Tag Archives: new zealand

New Zealand wants to become smoking-free. The country will ban tobacco for anyone born after 2008

Credit: Pixabay.

New Zealand has some of the most stringent anti-tobacco laws in the world. Smoking is banned in virtually all public spaces, except for some dedicated places. It also levies huge taxes, representing 70% of the final cost of the tobacco product. These measures have worked, dropping the daily smoking rates down to 11.6% in 2018, from 18% a decade earlier. But the island nation ultimately wants to become smoking-free altogether and is now preparing to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2008.

The country where no one will be able to start smoking

Although tobacco is legal across the world, smoking is the number one cause of preventable death. Worldwide, tobacco use causes more than 7 million deaths per year. One in four cancers in New Zealand is caused by smoking. The effects are most-felt among Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, with Māori women having the country’s highest smoking rates, with about 30% smoking daily. 

Quitting smoking is one of the hardest things nicotine users experience, which is why New Zealand wants to solve its smoking epidemic by nipping the habit in the bud.

“We want to make sure young people never start smoking, so we are legislating for a smoke-free generation by making it an offense to sell or supply tobacco products to those aged 14 when the law comes into effect,” said Dr. Ayesha Verrall, New Zealand health official, during a press conference on Thursday.

“As they age, they, and future generations, will never legally be able to purchase tobacco,” Verrall added. “Because the truth is, there is no safe age to start smoking.”

According to SmokeFree.nz, the average age at which people start smoking in the island nation is around 15 years, despite the fact that the sale of cigarettes is banned for those under 18. Those affected by the new ban are about to turn 14, so the new restrictions aim to keep them smoking-free for their entire lifetimes even as they age into adulthood.

During the same announcement of the unprecedented smoking ban, the local government also said it would restrict the sale of tobacco products, cutting the number of stores that are allowed to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products from 8,000 to only 500. The vast majority of these tobacco retailers could be found in low-income regions, where the smoking rates are also the highest. The country also said it would only allow the sale of low-nicotine tobacco. There are no new restrictions on vaping (e-cigarettes that vaporize nicotine).

Older citizens who started smoking a long time ago will also find new types of support to help them quit, thanks to public health outreach programs.

Doctors and public health experts have hailed the new tough crackdown on tobacco, but critics say the measures lack teeth and will likely incentivize the formation of a thriving black market. In recent years, organized criminal groups have accelerated large-scale smuggling of tobacco products. To their credit, the New Zealand health ministry has acknowledged these risks, noting “customs will need more resource to enforce border control”.

In the future, there’s a good possibility that the sale of tobacco products will be banned entirely across all age groups. Previously, the New Zealand government said it has a goal of becoming totally smoke-free by 2025.

If civilization collapses, researchers say, try to be in one of these five countries

If you’re planning on thriving while civilization worldwide crumbles, New Zealand is probably the best place to be, says new research.

Bridal Veil Falls, New Zealand. Image credits Holger Detje.

Friday is upon us, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time to ponder the collapse of modern human civilization, as a treat. New research at the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) comes to help us along our merry way, by estimating which countries today would be most resilient to future systemic threats posed by climate change and other globe-spanning problems.

The paper itself examined which factors could lead to such a scenario, focusing on a combination of ecological destruction, resource depletion, and population growth. It then looked at today’s countries and gauged which would fare the best during the “de-complexification” we’d be bound to see after such a collapse. De-complexification refers to the gradual or sudden breakdown of the multiple overlapping systems that maintain the world as we know it, including the collapse of supply chains, international agreements, and global financial structures. In essence, globalization but in reverse.

At the end of the world

The study was carried out by Nick King and Professor Aled Jones at the ARU, and they identified New Zealand as likely the best place to weather the storm. Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia (specifically Tasmania), and Ireland were the runner-ups.

The authors explain that the challenges which face us in the future, ecological destruction, limited resources, and population growth, could trigger a reduction in the complexity of our civilization — in essence, collapse — especially with climate change acting as a “risk multiplier” that makes these trends harder to deal with. Whether this will be a very rapid breakdown taking place in less than a year, or whether this will be a longer, more gradual descent, the paper doesn’t aim to answer. It could even be a hybrid of the two, according to the authors, starting as a gradual decline that picks up speed through “feedback loops”, leading to an abrupt collapse.

Since we live in such an interconnected and interdependent world today, any localized decline will quickly ripple across the world and affect us all.

So, where do you go to weather something like that? The researchers tried to determine that by looking at the self-sufficiency (energy and manufacturing infrastructure), carrying capacity (land available for arable farming and overall population), and isolation (distance from other large population centers which may be subject to displacement events) of countries around the world. The next step was to assess each candidate’s individual and local potential for agriculture and energy production.

According to them, New Zealand, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia/Tasmania, and Ireland are the countries that have the most favorable conditions to survive a global collapse while maintaining high levels of societal, technological, and organizational complexity (i.e. civilization) within their borders. All five of them are islands or island continents, have a strong oceanic climatic influence, as well as a low variability in regards to temperature and precipitation. Taken together, these conditions will likely allow the countries to remain quite stable despite the effects of climate change.

New Zealand came in first due to its low population, high geothermal and hydroelectric potential, and wide swathes of agricultural land. Iceland, Australia/Tasmania), and Ireland also have favorable characteristics, but to a lesser extent. The UK is put at risk by its complicated energy mix and high population density. Although it does have a high agricultural output today, it has low per capita availability of agricultural land, meaning each square foot of land needs to feed a lot of people. This may make it impossible to achieve self-sufficiency.

