Located in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and New Caledonia is Norfolk Island, a small island with a big history and unique biodiversity. Norfolk Island was chosen by the Australian Museum for its 2022-2024 expedition – the first phase of which has just been completed.
The word “expedition” evokes many images – from famous explorers of the Antarctic to Indiana Jones.
Scientists and popular culture have long been fascinated by the idea of discovery. Expeditions are at the heart of what natural history museums are all about.
Expeditions are an opportunity to collect specimens, describe new species and study the incredible biodiversity of this planet – expeditions provide us with a snapshot in time of how our biodiversity is tracking, and how we can conserve it. Key to the success of expeditions is community support, knowledge, and engagement – community know their own backyard best, and their support amplifies the outcomes from scientific surveys.
In October and November 2022, Australian Museum scientists, in collaboration with the Norfolk Island community, Parks Australia, the Australian Institute of Botanical Science and the Auckland War Memorial Museum, completed Phase One of the Norfolk Island expedition. Our scientists conducted terrestrial biodiversity surveys of both native and introduced flora and fauna which involved teams from mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, entomology and arachnology alongside botanists, and an archaeological team. The aim of the three-year expedition is to better understand the existing and evolving ecological landscape of the island, study its more remote biodiversity and help inform future management plans for the animals and plants that call it home.
Why do we go on expeditions?
Expeditions contribute to a natural history museum’s vast and unique reference collections and our collective understanding of the world’s culture and biodiversity.
Norfolk Island is largely underrepresented in the Australian Museum’s collections, so the expedition provides an opportunity to learn more about threatened species and those new to science, to study how pest species such as invasive rodents are affecting the island’s biodiversity, and how we can monitor these effects in future. We cannot conserve what we do not know!
Expeditions don’t happen overnight – they are a complex and multifaceted undertaking involving years of planning and collaboration. An integral part of the process is consulting with multiple scientific teams and community ensuring knowledge exchange between organisations, community and scientific teams, including senior scientists training junior scientists in field methodologies.
Working with community
Local communities offer a wealth of knowledge of locations, species and stories. Respecting and engaging the local community in the expedition means this knowledge and our science work together to ensure we learn as much as possible about the culture and history of the area.
Prior to our arrival, we designed and promoted a week-long community engagement program. Our scientists kicked off the expedition with an opening night event at Rawson Hall, where they met with the Flora and Fauna Society, local citizen scientists, the Council of Elders and many more. Sharing their plans for the week, scientists invited community feedback, concerns and questions at the outset. The locals were exceptionally welcoming, sharing with us their species observations, inviting scientists to survey private land, sharing biosecurity concerns, and highlighting what they wanted from the expedition. Also made apparent was people’s “scientist fatigue” – of scientists coming and going from the island, without being informed of progress or results. Particularly well received was the Museum’s acknowledgement of the Polynesian and Pitcairn origins of the community, penned by Taofia Pelesasa of our First Nations team, and presented as part of Expedition Leader Paul Flemons’ opening address.
Our team hosted a daily morning café hour and afternoon lab hour, where scientists and local people could continue their dialogue. Updates were given on the local radio station, newspaper and Facebook groups. Our entomology team, Dr Helen Smith and Natalie Tees, with PhD student James Tweed from the University of Queensland, led a walk in the Botanic Gardens at night where people of all ages looked for spiders, beetles and all nocturnal creatures! Through these events, our scientists were able to regularly share their work and build sustainable connections with community members – resulting in increased engagement, including locals donating specimens.
The engagement program culminated with a Community Day at the end of the week. This was a three hour “show and tell” with preliminary findings (prepared specimens), equipment (our 3D scanner) and techniques (like our mist-net!). The day was a huge success, with over 50 people attending.
