Story: Collections of plants and animals

The first collection of native New Zealand plants and animals was made in 1769, by naturalists on James Cook’s ship the Endeavour. Collections built up since then are part of a worldwide network that keeps scientific names consistent. They also help scientists identify rare species, plan revegetation projects, and recognise unwanted plants and animals.

Story by Simon Nathan
Main image: Hudson Collection

Story Summary

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New Zealand has a number of scientific collections of plants and animals, built up since the mid-19th century. Scientists use them for research, and they help make sure the same scientific names are used for plants and animals all round the world.

Scientific naming

Every species of plant or animal has a unique scientific name, in Latin. For instance, the scientific name for a pōhutukawa is Metrosideros excelsa.

When a new species is found and named, a specimen of it must be chosen and put into a collection where other scientists can see it.

Early collections

When James Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769, the scientists on his ship, the Endeavour, collected native plants and animals. For a century after that, explorers made collections of New Zealand plants and animals and sent them back to Europe to be described.

Collections in New Zealand

Museums in New Zealand cities started their own collections of plants and animals in the 19th century. Later, universities and other organisations built up collections.

Today, computers and the internet make it easy for people to look at collections of plants or animals.

Information from collections is used for:

  • identifying rare species, and finding where they live
  • identifying weeds, and exotic plants and animals
  • commercial products, such as medicine made from plants
  • deciding on conservation areas.

Types of collections

  • Plants are kept in collections called herbaria. New Zealand has 16 herbaria, including one of fungi, and one showing plant diseases. Among them, they have more than 1,300,000 plant specimens.
  • Animal collections include collections of insects and freshwater fish. New species from the sea are still being found and added to marine animal collections.
  • Fossils are also kept in collections, because they are records of life in the past. They include shells, bones, plant fossils and microscopic fossils.
How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan, 'Collections of plants and animals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/collections-of-plants-and-animals (accessed 24 September 2018)

Story by Simon Nathan, published 24 Sep 2007