New Zealand has a number of scientific collections of plants and animals. These are part of a worldwide network of collections that ensure that the same scientific names are used all over the world. Identifying plants and animals accurately allows us to find those that are unique (endemic) to New Zealand, and recognise harmful introduced organisms.
The internationally accepted system of classifying and naming plants and animals – called taxonomy – was developed by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century.
This system classifies living organisms in a hierarchy. Organisms are first assigned to a kingdom – for example, the animal or plant kingdom – and then to progressively smaller groups: phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.
A New Zealand company that had exported milk powder to the US was told that its product was contaminated with insects, and it would have to pay for fumigation. Scientists in New Zealand compared the bugs with those in the arthropod collection at Landcare Research. They showed that the insects had never previously been recorded in New Zealand, and probably got into the milk powder in a US warehouse.
A species is a group of organisms that is seen as distinct from other groups – for example, tūī and bellbird are two different species of birds. A species is often defined as a group of individuals that can or do interbreed in nature. However, there are exceptions. Some separate but related species may interbreed and hybridise. Other species may reproduce asexually.
The scientific name of each species has two parts, both in Latin: a collective name for the genus and a species name.
When a new species is found, there are rules about how to name it.
There are international codes of zoological and biological nomenclature, with detailed guidelines to ensure stability and sort out disagreements about scientific naming.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Gill, B. J. ‘Birds in Australian and New Zealand museums: a major resource for ornithology.’ New Zealand Journal of Zoology 33 (2006): 299–315.
Gill, B. J., ed. Powell’s native animals of New Zealand. Auckland: David Bateman, 2002.
Heather, Barrie D., and Hugh A. Robertson. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Rev. ed. Auckland: Viking, 2005.
Poole, A. L., and Nancy M. Adams. Trees and shrubs of New Zealand. Lincoln: Manaaki Whenua, 1994.
Wright, Anthony E. ‘The world of herbaria.’ In Ecosystems, entomology and plants: proceedings of a retirement symposium held at Lincoln University to mark the retirement of Bryony Macmillan, Brian Molloy, Peter Wardle and John Dugdale, 17–23. Royal Society of New Zealand Miscellaneous Series 48. Wellington: Royal Society of New Zealand, 1998.