Marleen’s love for the little things
WILD ABOUT LIZARDS
When I meet people for the first time, they are often fascinated by what I do – researching and monitoring the colour of different lizard species. I am passionate about wildlife ecology and conservation, and do most of my work with shore skinks – Oligosoma smith to use their official name.
I always saw skinks as dark little things that scurried around the rocks. But they are clever creatures – they can change colour and patterns to their habitat to avoid detection. They can change within hours; it is fascinating. I was born in Malaysia and growing up, my dad − Barling Layat Supen − would take me and my brothers to national parks.
Dad was raised in the jungle and has an affinity with nature. He is from east Malaysia, the Borneo side, and belongs to one of the native tribes. I loved hanging out with him, although my brothers – one is older and one is younger − weren’t so interested in nature. They would head straight for the destination, but I would be at the back with Dad taking photos and videos of animals we saw.
We moved to New Zealand in 1997 and I did my seventh
MARLEEN BALING (39) IS AN AUTHOR AND RESEARCHER REAPING REWARDS FROM WORKING WITH REPTILES
form, as it was known then, in Auckland. My undergraduate degree for my Masters was at the University of Auckland. In my third year, a lecturer was talking about reptiles in New Zealand and at that point there wasn’t much known about them. That caught my interest.
After my Masters degree, I worked as a research technician at Massey University, at the Albany Campus, for a few years. We were often out working on islands around the Hauraki Gulf and the eastern shores.
We did some work at Tawharanui Regional Park, near Omaha, where there is a 20metre-wide sand dune. On one side, you see skinks that are really pale in colour, almost white, and once you go to the back of the dunes you get really dark spotty ones. Within 20 metres, you get such a variation in colouration and it inspired me to go back to do my
PhD – looking at lizards and colouration, their ecology and behaviour.
I take volunteers out into the field and when you look at a skink in your hand they are quite beautiful – green geckos and even brown lizards have lovely spots. There is just something about them. They have character.
I completed my studies in 2017 and graduated this year.
It’s been a big year, actually, as I am having my first child, a girl, and I have co-authored a book, Reptiles and Amphibians of New Zealand – A Field Guide, which is about to go on sale.
I go rock climbing just south of Hamilton most weekends with my partner Richard Kim and our group of friends.
They find it unusual that I am interested in these little things that run around.
Quite often they see me looking under rocks and logs, fossicking to see what creatures I can find. They also find it funny that I work with lizards, trying to protect them, and I have a cat. But she is kept indoors at night.
Trips out of Auckland will soon be to take our baby girl to see my parents. My mum – Florence Leong – was a midwife and recently retired. My parents now own a kiwifruit orchard in Katikati… Dad just had to still somehow be involved with land!”
Skinks can change colour and patterns to their habitat to avoid being found.
Skinks come in all sizes and colours, and Marleen – who’s expecting her first baby – believes they have “character”.