“Significant changes are possible in the coming years and decades. The impact of climate change, including increased frequency and intensity of drought and flooding, extreme temperatures, and greater population movement, could dictate the severity of these changes,” explains Professor Aled Jones.

“As well as demonstrating which countries we believe are best suited to managing such a collapse—which undoubtedly would be a profound, life-altering experience—our study aims to highlight actions to address the interlinked factors of climate change, agricultural capacity, domestic energy, manufacturing capacity, and the over-reliance on complexity, are necessary to improve the resilience of nations that do not have the most favorable starting conditions.”

The paper “An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity'” has been published in the journal Sustainability.

New Zealand’s glaciers are melting faster than ever

New Zealand is running out of ice, a new study finds. Glaciers in the country’s Southern Alps have lost around 77% of their maximum volume, which was reached around 400 years ago (at the end of the Little Ice Age).

Franz Joseph glacier in New Zealand.
Image via Wikipedia.

The team also found that the rate of loss has doubled since that time, promoted by man-made climate change. In absolute terms, these glaciers have lost more ice than they still retain today.

Such a development is worrying not only from a global level — mountain glacier and ice cap melt account for around 25% of sea-level rise — but also for local communities and ecosystems. Glacier melt is often a key resource for plants, animals, and humans living downstream, providing irrigation, drinking water, and powering dams.

Inappropriate climate

“These findings quantify a trend in New Zealand’s ice loss. The acceleration in the rate of ice mass loss may only get worse as not only climate but also other local effects become more pronounced, such as more debris accumulating on glaciers surfaces and lakes at the bottom of glaciers swell, exacerbating melt,” says Dr. Jonathan Carrivick, from the University of Leeds’ School of Geography, lead author of the study.

The study determined the changes in volume experienced by 400 mountain glaciers across New Zealand’s Southern Alps for three time periods; the pre-industrial Little Ice Age to 1978, from 1978 to 2009, and from 2009 to 2019. These volumes were estimated using historical records of the glaciers’ outlines, and from the local distribution of moraines and trimlines (bodies of debris and clear lines created by glaciers as they move across the landscape).

Moraines and trimlines are reliable indicators of a glacier’s extent, and can be used to chart changes in their size over time.

Comparing glacier surface during the Little Ice Age and that in more recent times, the team found that ice loss increased twofold since the Little Ice Age, with most of that increase being concentrated in the last 40 years.

Around 17% of the ice volume present in the Little Ice Age was lost between 1978 and 2019. This left only 12% of the initial ice mass after 2019, most of it in low-altitude areas of the original glaciers (the ‘ablation zone’).

“Our results suggest that the Southern Alps has probably already passed the time of ‘peak water’ or the tipping point of glacier melt supply,” adds Carrivick.

“Looking forwards, planning must be made for mitigating the decreased runoff to glacier-fed rivers because that affects local water availability, landscape stability and aquatic ecosystems.”

All in all, the research shows that even the most ancient glaciers on the planet are buckling under climate change. Furthermore, they show that the destruction of such glaciers “has dramatically worsened since 2010,” according to co-author Dr. Andrew Lorrey.

The research comes as yet another alarm that not all is well on the planet, and that the problem is our emissions. Researchers have been urging for action in this area but, so far, policymakers have only engaged in modest efforts for change.

Sooner or later, these issues will start affecting each and every one of us directly — by impacting our wealth, our health, and our access to vital resources like food or water. And by then, it will be too late to fix them in our lifetimes, perhaps even in our children’s lifetimes.

The paper “Ice thickness and volume changes across the Southern Alps, New Zealand, from the little ice age to present” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

New Zealand boasts 100 days without coronavirus transmission — what can we learn from it?

Clear communication, early science-based interventions, and compassion have been the hallmarks of New Zealand’s coronavirus approach. So far, it’s worked out brilliantly, as the country is still staying true to its COVID-19 eradication strategy.

So far so good for New Zealand. Image credits: Wolf Zimmermann.

New Zealand closed its borders on March 19, when there were 240,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide. Since then, the total number of cases has grown to 20 million worldwide, while New Zealnd is virtually coronavirus free — there are still 23 active cases (all in managed isolation and quarantine facilities), but there is no community transmission. The country’s efforts have been universally praised, and the country’s leader, Jacinda Ardern hailed as an example for other politicians to follow.

It’s been over 100 days since the last transmission of the virus took place inside the country, on May 1. This puts New Zealand among just a handful of countries to achieve this goal. In fact, there are only a few places in the world actively seeking to eradicate the virus, and almost all of them are in Asia/Oceania. The likes of Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, Australia, and Fiji are among them, alongside several other small countries such as the Vatican and East Timor.

Vietnam’s 99-day streak of no community transmission was broken in July when a man tested positive for the virus, and since, cases in Vietnam have reached “record” levels: 30-40 cases have been reported daily in Vietnam over the past week, a reason of concern for the country of almost 100 million people who has so far done a stunningly good job at keeping the coronavirus at bay.

Critics will point out at New Zealand’s geography as a reason for success: an island with a relatively sparse population isolated from most of the world. Those are valid points, but while it is true that New Zealand’s situation is very different from that of Vietnam or South Korea, this doesn’t erase the country’s achievements. We’ve seen time and time again the resurgence of the virus in areas previously thought safe, including the Victoria and New South Wales areas in Australia.

So instead of resting on its laurels, New Zealand already has a plan in place in case the virus and is still actively testing and following WHO guidelines, a government statement recently pointed out. Many places that had COVID-19 under control suffered a rapid resurgence. If this were to happen, the plan is to “act hard and fast”, taking localized action to “ring-fence” the virus, Ardern said.

