Archives For lizards

Naturalist, conservationist and herpetologist, Dylan van Winkel, has worked in an a variety of challenging environments, both in New Zealand and abroad. Today he writes about a recent visit to Hauturu/Little Barrier Island as part of a Pacific gecko translocation.

This post was originally published on Dylan’s blog.

Pacific gecko on Astelia sp. flower. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Pacific gecko on a Astelia sp. flower

Situated 15 miles from Cape Rodney, and 11 miles from Aotea/Great Barrier Island, Hauturu/Little Barrier Island bursts out of the ocean; its knife-edged ridges rising to 2,370 ft at the summit of Mount Hauturu.

The 3,038 hectare island is fringed by an almost continuous boulder beach—except where vertical cliffs plummet into the ocean.

Rocky shore and driftwood on Hauturu coastline. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Hauturu/Little Barrier Island typical coastline landscape

It is a site steeped in rich Māori cultural tradition and nationally significant conservation initiatives; and is home to some of New Zealand’s rarest and most threatened fauna and flora.

Sphenodon punctatus (Northern tuatara). Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Northern tuatara—this fellow is part of an island breed-for-release programme

The name Hauturu, was traditionally bestowed by Toi, who arrived in New Zealand from Hawaiki circa 1150 AD in search of his grandson Whatonga.

It was said that the island was uninhabited by “ordinary mankind” but on the misty summits lived the patu-pai-arehe/fairies, visiting the coastline only at night or in misty weather to fish and collect kai moana/sea food (Hamilton 1961).

While the thought of night-faring fairies is somewhat hard to believe, there is undoubtedly some truth in the myth, as at night, the island truly becomes alive!

Oligosoma smithii (shore skink).  Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Shore skink

Scaly creatures, spiny giants, venomous villains, feathery beasts, and slimy critters emerge and take over the forest floor. However, even so, walking at night requires cautious and vigilant steps, alerted senses, and often quick reactions to catch a glimpse of the island’s inhabitants.

Little Barrier Island giant weta . Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Little Barrier Island giant weta—the world’s heaviest insect. So heavy, they are unable to jump effectively

By day, the island is alive with bird song and, in fact, Hauturu harbours the highest number of threatened bird species compared to any other island in the country! Their calls penetrate and echo through the 400-plus species of plants and, in particular, the dawn chorus is mind-blowing; arguably unmatched by any other site in New Zealand.

North Island robin, Mt Hauturu summit. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

North Island robin, Mt Hauturu summit

In January 2014, I was fortunate enough to join a team of conservationists, lead by Auckland Council ecologist Su Sinclair, on a lizard project, aimed at translocating Pacific geckos (Dactylocnemis pacificus) to two Hauraki Gulf Islands undergoing ecological restoration.

Dactylocnemis pacificus (Pacific gecko) sub-adult on Pohutukawa. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Pacific gecko on Pohutukawa

Here are a few photos representing some of the treasures found on Hauturu during our ten day stay in paradise.

More photos can be found on Dylan’s original blog post.

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.

New Zealand’s largest lizard, and one of the world’s largest geckos, moved onto Motuihe Island this week.

Duvaucel's gecko. Photo: Dick Veitch.

Duvaucel’s gecko

100 Duvaucel’s geckos joined other threatened wildlife already on Motuihe, as part of an ecological restoration programme being implemented by the Motuihe Trust with the support of Iwi and the Department of Conservation.

Geckos play an important role in ecosystems as predator and prey, as well as dispersers of seeds and pollinating plants.

Duvaucel’s geckos are nationally “At Risk” and by reintroducing these animals to Motuihe, the long-term survival of Duvaucel’s gecko will be further assured.


Learn more

Threatened geckos to find sanctuary on Motuihe Island – Media release

New Zealand geckos

Visit Motuihe Recreation Reserve