New Zealand students know little about NZ natural history

The results of an annual survey of first year undergraduate students indicate a lack of familiarity with local nature.

written Jan 7, 2014 • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Wild Soapbox

tangle banner

Each year since 2003, I’ve done a non-assessed anonymous survey of my big first-year class at Lincoln University, to see how much they already know about New Zealand birds and other species. The class includes students from across campus. The results are always a bit of an eye opener.

I start with a list of species (English common names and scientific names) and ask them to circle “native”, “naturalised”, or “I don’t know” for each. I explain to them the definitions of “native” and “naturalised” before they start. I’ve given this survey to over 1,000 students now.

90% know that kiwi are native (it’s not 100% but keep in mind that a small minority of the class are international students). Much more surprisingly, only 48% of students know that bellbirds (korimako) are native and only 20% know that grey warblers (riorio) are native. Both are endemic species that can be found sometimes on the Lincoln University campus (unlike kiwi).

Only 48% of students know that bellbirds are native and only 20% know that grey warblers are native.

For the last few years, I’ve also shown the class photos of New Zealand animals, taken from the old Weetbix cards I collected when I was young, and asked them to write down the species’ names. These days, the only Weetbix cards kids get are photographs of All Blacks. When I was young I learned about all sorts of things through Weetbix cards, and the official Weetbix albums my parents bought me to stick my cards into.

73% of students could correctly identify an adult male blackbird, 61% a harrier, and 44% a silvereye (tauhou), all common local birds. When shown a black-backed gull (karoro), 21% could ID it to species but a further 67% knew it was a sea gull.

However, only 13% could name a NZ scaup (pāpango) and only 5% a rifleman (tītipounamu). Scaup are a small diving duck commonly seen on Christchurch rivers. Riflemen, one the two smallest bird species in NZ, are harder to find but still present in parts of nearby Banks Peninsula. Only 5 out of 259 students (2%) have correctly identified a brown creeper (pīpipi), an endemic forest bird that can be locally common in some Banks Peninsula forest reserves. Both riflemen and brown creepers belong to endemic bird families (meaning all species in the family are only found in New Zealand).

A rifleman, tītipounamu, a tiny endemic bird in a New Zealand endemic family. I photographed this bird inside the hut at Panama Rock in Le Bons Bay on Banks Peninsula, before coaxing it out the door with a broom (see the observation on iNaturalist NZ).

The results for plants, fish, and invertebrates are similar (if not worse). For example, only 44% of students knew that brown trout are introduced species and not native. Only 27% could correctly name a red admiral butterfly (kahu kura) from a photo. Red admirals can be seen on the Lincoln University campus and are occasional across Christchurch.

Right now I’m finishing off entering the last survey sheets from 2013 and considering the statistical analysis I’ll need to do to publish this in a science journal. I’ll be able to account for things like how long each student has been in NZ, their age and gender, their degree, and whether the survey was given before or after the introduction of NCEA. NCEA which was a dramatic shift in the high school syllabus and assessment system. I’ll also be contrasting students’ ability to name animals, plants, and All Blacks. I’ll write more once I’ve completed the analysis.

For now, I think it’s fair to say that most students coming out of our school system know very little about NZ natural history. And these are the top students moving on to university. This general lack of knowledge and awareness of wild species has got to be a big barrier to creating a New Zealand that successfully and sustainably manages our globally unique indigenous biodiversity.

I’d be curious to know if things were different in previous generations.