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28 October 2016 / Liz Johns

And New Zealand’s Largest Lizard is …

It’s the tuatara, isn’t it? Wrong. But you’d be forgiven in thinking so, because although the tuatara is very lizardy in appearance, it is in fact the sole member of the reptile order Sphenodontida. Yeah, I knew that too … ahem, thank you Google … So what is New Zealand’s largest lizard then? It’s the magnificent Ducauvel’s Gecko (Hoplodactylus duvaucelii).



This feisty little beasty can grow to around 320mm, head to tip of tail. OK, not so very large, but it is one of the largest geckos in the world.

The largest gecko in the world is the New Caledonian Giant Gecko

Finding Duvaucel’s Geckos on Mana Island

I was lucky enough too see and handle some of these creatures recently when I went to Mana Island (an island reserve off the west coast of New Zealand) with the Kapiti Coast Biodiversity Project to learn about lizards, their habitat, how to monitor them and most importantly, where to find them. It was an experience and a half. I wasn’t expecting to see so many lizards, geckos and skinks, all in their natural home environment. And to have the chance of handling these scaly wonders was a great privilege. The lizard that appealed to me out of all of them though was the Duvaucel’s Gecko. Maybe it was the their size or their saggy, scaly skin or their large eyes, I don’t know. But they certainly made an impression on me.


The Duvaucel’s Gecko was mistakenly named after Alfred Duvaucel, a French naturalist who spent much of his time in India. Later, it was discovered that the gecko came from New Zealand, but its name remained the same

We found the Duvaucel’s Geckos underneath flat rocks and pieces of driftwood on the coastline of the island. Our guide, a highly knowledgeable herpetologist from EcoGecko, knew the area where these geckos would be living, so we went there and foraged around, peeking hopefully under rocks and wood looking for lizards, exclaiming joyously when we found one. It takes two people to find a lizard, one to lift the rock or piece of wood, the other to crouch down, hands at the ready to gently but quickly grab any fleeing lizards. I say gently as lizards’ tails can be pulled off. It sounds awful, but it’s a natural defence mechanism whereby the lizard can let go of its tail if it gets caught by a predator (in this case us).

“The dropped tail will actually wiggle and twitch on the ground as though it were still attached to the body of the gecko. This tail loss and movement distracts the predator and allows the gecko to get away while the predator is left with just a tail.” –

Duvaucel’s Gecko Facts

20161016_102451What do they eat? – Grasshoppers, wetas, crickets, flies, cockroaches, moths (if they can catch them) and other insects and some fruit

What eats them? – Tuatara, birds of prey, rats, cats, stoats, cats

Do they make a noise? – Yes, a clicky, squeaky noise

Do they lay eggs? – No. They are ovoviviparous. They give birth to live young in the summer, nearly always twins

Do they all look the same? – No. They can be coloured in shades of greens, browns, yellows and greys

How long do they live? – 36+ years to as much as 50 years


Conservation of the Duvaucel’s Gecko

The Duvaucel’s Gecko only live on the off-shore islands in New Zealand where they thrive well as those islands have been cleared of mammals (rats in particular). But sadly they are believed to be extinct on the mainland where there are too many predators. 40 Duvaucel’s Geckos were translocated to Mana Island in 1998 and at the last count in 2012 there were 115 found. Which is really tremendous news.

The Duvaucel’s Gecko has a Threat Status of Relict meaning a small population stabilising after declining (but only on off-shore islands)

The Kapiti Coast Biodiversity Project that I’m volunteering with is trying to establish colonies of lizards on the mainland Kapiti Coast, north of Wellington. Not just the Duvaucel’s Gecko, but any and all lizards that should naturally be found in that location. This is going to involve a lot of trapping of mice and rats (the biggest problem for them by far) and a whole lot of luck and hard work. It could be a long shot, but if you ever get to see all the wonderful skinks and geckos sunning themselves or wiggling around under rocks and driftwood in their natural environment, then like me, you’ll think that anything is worth trying to get them reestablished on the mainland of NZ.








26 February 2016 / Liz Johns

Much More Comfortable Than The Coop

We all like the comforts of home and animals are no exception. Just because we leave them out in fields with only trees for shelter or in kennels or garages or hutches barely sheltered from the wind, doesn’t mean that if they had the choice – they wouldn’t prefer something a little more comfortable.

Take for instance, Missy the Chook, caught in action on camera seeking out the comfort of a still warm bed.

Oooo – this looks warm and cosyWP_20160226_08_33_05_Pro[1]

Wonder if I can stay here – is anyone looking?WP_20160226_08_33_11_Pro[1]

Let me just settle myself down a bitWP_20160226_08_33_56_Pro[1]


{Note to Editor – check the bed later for eggs before getting in}

27 March 2011 / Liz Johns

They Say Parrots Are Left-Footed, But Are They Right . . . Footed?

