Natural History

How many men does it take to move a sunfish?

No, it’s not a bad joke, but a real question we recently faced.

In preparation for the earthquake strengthening schedule to start early in the new year, we have been working at emptying the exhibition spaces and taking everything down off display, including the giant sunfish that has been hanging on the wall since the museum was built in 1928 (minus a few breaks here and there for conservation or rehanging).

The sunfish, or Mola mola, was caught in 1895 and purchased for the collection.  It took Museum founder Samuel Drew and three assistants three days to skin the 360cm-long fish, after which it was treated and mounted for later exhibition in the gallery space.

And now it has been temporarily removed and placed in storage while the museum building gets strengthened.  A big and rather delicate project.

So, how many men does it take to move a sunfish?  Take a look and see for yourself…

 

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Dr Eric Dorfman’s professional credentials would be a separate – and very long – story. The books he’s written and studies he has made, in themselves, would make a fascinating Midweek article (note to self: write fascinating Midweek article about Dr Eric Dorfman’s books and published studies).

In this issue, however, we treat him as the recently appointed director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and hear about his interest in the long extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus.

To do that I had to follow the tall, one-time Californian (but I think New Zealand has claimed him now) down into the bowels of the museum, shuffling between shelves until finding dozens of specimens of the taxidermists’ art. There we encountered our Tasmanian Wolf.

The museum has a stuffed specimen, collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Drew, sometime around 1891, well before the species met its total demise. It looks its age, poor thing, but the astounding fact is that we have one.

Eric lived in Australia for some years and knows a bit about these creatures. So why did he choose it to present to Midweek?  “It’s immensely cool from the fact that we have an extinct Australian species of which there are only a few in the world and exemplifies the importance of the collection internationally, as well as nationally. It’s cool on a personal level because I’m a conservationist by profession and there is still an effort afoot to see if maybe there are some left in Tasmania … and evolutionarily it’s very cool because although it looks like a dog it’s actually more closely related to a kangaroo, koala or wombat.”

The Thylacine is a marsupial and has a pouch like a kangaroo … well, the female does. The museum’s specimen is an adult male. Eric says they are more closely related to the quoll, another Australian animal, which is “more like a marsupial weasel”.  “From an evolutionary standpoint, this is convergent evolution with a dog,” says Eric. “Also biologically that’s very interesting.  One of my research thrusts is about humans’ relationship with nature,” he says. Eric has a book coming out later this year – Intangible Natural Heritage – of which he is author/editor in league with a team of distinguished authors.

Looking at this sad, stuffed specimen, Eric sees past the obvious and finds a symbol of “our coming of age as a society when we realise that doing this [making animals extinct] is a really bad thing.” He stresses that while this new-found consciousness is too late for some species, it’s not too late for many others.

He praises the work of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and its work here and overseas. “DOC is supporting other countries, including the United States, in methodology of setting up island sanctuaries … and it’s fantastic to be in New Zealand – even though this is an Australian species – from the point of view of this is a place where we have come of age in terms of the environment, and I hope we stay there. You can see why this launches into a lot of really interesting philosophical issues … and also thinking about where museums have been and where they’re going.”

It’s incredible, almost, to realise that Samuel Drew, Whanganui Regional Museum founder, actually helped, in his way, send species such as the huia extinct. He did that by trading stuffed huia (probably) to get an example of another species that, itself, would be extinct in another 50 years. At the time he traded for the Tasmanian Wolf, it was reasonably common but he needed it for his marsupial collection.

“No museum curator has ever intentionally sent a species extinct,” says Eric, “but back in the 19th century when species looked like they were going extinct, often, museum curators would run out to make sure they had them in their collection before anyone else got them … the huia was a victim of that kind of thing.”

The Thylacine was once a pan-Australian species, says Eric, with cave paintings to prove it was once even in the very north of Australia in Kakadu National Park. “By the time Drew was around it was restricted to Tasmania,” he says, although it was being hunted until its final (probable) extinction in the 1930s.

