Art. XXXII.—On the Natural History Collections in the Otago Museum.
[Read before the Otago Institute, January 11, 1870.]
I Believe that there are still a great many persons who look upon the pursuit of any department of natural history, which does not directly serve industrial purposes, as a frivolous occupation for adults. From my own observation, I should be disposed to say that this feeling is even more prevalent in the colonies than at home. I make this remark as specially applicable to the working men, amongst whom I was accustomed in my native town to meet many ardent students of nature. But it is true, I believe, of all classes, and I think the fact is much to be regretted, in view of the large number of young people who are growing up around us, for whom the pursuit of natural history would furnish one of the most improving and delightful occupations for their leisure hours which can be devised. I hope that the formation of this Society will have considerable effect in promoting the study of nature amongst us. Those who are indifferent to it, are so from want of information, both as to itself and as to its tendencies.
Irrespective of its share—a great and noble one—in the work of civilization and progress, the study of natural history brings with it, to all who embrace it, its own special gifts for the individual. Nothing is more influential in the formation and maintenance of healthful habits—it affords a relaxation both to body and mind, which never enervates; it is a pastime which leaves no languor behind it. It is much more than all this; it is a training for the mental faculties unsurpassed by any other. It is not alone the reasoning faculties, the memory, the powers of observation, and the capacity for methodical habits, whose development it subserves. It is on the highest part of our being that it takes surest hold. The poetic and conceptive faculties know no nursery like that of nature. The passions and aspirations of the heart of man find nowhere so calm a monitor, so pure and perfect an inspirer. No avenues lead more directly up to what is Highest, both on Earth and in Heaven, than hers. Knowing all this by my own experience, and from the testimony of so many great and good men, I feel the utmost concern that the youth of this country should lack so many of those facilities and incentives to the study of nature, by which in more favoured lands the young are allured to it. This is my apology for bringing before the Institute a paper exclusively devoted to natural history subjects.
The proper title of my paper would perhaps be, “Work for the Institute in the field of Natural History.” In laying before you a series of lists of what is wanting to render the Natural History department of our Museum a fair representation of the Flora and Fauna of Otago, my special object is to solicit
the assistance of all who are able to render it, whether members of the Institute or not, in the work of completing the collections which have been so creditably begun; and to explain as far as I am able in what directions the first efforts should be made. Did this work only involve the gathering of specimens, I should have felt more diffidence in taking up the time of the meeting with what I have to say. It is the collection of facts that is of the most importance. An array of dried plants or stuffed animals, though brought together with much labour, and arranged with elaborate care and the highest skill, would of itself be of little more value than a peep-show, if nothing were known of the plants and the animals, their homes and their ways, except what could be gathered by the eye from the collection itself. In the observation of the conditions and habits of the world of life around him, there is a great field, and a very interesting one, open to the student of nature in Otago. I sincerely hope that, under the auspices of this Institute, much will be gathered in it, and that what is thus gathered will be made known through our Transactious, to all who delight in such information.
I shall confine myself, in this paper, to some remarks on the Botanical Collection in the Museum. I give precedence to it because I believe there are in Otago more students of botany than of any other branch of natural history, and because the collection itself is a large and important one. At the same time, this is the only department of the science as to which we have any means of information on matters connected with our own province, beyond the walls of the Museum itself. A good deal of information about the natural history of Otago, lies scattered over the world of books; but it is altogether inaccessible to those who are here on the spot. The botany of the province is an exception to this rule. Besides the information contained in Dr. Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand Flora, there is a very useful paper on the Botany of Otago, by Mr. Buchanan, to be found among the other Exhibition Essays, in the volume of Transactions of the New Zealand Institute for the year 1868. Some important notes on the same subject have also been published in a separate form, by Dr. Lauder Lindsay, for, though the latter work is entitled Contributions to New Zealand Botany, its real subject is the Flora of Otago only.
