CHS Blog

Canadian Herpetologists Abroad: New Zealand for the World Congress of Herpetology

September 30, 2020
Patrick Moldowan

In January 2020, a contingent of Canadian herpetologists congregated in the southern hemisphere for the largest gathering of likeminded geeks from around the globe. The 9th World Congress of Herpetology (WCH), hosted at the University of Otago in Dunedin, Aotearoa, New Zealand (05-11 Jan 2020), brought together 874 herpetologists from 57 countries to share scientific findings, promote education, and address pressing concerns of the herpetological community. Up to eight parallel sessions of more than 32 talks per hour amounted to 621 presentations over five days, leaving attendees simultaneously exhausted and elated. Friendships were forged and reinforced, collaborations kindled, and a lot learned—but that was just part of the experience.

Ninth World Congress of Herpetology, hosted at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Canadian herpetologists and ex-pats at the World Congress of Herpetology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Back row: Geoff Hughes, Lin Schwarzkopf, Doug Armstrong, Carter Rouleau, Njal Rollinson, Richard Wassersug, David Lesbarrères. Middle row: James Paterson, Damien Mullin, Heather Van Den Diepstraten, Lea Randell, Jackie Litzgus, James Baxter-Gilbert, Julia Riley, Steve Marks, Cory Trowbridge, Heather Fothersby, Pamela Rutherford, David Green. Front row: Patrick Moldowan, Jonathan Choquette, Dan Noble, Briar Hunter. Photo courtesy David Lesbarrères.
Those on the WCH9 field trip were treated to sightings of the social-living Otago Skink (Oligosoma otagense).

As a progressive island nation with wacky flora and fauna, I have an affaire du coeur with New Zealand. Following an overnight flight from Vancouver, I wearily walked through the Auckland airport destined for customs. The official did not bat an eyelash when I said I was in the country for an “academic meeting about amphibians and reptiles”. “Oh yes, there are some interesting ones here” he said as they stamped my passport and wished me an enjoyable visit. Feeling relieved in being that much closer to a nap, I picked up my gear and walked just a few more paces before being stopped. An inspection dog had picked me out of a crowd. The eager beagle gave a thorough sniff of my backpack and found my almonds and trail mix without hesitation. They have good biosecurity checks here too, and for good reason. Non-native plants as well as the introduction of mammalian predators have ravaged the plants and wildlife of the islands, making campaigns such as Predator Free 2050 crucial for protecting what’s left and restoring, in-part, what has been lost. I received a short explanation about the bag check and got to keep the snacks.

In preparation for WCH9, I arrived early and stayed late in New Zealand, taking the opportunity to indulge my curiosities in island conservation and biogeography, especially where these topics intersect herpetology. Lacking land mammals, save for a couple species of bats, New Zealand is famed in biological circles for its avifauna and herpetofauna. Over 110 species of lizards and counting are in good company alongside four native frog species (Leiopelma) and, of course, the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), the sole surviving species of the order Rhynchocephalia (“beak-heads”). Geographic isolation of the islands over evolutionary time scales, combined with a relatively cool climate, has resulted in familiar groups of island-dwelling lizards filling unfamiliar ecological niches: geckos in bogs and up high-altitude mountainsides, and skinks from coastlines to alpine regions! The herpetofauna belie other expectations too: frogs that do not sing and forgo a larval (tadpole) stage, as well as lizards that almost exclusively give birth to live young. Weird and wonderful! Conspicuous by their absence are terrestrial snakes and turtles, salamanders, and crocodilians. What may be lacking in taxonomic breadth is far exceeded in uniqueness.

As I backpacked, cycled, open-air camped, ferried, road-tripped, herped, birded, and otherwise made my way across the New Zealand, I enjoyed spectacular scenes and wildlife, a selection of which are presented below.

Landscapes of New Zealand. Clockwise from upper left: Coromandel Peninsula, North Island (courtesy Emily Hotham); exploring Southland, South Island; Te Wahipounamu, South Island; a field of New Zealand merino, South Island.

Before WCH9 got underway, I was fortunate to join Emily Hotham (MSc graduate, Massey University) in search of her study species, Archey’s Frog (Leiopelma archeyi Dry conditions thwarted efforts to locate this terrestrial frog, but down in the stream we were treated to Hochstetter’s Frogs (L. hochstetteri)!.

Hochstetter’s Frog (Leiopelma hochstetteri) in a streambed. North Island. Thank you to Emily Hotham for the field outing!

