Allan Thomson and the Cenozoic brachiopods

Allan Thomson and the Cenozoic brachiopods

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Our national museum’s third director was New Zealand’s first Rhodes Scholar, but was cut down in his prime.

Te Papa turned 150 years old on 8 December 2015. To celebrate 150 years since the opening of the Colonial Museum in Wellington, the exhibition ‘You called me WHAT?!’ is open on Level 3 until the end of 2016. The exhibition, and this series of blogs, explore the history of the museum by showcasing some of the more than 2,500 animal and plant species named by museum staff since 1865 – and seek your suggestions for names for species that have yet to be described and named.

J. Allan Thomson (1881-1928). Image: Journal of Science and Technology Vol. 10 no. 2
J. Allan Thomson (1881-1928). Image: Journal of Science and Technology Vol. 10 no. 2

This sixth blog in the series features the museum’s third Director – James Allan Thomson (1881-1928). Thomson was a highly respected scientist and administrator whose life was blighted and fore-shortened by debilitating illness. He was a distinguished scholar and athlete at Otago University and was elected New Zealand’s first Rhodes Scholar, studying for his BA and MA at St John’s College, Oxford before being awarded a DSc by the University of New Zealand in 1912. He was proposed as chief scientist for the 1910 Scott Antarctic Expedition, but failed his medical due to pulmonary tuberculosis contracted in Sydney. He was appointed Palaeontologist to the New Zealand Geological Survey in 1911, beginning his seminal work on fossil brachiopods (lamp shells) and their role in defining the age and sequence of New Zealand’s sedimentary deposits. Thomson was appointed Director of the Dominion Museum in 1914, and held the position until his death. Despite constant poor health, Thomson was an energetic and effective administrator, and maintained a prolific scientific output.

Fossil lamp shell (brachiopod) Rhizothyris amygdala Thomson, 1920; holotype BR.001348, Hutchinson's Quarry, Oamaru, greensands
Fossil lamp shell (brachiopod) Rhizothyris amygdala Thomson, 1920; holotype BR.001348, Hutchinson’s Quarry, Oamaru, greensands. Image: Te Papa

Thomson named 24 genera and 58 species of fossil and living brachiopods, with the majority of his species names describing physical features of the animals, or honouring some of his peers, colleagues and scientific predecessors. Within the genus Rhizothyris, Thomson named brachiopods that were almond-shaped (R. amygdala), thick-shelled (R. crassa), short (R. curta), elliptical (R. elliptica), long (R. elongata), strongly-built (R. fortis), middle-sized (R. media), fat (R. obesa), oval (R. ovata), pear-shaped (R. pirum), and shield-shaped (R. scutum). Within the genus Pachymagas, Thomson named brachiopods after Arthur Andrew, Otago University School of Mines (P. andrewi), Professor J. Arthur Bartrum, Auckland University (P. bartrumi), Edward de Courcy Clarke, Geological Survey of Western Australia (P. clarkei), Sir Charles Cotton, Victoria University College (P. cottoni), S. Herbert Cox, Geological Survey of New Zealand (P. coxi), Sir Julius von Haast, Canterbury Museum (P. haasti), Sir James Hector, Colonial Museum (P. hectori), Frederick Wollaston Hutton, Otago University, Canterbury College and Canterbury Museum (P. huttoni), Alexander McKay, Geological Survey of New Zealand, and Mines Department (P. mckayi), Percy Morgan, Geological Survey of New Zealand (P. morgani), and Professor Robert Speight, Canterbury Museum (P. speighti). With the exception of Alexander McKay, Thomson did not state who he was honouring – the remaining people here assumed to have been honoured are guesswork based on the men he worked alongside, quoted, or otherwise acknowledged in his published work.

Pachymagas hectori
Fossil lamp shell (brachiopod) Pachymagas hectori Thomson, 1920; holotype BR.001339, Landon Creek, near Oamaru, greensands. Named after Allan Thomson’s predecessor as Director of the Colonial Museum (later Dominion Museum), Sir James Hector. Image: Te Papa

Two genera (Thomsonia and Thomsonica, both fossil brachiopods) and at least 18 species were named after Allan Thomson, including 7 fossil gastropods, 4 fossil bivalves, 5 fossil brachiopods, an earthworm (Maoridrilus thomsoni) and a jumping weta (Weta thomsoni). When naming species after Thomson, many of his colleagues commented on his unfailing kindness and assistance, and the quality of his scholarship, e.g. “This fine species is named in honour of the late J.A. Thomson, whose masterly studies of Tertiary and Recent Brachiopoda are an inspiration to those who follow in his footsteps” (Robin Allan 1934, Transactions NZ Institute 63: 19).

