Art. XXXV.—Notes from the Canterbury College Mountain Biological Station, Cass.
No. 1.—Introduction and General Description of Station.
[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 2nd December, 1914.]
Plates V, VI.
The time when it was thought that the work of the university both in teaching and in research could be adequately carried out within the four walls of a lecture-room has long since passed. For science subjects, and especially for those generally known as the natural sciences—i.e., zoology, botany, and geology—the work has already extended far beyond the university buildings, and, in addition to the ordinary laboratories, advantage has been taken of excursions to points of interest for the particular science concerned. Gradually, however, it has been found that such short visits are insufficient for the full prosecution of many lines of research, and that even for teaching purposes it is desirable to have stations situated far from the ordinary university buildings, at places where the animals, or plants, or rocks can be readily studied under the actual conditions in which they occur in nature. Some of these biological stations were originally established independently of any university, as, for example, the first one at Naples, and for a time they were confined almost entirely to marine biological stations, and these still form the great majority. The advantages of such stations to the universities were, however, soon appreciated, and most of the leading universities now either have biological stations of their own or have made arrangements to secure accommodation whenever it may be required for their students at stations controlled by other authorities.
Soon, too, stations other than marine began to be established; one of the first of these, perhaps, was the pioneer fresh-water station, established by Professor Zacharias at Plön, in East Holstein, Germany. Mountain stations, more particularly designed for the study of alpine plants and the comparison of them with those of the lowlands, have also been established by the Universities of Munich, Zurich, and many others; while in America, in addition to mountain stations, there is at least one special station for the study of the botanical and other features presented by a desert locality.
The credit of first suggesting a mountain biological station in connection with Canterbury College is due to Dr. L Cockayne, F.R.S. From his residence for a time on the West Coast Road on the borders of Westland, and from his frequent visits to these mountainous and alpine regions, the facilities that they offered for extending the work and the research connected with the biological laboratory impressed itself upon him, and in the year 1908 he suggested to the Board of Governors of the College the desirability of reserving an area as a botanical reserve, and erecting on it a suitable building for the accommodation of students and others engaged in natural-history research.
At first he suggested a locality on the Craigieburn Run, one of the educational reserves belonging to the College, about a mile and a half from the railway-station that then existed near the railway-bridge across the Broken River. The suggestion for a biological station was strongly supported by myself, to whom it was referred by the Board of Governors, and
Map of South Island of New Zealand, showing Position of the Canterbury College Mountain Biological Station. (Prepared by Mr. W. F. Robinson.)
it also received very cordial approval from the Board. Before anything definite was done, however, the railway was extended considerably beyond Broken River and the temporary station was removed, and early in 1910, on the suggestion of Mr. R. Speight, now Curator of the Canterbury Museum, who was well acquainted with the neighbourhood in question, it was thought that it would be better to select an area farther along the railway, nearer the Cass River and railway-station. Accordingly, in 1910, the district was visited by Mr. C. H. Opie (member of the Board of Governors), Mr. G. H. Mason (Registrar), Mr. R. Speight, and myself, and we were fortunate in finding an area on the Grasmere Run, another educational reserve in the possession of the College, quite close to the Cass Station, which included
two or three patches of beech forest, a rocky knoll, hill slopes, a creek and swamp, and also a portion of a large shingle-fan now well covered with vegetation. On our recommendation the governing body of the College, with great liberality, arranged for the reservation of an area of approximately 200 acres to include these features, and also set apart a sum of £200 for the erection of the necessary building. In due time plans and specifications were drawn up, and the building was erected under the superintendence of the officers of the Public Works Department, who were then engaged in forming the railway between the Cass Station and the foot of Arthur's Pass. The building was completed towards the end of 1912, and has since been fitted up with the necessary furniture and equipment, and at the beginning of 1914 was first definitely used for the purpose for which it was erected. During this year I visited it and spent some time at it on several occasions, sometimes with students, and sometimes without, and it is now completely ready for use in connection with the work of the biological laboratory.
