Tony Harris HHS Alumnus: A Living Legend in Dunedin and New Zealand

Updated: Oct 27, 2019

Hawera High School has had some truly remarkable pupils over the years. It is good, where we can, to document and record for posterity information about these unique individuals, and their careers after leaving school.

Tony Harris, also known as Anthony Clifford Harris, was a quiet and unassuming pupil at Hawera High School for 5 years from 1958 – 1962. His father was the Laboratory Manager, at the Patea Freezing Works so there was a scientific background in the family. Tony was well known for his interest in collecting insects, and the fine and intricate drawings he did of them. In two interviews, 27 October 2014, and 18 June 2018, with John Gibb and Bruce Munro respectively, of the ‘Otago Daily Times,’ he described his first encounter with insects as happening when he was one year of age.

It was a sublime, formative experience. "Lifting up boards on our section in Hawera, Taranaki, I was amazed to see Carabidae ground beetles,'' he recalled. "I immediately and passionately loved them for their shape, sculpturing and form; their shiny black iridescent bodies with elegantly sculptured wing cases and bright green iridescent sheen.''

Tony remembered too his second earliest significant memory of insects. "When I was three, I used to keep beetles in tins,'' he says, gazing at an unseen, long gone, yet vivid scene. "My brother, who was 1 year old at the time, put his hand in the tin and got bitten. He started crying and my father came out, tipped the beetles on the path and squashed them. It made me cry in anguish for a long time. I can remember it very clearly.''

At 5 years, he produced a small book on Hawera beetles; at 10 years, a neatly hand-written and beautifully hand-illustrated book on New Zealand beetles. As soon as he owned a bicycle he rode to Mt Taranaki and other mountain ranges where he studied insects.

Aged 10, Anthony Harris had already produced his second hand-written and hand illustrated book on New Zealand beetles. Photo: Gregor Richardson Otago Daily Times 18 June 2018

Tony may have had a quiet, unobtrusive personality but he was not going to be bullied or intimidated when he was a pupil at Hawera High School. Unlike the other male students who did not question corporal punishment being inflicted on them for even minor transgressions, Tony was totally opposed to this practice. Garth Spurdle, who was a classmate of Tony’s in the third form, told me of the dramatic encounter Tony had with his English and French teacher, D.N. Barry. Neil Barry wanted to cane Tony but he refused to bend over. When it was suggested, as another option, that he lie down on the ground and be caned, Tony maintained his stance. He was then given the punishment of 5000 lines. Tony who was a talented artist did a drawing of a gorilla (5000 lines), and gave it, in front of the class, to his teacher. He was left alone in future and was never threatened with the cane again.

I was a pupil at Hawera High School, for most of the years that Tony was there. I recall ‘Gat’ Thompson, the Principal, proudly announcing, at the school assembly, in October 1962, that Tony Harris had won the first prize in the British Commonwealth School’s Essay Competition, sponsored by the British Scientific Journal ‘Research’. The competition was planned ‘to help break down the barrier of misunderstanding growing between scientist and the unscientific public, because of the inability of each to communicate ideas and feelings to the other.’

Tony Harris, Hawera High School 1962.

G .A. Thompson, Principal, Hawera High School (1944 – January 1963). Photograph 1962.

The HHS School Magazine 1962 had a separate section on Tony’s success and said that ‘Tony Harris, one of our Upper Sixth Form students, whose interest in entomology was well known to us had won for himself in the Commonwealth School’s Essay Competition the first prize of 15 pounds and for the school an additional prize of 15 pounds worth of library books. We believe this to be a most creditable award. Entries were judged on scientific content, clarity of presentation and style’.

The School Magazine recorded the title of Tony’s successful essay as being ‘An Introduction to the Influence of Environment on the General Morphology and Habits of the Coleoptera of the Taranaki (New Zealand) Coast.’

