Taxonomic Research In New Zealand
In presenting these introductory remarks on the subject of taxonomic research I am using the term taxonomic in its broadest sense, that is, to embrace not only pure systematics but also such closely-allied subjects as ecology, zoogeography, and ontogeny. Contrary to popular belief, a great deal of taxonomic research still remains to be done in New Zealand, particularly in the field of Zoology. At present, as I see it, this field of research is handicapped and prevented from progressing as it should by four major difficulties:—
Lack of trained research workers.
Lack of opportunities for the gainful employment of such trained workers.
Loss of type material of early workers.
Dearth of foreign periodicals in our libraries.
During the early development period of New Zealand's history the work of discovering and describing the animals and plants of this country fell largely to the lot of amateur naturalists and collectors. This was particularly the case in Entomology; but it applied also in more or less degree to other branches of Biology A small amount of work was done by members of the staffs of the University Colleges; but only within the last twenty-five to thirty years has the professional university-trained biologist started to appear on the New Zealand scene. I am not suggesting here that the work of our earlier naturalists was necessarily poor; far from it: many of them have made exceedingly fine contributions to our knowledge of the fauna and flora of this country. However, when one considers the opportunities that must have presented themselves in the earlier days of the Dominion one cannot but feel that an earlier infiltration of trained biologists would have been of inestimable benefit to the cause of taxonomic work in New Zealand. A systematist to-day must be trained in the powers of observation and deduction; he must be familiar with the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature; understand the principles of morphology, ecology, and zoogeography;
be able to draw accurately and have sufficient grasp of the English language to be able to express himself clearly and precisely. In this latter connection a course of basic English could, with advantage, be made compulsory in all University science courses. An absence of that acute power of observation which should typify the trained biologist, and. a want of appreciation of the importance of the finer details of morphology as applied to systematics, characterise much of the earlier systematic work in New Zealand. The zeal with which our earlier naturalists explored the country in their search for new forms of life was matched only by the zeal with which they forwarded their finds to every corner of the globe to the detriment of New Zealand scientists. Unfortunately, this process continues, and, even to-day, there are, operating among us, collectors who continue to forward their material to foreign specialists. This procedure is particularly rampant in the field of Entomology, and, as far as I can see, will continue to be so until more opportunities are created for our scientifically-minded young men and women to earn their living while employed in systematic research into the fauna of their own country.
The fauna of this country is of considerable interest, and there is nodearth of overseas authorities anxious to obtain material from here for study. Although not absolutely opposed to this in all circumstances I am not generally in favour of it; and I consider that the time has come severely to restrict this “export” of natural history material from New Zealand. Most other countries have developed sufficient culture and a level of public interest that demands that they classify and describe their own indigenous fauna; and I believe that New Zealand could, and should, do likewise. In any case is it not time that we insisted on all types being returned to this country after study and deposited in one of our National Museums? In the past this stipulation has not generally been made by collectors, nor is it yet made, with the result that the type specimens of New Zealand insects and other animals are scattered all over the world, many of them have been lost, and, consequently, when necessary, they cannot be referred to by New Zealand taxonomists. Original descriptions have been published in obscure and little-known journals, many of which never have been received in this country. This loss-of scientific material and opportunity was largely brought about by the lack of general public or official interest in natural history which was characteristic of New Zealand culture until well into the early nineteen hundreds. Our early collectors were enthusiasts in the real sense of the word. It was only after considerable pressure had been brought to bear by George Howes, Major Broun, Sir Walter Buller and others that an entomological collection of New Zealand insects was started at the Dominion Museum in 1908, and, even to-day, this Museum is the only one of the four metropolitan museums in this country to maintain a properly equipped and staffed entomological section Though this belated start in the field of entomology has been of great benefit to this branch of Science in New Zealand it has failed to stop completely the loss of valuable and often irreplaceable material to the museums and research institutes of the Old World. The loss of the Broun Collection of New Zealand Coleoptera to the British Museum was a major calamity which undoubtedly has done more than has any single item to retard work by our own people on our own beetles. We nearly lost the Hudson Collection too; but the late Mr. Hudson, after seeing the development of the Entomological Section of the Dominion Museum, decided that he could not do better than leave his collection in the country of its origin.
In the development of our scientific institutions we in New Zealand first largely followed the pattern of England wherein the museum forms the repository for type collections of natural history material. This is as it should be; for museums have as one of their primary functions the preservation of such material. In recent years, however, largely on acount of the absence of any organised policy in the field of taxonomic research the carrying on of this work and the holding and cataloguing of type collections has been drifting away from the New Zealand Museums. Much has been written and much criticism made of what some regard as the “deification of the type,” by biologists. However, until the work of systematists is perfect beyond question, and all is known of every animal and plant, it will be essential to continue to preserve type specimens.
