Mar­leen’s love for the lit­tle things


New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - WEEKLYPEOPLE - As told to Hay­ley McLarin

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


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”.

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