Prof Mary Morgan-Richards staff profile picture

Contact details +64 (06) 356 9099  ext. 84835

Prof Mary Morgan-Richards

Associate Professor in Ecology

Institute of Agriculture and Environment

I am an academic at Massey University, teaching biodiversity, conservation and evolution. I love working with New Zealand invertebrates (weta, stick insects, snails) and am particularly keen on hybrid zones. Hybrid zone are where distinct populations meet and produce hybrids, such zones are stable because the hybrids are less successful than their parents.  Hybrid zones provide a window into the process of speciation, gene flow and capture of adaptive alleles.  I study the areas where different chromosome races of the tree weta Hemideina thoracica met and mate and produce hybrid offspring.  By comparing the width of different frequency clines one can measure relative fitness disadvantage suffered by the hybrids.  New Zealand geckos also form hybrid zones where large geckos meet small geckos.  My students and I use genetic tools to study the population genetics of skinks and geckos and inform conservation management decisions.  Collaborations with paleontologists have lead my students and I to investigate the role of cladogenesis in geologically rapid changes in morphology. This work uses New Zealand’s excellent marine fossil record and extant marine gastropods.   

Before coming to Massey University I did post-docs in the UK (University of St Andrews and The Natural History Museum London) and NZ (Otago and Canterbury Universities). I currently work 0.7 of a full time position as an academic and juggle my family life.

I am an evolutionary biologist working within the Ecology group (IAE) on the Manawatu campus. My research expertise is in hybridisation of genetically distinct populations or species, and the process of speciation. I teach population genetics, conservation biology, and New Zealand Natural History to undergraduate students. My graduate students use native invertebrates such as weta, stick insects, marine snails and lice to test evolutionary hypothesis about the formation of new species and the distribution of genetic and adaptative diversity 

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Contact details

  • Ph: 84835
    Location: 1.17, AgHort
    Campus: Manawatu
  • Ph: 85731
    Location: D5.25 (farside lab), ScienceTower D
    Campus: Turitea


  • PhD - Victoria University of Wellington (1996)

Research Expertise

Research Interests

My graduate students and postdoctoral fellows work on a range of native species focusing on evolutionary ecology, speciation and phylogeography. We use New Zealand invertebrates such as weta, stick insects and snails to address evolutionary questions and study species interactions in natural ecosystems. My students and I study weta and gecko hybrid zones. I collaborate with paleontologists (GNS Science) to investigate evolutionary relationships of extant molluscs and use their excellent fossil record to estimate rates of DNA evolution, patterns of extinction and speciation and the problem of convergence.

Research Opportunities

  • Biodiversity  (01/03/2013) Opportunities exist within my research group ( to investigate local biodiversity using the cave weta as a model system. Many species await discovery and time is short for many forest habtats. This project will use systematic tools to document levels and patterns of New Zealand forest biodiversity
  • hybrid zones  (01/03/2013) Opportunities exist within my research group ( to investigate the level of hybridisation within and among tree weta species. Using chromosome and molecular genetic tools gene flow will be measured and evidence of reproductive isolation sought.
  • conservation genetics  (01/03/2013) Opportunities exist within my research group ( to investigate questions relating to biodiversity, conservation genetics and molecular ecology. For example work on New Zealand endemic geckos is needed to ensure management decisions conserve our current species-level diversity. This research would require detailed morphological and genetic study of gecko populations to delineate species boundaries and would be carried out in collaboration with Department of Conservation staff.
  • Speciation and morphological change  (14/02/2013) PhD projects and scholarships are avaliable to work in my lab investigating the link between morphological change as seen in the fossil record, and speciation. The work will use benthic marine snails. see


21st Century Citizenship, Health and Well-being

Area of Expertise

Field of research codes
Animal Systematics and Taxonomy (060301): Biogeography and Phylogeography (060302): Biological Adaptation (060303): Biological Sciences (060000):
Earth Sciences (040000):
Evolutionary Biology (060300): Evolutionary Impacts of Climate Change (060306): Genetics (060400): Host-Parasite Interactions (060307): Phylogeny and Comparative Analysis (060309): Population, Ecological and Evolutionary Genetics (060411): Speciation and Extinction (060311): Zoology (060800)


Evolution, Speciation, hybridisation, gene flow, hybrid zones, molecular genetics, cytogenetics,  analytical methods of population genetics, Genomics, New Zealand Orthoptera, Stick Insects, Chromosomes, DNA content. 

Research Projects

Summary of Research Projects

Position Current Completed
Project Leader 0 12

Current Projects

Project Title: Punctuated evolution: is rapid morphological change linked to speciation?