I should say at the outset, that there are many bulky plants mentioned in these lists, as required for the Museum, which cannot be properly represented by specimens, such as a herbarium is usually composed of. It would be very well if drawings of most of these could be got; and, at any rate, the flowering heads and fruits should be obtained. A series of specimens of the seeds and fruits of most of our plants is wanted. These specimens of plants in the Museum were gathered and prepared by Mr. Buchanan, I need hardly say,
therefore, that they are mostly very good and complete. Only a part of them, however, include samples of the fruit, or of any but the flowering stage of the plants themselves.
The first thing to be noted in regard to the Herbarium, is the fact that it is essentially a collection of western plants, made, I presume, during the expeditions of the Geological Survey Staff to the Lake District and West Coast. With the exception of thirteen plants named in one of the lists appended to this paper,* all the specimens in the Museum are of species which occur in (what Mr. Buchanan has called) the western region of the province—i. e., the country lying to the west and south of the course of the Molyneux River. A great majority of the plants which belong to the western region are also found on this side of the province. But a considerable number of those most common in the immediate neighbourhood of Dunedin, are unrepresented in the Museum. This fact alone deprives the collection of much of its value for the young botanist, who, however assiduous he may be, cannot at the outset of his studies make any rapid progress without the assistance of a pretty complete collection of the plants he first makes acquaintance with. A still more important point in which the Museum Herbarium is wanting, is in duplicate specimens. The plants, as at present exhibited, are not available for study. As against these disadvantages, we may congratulate ourselves that a majority of the rarer plants are represented by beautifully prepared specimens, so that we may hope, in a short space of time, to fill up most of the gaps which do occur, if anything like a proper effort is made.
Taking the catalogues of Buchanan and Lindsay as representing what is known of the botany of Otago, we shall find that there are 196 plants unrepresented in the Museum Herbarium. In the lists I now present to the Institute I have divided these plants as follows:—Taking first Mr. Buchanan's list as a guide, we find fourteen plants peculiar to the eastern region, thirty-four peculiar to the western region, and 137 common to both regions, wanting in the Museum. To these I add a further list of eleven plants (making a total of 194) gathered here by Dr. Lindsay, which appear to have escaped the observations of Dr. Hector and Mr. Buchanan. These are neither represented in the Museum nor mentioned in Mr. Buchanan's paper on the Botany of the Province. This fact corroborates what I have endeavoured to impress on my friends who are botanists, viz., that there is ample scope for the discovery of new forms in Otago. I may add the fact that there are growing in the garden of my friend, our respected Vice-President, Mr. Beverly, two plants, one from Preservation Inlet, and the other found by himself so near Dunedin as School Creek, which do not appear to have been yet described—which are new, not merely to the province, but to the colony. I mention these facts, because the
[Footnote] * No lists have been forwarded for publication.—Ed.
laudable ambition to be the first discoverer of some new natural form, has always been one of the strongest incentives to the earnest student of nature.
It is not, however, the mere completion of our roll of species that is wanted. A very large number of New Zealand plants are highly variable in their character. To obtain a thorough insight into the limits of this variation, and to discover what we can of its probable causes, forms a far more attractive and interesting sphere of labour than the mere collection and determination of species. As an illustration of this variation, I have brought with me, four different forms of one of our commonest plants. The specimens of the common “lawyer,” or Tataramoa (Rubus australis), exhibited, are referred by botanists to one species, and it is stated that passage-forms occur, connecting all these apparently different plants. It will be highly interesting to obtain complete series of such passage-forms, if they do indeed exist, with information as to the exact localities which they affect. In regard to this particular shrub, I must confess to some incredulity, in spite of the concurrent testimony of botanists. The strangely different forms marked 1, 2, 3, and 4, have been gathered close to one another on the same soil, growing under the same aspect, being, in fact, produced under identical circumstances. Many problems of this sort lie before the botanist in New Zealand. I do not propose to detain you by instancing the more prominent cases of excessive variation which characterize the flora of New Zealand. There is a very interesting paper, by Mr. Travers, in the first volume of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute on the subject, and Dr. Lindsay's Contributions to New Zealand Botany is full of remarks upon it. The latter gives (Contributions to New Zealand Botany, p. 46) a long list of genera, which are exceedingly variable, including more than a hundred different species of plants; and says of them, that they present “such a continuity of variation—such chain of passage-form connecting varieties and species—so great a variation of the individual from the type, that limitation at all is either set at defiance, or at least the limits assigned in published floras are much too trivial, precise, and minute.”
