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

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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.

Reginald Oliver collecting plants at Wilmot Pass, Fiordland, March 1927. Image by J.T. Salmon, Dominion Museum. Te Papa (MA_B.014931)

Reginald Oliver collecting plants at Wilmot Pass, Fiordland, March 1927. Image by J.T. Salmon, Dominion Museum. Te Papa (MA_B.014931)

This seventh blog in the series features the museum’s fourth Director – Reginald Oliver. Not that anyone called him that – he was always known by his initials, or as ‘Dr Oliver’. It is only recently that information from family members and from his personal papers has revealed his preferred name.

Dominion Museum building, 1984 (then known as the National Museum). Image: Mark Strange, Te Papa (MA_B.016888)

Dominion Museum building, 1984 (then known as the National Museum). Image: Mark Strange, Te Papa (MA_B.016888)

Walter Reginald Brook Oliver (1883-1957) was on the staff of the Dominion Museum (a predecessor of Te Papa) from 1920 to 1947, and was the Director for 19 years. He was in charge of the museum during difficult times, including the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II. In 1936, Oliver oversaw the huge shift of collections and exhibitions from the cramped Colonial Museum building on Museum Street, next to Parliament, to the Dominion Museum building in Buckle Street, Mount Cook. But within 6 years most of the spacious new building was taken over for defence purposes, and the building remained closed to the public until after Oliver retired.

Chatham Island red-crowned parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae chathamensis Oliver, 1930) – named by Oliver in his first edition of New Zealand birds. Image: Dave Crouchley, Department of Conservation/New Zealand Birds Online

Chatham Island red-crowned parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae chathamensis Oliver, 1930) – named by Oliver in his first edition of New Zealand birds. Image: Dave Crouchley, Department of Conservation/New Zealand Birds Online

Oliver was an expert in many fields, naming birds, plants, whales, seashells and fossils, and he was a pioneer in the new field of ecology. He was the last of the museum’s staff to be an expert over so many diverse fields of biology. Among his lasting contributions were two substantial handbooks on birds (New Zealand birds, 1930 & 1955). His most cited scientific papers, each with more than 40 citations, are: The moas of New Zealand and Australia (1949), Marine littoral plant and animal communities in New Zealand (1923), New Zealand epiphytes (1930), The Mollusca of the Kermadec Islands (1915), The genus Coprosma (1935), Biogeographical relations of the New Zealand region (1925), The Tertiary flora of the Kaikorai Valley, Otago, New Zealand (1936), and A review of the Cetacea of New Zealand seas (1922) – indicating both the breadth of his expertise, and its ongoing value to the science community.

IShepherd’s beaked whale (Tasmacetus shepherdi Oliver 1937) stranded at Ōteranga Bay, Wellington, September 1998. Photograph by Peter Simpson, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai (10041750)

Shepherd’s beaked whale (Tasmacetus shepherdi Oliver 1937) stranded at Ōteranga Bay, Wellington, September 1998. Photograph by Peter Simpson, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai (10041750)

Among the more notable species named by Oliver were a new genus and species of beaked whale, the largest penguin the world has ever known, and a particularly nasty plant. The whale was named after a specimen was cast ashore near Ōhawe, south Taranaki in 1933. George Shepherd, curator of the Wanganui Museum collected the specimen and recognised that it was something new to science. Oliver concurred, naming the species after Shepherd, and creating a new genus derived from the Tasman Sea and ketos (Greek for whale).

Coracoid, humerus and meta-carpal of New Zealand giant penguin (Pachydyptes ponderosus Oliver 1930) collected Fortification Hill; Oamaru, New Zealand. Te Papa OR.001450; image: Te Papa

Coracoid, humerus and meta-carpal of New Zealand giant penguin (Pachydyptes ponderosus Oliver 1930) collected Fortification Hill; Oamaru, New Zealand. Te Papa OR.001450; image: Te Papa

The fossilised remains of the world’s largest penguin were found near Oamaru by Charles Traill, probably between 1856 and 1866 (he moved to Stewart Island in 1866). The three bones were acquired by the Colonial Museum, and were first mentioned (by director James Hector) in 1869. Oliver described them as a new genus and species in 1930. His name – Pachydyptes robustus (‘bulky thick-set diver’) – is an apt description for a solidly built penguin estimated to weigh about 80 kg.

Horrid speargrass (Aciphylla horrida W.R.B. Oliver) Dingleburn. Image John Barkla, New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Horrid speargrass (Aciphylla horrida W.R.B. Oliver) Dingleburn. Image John Barkla, New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Oliver described eleven new species of speargrasses in a review paper published in 1956, commenting that the genus had not been studied closely by botanists “due in part to the difficulty of collecting specimens which usually draw blood when attempts are made to gather them”. Perhaps his most evocative name was Aciphylla horrida ‘horrid needle-leaf’ for which he remarked “There are only a few specimens of A. horrida in herbaria perhaps because of the difficulty of gathering leaves or flower heads from this well armed species.”

Marbled skink (Oligosoma oliveri), Aorangi, Poor Knights Islands. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Marbled skink (Oligosoma oliveri), Aorangi, Poor Knights Islands. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Among the species named after Walter Reginald Brook Oliver are the skink Oligosoma oliveri, the fish Coelorhynchus oliverianus, the diving beetle Allodessus oliveri, the springtail Micronellides oliveri, the sponge Callyspongia oliveri, the octopus Octopus oliveri, the bivalve Limatula oliveri, the limpet Cellana oliveri, the chiton Onithochiton oliveri, the marine snails Fictonoba oliveri and Stomatella oliveri, the fossil marine snail Alcithoe oliveri, and the trees Dracophyllum oliveri and Myrsine oliveri, plus the marine snail genus Brookula.

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

Augustus Hamilton and the gold-spangled butterfly

Allan Thomson and the Cenozoic brachiopods

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

One Response

  1. Alison Barwick

    Delighted to learn more about WRB as his book Plants and Animals of New Zealand (along with AWB Powell’s Native Animals of New Zealand) was well used by my brothers and me while we were growing up and exploring the seashore and the hills here in Canterbury.

    Reply

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