In 1963 Tony commenced studies for the Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology at Victoria University, Wellington. I became a student there in 1964 and had the occasional interaction with Tony as the former students from Hawera High School were few in number. Ken Edgecombe, another ex- HHS student and I were both residents of Rudman House, the Salvation Hostel for Young Men, on the corner of Vivian and Tory Streets. Next door was the Salvation Army Home for Alcoholics. We used to go through its grounds at night when we were out beyond the 11 pm hostel curfew. The established practice was to scale the outside street wall, drop down into the yard, then rapidly walk or run around the back of the Home for Alcoholics, then up the hostel’s fire escape, to a bedroom window left open, by another student, for us to enter the hostel. Inevitably these escapades, by many of us, disturbed some residents of the Home for Alcoholics with the result being the eruption of an enormous lot of noise. Fortunately, by the time the hostel management realised what was amiss we were safely home in our hostel rooms.

Tony was also living at Rudman House, for a short period, and I remember him being reprimanded by Major Miller,the Hostel Manager, for cutting a piece off the new carpet in his room, to fit in some of his laboratory equipment.

In 1965 Tony Harris was living several blocks closer to Victoria University, in a room he had rented at the back of the Brunswick Hotel, on the corner of Vivian and Willis Streets. One Sunday afternoon in July 1965 we received an SOS phone call from Tony saying that he had knocked over a wooden box in his room that contained his breeding colony of katipo spiders. He asked us to help in locating the spiders. Ken and I made our way, on foot, as fast as we could, to the Brunswick Hotel. We were not able to locate all of the missing spiders.

We jointly decided that it was best not to mention the missing katipo spiders to any of the hotel staff as they might become very concerned and Tony could lose his accommodation. There were no reports afterwards of any hotel staff being bitten! However, several weeks later, Tony confessed to us that he had been bitten on the leg by a katipo. When we asked about the effect of the poisonous bite, Tony said that ‘all I had was a sore lump on my leg which went away after a few days.’ He was very relaxed about the matter.

The next contact with Tony was later that year when he told us of that he had been on a tramping trip in the Tararua Ranges, when the weather became very poor and he could not get back to Wellington, to sit the final Zoology papers for his Bachelor of Science degree. He was quite downcast and convinced that he would have to repeat the year. Fortunately, Tony had a good academic record with tests, assignments and term exams, and was granted an aegrotat pass. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1965 / 66.

We lost contact afterwards and the next news I had about him was in 1974 when I was living in Canada. The news was that Tony had graduated First Class Honours, Master of Science -Zoology. The following entry appeared, alongside his name, in the Victoria University 1974 publication listing all of the students who had been awarded degrees:

Anthony Clifford Harris: ‘A systematic revision of the New Zealand Pompilidae (Hymenoptera) with studies on larvae, life histories, distribution, variation, paleogeography, hybrid-zones, mimicry, and environmental melanism: a thesis submitted to Victoria University of Wellington in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Zoology’.

In 1974 he began a more than 40-year career at Otago Museum, collecting, studying and describing New Zealand's insect species. His particular specialty became New Zealand's spider-hunting wasps and the other families of solitary hunting wasps.

During his October 2014 interview with John Gibb Tony made it clear that his intense passion for entomology was lifelong. ‘'I was motivated by an intense, lifelong, emotional love of insects and also for the rest of nature, including plants, and the wild, natural landscape’’. And that ''Pure streams, native vegetation and small animals in subalpine habitats particularly were wonderful to me and made my heart soar, and when I found a new, beautiful insect, I sometimes heard heavenly music’.

Although he had always been keen on studying beetles, he was later inspired to study Pompilidae - spider-hunting wasps - by a DSIR entomologist who had told him they were ''very difficult'' to study, and the species ''very confused'' to analyse. The DSIR scientist had added: ''I'd bet you could not work those out.'' Tony Harris took that as a challenge. ''I said I would work up the New Zealand species and indeed found it most exciting and very rewarding,'' he said.