“We are intercepting and isolating cases of COVID-19 at our border – but we need good baseline testing rates among people working at our border and in our communities each day so we can remain confident we have no community transmission in New Zealand,” the press release notes.

“A single case outside of managed isolation could rapidly infect many other people and turn into a widespread outbreak as we have seen occur overseas. Many places that had COVID-19 under control have quickly found themselves in the middle of a resurgence. We have worked too hard to be where we are to let that happen.”

New Zealand had a natural advantage in its geography, but it used its advantage wisely, setting an example for others to follow — and others are paying attention. For instance, Ireland and Scotland now see “a real opportunity for the elimination of COVID-19,” learning from examples such as New Zealand. It’s not easy, it requires careful, science-based planning, as well as a lot of economic and social sacrifice, but it can be done, at least in some places. Whether or not those attempts will be successful remains to be seen. In the meantime, there’s no silver bullet against the ongoing pandemic.

The lessons that can be learned from New Zealand’s case are summarized in a commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine:

“There are several lessons from New Zealand’s pandemic response. Rapid, science-based risk assessment linked to early, decisive government action was critical. Implementing interventions at various levels (border-control measures, community-transmission control measures, and case-based control measures) was effective. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern provided empathic leadership and effectively communicated key messages to the public — framing combating the pandemic as the work of a unified “team of 5 million” — which resulted in high public confidence and adherence to a suite of relatively burdensome pandemic-control measures.”

New Zealand eliminates coronavirus community transmission

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While the rest of the world is grappling with the pandemic, New Zealand not only has things under control, it has virtually eliminated the danger of the coronavirus within its borders. In a recent announcement, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that the virus has been “eliminated”, referring to the lack of community transmission of COVID-19.

“We have won that battle”

For days, New Zealand only reported single-digit cases. On Sunday, there was only one new confirmed case in a nation that number nearly five million citizens.

Now, the country’s foremost public health experts believe that there is no more community transmission of COVID-19.

The term community transmission means that the source of infection for the spread of an illness is unknown or a link in terms of contacts between patients and other people is missing.

When an epidemic is enabled by community transmission it becomes virtually impossible to trace the source of the infection. It’s something that most countries around the world are experiencing due to the highly contagious nature of the virus and few countries have been able to trace contacts successfully. For this reason, the virus looms like a specter and people feel dreaded anxiety because ‘anyone could have it’.

For the time being, New Zealand has navigated out of the most dangerous waters of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Ardern also announced an easing of the toughest social distancing restrictions from Tuesday, moving from Level Four lockdown to Level Three. Some businesses will be allowed to reopen shop but only as long as they don’t involve any face-to-face contact.

“We are opening up the economy, but we’re not opening up people’s social lives,” Ms Ardern said at the daily government briefing.

Ardern mentioned “no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand”, adding: “We have won that battle.”

The reason why New Zealand has been able to do so well can be traced to its strategy of not taking any chances from the very beginning.

While most countries have been reluctant to shut down their economies, Prime Minister Ardern ordered a nation-wide lockdown very early on, when there were only around 100 cases and not even a fatality. Borders were closed, all new arrivals in the country had to go through quarantine, and the population was heavily tested. Schools, restaurants, and basically any place of social interest were shut down since March 26.

She also did so while communicating emphatically and kindly, in a manner that inspired the population to understand the urgency of the situation and rally around a common goal.

It now has only 1,121 confirmed cases and 18 deaths ascribed to COVID-19. But if it didn’t impose lockdown as early as it had, New Zealand could have had more than 1,000 new cases a day, according to modeling performed by scientists and cited by Ardern.

While some restrictions will lift come Tuesday, New Zealanders will still be required to stay at home and avoid social interactions. Healthcare and education activity will be allowed to resume, however, most children will still not be able to attend school. The country’s borders will remain closed and mass gatherings are still banned.

Prime Minister Arderen added that the country “must remain vigilant if we are to keep it that way.”

What does it mean for New Zealand to become carbon neutral?

A week after the US took the first steps to leave the Paris Agreement, New Zealand passed a bill to drastically cut greenhouse gases by 2050 and achieve carbon neutrality. Nevertheless, the move was questioned by civil society for not being in line with the world’s climate emergency.

Methane from cattle is one of the biggest challenges for New Zealand. Credit Wikipedia Commons

The Zero Carbon Bill was introduced by New Zealand’s Parliament and was passed 119 votes to 1, demonstrating cross-party support to climate protection. This was welcomed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said legislators have progressed on their climate discussions.

“We have to start moving beyond targets. We have to start moving beyond aspiration. We have to start moving beyond statements of hope and deliver signs of action. That is what this government is doing and proudly so,” Ardern said. “We have made a choice that I am proud of and that will leave a legacy.”

The new law mandates that all greenhouse gases except methane be reduced to “net zero” by 2050. Governments will have to come up with plans to meet “steppingstone” targets on the way there, with the emissions trading scheme as the main enforcement mechanism.

In the case of methane, New Zealand’s goal is to reduce emissions by 10% below 2017 levels by 2030 and then by 24%-47% by 2050. This can be explained by methane being the main source of emissions in the country, accounting for 48% of all of its emissions in 2017.

Being less ambitious on methane means New Zealand could achieve carbon neutrality goals much easier. Compared to other greenhouse gases, methane can be more difficult to deal with. For example, it traps about 30 times as much heat in the atmosphere as CO2 does.

