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Nationally threatened bat species discovered in Morrinsville

The long-tailed bat (pekapeka whiore roa) has made a surprise appearance in Morrinsville in the Waikato.
The long-tailed bat – pekapeka whiore roa ([Chalinolobus tuberculatus])

The long-tailed bat – pekapeka whiore roa (Chalinolobus tuberculatus). Image: Department of Conservation

The discovery of one of New Zealand’s only native land mammals in the area was an unexpected outcome from the COVID-19 lockdown after Morrinsville resident and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research ecologist, Dr Norman Mason, used the time to put five acoustic bat monitoring devices to good use.

“I had borrowed the devices pre-lockdown from the Waikato Regional Council for a science project with Te Kura o Waharoa, and with nowhere to go except public spaces within walking distance it seemed a good opportunity to use them,” says Dr Mason.

The devices record echolocation calls bats make as they fly, and Dr Mason decided to check whether there were any bats living in or around Morrinsville.

“Tall forests next to waterways are considered prime bat habitat, by providing corridors for movement through the landscape and access to abundant food, such as flying insects,” says Dr Mason.

“Since previous generations in Morrinsville have either retained or planted big trees along our main waterways – the Piako River and Waitakaruru Stream - there was good reason to believe that’s where bats would be found if still present.”


Map showing long-tailed bat occurence in the eastern Waikato lowlands

Map showing long-tailed bat occurence in the eastern Waikato lowlands

Dr Mason admits he was not sure what to expect.

“The last bat survey across the Piako catchment was done by Department of Conservation Science Advisor Dr Kerry Borkin 20 years ago. There was grave concern that local bat populations in the Piako might have died out during this time.”

Bats are vulnerable to predation and competition for roosting sites (holes in trees) from possums and ship rats.

Dr Mason was delighted to find however, that bats are permanent Morrinsville residents rather than mere visitors. He identified at least one potential roost tree with likely others in the wider Morrinsville area. With the help of two other volunteers, Aimee O’Sullivan and Teresa Simons, surveys are ongoing at six sites in or around Morrinsville to get an idea of how bat activity changes across seasons and in response to weather.

After the initial success of the Morrinsville surveys, and once lockdown restrictions lifted, Dr Mason broadened the study to span the majority of the Piako and Waitoa rivers, the Waitakaruru Stream and eastern tributaries of the Waikato River. Bat activity has been recorded at almost all sites, except in parts of central Morrinsville, north of the Kopuatai Peat Dome and the northernmost Waikato site (see map below).

“Although we now know that bats are still present in Morrinsville and the broader Piako catchment, there’s still a lot we don’t know, including basic facts like the rough population size or trends in population size,” he says.

“Getting this information requires specialised expertise in catching and handling bats, as well as a lot of time and effort! The hope is that we will partner with bat experts in the near future to get more information on the health of our local bat populations.”

In the meantime, Dr Mason is exploring options to involve the Morrinsville and broader Piako communities in giving our bats a helping hand. Two bat-focussed events are planned for the New Year.

The first is a ‘thank-you’ for the landowners who generously provided access for surveys. This will also be an opportunity to share practical ideas for keeping down rat and possum numbers.

The second event will be open to the community and focused on opening discussions on community-wide pest control efforts in Morrinsville. An off shoot of the Predator Free Hamilton group has been set up in Cambridge, and this could provide a useful example for Morrinsville residents to follow. More details about these events will be released closer to the time.

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