Eric says there is enough genetic material in existence so that, one day, techniques of cloning may be able to reintroduce the species. And so we looked at Samuel Drew’s legacy, part of his vision of a great museum that was all-encompassing.  “We now ‘get’ why he did it,” says Eric, “and we now have this incredible treasure. This is an amazing thing to have.”

There are lemurs from Madagascar and animals from all around the world, some exhibited upstairs, others hiding from the light below decks in the vaults. The Thylacine stands with them, an example of old ethics and philosophies and yet a symbol of what we are today. And if we do manage to clone them back into existence, will we look after them this time? The last word goes to Dr Eric Dorfman.

“If the Thylacine is never going to be reinvented and really is extinct, and the same with the huia, don’t we owe it to the species and owe it to ourselves to allow it to awaken us to the realities of what we’re doing to the planet?”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in June 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Healing Power of Nature

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

By Dr Eric Dorfman, Director

People who live close to nature know first-hand the benefits of integrating a positive relationship with the natural world into their lives. In many cultures, however, people spend far less time in nature than even 25 or 50 years ago. In fact, many aspects of western culture actively discourage people from spending time there and pervasive urbanisation is beginning to change our fundamental relationship with nature.

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

Parents have become fearful about their children playing outdoors and children who grow up mainly in built environments often fear nature, largely because it is unfamiliar. In movies, newspapers, and in exaggerated personal stories, nature is often portrayed as the villain or evil and these stories contribute to a social outlook that is increasingly “biophobic” (afraid of nature). In a very short period of time, humanity has moved from the industrial revolution to a technical one in which people are able to live their entire lifetimes rarely having to encounter nature at all. Exceptions to this isolation often occur only in the midst of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes and tidal waves. Lack of contact leads to lack of understanding, which leads to fear.

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

And yet, research has shown that spending time in natural spaces strengthens neighbourhood ties, reduces crime, stimulates social interactions among children, strengthens family connections and decreases domestic violence, assists new immigrants cope with transition and is cost effective for health benefits. Despite a global reaction in coalitions such as “Leave No Child Inside” or “Children and Nature Network” that have formed in the US and “Natural England” in the UK, western society is increasingly losing the potential benefits of this lifestyle.

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

New Zealanders are, in many ways, exceptions to this trend. We have always celebrated activities such as canoeing, tramping, kayaking and mountaineering – all outside. For many of us here it is important that we encourage others to be outdoors, often teaching our kids outdoor travelling and life skills, all helpful in being more at home outdoors. Probably every one of us believes that being outdoors creates health and wellness benefit. It’s not surprising, then, that in Whanganui much of our most quintessentially local imagery is based outdoors and, of course, much of that associated with our magnificent river.

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

When going through the Museum’s collection of objects and imagery, that connection to nature is palpable. We can see furniture and implements made from local woods, herbarium specimens carefully pressed into exacting symmetry, photos of families enjoying picnics or working on the river to partake of its bounty. Many of our taxidermy specimens come from the bush and wetlands that, while substantially reduced, still exist here.

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This opportunity to engage with our natural environment is also the reason many tourists come here, to watch the excitement of the Jet Sprints or to enjoy the solitude of paddling downriver on a canoe. All around us, the reminders of nature are everywhere in Whanganui, in front of our eyes.

Tragic tale of huia’s extinction

Tragic tale of huia's extinction

Wallis Barnicoat talks about the extinct native bird, the huia as she has a connection with a book and the man who wrote it.  “As small children we used to visit WJ Phillips (whom my father called Bill) and his wife Esther, with our parents. He was once the registrar and ethnologist at the old Dominion Museum and my father probably met him through family friends and due to their mutual love of New Zealand history, especially early settler/Maori history.”

WJ Phillips was the author of The Book of the Huia, a reference work Wallis used when preparing for this story. “Phillips’ work was published in 1963, and when he started researching it in 1953 he was able to interview elderly people who, when younger, had shot huia or seen them in the bush. Their anecdotes, which are peppered throughout the book, are all very fascinating.”

Wallis says the chapter that interests her most is that of the bird’s decline into extinction.  It’s a tragic tale and Phillips equates it to the destruction of the dodo in Madagascar: “Thoughtless and careless destruction brought about by the advance of a new people into a new land.”

