How well do we know our NZ insect fauna? Survey results

If you don’t feel like reading everything I have put my major findings in bold type and there is a set of conclusions and resources at the bottom of the post

So on Wednesday I gave a talk about a cool project I’ve been working on to produce a set of playing cards featuring 52 native insects. Emma and I have been chipping away at it for a little more than a year and recently confirmed the start of manufacture with Legends Playing Card Co. We also have a facebook page which you can like and stuff (hint hint).

To make small talk as an entomologist is a lot of fielding odd looks and deciding how specific to be for the benefit of all involved (“I’m a behavioural ecologist” vs “I watch praying mantises eat each other or, best case scenario, have sex”). There are also inevitable forks in the conversation at which point you have to decide whether you want to be the “well actually” person or let some well-meaning error pass. I’m not criticising. We don’t know what we don’t know and it is rarely important for people to remember the difference between grasshoppers and praying mantids unless you’re a male mantis.

Anyway, when I started up the playing card project with the aim to introduce a few more of our insects to folks, I was working entirely off anecdotal evidence that people mostly don’t know much about insects. This felt insufficient when presenting to a range of zoologists and ecologists as I did last Wednesday at our departmental meeting. Maybe I just feel uncomfortable presenting anything which doesn’t have graphs. With nary a thought of human participant ethics in research I opened up a Google Form with three questions.

  1. Name up to 10 NZ birds (Scientific names not required)
  2. Name up to 10 NZ insects (Scientific names not required)
  3. What is your background in zoology?

The first two were long form answers and the third was multiple choice with the options “none”, “studied biology in high school”, “studied zoology (generic) at a tertiary level”, “I have trained in or studied entomology” and “it’s a personal interest”. The aim was to set up a short quiz which would give me some handle of how knowledgeable people are about insects with the bird question providing (what I hoped would be) a clear comparison with a well-represented class of animals. The background question I hoped would give some indication about where folks were getting their information from.

I shared this survey on Facebook and Twitter where it received maybe 10 shares/retweets total. I received a total of 137 responses with a fairly good spread of backgrounds:


It was a short and informal survey which answers a few simple questions and gives me a whole bunch of reckons. But before we get to the findings let’s talk about:

Methods: The problem with jargon

Going native

The wording I used in the survey was “NZ insects” and “NZ birds” and I was deliberately vague as I explained when people asked, “Do you mean native species?” The word “native” means something quite specific to ecologists which certainly overlaps with how most think of the term but not entirely. I didn’t want to knowingly asking different questions to different people nor did I want to make the question seem more complicated or run the risk of people not knowing what “endemic” meant. So I left it as “NZ” and let everyone answer the same vague question as they liked. Consequently, I accepted any insect (provided that it was indeed an insect) which has possibly been seen in New Zealand. Yes I was that broad.

Types, species and orders

Similarly, I didn’t specify that I wanted bird or insect “species”, “genera” or “types” because, again, those words mean either different things or nothing at all depending on who you ask. The result was that the birds and insects were described with vastly different degrees of specificity which, I think, reflects our general understanding of each group.  Pretty much every bird offered was specific at least to genus (for example, we have multiple species of Kiwi or Apteryx to give it its scientific name). By contrast, most insects listed encompassed a very large number of species. For instance, did you know that there are actually more than 70 species of “wētā” in New Zealand?1 A lot of answers were even broader than that (e.g. “beetles” or “ant”). While I counted all of these as correct individual entries, it does make direct comparison between the birds and insects a bit tricky2.



So. What did the survey show:

  1. Everyone knows what a bird is.
  2. In general, we can name ten “NZ birds” but struggle to name ten “NZ insects”. Even with the almost meaninglessly broad definition I took of “NZ insect”, on average participants could name 9.17 birds compared to 5.71 insects (t92 = 9.733, p < 2.2e-16). This test was conducted by subtracting the number of insects from the number of birds each participant offered.
  3. In fact, while everyone can list ten birds, only those who studied or trained in entomology specifically could name ten insects (Fig 1.). Yes indeed if you compare the difference between insect and birds offered by participants of different backgrounds, only entomologists could fill out both lists consistently. The big surprise here is that even university students/graduates who studied zoology of some variety fared, on average, not much better than those with only a high school level of biology or no background in biology at all (F128,4 = 8.8331, p < 0.0001). Test was conducted on the difference between the number of birds and insects offered.
  4. There are a range of native birds which readily spring to mind. With insects it’s wētā all over (Fig. 2 – click to enlarge). I took counts of the first animals listed (in the case of insects it was often the only animal listed). I ranked the animals based on how often they appeared first in people’s lists. A little surprising but 47% of entries began with Tūī which I put down almost entirely to the time of year and the fact that more of us have probably seen live Tūī. Kea and kiwi fared similarly although they fell far behind at 16 and 14% respectively. Far less surprising was that wētā came up first in 75% of entries with the next most common insects, giraffe weevil and huhu beetle only first 8% and 5% of the time respectively. What we can conclude about this and the results in general is a little more complicated but I have a couple reckons.



