Student works with critically endangered skinks

1 September 2017

Student works with critically endangered skinks

A former NorthTec science student is working on a project of national significance, monitoring an endangered species of skink found only at the Whangarei Heads.

Jenny Gillanders has just completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Biodiversity Management). Although taught at NorthTec, the qualification is a Unitec degree.

Jenny’s final year of study required a self-directed research project, and she chose to study the impact of invasive Australian plague skinks on local Whirinaki skinks, found only in a one-hectare area of the Bream Head Scenic Reserve.

Living mainly in rocky, open forest, the Whirinaki skink was only discovered in 2013 and is a Nationally Critical species. The study looks at the impact of plague skinks on the population, and how much the native reptiles are affected by the invading species.

Supervised by NorthTec tutors, Ben Barr and Olly Ball, and Department of Conservation (DOC) scientist, James Reardon, the project is a partnership between NorthTec, the Bream Head Conservation Trust and the NZ Reptile Technical Advisory Group - a national group made up of DOC scientists and academics.

The aim of the project is to establish whether or not the Whirinaki skink population is in decline. If this is found to be true, the team will need to carry out a salvage operation, either relocating the Whirinaki skinks to a plague skink-free island, or establishing a captive population to prevent extinction.

Tutor Ben Barr said Jenny did a great job in completing the first phase of the project, in which the monitoring protocol was developed and the first year of data collected. Jenny has now been asked to come back and carry out the second stage of the project, which will be a multi-year study.

Jenny completed her practicum placement, a requirement of her second year of study, with the Northland Regional Council’s (NRC) Land Management Team. This led to full-time summer employment, and then on to part-time employment with the State of the Environment team while she finished her studies.

On completion of her degree, Jenny was offered a full-time position as a Land Management Adviser with the NRC based out of Kaitaia.

Jenny said: “I will be working with landowners to help implement water quality improvement strategies such as riparian fencing and plantings, and minimising soil loss through erosion prevention, as well as protecting native biodiversity. My hope is to see tangible, large-scale water quality improvements and native biodiversity gains across our region within my lifetime.”

The former veterinary nurse, who is originally from Pakaraka, near Kerikeri, decided to retrain for a career in conservation after returning to NZ from overseas. After looking at the options available in NZ she chose the NorthTec programme because it enables students to gain three qualifications in three years.

Unsure that she would be able to complete a degree, she first completed the Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Management (Level 5) and then in her second year of study gained the Diploma in Conservation and Environmental Management (Level 6).

Spurred on by her achievements, she then completed her third year of study at NorthTec, which earned her the Unitec degree in Applied Science. From having doubts about her abilities, Jenny became one of the top students and was applauded by her tutors for her hard work and enthusiasm.

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