Not considering methane, New Zealand is in line to achieve carbon neutrality in other sectors. Up to 80% of the electricity in the country comes from renewables, a share likely to grow as the country abandons fossil fuels. Plus, the government is moving towards a transition to electric vehicles.

Extinction Rebellion Ōtautahi spokesman Rowan Brook said the 2050 target “doesn’t reflect the fact that we are in an ecological emergency” and asked the government to move the date for 2025. “How can it be 2050 to be zero carbon when the conservative UN gave us 12 years to avoid catastrophe?” he added.

Meanwhile, the local nature advocacy organization Forest & Bird said in a statement that the approval of the bill was an important first step but claimed challenges remain.

“Now we need concrete, urgent, climate action to save our most vulnerable native species and restore native ecosystems,” Chief Executive Kevin Hague said in a statement. “Increased fires, storms, and sea-level rise could push our many endangered species over the edge.”

There is also the issue that “net zero” is not the same as zero. Simply put, this doesn’t mean that New Zealand will have zero carbon emissions, but that all carbon emissions they do produce will be offset by other sustainable practices (most importantly, forestry), in a way that their net impact is zero. While offsets are imperfect and can be quite challenging to implement efficiently, they are still preferable to no action.

This law is drafted in a way that compels future governments to set five-yearly “emissions budgets” that decrease over time until 2050.

With the exception of China, the US and India, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, many countries have made commitments to eliminate carbon emissions. Nevertheless, they are still challenged by scientists and environmentalists for a lack of ambition. This law has also received some criticism for not being ambitious enough — 2050 is a long time away, and climate change is taking its toll right now.

Sweden pledged to eliminate emissions by 2045, while Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, and the UK, among other European countries, have also set their targets for 2050.

New Zealand’s prime minister wants to go fully renewable by 2035

After defying all odds and becoming New Zealand’s leader at only 37, Jacinda Ardern wants the country’s electrical grid to be powered fully by renewable energy.

The Te Apiti Wind Farm, Manawatu, New Zealand. Image credits: Jondaar_1 / Flickr.

Ardern is part of a new generation of politicians coming into power, as we’ve already seen with Justin Trudeau in Canada and Emmanuel Macron in France. Like the two, Ardern is also a strong supporter of renewables. Not only has she laid out plans for transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2035, but she wants the entire country to reach zero net emissions by 2050 — this means also eliminating fossil fuels from vehicles.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, in terms of their energy. The country gets 80 percent of its electricity from green sources, with coal-fired plants amounting to only 16% of the country’s consumption. However, truth be told, it’s hydropower that does the heavy lifting in New Zealand, and making the jump from 80 to 100 percent will be no easy feat.

Even as things stand now, New Zealand’s electricity is subject to spikes during droughts. Phase the remaining coal too quickly, and the volatility could increase dramatically, bringing problems in terms of both price and availability. Ardern needs to balance energy affordability and security with environmental sustainability, says John Carnegie, executive director for energy at Business NZ.

“It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered,” Carnegie told Bloomberg.

Other leaders should be following New Zealand’s case closely; only a handful of countries can claim to have such ambitious goals, and most countries in the Asia Pacific still heavily rely on coal for electricity. A stark difference exists between New Zealand and Australia, for instance. While the latter has all the right conditions for generating clean energy, policy missteps left residents paying more and having a lot of coal-generated power.

The world is still gradually turning away from coal and looking at more sustainable solutions, especially as they become more profitable. However, the transition is slow, and taking the last steps is going to be increasingly more difficult. New Zealand and other countries such as Iceland or Norway will serve as examples and pilot studies. If the transition is successful, others will follow. If it’s not, it could slow down future action significantly.

Some plants thrive in scorching hot volcanic soil — at 72 °C (161 F)

Sometimes, a carefully planted and cared for rose withers away, while a happy dandelion rises up from the sidewalk asphalt. Plants greatly vary in their environmental preferences and overall resilience, but this is something else: researchers have found plants thriving in soils that reach unbearably hot temperatures.

Geothermal fields reach unbearably high temperatures. Image via Pixabay.

New Zealand truly is one of the most special places on Earth. The eternal spring, the gorgeous landscapes, and of course, the magnificent volcanoes, have worked together to create some of the most amazing habitats you’ll ever see. Much like in other volcanic countries such as Iceland, New Zealand can boast a significant number of geothermal fields, where hot molten rock heats up the ground above, giving birth to numerous geysers and hot springs. Mark Smale at Landcare Research in New Zealand wanted to see just what kind of plant life can live under these conditions, so he set out to survey 15 such fields in the Taupo Volcanic Zone of New Zealand’s North Island. He and his colleagues cataloged the soil temperatures, they analyzed the pH level and metal content and took samples for further analysis. Of course, they also took samples of the vegetation that they encountered in these conditions.

As expected, they found that most areas in geothermal fields have extreme pH levels and high (sometimes toxic) levels of metals — which can greatly affect plant growth.

As a result, only plants with shallow roots can survive in these conditions: species such as mosses or liverworts. Shrubs were the tallest forms of vegetation they encountered. Since temperatures and metal content get higher the deeper you go, these plants have adapted to not go too deep with their roots, and spread laterally.

Campylopus pyriformis — image not taken during this survey. Image credits: HermannSchachner.

For instance, one species, the dwarf swan-neck moss (Campylopus pyriformis), a species found in a variety of climates, was found to be surprisingly resilient. It was so tough that it even survived soils as hot as 72C — the only species to do so.

“It supports only one species,” says Smale. “Apart from perhaps thermophilic algae, no plants can survive temperatures above about 80°C.”

