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  • Rights: Crown copyright
    Published 18 November 2020 Referencing Hub media

    A cultural indicator is a tohu, a marker or signpost for Māori, developed from localised knowledge. Wetland plant and animal species can be cultural indicators. Kairangahau Māori Cheri van Schravendijk-Goodman, Yvonne Taura and Ian Kusabs explain how they can also be environmental indicators – their presence (or absence) can provide information about the way a wetland ecosystem is functioning.

    Questions for discussion:

    • How do some repo species act as cultural indicators?
    • How do some repo species act as environmental indicators?
    • How do missing tohu – like kōura – tell us something is wrong?


    Cheri van Schravendijk-Goodman

    Our species – our birds, our insects, our fish – tell us a lot about what’s going on because of what they do and their roles and functions within repo and wider systems. Our plants also give us indicators of things like climate change or when different things are happening within fisheries. Our birds also tell us when there’s new growth, when there is migrations. A number of them, like the kawau and kōtare, the kingfisher, in particular are really good indicators of fish movement. Because those birds, they go after fish. Pīpīwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, is a really good indicator of shifts in season. So what I’m talking about – they become tohu or indicators. In a way, we’re kind of exploiting their behaviour to tell us what’s going on in the rest of the environment.

    Yvonne Taura

    Cultural indicators are our markers of how healthy an ecosystem is and specifically for repo. Our birds, our fish, our plants, diversity – all these things play a role in showing us how healthy our wetlands are. Without them, we can see quite easily that there’s something wrong within that repo, that it’s not functioning the way it should.

    Dr Ian Kusabs

    In some of the lakes around here for example, kōura are extinct now. In the past, they were abundant, and we know that from the traditional accounts. And there’s just nothing left now, because the water quality is so poor there’s no oxygen left for them to survive. They act like a canary in a coalmine – that’s how they’re an indicator species.


    Illustration of wetland ecosystem connections, Pūniu River Care Incorporated Restoration Guide
    Photo, Australasian bittern wrestling an eel. Foxton Beach, April 2017, by Imogen Warren Photography
    Photo of pūkeko eating raupō, Jon Sullivan, CC BY-NC 2.0
    Kōtare (kingfisher) footage, Victorian Natives, CC BY 3.0
    Pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoo) footage, Dr James Russell
    Black swan footage, Farm Animal Daily Life
    Footage, men on small boat hauling in a sampling whakaweku, Dr Ian Kusabs
    Historical footage, woman harvesting kōura with a whakaweku, 1937, The Footage Company Australia/British Movietone

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