Fig. 1: Number of birds (white) and insects (grey) listed depending on background in biology

Fig. 2: Birds (left) and insects (right) most frequently listed first. [By the way I hate working with pie charts].


So, nearly everyone knows ten native birds regardless of background. By contrast only those who actively study insects are likely to know ten native insects. This was mostly surprising as even a university degree in biology didn’t improve answers much. To me this suggests that promotion of our avian fauna is a) much more pervasive and b) a lot more varied in that a lot of species get a look in (supported by the greater distribution in first place positions in people’s lists).

In addition, I have a few reckons based on the responses:

  1. People tried to list native insects and birds without explicit prompting. When people ran short of obvious candidates, they pushed their own definition of “NZ” or the definition of the animal. A few ran short of birds and went for “sparrow” and “starling” which I still accepted for the same reason I accepted german wasp. When people ran short of insects which happened a lot more often, they either started listing exotic species or orders of insects e.g. beetle. Or, they started listing clearly native terrestrial invertebrates such as the katipo or the Peripatus velvet worm. One potential shortfall here is that I accepted loose definitions of NZ but I was pretty firm on definition of “insect”.
  2. Māori names are really helpful for two reasons
    1. One of the easiest ways to tell if something is probably native is “does it have a Māori name?” This is the most tentative of my conclusions and perhaps it’s better to call it a hypothesis. The top four insects listed first were the wētā, the giraffe weevil, the huhu beetle and the puriri moth. The giraffe weevil sticks out a little but I’m tempted to say that it received so many entries because a large number of my lab group (past and present) have worked with them and couldn’t help but find them charming. Meanwhile the bird answers were a cavalcade of ks. Whether it’s that a) the Māori names are easier to remember or b) Māori names are just a shorthand for “definitely native” or c):
    2. Māori names of fauna are frequently used for naming places. I had a couple discussions with people and we reckon that if I had included a “List 10 NZ plants”, plants would have done better than at insects but worse compared to birds. I think the reason for this is that names such as “rata” and “kahikitea” are really prevalent in our day-to-day so that even if you couldn’t identify a totara tree, you might know someone who lives on the street. Similar for birds.

Other examples include names of hospital wards and parking levels


Just to prove my point


I don’t think it’s too much to say that we on average have greater familiarity with the diversity of our avian fauna compared to our insect fauna even if we haven’t directly interacted with all the birds we might know. I can’t pinpoint the reasons for this from these results alone but I would assume that it comes from promotion of bird species outside of academic institutions whereas information about insects is generally acquired through deliberate study.

This is not to say that we have to promote insects on equal footing as birds (there’s no scientific test for that). But I think there must be consequences of this relative lack of appreciation which feeds into how we value different forms of conservation at the ecosystem and species levels.

Emma and I hope that we can help to close this gap in our knowledge just a little bit with the insect cards and if you’re interested in other resources on our native insect fauna I highly recommend tuning into RadioNZ’s Critter of the Week and checking out some of the links below.

Thanks very much to everyone who took part in the survey – it’s been illuminating!


Critter of the week – Each week Jesse Mulligan talks to DoC’s Nicola Toki about an underappreciated native species which are frequently invertebrates. Fridays @1:30 on RadioNZ National. Here’s an example.

NatureWatch – a site where people post photos of animals they’ve seen around the country. A lot of scientists lurk on that site ready to help identify the animals people find! A good way to find out where people tend to find certain types of insects.

Landcare research – Landcare research is a Crown Research Institute which deals a great deal with our terrestrial invertebrate fauna and they offer a few guides (start with “What is this bug”) to identifying species as well as fact sheets on a handful of our species.


1 Unless you listed multiple types of wētā or said “all the wētā species”, I just counted “wētā” as one.

2 You might argue that this definition “punishes” people who tried to list only native/endemic species and that, had they known that I was accepting generic insect answers, they could have listed 10 insect orders. This is probably fair and asking the question in that way was a gamble that people would read “NZ insect” and do their best to list natives (for why I think that this is exactly what happened, see my “reckons”). If I were to do this survey in a more formalised way I would certainly be more specific.

