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Pirongia Safari: Quest for the Mayfly

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

Date: 4.5.19

Participants: Rosa Turley, Luka Haward, Antonia Grant, Theresa Stanton Boyd, Jack Hopman, Sean Thomson (leader)


BIOSCI320 is a course about the Insects: a highly diverse, highly successful group of animals spread across the globe, in a myriad of forms. Students are required to collect specimens for preservation and museum-grade presentation, for coursework. This process is highly rewarding, but does take a bit of legwork…


And so our trampers groggily meet on a foggy Saturday morning, below the clock tower. Armed with a DOC permit, we begin our safari...


On arrival at the Grey Rd carpark, we are immediately accosted by a group of birds. Turns out to be a family of kōkako. Birds being birds, they hopped around in the trees and flew off. As you cannot [easily] pin a bird, as you can an insect, we decided to leave them to their own devices.


The Adventure Begins

We strolled over to the bridge standing proudly above Mangakara Stream, before promptly jumping off. Starting our adventure in earnest, and not without some excitement, the group finds their footing hopping from rock to rock. We narrowly avoid becoming lunch for the numerous caddisfly (quaint), stonefly (serene) and dobsonfly (menacing) larvae making their homes beneath the slick stones. Around our heads whiz countless insects flying the riparian highway, most far too quick (or common) to try and capture. As we find our river-legs, our pace begins to quicken.


Eight-legged Sentinel

Suddenly, we stop dead in our tracks. Perched on a rock, seemingly oblivious to our presence was a proud Dolomedes spider! These hunters are capable of predating fish twice their size, pouncing from the water surfaces across which they run. This one was resting, so we respectfully stepped around it before pressing on (spiders aren’t worth pinning, anyhow).


Tree weta?

Tea weta After putting plenty of distance between ourselves and the proud hunter, hearts pounding we stop for a feed. As we saddle ourselves back up to continue, one of us is suddenly taken aback; “What’s this? A stowaway!”. Lo and behold, a tree weta had crawled up and onto an unsuspecting pack. The weta, seemingly unfazed by his crowd of onlookers, proceeds to crawl across our bodies with reckless abandon. But alas, after playtime we had to bid farewell to our casual acquaintance, for we still had much ground left to cover (besides, weta tend to vomit following capture… who has time to wash their jars, when far easier prey abounds??).


To single mothers everywhere

The waters burble soothingly across our feet. Small fish can be seen darting from view, hiding from our intimidating frames. We cross a series of shallow pools, where freshwater crayfish/kōura can be seen minding their own business. One of them, however, seems different. On further inspection, it turns out to be a she... and she’s expecting! On her underside she carries hundreds, perhaps thousands of small eggs. Each one representing a developing crayfish larva, only precious few make it to adulthood, to parenthood, to motherhood. We carefully place her back in her home, before continuing our journey (seeing as you can’t really pin a crayfish either).


Interlude: The Luncheoning

As we continue our journey closer to the Source, the river becomes narrower, windier, more seclusive. We stop along the sunlit brook to feed once again. Insects of all shapes and sizes whiz past our heads, fairy-like, wings shimmering rainbow in the light. They mind their business and we mind ours (besides, they were flying too fast to catch).


It’s a… stick?

After lunch we happen upon a baitline, which will take us directly to the ridgeline track. Convenient… almost suspiciously so...


We continue up the track to the Ruapane Lookout trig station, where we laze around in the afternoon sun. The view is truly majestic, above the fog/clouds, which thankfully block the Waikato dairy country from view:

We lie amongst the grasshoppers, the iridescent beetles, and the-what’s this?! A stick… insect!

This large female was looking reasonably happy, as it gazed upon us with its unfathomable compound eyes. After a short ride around on our bodies, we returned our playmate to her home plant (she was missing a leg, so instead of preserving her in a pinned collection, she was left to live out her days, churning out self-fertile eggs, spurning the local males and continuing the circle of parthogenic life).


The Descent

And so we turn our backs, and begin the homeward journey. We descend the track back to the cars, stopping once more by the darkened river for a final farewell. As night drew nearer, denizens of the daylight were busy settling into their hidey-holes, while natives of the night began to emerge. A humble mayfly, sitting perched on the underside of a leaf, began to settle down. These short-lived insects emerge for a matter of days before succumbing to the cycle which gave them life, once they have passed theirs on to a multitude of offspring. And so, with a swipe of the net and a pottle in hand, this noble beast was captured.


This mayfly, known now to be a female of the native species Zephlebia borealis, did not disappear from existence like her brethren who faded from Earth’s memory after a few short days. Rather, today she remains in a humble collection, as whole and intact as can be (for a soft-bodied Ephemeropteran).


Epilogue: The Return

Truly a fitting end to this safari, our team of adventurers and aspiring entomologists journeyed home, with an equally fitting stop in Huntly on the way back for one final feed. After all, there’s nothing like a good coal power station to tell you you’re almost home.


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