Insects form one of the largest sections of our endemic fauna but, as I already have pointed out, only one of our national museums maintains trained
entomological staff. Could not similar positions be created in the other three museums?
I have no doubt that if such positions could be made available to trained taxonomists a considerable development in entomological research would follow. Similar developments would also result from a parallel expansion of museum activities in allied fields of systematic research on Zoology and Botany. While apparently stressing the museum side of systematic work, largely on account of my association with one of our principal museums, I have not Iost sight of the possibilities for research work of this nature which exist in our University Colleges, nor have I forgotten the valuable work already completed in research institutions such as the Cawthron Institute and Branches of the D.S.I.R. I wish to draw attention here to the importance of correct preservation of type and reference collections; in this connection it is my considered opinion that our museums are the only suitable institutions for the deposition of such material.
Auckland and Canterbury Museums already possess fine insect collections, but in each case these are under the charge of a general zoologist. Even the best of men must find so wide an order of reference as “general Zoology” in a Museum a rather severe task in the accomplishment of which little time could be given to the development of specialist knowledge in any one particular branch. New Zealand possesses a prolific Arachnid fauna but as yet we have no specialist trained in the taxonomy of these forms, nor in many of the myriad forms of marine life which, apart from the mollusca, are so little known. We have no monograph on our fish, nor one in sight. In entomology we have only one of the twenty-one orders occuring in New Zealand adequately monographed, while some of the others are hardly even touched.
Too little attention is given in our University biology courses to training in systematic work with the result that, not infrequently, science graduates do not appreciate the basic importance of systematic work in biology and possess little idea of how to proceed to identify an animal or plant. Such graduates arc seldom versed in the use of libraries nor in the value of literature.
I feel that in New Zealand the time has arrived when research into the fauna and flora of this country should be organised on a firm foundation, and I believe that we could not do better than to develop this work on a cooperative basis between the Museums, the University, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the various Research Institutes, and amateur naturalists, with the Museums made solely responsible for the care and maintenance of all resulting type and reference collections. This would entail considerable expansion in staff and facilites for all four of our principal Museums. If, however, the right approach were made to the proper quarters the necessary support for such proposals would, I feel, be forthcoming from the authorities.
If some such action as this is not undertaken within the coming decade, it is quite possible that, with the march of civilisation and industrialisation, much of great interest will disappear from our land. In Australia several Acts have been passed from lime to time dealing with the organisation and finance of scientific work and establishing endowment funds. One of these funds was especially marked for the financing of research into the faun and flora of Australia. It is an example that might well be followed in this country. The Australian Department of Scientific and Industrial Research does not regard as part of its policy the undertaking of systematic research into the fauna or flora of Australia, except when such research is incidental to other economic research problems. A great deal of systematic research is carried out in Australia by the Museums and Universities, and this is financed by State and Commonwealth Government grants. In this connection, in New Zealand, I should like to see a series of co-operative research fellowships developed between the Museums and the University Colleges, whereby graduates anxious to undertake taxonomic research could be seconded to the appropriate section of one of the principal Museums for experience and training by competent taxonomists. Such students would reap the benefit of working with standard reference collections and of using the facilities of a modern Museum. It would follow that such fellowships could lead to more lucrative employment on. permanent Museum of Research Institute staffs.
The degree of organisation of taxonomic research in New Zealand is reflected in the paucity of our scientific publications. Natural history societies of a popular or serious nature are almost non-existent; and until the recently inaugurated Dominion Museum Records in Botany, Zoology, Entomology, etc., all taxonomic research in New Zealand was published along with all typos and kinds of research as a sort of scientific “hotch potch” in the Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Journal of Science and Technology, and the bulletins and records of the various Museums. The new classified records of the Dominion Museum are a step in the right direction, in line with modern trends in publication of scientific matter. They could with advantage be emulated at least by the Royal Society of New Zealand
Among the major difficulties confronting the taxonomist in New Zealand is the lack of reference literature. Although it is surprising what, at times, one can locate in the libraries of the Royal Society, at times what cannot be found is equally surprising. Of this lack of scientific literature in New Zealand I can speak with some knowledge, for, in my work on the Collembola, I find that for each reference I can obtain in New Zealand there are many more that I have to obtain by microfilm from abroad. One needs only to compare the catalogues of scientific journals received in this country with that for Australia, to realize the poor position existing here. I have found it impossible even to obtain in New Zealand a complete set of the Opinions of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. I feel that this situation could be greatly alleviated if a vigorous policy were pursued by the Royal Society of New Zealand to obtain increased exchanges for its “Transactions” and I would suggest that this might well be a subject for investigation by a special committee.