A unique dimension to the expedition was our education and 3D scanning program. The education program was a big hit and proved to be very effective in reaching younger generations, who may have missed out otherwise. Education Project Officer Charlie Kingsford was at the local school teaching each year group about the role of museums, the AM’s Sharks exhibition and more. The school even thanked Charlie in the local newspaper. The 3D scanning program captured the curiosity of all ages – Charlie and Meagan Warwick scanned artefacts from the archaeological site, and at the Community Day scanned objects that locals brought in, including one family’s meteorite and the bell from the Norfolk Island Resolution, brought in by the Norfolk Island Museum.
In the field
Phase One focused on rats, bats, cats, geckos, skinks, insects, spiders, birds, snails and plants! Whether our teams were setting up mist-nets to study the diverse bird fauna before dawn, or soil sifting in the search for spiders and beetles after nightfall, Norfolk Island was abuzz with scientific activity. Our scientists worked across Norfolk Island National Park, regional council parks and private land to survey terrestrial species.
A highlight of the expedition was our trip to neighbouring Phillip Island, a fascinating example of human induced environmental collapse and recovery. Recovery began in 1980 after the last rabbit was removed – at that time, the vegetation on the island had been reduced to a single endemic hibiscus. Led by local Mark Scott, the trip out was an adventure in itself. Climbing aboard the boat whilst suspended from a crane, our scientists sailed across the water with experienced local skipper David Biggs at the helm. In a short time, our scientists were clambering up the steep slopes of the island while on the lookout for the giant venomous centipede. The team stayed overnight in the impressively comfortable Parks Australia hut. They scoured the steep slopes for insects, spiders, geckos and skinks, and set audio traps in the hope of finding elusive bats.
All were in awe of the resilience of nature and the beauty of the island’s ruggedness and omnipresent, soaring marine birds.
Another outstanding highlight of the expedition was the archaeological excavation. You never know what you’ll find when excavating – so finding an adze on the first day was exceptional! Dr Amy Mosig Way of the Australian Museum and Nicola Jorgensen of the University of Sydney, with local Neil “Snowy” Tavener, uncovered two adzes (similar to stone axes) and hundreds of flakes dating from pre-European, Polynesian settlement. Snowy connected the team with the site after finding basalt flakes on a local walking track in the national park. Prior to this, there had been only one other confirmed Polynesian site on Norfolk Island, in Emily Bay. Finding a Polynesian site on the opposite side of the Island expands the evidence we have for the Polynesian period of settlement, opening opportunities for further research. The excavation was keenly attended by a number of locals fascinated by the island’s Polynesian history, including Arthur Evans whose parents played such a significant role in understanding the biodiversity of Norfolk and Phillip islands.
In the following months, our scientists will be analysing the data and specimens they carefully collected, clarifying the status of vertebrate and invertebrate species, native and introduced, on the main and offshore islands. Already apparent are several species new to science as well as new records for Norfolk Island, across entomology, herpetology and botany (particularly liverworts and weeds). We look forward to sharing their findings in the near future!
We acknowledge the Polynesian/Tupuna/Tipuna who first called Norfolk Island home, whose story is still being written and pieced together. Through our work, we endeavour to add pages to their widely unknown narrative. We honour their connection to this land/whenua and fauna in times gone by and invite them to guide and breathe life back into the treasures which they left for us to uncover and to piece together the story they did not tell.
We extend that acknowledgement to the descendants of the Pitcairn Islanders who still walk this land and whose Polynesian ties link them back to the East of this Great Ocean – Tahiti. We honour their Pacific story on this land, we acknowledge their Tupuna/Tipuna ancestors and the culture they forged here on Norfolk Island. A culture that continues to thrive today.
And finally, we acknowledge the other Pacific Island communities that now call this Island home. The Pacific diasporas from across the Great Ocean – whose connection to this land may be more recent but whose presence also adds to the Pacific narrative of Norfolk Island in the here and now.
The Australian Museum would like to thank donors and the Australian Museum Foundation for their support of this three-phase expedition. The first phase was made possible by the generosity of the Vonwiller Foundation and Vanessa Tay.