Young scientist graduates to join war on pests


The latest recruit to New Zealand’s war on pests is well qualified for the job – her Masters research resulted in a mouse population explosion on a previously pest-free island that surprised almost everyone.

Helen Nathan graduates from the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences today with a doctorate in ecology and conservation. She is already working in her chosen field, as a predator ecologist at Zero Invasive Predators NZ (ZIP).

Helen represents a new generation of young scientists that will tackle the challenge of finding new ways to eradicate pests such as rats, mice, possums and stoats that kill up to 25 million native birds each year and transmit diseases that cost primary industries millions of dollars annually.

In her controlled trial for the Masters research, she found that just two mice introduced to the 6ha Te Haupa/Saddle Island off the coast of Mahurangi managed to trigger a mouse population boom from zero to almost 70 in just five months.

The island had been cleared of pests just prior to the trial and the speed of the reinvasion only reinforced the need for ongoing vigilance in the battle against invasive pests.

Another key finding of the study was that not all the mice in the new population were related to the original pair. Genetic analysis showed that an unrelated female had found her way to the island and contributed her share of offspring.

That finding helped reinforce the importance of ongoing monitoring after pest eradication work has been carried out.

Helen spends her time between the Marlborough Sounds and Wellington in her new role where she is focused on developing new technologies to achieve the Government’s goal of a pest-free NZ by 2050.

ZIP, in partnership with the Department of Conservation, is funded mostly through philanthropy and is focused on coming up with new and better ways to protect native species on mainland New Zealand.

“If we are going to succeed in such an ambitious plan, then we will need new ideas, new strategies and better ways to use the tools we already have,” she says.

“I’m really loving it and I’m thrilled to be part of something that is so worthwhile.”