A gift of lizards – 35 years to completion

The New Zealand science community was quite different in 1977 compared to 2012. Most government scientists then worked for one of the many divisions of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), our reserve networks and protected species were administered by multiple agencies, and the national museum was known as …the National Museum.

All this was to change during the 1980s and early 1990s – Rogernomics and the 1987 stock market crash between them changed the face of New Zealand public science forever.  By 1992, DSIR had been split into a plethora of Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), the Department of Conservation had been formed, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act had been passed.

Pacific gecko (Dactylocnemis pacificus), Taranga / Hen Island. There were two Pacific geckos from Taranga in the Ecology Division reptile collection. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Among the agencies swept by the tides of change was the Ecology Division of DSIR, which evolved into Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua. In 1966, Ecology Division employed a keen young lizard enthusiast as a research technician (and later scientist). Over the next 11 years, Tony Whitaker made the most of opportunities to get to remote parts of the country. This included a secondment to a Wildlife Service team undertaking field surveys of many of New Zealand’s northern islands. In an era when our lizards were poorly known (and not protected by the subsequent changes to the Wildlife Act), Tony was largely responsible of the creation of New Zealand’s most important collection of lizard voucher specimens.

Ornate skink (Oligosoma ornatum), Taranga / Hen Island. There were two ornate skinks from Taranga in the Ecology Division reptile collection. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

We still don’t know how many lizard species were in the Ecology Division reptile collection. New species of skinks and geckos are being described every year, and many of these new species are represented among the 2635 New Zealand lizard specimens in the Ecology Division collection.

Tony Whitaker resigned from Ecology Division in 1977. Under his care, the reptile and frog collection had grown to 2751 specimens, including 105 foreign specimens, and 2646 from New Zealand. The latter included 1516 skinks, 1119 geckos and 11 frogs. Before he left, Tony and his colleagues decided that the collection would best be placed in the care of the National Museum.

The Ecology Division (ED) collection was the single largest contribution to Te Papa’s impressive and still growing herpetofauna collection, which now contains nearly 9000 New Zealand specimens. Among the ED treasures are six skink holotypes – the unique specimens that were used by scientists when describing and naming these six species.

Te Papa’s reptile and frog collection is mainly comprised of specimens preserved in ethanol, housed in the purpose-built off-site Spirit Collection Area. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

But all was not as assumed. Most people involved in the 1977 transaction recalled it as a donation. However, a letter from the then Director of the National Museum to his Ecology Division equivalent unearthed in Te Papa’s archives painted a different picture: Dick Dell thanked John Gibb for the “semi-permanent loan” of the specimens.

This discovery created a dilemma for Te Papa staff.  We endeavor to place as many of our taonga as possible on the Te Papa website (see Collections Online). But we must be careful that we are within our rights to do so. Recognition that the ED reptile and frog specimens were loaned rather than donated meant that we had to remove their images from our website.

To resolve this impasse, I wrote to the CEO of Landcare Research, Dr Richard Gordon. After an exchange of letters, emails, and now a deed of gift, I am delighted to announce that Landcare Research has completed the process of gifting this very important collection to Te Papa. And images of the holotypes (among other ED treasures) are back on our website.

Whitaker’s skink (Oligosoma whitakeri) holotype, ex Ecology Division collection. Te Papa specimen number RE.001817, collected by A.H. (Tony) Whitaker on Middle Island, Mercury Islands, on 26 June 1970. Image: Te Papa

I am sure that the community of scientists and conservationists working to describe the diversity and life histories of New Zealand’s fascinating lizard fauna, and to ensure their survival, will join me in thanking Dr Gordon and his team for their generous decision.

See also

Anthony Hume Whitaker, MNZM (1944–2014) – a tribute

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