Terrestrial Conservation on Tetiaroa

On Tetiaroa Marlon Brando wanted to “to maintain the natural beauty of the atoll setting” and as our expedition draws to a close we too are marvelling at the natural marine and terrestrial beauty of the atoll. Although we came here to survey the introduced species, such as ants and rats, our daily visits to all of the motu on the atoll revealed the diversity of native species found on the atoll. It is these species which the Tetiaroa Society and our team are ultimately here to protect, through our actions to redress the impacts of invasive species.

Frigatebirds nesting on Tetiaroa atoll (Photo by James Russell)

On the seaward-facing far-flung corners of the atoll, far from human disturbance, are the frigatebird colonies. Nestled in pemhphis shrub on rocky coral outcrops these magnificent seabirds rule the tropical oceans and all other seabirds. Frigatebirds are renowned for their kleptoparasitic behaviour – literally parasitism by theft. As the innocuous red-footed boobies return to their colonies each evening from a day’s fishing, frigatebirds lurk above waiting to strike apparently at random, harassing the booby until it regurgitates its meal as a defensive mechanism. The aerial combat that follows can even see both birds crashing in to the ocean – but nothing beats a free lunch!

Blue-tailed skink basking on coconut
Blue-tailed skink basking on coconut on Tetiaroa atoll (Photo by James Russell)

In the shade of the motu blue-tailed skinks scuttle around in abundance, nimbly dodging the sluggish hermit crabs. Small openings in coconuts make a sweet meal indeed, or at least the husk a comfortable nook to sunbathe upon. In the tropics the constant heat means these ectotherms can always be operating a full capacity.

Cockroach emerges at night on pandanus tree
Cockroach emerges at night on pandanus tree (Photo by James Russell)

Meanwhile, after dusk falls and the voracious mosquitos active only by day have gone to rest, Tetiaroa’s motu transform as a variety of nightlife emerges in to the shady night. On pandanus trees native cockroaches emerge in droves, putting an end to the myth that the plant can act as a cockroach deterrent.

A coconut crab stalks the undergrowth
A coconut crab stalks the undergrowth (Photo by James Russell)

Meanwhile in the leaf litter below the enormous coconut crab can be found lurking, so confident in its status that it only raises a skinny leg in defiance, saving its impressive claws for the real deal. The absence of people and ongoing protection of Tetiaroa means these coconut crabs are safe from being eaten. These are just some of the species we are trying to conserve and restore on Tetiaroa atoll.

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Meet the Author
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.