26 February 2014

A blue whale in the attic, many moa in the basement

Today I was fortunate to have a tour around the  collections at the Canterbury Museum. Backstage as it were. My former student, Cor Vink, is now a curator of natural history at the museum and I organised for some of my colleagues from the Department of Ecology to have a look at what is going on behind the scenes. We spent a great couple of hours roaming around the collections.
Moa bones!

One of things that seems not to be appreciated by almost everyone is that museums are there to store collections of things and have far more than what is on display for the public. These collections (hundreds of thousands of insects for example) are of extreme importance from a science and research perspective. They show us the variation that is present in a species, their distribution across habitats and different parts of the country and the diversity of groups. This is of tremendous use to studies of conservation, evolution, pest management and so on.



Blue whale skelton - in pieces
Canterbury Museum is no different from other large museums in that it has very large collections (something like 95% of the collections are NOT on display). Cor is a specialist in spiders and one of the things that he will do is to increase the collection in this area. Other experts have done this in the past and there are thousands of specimens of things like New Zealand mayflies or beetles. Canterbury Museum has an amazing collection of moa bones from local sites. In fact, Haast built up the overall colletion by selling and swapping moa skeletons for overseas samples back in Victorian times. There are shelves and shelves of moa bones from our many species. These can tell us a lot about where moa species were found. In recent years DNA has been extracted from these bones to inform us about how many species of moa there were, sex raios and population sizes.
Other highlights were the largest blue whale skeleton in the world (currently in the attic until a larger display space becomes available), a fist sized meteorite from Arizona, a cabinet of 'shame' which contained several huia, bush wrens, South Island kokako and other extinct New Zealand birds, and curious little hunchbacked flies that lay their eggs in spiders. And all these things and millions more are found in the bowels of the museum where they are looked after by dedicated and passionate people.



Cor shows off his computer imaging technology


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