Bird experts Colin Miskelly and Alan Tennyson recently returned from a research trip to the subantarctic Auckland Islands. Although their main aim was to study birds, Botany Researcher Heidi Meudt sent them on a separate mission – to collect a rare flower.
An elusive forget-me-not
Myosotis capitata is a species of forget-me-not that is known only from Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands. It was originally described in 1844 by celebrated Kew botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who collected it from the Auckland Islands while acting as Assistant Surgeon on the HMS Erebus of the Ross Antarctic Expedition (1839-1843).
Since then, these plants have only been sporadically collected during other biological expeditions to the islands. Perhaps not surprisingly, not much is known about this species, due to the isolated nature of the islands it inhabits, together with the fact that it is probably not very common.
As part of my research on native New Zealand forget-me-nots, I was very keen to get recent collections and samples of this species, and to get better estimates of its numbers and distribution on the islands.
Although a previous trip to the area by former Te Papa PhD botany student Jessie Prebble was successful in finding the other subantarctic forget-me-not, Myosotis antarctica, so far M. capitata had remained elusive.
As I was unable to go to the islands myself, I procured the necessary Department of Conservation (DOC) permit and asked Colin and Alan if they might be able to act as nominal botanists during their recent bird fieldwork in the Auckland Islands. Would the ornithologists have the botanical know-how to help me? Spoiler alert (and drum roll please): the answer is a resounding YES!
Flowers ‘of a deep violet-blue’
Although Colin and Alan landed on 15 different islands, they saw M. capitata on only one of them, Ewing Island, in the north-east of the group.
When they weren’t busy trying to catch snipe there, Colin, Alan and their colleague Nicki Atkinson (DOC) collected plant samples for me. The population was small and situated about 5 metres above sea level in a coastal saltmarsh on the north-east point of the island.
And the great thing was, the plants were flowering, which certainly helped the team find them. Hooker described the colour of the flowers as ‘deep violet-blue’, and you can see from Colin’s photo how gorgeous they are.
The colour of Myosotis capitata (and also tiny M. antarctica) contrasts greatly with the generally white or yellow flowers of mainland NZ forget-me-nots, as is the case with several other subantarctic megaherb species.
Colin and Alan’s colleagues Kalinka Rexer-Huber, Graham Parker, and Nicki Atkinson were heading south to Adams Island (the southernmost of the Auckland Islands), where they had previously seen M. capitata in alpine herbfields. They generously offered to collect additional voucher specimens and genetic samples from this second population, which was from a higher elevation (585 metres above sea level) and was in fruit. The plants were also seen at a third site at high altitude at South-west Cape on Auckland Island itself, but it was not possible to collect them there.
Critical research collections
These collections are critical for my research and for contributing to our understanding the taxonomy and evolution of this spectacular forget-me-not.
I wonder if Myosotis capitata is most closely related to the white-flowered M. rakiura, which is found in similar habitats in the Catlins, Stewart Island, and even Solander Island (from where another Te Papa bird researcher, Tim Poupart, also collected it for me!).
I look forward to testing this hypothesis with planned morphological, genetic and pollen studies.
Like the seabirds and snipe that Colin and Alan study, subantarctic forget-me-nots may only be thriving in certain habitats and islands in largely mammal-free islands, and future eradication programmes (particularly of pigs) will likely be very beneficial to the native flora as well as the native fauna.
I am grateful to DOC for allowing these collections to be made, and also want to thank ornithologists Colin and Alan (Te Papa), Kalinka and Graham (Parker Conservation) and Nicki (DOC) for helping collect and photograph these plants, and to Bridget Hatton for databasing them.
This is a great example of field scientists helping each other in a difficult-to-access part of the world, to the benefit of all involved and especially the native flora and fauna we are so passionate about.