Although the bird was finally considered extinct in 1907 (there were some unconfirmed sightings after that), Sir Walter Buller, a famous ornithologist, in 1870 was saying, “Erelong it [the huia] will exist only in our museums and other collections”.

The huia was sacred to Maori and the tail feather was considered particularly valuable. Unfortunately European fashion also considered the feathers essential as accessories and hat adornments, leading to a flourishing export trade until the bird was no more.  A tipping point was in 1902 when the visiting Duke of York was presented with a feather for his hat. Of course Europe and the UK had to copy.  Additional factors such as settlers clearing bush for farming as well as the introduction of predators such as weasels, ferrets and stoats, meant the huia was not long for this land.

Buller was dead right. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a small number of the birds, provenance unknown. Interestingly enough, even the specimens in our museum are lacking a few tail feathers. Perhaps the five quid bounty per tail feather was too appealing to the early collector.

Article originally appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in February 2010.  Reproduced with publishers’ permission.

Native falcons and people

4. head close-up

The New Zealand falcon is one of our rarest native birds, but it’s still socially-acceptable, at least in some circles, to shoot them. How can this be?

12003036122805125_28d51e8651_bNative falcons, or kārearea, are found throughout the country, but in low numbers; there are just a few thousand left, about the same population size as kea, rarer than brown kiwi. Falcons were much more common before extensive forest clearance, but they are adaptable birds and can survive in farmland and pine plantations. What they can’t survive is human persecution. Despite being a protected native species under the Wildlife Act, molestation of which will get you a hefty fine, they are routinely and illegally shot by farmers and pigeon-fanciers for killing domestic birds. One estimate is that 200 falcons are shot each year. Imagine if people were shooting 200 kiwi a year – there’d be a huge uproar.

12003036196756171_1c1ae07293_oThe NZ falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) should be familiar to every New Zealander; it’s on the $20 note. But few people have ever seen one in the wild. The bird of prey everyone knows is the harrier hawk (Circus approximans) which arrived just a few hundred years ago from Australia. Before then New Zealand had a giant eagle, a giant hawk and a falcon, of which only the falcon has survived, just.

3. Soaring harrierHarrier hawks are very familiar because they eat roadkill and like open farmland so we spot them everywhere as we drive. They’re often seen soaring high, scanning the ground for prey. Falcons, on the other hand, are incredibly fast fliers and hunt on the wing, snatching birds out of the air. Their wings are narrow and pointed, which makes them poor gliders but as manoeuvrable as a fighter jet. Most sightings of a falcon are of a bird flashing past, giving its distinctive “kek-kek-kek” cry.

Because falcons are bird-hunters they sometimes come into conflict with humans. One recent case in New Plymouth is typical. A flock of 20 white fantail pigeons was picked off, one by one, over three years. One pigeon can keep a falcon fed for a week so when they find a ready supply they’ll settle down for a while. A friend of mine, from out past Fordell, has had the same problem. First his pigeons disappeared, then half his flock of chickens. He surprised the culprit in the act, a juvenile falcon that was probably wandering in search of a territory of its own. In both these cases nobody reached for a rifle, but falcons are not always so lucky. Perhaps in the case of real troublemakers, we could do what’s done with kea, and trap and translocate the bird to a remote area where it wouldn’t cause a problem.

5. eating on postFalcons living amongst humans can, however, have a positive effect. Sara Kross, a researcher at the University of Canterbury, studied the effect of falcons nesting in Marlborough vineyards. Bird damage to grapes is a multi-million-dollar problem for growers, and they employ bird-scarers full-time to drive round and round on quad bikes, trying to frighten off flocks of starlings and silvereyes. Sara found that a falcon in the vineyard terrified pest birds, in some cases reducing damage by 90% and saving growers hundreds of dollars per hectare.

1. WingspanWingspan Bird of Prey Centre near Rotorua is a rehabilitation facility and education centre for native birds of prey, and they were recently involved in a project with the Rotorua Museum, where young falcons were introduced to the downtown Government Gardens via a shelter or “hack box” on the Museum’s roof. There was a ready pool of volunteer falcon watchers to keep an eye on them and help them adjust to adulthood and learning to hunt for themselves. The project seems to have been a success, and has paved the way for more introductions of this rare species to urban centres.