Milo the Corella waving his left foot

We’re born with it apparently. Handedness that is, or to give it its grown up name, laterality. Stats show that 88.2% of humans are right handed, leaving 11.8% left handed. Why a person is predisposed to a particular handedness has been the focus of many studies with varying conclusions. Similar studies have looked into the right and left footedness of parrots as they often pick up their food in one foot and bring it to their mouths to eat. An endearing quality, or so I believe, as it is a rather human-like action that many other animals do not have. (And you know, there’s nothing we’re more fond of in nature than animals that do similar actions to ourselves – think chimp tea parties and baby pandas sneezing.) But I digress, back to the studies of footedness that have been done in parrots. The common finding is that parrots are predominantly left footed (47% left-footed, 33% right-footed, the remainder ambidextrous). These aren’t overwhelming statistics into the preference of one foot over the other, but nevertheless do show a tendency.

Perhaps the parrots are imitating us

On reading these findings I thought of two possible influences for parrot foot preference and wondered whether the research had taken them into account. The first thing I thought about was imitation. Birds, and parrots especially, seem to take great enjoyment in imitating what’s going on around them both in sound and action. Is it not possible then that if most people (and therefore most researchers) are right handed, that the parrots under study are picking up food in the mirror image of the researchers placing the food down? Certainly early studies tested caged birds so it’s possible that they were imitating in mirror image the people who were putting the food out.

Perhaps the foot they stand on is the dominant one

The other thing that crossed my mind that I think is worth a mention, is whether we are considering right and left footedness the correct way. Perhaps parrots are predominantly right footed because that’s their stronger foot and the one they sleep on. They would then use their weaker foot to hold food, leaving their more stable foot for balance.

Further research needed

Maybe I should gather together a couple of hundred parrots and conduct my own survey. I’ve got three for starters. Anyone out there that could lend me a few more?  All in the name of science.


12 March 2011 / Liz Johns

Not A Fungi To Be With . . . If You’re An Ant

Forget the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, there’s a horror story going on right now, beneath our feet, directed by Nature. You may have already read about it, but it’s so fascinating in its grisliness that I couldn’t let the story slip by without posting it.

Let Me Tell You A Horror Story

In the tropical rainforests around the world, there is a species of carpenter ant called the Camponotus leonardi that lives up in the trees. Unfortunately for them, there is also a fungus in the same environment, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that releases spores which infect these unsuspecting ants. It’s not yet know what chemicals are released into the ants from these spores, but what is known is the bizarre and gruesome effect it has on them. The chemicals infect the ant’s brain and take control, leaving the ant in a zombie-like state. The ant, under the control of the fungus, then leaves its colony (something that it would otherwise never do), moves to a particular location on a particular leaf, locks down on the leaf with its jaws and remains there until the fungus kills it. The next scene in this horror story is where the fungus, now living in the ant, produces a long stalk that grows from the ant’s head that shoots out spores in order to infect other passing ants. Read more…

8 March 2011 / Liz Johns

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #4

Always Keep Your Eyes On What’s Most Important To You


See Also:

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #3

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #2

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #1

6 March 2011 / Liz Johns

In Pursuit Of The Selfish Commute – Herd Behaviour In Humans

As I was driving the commute to work the other morning, flanked by traffic on either side of me front and back, a thought came to mind that this must be the closest equivalent to herd behaviour in animals. There is one marked difference of course, people driving to work are generally trying to get out in front to get away from the ‘herd’. Their goal is to reach their destination first and to avoid being hampered by slightly slower drivers ahead, the appearance of whom causes annoyance and frustration. Everyone in the commute secretly wishes that everyone else would travel at a later or earlier time. Any time, but the same time as them. Compare this to an animal herd, a collection of animals that form a like-minded group, often with the sacrifice of the individual, whose sole and shared purpose is to reach a common goal or destination. As such they form a harmony of animals moving together for the greater benefit of all.

Mutual concern or individual gain? Read more…

8 February 2011 / Liz Johns

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #3

Never Dine Alone


See Also:

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #2

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #1

6 February 2011 / Liz Johns

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #2

If You Don’t Know What To Wear,

Dress Like Your Best Friend


See Also Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #1

5 February 2011 / Liz Johns

Life Advice From A Pet Perspective #1

Always Make The Most Of Every Window Of Opportunity


28 January 2011 / Liz Johns

Want To Beat A Chess Grand Master? Think Like A Rat

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

It’s a wonder to me how chess players’ brains work. How is it possible to strategically plan so many moves ahead, consider alternative courses of action and, at the same time, second-guess your opponent’s next move. It seems an amazing feat of logical thinking and analysis to me, something that only a highly-developed human brain could tackle. But in fact, proficient chess players don’t use their brains that way when playing. Not totally anyway. They are not so much thinking logically, but using memories of patterns seen in past games to recognise their next best move. And this, surprisingly, is exactly how rats think, though to rats, this brain activity comes naturally, whereas in humans, it’s something we have to learn to develop. Read more…

18 January 2011 / Liz Johns

Sandflies – Some Things You Can Just Do Without

Photo Courtesy of Natural History Museum onlineNobody told me about the sandflies

