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Thomas Cheeseman's window into Auckland's biological past

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Thomas Cheeseman's window into Auckland's biological past

Hidden behind the popular natural history displays at the Auckland Museum sits an even more important resource - a carefully catalogued library of Auckland bird and plant life. It provides a poignant window into Auckland’s biological past.

Auckland's first biodiversity library curator

Secretary of the Auckland Institute and Curator of Auckland Museum.

Secretary of the Auckland Institute and Curator of Auckland Museum.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Thomas Cheeseman was the initiator and first curator of the biodiversity library at Auckland Museum. Employed from 1874 to 1923, his efforts at cataloguing the bird life of early Auckland provide a particularly valuable window into the avifauna of Auckland in the 19th century. If Cheeseman could take a drive around the city today, he would likely be saddened by the changes in the region’s biodiversity and the local extinction of a number of iconic bird species.

Shifting baselines

Such loss of biodiversity is frequently masked from society by the phenomenon of shifting baselines, where people's assumptions of what is 'normal' in their environment is based on current, or recent, experience. Long-term natural history museum collections, such as that started by Cheeseman, are the perfect antidote to this short-term cultural memory. From what we see in the Auckland Museum collection, we know a number of now nationally endangered bird species were present in Auckland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Kokako, brown teal and kiwi

A kokako from Titirangi collected during the 1800s.

A kokako from Titirangi collected during the 1800s.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Brown teal

Brown teal

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. LB3960.

One example is the North Island kōkako (Calleas wilsoni), an endemic songbird with a blue grey body and haunting song. Today only 800 breeding pairs of kōkako exist, with main populations restricted to pest-controlled forests of the central north island and offshore islands. Yet in April 1878, two kokako were collected from near the location of the present-day shops in Titirangi.

Similarly, the brown teal (Anas chlorotis) - an endemic duck facing extinction due to a wave of introduced predators and habitat loss - were common in the wetlands of Ellerslie and Remuera in the 1800s. Today only 2000 birds are left in the world.

Last but not least are kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), our namesake and national symbol. Today kiwi are declining across their range, with current trends predicting extinction of the species on the New Zealand mainland within 50 years primarily due to predation, especially by dogs, ferrets and stoats. This decline is made more poignant by the fact that kiwi were common in the Auckland in Cheeseman's time. Adult birds being added to the Auckland Museum from Clevedon and Waitakere in 1891 and 1910 and an egg was collected from Mt Roskill in 1916.

Conservation and restoration

Such stories of biodiversity loss as a price of Auckland's expansion are disheartening. However there is also cause for hope. A new wave of citizen-based conservation is currently sweeping the Auckland region in the form of community groups, who are busy restoring islands and mainland forests, eradicating pests and re-introducing native animals, including kōkako, brown teal and kiwi, to the Auckland region. The natural history collections of museums, rigorously collected and catalogued, support such conservation efforts, providing clues to the spectacular breadth and complexity of unaltered ecosystems from times past and a benchmark for those who seek their restoration.

Cite this article

Rayner, Matt. Thomas Cheeseman's window into Auckland's biological past. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 May 2015. Updated: 12 November 2019.

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