Could a similar exercise work in Whanganui? Are we ready for urban falcons? Queens Park would be an ideal environment for them, and they would certainly take care of the feral pigeons that hang out on the roof of the Sarjeant Gallery and the starlings and mynas that roost in the trees by the Library. Perhaps this trend will catch on, and every town in New Zealand will have its own native falcons, a natural form of avian pest control. But the crew of the Waimarie might need to watch out for their carrier pigeons.

Nesting falcons are very territorial, and will swoop down and attack anyone getting too close to their chicks. Researchers have to wear helmets or stout leather hats.

Nesting falcons are very territorial, and will swoop down and attack anyone getting too close to their chicks. Researchers have to wear helmets or stout leather hats.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Mr Nixon’s tiger trophy

Mr Nixon's tiger trophy

Museum Visitor Experience Creator, Clare McNamara, chooses a tiger skin rug as her item to talk about.  So why would a professed animal lover and caregiver to two black female kittens – Tuff Titty and one whose name keeps changing (Wonder Woman/My Little Pony/Witch) but answers to anything really – choose a once majestic feline which ended its days as a floor covering?  “It’s the Year of the Tiger … and there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild in the whole world,” says Clare.

The World Wildlife Fund also says that three sub-species of tiger have become extinct since 1940 and a fourth one, the South China tiger, hasn’t been seen in the wild in 25 years.  “We are moving to a stage where we might be living in a world without them,” says Clare.  And here we were, looking at a tiger skin on the floor of the museum.

Clare says it’s a female Bengal tiger, shot in 1930, and further research suggests it was dispatched by a chap called Arthur Challoner Nixon in India. Nixon, who was a member of the locally famous Sedgebrook Nixons, bagged another big cat during his long sojourn in the sub-continent. He also bagged a wife and married her in India before bringing her home to Wanganui.

Richard Bourne, chairman of the Wanganui Collegiate School Museum Trust, delved a little deeper and says that Arthur attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1905-1908.  He was also a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers during the Great War and served both at sea and in Mesopotamia.  After the war he became manager of the Delhi Electric Supply and Traction Company, based in India. In 1926 he married Ella, daughter of W Plumley and they had two sons. Arthur Nixon was awarded the OBE in 1946.

That information does not tell us much more about the tiger skin but it does give it a human perspective. Times have certainly changed. Killing a tiger now is an occasion for shame; then, it was a masculine rite of passage for those who could afford the trip and the accoutrements. Big game hunters were heroes, of sorts, pitting themselves – and a high-powered rifle – against regal beasts in foreign lands.  Values were different in the closing stages of the British Empire and while we have been taught to abhor the senseless killing of endangered species we would be wrong to impose today’s standards on yesterday’s inhabitants. Besides, in 1930 when Mr Nixon shot his tiger, they were probably neither endangered nor desirable.

Here endeth the lesson.

The hide is in remarkably good condition, considering its age, and the head once received the best attention from a skilled taxidermist. The face is frozen in a permanent snarl and looks incredibly life-like. There is some minor damage to the edges of the ears but, otherwise, it seems to have weathered the past 80 years quite well. The museum received the skin in 1969, the year Arthur Nixon died.

So there we were, gazing on this splendid trophy skin, feeling a little sad that its life ended the way it did and yet admiring the beauty of the beast and the skill of those who were able to preserve it so well. Even the claws are still intact, fearsome utensils that they are.

Clare, who has obviously done some homework, says the markings on a tiger’s head are the same as the Chinese written character for king. That’s either coincidence or a pictograph which didn’t evolve further. One wonders.  I also learned that the tiger’s stripes create a skin-cooling mechanism as well as providing convenient camouflage.

The museum visitor experience creator did profess some admiration for the tiger skin rug and seemed to suggest her cats would one day look rather good, similarly tanned and presented.

