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Meet the Endurance team… Archaeology with Peter Petchey


dunedin_archaeologist_peter_petchey_reflects_on_ph_5374a978b3 (1)

Peter Petchey holding photos of ‘stamper batteries’ from Central Otago, part of his PhD thesis in archaeology, at the University of Otago. Photo by G. O’Brien


By Elsie Percival

kakapo circle

The ships that anchored off Antipodes Island 200 years ago were not visiting to look at the odd parakeets that live there. For those early visitors, their motivation was commercial. From 1805 to 1807 a flurry of hunters travelled to the Islands in search of seal colonies, eager to exploit lucrative bounties for their soft pelts. Other seafarers were cast upon the treacherous shores of the island not by choice, but shipwrecked by the hard-beating waves on steep cliffs and unchartered rocky reefs.

Perhaps there were even earlier voyages to the Antipodes, before Europeans came; but if there were, no trace of their presence on the island has survived. But who knows, there are always hidden archaeological treasures waiting to be uncovered.

On the 2016 ‘Operation Endurance’ Department of Conservation trip to the Antipodes, we are lucky to have our own Indiana Jones on board – Peter Petchey – an archaeologist from Otago University, who is working towards unravelling the enduring history of human contact with the Island. Peter will be building on previous research by Rowley Taylor and Kath Walker, who documented the historic sites of castaways and early sealers on the Antipodes Islands. Returning to these sites, Peter hopes to bring past archaeological findings together, and synthesise them with a fresh investigation of the area. He will be updating field reports, acquiring accurate GPS coordinates and searching for new archaeological evidence.

Keep your eyes peeled for an update of Peters’ work once we reach the island. Alongside our mission to eradicate mice, Peter will be tracing the footsteps of those who were responsible for the arrival of the destructive critters in the first place.

For more information about castaways see Chrissy’s post: Shipwrecked on the Antipodes and for a human history timeline see her post: History of the Antipodes Islands.

Read more about Peter and his PhD

Antipodes, Fingerpost, K Walker

Antipodes, Old Fingerpost pointing to castaway provisions. Photo by K. Walker





Bird Poo – the life giver of Subantarctic islands

By Elsie Percival Elsie Percival signiture


Penguin colony. Photo by K. Walker

A soaring albatross curves its wing and lands on a grassy peak on the edge of a cliff. “Plop”. It’s chicks wait for a mouth full of semi-digested fish. “Splat. Splot. Plish”. A penguin jostles from side-to-side “caplosh”, and another follows behind it “shlip”.  And another “ssssphssphpt”. Every bird on this isolated chunk of land poos. The snipes, the gulls, the petrels and even the perfectly preened parakeets. As human beings, bird poo is something we generally avoid, especially the fishy kind. However, for Subantarctic islands, it is a vital ingredient.

Penguin amongst poo. Photo by K.Pemberton

Penguin amongst poo. Photo by K. Pemberton

Guano is the name given to sea bird (and seal) poo with regards to its use as a fertiliser. On Subantarctic islands, guano is the primary source of nutrients that gives richness to the soil, and that enables plants to survive. Guano is rich in potassium, nitrate and phosphate which are vital nutrients for plant growth. With a dose of bird poo Subantarctic plants can grow and then provide food for insects as well as unique terrestrial birds. In the case of the Antipodes Islands this means giving life to the Reischek’s and Antipodes parakeet as well as the Antipodes snipe and pipit.

Cushion Plant, K Walker

Guano enriches the soil for cushion plants. Photo by K. Walker

Seabirds and seals get their food from the ocean, mainly in the form of fish. They then digest the fish and excrete all over the island when socialising, resting and nesting. In this way these animals transfer nutrients from the marine environment to the terrestrial environment. This process enables these relatively unproductive environments to flourish. Ecosystems on islands like the Antipodes are literally built on a foundation poo.

Insects help to decompose guano, which settles as a layer after rain, by eating and digesting the waste. In this light, the abundance of mice that feed on Subantarctic insects is a worry as a decline in insects may mean a disruption to the core nutrient cycles on the island.

So next time you feel unfortunate when a juicy white parcel of nutrients lands on your head, just think how happy you would be if you were a megaherb or a beetle on a Subantarctic island.