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Alan Tennyson Te Papa (National Museum of New Zealand), Wellington, New Zealand


I'm a Curator of Vertebrates at the national museum of New Zealand (Te Papa) and have worked here since 1996. I have been really interested in seabirds since I started finding dead petrels on the beaches around Wellington as a school kid. As a uni student I spent 2 summers on the subantarctic Snares Islands - a seabird paradise - and went on to study petrels for my Masters degree on the Chatham Islands. One of my first jobs was at the Forest & Bird Protection Society where we did some pioneering work on tackling the fishing industry over global seabird deaths.

My research

I've had the privilege of visiting many of New Zealand's great seabird colonies and working on a wide range of projects, with a particular emphasis on documenting seabird distribution and taxonomy. My current job combines seabird work with palaeontology. Some highlights have included naming three seabird taxa; one of these being the Vanuatu petrel Pterodroma occulta with the late Mike Imber in 2001. In 1997 I was examining bird specimens in the Australian Museum, Sydney, and saw an unusual study skin of a Pterodroma which Mike and I later named as one of the paratypes of the Vanuatu petrel. Ultimately this chance discovery led to me being invited on two trips (2011 and 2012) to carry out research in Vanuatu with Australian Stephen Totterman who had discovered the Vanuatu petrel nesting on a volcanic peak of Vanua Lava Island in 2009. Like many other island birds, the seabirds of Vanuatu are under huge pressure from people and their accompanying predators, such as cats and rats. The other species which I've helped name were the lesser fulmar prion Pachyptila crassirostris flemingi with Sandy Bartle in 2005, and the Miocene fossil diving petrel Pelecanoides miokuaka in 2007, with my colleagues working on the Otago St Bathans Fauna.

Stephen Totterman.
Alan Tennyson & Colin Miskelly with Vanuatu Petrels at their newly discovered breeding site, Vanua Lava Island, Vanuatu, March 2011. Photo Stephen Totterman

In 2010 a team of us published the 500 page Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand, including a full review of the taxonomy and distribution of every species in this region, and I contributed all the text on seabirds - this was a huge task that took us about 10 years - but we were proud of the outcome and it is now my most used book on the shelf. Another nationwide project has been creating New Zealand Birds Online which was launched in June 2013 - it's a wonderful new free public website steered to success by my work colleague Colin Miskelly. In it you can find photos, descriptions and calls of every New Zealand seabird. It was a great opportunity for me to make available not only new seabird photos but also hundreds of 'ancient' images that I got digitised from slides that had never ventured beyond my cupboards before.

Being museum-based gives me the opportunity to assist many other researchers with their projects. In the last few years I've done some work identifying Polynesian archaeological bones from Pacific Islands such as Mangareva and Rapa - these collections tend to be dominated by petrels and document declines and extinctions of some species. I'm also collaborating with researchers, including Jamie Wood (Landcare Research) and Nic Rawlence (Otago University), to describe the past fauna of the Chatham Islands based on fossils in museum collections. The rich seabird fauna of the Chatham Islands has been greatly diminished by human impacts but the former distribution of taxa in the archipelago is still not well understood.

Alan Tennyson.
The tibiotarsus of a large penguin, Chatham Island, Jan 2011. Large penguin bones are common in sand dunes on the Chatham Islands but no large penguin species breed there today. Photo Alan Tennyson

During the next year I'm looking forward to some field work back on The Snares, where our team hopes to resurvey the largest New Zealand sooty shearwater colony - the population here is thought to be declining. We'll also be studying the prions by surveying numbers to see whether the massive July 2011 prion die-off affected The Snares population, and taking genetic samples to help with our study on relationships among these small petrels. On the horizon are an albatross exhibition and more fossil digging in Otago.

Alan Tennyson.
Broad-billed prion, The Snares, Feb 1986. Hundreds of thousands of broad-billed prions were blown ashore in New Zealand in one week in July 2011. Our team is investigating why they died and where they came from. Photo Alan Tennyson