In connection with this subject, some of the geological features of this island are worthy of notice. It appears to be a generally admitted theory with our geologists, that at a comparatively recent period the elevation of the land which now forms the eastern portion of New Zealand was accompanied by depression of the western area. Something like a general falling over to the westward is indicated, bringing the tertiary formations of the eastern sea-board over the level of the sea. Accepting this theory as the best explanation of observed facts, an interesting question arises for the botanist: how far are these endless variations of New Zealand plants in the central and eastern areas, due to the fact that, though directly descended from those of the western region, they have had to contend with natural circumstances altogether different
from those which prevailed before these great changes of the surface features of the land were achieved? Is not this great variability and indication of a transitional epoch such as, so far as we know, no area of equal extent on the surface of the globe offers us equal facilities for studying? These are questions to which we need not despair of obtaining answers if the peculiarities of our own local flora are assiduously studied, and the results obtained brought together for careful comparison. I leave it to those who have more intimate knowledge of New Zealand botany to follow up an idea which I only venture to throw out as an incentive to study. If by thus stating a theory I succeed in stimulating the lovers of nature in Otago to closer and wider observations, and induce them to send their notes to be read at our meetings, the information obtained will be equally welcome, whether it support or destroy the hypothesis. In connection with this part of my subject, the study of our fossil flora will be of much importance, and I shall take the opportunity of referring to it again when I bring up my remarks on the geological department of the Museum.
One more point I will take leave to dwell upon before concluding. As I have already stated, I think it highly improbable that the list of Otago plants is at all nearly closed. Mr. Buchanan, in the paper already referred to, catalogues 507 species of Otago Phœnogams (flowering plants). This is little more than half the number already assigned to New Zealand by botanists. Wide as is the geographical range of these islands, it is highly improbable that so many as 500 species do not range throughout this extent, in localities suitable for their growth. It is, on the other hand, probable that many entirely new species will yet reward the diligence of our local observers. Dr. Lyall appears to have reported the collection of several plants on the West Coast which have not since been gathered there by botanists. No settlement having as yet been planted there, this fact can hardly be deemed suspicious. But the list which accompanies this paper, of flowering plants collected within the older settled districts of this province by Dr. Lauder Lindsay, during a hurried visit in 1861, which have apparently escaped the notice of such indefatigable observers as Hector and Buchanan, offers us still stronger evidence that there is yet plenty of work to be done by local botanists, before we can venture to say what is to be found in Otago and what is not.*
Mr. Buchanan has added greatly to the value of his catalogue of plants by affixing to each species letters and numbers indicating (1) the elevation at which it is found, (2) whether it belongs to the east or west region of the province or to both, and (3) its relative prevalence or scarcity. It would be matter for wonder if all his determinations of these several particulars should remain unchallenged. It is possible, too, that clerical or typographical errors may exist amongst these indices. It will be the duty of local observers
[Footnote] * See Proceedings, p. 58.—Ed.
carefully to check his conclusions. I have been induced to refer particularly to this by the fact that I find one shrub, Melicope simplex—not at all uncommon about Dunedin—marked by Mr. Buchanan with the figure which indicates “the mere occurrence of a few individuals of the species.” If his catalogue were carefully analysed by every naturalist in the province, it can hardly be doubted that information on all the points I have referred to in this paper would be forthcoming. I do not think that the Institute, in the first year of its existence, could more usefully promote this one amongst the studies which it has taken under its wing, than by collecting such information and placing it at the disposal of Mr. Buchanan, for the purpose of publishing, under the auspices of the Institute, a revised edition of his valuable essay and catalogue.