Today we’ve been hearing about the most recent addition to Te Papa’s scientific collections, a new colossal squid Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. We’re playing host to a dozen or so media representatives as well as our own live-streaming film crew, who are following intently the activity of five visiting squid scientists from AUT, led by Dr Kat Bolstad.
The acquisition and processing of this heavy weight specimen (weighing in at about 350 kg, or 770lb) is highlighting the laboratory we are fortunate to have at Te Papa’s state-of-the art collections facility in Tory St, Wellington. Globally, only a few scientific labs have capacity to process and store such large specimens as the colossal squid. It’s now 7 years since our Tory St facility was commissioned, and it enables us to work closely with a collection of about 500,000 registered specimen lots, comprising millions of individual organisms.
Te Papa has been collecting and describing the biodiversity of the New Zealand region since its inception in 1865, when the Colonial Museum was established under Sir James Hector. Since that time over 2,500 taxa (species of plants and animals, or related grouping such as genera and families) have been described using the Te Papa collections.
This work relies on the expertise of Te Papa’s in house scientists – currently comprising a team of 10 curators and researchers, and 6 collection management specialists. But also we rely on collaboration with scientists from around New Zealand and the world to define new species, or to describe the relationships between them. Our collaboration with AUT is a win-win for New Zealand biodiversity study, and is one example of the many combined research efforts going on that involve the world’s specialists on taxonomy.
And underpinning this scientific discovery is an amazing collection of plants and animals – several million in total. Te Papa holds the most important mollusc collection (e.g. squid, octopus, snails, slugs) nationally, of around 335,000 registered specimen lots. This recent colossal squid will join seven other whole or partial specimens held by Te Papa.
Other marine invertebrates strongly represented in Te Papa’s collections include 23,600 lots of crustacea (crabs, crayfish, shrimps and the like), 8,600 echinoderms (e.g. starfish, sea-eggs etc), and about 3,500 corals. But it doesn’t stop there: insects and other arthropods of land and air, including iconic species such as dragonflies, weta, spiders, lice, beetles, flies and fleas, number around 34,470 registered lots. The Museum also holds the national collection of fishes, with over 200,000 specimens covering the roughly 1,600 species of the New Zealand region.
The collections include both dry specimens – such as the classic ‘pinned’ insects, taxidermied birds and skeletons of vertebrates animals; but also ‘spirit collections’, by which we don’t mean metaphysical collections, but those preserved in alcohol and similar ‘spirits’. Some types of animals and plants don’t take kindly to being pressed, or dried, and are best kept for further study sealed in preserving fluid. For example our lizards, crabs, spiders, and fish are all preserved in liquid, as their soft body parts mean they would shrivel up or become unrecognisable if they were dried for preservation.
Specimens in our collections can last a very long time. Of the oldest specimens, many were collected during the 19th century, and a very few came from Captain James Cook’s voyages, nearly 250 years ago. Our objective with preserving specimens is to keep them in perpetuity, and make them available for study to researchers or to help inform our audiences about the science of New Zealand biodiversity.
Museum specimens are kept for the information they hold. Like a book in the library, you can examine, or ‘read’ a specimen many times and discover new information from it each time. To deliver useful information about the lifestyle, relationships and evolution of species, it’s essential that specimens are kept with detailed data about where,when and how they were collected, and the people who collected them. This information is important to help scientist interpret the specimen. For example, as specimens of plants or birds or fish are added to the collections, scientists are more able build up pictures of where populations live, when they breed and how they do it, what they eat and who eats them, and so on.
Good science demands that observations can be repeated, so we don’t throw away specimens that have been written about in the scientific literature. A large number of our specimens have been published on, and will be again. Over time, new information can be taken from existing collections (e.g. DNA sampling, measurements, stage in life cycle, where caught, etc). We continue to make discoveries about biodiversity of the New Zealand region based on the collections, just by examining the holdings of species at Te Papa.
Despite the colossal excitement over the new squid, most new species described by our scientists are tiny, and many are cryptic, requiring detailed analyses such as x-ray examination of their skeletons or DNA analysis of their genes to clarify relationships with other species. It’s very rare and exciting to have a veritable giant to study, like a colossal squid, and we’re relishing the moment.
Susan Waugh, Senior Curator – Sciences
Rick Webber, Curator Invertebrates.