Alex Sides

Island views: perceptions of scientific value in New Zealand’s subantarctic islands

Thesis Abstract

Both the public and the scientific perception of an island’s value are important in deciding its future, with regard to the level of access, the level of protection and the funding for research. In this review, I begin by discussing the predominant ways that islands have been viewed by non-scientific society, with particular regard to literature. I then focus on how scientists, in particular, view islands, categorising different ways in which islands are perceived by scientists based on how the island has been incorporated into their research. I use these categories to sort research conducted on New Zealand’s subantarctic islands – Auckland, Campbell, The Snares, Bounty, and the Antipodes Islands – with the double purpose of summarising what is known about the islands and highlighting their scientific value.

My work resolves four central ways in which scientists view islands based on how the island is incorporated into their research and on what context the island gives to the research. Species-level studies (1) focus on the endemic inhabitants of a specific island. In Island-level studies (2), an element of similarity between all islands is assumed. Studies that use islands as model systems (3) recognise that the processes that occur on islands are the same as those that occur on larger landmasses, but with the advantage of occurring within a discrete area. And finally, there are studies that see islands as part of a global network (4), where the data collected makes sense only when combined with data from other islands or landmasses.

Why is this review important? There is a tendency in New Zealand to think of the preservation of islands as the slightly idiosyncratic conservation of an isolated habitat, where the value of the island is in its isolation. However, by understanding how scientists use islands, a very different picture emerges. Islands may be seen as isolated and unique or equally, as integrated, representative fragments of the world that contribute to science and biodiversity far beyond their narrow geographic boundaries. Understanding this in relation to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, some of our most remote nature reserves, could help to create a new image of the islands, their relevance to the New Zealand public and, thus, the importance of protecting them. With oceanic island nature reserves, public perception is generally not based on personal experience but on books and information filtered by the media. Scientists are some of the few that see the islands up close and gain direct experience of their inhabitants.

Creative Component

For the creative component of this thesis, I have produced a fictional journal and sketchbook of a young naturalist who visits the subantarctic islands at the turn of the twentieth century – a time when human exploitation of the islands was arguably at its most devastating. It aims to create a real sense of what the islands were like, to encourage interest and to create a foundation of general knowledge of the climate, species and geography of this distant part of New Zealand. Making the book a mix of images and information linked by a fictional storyline, I chose to target younger readers as it will fall to them to decide the fate of the islands in the face of ongoing threats, such as global climate change.