Soil temperature was found to be the main limiting factor when it came to plant growth and plant survival. Where temperatures went just a bit lower, at 68C, geothermal Kanuka, a shrub endemic to New Zealand, and staghorn clubmoss, Lycopodiella cernua, were also found. Overall, very few flowering plants were found, with mosses and shrubs generally being more resilient and adaptable.

Todd Rosenstiel from Portland State University, who studied plant communities at geothermal sites in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, said he found similar results in his work.

“There seems to be a convergence of plant community structures across geothermal zones,” he says.

These highly adapted plants are one of the few species worldwide which are not vulnerable to climate change. Image via Pixabay.

Now, Smale and his colleagues want to make a further classification of the vegetation found in such areas, to see whether conservation measures are in order. Ásrún Elmarsdóttir from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in Reykjavik says that this vegetation is vulnerable, being threatened by geothermal projects and by the fact that many tourists often trample it.

It’s also worth noting that being adapted to such an extreme environment actually makes these plants pretty much immune to climate change — one of the very few species which can boast that.

“They are some of the few sites that are immune to climate change,” says Smale.

Journal Reference: Mark C. Smale, Susan K. Wiser, Michael J. Bergin & Neil B. Fitzgerald — A classification of the geothermal vegetation of the Taupō Volcanic Zone, New Zealand.

The New Zealand kea is an endemic parrot found in the South Island's alpine environments. As many as 5,000 and as little as 1,000 individuals are believe to exist in the wild. Credit: Bernard Spragg. Flickr.

New Zealand parrot’s ‘laugh’ is so contagious other birds just can’t resist joining in

The New Zealand kea is an endemic parrot found in the South Island's alpine environments. As many as 5,000 and as little as 1,000 individuals are believe to exist in the wild. Credit: Bernard Spragg. Flickr.

The New Zealand kea is an endemic parrot found in the South Island’s alpine environments. As many as 5,000 and as little as 1,000 individuals are believe to exist in the wild. Credit: Bernard Spragg. Flickr.

A big smile can sometimes brighten even the gloomiest mood. Same goes for laughter which, like yawning, is proven to be contagious. This peculiar social mirroring effect is not reserved for humans only as one recent study showed the kea parrot in New Zealand also has an infectious laugh.

A playful bird

You can meet the kea (Nestor notabilis) in New Zealand’s mountainous South Island. If you’re fortunate enough to come across this adorable parrot one of the first things you’ll notice is the bird’s colourful vocal repertoire. Among the many sounds this parrot makes, there’s the so-called ‘play call’ — a warbling sound which announces other keas that this parrot is in a playful food and induces other birds to join in on all the fun.

This behaviour was first recorded by Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria and colleagues. The team played recordings of kea play calls as well as other vocalizations to wild birds for five minutes to see how they react. A robin song, which is another species living in the same habitat as the kea, acted as the control for the study.

The kea’s reaction to the sounds was pretty clear. When the birds, regardless of their sex, heard the playful tune, they started exhibiting more playful behaviour than when other calls were played. If no other kea was around, the bird would simply start playing by itself, either by making weird moves in the air or toying around with objects.

“Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already underway, but instead started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics,” the researchers write.

“These instances suggest that kea weren’t ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalisations can act as a positive emotional contagion.”

Two playful Keas. Credit: Flickr.

Two playful Keas. Credit: Flickr.

Because the kea was not interesting in joining a playful party already happening, this suggests to the researchers that the call is not an invitation to ‘come out and play’. Rather, it may be that the sounds put the birds in a playful frame of mind, as reported in the journal Current Biology.

The kea’s playful repertoire is very varied, even from the limited observations Schwing et al. managed to record. It’s common for the birds to perform aerial acrobatics or chase each other when they hear the play call. A solitary bird will often toss an object around but the researchers saw non-solitary birds toss objects like little twigs among themselves too. One kea even presented itself on its back to invite others to ‘wrestle’, a non-aggressive behaviour often seen in cats.

“The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state,” says Schwing.

The impressive feature of the kea, however, is the infectious nature of this play call. It’s the first non-mammal to exhibit contagious emotions, joining a select few like chimps, rats, and humans, of course.

Not everything about the kea’s life is a laughing matter. Sadly, the bird is listed as vulnerable to extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

416 beached whales send New Zealanders into frantic rescue mission

It is a daunting sight. Hundreds of whales, crying, sighing, and some of them already rotting lay stranded on the beach. In one of the worst whale strandings in history, hundreds of farmers, tourists and teenagers were racing to save the whales, but 275 of the pilot whales didn’t even survive until they arrived. It’s one of the most frantic rescue operations we’ve ever seen.

Stranded pilot whales at Farewell Spit, New Zealand today. Image: Deb Price

Magazine editor Cheree Morrison and photographer Jane Ussher raced out to see what was happening, and they report a disaster.

“It was just red and pink skies and just whales as far as you could see,” Morrison said. “It was really haunting.” At that moment, people didn’t really know what was happening and the story was still unfolding. “Your first instinct was to run to them and help in any way possible,” she said, but they were only three people, completely unprepared.

“There’s nothing you can do,” the guide, who notified authorities, told them.

Official government sources claim that 100 whales were refloated, but there is very little good news. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation staged a massive rescue mission, aided by locals, but success rate was not that high.

“Around 416 pilot whales stranded near the base of Farewell Spit overnight, of which 250 to 300 were already dead when the whales were discovered,” the report states. “A refloat of over 100 whales took place on the high tide around 10.30 am Friday morning. The refloat has been partially successful with around 50 whales out swimming in the bay. The remaining 80 to 90 have re-stranded on the beach.”

