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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
You can make a submission in the exhibition or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include why you chose the name. See our website for terms and conditions, and helpful hints on making a suggestion.