Clare says Mr Nixon’s tiger will be on display, “sometime in the not too distant future.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

The Regal Monarch

It’s that time of year. Garden centres will make sure they’ve stocked up on swan plants. Harassed parents will be visiting to placate weeping offspring, whose monarch caterpillars have stripped their host plants bare. Nurseries will happily sell a few tiny seedlings, enough to feed voracious caterpillars for a few more days. The cycle will continue until the butterflies finally disappear for winter. Where do they come from, and where do they go?

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are a recent immigrant to New Zealand, and unlike most of our introduced butterflies they don’t come from Australia, but from North America. Because they can travel long distances, they’ve dispersed around the Pacific, South-East Asia, and Australia, and in the late 19th century found their way to New Zealand. Because monarchs introduced themselves, they’re technically classed as a native animal, like the Welcome Swallow and Silvereye, and are our largest native butterfly.

The swan-shaped seed pods: There are many species of milkweeds in the monarch’s home, North America, but the swan plant is the only one that’s widely cultivated here. The seed pods can be saved and used to grow a new crop of butterfly hosts next year. photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

The swan-shaped seed pods: There are many species of milkweeds in the monarch’s home, North America, but the swan plant is the only one that’s widely cultivated here. The seed pods can be saved and used to grow a new crop of butterfly hosts next year.
photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

The biggest impediment to monarchs becoming established here was a lack of host plants. In North America, their caterpillars feed on many different plants in the milkweed family, but none of our New Zealand native plants will do. The introduced milkweed they eat here is swan plant (Gomphocarpus fruticosus), although they can also stomach the noxious weed moth vine (Araujia sericifera), and in emergencies can be fed squash or pumpkin. But the number of monarchs is determined by the number of swan plants we cultivate for them.

Stripey and inedible: The swan plants that monarch caterpillars eat are poisonous, full of noxious chemicals called cardiac glycosides that can actually cause heart attacks if eaten in large quantities. Monarchs are able to store the noxious tasting chemicals and make themselves inedible to birds; the bright colours make caterpillars memorable and ensure a bird will only try eating one once. photo: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, Vicki DeLoach / Flickr

Stripey and inedible: The swan plants that monarch caterpillars eat are poisonous, full of noxious chemicals called cardiac glycosides that can actually cause heart attacks if eaten in large quantities. Monarchs are able to store the noxious tasting chemicals and make themselves inedible to birds; the bright colours make caterpillars memorable and ensure a bird will only try eating one once.
photo: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, Vicki DeLoach / Flickr

A female monarch butterfly lays hundreds of eggs, then dies. The eggs take about a week to hatch. The caterpillar can take as little as two weeks to reach full size, eating voraciously, and then it forms a chrysalis in which it stays for about a fortnight. The whole life cycle from egg to adult butterfly can take only a month, although it’s much slower in cooler weather. In the right conditions, one female could produce hundreds of offspring, although almost all of them die from disease, starvation, or being killed by wasps.

Hanging around for a bit: When the caterpillar reaches full size, it attaches itself to a leaf, forms a J shape, and sheds its skin one last time, revealing the pupa. The pupa has to do a little dance to rid itself of the shed skin, and then reshapes itself and hardens to form a chrysalis. photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

Hanging around for a bit: When the caterpillar reaches full size, it attaches itself to a leaf, forms a J shape, and sheds its skin one last time, revealing the pupa. The pupa has to do a little dance to rid itself of the shed skin, and then reshapes itself and hardens to form a chrysalis.
photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

In their home, North America, monarchs make a extraordinary journey each winter. From as far north as Canada they migrate thousands of kilometres to Mexico, where they find their way to a few sheltered valleys and overwinter in their millions, covering the trees. The weight of massed butterflies bows the branches to the ground, and the fluttering of their wings sounds like a constant roar. In spring they head north again, laying eggs as they go. Because each butterfly lives a few months at most, several generations pass before next winter; the butterflies heading south have never been to Mexico before, and yet find their way to the same trees in the same valleys. Nobody knows how.

