Catalogue of life on an island

Giant Collembola. Image: Mark Stevens.

A giant Collembola (a Holacanthella species) from Hauturu, New Zealand. 

For many people a job in which they have to travel regularly to a beautiful island sanctuary would be a dream. For Dr Mark Stevens, Senior Research Scientist, Terrestrial Invertebrates, it is a reality. Mark is participating in a collaborative project that is recording the diversity of life on Hauturu in New Zealand — also known as Little Barrier Island.

The island, which was established as New Zealand’s first nature sanctuary in 1894, is a highly biodiverse and protected natural environment. It is commonly referred to as a model ecosystem. The aim of the project is to map all the levels of life at the site, from the bacteria in the soil through to invertebrates and larger animals, as well as plants.

The project, which falls under the New Zealand Genomic Observatory, is highly collaborative and requires an interdisciplinary approach. Mark works in collaboration with the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution in New Zealand (where he is an Affiliate) as well as several other institutions. He provides expertise in invertebrate biology and genetic analysis, while other scientists contribute skills in field ecology (a combination of biology and earth sciences), niche modelling (to predict expected animal populations) and complex data management systems known as bioinformatics.

Mark is also using his trips to Hauturu as an opportunity to study one of his favourite and newly discovered invertebrates, the giant Collembola (genus Holacanthella). These bright blue and yellow creatures, known commonly as springtails, are approximately 1–1.5 cm long and found under pieces of rotting wood. They are endemic to the island and are giant in comparison to most other Collembola species.

In collaboration with Richard Newcomb from Plant and Food Research New Zealand, Mark recently discovered that the giant Collembola has the largest genome (total amount of genetic material)of any in its species’ grouping. Mark is now working to sequence this genome and its transcribed material, the transcriptome.

This work was funded by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution.

Hauturu or Little Barrier Island.

Hauturu or Little Barrier Island, New Zealand, the field site for cataloguing life on an island.