Nancy Adams, Wendy Nelson and the Three Kings’ seaweeds

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The three kings (or three wise men or magi) are Christian icons – but how many people are aware that they have seaweeds named after them? The connection is via the Three Kings Islands north-west of Cape Reinga. Known as Manawatahi to Māori, they are one of only two localities in New Zealand that have an English name based on a name bestowed by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman, during his brief visit to Staten Landt / Nieuw Zeeland in 1642-43. Tasman anchored at the islands on the twelfth day of the Epiphany (6 January) – the day that the three wise men are traditionally believed to have visited Christ the child. He accordingly named the islands ‘Drie Koningen Eyland’.

Princes Islands, part of the Three Kings Islands group. Image: Vincent Zintzen, Te Papa

Princes Islands, part of the Three Kings Islands group. Image: Vincent Zintzen, Te Papa

The Three Kings Islands are a hotspot for seaweed diversity – a fact recognised early on by Dominion Museum assistant curator of botany Nancy Adams (1926-2007). One of the first of many women to work in science at what was to become Te Papa, Adams was a talented artist who possessed wide botanical knowledge. Her drawings and watercolours featured in nearly 40 books, including her magnum opus Seaweeds of New Zealand: an illustrated guide, published in 1994.

Celmisia hectori, named after Sir James Hector, the founding Director of the Colonial Museum (which evolved into Te Papa). Water colour by Nancy Adams CBE, 10 January 1968. Purchased 2007. Te Papa CA000888/003/0150

Celmisia hectori, named after Sir James Hector, the founding Director of the Colonial Museum (which evolved into Te Papa). Water colour by Nancy Adams CBE, 10 January 1968. Purchased 2007. Te Papa CA000888/003/0150

Adams moved from Botany Division, DSIR to the Dominion Museum in 1959, where she was initially employed as an artist. Her promotion to assistant curator ten years later enabled her to develop her interest in marine algae and to build up the museum’s collection of this little-studied group. This led to a series of regional algal floral lists, with the seventh in the series (co-authored with Wendy Nelson and published in 1985) covering the marine algae of the Three Kings Islands.

Nancy Adams – National Museum staff portrait, August 1976. Photograph by Trevor Ulyatt. Te Papa MA_E.000345/031

Nancy Adams – National Museum staff portrait, August 1976. Photograph by Trevor Ulyatt. Te Papa MA_E.000345/031

The Three Kings Islands publication referred to several undescribed endemic seaweed species, which the two women and their colleagues proceeded to describe and name over the following two decades – including three that they named after the biblical magi: Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

$1.80 ’Three Wise Men’ Christmas stamp, 2009, Wellington, by Stephen Fuller, Southern Colour Print. The New Zealand Post Museum Collection, Gift of New Zealand Post Ltd., 1992. Te Papa PH001431

$1.80 ’Three Wise Men’ Christmas stamp, 2009, Wellington, by Stephen Fuller, Southern Colour Print. The New Zealand Post Museum Collection, Gift of New Zealand Post Ltd., 1992. Te Papa PH001431

The first was a tiny epiphytic red alga found on the stalks of the Three Kings endemic seaweed Sargassum johnsonii. Originally named as Porphyra kaspar in 1990, the species is now known as Chlidophyllon kaspar (W.A. Nelson & N.M. Adams) W.A. Nelson.

Detail showing Porphyra kaspar from Plate 48 in Nancy Adams (1994) Seaweeds of New Zealand: an illustrated guide. 1990, by Nancy Adams CBE. Purchased 2007. Te Papa CA000892/001/0027

Detail showing Porphyra kaspar from Plate 48 in Nancy Adams (1994) Seaweeds of New Zealand: an illustrated guide. 1990, by Nancy Adams CBE. Purchased 2007. Te Papa CA000892/001/0027

Wendy Nelson’s passion for New Zealand’s marine life brought her to the National Museum in the 1970s, to study with her mentor Nancy Adams. Nelson was appointed Curator of Botany when Adams retired in 1987. Over the next 15 years (before her move to NIWA in 2002), she documented the Te Papa seaweed collections, and added nearly 8,000 new specimens – collected from around the entire New Zealand coastline. She is now one of this country’s leading authorities on seaweeds.