Before moving to New Zealand, I came here on holiday and visited Abel Tasman, an area of coastline in the South Island that has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. You know the thing, blue-green sea, white sand, nobody to be seen for miles. Dave, my better half, and I, sat down on the sand for a picnic, as you do, but not long into the boiled eggs and tomato sandwiches, we felt something nipping our legs and feet. And that was closely followed by about 20-30 minutes of annoying irritation and scratching. We suffered it for a while, but in the end we had to move. We couldn’t see what was ruining our picnic at the time, but later on found out that we had been bitten by the ubiquitous, New Zealand sandfly. Read more…

14 January 2011 / Liz Johns

The Cat That Made A Quantum Jump (Perhaps)

Cat Observed in First Particle Location

I’m not sure, but I think I might have stumbled upon experimental proof that a certain quantum theory is true in the macro world (our world as we see it) as well as in the micro (teeny particles) world. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that physics isn’t my strong point, so there may be some lack of validity with my claim, hence I’m posting it to my WordPress blog instead of to The New Scientist.

What Happened Was …

It all happened when I was in the bedroom and saw my cat, curled up fast asleep on the bed, oblivious to me and seemingly all else. I didn’t think much about it, cats are after all asleep most of the time, so pretty normal activity. But then I went into the kitchen, glanced over to where the cat food bowls were and there was my cat! The very same one that had, a split second ago, been  fast asleep in another room. How could she have got there so fast and so unnoticed? Could she be a quantum cat?

Erwin Schrodinger

And Now The Science Bit

The reason I wondered that is that recently I’ve been reading a bit about about quantum physics (for dummies) and learnt that when electrons move around the nucleus, they don’t move through space as ‘ordinary’ objects do, they disappear from where they currently are and appear in their next location instantaneously i.e. they make a quantum jump. Also, I learnt that it is impossible to predict the next location of an electron, only formulate probabilities of where it might go (Schrodinger’s Wave Equation).

Interesting huh? But listen to this. Quantum physics also tells us that an electron exists as both a particle and a wave. As a particle, the electron has an exact location. As a wave, it has a probability of being in a certain location. And it is only when the electron is ‘observed’ (in this case by the scientist running the experiment), that the wave ‘collapses’ into a particle and then has a precise location and can be measured.

Cat Probability Wave Collapsed Into Second Location

Quantum Cat?

Could this have happened in the case of my cat? I first observed her on the bed, so hence she had a precise, measurable (and very comfortable) location. I had no idea whether she would move, or if she did where she would go. Then, with a quantum jump, she appeared as I observed her, in the kitchen, by the food bowls. Was it my act of observing her in the kitchen that caused her probability waves to collapse into a particle, in other words, caused her to instantaneously appear in the kitchen at the food bowl location?


Okay, the whole thing is merely an amusing observation and highly flawed scientifically, but if it happens again, I’ll let you know. It may change quantum physics as we know it. Or in my case, don’t know it.

[Any errors in the physics theory presented in this piece are purely due to my own incomprehension of quantum physics.]


ADDITION TO POST. If any of you know Minecraft, check out this vid showing a Minecraft-created double-slit experiment with chickens. Excellent.

3 January 2011 / Liz Johns

The Unique Physique of Sean the Sheep


Does my bum look big in this?


Hm … which way am I facing?

Don’t be alarmed, it’s not a growth requiring veterinary care, it’s merely the result of spending a year noshing on plentiful, fresh, green pastures with no restriction on intake i.e. a fat bum. One that any sheep worth its wool would be proud to display (maybe). Sean the Sheep was sheared recently and once the wool was off the most enormous derriere imaginable was uncovered.  Glancing from a distance you would almost believe that he was in the process of growing a second head. My shearer commented politely that he could do with a week or two off pasture, but I suspect that it would take more than couple of weeks to shift that lardy lump of a rump. Read more…

29 December 2010 / Liz Johns

Holy Coconut, Is That A Spider Or A Crab?

Coconut Crab Climbing a Tree

If you were walking along a white sandy island beach and saw THAT clinging to a palm tree up ahead, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the creepiest, giant spider you’d ever seen. In fact, it’s not a spider, it’s a humble hermit crab. You know, one of those creatures you look for under rocks in warm pools of sea water. Ok, not quite, you’d hardly be able to lift the rock that this magnificent sea beastie was hiding under, but it is, nevertheless, a crab. Read more…

24 December 2010 / Liz Johns

Dashing Through The Snow: How Christmas Got Its Reindeer

Reindeer in the Snow

Reindeer, those weather-hardy creatures of the arctic and sub-arctic lands, are known for their strength, their ability to cope with sub-freezing temperatures, and for bearing magnificent antlers each year. What they are not known for is having any ability to fly, and search as you might, you won’t find one red nose between them. So how did reindeer get associated with Christmas?

Most of us now accept that our current Christian Christmas celebrations are largely, if not totally based on pagan, and other non-Christian, religious rites and symbols. But there is such a hodge-podge of traditions entangled that figuring out how our current festival traditions evolved is almost impossible. We can at best base the answer on conjecture. Read more…