The boundaries of the botanical reserve at the station have not yet been actually defined and surveyed, but this will be done later, and a botanical map of the district prepared. In the meantime the following notes will perhaps be sufficient to give an idea of the station and of its suitability for the work for which it is intended.
The reserve is situated quite close to the Cass Railway-station, the building being only about 200 yards from the station. The height above sea-level is 1,850 ft. The area included in the reserve comprises a portion of a swamp with a fresh-water stream, a rocky knoll with hilly slopes, two or three small patches of beech forest in one of the valleys, and several fine native shrubberies in some of the gullies. There is also included the greater part of a large shingle-fan about a mile and a half across and a mile wide, formed by the detritus from a neighbouring mountain known locally as the “Sugarloaf”; and access is provided to Lake Sarah, one of the numerous mountain lakes in the district, Lake Sarah itself being only a mile and a half from the station.
The shingle-fan is an old one, and is now well covered with vegetation of the usual tussock-meadow formation, containing among the tussocks a very large variety of cushion plants, such as Scleranthus biflorus, various species of Raoulia, cushion forms of Carmichaelia, Coprosma, &c. The cushion plants are very abundant both on the shingle-fan and in the neighbouring river-beds; two of the most striking of them are perhaps two species of Coprosma, C. repens and C. Petriei, both forming extensive mats on the surface, which in autumn are thickly studded with the large translucent berries, port-wine-coloured in the first, pale blue in the second. Observations and experiments on these cushion plants open up a fascinating line of study for the ecologist.
Quite near to the building are many large plants of the “wild-irishman” (Discaria toumatou), which has already become well known through Dr. Cockayne's classic experiment, proving that the spines on it are not developed if the plant 18 grown in a moist, damp, still atmosphere. The peculiar umbelliferous plant Aciphylla squarrosa is also abundant, and there is a large variety of shrubs belonging to the genera Aristotelia, Corokia, Coprosma, Hymenanthera, &c. In the autumn the berries on these attract the visits of numerous native and introduced birds.
The flora of Lake Sarah and of its shores is well worthy of being fully investigated. In the lake is an abundance of Isoetes, Pilularia, Potamogeton, and a Nitella which grows in the deeper waters of the lake at some little
distance from the margin. Besides the old shingle-fan on which the station building is erected, there are at short distances in the neighbourhood various other fans of different ages, some only recently formed and still quite bare, others in different stages of being covered with vegetation. Near by, also, are the large river-beds of the Cass and the Waimakariri Rivers, affording ample opportunity for investigation of their peculiar vegetation. Several mountains from 3,000 ft. to 5,000 ft. high are accessible at short distances from the station, while a little farther off are many others of greater height with their summits almost constantly snow-clad. On these mountains are numerous “shingle-slips,” with their characteristic vegetation. Arthur's Pass, with its rich profusion of alpine plants, can be readily reached by a short train journey, and its vegetation could be studied with the greatest ease, using the Mountain Biological Station as the base. Across the Waimakariri River, only a few miles from the station, is the great Waimakariri National Park, with its extensive beech forests, steep valleys and snow-clad hills kept moist with the constant rainfall, and providing a wonderful variety of mosses, liver-worts, and lichens.
Altogether it will be seen that the mountain station at the Cass provides opportunity for a more varied and extensive study of different kinds of vegetation than is likely to be met with in a similar area in any part of the world.
The fauna of the district is less conspicuous, and appears to be little varied; but, although they are not very prominent, there are numerous insects on the open country, and in the neighbouring bush a considerable variety of insects, spiders, Myriapods, and other invertebrata; while Lake Sarah and the other lakes that are within easy reach will afford plenty of material for the study of their plankton forms.