Everyone’s a critic; Thinking science thoughts at the Auckland Writers Festival

So I had told myself that my next post would be about my PhD but, like my PhD, plans change and sometimes it’s just not worth getting hung up on why, how or whether it matters.

So I took a break from pipetting and squeezing spider muscles out of their legs like a teensy calippo to go to the Auckland Writers festival. In particular I went along to The Role of the Critic, a panel (but really more of a conversation) between NZ art critic, Wystan Curnow, and international Shakespeare critic, Peter Holland, mediated by Rosabel Tan.

writers fest

Holland is on the right, Curnow in the middle, a logo on the left

Both Curnow and Holland believe that art criticism is not about assigning a value judgement per se (in the spirit of the original Greek term meaning “to judge” or referring to “a judge”). Rather, criticism comes from a personal impulse to understand the object (e.g. theatrical performance, artwork, song), to retain some memory of the live experience or indeed even possess the art through writing about it, and, above all, criticism is compelled by a deep abiding passion for the critic’s preferred medium or object. Peter Holland explained in response to a question that there are very few works without some redeeming quality and that examining why an object failed can be as compelling as pronouncing how it succeeded.

However, both also acknowledged that the critic mediates the space between the object and the public. In particular, Holland described how important it is for critics to understand the process involved in producing art and recounted a time when prominent theatre critics were invited to direct a play. One of the critics remarked that they had had no idea what happened in a rehearsal. Using this understanding must only aid the critic in another task which Curnow outlined. He spoke about the critic translating art works for the public, referring them to as “art knowledge” and “literary knowledge”. He emphasised that art is a body of knowledge in the same way that other academic knowledge is “knowledge” and that, in this way, one of the primary roles of the critic is to help translate this knowledge for others. Holland agreed that part of his role is to help others to see the “value” of the work. (In this case “value” refers to new ideas or experiences that an object bears rather than about assigning an artwork a place in a hierarchy).

So. I now spend more time in the biology building than the English department so I naturally twisted this all around in my head to think about science and how it is communicated. I strongly believe that science and art are more similar than we usually give them credit for but, even if we only think about them as bodies of specialist knowledge in which are the products of drawn out, largely unseen processes which are, in turn, packaged and sent out for public consumption well…you get the idea.

Mostly it just re-iterates the idea what there is value in having science communicators who can translate and re-frame scientific information for the public. Let’s face it, scientists do a lot of study in very abstract concepts before they’re allowed to start publishing papers and its not workable to expect the layperson to immediately recognise the same beauty or value in an elegantly designed experiment or in a high r-squared.

It also raised questions about value and distribution. Most universities have subscriptions to your major journals but what is the end product of our science for the public? Where is that information coming from, in what form and how is it being framed? Furthermore, how is science judged? I don’t mean in terms of citations or altmetrics but what are the value judgements ascribed to science and who are applying these judgements?

We already have people who I think we could call science critics such as Siouxsie Wiles, Shaun Hendy and other members of the New Zealand Association of Scientists. But could we use more? Art critics already have to battle with the false need for objectivity, balancing their authority to judge and their authority to speak to personal experience. Is the concept of a large number of individual critics compatible with science given that it is broadly considered more “objective” (strong quotation marks there). How qualified should you have to be to critique science? What avenues are there for critiquing science?

Too many questions for a Friday afternoon. Time for a pint.

download (1)

A week on Burgess Island; Fun titles are hard

About a week ago I shirked mainland life and mainland PhD work for just under a week of remote island living. Burgess Island of the Mokohinau Islands is situated off the North East coast of the North Island. The island is a scenic reserve and key field site for another PhD student, Megan, who is studying colouration of sea birds such as the diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix). While Megan and another PhD candidate are still on the island, I went along for the first half of their trip to take an opportunistic fossick around the undergrowth for Cambridgea. I didn’t have much luck (at most I found a couple outgroup species for phylogenetic analysis) which made it all just a fantastic holiday before I start knuckling down to begin my own field work.

This post is just a large photo brag.

P1020346 P1020342 P1020465 P1020463 P1020458 P1020446 P1020437 P1020428 P1020421 P1020405 P1020402 P1020399 P1020395 P1020385 P1020378 P1020356 P1020355 P1020360

The last photograph is there to prove that there was work going on. (Even if it wasn’t mine). Big thanks to Megan for letting me come along on the trip that she organised (field trip without having to do all the admin = literally the best thing).

Not depicted: The 45 knot winds and the 110m, 45 degree incline hill that the hut was on.