight was Orokonui Ecosanctuary conservation educator Tahu Mackenzie, resplendent in her own wearable art creation of a giant purple velvet peripatus, complete with green slime secretion glands.

Tahu also sang a song she wrote for the occasion, accompanied by some of the recently-formed Dunedin Roots & Shoots group members, who helped out on the night. 

To close, the mysterious world of the peripatus was portrayed poetically by DOC’s Coastal Otago Services Manager, David Agnew, who wrote P/Ng is for Peripatus/Ngaokoeoke.

P is for peripatus, velvet worm, the missing link
An animal (at least that’s what we think)
Not widely known, but world renown
For habits and features it stands alone
It roams at night
It kills its prey
Jets of toxic saliva it does spray.

Peripatoides aurorbis, walking over a leaf fossil on Denniston Plateau. © Rod Morris www.rodmorris.co.nz.

Peripatoides aurorbis, walking over a leaf fossil

Ng is for Ngaokeoke, that’s how Ngāi Tahu say
This taonga from down this way
And we’re all so glad
It still shares Te Wai Pounamu with you.

M is for motorway, and we all use them
Asphalt and tarmac, and limits for speed
However it’s something that we all need
And Caversham Valley presented a way
For us to help peripatus along the way.

So here we all are to celebrate the result
Of hours of research and painstaking input

Into a process that produced this book
A collaborative process that involved quite a few
Ngāi Tahu and Transit, DOC and DCC
Forest & Bird, Rod Morris, Dave Randle
OPUS, Sir Alan, and scientists too.

P is for pamphlet, panui, pukapuka
P is for peripatus, velvet worm, ngaokeoke
P is for product, a present for you
I thank you for coming and please take one with you
Kia ora tatou

Drawing of three peripatus/ngaokeoke crawling across page.

In New Zealand, nine species of peripatus belonging to two genera have been described so far and they are distributed throughout the country.