Local heroes: All Blacks and weevils

The New Zealand All Blacks have just won the Rugby World Cup, beating arch rivals Australia at Twickenham in London. It’s a tremendous achievement for our little country, the first time a team has won the world cup three times and the first time a country has successfully defended the cup. It’s nice to bask in the reflected glory of the victory and while we are proud of the whole squad there is always something special about your local players doing well. Looking at the squad there are several with links to Lincoln. Obviously there those players that went to Lincoln University. Captain Ritchie McCaw, one of the greatest rugby players of all time, was a student here a decade ago when he started playing in the Canterbury and Crusaders teams. His family have a long association with Lincoln University. Sam Whitelock, rugged lock and my pick for player of the tournament, finished his degree at Lincoln last year. Sam did some ecology papers and has just submitted a paper on fire ecology with Tim Curran in the week leading up to the final (hopefully more on that in a future article!).

Sam Whitelock, All Black and Lincoln University ecologist, waits for ball (back left)
in Crusaders versus Highlanders game.

 Man of the match for the final, Dan Carter, first five (fly half) extraordinaire, hails from the small town of Southbridge not far from Lincoln. I am often coaching cricket and rugby teams playing at his home ground. When we play Golden Oldies rugby against Southbridge we are refereed by his dad, Nev (who is probably the most one-sided ref I have ever encountered, and at golden oldies level where the home ref usually comes from the home team that is saying something!). Finally, Joe Moody (who came into the tournament due to injuries and then played the quarter, semi and final) plays for the local rugby club (Lincoln, but distinct from Lincoln University) that my boys have played for over the last 15 years. So a lot of close links that make one proud of being from this area. Why should it matter? I guess we are evolutionary conditioned to support the local group, to bond together, to thrive on these links. It applies to a whole lot more than rugby players. Take weevils for instance.

Hadramphus weevils doing their best for conservation of their species. Photo from Emily Fountain.

Weevils are a reasonably successful group of beetles. They are found all over the place and most of us live our lives without thinking too much about them. Many are pest species, most are doing alright but a few are in trouble. One species, the Canterbury Knobbled Weevil (Hadramphus tuberculatus), is presently in the top five most endangered species in New Zealand (with less than 100 individuals). We have a lot of endangered species in New Zealand, so this is a rare and dubious honour. This weevil was once reasonably widespread around the Canterbury area (judging by specimens collected over the last 120 years) but is now restricted to one small grassland area of a few hectares at Burkes Pass as you pass into the McKenzie Country. It was thought to be extinct before being rediscovered last decade. So not only is it incredibly endangered (one unlucky fire could wipe them out) but it is a local! The Cantabrian in me really would like to do something about this.

Emily looking suitably researchish.

One advantage of working in ecology and evolution is that I can focus research on these local species. Emily Fountain, when she came to Lincoln to work with me, chose to work on this group of weevils for her PhD. All four species of Hadramphus are restricted in range with one in Fiordland, one on the Chatham Islands and one on the Poor Knights Islands. A major focus of Emily’s work was to look at the DNA of these species and work out relationships at the species and population level. She also was able to obtain DNA from specimens collected over the last hundred odd years to examine what genetic variation had been lost in the Canterbury Knobbled weevil. On a more practical level, Emily looked at methods of trying to raise the weevil in captive conditions. This had been tried before with little success but is a crucial step in building up weevil numbers and for getting a better understanding about how these weevils live and what we might be able to do help them out. Emily, now at University of Wisconsin, and the rest of her co-workers have just published their suggestions for captive rearing of the Canterbury knobbled weevil in New Zealand Entomologist. Hadramphus weevils prefer to spend their time foraging on plants from the Aciphylla genus. Emily introduced four adult weevils into a small enclosure in a Lincoln University glass house which contained two species of Aciphylla. The adults were very cryptic and seldom observed (indeed we were concerned that they had all died). However, after ten months, larva and then a newly emerged adult were found demonstrating that this species can be raised in captivity. This is good news for the weevils as more intensive conservation measures can be considered for looking after this species, building up numbers and potentially recolonizing other sites. Hopefully we can begin to move this species out of the red zone! It also provides that buzz of helping a local to make good. It may not be as high a profile as winning a world cup but, with extinction on the line, it is a whole lot more important!

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