Dr Patrick Brownsey from Te Papa tells us how botanists catalogue and document the fern flora of New Zealand. He explains what a type specimen is and why its description is especially important.
Point of interest: The person who finds a new species gets to make up a name for it. How might you go about choosing the name?
DR PATRICK BROWNSEY
There’s about 200 species of ferns that grow here naturally, and on top of that, there’s another 30 or 40 species which have become naturalised. Something like 45% of our ferns are endemic – that is, they are found nowhere else other than New Zealand, and the rest occur elsewhere in the world, mostly in Australia.
One of the aims that we have is to document the fern flora of New Zealand, and the way we do that is to publish information about ferns. In cataloguing it, we obviously want to know the correct name of the fern. We want a full description of it, particularly highlighting those points that will help us to identify that particular species. We also want to know whereabouts it lives, what habitat it grows in and whether it’s confined to New Zealand or whether it occurs overseas as well.
If we come across a new species and want to document that, then that gets published in a research paper. We have to make up a name for it and then do a full description. Again, go through those other stages: ‘Where does it live?’, ‘Is it endemic to New Zealand?’ and so on, but it’s more exacting because it’s been described for the first time.
We also nominate what we call a type specimen, so we are basically saying, here is a description of this new species, and that type specimen is then a reference point for that species for ever more. In 2010, we are still finding new species and describing them. They don’t come along very often, but probably 1 or 2 new species are described every year. There are still new species in New Zealand out there to be found.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa