Robert Falla and the Westland petrel

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The museum’s fifth Director became our second knight.

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.

Robert Falla at his desk in the Dominion Museum, watched over by a spotted shag. Image: Te Papa MA_B.016181

Robert Falla at his desk in the Auckland Museum c.1935, watched over by a spotted shag. Image: Te Papa MA_B.016181

This eighth blog in the series features the museum’s fifth Director – Robert Alexander Falla (1901-1979). Falla was one of the world’s leading experts on seabirds, and was a well-known name to New Zealand bird-watchers. He was the lead author on the three versions of the ‘Falla, Sibson, Turbott’ field guide that was the New Zealand bird-watchers’ bible for 30 years from 1966 .

The three versions of the Falla, Sibson, turbot field guide, published between 1966 and 1990. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The three versions of the Falla, Sibson, Turbott field guide, published between 1966 and 1979. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Falla first made his mark as a seabird authority during 1929-31 while assistant zoologist on the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), led by the legendary Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson. On his return he was appointed ornithologist and education officer at Auckland War Memorial Museum, starting a long and distinguished museum career.

Pycroft's petrel (Pterodroma pycrofti), Taranga/Hen Island. Image: Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

Pycroft’s petrel (Pterodroma pycrofti), Taranga/Hen Island. Image: Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

Falla proposed six New Zealand bird names that are still in use, starting with Pycroft’s petrel (Pterodroma pycrofti) and white-capped mollymawk (Thalassarche cauta steadi) in 1933, while at Auckland Museum. Both were named after New Zealand ornithologists involved in their discovery (Arthur Pycroft and Edgar Stead respectively). In both cases the birds were previously known, but had been confused with related species.

White-capped mollymawk (Thalassarche cauta steadi). Image: Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

White-capped mollymawk (Thalassarche cauta steadi). Image: Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

In 1937, Falla accepted the directorship of the Canterbury Museum – a position that he held for a decade until moving to the equivalent position at the Dominion Museum in Wellington (a forerunner of Te Papa). While in Christchurch, Falla became well-known to the wider community through his regular newspaper columns and radio interviews. Following a radio broadcast on muttonbirding in 1945, Falla was greatly intrigued to receive a letter about unusual muttonbirds from Barrytown School head teacher Walter Watson. Barrytown is about 24 km north of Greymouth, on the West Coast of the South Island. Falla had described muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters) laying eggs in November and the young being ready to harvest (and fly to sea) in April or May. Watson pointed out that the Barrytown ‘muttonbirds’ laid in late May, and the young were fully-grown in November. Despite post-war restrictions on vehicle use and fuel, Falla was able to call on his good friend Edgar Stead to drive them both to Barrytown in December 1945. With the assistance of Stead, Watson and the Barrytown School pupils, Falla gathered the information and specimens needed to name the bird now known as the Westland petrel Procellaria westlandica.

Westland petrel (Procellaria westlandica), Paparoa National Park. Image: Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

Westland petrel (Procellaria westlandica), Paparoa National Park. Image: Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

The Westland petrel was the last living New Zealand bird species to be discovered and recognised by scientists. A few more recently named species (e.g. Okarito brown kiwi/rowi Apteryx rowi, named in 2003) were known to exist long before they were named as distinct species, but the Westland petrel was unknown to science before Falla received that letter from Barrytown School.

Poor Knights giant weta (Deinacrida fallai). Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Poor Knights giant weta (Deinacrida fallai). Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Falla succeeded Reginald Oliver as director of the Dominion Museum, with the immediate priority of re-opening the public galleries that had been occupied by the military during World War 2. The research capacity of the museum grew under his stewardship. Falla’s support for his curatorial team, and abilities as a naturalist, were honoured by the naming of two spectacular species after him by his staff – the Poor Knights giant weta (Deinacrida fallai) by John Salmon in 1950, and a large skink (Oligosoma fallai) from the Three Kings Islands by Charles McCann in 1955. He had previously been honoured by Australian scientist Dominic Serventy in the name of the slender tuna (Allothunnus fallai) in 1948.

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

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Allan Thomson and the Cenozoic brachiopods

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

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

 

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