Aquariums and zoos collect the data – now let’s do the science on endangered species.
My passion has always been in conservation. Before my PhD I worked at The National Kiwi Hatchery in Rotorua. It’s the biggest kiwi hatchery New Zealand. That was a super inspiring experience – but it’s only recently that I’ve admitted to myself that I’m actually obsessed with New Zealand birds.
There’s something special about all of the New Zealand species, but the kiwi especially. I think it’s their extreme evolutionary uniqueness, and the fact that they have these extraordinary mammal-like features. They have enormous eggs, too – what a scientific dream to make sense of that as an evolutionary strategy! How and why exactly is it beneficial for the kiwi female to produce these enormous independent chicks? Understanding the evolutionary story behind those eggs would certainly be a great discovery. I just can’t get over those quirky birds.
I just can’t get over those quirky birds.
What’s the next big thing? With kiwi conservation, and a lot of New Zealand species, it could be as simple as predator removal. Back in the late 1800s, Europeans introduced the mustelid predators to New Zealand – stoats, weasels and ferrets. Along with the introduction of cats, dogs and rats, they have decimated the New Zealand avifauna.
But New Zealand is extremely innovative in their conservation work. Compared to Australia, there’s a lot more community involvement in conservation as well. There’s a big program there called Predator Free 2050. It’s a multi-organisational project, and there has been a lot of effort dedicated toward convincing the public, and especially private landholders, that all pests should be eradicated from all of New Zealand. They are having great success too. It’s not at all unusual for everyday New Zealanders to have a predator trap line – they will go and check and reset their traps on the weekends.
Removing pest species from ecosystems can see high ecological integrity restored. We have to remember that not everything is extinct, either! There is plenty to be excited about in terms of ecological restoration. It’s incredible what can happen when you take away pests and predators. Species can recover and flourish from low-population numbers. It’s not all doom and gloom.
We have to remember that not everything is extinct, either!
Ultimately, I’d love to see more of those hands-on, research-led New Zealand-style management approaches applied to species here. Australia is catching up now with our fenced, predator-proof sanctuaries, but in terms of studying predation ecology, and taking timely action, we’ve got a way to go.
I always wanted to be an ornithologist, but at uni I really liked the integrative research approach taken by my PhD supervisor, so I ended up doing a PhD in nutritional physiology and evolution. It was my plan to take that framework and apply it back to my core interest in conservation. So following my PhD, and after a few years working in the University of Sydney’s natural history museums, I moved back into kiwi captive management in New Zealand, working all over the country with chick-rearing projects.
I’d already seen the meticulous record-keeping that’s associated with keeping endangered species in captivity, and it was just so clear to me that the kiwi records I was working with were a valuable data source for pure research.
It seemed to me to be an oversight that we hadn’t made more of these meticulous records in the past.
Zookeepers are very good at keeping interesting data on what animals are eating, how quickly they’re growing, how long they live, breeding – all of the interesting behaviours that you just can’t come across when trying to study a super rare, endangered creature in the bush. It seemed to me to be an oversight that we hadn’t made more of these meticulous records in the past.
While I was working in all the different hatcheries as a consultant, I became quite obsessed with extracting data and trying to learn something about kiwi from the records. Since 2017 I have extracted 310 rearing records from three kiwi taxa, rowi, brown kiwi, and haast tokoeka, and in my spare time – while not looking after my baby, or working at Sydney Aquarium – I’m finally analysing those data. We have found some interesting life history and nutritional requirement differences between those three groups, and while it’s a slowly progressing passion project, my efforts demonstrate that zoo records do have scientific, conservation management merit. Honestly, we have only scratched the surface of these kiwi records.
How good would it be if every for-profit or well-funded captive institution appointed a scientist to take advantage of these ways of learning about endangered species?
My new addition (my baby) and the pandemic have meant I’m grounded in Australia, but I have a great new position: I was recently appointed conservation champion for SeaLife Sydney Aquarium. l assist the curator on strategic conservation projects. At the moment we’re working with the little penguin recovery team at Manly, offering support on that project. It’s a new role based on my background – a hybrid career of conservation-focused zookeeping and research. I feel really fortunate: it’s rare for a zoo or an aquarium to employ someone dedicated to conservation and science. While it’s not all that I do, how good would it be if every for-profit or well-funded captive institution appointed a scientist to take advantage of these ways of learning about endangered species? Aquariums and zoos worldwide could support scientists to make the most of the meticulous records that zookeepers keep, but don’t necessarily know where to begin analysing or publishing.
My career so far has certainly been varied, and we haven’t even talked about my science TV presenting and sci-comm work which is a whole other story, but I know if you’re persistent, have a great support network, and be ever-ready to take risks and grasp opportunities as they arise, as a scientist you can achieve your dreams.
By Dr Lindsey Gray (as told to Cosmos)
Dr Lindsey Gray
Lindsey is a biologist with a particular passion for quirky birds. She is a research associate at Sydney University and a conservation champion working for Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.