From mountain to sea - studying Taranaki ecosystems

13 September 2017

Taranaki coast

Taranaki, its land, freshwater and sea, the focus of a new research programme.

The University of Waikato and George Mason Charitable Trust have joined forces to support in-depth research into Taranaki ecosystems.

The plan is to get a coherent approach to research in an often-neglected part of the country.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research at the University of Waikato Professor Bruce Clarkson is one of the scientists behind the project to provide scholarships for postgraduate students to study issues in marine and fresh waters and on the land.

The Trust is donating $100,000 a year for five years and the university will match that.

Professor Clarkson says the George Mason Trust has long been a supporter of the university, funding scholarships and research projects. “But it’s been in an ad hoc way, so we’ve worked together to design a high-quality integrated model.”

That model is called ITEM (Integrated Taranaki Ecosystem Model). “The topics are varied, but the objective is to restore connectivity between the ocean, the land and freshwater and in some cases it will be necessary to explore pre-human plants and marine life,” Professor Clarkson says.

“We want to produce the first integrated ecosystem model of Taranaki, using state-of-the-art micro-chemical and isotopic techniques. We think that we can use the long-term chemical records of key forest areas to demonstrate the historic connection of marine productivity to freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems in the region.”

The University of Waikato has its Waikato Stable Isotope Unit, the Radio Carbon Dating Lab and lake monitoring expertise that will all be available to the scientists as they carry out their work.

It’s important to understand the pattern, process and functioning of Taranaki’s present-day ecosystems, Professor Clarkson says. “To do that we need as our baseline the pre-human condition that will tell us the nature and extent of change and what might be needed to maintain and conserve the original character of these ecosystems.”

He admits it’s an ambitious programme. “But Taranaki has missed out on cutting-edge research in recent years and we want to put that right, to direct ecosystem management and mitigate adverse effects of current resource use practices.”

Some of the projects are:

  • Streams and estuaries as corridors linking the sea and the land
  • Restoration of the aquatic ecology and ecosystem function of Lake Rotokare
  • Seabirds connection to the sea to land
  • Wetland function
  • Coriaria nitrogen fixation and its role in the establishment of forest, and tussock grassland
  • Priority effects in alpine herbfields

The first batch of postgraduate scholarships are likely to be advertised before the end of the year.