All of this adds uncertainty to exactly what the Buller’s mollymawks of Rosemary Rock are. Are they Northern or Southern subspecies, or something different? Such questions are where the rubber hits the road in terms of the relationship between taxonomy (the science of describing and naming biodiversity) and conservation biology (the science of protecting that diversity). Conservation funding and effort is typically based on population size and change of known and described species. If the albatrosses of Rosemary Rock were found to be related to large populations further south, then they would be of lower conservation priority. However, a tiny population of genetically distinct albatrosses, restricted to one rock stack, would immediately be considered of high conservation concern, possibly even critically endangered.
Fast forward 37 years to 2020 and we still don’t have that vital information for the Rosemary Rock birds. While this might seem surprising, it is not an unusual situation in our small nation, where important wildlife questions are often left unanswered due to a small pool of researchers, an even smaller pool of funding, and, in this case, the remoteness of the birds in question. However, over the course of several years, Auckland Museum and mana whenua of Manawatāwhi, Ngāti Kuri, had been working on a plan to fill in the blanks. This, of course, would require getting back onto Rosemary Rock, not a simple undertaking. Manawatāwhi lies on an undersea submarine plateau known as the King Bank, 60 kilometres north of Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Rēinga) at the intersection of the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean. The group is made up of 13 islands and a number of rock stacks, none of which have beaches or easy landing sites. Rosemary Rock is in the Western chain of islands known as the Princes Group. Windswept and completely exposed to Southern Ocean swells, this 50-metre-high lump of basalt, bounded by cliffs, presents a serious challenge to land on, even for experience field researchers.
Image credit: Rosemary Rock, Manawatāwhi. Jenn Carol