The Kerguelen Islands are among the most remote islands on the planet, lying in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean about 7300 km west of New Zealand (or 17,000 km east if you prefer). Yet they have at least two unlikely connections with New Zealand – a plant and a dolphin. And both are associated with Sir James Hector (1834-1907), the founding director of the Colonial Museum of New Zealand (which evolved into Te Papa).
Among the first botanists to explore the Kerguelen Islands were a young Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) and his friend David Lyall (1817-1895). Both men were assistant surgeons and naturalists on the 1839-43 Antarctic Expedition led by James Clark Ross (1800-1862), commanding the Royal Navy vessels Erebus and Terror. Joseph Hooker would become the greatest botanist of his day, but in 1840 he was the youngest member of the expedition (23 years old) and just finding his feet as a scientist.
Hooker was fascinated by the plants of the Kerguelen Islands, and particularly an unusual cushion-forming plant that was quite unlike any other known species. It was so distinct that Hooker created a new genus for it – Lyallia. “This highly curious genus, coming from the most interesting island visited by the Antarctic Expedition, will serve to commemorate in some slight degree the important services rendered to Botany by my zealous friend and co-operator, Dr. Lyall, R.N.” (Hooker 1847).
Two decades later, Hooker was Assistant Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, when he received a collection of plants from southern New Zealand, collected by a young James Hector. Within a year, Hooker would be promoted to Director of Kew, and Hector would accept the directorship of the Colonial Museum. Among the plants that Hooker received from Hector was one that Hooker named Hectorella caespitosa, and described as “A remarkable genus, allied to no other, but approaching in habit Lyallia of Kerguelen’s Land. Named in compliment to Dr. Hector, F.G.S., during whose adventurous expedition to the Otago alps it was discovered” (Hooker 1864).
Hooker’s genius was confirmed 143 years later, when a genetic study confirmed the relationship between Lyallia and Hectorella. The authors of the 2007 study (Steven Wagstaff and Françoise Hennion) suggested that the two genera split between 19 and 26 million years ago, a date range that overlaps the approximate age of the Kerguelen Islands (24-29 MY). They speculated that the common ancestor of the two plants was widely distributed on the Antarctic continent, and was eliminated by the onset of glaciation during the Pleistocene.
A few months after leaving the Kerguelen Islands, the Erebus and Terror expedition visited the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island south of New Zealand, before heading south to Antarctica. There are numerous place names and plant names commemorating the expedition, with place names including Mt Ross (at 1852 m the highest peak in the Kerguelen Islands), Mt Erebus and Mt Terror on Ross Island in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, and Port Ross in the Auckland Islands. In addition to Lyallia, David Lyall was honoured by Mt Lyall on Campbell Island (and two other Mt Lyalls in New Zealand), and in the names of many well-known New Zealand plants, including species in the genera Aciphylla, Anisotome, Asplenium, Celmisia, Hoheria, Olearia, Ranunculus and Stilbocarpa. Joseph Hooker is himself commemorated by the Hooker Hills (Auckland Islands), Hooker Stream (Campbell Island), many other place names in New Zealand and Antarctica, and numerous New Zealand plant species.
One of the pioneering botanists who Hooker quoted in relation to studies of southern plants was the French naturalist Philibert Commerçon (1727-73), who accompanied Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage of circumnavigation in 1766-69. Among the animals described by Commerçon during the Bougainville expedition was a distinctive black-and-white dolphin from the Strait of Magellan, now known as Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersoni). The main population of the dolphin is found in coastal waters of Patagonia and the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas, but 190 years later a tiny isolated population was discovered in the Golfe du Morbihan, Kerguelen Islands, 9000 km to the east. The closest relative of Commerson’s dolphin is the endemic Hector’s dolphin (C. hectori) of New Zealand. With no member of the genus Cephalorhynchus in Australia, this disjunct distribution provides another challenge for biogeographers. For information on the naming of Hector’s dolphin, see: Sir James Hector, Hector’s dolphin and Taniwhasaurus.
Hooker, J.D. 1847. The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror, in the years 1839–1843. Vol. 1, Flora Antarctica, Part 2. London: Reeve, 548–549.
Hooker, J.D. 1864. Handbook of the New Zealand flora. Vol. 1. London: Reeve, 27.
Wagstaff, S.J.; Hennion, F. 2007. Evolution and biogeography of Lyallia and Hectorella (Portulacaceae), geographically isolated sisters from the Southern Hemisphere. Antarctic Science 19: 417–426.
This is the third in a series of blogs exploring the meanings of scientific names associated with the 150-year history of Te Papa, and linked to the You called me WHAT?! exhibition. Curator of Vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s visit to the Kerguelen Islands was supported by the Institut Polaire Francais (IPEV) and Te Papa.