School of Biological Sciences Seminar Series

Two eyed seeing: how interdisciplinary ecology can be incredibly rewarding


Dr Cilla Wehi


Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Te Pūnaha Matatini

Time & Place

Thu, 09 May 2019 12:00:00 NZST in School of Biological Sciences Seminar Room 275

All are welcome


I will discuss projects from my research at the interface of ecology and society; projects that have revealed new insights, but also presented methodological and social challenges. The first examines Māori oral tradition. Human settlement into new regions is typically accompanied by waves of animal extinctions, yet we have limited understanding of how human communities perceived and responded to such ecological crises. Because extinctions in New Zealand began just 700 years ago, Maori whakataukī, or ancestral sayings, offer a source of cultural information that contains embedded ecological knowledge. Temporal changes in form and content demonstrate that Māori recognized the loss of important animal resources, and that this loss reverberated culturally centuries later. The data provide evidence that extinction of keystone fauna was important for shaping ecological thought in Māori society. A second project examines material from both Maori and museum collections, using stable isotope analysis together with historical records to investigate Maori relationships with kurī and better understand their disappearance.. Kurī were brought on the voyaging canoes to Aotearoa and were important for food and clothing before European arrival. Sampling from such collections raises methodological and ethical challenges. Research that engages with communities and external agencies can be slow and painstaking. Ultimately, however this engagement can add layers of richness and complexity to research and lead to rewarding collaborative partnerships of discovery.


Introduced by Tammy Steeves


Priscilla (Cilla) Wehi is a conservation biologist and Rutherford Discovery Fellow at Manaaki Whenua  Landcare Research in Dunedin. Her research has focused on the links between biodiversity and culture and the ecology and conservation of iconic native species such as tree weta. Her research has benefited immensely from the natural history and taonga (anthropological) collections in museums, and the interactions with curators and staff. This research includes isotope analysis of kea diet, morphological analysis of weta specimens, and work on the story of Māori dogs, whose hair and skins are woven into traditional cloaks. Cilla completed a BSc (Hons) in zoology at the University of Canterbury, a MSc in animal ecology at Lincoln University, and a PhD in ecology and Māori at the University of Waikato. Cilla grew up in Dunedin and is of Scottish descent, but she also affiliates to Tainui and Tūhoe through her extended family. She is the new Incoming Co-Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Centre of Research Excellence for Complex systems, a member of the Predator-Free 2050 Bioethics Panel, and the Kindness in Science Collective, and is part of the  Homeward Bound programme that aims to raise the profile and leadership of women in STEM.