The study of fossils provides an impression of morphological evolution made up of long periods of constrained evolution when nothing changes interspersed with geologically sudden leaps in form. Many interpret these abrupt changes in morphology as being the result of speciation (punctuated equilibrium). Other explanations for this pattern are possible and include rapid adaptation without speciation, the invasion of species from elsewhere, or hybridisation. New Zealand has one of the world¿s best fossil records for marine snails and many lineages in the rocks have relatives alive today. For the first time we can study the morphology and the molecular evolution of the same snail lineages united to produce a time-space integrated view of phenotypic divergence. This project brings together a unique combination of paleontologists, molecular geneticists and phylogeographers to study speciation in the past and present. Using mathematical analysis of shell shape changes and the latest DNA sequencing tools we will determine whether the timing of morphological change coincides with speciation inferred from molecular phylogenetics. By answering the fundamental question ¿Is morphological change the result of species formation?¿ we will place New Zealand at the forefront of speciation research internationally.
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Date Range: 2013 - 2016

Funding Body: Marsden Fund - Full

Project Team:

Completed Projects

Project Title: Can weta coexist?

If two species compete for the same resources such as food and shelter one species may exclude the other from a region. In cases of coexistence we expect to see divergent selection to result in ecological differences among species. Tree weta have only narrow regions of sympatry that may move depending on the climate and their competitive interactions. We are investigating the diet and behavior of two tree weta where they occur together in the Manawatu. By considering assortative mating, gene flow, optimal nutrient targets, morphology and diet we can assess the likelihood that the two species can coexist long term.
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Date Range: 2013 - 2013

Funding Body: Massey University

Project Team:

Project Title: What limits a weta?

The distribution of a species is controlled by a combination of environmental factors and biotic interactions. For example temperature must be warm enough to allow growth, and the right foods must be available in the environment. We investigated the factors limiting the expansion of the range of the common Wellington tree weta species Hemideina crassidens. We inferred past range changes from patterns of genetic diversity over its range, and examined the competitive interactions that might prevent sympatry with the Auckland tree weta. We are investigating adaptation to high and low elevation sites that might allow the species to expand its range and the potential role of gene flow in limiting adaptation.
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Date Range: 2010 - 2013

Funding Body: Massey University

Project Team:

Project Title: TTP Fellowship - Priscilla McAllum-Wehi - Invertebrate indicators of ecological change? Weta, putaputaweta and forest health

Conservation biology now recognises that understanding the functional relationships among organisms is essential for ecosystem health. Just as knowledge of whakapapa is complex and non-linear, optimal ecosystem functioning also relies on understanding linkages between species. Hence the contribution of species such as w?t? to ecosystem services such as seed dispersal, and understanding their trophic position in food webs, helps define these linkages. This project will build on M?ori knowledge of the relationships between culturally iconic invertebrates (w?t? and pepetuna (the caterpillars of the p?riri moth) and trees (putaputaweta and k?tukutuku). By focusing on these relationships, we emphasise (a) the importance of species relationships within forest ecosystems in achieving ecosystem health and sustainability and (b) contribute to a better understanding of the role of these taonga species. We will examine the complex set of interactions between these species using stable isotope and molecular analyses in conjunction with experimental ecological studies to elucidate food web pathways and ecosystem services that connect to w?t?, as well as likely costs and benefits to the tree species, such as putaputaweta, that host them.
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Date Range: 2009 - 2012

Funding Body: Foundation for Research, Science & Technology

Project Team:

Project Title: Alpine plant-insect mutualisms

Many plant species reply on insects to transfer pollen between the flowers of different plants to ensure outcrossing and successful offspring. Some insects are potential seed disperses, and other are seed predators. Other insect species eat plant flowers and leaves. We are investigating the nature of the species interactions in the alpine environment, where diversity is often lower than in forests. Manipulation experiments allow us to study the selective force on factors such as pollen limitation, outcrossing rate, floral attractiveness and species specificity.
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Date Range: 2007 - 2008

Funding Body: Massey University

Project Team:

Research Outputs


Wehi, PM., Monks, A., & Morgan-Richards, M. (2017). Male tree weta are attracted to cuticular scent cues but do not discriminate according to sex or among two closely related species. Ethology. 123(11), 825-834
[Journal article]Authored by: Morgan-Richards, M.

Supervision and Teaching

Summary of Doctoral Supervision

Position Current Completed
Supervisor 2 3
CoSupervisor 1 4


Evolution [196.207]

Ecology & Conservation [196.205]

Animal Biodiversity [199.317]

New Zealand Environments [121.103]

Biology of Animals [199.101]

Entomology [199.717]

Conservation Biology [232.701]

Topics in Biodiveristy [199.718]

Current Doctoral Supervision

Supervisor of:

  • Michael Gemmell - PhD
    Genetic and Phenotypic Lineages in Neogastropod Molluscs: A Journey Through Time and Morphospace

CoSupervisor of:

Completed Doctoral Supervision

Supervisor of:

  • 2017 - Felix Vaux - PhD
    Evolutionary lineages and the Diversity of New Zealand true whelks
  • 2017 - Elizabeth Emma Daly - PhD
    Fine scale population structure through space and time.
  • 2010 - Simon Francis Kahu Hills - PhD
    The evolution of a marine gastropod genus: Rocks, clocks and convergence

CoSupervisor of:

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