Fossil marine snail (volute) Waihaoia thomsoni Marwick, 1926; holotype M.001685, Waihao Downs, west-southwest of Waimate. Image : Te Papa

Identifying species named after Allan Thomson is complicated by more than two dozen New Zealand plant, crustacean, coral, sea cucumber, sea squirt, polychaete and insect species being named after his father, the teacher, politician and gentleman naturalist George M. Thomson (1848-1933). Among the species named after the elder Thomson are the plants Rhytidosperma thomsonii, Veronica thomsonii and Zotovia thomsonii, and the crustaceans Centromma thomsoni (a copepod), Daphnia thomsoni (a water flea), Gammaropsis thomsoni and Parawaldeckia thomsoni (amphipods), Styloniscus thomsoni (an isopod), and Tenagomysis thomsoni (a mysid shrimp).

Veronica thomsonii (named after George Thomson), Harris Mountains. Image: Jesse Bythell, New Zealand Plant Conservation Network
Veronica thomsonii (named after George Thomson), Harris Mountains. Image: Jesse Bythell, New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

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.

The new species of rockfish, Milford Sound, 1998. Photograph by Andrew Stewart, Te Papa
The new species of rockfish, Milford Sound, 1998. Photograph by Andrew Stewart, Te Papa

You can make a submission in the exhibition or by emailing Please include why you chose the name. See our website for terms and conditions, and helpful hints on making a suggestion.

Related blogs

Sir James Hector, Hector’s dolphin and Taniwhasaurus

Sir James Hector and the Kerguelen connection

Augustus Hamilton and the gold-spangled butterfly

W.R.B. Oliver – jack-of-all-trades and master of most

Robert Falla and the Westland petrel

Dick Dell and the fantastic frilled crab

John Yaldwyn and the frog crab

Alan Baker and Maui’s dolphin

Nancy Adams, Wendy Nelson and the Three Kings’ seaweeds

Bruce Marshall and the volcanic vent mussel

Pat Brownsey and the cave-dwelling spleenwort

Clive Roberts and one tiny iota fish


Help name a new species

Unforgettable names for a new forget-me-not-species


  1. Great stuff!
    It reads very well and is very interesting.

    From a geological and GNS Science perspective, JA Thomson is most famous as the instigator of the NZ geological timescale ( local stage scheme) and the first palaeontologist hired by the NZ Geological Survey.

    Note that his father, George Thomson, was first and foremost a school teacher at Otago Boys’ High School and the master-mind behind the development of ‘technical schools’ in NZ.
    He was also the main force behind the establishment of the Royal Society of NZ as we know it, and its first President.

    1. Author

      Thanks very much for these comments Hamish – it is great to have a palaeontologist’s perspective on Allan Thomson’s legacy.

      Yes, George Thomson was a remarkable man. In addition to the accomplishments that you touch on, his 1922 book ‘The naturalisation of animals & plants in New Zealand’ is an invaluable summary of what was introduced to New Zealand during the colonial period. It has saved subsequent researchers a lot of effort, or directed them to where to find more information.


  2. It is great that you have remembered Allan Thomson. He seems to be forgotten I suppose because of his short life but his work was outstanding.
    There is a biography about him and his amazing father from the Royal Society that is worth reading. – “Scholars and Gentleman – G.M. and Allan Thomson in New Zealand Science and Education”. Allan Thomson was a prodigious scholar cut down by tuberculous! G.M.THomson was even taught science-biology to girls over one hundred years ago.

    1. Author

      Thanks very much for your comments Karen. You are right that Allan Thomson is our least-remembered former director. I suspect that his main area of research was too specialised for him to remembered by many other than palaeontologists and geologists specialising in dating sedimentary strata. The biography you refer to was one of my main sources of information for the blog.

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