Sir James Hector and the Kerguelen connection

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The Kerguelen Islands are among the most remote islands on the planet, lying in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean about 7300 km west of New Zealand (or 17,000 km east if you prefer). Yet they have at least two unlikely connections with New Zealand – a plant and a dolphin. And both are associated with Sir James Hector (1834-1907), the founding director of the Colonial Museum of New Zealand (which evolved into Te Papa).

Islands in the Golfe du Morbihan, Iles Kerguelen. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa

Islands in the Golfe du Morbihan, Iles Kerguelen. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa

Among the first botanists to explore the Kerguelen Islands were a young Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) and his friend David Lyall (1817-1895). Both men were assistant surgeons and naturalists on the 1839-43 Antarctic Expedition led by James Clark Ross (1800-1862), commanding the Royal Navy vessels Erebus and Terror. Joseph Hooker would become the greatest botanist of his day, but in 1840 he was the youngest member of the expedition (23 years old) and just finding his feet as a scientist.

Lyallia kerguelensis, Ile Mayes, Iles Kerguelen. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa

Lyallia kerguelensis, Ile Mayes, Iles Kerguelen. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa

Hooker was fascinated by the plants of the Kerguelen Islands, and particularly an unusual cushion-forming plant that was quite unlike any other known species. It was so distinct that Hooker created a new genus for it – Lyallia. “This highly curious genus, coming from the most interesting island visited by the Antarctic Expedition, will serve to commemorate in some slight degree the important services rendered to Botany by my zealous friend and co-operator, Dr. Lyall, R.N.” (Hooker 1847).

Hectorella caespitosa, Sealy Range, Southern Alps. Image: Antony Kusabs, Te Papa

Hectorella caespitosa, Sealy Range, Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park. Image: Antony Kusabs, Te Papa

Two decades later, Hooker was Assistant Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, when he received a collection of plants from southern New Zealand, collected by a young James Hector. Within a year, Hooker would be promoted to Director of Kew, and Hector would accept the directorship of the Colonial Museum. Among the plants that Hooker received from Hector was one that Hooker named Hectorella caespitosa, and described as “A remarkable genus, allied to no other, but approaching in habit Lyallia of Kerguelen’s Land. Named in compliment to Dr. Hector, F.G.S., during whose adventurous expedition to the Otago alps it was discovered” (Hooker 1864).

Left: Lyallia kerguelensis. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa. Right: Hectorella caespitose. Image: Antony Kusabs, Te Papa

Left: Lyallia kerguelensis. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa. Right: Hectorella caespitosa. Image: Antony Kusabs, Te Papa

Hooker’s genius was confirmed 143 years later, when a genetic study confirmed the relationship between Lyallia and Hectorella. The authors of the 2007 study (Steven Wagstaff and Françoise Hennion) suggested that the two genera split between 19 and 26 million years ago, a date range that overlaps the approximate age of the Kerguelen Islands (24-29 MY). They speculated that the common ancestor of the two plants was widely distributed on the Antarctic continent, and was eliminated by the onset of glaciation during the Pleistocene.

The tree daisy Olearia lyallii is the dominant tree on the Snares Islands south of New Zealand, but the type locality is in Port Ross in the Auckland Islands. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The tree daisy Olearia lyallii is the dominant tree on the Snares Islands south of New Zealand, but the type locality is in Port Ross in the Auckland Islands. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A few months after leaving the Kerguelen Islands, the Erebus and Terror expedition visited the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island south of New Zealand, before heading south to Antarctica. There are numerous place names and plant names commemorating the expedition, with place names including Mt Ross (at 1852 m the highest peak in the Kerguelen Islands), Mt Erebus and Mt Terror on Ross Island in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, and Port Ross in the Auckland Islands. In addition to Lyallia, David Lyall was honoured by Mt Lyall on Campbell Island (and two other Mt Lyalls in New Zealand), and in the names of many well-known New Zealand plants, including species in the genera Aciphylla, Anisotome, Asplenium, Celmisia, Hoheria, Olearia, Ranunculus and Stilbocarpa. Joseph Hooker is himself commemorated by the Hooker Hills (Auckland Islands), Hooker Stream (Campbell Island), many other place names in New Zealand and Antarctica, and numerous New Zealand plant species.

