New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2021) 45(1): 3425

Good predators: the roles of weka (Gallirallus australis) in New Zealand’s past and present ecosystems

Review Article
Joanna K. Carpenter 1*
John G. Innes 2
Jamie R. Wood 3
Phil O'B. Lyver 3
  1. Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin, New Zealand
  2. Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, Private Bag 3127, Hamilton, New Zealand
  3. Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, Lincoln, 7640, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

There is increasing interest in restoring native predators in order to regulate ecosystems and maintain biodiversity, but predator reintroductions are still controversial for complex social and ecological reasons. Few studies have examined predator restoration on islands or in ecosanctuaries, where highly endemic faunas have typically undergone precipitous declines and extinctions due to novel invasive predators, and translocations are used to restore species. Currently in New Zealand, discussions regarding predators typically focus on introduced mammalian pests, and the importance of native predators is frequently overlooked. We present a case study of the mesopredatory New Zealand weka (Gallirallus australis), a threatened flightless rail that provokes controversy among restoration practitioners due to concerns that it may decrease populations of other threatened species. We (1) review studies of weka diet and impacts on native and exotic fauna; (2) contrast prehistoric and contemporary predation webs focused on weka; and (3) consider the role of biocultural approaches in the management and restoration of socio-ecological systems with weka. Weka are opportunistic omnivores that can include vertebrates in their diet, and on small islands where weka can reach high densities there is some evidence that they may limit some prey populations. However, very few manipulative experimental studies measuring effects of weka on native species have been carried out, and such studies would be extremely valuable. Weka also consume invasive rodents and, if they obtain a sufficiently high density, may provide benefits in ecosanctuaries by limiting invasive mice populations. Māori historically harvested weka, and such harvest may now valuably limit weka numbers at certain island or ecosanctuary sites, perhaps replacing the effect of extinct avian competitors and apex predators. How weka and other native predators should be managed on islands depends on the value placed on ecosystem restoration, species-focused conservation, or biocultural enrichment.