Classroom with a View
Studying New Zealand's endangered wildlife, scientists say, is like studying life on another planet.

IT'S HOT—TOO HOT FOR THIS. But here I am, practically running to keep up with five hyper-motivated students from UNH's EcoQuest program as they tackle a near-vertical section of forest trail. Minutes later, from the peak of Mt. Ruawahine on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, we get our reward.

Far below, at the ocean's edge, a tiny strip of bone-white sand, like the stopper in a giant bottle, almost seals in a tidal basin the size of a small farm. The cirrus-feathered sky is a perfect blue, the pastoral landscape placid in the afternoon sun. Islands shimmer in the haze of heat over the Pacific Ocean. In the estuary, a team of fellow students paddle kayaks in water so clear the colorful plastic shells seem to float on air. Even for me, a nature-loving Kiwi accustomed to such scenes, the view is stunning.

Bay of Plenty A view of the eastern coast of the Bay of Plenty, near Houpoto, New Zealand.

The natural beauty is far from lost on my new friends, but they are not here to gush and take pictures. They are putting the finishing touches on their assignment—a habitat classification and ecological-process map of the estuarine ecosystem spread out before them. When they finish, they will understand how the estuary developed, what physical and social processes are shaping it, how human use affects it, and what its future will be. A breathtaking landscape has become an object of rigorous academic scrutiny.

Bill Brownell '67 has always believed that the best classrooms are located in the midst of nature—on the edge of cliffs, along mountain paths, in the deep forest. Brownell's early career as a fisheries biologist took him around the world and finally to New Zealand, where he settled in 1984. So it makes sense that when he helped found the UNH EcoQuest Field Studies program in 1996, the UNH affiliate assistant professor would put the emphasis on studying, quite literally, in the field.

Kimberly Babbitt Associate professor Kimberly Babbitt with a forest gecko

New Zealand is an ideal laboratory for ecological studies. The archipelago was created 80 million years ago when a small slice of land broke off from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. The islands' long isolation resulted in the evolution of many species of reptiles, invertebrates and birds, but only a few mammals: fur seals and two types of bats. Over time, with no mammalian predators, many of the birds lost their ability to fly. In effect, New Zealand became a giant bird sanctuary.

Most of the country's species are found nowhere else. All of the native reptiles and amphibians, 90 percent of its insects and 25 percent of its bird species are endemic to New Zealand. Great Britain, by contrast, has just two endemic species. Studying New Zealand's wildlife, scientists say, is as close as you can get to studying life on another planet.

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