The forests and uplands had great allure. Busied birds fluttered by as I brushed through luxurious ferns—both ground and tree forms. On offshore islet sanctuaries, and increasingly on the mainland, ecological restoration efforts are largely focussed on exotic predator eradication and native species repatriation. Kiwis (human New Zealanders, that is) are well-known for their pioneering methods in conservation biology, a tradition continued and refined today principally by staff of the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Mamaku (Black Tree Fern; Sphaeropteris medullaris) graces New Zealand forests.
Forest birds of New Zealand. Left to right, top: Hihi (Stitchbird), Tieke (North Island Saddleback), Piwakawaka (New Zealand Fantail), Tui (Tui). Left to right, bottom: Toutouwai (North Island Robin), Kereru (New Zealand Pigeon), Korimako (Bellbird), Kakariki (Red-crowned Parakeet).

Hidden among the foliage was a creature that herpetological dreams are made of:

Jewelled Gecko (Naultinus gemmeus).

In the shadow of Aoraki (Mount Cook), New Zealand’s tallest peak, geckos and skinks sought cover in the rock-strewn subalpine plains.

Aoraki Mount Cook area, South Alps, South Island. Left: Lake Pukaki with South Alps range in background. Right: Snow-capped Aoraki Mount Cook, in violet light. Thank you for the herping road trip, Hollis Dahn!
Southern Alps Gecko (Woodworthia "Southern Alps") in the subalpine region of Aoraki Mount Cook.

In the lowlands, New Zealand offered dry forests and spectacular coastline. Large swaths of land cleared for timber and agriculture resulted in habitat patchworks, which made herping generally challenging. That said, visits to ‘mainland’ and offshore conservation reserves were fruitful for nature appreciation:

Raukawa Gecko (Woodworthia maculata and representative dry forest habitat.
Flightless birds of wetland and grassland habitats. Clockwise from left: Adult Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) back from the brink of extinction. Adult Takahe feeding juvenile. Weka (Gallirallus australis), another flightless rail species, foraging for insects among the grass.
Iconic plants of New Zealand. On left: Stalks of Harakeke (Common Flax; Phormium tenax), an important shelter and food plant for wildlife as well as a valuable plant fibre for the Maori and early European settlers. On right: Southern Rata (Metrosideros umbellata) in vibrant flower.
Goldstripe Gecko (Hoplodactylus chrysosireticus) hiding among the leaves of Harakeke (Common Flax). Thank you to Halema Jamieson and Doug Armstrong for the gecko outings!

Returning again to a creature of herpetological dreams: Observing Tuatara in the wild seemed better fit for the imagination than to reality. An astounding animal befitting of aeons past:

A Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) sits at the mouth of a burrow to warm in the sun. This species is the sole survivor of a major branch of the extant ‘reptile’ evolutionary tree (arguably composed of: Tuatara and extinct relatives, Rhynocephalia; amphisbaenians, lizards, and snakes, Squamata; turtles, Testudines; and crocodilians, Crocodylia). Unique structure of the skull and teeth, among other characteristics, distinguish the Tuatara from modern lizards.
“Peaks on the back.” Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) basking in dappled sunlight.
Wetapunga (“God of the Ugly Things,” Giant Weta, (Deinacrida heteracantha), a slow-moving, well-armoured, flightless, nocturnal, and extra-large cricket-like insect.
A speedy kiwi. Little Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx owenii), heard then spotted in the dry forest after sunset.

The shorelines and sandy beaches made for great wildlife viewing, from sharks and stingrays to birdlife. Also, a good location to read, plan for the next leg of travel, and go for a swim (where the sharks were absent)!

Shore- and waterbirds of New Zealand. Left to right, top: Tuturiwhatu (New Zealand Dotterel), Torea (Variable Oystercatcher), Tuturuatu (Shore Plover). Left to right, bottom: Hoihoi (Yellow-eyed Penguin, distant), Karuhiruhi (Pied Shag), and Kotuku Ngutupapa (Royal Spoonbill).

My nearly three months in New Zealand was a wonderful experience (made even more special by the global COVID-19 lockdown that would soon follow). Taken together, adventures in the outdoors (often in the company of local experts), coming face-to-face with fascinating wildlife, making new friends, and, of course, attending WCH9 was a dream come true. This ‘sabbatical’ even offered the opportunity to catch-up on some neglected research writings!

It is with much gratitude that I acknowledge the World Congress of Herpetology for supporting my travel and conference attendance. While attending, I presented my research on salamanders and their unassuming “predator,” the pitcher plant, based at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station and University of Toronto. I also thank the Canadian Herpetological Society for their offer of student support.