Captive kiwi management researcher takes out tight competition

16 August 2023

3MT group photo 2023
2023 3MT Final Judge, Ms Parekāwhia McLean (centre), Carver and donor of the Professor John D. McCraw Memorial Trophy, Wiremu Puke (second from left) with finalists and winners.

In early August, ten fearless University of Waikato PhD researchers faced off in the final of the University’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) Doctoral competition. Each took on the challenge of distilling years of research into a 3 minute talk with a single illustrative slide.

But there can be only one, and it was Te Aka Mātuatua School of Science animal behaviour researcher Rebecca Connor who took out the Professor John D. McCraw Memorial Trophy and $1000 cash prize.

Ms Connor gave a lively presentation on her research into the captive management of the famously shy kiwi. In taking on the challenge of a three minute presentation, Ms Connor said:

“I would never turn down the chance to talk about kiwi! I love this amazing bird, and hope through communicating my research in an effective manner I can inspire others to care about this bird as well. I think it’s really important that scientists can communicate their research so non-experts can understand it, and make better informed decisions as a result.”

Ms Connor’s work is focused on the welfare of captive kiwi, this is birds kept in enclosures at zoos or aquariums.

“Animals in captivity simply don’t thrive if we don’t get it right. And even when we’re getting it right, we can always find ways to improve.”

She pointed to the recent example of Paora, a North Island brown kiwi hatched at Miami Zoo. A national furore erupted when New Zealanders saw footage of $40 tourist encounters with him in a brightly lit room. Ms Connor credited the Zoo with their quick action, and their work with Save the Kiwi and the Department of Conservation (DOC) to improve kiwi welfare. DOC has sent out the Kiwi Husbandry Manual to all American zoos holding kiwi.

Ms Rebecca Connor 3MT 2023
2023 3MT Winner Ms Rebecca Connor.

The plight of Paora has underlined the urgency of her work.

“When it comes to kiwi, our national icon and much loved taonga, there’s a lot that we simply don’t know. My research focuses on trying to fill in some of the knowledge gaps in the DOC manual.”

She also cautions, “While the plight of Paora needed to be addressed, I’d also like to see the same level of outrage and action around what is happening for these unique birds in the wild at home. 14 kiwi have been killed by dogs in the last few months and there’s been little response.”

The first part of Ms Connor’s PhD study was a survey of facilities in New Zealand and around the world, to assess how they looked after their kiwi.

“I found huge variations. For example kiwi were fed anywhere from once, to three times a day; temperature ranged from 12 to 24°; and enclosure size varied between 25 to 500m2.”

Ms Connor is now looking at what works best for kiwi, and what environmental and husbandry variables they prefer. She explains, “I’m now measuring the behaviour of kiwi in nocturnal houses. For example exactly where in the enclosure they spend their time as well as their responses to things like lighting and sound levels, feeding frequency, and visitor behaviour.”

Ms Connor said her 3MT win was a surprise, “All of the finalists did such a great job of communicating important research. I feel very fortunate to have been the winner on the night.”

Ms Larissa Kopf 3MT 2023
2023 3MT Runner up and People's Choice Winner Ms Larissa Kopf.

The runner-up was Larissa Kopf, a PhD candidate with the School of Engineering. She also received the People’s Choice Award for her presentation on developing new thermography techniques for assessing large structures like bridges for internal faults.

The 3MT competition has been run through the Te Mata Kairangi School of Graduate Research since 2009. Dean of Graduate Research, Professor Karin Bryan said:

“It celebrates the exciting research happening at Waikato, and importantly it develops research communication skills, while building a candidates’ ability to effectively explain their work to a non-specialist audience.”

On the finals this year, Professor Bryan added, “It was an usually tight competition that left us all guessing until the moment the winner was announced. It was fabulous seeing so many keen students rising to the challenges and giving it a go”.

Ms Connor will represent the University of Waikato at the 2023 Virtual Asia-Pacific 3MT Competition, hosted by the University of Queensland, where she'll line up with around 600 university representatives from across 59 countries in late September.

The ten University of Waikato 3MT Doctoral finalist presentations can be viewed here.

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