“The beached whales will be keep comfortable with the help of volunteers until dark.”

It’s not clear what the chances of the remaining whales are, but it doesn’t look too good. Rescuing whales is a very delicate and even dangerous job, as stressed whales can easily injure humans. They can also carry diseases to volunteers are asked to avoid bodily fluids from whales and avoid getting cuts.

In the meantime, darkness has set in New Zealand, and locals were asked to go home for the night and return in the morning… if any living whales are still left.

“There will be no work done overnight as it would become unsafe for people to be close to the whales in the dark. If necessary, a second attempt to refloat the stranded whales will take place tomorrow around noon on the high tide.”

Every year, up to 2,000 animals beach themselves. About 10 cetacean species frequently display mass beachings, with 10 more rarely doing so. Pilot whales are among those more likely to get stranded.

Muriwai Monster

Strange ‘Muriwai Monster’ is a crustacean colony, New Zealand marine scientists say

Muriway Beach, New Zealand locals have reported the strange sighting of a twitching, living mass that reminds me of Cthulhu’s beard. The so-called Muriwai Monster has people flocking to see how nature can still surprise us on a planet we like to think of as ours.

Muriwai Monster

Hello miss, do you have a moment to talk about out lord and savior Neptune, god of the deep?
Image credits Melissa Doubleday / Facebook.

The oceans around New Zealand are full of surprises lately, with blocks of seabed being pushed up by an earthquake last month on Kaikura beach and a strange sighting yesterday on Muriwai Beach — but this time, the story behind it is way less violent. On first sight, you could mistake it for a whale carcass. That’s actually what Melissa Doubleday thought when she first discovered the mass while driving by the beach.

Image credits Melissa Doubleday / Facebook.

Image credits Melissa Doubleday / Facebook.

The whole object, however, is covered in black tendrils which move and twitch in the Sun. Curious about what she found, Melissa snapped a few pictures and posted them to Facebook.

“[I] drove past and [was] like what the?” she said in the original post.

“I actually thought it was a washed up whale as I approached it, so weird,” she later told Stuff. “It looks like worms with shells I’ve never seen before with these funny creatures that just [come] out.”

Local Rani Timoti, who also visited the beach, told Stuff that the object definitely looked “alive”, like wiggling worms, and has a strong putrid smell when you’re downwind. Which, according to the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society, isn’t very surprising: the whole thing is basically one huge pile of seafood left out under the sun.

The object is likely a massive piece of driftwood colonized by Lepas anatifera, a species of gooseneck barnacles. These crustaceans live their whole life attached to submerged objects in huge numbers and feed by filtering the water around them through a series of feeding tentacles.

Anatifera‘s pedunculus (the muscular black tendrils) can grow up to 80 cm (31 inches) long. It’s the only sessile crustacean on Earth, meaning they’re related to shellfish but they live like an oyster — they produce a type of cement that binds them in place to a surface. If that surface ups and plants them on a beach in New Zealand where residents can pick and poke at them, they can’t do much about the situation.

Which just goes to show how dangerous a sedentary lifestyle can be.

Magma is building up beneath a town in New Zealand

Known for its magnificent landscapes and spectacular volcanoes, New Zealand never disappoints. Unfortunately, this time, the volcanism seems to be expanding under inhabited areas, a new study found.

The nearby Mount Tarawera. Image: Carl Lindberg

The good news is that there’s no need to panic – an eruption is not imminent and likely won’t be for a few centuries, but when it pops, it’s gonna be pretty big. Estimates show that there’s enough magma to fill 80,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, lifting the ground beneath the coastal town of Matata by 40 centimeters.

Matata is home to only a few hundred people, and hasn’t had a history of volcanism for over 400,000 years, so geologists weren’t expecting to discover something beneath it. But a series of surprising earthquakes caught their attention.

“It was quite a big surprise,” lead researcher Ian Hamling told Nick Perry for the Associated Press (AP).

A graphic representation of what’s happening with the magma pool. Image via Ian Hamling.

The magma pool is calculated to be some 9.5 km beneath the surface, which means it may never even turn into a volcano. Instead, it may simply accumulate and subsequently cool off and harden. But monitoring this process and understanding the magmatic evolution will help us in other places on Earth, where the threat is imminent.

“Although the ultimate fate of the magma remains unclear, its presence may represent the birth of a new magma chamber on the margins of arguably the world’s most active region of silicic volcanism, which has witnessed 25 caldera-forming eruptions over the last 1.6 million years,” the researchers write in Science Advances.

Real Life Mount Doom might be about to erupt, geologists warn

Mount Ruapehu on New Zealand’s north island is starting to show signs of eruption, and hikers have been warned to stay away from it. This is the real-life Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings, where many scenes of the movie were shot.

Photo by Eusebius@Commons

Mount Ruapehu is a stratovolcano with three major peaks: Tahurangi (2,797 m), Te Heuheu (2,755 m) and Paretetaitonga (2,751 m). The deep, active crater is between the peaks and fills with a crater lake between major eruptions. Recently, the volcano alert level for the mountain was raised to Level 2 (moderate to heightened unrest), because there’s a good chance the volcano might erupt soon.

“There are more signs of life at the volcano,” volcanologist Brad Scott from GNS Science told National Geographic. “Recent visits to the volcano have confirmed an increase in the output of volcanic gas.”

It doesn’t mean that the volcano will definitely erupt, it’s spectacular to see Mount Doom showing signs of life.