Commerson's dolphin, Golfe du Morbihan, Iles Kerguelen. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa

Commerson’s dolphin, Golfe du Morbihan, Iles Kerguelen. Image: Colin Miskelly, IPEV / Te Papa

One of the pioneering botanists who Hooker quoted in relation to studies of southern plants was the French naturalist Philibert Commerçon (1727-73), who accompanied Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage of circumnavigation in 1766-69. Among the animals described by Commerçon during the Bougainville expedition was a distinctive black-and-white dolphin from the Strait of Magellan, now known as Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersoni). The main population of the dolphin is found in coastal waters of Patagonia and the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas, but 190 years later a tiny isolated population was discovered in the Golfe du Morbihan, Kerguelen Islands, 9000 km to the east. The closest relative of Commerson’s dolphin is the endemic Hector’s dolphin (C. hectori) of New Zealand. With no member of the genus Cephalorhynchus in Australia, this disjunct distribution provides another challenge for biogeographers. For information on the naming of Hector’s dolphin, see: Sir James Hector, Hector’s dolphin and Taniwhasaurus.

Hector’s dolphin. Image: Steve Dawson, New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust

Hector’s dolphin. Image: Steve Dawson, New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust

Literature cited

Hooker, J.D. 1847. The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror, in the years 1839–1843. Vol. 1, Flora Antarctica, Part 2. London: Reeve, 548–549.

Hooker, J.D. 1864. Handbook of the New Zealand flora. Vol. 1. London: Reeve, 27.

Wagstaff, S.J.; Hennion, F. 2007. Evolution and biogeography of Lyallia and Hectorella (Portulacaceae), geographically isolated sisters from the Southern Hemisphere. Antarctic Science 19: 417–426.

This is the third in a series of blogs exploring the meanings of scientific names associated with the 150-year history of Te Papa, and linked to the You called me WHAT?! exhibition. Curator of Vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s visit to the Kerguelen Islands was supported by the Institut Polaire Francais (IPEV) and Te Papa.

Related blogs

A week on Ile Mayes, Iles Kerguelen

Sir James Hector, Hector’s dolphin and Taniwhasaurus

Augustus Hamilton and the gold-spangled butterfly

Allan Thomson and the Cenozoic brachiopods

W.R.B. Oliver – jack-of-all-trades and master of most

Robert Falla and the Westland petrel

Dick Dell and the fantastic frilled crab

John Yaldwyn and the frog crab

Alan Baker and Maui’s dolphin

Nancy Adams, Wendy Nelson and the Three Kings’ seaweeds

Bruce Marshall and the volcanic vent mussel

Pat Brownsey and the cave-dwelling spleenwort

Clive Roberts and one tiny iota fish

 

Help name a new species

4 Responses

  1. Pete Bowmar

    Thanks Te Papa. Really interesting thread with some great histo-scienific leads to investigate further. Very enjoyable 🙂

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Hi Pete
      Thanks very much for your comments. Joseph Hooker’s ‘boss’ on the Erebus (surgeon and naturalist Robert McCormick) was also an interesting character, having sailed with FitzRoy and Darwin on the Beagle (at least at the start of the voyage – he was the original naturalist on the voyage, while Darwin was the captain’s gentleman companion). McCormick is commemorated in the scientific name of the South Polar skua Catharacta maccormicki.
      Regards
      Colin

  2. Colin Miskelly

    Thanks very much for your comment Olwen
    Regards
    Colin

    Reply
  3. Olwen Mason

    Thanks for another very interesting blog entry. It makes my day when these turn up.

    Reply

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