The first collections
As Europeans explored the world, they collected plants and animals. The British navigator James Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769 with a team of naturalists, who made the first collection of New Zealand flora and fauna. For almost a century after this, explorers made large biological collections and shipped them back to Europe to be described.
As a result, most type specimens (the original specimen from which a new species is named) of common New Zealand plants and animals are held in overseas collections – mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. Duplicate plant collections in London’s Natural History Museum have been returned to New Zealand.
New Zealand scientists have often relied on published descriptions and illustrations of native plants and animals, as it was difficult to re-examine specimens held overseas.
Building local collections
In the mid-19th century, museums were set up in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Type specimens were placed in New Zealand collections for the first time. Each museum also built up large reference collections of local plants and animals. They exchanged material with other museums, locally and overseas.
As science expanded in the 20th century, the number of reference collections in New Zealand increased. They were held by universities, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and other research organisations. As agricultural science grew, collections of introduced plants and animals were built up.
Physics or stamps?
The New Zealand atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford didn’t think much of other areas of science, and commented that all science was either physics or stamp collecting. In the 1980s, the term ‘stamp collecting’ was used derisively to refer to areas of science that were out of favour at the time, such as observatories and biological collections.
Changes in science
In the later 20th century, New Zealand’s biological scientists became more interested in detailed investigations, and less interested in identifying and describing plants and animals. With widespread government reorganisation in the 1980s and early 1990s, funding for reference collections was cut and collections were neglected.
About 1995, there was an upsurge of interest in biodiversity. This led to a renewed interest in taxonomy (classifying plants and animals). Scientists realised that many New Zealand insects and other small creatures had never been described, and started using reference collections increasingly. The Foundation for Research, Science & Technology has designated a number of collections as having national significance, and partly funds their curation.
Collections in the 2000s
Computer databases and the internet have revolutionised the way collections are indexed and used. Most collections are catalogued by computer, and many catalogues are available online. Some collections have photos of specimens online, so it is quick and easy to compare them with unknown plants or animals.
New Zealand’s biological collections were built up over 150 years. In the early 2000s they provided information used for a variety of purposes, including:
- identifying rare species, and mapping their distribution
- historical and heritage projects, including revegetation
- identifying introduced species and weeds
- commercial purposes, including natural medicine
- selecting conservation areas.