An important function for Te Papa’s natural history collections is to document the plants and animals we have in New Zealand. What species are present, how can they be distinguished, and where do they occur? These questions need addressing before our biodiversity, both indigenous and exotic, can be managed in an informed manner. It is the purpose of natural history collections like Te Papa’s to provide the tangible, physical proof – in the form of specimens – to address these questions.
To improve the documentation of New Zealand’s plants, three of Te Papa’s botanists were dispatched to the recent John Child Bryophyte and Lichen Workshop. This was based near Waimate, with a side trip to Peel Forest. About 25 people attended, professionals and enthusiasts, from throughout New Zealand, and with five visitors from Australia. Afterwards, on the way home, the Te Papa team took the opportunity to collect, under a Department of Conservation permit, from several sites in Marlborough. Without wanting to embarrass my employer, Te Papa’s collections of bryophytes (and ferns) from these areas were poor (so hence the need for more collecting).
Roughly speaking, the smaller and less feathery something is, the poorer is its documentation. Being small plants, there is plenty of work to be done with bryophytes and lichens. “Bryophyte” is a collective term for mosses and liverworts. These are individually tiny plants that are nevertheless ecologically significant because of their substantial collective biomass. Lichens are a symbiotic association of a fungus with an alga or cyanobacterium. If you know what you’re doing, it’s not too difficult to find new species, at least with liverworts and lichens. And, new distribution records abound.
Bryologists in action
While Pat and Peter collected mosses and liverworts for Te Papa, I collected ferns and lycophytes. Although better known than mosses and liverworts, there is still work to be done with New Zealand’s ferns, as with the silver fern example above.
We came back with about 450 specimens to add to Te Papa’s collection. The 100 or so ferns are all identified, but identifying the moss and liverwort specimens will take longer, as many will require microscopic examination. For all of the specimens, their collection details will be databased, and these data will then be available from Te Papa’s Collections Online website. The specimens themselves will be filed away in the Botany collection, available to those who need to physically inspect them, be it the following day or in several hundred years’ time.