Pat Brownsey and the cave-dwelling spleenwort

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Pat Brownsey is a fern specialist who joined the National Museum (now Te Papa) botany team in 1977, and is still finding fern mysteries to solve. Pat moved to New Zealand in 1973 after completing a PhD on ferns at the University of Leeds. The abundance and diversity of ferns in Aotearoa has kept him here throughout his career, initially as a curator, then senior curator (2005-11) and now as a Te Papa research fellow.

Pat Brownsey. Image: Te Papa

Pat Brownsey. Image: Te Papa

Among the 24 fern species that Pat has named are 11 species of Asplenium spleenworts. The genus name and common name for the group refer to the medieval belief that that the black spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum) could be used to cure diseases of the spleen. This was based on the spleen-shaped sori (fertile structures) on the back of the frond, with ‘wort’ being an old English term for a plant.

Cave spleenwort (Asplenium cimmeriorum). Image: Leon Perrie, Te Papa

Cave spleenwort (Asplenium cimmeriorum). Image: Leon Perrie, Te Papa

Spleenworts named by Pat and co-workers include the cave spleenwort (Asplenium cimmeriorum Brownsey & de Lange) and the Poor Knights spleenwort (Asplenium pauperequitum Brownsey & P.J. Jackson).

Pat Brownsey searching for cave spleenworts in the Cimmerian darkness, Charleston. Image: Leon Perrie, Te Papa

Pat Brownsey searching for cave spleenworts in the Cimmerian darkness, Charleston. Image: Leon Perrie, Te Papa

Cave spleenwort ferns mostly grow in dark, limestone sites with high rainfall. They’re often found in cave entrances, on cave walls, ceilings, or rockfalls – or sometimes deeper in near the limits of daylight. The species name cimmeriorum is derived from the mythical Cimmerii people in ‘The Odyssey’ by the Greek poet Homer. They inhabited a remote region of mist and darkness, or the entrance to Hades, which gave rise to the expression ‘Cimmerian darkness’.

Poor Knights spleenwort, Tatua Peak, Aorangi, Poor Knights Islands. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Poor Knights spleenwort (Asplenium pauperequitum), Tatua Peak, Aorangi, Poor Knights Islands. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The Poor Knights spleenwort was first found on Aorangi Island in the Poor Knights Islands in 1982, and was described in 1984. The species name pauperequitum is Latin for ‘Poor Knights’, but it is not known why the islands were given that name. Captain Cook sailed past the islands in November 1769, and the name appeared without explanation on one of his charts. Possible explanations are that Cook thought the islands’ outline resembled either a fallen crusader or a Poor Knights pudding (a bread-based dish popular at the time).

Pat Brownsey and Antony Kusabs searching for mosses in a vineyard (yeah right). Waipukurau Bryophyte Foray, December 2011. Image: Leon Perrie, Te Papa

Pat Brownsey and Antony Kusabs searching for mosses in a vineyard (yeah right). Waipukurau, December 2011. Image: Leon Perrie, Te Papa

Pat Brownsey has had three species or plant varieties named after him (two ferns and a moss), but at least two of them have been ‘lost’ in synonymy with other species that had been named earlier (and therefore had priority, when subsequent researchers suggested that the two named species were the same thing). The remaining species bearing his name is a bracken fern from Pakistan (Pteridium brownseyi) that Pat has never seen.

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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2 Responses

  1. Alison Barwick

    Thank you for another interesting and edifying piece, Colin. Your prose is always most felicitous!

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your feedback Alison – I am glad you enjoyed the blog. It is not every day that you get accused of being felicitous!
      Kind regards
      Colin

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