Finally, I should like to dwell briefly on the standard set by taxonomists in our country in their publications. In Entomology, in particular, as more and more intermediate forms are discovered, it is becoming increasingly difficult to interpret many of the older papers of last century. One is further handicapped by the absence in the majority of cases of any type specimens, or, in some cases, any specimens at all. Much of this difficulty arises through the neglect to record negative factors in original descriptions. In a correct description of any animal the presence or absence of all useful systematic structures should be recorded irrespective of whether these structures are the subject of further particular description. As closely related forms to the original are discovered this point becomes of increasing importance, and, in fact, often could give the clue to the correct identification of a specimen. Ever good taxonomist should also be a good field naturalist. It is not sufficient to describe stuffed animals or dried plants in a laboratory; for distribution and ecological relationships can often throw much light on correct species identification. Accurate and intelligible illustrations of an animal are the equal of a page full of description. How true this is can be gauged from a glance over the works of Major Broun. How much more useful these Bulletins would have been if they had been adequately illustrated, and how much better they would have been if the Major had been trained in the science of systematics.
There is one matter that perhaps I should mention here, namely, the system of author priority, nevertheless necessary, but overdone in the scramble for species. This is continually leading, through the emphasis placed by learned societies on the number of papers a research worker has published, to a demand for quantity instead of quality. Far better one good paper than several of poor substance. Work which will stand the test of time is protracted and arduous, but is well worth the extra effort, if only in the satisfaction it brings in the knowledge of a task well done.
Discussion following “Taxonomic Research in New Zealand” (Dr. Salmon).
Professor Richardson instanced the New Zealand fish and crustacean faunas as examples of groups in which very few of our endemic species have been described adequately. Our fish literature has been most adversely criticized in North America, and Professor Richardson stated that he spent two years of spare-time work in compiling a reasonably good list of the New Zealand crahs. Further research in these groups is held back due to the inadequacy of the
taxonomic work already completed. Unless real efforts are made now to remedy the approach to systematics in this country, future research will be seriously impeded.
Professor Richardson strongly advocated the return to New Zealand of type collections at present held abroad, referring to the Broun collection of Coleoptera as an example.
Doctor Falla pointed out that, considered historically, the sending of material overseas was inevitable; and that some continuation of this process, even after competent systematics in certain groups were available in New Zealand, was equally inevitable. He emphasized that contact with overseas systematists should be on a reciprocal basis.
Questioning whether in actual fact types or paratypes of insect species endemic to New Zealand are still not being returned to this country, he asked for specific cases to be quoted.
In reply, Doctor Salmon said that the point he had desired to make was that suitable opportunities for taxonomists should be created in this country— such a step would automatically end the practice of sending scientific material abroad for determination. The fact that many collectors still persist in sending entomological material abroad is shown by the facts that some still send cranefly material to C. P. Alexander, and that only recently two New Zealand Thysanura were described in the United States of America—in this latter case it is not known who sent the material from New Zealand.
Doctor Archey advocated the establishment of a central registry of privately owned separates in this country, the index perhaps referring to the appropriate entry in the Zoological Record. He suggested that the Journal of the Association of Scientific Workers might publish a “wanted” section in connection with such a registry.
Mr. K. R. Allen stressed the desirability of systematists having some training in statistics, as such a training is necessary in actual descriptive work and furthermore ensures the collection of adequate numbers of specimens from a proper geographical range, thus placing the matter of variation on a statistical basis.
In reference to Dr. Archey's suggestion that the J.A.S.W. might publish a “wanted” section, Mr. Allen undertook to bring this matter to the attention of the Council of the Association.
Mr. Turbott advocated that material which has been preserved but not worked up should be properly studied.
Doctor Miller stated that the greater part of our Dipterous types have now been returned to New Zealand, and are at present held at the Canterbury Museum, pending sorting to determine which should go to the collection of that Museum, which to the Cawthron Institute. He suggested that a list of all type specimens in New Zealand Museums, Institutes, and private collections should be drawn up and made available for reference purposes. Regarding the types in the Diptera, he stated that those in the Berlin and certain Polish, collections were destroyed in the recent war; and that those in the Banks collection in the British Museum, also those in the Copenhagen Museum, have been rendered worthless by museum pests.
Dr. Miller stressed that New Zealand has fine library resources, which should be brought together and catalogued. He exampled the fine entomological library at the Cawthron Institute as one not used freely enough by New Zealand entomologists.
He advocated a training in the classics for scientific workers, pointing out the value of such a course in obtaining freedom of thought and expression, and suggested the cultivation of a free style of writing and of an improved vocabulary by sitting down and writing poetry—taking care, however, to tear up the verses afterwards!
Lastly. Dr. Miller stressed the necessity of a spirit of co-operation and of freedom of discussion among scientific workers, pointing out the futility of a scientist's zealously guarding his discoveries for fear of their being stolen by others, as in actual fact the stealer in such a case is always the loser.