World Science Day: improving our knowledge using collections

Today is World Science Day for Peace and Development, but science is happening at Te Papa every day .

Botany Collection Store: Te Papa has 300 000 botany specimens. Image: Antony Kusabs, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2015.

Botany Collection Store: Te Papa has about 300 000 botany specimens. Image: Antony Kusabs, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2015.

In addition to research being conducted within Te Papa, each year we also loan hundreds of science collection specimens to researchers all around the world. Researchers study our specimens to improve our collective knowledge of the natural world.

From Te Papa’s herbarium, for example, over 1000 plant specimens are loaned to over 20 institutions worldwide each year and about 1% (c. 3000 specimens) of the botany collection is on loan at any one time.

Researchers measure the specimens’ physical characteristics (morphology), such as petal size, seed shape or leaf length, to determine differences between species and within species.

DNA analysis

DNA analysis is another tool used by researchers to help establish species boundaries. Te Papa herbarium specimens are not routinely collected for DNA purposes, but DNA may be successfully extracted from younger herbarium material.

Extracting DNA involves destroying a small sample of leaf (or similar) tissue. Permission for this depends on the original quantity of specimen material, the research goals and the ability of researchers to obtain fresh material. It is Te Papa’s preference that fresh material be sought for DNA extraction as it preserves the integrity of the specimen and means DNA extraction is more likely to be successful. See a previous blog on Te Papa’s recently commissioned DNA lab.

Why do we loan specimens?

Loaning Te Papa specimens enables researchers to study a greater number of specimens within their plant group of interest. This leads to a better understanding of the range and distribution of plant species. Sometimes this leads to the description of new plant species!

Armed with this knowledge, conservation management of those species can be confidently addressed by government agencies, on a national or regional scale.

What are you doing for World Science Day?

There are lots of things you can do to engage with science. Drop me a comment to tell me what you or your class is doing (or did) for World Science Day.

Also: later this month, Te Papa celebrates ‘150 years of scientific discovery’ at the museum through a new exhibition named “you called me WHAT!?” The exhibition will be located in the ‘level 3 cases’, near ‘Blood, Earth, Fire’.



2 Responses

  1. Siobhan Leachman

    What I’m doing on World Science Day is transcribing the field notes of William Henry Dall with the Smithsonian Transcription Center. See I’ve also been helping with the Smithsonian Bumblebee project transcribing handwritten labels to assist in improving access to these specimens.

    • Antony Kusabs

      Great work Siobhan. I had a look at the link you included. This is a great example of a crowd sourcing project. I am not aware of any crowd sourcing projects currently at Te Papa, but the potential is certainly there in future. There was a big public response to the Te Papa Berry Boy ID project.

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