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Scholarship awarded for research to save declining kākahi

A Waikato Regional Council and Department of Conservation scholarship is being used to help find out what’s causing the decline of kākahi, New Zealand’s freshwater mussel.

University of Waikato postgraduate freshwater ecology research student Anita Pearson, 26, was today awarded the $5000 Dr Stella Frances Scholarship to help her with her studies.

Anita’s research is a part of New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. She is investigating the effects of non-indigenous Daphnia species (zooplankton) on kākahi (Echyridella menziesii), a taonga species.

Kākahi beds were once abundant in New Zealand’s lakes and rivers, and they were a valued food source of Maori. They can live up to 50 years old, but juveniles are becoming increasingly rare.

Freshwater mussels all around the world are being threatened by pollution, habitat loss and the introduction of invasive species.

English-born Anita said the factors leading to the decline in kākahi are yet to be pinpointed. However, recent studies suggest that non-indigenous species are likely a key contributing factor.

“Daphnia invasions can have serious ecological impacts. These tiny organisms are capable of limiting the availability of algal food resources for other organisms, and my research will determine if non-indigenous Daphnia species pose a significant threat to kākahi through resource competition,” she said.

“It will also investigate whether kākahi are able to feed on or filter out invasive zooplankton from the water; are kākahi able to be used as a biomanipulation tool to remove unwanted Daphnia in shallow lakes?

“My work will provide more information and methods to help management of both non-native Daphnia species and kākahi in the future,” said Anita, who’s been in Hamilton for 13 years.

The scholarship, set up in memory of Dr Stella Frances in 2006, is awarded every year to a postgraduate student studying environmental issues in the Waikato region.

Dr Stella Frances, who also trained as a freshwater scientist, was a Waikato regional councillor in 1993 and then Waikato conservator of the Department of Conservation.

Waikato Regional Council chair Alan Livingston said one of the roles of the council is to help reverse the decline of biodiversity.

“This scholarship will help Anita with the expenses of her research, which is helping to protect and enhance an important part of New Zealand’s biodiversity for future generations to enjoy.

“We are pleased to be able to help enable her pursue a career for the good of our environment,” Cr Livingston said.

Department of Conservation’s Andrew Styche, who was on the judging panel, said: “We were really impressed with Anita’s interest in conservation and her ability to bring uni students together to help community groups in the Waikato.

“Anita’s application was technically sound, but she also has a strong background in communication which will help her make the science more accessible,” he said.

Dr Stella Frances Scholarship presentation.

Masters student Anita Pearson at the formal presentation of the Dr Stella Frances Scholarship in Hamilton. Anita is pictured with Waikato Regional Council chair Alan Livingston, Andrew Styche from the Department of Conservation, and Waikato Regional Council science manager, Dominique Noiton.

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