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What do discoverers do during lockdown?

Lockdown hasn’t meant slowdown for our Environmental & Animal Sciences team

EAS Associate Professors Dan Blanchon and Peter de Lange are two of Unitec’s most prolific environmental scientists and discoverers.  And lockdown certainly didn’t mean slowdown for these two.  We asked them what they worked on during lockdown, what they missed most, and what’s next on the horizon for them:

“The first week of lockdown was great for doing research – I was mainly working on describing a new species of the coral lichen Cladia that Peter discovered a few years ago in the Dargaville area,” said Dr Blanchon, who’s also Head of Unitec’s School of Environmental and Animal Sciences and curator of Unitec’s herbarium, home to 11,400 preserved specimens.  

“During lockdown I missed the Unitec herbarium with its great microscopes and other equipment. My pop-up lichen lab at home only has a field microscope, so not quite what I need for the complex work involved with sample identification. I also missed the staffroom chats at work - which is naturally where most academic matters are solved.”

“Peter and I have also been working on a bunch of lichen projects together,” said Associate Professor Blanchon.  The most significant of their current projects is led by one of the School’s graduates, ecologist Andrew Marshall, which looked at 50 Auckland Council permanent vegetation monitoring plots across the Auckland Region. They collected 3,000 lichen specimens from 600 trees, most of which are now sitting in the Unitec herbarium waiting for the team to identify them on their return to campus.  They’ve already found several new species, one of which was named last year after New Zealand’s Prime Minister, as Ocellularia jacinda-arderniae.

Dr Blanchon also convinced Andrew to put his film-making skills to the test during lockdown and produce a video for Unitec’s senior students on his lichen-collecting methods.  It was filmed in Andrew’s back garden on a phone – with his garden a treasure trove for an environmental sciences researcher!     

Dr Peter de Lange, who together with Dr Blanchon discovered New Zealand’s first instance of the Himalayan wineberry bramble – dubbed one of the world’s worst weeds - growing near Albany two years ago, says he’s missed the kōrero with others and the opportunities to get out into the wild.  He’s planning to lead a field trip to Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) in August which includes geological, botanical, ecological and sociological work, including visiting Kōpinga Marae, the focal point for the Island group’s endemic culture and people, the Moriori. 

“We’ll also work on dune restoration and its impact on a raft of threatened endemic Chatham Island animals and plants, notably the Chatham Island Oystercatcher, which is one of the world’s most threatened wading birds,” said Dr de Lange. 

“Lockdown has allowed me time to write up work I’ve had to put aside because of my teaching commitment,” said Dr de Lange.  “As a result I’ve written and had published two papers with long-distance colleagues in Kiyv, Brisbane and Dunedin. The two published papers (in the Ukrainian Botanical Journal) discuss an historical weed arrival to New Zealand and resolve the correct name and placement of an enigmatic daisy described in 1915 and then long forgotten about - Solenogyne christensenii.” 

“Dan and I are also working with a number of others on the final stages of a paper dealing with the flora and vegetation of the internationally important island Hokorereoro, where the iconic Black Robin was saved from extinction.” 

“I’ve always got something going on – I’ve got a great big filing cabinet full of ideas, manuscripts and problems to resolve and I’m really enjoying taking my publications and turning them into articles for our Unitec Herbarium Facebook page.”

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