Augustus Hamilton and the gold-spangled butterfly

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Our national museum’s second director was an ethnologist with broad interests in natural sciences.

Te Papa turned 150 years old on 8 December 2015. To celebrate 150 years since the opening of the Colonial Museum in Wellington, the exhibition ‘You called me WHAT?!’ is open on Level 3 until the end of 2016. The exhibition, and this series of blogs, explore the history of the museum by showcasing some of the more than 2,500 animal and plant species named by museum staff since 1865 – and seek your suggestions for names for species that have yet to be described and named.

Bust of Augustus Hamilton, Director Colonial Museum 1903-1907, Director Dominion Museum 1907-1913. Te Papa ME016792. Image: Te Papa

Bust of Augustus Hamilton, Director Colonial Museum 1903-1907, Director Dominion Museum 1907-1913. Te Papa ME016792. Image: Te Papa

This fifth blog in the series features the museum’s second Director – Augustus Hamilton (1853-1913). Hamilton was employed as the Registrar of the University of Otago when he was appointed to replace Sir James Hector as Director of the Colonial Museum in 1903. Four years later, Hamilton became the first Director of the Dominion Museum, as the institution changed its name when New Zealand became a dominion in 1907. Throughout Hamilton’s tenure, the museum was located in Museum Street, Thorndon, opposite The Terrace and adjacent to Parliament Buildings.

Lamp shell (brachiopod) Mimorina magna. Holotype of Magellania magna Hamilton, 1910. Te Papa BR.001346. Te Papa image MA_I309099

Lamp shell (brachiopod) Mimorina magna. Holotype of Magellania magna Hamilton, 1910. Te Papa BR.001346. Te Papa image MA_I309099

Although primarily an ethnologist, laying the foundation for Te Papa’s unrivalled Māori collections, Hamilton also published many papers on New Zealand plants and animals, including molluscs, moths, birds and fossils. Despite the pressures of his work as Director, he found time to name a moth and a butterfly (both collected by his son, Harold) and a fossil brachiopod (lamp shell). The names he chose were descriptive, including magna (= great) for the brachiopod Magellania magna (now Mimorina magna), which is larger than its relatives, and annulata (=ringed) for a moth with bands around its abdomen (Porina annulata, now synonymised with Aoraia senex).

Hamilton’s black mountain butterfly (Percnodaimon micans). Lectotype of Erebia pluto micans Hamilton, 1909. Te Papa AI.024867. Te Papa image

Hamilton’s black mountain butterfly (Percnodaimon micans). Lectotype of Erebia pluto micans Hamilton, 1909. Te Papa AI.024867. Te Papa image

The most impressive species that Hamilton named was a mountain butterfly Erebia pluto micans (now Percnodaimon micans), with micans (sparkling) referring to golden scales on the underwings: “The first box of specimens was accompanied by a note, in which, my son drew my attention to the spangling of golden scales on the underside hindwings, and to the intense velvet-black of the specimens as contrasted with the cabinet specimens from Mount Arthur. Some of their rich black has disappeared now that the specimens have been set, but the golden scales are still apparent in the majority of cases, though less bright. They are found on both male and female. By the kindness of Mr. A. McKay, an enlarged photograph was taken of the under-surface, which showed the brilliant reflecting scales… Their appearance is very beautiful under the microscope.” Te Papa holds the type series collected by Harold Hamilton, and more than 100 years later the golden scales are still apparent. Hamilton’s name was treated as a junior synonym or form of the widespread black mountain butterfly (Percnodaimon pluto) for more than a century, but was raised to full species status in 2012.

Hamilton’s black mountain butterfly (Percnodaimon micans) – underside of wing showing golden scales. Lectotype of Erebia pluto micans Hamilton, 1909. Te Papa AI.024867. Te Papa image

Hamilton’s black mountain butterfly (Percnodaimon micans) – underside of wing showing golden scales. Lectotype of Erebia pluto micans Hamilton, 1909. Te Papa AI.024867. Te Papa image

Augustus Hamilton was an energetic collector throughout his life, and had a handful of species named after him, based on specimens that he collected. These included three molluscs (Cominella hamiltoni, Pusillina hamiltoni and Yoldiella hamiltoni), two ferns (Blechnum hamiltonii and Dryopteris pennigera var. hamiltoni, although neither is currently recognised), a prawn collected from Foveaux Strait oysterbeds (Philocheras hamiltoni) and a freshwater protozoan (Trachelomonas hamiltoniana).

Hamilton’s frog (Leiopelma hamiltoni) holotype. Te Papa AM.000012. Te Papa image MA_I069445

Hamilton’s frog (Leiopelma hamiltoni) holotype. Te Papa AM.000012. Te Papa image MA_I069445

Among naturalists, the family name is best known for the endangered Hamilton’s frog (Leiopelma hamiltoni) of Stephens Island, collected by and named after Harold Hamilton 6 years after his father’s death. Harold Hamilton (1885-1937) was a biologist on Douglas Mawson’s 1911-14 Antarctic expedition, during which he spent 23 months collecting specimens (and foraging for survival!) on subantarctic Macquarie Island. After a brief spell as curator of the Newtown Museum, Harold Hamilton joined the staff of the Dominion Museum as a zoologist from 1915 to 1928, and had several insect species named after him in addition to his famous frog.

Help us name a new species

For 150 years, Te Papa scientists have been working to discover, describe, and name new species. Now it’s your turn. Celebrate 150 years of science at Te Papa by helping us name a new species. You might just go down in history. Suggest a name for this Acanthoclinus rockfish. We’ll seriously consider your idea.

The new species of rockfish, Milford Sound, 1998. Photograph by Andrew Stewart, Te Papa

The new species of rockfish, Milford Sound, 1998. Photograph by Andrew Stewart, Te Papa

You can make a submission in the exhibition or by emailing youcalledmewhat@tepapa.govt.nz. Please include why you chose the name. See our website for terms and conditions, and helpful hints on making a suggestion.

Related blogs

Sir James Hector, Hector’s dolphin and Taniwhasaurus

Sir James Hector and the Kerguelen connection

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

Unforgettable names for a new forget-me-not-species

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