Botanists have developed a worldwide system of storing plants in collections known as herbaria. Most plants are dried and mounted on card, so they can be treated like cards in a filing system. A small amount of material (wood, cones or fruit, or plants that cannot be dried) is treated differently.
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The New Zealand Herbarium Network has produced another type of collection – examples of the handwriting of New Zealand botanists. This helps identify unknown collectors of plant specimens.
Around the world, there are about 2,660 herbaria in 147 countries, each with a distinctive alphabetical identifier. New Zealand has 16 public herbaria. The largest is the Allan Herbarium at Landcare Research in Lincoln, near Christchurch. As well as general reference herbaria in museums and universities, New Zealand also has specialist collections for fungi, forestry, and plant diseases.
The New Zealand Herbarium Network was formed in 1989. In 2003 there were over 1,300,000 plants and fungal specimens in the network’s combined holdings.
Specimens of animals are held in various collections across New Zealand. A number of these are designated national reference collections. They include collections of arthropods and nematodes, held by Landcare Research, and freshwater fish, held by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).
The marine invertebrate collection at NIWA has specimens of almost all invertebrate groups. It also holds unsorted samples collected during 50 years of research cruises around New Zealand.
This forms a record of seafloor life and a reference collection for scientists. Many new species are being identified and described – for example, bubblegum corals are some of the largest organisms to live on the sea floor, yet New Zealand species of them are only being described in the early 2000s.
Scientists first identified New Zealand’s fossil foraminifera (microscopic single-celled animals) in the 1920s. They knew little about overseas microfaunas, and gave most species local names. When paleontologist Harold Finlay re-examined the specimens 20 years later, he found that most were already described overseas, so the local names were invalid. He also found that Haplophragmium speighti was a piece of flint, not a microfossil – so this name is no longer used.
Fossils are evidence of past life. They include shells, bones, plant fossils, and a variety of microscopic fossils (especially foraminifera, radiolarian, and pollen). Fossils are not officially covered by the international codes for naming plants and animals, but the same conventions are used. GNS Science holds New Zealand’s largest fossil collection, which includes many type specimens.
The New Zealand Fossil Record File is a database of fossil localities throughout New Zealand, administered jointly by the Geological Society of New Zealand and GNS Science, and linked to different collections. It records over 85,000 fossil sites, and appears to be the only national database of its kind.