Renowned scientist dies suddenly

Last updated 13:00 27/02/2014

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A Motueka scientist and Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit has died suddenly while mountainbiking.

Tony Whitaker dedicated his working life to studying New Zealand and Pacific amphibians. He was also deeply involved in several conservation projects and biosecurity work, and in his spare time, along with his wife Viv, established and maintained a notable garden at Craigholm, in the Motueka Valley.

Mr Whitaker has discovered many new species and has one named after him - Whitaker's skink (Cyclodina whitakeri). He received his award in the Queen's Birthday honours in 2010.

Mr Whitaker said then that one of his achievements in New Zealand had been becoming the first person to recognise that rodents were a problem for native lizards.

"Back when I first started on that in the 1960s, they thought rats and mice didn't eat lizards so they weren't a problem."

Asked what had inspired him to be a herpetologist, Mr Whitaker said: "It's just like anything. Why do people collect stamps or become engineers? It's just something that intrigues me."

Born in 1944, Mr Whitaker lived at Craigholm, near Orinoco, for more than 30 years. He is credited with devising new methods of finding and surveying lizards, and made significant observations on their biology and ecology.

He has been involved with numerous conservation programmes for threatened species and helped to improve New Zealand's biosecurity by developing a fast identification process for snakes and other reptiles intercepted at the border.

Mr Whitaker's work has been published in academic journals and he has written books, notably New Zealand Frogs and Reptiles, written with Brian Gill, published in 1996 and reprinted in 2001.

Mr Whitaker began his career as as a research technician (and later scientist), specialising in lizards, with the Ecology Division of DSIR in 1966.

He left the agency 11 years later, having developed a significant reptile and frog collection which grew to 2751 specimens, including 2646 from New Zealand. The latter included 1516 skinks, 1119 geckos and 11 frogs.

Before he left, Mr Whitaker and his colleagues decided the collection would best be placed in the care of the National Museum.

The collection was the single largest contribution to Te Papa's significant herpetofauna collection.

Mr Whitaker died while riding his bike on Saturday. He is survived by Viv and their children Kim and Mike.

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