Wendy Nelson holding the New Zealand Marine Sciences Award that she received in 2007. Photographer Alan Blacklock, reproduced courtesy NIWA

Wendy Nelson holding the New Zealand Marine Sciences Award that she received in 2007. Photographer Alan Blacklock, reproduced courtesy NIWA

In 1999 Nelson and her Wellington-based colleagues Glenys Knight and Ruth Falshaw named Curdiea balthazar, another red alga from the Three Kings Islands. The species name ‘balthazar’ was chosen “both because of the geographical location of this species and the medullary cells that bear golden cell inclusions” thereby referencing the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh borne by the three magi.

Curdiea balthazar W.A.Nelson et al., collected 24 November 1998, Archway Island, Princes Islands, Three Kings Islands. Te Papa herbarium sheet A029596

Curdiea balthazar W.A.Nelson et al., collected 24 November 1998, Archway Island, Princes Islands, Three Kings Islands. Te Papa herbarium sheet A029596

The magic trifecta was completed in 2002, when Louise Phillips and Wendy Nelson named the Three Kings endemic red alga Adamsiella melchiori. “This genus is named to honour Nancy M. Adams, who has made significant contributions to the knowledge of New Zealand marine algae and who has generously guided and inspired both authors.” The species name referenced Melchior, the remaining magi.

Adamsiella melchiori L.E.Phillips & W.A.Nelson, collected 03 March 1997, North West Bay, Great Island (Manawa Tawhi), Three Kings Islands. Te Papa herbarium sheet A028584

Adamsiella melchiori L.E.Phillips & W.A.Nelson, collected 03 March 1997, North West Bay, Great Island (Manawa Tawhi), Three Kings Islands. Te Papa herbarium sheet A028584

Nelson is herself honoured by the name Skeletonella nelsoniae A.Millar & De Clerck; (another minute seaweed from the Three Kings Islands). Alan Millar and Olivier De Clerk noted that “The epithet honours our friend and colleague, Dr Wendy A. Nelson (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric research, NIWA, New Zealand), who has dedicated her career to the study of marine macroalgae in New Zealand.”

Skeletonella nelsoniae A.Millar & De Clerck, collected 24 November 1998, Archway Island, Princes Islands, Three Kings Islands. Te Papa microscope slide A023736

Skeletonella nelsoniae A.Millar & De Clerck, collected 24 November 1998, Archway Island, Princes Islands, Three Kings Islands. Te Papa microscope slide A023736

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.

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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.

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Robert Falla and the Westland petrel

Dick Dell and the fantastic frilled crab

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Alan Baker and Maui’s dolphin

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Clive Roberts and one tiny iota fish

 

Help name a new species

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

6 Responses

  1. Helen Mechen

    Thanks Colin for yet another inspiring blog post ! !

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks for your feedback Helen – great to know you are still keeping an eye on Te Papa’s natural environment team!
      Kind regards
      Colin

  2. Alison Barwick

    The title of this blog could be that of a children’s adventure story, Enid Blyton style. Fascinating information re the seaweeds and the two women. I wonder what the magi would think if they knew about the seaweeds’ names.
    Thank you, Colin, for another most readable blog.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thank you for your feedback Alison – I am glad you liked the title. There are a few other examples of the three magi being honoured in species names, although the Three Kings cabbage tree (formerly Cordyline kaspar) is now synonymised in C. obtecta. I am not aware of any other examples where all three magi are honoured within one species group in New Zealand, but there must be other examples worldwide. There’s a more stimulating challenge than chasing pokemons!
      Kind regards
      Colin

  3. Nancy Watters

    A few years ago I bought apiece of art (embroidery on painted canvas) at Dunbar’s general auction. What attracted me to it was some small writing in it entitled “Nancy’s Garden ” and as that is my name, I snapped it up. I knew that there had to be a story behind it so I tracked down the artist, Carol Ann Bauer and indeed there is provenance! Carol told me it was based on a picture drawn by Nancy Adams in one of her books and had been part of her first exhibition in Wellington in the 70s. Nancy attended the exhibition and was so taken with the piece (like me) that she bought it! The Dunbar auction was soon after Nancy’s death so I wonder if it was part of her estate. Anyway it has passed from one Nancy to another and I intend donating it to Te Papa unless another Nancy comes along!

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your comment Nancy. It is great that you have such a personal connection to Nancy Adams, and thanks also for considering Te Papa as a worthy and appropriate repository.

      Kind regards
      Colin

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