Into the chrysalis: When the caterpillar gets big enough, it makes a hard waxy case about itself called a chrysalis, from the Greek chrysos or gold. The jade green chrysalis has golden spots, and is attached to the leaf by a hook called a cremaster. photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

Into the chrysalis: When the caterpillar gets big enough, it makes a hard waxy case about itself called a chrysalis, from the Greek chrysos or gold. The jade green chrysalis has golden spots, and is attached to the leaf by a hook called a cremaster.
photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

In New Zealand, monarch butterflies don’t migrate in this way. They can’t survive the winter in most of the country, so congregate on a few trees in overwintering spots in Northland, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, and Christchurch. (There may be an overwintering spot near Whanganui, so let the Museum know if you come across a tree full of monarchs this winter.) When the weather warms up they become active and start laying eggs again.

Nearly ready to hatch: After two weeks in the chrysalis, the caterpillar has rebuilt its body into a butterfly, and is about to emerge. photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

Nearly ready to hatch: After two weeks in the chrysalis, the caterpillar has rebuilt its body into a butterfly, and is about to emerge.
photo: Creative Commons BY, Sid Mosdell / Flickr

To ensure monarchs have enough to eat, we can plant swan plants in weedy corners or empty sections, using seed saved from the previous year’s plants. If the seedlings can be kept frost-free over winter, they’ll have a chance to get large enough to host a good crop of caterpillars. But regardless of how many swan plants you grow, or how big they get, there will always be hordes of caterpillars waiting to strip them bare. The best strategy is to pluck off eggs or caterpillars and dispose of them while they’re still small, so that just two or three survive to adulthood per plant. If you’re too soft-hearted to do this, well, there’s a garden centre owner rubbing his hands together with glee, looking forward to a profitable caterpillar famine.

Attractive perfume: Male monarch butterflies have scent pockets on their hindwings, into which they deposit tiny drops of the nectar-scented perfume that attracts females. When they’re about to mate, they brush the scent from these pockets with their hind legs, to ensure the female butterfly stays attracted to the honey-like odour. photo: Creative Commons BY-NC, TexasFlower / Flickr

Attractive perfume: Male monarch butterflies have scent pockets on their hindwings, into which they deposit tiny drops of the nectar-scented perfume that attracts females. When they’re about to mate, they brush the scent from these pockets with their hind legs, to ensure the female butterfly stays attracted to the honey-like odour.
photo: Creative Commons BY-NC, TexasFlower / Flickr

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Spotted at the museum

Spotted at the museum

I realised Ruth Leopardforce, digitisation technician, is an interesting person when I asked about the origins of her unusual second name.  “I made it up,” she says. And so we moved on.

We were standing beside a small, spotted cat, stuffed and mounted in a semi-crouching position, although slightly off-balance. I put that down to either age or alcohol, with most bets on the former.

Why this exhibit?  Ruth says she has an interest in animals preserved by the taxidermist and an obsession with leopards. We didn’t take that any further, although it promised to be an illuminating discussion. Another time, perhaps.

This particular animal is a Clouded Leopard, a relic from Mr JJ Boyd’s zoo at Aramoho of the early 20th century.  Mrs Hayward’s Aramoho Tea Gardens evolved into the Aramoho Zoo – and enterprise run by animal lover and collector, JJ Boyd. Animals included lions, tigers, black bears, kangaroos, exotic birds, monkeys, tortoises and tropical fish … to name a few.  The zoo closed after neighbours complained that the roaring lions kept them awake at night. I wonder if the smell was ever mentioned.

Mr Boyd moved his zoo, lock stock and marsupial, to Onehunga, where, under the name Royal Oak Zoo, it flourished for 10 years until similar complaints forced its closure.  Ruth says an electrician friend of hers was working on an Aramoho property last year when he discovered a collection of Mr Boyd’s zoo cages under the house.

The featured leopard was stuffed and mounted by Archie Robertson; it was his first job and became part of his house museum collection. Now it is one of three creatures from Aramoho Zoo stored at Whanganui Regional Museum; the other two being a wallaby and a tuatara, of all things.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in September 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Why we use Latin names

While filling a display case with native birds of the Whanganui area, we were writing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. Which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. My suggestion: add Latin names to the labels, to make things clearer.

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (oura).

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (oura).

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow.

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow.

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right.

