The collision of two fishy mysteries, and how they resolved each other

Auckland Museum’s Head of Natural Sciences and avid fish expert, Tom Trnski, shares how a recently opened old box of hand-written notes fills in some long-standing gaps, and opens up a conversation with
Cook Island knowledge holders. 

There are over 10,000 fishes in the Auckland Museum collections. They range in size, from larvae only 2 mm long to a 4 m oarfish. Although most are from northern New Zealand, we also have many fishes from the regional South Pacific islands and other parts of New Zealand. These fishes are almost all kept in a fluid of alcohol spirits that preserves them for hundreds of years, for future study.

Most fish have a label or tag with a unique number that links it to all the information on the fish: who caught it, where it was caught and when, what species it is, how big it is, and sometimes even its sex, a photo or an x-ray. However, if the label or tag is missing, or has a number that has lost its meaning, there is no way of matching the fish with its information.

Image: Ka’a (Ellochelon vaigiensis) Squaretail mullet MA45982 collected at Aitutaki in  1926

While working on the backlog of uncatalogued fishes in the museum’s collections, I occasionally came across some obviously old fishes (based on their preservation method and general appearance), and the ones that I identified were all tropical fishes, many of them common in the regional South Pacific. However, some of these fishes had lost their tags, while others had a paper tag with a hand-written number and other details.

Image: Vete (Mulloidichthys flavolineatus) Yellowstripe goatfish MA45957 collected Aitutaki, 1926, showing hand-written labels with limited information.

Meanwhile, for several years I have seen a closed, dusty cardboard box labelled with the faded text: “L T. GRIFFIN c. 1925–34 Stn data, notes, catalogues …” stored on a top shelf in my office. I have not opened that box in all those years. But just before Covid-19 lock down I had a peek inside to find a thick stack of letters received by Louis Thomas Griffin. He was a staff member of the Auckland Museum from 1908 until his sudden death in 1935; he started as an Assistant and Preparator, and, from 1923, was Assistant Director and Zoologist, specialising in fishes. 

In the L. T. Griffin box was a brown register, a thin volume labelled “FOREIGN FISHES”.

Image: Front cover and example page of Griffin register of foreign fishes

Prior to computers, collection objects were catalogued either on cards or in bound books called registers. These were the only means of tracking the arrival of specimens and their storage in the museum. Any labels attached to the specimen was the link to the data captured in a register.

This Griffin Register of Foreign Fishes captured the details of about 120 fishes from the Cook Islands collected between 1926 and 1934 by Captain Vellenoweth and Mr K.S. Graham. The register includes the date and location of capture, and the species identification. As these old fishes are found in the collection, their capture details can be more fully added to the computerised catalogue details. Most interestingly, many of the entries also capture the “native name” or the local common name, and occasionally some biological information about the fish. Given that these local names were captured about 90 years ago, we are looking forward to working with the Cook Islands community to determine whether these local names are still in use. 

Image: Kōkiri (Melichthys vidua) Pinktail triggerfish MA45958 from Aitutaki Lagoon, 1927 

Visit our collections online to see images of Cook Islands taonga from the Natural Sciences Collection