In 1995, he was awarded a Science and Technology Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand. And by 2018 he had published three books, 150 scientific papers and had written more than 1,570 weekly natural history articles for the ‘Otago Daily Times’.

John Gibbs, in his 27 October 2014 ‘Otago Daily Times’ interview with Tony Harris, ‘‘Heaven on Earth in a World of Insects’ stated that Tony had written the ‘Otago Daily Times’ Nature File column for the past 29 years. And that over more than 40 years, he had collected and studied New Zealand insects ''from North Cape to southern Stewart Island'', visiting ''as many patches of native vegetation as I could, using packs and motorcycles and tramping on foot''.

Through the Nature File column Tony had highlighted the growing environmental challenges faced by New Zealand's native flora and fauna. As Tony said then ''How can informed decisions be made on the New Zealand fauna and flora, if the individual species are unnamed?'' He warned that rapid habitat change was endangering and even eliminating some New Zealand insect species before they have been scientifically described and named. ''I believe it is the duty of a museum zoologist to report back to the public on these important matters because they are intimately connected to his subject matter.''

Over the years, three insects have been named after him by fellow entomologists. And rapid environmental change, perhaps influenced by global warming, may have already badly endangered one of those insects, the native stiletto fly Anabarhynchus harrisi.

This insect is known from only one male and two female specimens collected on sand beside the Blue Stream in the Tasman Valley, near Mt Cook. But much of the streamside habitat of this fly - part of a ''strange isolated community of insects'' - has subsequently been greatly changed by the formation of Lake Tasman, from glacial melting. Sixty-nine species of stiletto flies

(Therevidae) had been described in New Zealand, but many undescribed species also existed. Tony commented that: ''As habitats are destroyed, large numbers of species will go extinct, many before they have even been discovered, let alone described.''

A native stiletto fly, Anabarhynchus harrisi, named after Anthony Harris. October Daily Times 27 October 2014.

Anthony Harris, Otago Museum's honorary curator of entomology, at work at the Woodhaugh Gardens in Dunedin. Otago Daily Times 27 October 2014

Anthony Harris, Otago Museum's honorary curator of entomology, at work at the Woodhaugh Gardens in Dunedin. Otago Daily Times 27 October 2014

And some exciting and surprising finds resulted when he visited a largely undisturbed fragment of native bush in the northwest of the Woodhaugh Gardens, Dunedin, as part of a programme linked to the New Zealand International Science Festival, July 2014. Many of the rich array of invertebrates found among the leaf litter during that trip were not named, including several specimens of peripatus - a form of velvet worm - which had never previously been recorded as existing in the Woodhaugh Gardens.

Tony said that many velvet worm species in New Zealand had yet to be described, as well as many butterflies, weevils and flies, including in the order Diptera. There is, he said, ‘a unique insect fauna which evolved in New Zealand in isolation, and fewer and fewer trained taxonomists are left to describe it.''

THE CHALLENGE - 2014 John Gibb Interview


What is your research about?

As habitats are destroyed, large numbers of undescribed species will go extinct before they have been discovered, let alone described.

I want to publish biosystematic monographs on New Zealand insects and help to save native plant and animal habitats increasingly at risk.

Why is it important?

My research sorts out correct from incorrect names and reveals reasons for enormous geographical variation within single species related to mimicry complexes, and melanism - the latter involving black colouration resulting from coldness at higher latitudes and altitudes.

I have worked out the full life history for every species of NZ solitary wasp and described all the larvae.

What is the most interesting aspect of your research?

The colour of adult native spider wasps relates closely to temperatures earlier encountered in pupa form, with red colour reflecting warmer conditions and black resulting from colder temperatures.

What is unique about your research?

Almost all of New Zealand's solitary wasps are found in no other country.

