Jobs at DOC: Karin Mahlfeld, Land Snails Ranger

Department of Conservation —  29/08/2014

Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Today we profile Karin Mahlfeld, Land Snails Ranger based in Wellington.

At work

Karin working in the Science Lab at DOC's National Office.

Science Lab, identifying snails

Some things I do in my job include:

Updating the Department’s information on threatened land snail species, adding descriptions, images, notes on habitats, distribution maps etc. More than 450 species are currently listed in the Department’s Threat Classification list of land snails. I answer inquiries from staff, other agencies and the public relating to terrestrial and freshwater gastropods. I am also involved with monitoring the impact of rodent predation on the Wainuia urnula species. Most of this work requires me to liaise with a number of snail experts, staff at DOC, Te Papa, Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington and volunteers.

This helps achieve DOC’s vision by:

Providing information and images that staff can use to maintain inherent values of our landscapes (NZ and overseas tourists are keen to experience NZ as close to its original natural state); to ensure that nationally threatened species are conserved; to inform conservation volunteer groups of what is in their patch and its importance; to raise the profile of invertebrates and their role in ecosystem health; add to guides/publications (in addition the few iconic invertebrates usually used). Our images are useful to bring invertebrates closer to the public. We cannot fully appreciate our own place in an interconnected web of life without acknowledging how fundamentally dependent we are upon “the little things that run the world.” Invertebrates and other micro-organisms are very sensitive environmental indicators.

Litter samples and sieves equipment.

Some of our high tech equipment (showing dried litter sample sieved into fine, medium and coarse fraction)

The best bit about my job is:

That it involves a variety of activities: field work, research, new species discovery, working with volunteers, blogging, curation, publishing, cartography, graphics.

The funniest/strangest/loveliest/scariest/awesome-est (all of them!) DOC moment I’ve had so far is:

My first fieldwork in New Zealand in Nelson Lakes National Park, when I was accompanying Rod Hay monitoring South Island Robins. Being surrounded by mature forest with kākā monkeying around next to our hut in the middle of nowhere without any traffic noises was entirely different to managed pine and beech forests, steel works and intensive agriculture I grew up with back in Germany. After that I decided to return to NZ in the following year to do my MSc project here, which turned out to be on land snail diversity in bush fragments on Awhitu Peninsula (famous as one the highest diversity spots for micro-molluscs worldwide), the influence of stock trampling and habitat fragmentation. Geoff Park (formerly DOC) suggested this as a potential project to me. I had no idea what I got myself into. My affiliation with DOC stretches back nearly 27 years now. In 1991, I moved permanently to NZ.

The DOC (or previous DOC) employee that inspires or enthuses me most is:

Geoff Park obviously got me into researching New Zealand land snails. When I first met Geoff, I was a student studying landscape ecology in Germany. There were not many people interested in landscape ecology then, it was a relatively new degree. I always admired Geoff’s ability to jolt people into action and his love for and understanding of New Zealand’s landscapes.

Rat predated Wainuia urnula shells.

Rat predated Wainuia urnula snail shells

On a personal note

Most people don’t know that:

I run a very successful science community project involving Ngaio School and its community. Together with a group of Ngaio School mums, I am running lunchtime sessions, where students learn about plants, animals, rocks, chemistry, robots, lungs, brains, angular momentum, the universe—basically anything children are interested in. We are supported by around 70 parent volunteers, who share their passion, knowledge and resources for science and sometimes other topics.

My stomping ground is:

All around Wellington. With my partner Frank, our two sons and Dave Roscoe we have covered a lot of spots around Wellington (collecting). When my partner’s parents were still alive, we would regularly visit Puponga near Farewell Spit, where we had some wonderful Christmas holidays.

Karin and family on Mount Kaukau.

On our way to collect litter in the bush remnants on top of Mount Kaukau

My best ever holiday was:

Very hard to make a decision but Austrian Alps (Carinthia) rate definitely very high but also Corsica and Canaries were trips I really enjoyed.

My greatest sporting moment was when:

I was regional champion (Lower Saxony) in table tennis a long, long time ago. These days I do a lot of walking/hiking, however I am thinking of taking up table tennis again. It is a great game: non-contact, fast (you have to anticipate quickly your opponents counter moves) but also subtle when you spin the ball.

In my spare time:

I love tinkering. My older son and I go to a robotics club, where we build simple robots. Had I not taken on malacology as my primary occupation, robotics would have been my choice, had I known how much fun it can be. But back in the early 80s, I had no exposure to it and was not encouraged in that direction at school or at home. I also like reading a good crime novel or just hanging out with my family.

Threatened species team meeting at DOC's National Office.

Threatened species team meeting

Deep and meaningful

My favourite quote is:

“Ignoring invertebrates in conservation is simply spineless” – Kylie Williams, Charles Sturt University.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is:

If you can’t find something to live for, what do you die for? (I read this somewhere and it stuck with me.)

In work and life I am motivated by:

Getting more people engaged with science and conservation. Science is often portrayed in the media as a matter of opinion rather than scientifically proven knowledge and wisdom we should base our policies and decisions on. “Being entitled to my opinion” is often used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned as has been witnessed with the climate change debate. It breeds a false equivalence between experts and non-experts that has become an unfortunate feature of our public discourse.

My conservation advice to New Zealanders is:

Have a long term plan, get as much help as you can, share your experiences with others and learn from others. I have attended the Conservation Day for volunteers Wellington staff organises each year and found it very useful.

Karin building a robot at Robotics club at Victoria University.

Robotics club at Victoria University

Question of the week

When you’re not working at DOC, how do you like to relax?

When I come home, I have a cup of tea with my partner and we reflect on the day’s events, listen to some music and relax for a little while before having dinner. I try to avoid switching on my laptop in the evenings. I rather read, spend some time with my boys and occasionally watch a DVD.