The tūī, once referred to as the Parson-bird for its clerical collar, has its white feathers captured in its Latin name, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae: a prosthema is an appendage on the dera or neck.

The tūī, once referred to as the Parson-bird for its clerical collar, has its white feathers captured in its Latin name, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae: a prosthema is an appendage on the dera or neck.

A recent book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr sounds like the most boring title in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey.

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name. New Zealand Robins aren’t robins either, but they’re close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica.

The North Island Robin or toutouwai (Petroica longipes) is named for it habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

The North Island Robin or toutouwai (Petroica longipes) is named for it habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. And because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. This affects the Museum too; our moa bone collections were classified in 1988, but since then two of the three species have been given different names. Changing an electronic database is easy, but I’m hoping we don’t have to redo the labels in the bird case any time soon.

Chrysococcyx means golden cuckoo, and lucida, or shining, describes the iridescent greeny-gold plumage of the Shining Cuckoo or pīpīwharauroa.

Chrysococcyx means golden cuckoo, and lucida, or shining, describes the iridescent greeny-gold plumage of the Shining Cuckoo or pīpīwharauroa.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Native Fishes of the Whanganui

A native grayling recently rediscovered in the collection, caught in the 19th century.

A native grayling recently rediscovered in the collection

New Zealand is famous for its extinct birds, but not many people know we have an extinct fish. The native grayling or upokororo (Prototroctes oxyrhynchus) was found in many rivers and streams, including the Whanganui basin. The size of a small trout, it was good eating and extensively fished by Māori and pākehā. By 1900 it was rare, and it disappeared in the 1920s.

Remarkably, we recently came across a native grayling in our collection. Some time in the 19th century it was skinned, stuffed with cotton wool, and mounted on a board (originally painted blue, from the traces of blue paint on the fish’s back). At nearly 30 cm long, it’s one of the largest specimens known.

It’s hard to imagine what the Whanganui River was like at the time that grayling was stuffed and mounted. The first pākehā settlers described the banks as steep and lined with piles of sunken logs. When this wood was dug out for building, the banks eroded back a chain (about 20 m) on both sides. A century ago, a newspaper accounts tells us, the Whanganui was clear enough for someone to find a wedding ring on the river bed that had been dropped from the town bridge; imagine trying to find anything dropped into the river today! There were numerous side streams, even in the middle of town, that have since been covered over and culverted.

The Giant kokopu (Galaxias argenteus)

The Giant kokopu (Galaxias argenteus)

The river and side streams would have teemed with native fishes. Not just eels, but īnanga (the main whitebait species) and many different kinds of kokopu. The largest was the giant kokopu, growing over 40 cm long and weighing up to 2 kg. We only know that giant kokopu lived here because the museum has one, preserved in alcohol, caught at Kaitoke in 1948. Who knows how much longer they hung on in the area before being wiped out by agriculture and overfishing?

The kokopu pool near Karaka Street

The kokopu pool near Karaka Street

Even today, you can still find native fishes in some of the remaining urban streams in Whanganui. Īnanga and eels live in the creek running behind Aramoho School, and rare freshwater mussels are still surviving in the Matarawa Stream that flows through Kowhai Park. The swampy wetland behind the houses in Karaka St drains into a small stream, which was originally created as a drainage ditch but turns out to have the largest population of banded kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus) we’ve yet found in the Whanganui area.

The banded kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus)

The banded kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus)

As part of River Week, local fish expert Stella McQueen and I ran a night-time fish-spotting expedition to Karaka Wetland. Most native fishes are nocturnal, so can only be caught with headlamps and nets. We caught, measured and photographed banded kokopu (some up to 24 cm) long and released them into the stream again, except for two, which are on display in our aquarium in the Museum atrium.

Raising awareness of native fishes is part of our job; these are taonga, some of them threatened or endangered, literally living in our backyards. They’re incredibly vulnerable: vandals, eel fishers, or someone thoughtlessly dumping a drum of paint thinner could wipe out a streamful of fishes that have hung on right through Māori and European settlement, from a time when the Whanganui and its streams only flowed through swamp and forest.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.