Bruce Munro established in the 2018 interview that besides the stiletto fly (see photograph above), the other two insects that entomologists had named after him were a butterfly, and a solitary wasp. Tony said to Bruce Munro: "Personally, I believe a true entomologist has a passionate love of the subject and must like insects more than anything else.''

Anthony Harris, in the field at Smails Beach, Dunedin. Photograph by Emma Burns, Otago Museum. Otago Daily Times 18 June 2018

The Otago Museum, on its website highlighted that work at the Museum was’ supported by a number of amazing Honorary Curators - volunteer researchers and retired university staff who carry a wealth of knowledge which supports our stories and adds additional context to our collections. They carry out their own research and collection projects, and assist with some of the collection services the Museum offers.’ It had the following entry for Tony Harris:

Anthony Harris - Honorary Curator, Entomology Anthony Harris is a familiar figure at the Otago Museum. Starting as a invertebrate zoologist in 1974, he retired in 1999 but continued on as an honorary curator. Every Monday for almost 35 years he has published the Nature File column in the ‘Otago Daily Times’, focusing on new, natural science research discoveries, many of which are related to New Zealand ecology, taxonomy and conservation. He deals with invertebrate enquires brought in by the public and works with research collaborators overseas publishing papers on Pompilidae, or spider wasps. He is also working with collection staff cataloguing a new collection of pinned and pickled insect specimens.

The ’New Zealand Herald’ 3 December 2003 reported on a discovery by Tony:

Stinging ants discovered in Dunedin

The Ministry of Agriculture has issued a warning about a colony of foreign stinging ants discovered in a Dunedin central city building. It is the first time the insects, known as Roger's ants, have been found in New Zealand. The tiny ants were identified by retired Dunedin entomologist Anthony Harris this year after they were found in a building near the Octagon. MAF scientist Amelia Pascoe said Mr Harris' identification had been confirmed and the ministry was interested in any further sightings.

Bruce Munro in his article ‘Losing the Buzz’ in the ‘Otago Daily Times’ of 18 June 2018 mentioned meeting Tony Harris at the Otago Museum: After going through an inconspicuous door at the back of Otago Museum's public toilets we emerged in a long, silent, concrete corridor partitioned by a series of security-controlled doorways. Harris turns left through another swipe-card-entry door into a short hall and then right into a small, high-ceiling office, somewhere in the bowels of the museum.

The walls are lined high with books and boxes. The utilitarian desks ringing the room are equally burdened with papers, open books and display cases of beetles, wasps and other deceased members of the class Insecta. This 3m-by-4m bunker is the repository of a lifetime of devoted research by Harris, one of New Zealand's leading authorities on creepy-crawlies.

Tony had asked Bruce Munro to meet him to discuss the subject of the cataclysmic decline in insects that was taking place, virtually unnoticed. Tony was very focused on the impending Sixth Mass Extinction, which could wipe land-based life from the globe: ’The sixth mass extinction worries me on a daily basis and has worsened steeply after about 1950’.

During the meeting Tony observed that eighty percent of all known species of animals are insects, and that you can tell an insect - if you can get it to hold still for long enough - by its six legs, exoskeleton divided into a head, thorax and abdomen and its two waggling antennae.

By far the biggest orders of insects are the coleoptera (beetles) and the hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants), followed by the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), then diptera (flies and mosquitoes) and, finally, other insects, such as grasshoppers and silverfish.

"The total number of individual insects alive worldwide today is ...''

He writes it out. 10,000,000,000,000,000,000.

"... 10 quintillion. That equals more than 1500 million insects for every person.''

There are insects that spend part of their lives under water. Quite a few can walk on water. Some communicate with chemicals. Others, with sound and light.

Anthony Harris with a display case of weevils he has collected. Photo: Gregor Richardson. Otago Daily Times 18 June 2018.

Beetles, Tony said are well represented in Aotearoa and that we have about 2000 species of weevils. As native insects, we have only solitary bees and wasps. "Bees are basically wasps that are vegetarian.'' His research showed that in some species of New Zealand solitary wasps the males mimic the females, pretending they too can sting.

