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As a museum conservator the most common question I get asked about my profession is: “What exactly is it that you do?”, I also regularly get asked “So does that mean you, like, save forests and furry animals?”

An important part of our role as a museum is as kaitiaki (caretaker) of our taonga. Auckland Museum has a dedicated team of conservators who work across our Natural Sciences, Human History and Documentary Heritage collections to ensure the objects within them are looked after for generations to come.

Conservators at Auckland Museum have spent many hours working in the Natural Sciences collections. In this blog, for New Zealand Conservation Week, museum conservator Valerie Tomlinson looks at how conservators and conservationists’ roles cross over in helping preserve living species the world over.

Valerie has written this blog with support from Head of Natural Sciences Tom Trnski, Curator, Land Vertebrates Matt Rayner and Curator, Entomology John Early.

Image credit: Jaguar (Panthera onca) conservation status: near threatened. Acquired by Auckland Museum 1998

In response to the questions above, my job is to preserve the Museum’s taonga, artefacts, objects and specimens so they exist for as long as possible. If they get damaged or fall apart with age, I put them back together again, but mostly I try to ensure they don’t get damaged in the first place. This is done by controlling the environment and ensuring there are safe practices around handling, storage and display. 

In response to the second question, there is a common confusion between conservators and conservationists. Conservators are people who usually work in the GLAM sector (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museum) and primarily work with preserving objects. Conservationists are people who try to preserve living species, such as plants and animals and their habitats from endangerment and extinction. Typically, there is little crossover between the two types of conservation.

Image caption: Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) conservation status: extinct. Part of a bird diorama case acquired by Auckland Museum in 2006. The entire case has received extensive conservation treatment, which you can read about here

With New Zealand Conservation Week on from September 14 – 22, the Auckland Museum conservation team got a request to do a blog for it. When the request came through, we looked at each other in confusion, and said “Conservation Week? There is no Museum Conservation Week… aaah, they must mean the furry animal kind of conservation… (or in the case of New Zealand, exterminating furry animals)”.

Image caption: Bird diorama cabinet which received extensive conservation treatment by Auckland Museum conservators.

 

However, we looked at this as a challenge, as there is still one area where there is crossover between museum conservation and nature conservation: Extinction. Here we are a vitally important part in the preservation of humanity’s knowledge of the species of the world.

For endangered and extinct species, a museum is the only place you are likely to see such an animal, other than perhaps in films or on television. Well recorded and maintained collections of species within museums are a key ingredient for scientific researchers to describe anatomy and features of species in the scientific discipline of taxonomy.

Taxonomy, the classification of organisms, is important as without knowing what unique species are present out there in nature, you can’t protect them.

One of the few places that scientific researchers can study the anatomy and features of extinct species is in museum collections, rather than collecting more specimens of rare or endangered species. 

This is where conservation meets Conservation.

As such, the Natural Sciences collections within museums are vitally important for humanity’s knowledge of the species of the world and our efforts to conserve them. And we urgently need to protect nature because extinction rates are catastrophically on the rise.

Image caption: Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) conservation status extinct. Acquired by Auckland Museum 1962.

To give an idea of the scale of the issue:

- Nearly 2800 species in New Zealand alone are on the threatened species list. That’s just one country (1).

-This link gives the New Zealand animal species known to have gone extinct since human occupation, most of them since Europeans arrived:

-Worldwide, the extinction rate is a thousand times what it was 300 years ago and it has been rising exponentially since the 1950s(2).

-One third of mammal species globally are presently in a threatened category, and that’s just mammals (I counted them myself). A similar percentage of New Zealand birds and plants are threatened. Even insects are heavily impacted.

-A report from World Wildlife Fund states that between 1970 and 2014, there was 60% decline in wildlife populations around the world (3).

With this high rate of extinction, museum conservators will be “in business” for a long time, and museums will be an ever more essential resource for researching species in order to help save them.

Image credit: New Zealand grayling (Protroctes oxyrhynchus) conservation status: extinct - see full story below, as well as other examples of museum conservation work which has helped conservation. 

The New Zealand grayling specimen in Auckland Museum's Natural Sciences collection.

Formerly found only in NZ but is now extinct, with its closest relative still living in southern Victoria. It was a large freshwater fish targeted by anglers, but one reason for its demise was whitebait fishing. The larvae of the grayling spent time at sea before returning to estuaries en route to freshwater, where their whitebait was caught by whitebaiters. The high density of whitebait nets in estuaries reduced the number of young returning to freshwater. Due to this and land use changes, and introduction of trout, the New Zealand grayling became extinct in the 1930s. Could this be the fate of other whitebait species? At the moment there is no limit to the number of nets that can be deployed, which is a major bottleneck in the successful recruitment of young fish into freshwater.

 

Fern weevil (Tymbopiptus valeas), Conservation status: extinct Body parts of this large weevil were found down a limestone shaft near Waitomo, and in the buried forest at Pureora where ash from the Taupo eruption of 232AD buried and preserved many insects and plants. Large flightless lowland beetles like this one are vulnerable to predation by rats and mice and this is probably the fate of this weevil species since rodents were introduced by humans.

Photo: Landcare Research

 

 

Manumea, Tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris), conservation status: critically endangered. National bird of Samoa. 70-250 individuals remaining worldwide.

This specimen arrived in Auckland Museum in the early 20th century. It is in poor condition and was never in particularly good condition. However, as an endangered species it's not possible to get another one.

Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) conservation status: critically endangered.

142 adults remaining in the world. This specimen acquired by Auckland Museum in 1884

References:

1. 2,788 threatened species in NZ - link

2. Gerard Hutching and Carl Walrond, 'Threatened species', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand - link (accessed 29 August 2019)

3. 70,000 native species in NZ - link

4. Bob Brockie, 'Native plants and animals – overview - Species unique to New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand - link (accessed 29 August 2019)

5. https://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/current-extinction-rate-10-times-worse-previously-thought/

6. Between 1970 and 2014, there was 60 per cent decline, on average, among 16,700 wildlife populations around the world

https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2018