“One of the common factors of the crater lake is it heats up and cools down. Typically those cycles last between nine and 14 months,” Scott told the press. “When there’s unrest that doesn’t always lead to an eruption. It can show more signs of life and then go back to a quieter state.”

Even if it does erupt, there’s not much reason to worry – unless you’re on it or directly around it. Ruapehu has erupted 60 times since 1945, with the majority of those eruptions being minor. The last time was in 2007, when a single hiker was injured as he was going up the mountain.

Researchers from Geonet – the national agency that monitors New Zealand’s geological threats – will continue to monitor the region closely over the next few weeks, to put out a clear warning as early as possible – in the case of an eruption.

twisted trees slope point

Surreal crooked trees shaped by Antarctic winds

twisted trees slope point

Photo: Flickr

Slope Point is the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island. It lies only 4800 km (2982 mi) from the South Pole and weather can be terribly cruel. Air streams that flow over the Southern Ocean produce some of the most tear shedding winds you’ll ever see on a regular basis. It’s no wonder then that Slope Point is virtually uninhabitable, apart from sheep and a couple of farmers who tend after them. Winds are so unforgiving that the trees themselves molded into weird and crooked shapes. There’s an almost surreal beauty to their shape though, highlighting the beautiful harshness of life. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world.

slope point

Image: Flickr

slope point

Image: Flickr

slope point

Image: Flickr

slope point

Image: Flickr

slope point

Image: Flickr

slope point

Image: Flickr

slope island

Image: Flickr

New Zealand opens marine reserve for oil exploration and seismic testing

In a world class display of hypocrisy, after opening up the world’s largest marine sanctuary and vowing to reduce fossil fuel subsidies, the New Zealand government has opened up a marine reserve of the world’s rarest dolphin for oil exploration – most significantly, seismic surveys.

Maui’s dolphin or popoto is the world’s rarest and smallest known subspecies of dolphin.

The Maui dolphin is the world’s rarest, with under 60 individuals remaining in the wild – all in the waters around New Zealand. The area that was opened for exploration overlaps 3000 square kilometres into the sanctuary, including some large areas of the Tarnaki coast in the north island. However, the government doesn’t appear to be too worried.

“I think primarily once you go from exploration right through to production, you’re not jeopardising the wildlife,” says Minister of Energy and Resources Mr Bridges.

Of course, that’s not even remotely true. Even if it never gets to the extraction, just exploration can be very dangerous for marine wildlife. Seismic prospection lies at the very core of exploration; what happens is that specially equipped vessels carry one or more cables containing a series of hydrophones at constant intervals. These hydrophones record the acoustic waves coming from one or several sources, which are almost always airguns. The main problem is that marine seismic surveys have a high risk of disturbing, damaging or even killing marine wildlife, especially cetaceans as dolphins and whales which rely on sound to communicate with one another (and even to navigate).

It has been shown that several species of whales purposefully avoid their regular migratory and breeding grounds where seismic surveys are carried, despite claims coming from oil companies and fossil fuel associations. However, as it often happens, the importance of protecting wildlife fades in comparison to those black, oily dollars.

“There has been petroleum exploration in that area for a long period of time,” says Mr Bridges. “I think it’s about achieving a balance.”

tuatara chewing reptile

This reptile chews food like a “steak knife”

The New Zealand tuatara (Sphenodon) is one of those unique animals that warrants revision for biology textbooks. The  lizard-like reptile that is the only survivor of a group that was globally widespread at the time of the dinosaurs uses its highly specialised jaws  to slice its food like a “steak knife”. Typically, chewing is associated with high metabolism in animals, but in this instance this is far from being the case.

Chewing: not just for mammals

tuatara chewing reptile

Credit: Chester Zoo

The tuatara lives on only 35 islands scattered around the coast of New Zealand and was recently reintroduced to the mainland. Its diet consists of beetles, spiders, crickets, small lizards and, occasionally, sea birds.

[DON’T MISS] The amazing tuatara

Using a computer model, researchers at University of Hull proved the complex moving structures of the reptile’s jaw as it chews is prey. This allowed them to image the pattern in 3D and from all angles with unprecedented detail. The model revealed that when the tuatara chews, the lower jaw closes between two rows of upper teeth. Once closed, the lower jaw slides forward a few millimetres to cut food between sharp edges on the teeth, sawing food apart.

“Some reptiles such as snakes are able to swallow their food whole but many others use repeated bites to break food down. The tuatara also slices up its food, much like a steak knife.”

“Because mammals show the most sophisticated form of chewing, chewing has been linked to high metabolism. However, the tuatara chews food in a relatively complex way but its metabolism is no higher than that of other reptiles with simpler oral food processing abilities. Therefore the relationship between extensive food processing and high metabolism has perhaps been overstated,” said Lead author Dr Marc Jones, UCL Cell and Developmental Biology. 

The tuatara provides an example in which specialisation of the feeding mechanism appears to allow a broader diet.

“The slicing jaws of the tuatara allow it to eat a wide range of prey including beetles, spiders, crickets, and small lizards. There are also several grizzly reports of sea birds being found decapitated following predation by tuatara,” Dr. Jones said.

“Although the tuatara-like chewing mechanism is rare today, fossils from Europe and Mexico show us that during the time of the dinosaurs (about 160 million years ago) some fossil relatives of the tuatara used a similar system and it was much more widespread,” he added.

The iconic New Zealand reptile was described in a paper published in The Anatomical Record.

New Zealand MP demoted after suggesting homeopathy use in Ebola fight

Photo / Getty Images

Green MP Steffan Browning was slammed by the public opinion and has subsequently been stripped of one of his portfolios after he suggested fighting Ebola with homeopathy.