"There is a lot of this mimicry in the insect world,'' he said. There are two species of fly that mimic a wasp right down to its coloured markings and the way it flies. Some of this copy-cat behaviour is downright nasty - or ingenious, depending on whether you are predator or prey. There's the robber fly, for example, that imitates the look and walk of a female wasp. "The male wasp flies down to say hello and the robber fly responds by jumping on the male and eating it.''

Entomologists, Tony said are constantly discovering more about insects and the important role they play in the global ecosystem. New Zealand's 10,000 known insect species are probably less than half of the real number and ninety percent of New Zealand's insects are found nowhere else.

Japanese spider-hunting wasps are very similar to their New Zealand cousins, of which Anthony Harris is the world authority. Photo: Gregor Richardson. Otago Daily Times 18 June 2018.

He said that in our long-isolated land, giant weta took the role played elsewhere by mice; until rodents arrived and virtually wiped them out.

Worldwide, about one million insect species have been identified, but scientists estimate there are another 29 million without names. The trouble is that they are disappearing quicker than entomologists can record them. Bees and their decline have been worried over for more than three decades. The dwindling numbers of other insects, however, is not widely recognised nor talked about.

Twenty years ago, one billion monarch butterflies made the annual migration from Canada to Mexico. Entomologists say the latest count is 56.5 million, less than 1% of new-millennium numbers. In October, 2017, researchers revealed that, since 1989, three-quarters of all flying insects had disappeared from nature reserves throughout Germany. The findings prompted warnings of an impending "ecological Armageddon''.

Tony Harris has noticed it too. He recited to Bruce Munro a list of Latin-sounding native invertebrates that are now rarely, or never, seen. And during the 1970s, he was fossicking in a patch of bush on the edge of the Waipoua kauri forest, in Northland, looking for solitary wasps.

What he spotted instead was "a distinctive carabid beetle with a very long, thin head and rounded pro-thorax''. The interesting insect was a Maoripamborus fairburni. "I knew it from [entomologist] Albert Brookes' 19th-century description of it. It was fairly uncommon then. But I haven't been able to find one since. I might have been the last person to see one alive. There's quite a few like that.''

Humans, it appears, are the problem. Tony Harris told Bruce Munro about the new piece of research, published mid-2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The paper, by researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, reveals the astonishing and disproportionate impact humans are having on the planet.

The total biomass, that is the total weight of all organisms on earth, is estimated at 545.2 Gt C (gigatons of carbon), the researchers say. More than 80% of this is plants. Next comes bacteria at 16%, and fungi 2%. Animals make up just 0.4% of the total biomass. The globe's 7.6 billion people, at that time, accounted for just 0.01% of all living things.

However, the human impact on the globe has been enormous. According to the Proceedings article, humans are responsible for the possibly irreparable loss of large chunks of the animal and plant kingdoms; more than 80% of all wild animals and half of all plants. Tony Harris finds it deeply disturbing. "Farmed poultry now makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% wild,'' he says with a shocked tone. "The picture for mammals is worse. Sixty percent of all mammals on earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are humans and just 4% of all mammals are wild.'' It is no wonder insects are dying out, he says. Industrialised farming is one of the main causes.

Tony Harris describes other ways humans are doing the dirty on insects: introduced pests, habitat destruction, clearance of forests and native vegetation, greenhouse gas emissions ... And the various impacts are having a grave, multiplying effect.

When global climate changed in the past, he noted, insects, along with other animals and plants, could transition higher or lower and further north or south to areas where they could still survive. Now, however, ‘with so much deforestation and as temperatures climb, pockets of native bush and their entourage of insects have become life rafts slowly sinking in an uncrossable ocean of pasture land’. Just why the decline of insects is such a catastrophe is perhaps not immediately obvious, said Munro.