The whole of the reserve has been used as part of a sheep-run, sheep being still pastured on it, and in accordance with the usual custom the tussocks have been periodically burnt off in some areas. When portions of the reserve are fenced off and the tussocks allowed to grow undisturbed it will be possible to see how far the vegetation has been affected by the treatment it has received in the past, and to make definite experiments as to the best methods of preserving the natural pasture of the runs or of improving it. A number of the introduced plants that usually spread rapidly in New Zealand have made their appearance on the shingle-fan and in the river-beds, but they are for the most part small and inconspicuous, and fortunately no gorse, broom, or other obnoxious shrubs have as yet established themselves on the reserve.
No definite records are yet available with regard to the meteorology of the Cass Station. It lies at an altitude of 1,850 ft. above sea-level, in one of the intermontane basins of Canterbury, and is surrounded at a distance of from three to six miles by several peaks rising to a height of 4,000 ft. to 5,000 ft. On the north and north-west, at no great distance, lie the mountains forming the main chain of the Southern Alps, separated from the station, however, by the broad valley of the Waimakariri; to the south and south-east, beyond Castle Hill, Mount Torlesse, and other outliers of the main range, lie the extensive treeless plains of Canterbury at a considerably greater distance.
The air is bright and clear, and on fine days the solar radiation is very great, while at night cooling rapidly takes place, especially in those parts which lose the sun early in the shadow of the hills. Frosts are frequent practically throughout the summer: there was a sharp frost on the 8th March, 1915. The prevailing wind is from the north-west, which deposits
its moisture in heavy rainfall on the western slopes of the Southern Alps. At the Cass the wind, though fairly dry, is still cool; it is often strong, and is frequently accompanied with showers of rain, with corresponding effect on the vegetation. Farther to the east the wind continues, soon assuming the dry hot character that makes it so disagreeable on the Canterbury Plains. The station is fairly well protected from the cold south-west winds.
In the winter snow frequently falls, and may cover the ground for some days, but it seldom lies for any long period of time. The ground around the station was covered with a thin coat of snow on the 13th June, 1914, and there were two slight falls towards the end of November in the same year. The neighbouring hills are, of course, much more frequently covered with snow which remains on them for much longer periods than on the lower portions
The building that has been erected is a substantial cottage, strongly built to withstand the prevailing north-west winds. It contains a large living-room, with fireplace, cooking-appliances, &c., and is fitted with cupboards and shelves and the necessary accommodation for field laboratory work. There is a sleeping-room with bunks capable of accommodating eight students, and a small room with two bunks for the teachers or leaders of the parties. It is hoped in time to form at the station a small working library of books required for field-work, and collections of preserved material of plants and animals from the surrounding districts which could be worked up either at the station itself or elsewhere. The station can be readily reached from Christchurch by a train journey of about four hours' duration. At present the train service is on alternate days only, but probably before long there will be a daily service.
The foregoing account will, I think, show that the Canterbury College Mountain Biological Station is eminently suited for the purpose for which it was established, and that the vegetation of the surrounding district offers great opportunities and many problems to the botanists of the future. There is every reason for hoping that by the students of the College and by other workers there will be produced a long series of notes embodying the results of observations and experiments made at the station, and that the expense of its establishment and maintenance will be far more than repaid by the value of the results attained.
I am greatly indebted to Mr. W. F. Robinson, Lecturer on Surveying at the School of Engineering, Canterbury College, for the preparation of the map accompanying this article, and to Messrs. Foweraker and Nelson for the photographs.
Description of Plates.
Fig. 1. The station building seen from the north-east; behind is the railway-station, and in the distance the valley of the Cass. (P. S. Nelson, photo.)
Fig. 2. General view; showing the swamp and Grasmere Stream in the foreground, the shingle-fan with the station building on the right, and the snow-clad mountains beyond the River Waimakariri in the distance. (P. S. Nelson, photo.)
Fig. 3. The station building seen from the south-west, with the patches of beech forest behind. (C. E. Foweraker, photo.)
Fig. 4. View of the shingle-fan, looking towards Mount Sugarloaf: tussock, Aciphylla squarrosa, and Discaria toumatou in the foreground; beech forest and mountain scrub in the distance. (C. E. Foweraker, photo.)