I have  to admit, I couldn’t help a chuckle on finding this out. I mean, the fact that a Member of the Parliament of a developed country suggests treating one of the most contagious and dangerous diseases in the world with a technique with no scientific merit is so absurd you just couldn’t take it seriously… if it wasn’t real.

Last week, Mr Browning signed a petition started by Australian Fran Sheffield which called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “End the suffering of the Ebola crisis. Test and distribute homeopathy as quickly as possible to contain the outbreaks.” Uhm, yeah, homeopathy doesn’t have any effect on human health aside for a placebo and other purely psychological effects. If you’re still not convinced yet, feel free to check out the linked articles – I’ve explained (and quote scientific studies) time and time again how it doesn’t work.

But back to the situation, I’m glad to say that Greens co-leader Metiria Turei said the party caucus had decided to remove Mr Browning’s responsibility for the natural health portfolio. They say it’s part of “rebuilding confidence” in the party. I was hoping the move was about supporting real science and fighting bogus claims… but it’s better than nothing.

Mr Browning accepted the decision, even though he said he doesn’t oppose homeopathy “on a personal level” – something which he clearly doesn’t, seeing as he signed a petition promoting it in the fight against Ebola.

“We are in politics and issues come up. But I am real happy to get on with my other portfolios and you’ll see me perform on those.”

I’m just curious when (or rather, if) we’ll start seeing demotions like this in other countries… like, you know, the USA?

Researchers find that that water penetrates upper crust layer, goes down to 6-8 km

General depiction of the crust.

Most geologists did not believe that water could penetrate into the lower ductile crust, but a new study has shown that this does indeed happen. Researchers conducted isotopic analysis on minerals brought up by tectonic uplift showed that rainwater can reach (and perhaps even surpass) the brittle ductile transition zone, at 6-8 km.

Dr. Catriona Menzies and Professor Stephen Roberts, with their team of scientists from the University of South Hampton, the University of Otago and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, conducted the analysis in New Zealand’s Southern Alps – where tectonic movement constantly pushes deeper parts of the tectonic plate upwards. These minerals carry with them a history of the fluids which passed through them, and that history can be scanned for isotopes and reconstructed. Basically, whenever a fluid passes through a rock they leave behind a tiny deposit – and that is the key here.

Geological map of New Zealand.

By identifying hydrogen and oxygen isotopes the authors mapped the water content at different depths. In the 0-2 km traces of rainwater can be easily found, but they were quite surprised to find the same thing as they went deeper and deeper – even further than 6 km. Again, they didn’t core to those depths, they just studied minerals which were at that depth and brought up by tectonic activity.

It’s also important to note that this is meteoric water – water from meteorological cycles which precipitates as rain or snow; it is not magmatic (or juvenile) water, the water present in magma since its genesis, which can only be brought up by eruptions or magma uplift.

Rainwater can play an important role in fault activation or reactivation – weakening the rocks and acting like a lubricant, so understanding how it infiltrates and what depths it reaches can improve our understanding of seismic risk and earthquake triggering. It also has interesting implications for our understanding of valuable minerals, such as gold and quartz. Furthermore, it can also play a role in orogenesis, depending on its flowpath.

*Earth and Planetary Science Letters, DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2014.04.046

The amazing Tuatara

The tuatara is not an iguana, it’s not a lizard, and it is very, very different than any other reptile alive today on Earth. In fact, recent studies suggest that it’s pretty different from any other vertebrate. It’s home is in New Zealand, which is known for eccentric life forms of all kinds: the kiwi, with long whiskers and feathers just like fur, the kakapo, the parrot that can’t fly and looks like an owl, and the giant weta, a cricket as big as your fist. However, as amazing and special as these animals are, they fade in comparison to the tuatara.

About 80 million years ago, the supercontinent Gondwana split up, leaving life on this paradise island evolutionary separated from the rest of the world. The tuatara is about 16 inches long, and it’s practically a living fossil – it hasn’t changed significantly in hundreds of millions of years. It has a third eye, the legendary but unexplained pineal eye, located on the forehead and used for registering light intensity and regulating body temperature.

But what is extremely weird is that a few regions of the tuatara DNA are evolving at an incredible speed, probably with the fastest mutation rate ever in vertebrates. The rapidly changing DNA sequences are limited to so-called neutral regions of the tuatara’s DNA, and affect rather fillings and not the basic “blueprint” of the tuatara. They are also very different from reptiles too.

“Their biology is quite distinctive,” said Charles Daugherty of the Allan Wilson Center for Molecular Ecology and Evolution at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “They have a unique type of hemoglobin, and their enzymes are set to function at lower temperatures than in most reptiles.” As a result, tuataras remain active at night, and in weather just a few degrees above freezing, said Dr. Daugherty, “at temperatures at which most reptiles couldn’t survive.”

But the tuatara gets even more awesome. They routinely live to 100 years, and often go above 150 or even 200; they also live it up – females can reproduce up until 80-100 years. They’re also mean and like to show off, and even fight when necessary

“They have crests they can inflate, to make them look big, and they stand very tall and start mouth-gaping at each other,” said Dr. Godfrey. “If one male doesn’t get the message, it will escalate into a physical fight.” They tear at each other’s crests and toes, they trade parasites. “During mating season, you can see the bright orange patches of mites on their necks,” said Dr. Godfrey. “It’s quite spectacular.”

Today, there are less than 50.000 tuataras, all of which are considered to be a national treasure.