Tony said the answer was that insects were vitally important as they did everything from cleaning up waste to keeping plants alive and feeding us and the animals. Insects form the base of many thousands of food chains. Insects also take a lead role in pollinating flowering plants. About 70% of the human diet comes from flowering plants, which include the staples of most diets worldwide: wheat, corn and rice. Insects, he said, keep the global ecosystem rolling down the highway of life.

Tony Harris said that without insects, we face total ecological collapse and global famine - a Sixth Mass Extinction. The Fifth Mass Extinction was the one that killed off the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago. His solution requires a radical paradigm shift.

Humans have to realise, he said to Bruce Munro, that they are just one part of a bigger whole. He made this statement, Munro said, with quiet, and fierce resolve. "I think humans are just another species of carnivore ... They have to fit in with the other animals and plants, which are literally their relatives. We share a lot of the same genes. A banana has about 60% the same genes as a human. It has to be a form of symbiosis, with all the species of the same intrinsic worth. Humans are not of greater value.''

"We must value the other species, on whom we depend for our existence, very much more than we do at present and this should be reflected in our laws, spirituality and culture. The other animals and plants are much more important and valuable than our religions, culture, philosophy and business values recognise.''

''I have become increasingly alarmed at the destruction of almost all native habitats throughout New Zealand, including reserves and national parks. A warming climate threatens our many subalpine and mountain species.''.

Tony would have not been impressed with the lack of progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988; and since New Zealand signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. Indeed, former National Party Cabinet Minister, Nick Smith, is reported in the 18 September 2019 issue of the ‘Dominion Post’ as stating that emissions have increased 40 % since 1992.

Based on Tony’s comments in both interviews, one can assume that he would have been quietly applauding the non- violent efforts of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement; and the recent Climate Change marches by children, their parents and others, in 41 New Zealand centres, to draw attention to the urgent need for action on climate change. He would also be watching to see how much actual substance, after the inevitable political compromises that will have to be made, there is to the proposed Zero Carbon Act once it is approved by Parliament.

He would have no doubt read the Government’s new Biodiversity Plan, Te Koiroa O’ Te Koiora - ‘Our Shared Vision for Living with Nature’. And noted that the Department of Conservation hopes by 2025 to have halted the decline of wetlands and have threats from climate change integrated into species management plans.

The immensity of the challenge was highlighted by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage with her comments that currently more than 4000 native plants and wildlife are threatened or at risk of extinction. Since humans arrived in New Zealand, she said, more than 50 native birds have become extinct, three frogs, at least three lizards, one freshwater fish, four plants and an unknown number of invertebrates.

Tony had been highlighting, for many years what was happening. He will be watching to see, how realistic the goals are under the new biodiversity strategy, and the specific measures proposed to protect New Zealand’s unique indigenous plants and wildlife and special places, including our oceans. The aspirational set of goals is that by 2050:

  • New Zealand is free from stoats, possums, and rats

  • Populations are increasing for all threatened native species

  • By catch of seabirds, corals, and marine mammals is reduced to zero.

Tony is very aware that the main threats to indigenous biodiversity are introduced predators including possums, rats and stoats, habitat destruction such as wetland drainage, unsustainable land and water use, diseases such as myrtle rust and the impacts of climate change.

Given the findings from his extensive insect research, over the past 60 years, one would expect that Tony Harris would be supporting the comments by University of Auckland Marine Science Institute Professor Mark Costello. He emphasised, when interviewed by Amber Leigh Woolf (Dominion Post 6 August 2019), the importance of quantifying the state of nature’s health and its trends as otherwise society could not be accurately informed of what the situation is and the consequences of inaction.

And to leave the last word to Tony Harris:

"We must value the other species, on whom we depend for our existence, very much more than we do at present and this should be reflected in our laws, spirituality and culture. The other animals and plants are much more important and valuable than our religions, culture, philosophy and business values recognise.''

© 2019

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