The Mega-Herbs of Macquarie Island are Back in Bloom!

I feel as though I have been writing about the effect of pest species on the Sub-Antarctic Islands a lot as of late and so when I saw the topic for this blog post, I couldn’t help but share it. Who doesn’t love good news?

ECOS Magazine recently reported that the large-scale operation to eradicate rabbits from Australia’s only Sub-Antarctic Island, Macquarie Island, is already doing good things for its wild inhabitants.

The article, Macquarie Island is Back in Bloom, tells of ecstatic scientists who have watched the islands mega-herb populations take over the island quicker than anyone had expected.

Rabbits have been a problem on Macquarie Island for a number of years, but have become most troublesome recently. As I mentioned in my previous post on pest species, rabbits are most dangerous in large numbers, especially to local vegetation.

The last estimate of the population size of rabbits on Macquarie Island was around 100,000 and in such large numbers, they can certainly mow through the vegetation. These mega-herbs are crucial for a number of invertebrate and sea-bird species that are, in many cases, endemic to the island. What’s more is that Macquarie Island has peat soil that is easily eroded without the support that these mega-herbs provide.

So how did they achieve it? Eradicating such a virulent species from an isolated island is no easy task. The snippet below from the ECOS Magazine article sums it up nicely, but I highly recommend having a look at the full article and doing a little dance for the mega-herbs of Macquarie Island.

“Three months before aerial baiting resumed in 2011, rabbit calicivirus was introduced to the island to reduce the rabbit population. This step was part of a risk management strategy to minimise the number of poisoned rabbit carcases above ground that could be eaten by predatory or scavenging seabirds.

By last July, the last of the poisoned bait had been dropped from helicopter-slung buckets. Teams of hunters, accompanied by highly trained sniffer dogs and handlers, then arrived on the island to ‘mop up’ remaining pests. While they initially managed to flush out 13 rabbits, none have been detected on the island since December.”

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Incredible Endemic Species of the Southern Ocean.

If you thought that New Zealand’s mainland has some pretty special animals, wait until you meet the incredible endemics that you’ll find living on the Sub-Antarctic Islands.

What does endemic mean, I hear you wonder. It means that an animal is found nowhere else in the world. The perfect example is the kiwi on New Zealand’s mainland. The pukeko, on the other hand is a native because it’s also found across the ditch in Australia, where they call it the purple swamp hen.

So what endemic species call the Sub-Antarctic Islands home? Let’s meet three of the regions incredible endemics…

1. The Snares Penguin

The Snares Penguin (Photo: Wikimedia)

How do you fit 50,000 penguins on an area of just 3.5 square kilometres? Head down to The Snares Islands and find out. The Snares penguin are found nowhere else in the world, and have very little space to work with.

If they look familiar, it’s because they’re related to the crested penguins that we know and love like the Fiordland crested penguin and the rockhopper penguin.

While the Snares penguin is not considered as threatened, it is vulnerable to extinction because of its limited range. If a threat to its survival were to arise, it would quickly wipe out a large proportion of the population and because they are found nowhere else on the planet, recovery would be slowed down significantly.

2. The Antipodes Island Parakeet

The Antipodes Island Parakeet (Photo: ExplorNZ)

The Antipodes Island Parakeet is the largest in it’s genus and is closely related to the yellow, orange, and red-fronted parakeet (you may know them as kakariki) that are found throughout New Zealand.

As it name would suggest, it’s only found on the Antipodes Islands, a small rock in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Its main island is a mere 20 square kilometres in size, and is surrounded by a number of rocky islands and outcrops no more than 2 square kilometres in size.

The greatest threat to these birds is the introduced mouse population on the Antipodes Islands, which I mentioned in a previous blog post. They predate on the eggs and adults of these birds, and can only be stopped through eradication. Take a look at the Our Far South Million Dollar Mouse Project.

3. The Royal Penguin

Royal Penguin on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The royal penguin is found on an island that I haven’t yet covered on this blog, despite it being an interesting and important island habitat for species in the Southern Ocean. Macquarie Island is an Australian Territory found about halfway between the Australian mainland and Antarctic.

The royal penguin is endemic to the island, and a number of colonies are scattered throughout the island, the largest consisting of around 30,000 breeding pairs. Like the Snares penguin, it’s a member of the crested penguins genus (Eudyptes).

The Tasmanian government issued a hunting license for the royal penguin between 1870 and 1919 and an average of 150,000 penguins were killed each year for their oil, with each penguins providing around half a litre. Despite this dark period in their history, the royal penguin are not considered threatened and remain in large numbers on the island.

Southern Ocean Stories

I went through some of my photographs from the Sub-Antarctic Islands that I took on my voyage south with Heritage Expeditions over the easter break. Each time I do this, it feels more and more like a dream and I begin to remember the little things about that trip that made it so special. I thought I would share a couple of excerpts from the diary I took while I was on the Spirit of Enderby in an attempt to document my experience. It helps me remember, and hopefully, gives readers an insight to the fantastic region that is the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand.

13th December 2010

The climb in Carnley Harbour, Auckland Island. (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Today we went around to Carnley Harbour in the Auckland Islands. We were given a choice of going on a Zodiac cruise around the Island or climbing to the top of a peak (around 200m so not too bad) to get a look at the white-capped mollymawk colony. It was a pretty hard work but definitely worth it in the end! They were beautiful. The mud was plentiful and the grass deceptive as I grabbed a few to hold on to and came out with sliced up hands.

White-Capped Mollymawk on Auckland Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Once we got up the top we had lunch and relaxed for a little bit before having to leave early. The ship was apparently dragging its anchor and so had to move further out of the harbour. The harbour acts as a wind tunnel, which we soon found out on the Zodiac ride back. We were up in the air and side to side for most of it. Eventually we got back to the boat and prepared the cabin for the supposed treacherous waters between the Auckland Islands and Macquarie Island. I can honestly say that I felt sick for the first time the whole trip and didn’t manage to get dinner.

15th December 2010

First day on Macquarie Island today. Words can’t describe how excited I was when we were heading ashore, even looking from the boat you could see a mass of little black and white specks dotting the coast line. It was like something out of Animal Planet. When we got ashore in the Zodiacs, we had to weave our way through elephant seals and along the beach to the Royal Penguin colony.

Royal Penguins on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The Royals were incredibly interested in us, one even came up and nibbled on my trousers as if to say “who are you, what do you want?”. We had to walk at a very slow pace so that we didn’t startle them, especially the King Penguins which were much more skittish. Quite funny to watch people waddling very slowly along the beach, but better than startling thousands of penguins. Elephant seals were huge and quite sedentary, although I assume they can still move pretty fast! I still can’t get over the sound that they make, it’s quite disturbing!

Southern Elephant Seal on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

I think of that trip every single day and without sounding cliché, am so incredibly thankful that I was lucky enough to be on it. I hope my adventure and my passion for these islands has inspired at least 1 other person to take an interest. Even if it’s only looking at a Wikipedia article. That’s where it all starts.