August 2016

Ornithological Collections at Auckland Museum

Auckland War Memorial Museum

The purpose of a natural history collection is to document the biodiversity and distribution of nature. Continually building upon the specimens collected from the past allows changes occurring in the environment to be measured and better understood. Scientific collections contain a vast array of information that can be explored depending, in part, on what question a researcher is trying to answer. To enable this museums will collect and prepare animals and plants in different ways and preserve them for future use. At Auckland Museum the Natural History Collection has over 800,000 specimens – most from the North Island of New Zealand where the museum is situated. The Land Vertebrate Collection is a very small component of the total but it has a diverse range of specimen categories, particularly for the birds.

Museum mounts
Prepared by a taxidermist, these specimens are for display in our galleries. With glass eyes and posed in a life like position, they show many of the characteristics of a live animal.

LB8984, North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB4106, New Zealand quail (Coturnix novaezelandiae)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Study skins
Study skins represent over a quarter of the Land Vertebrate Collection at Auckland Museum. The skins display many of the physical characteristics of the live animal, just like a mounted specimen in a public gallery, however there are no glass eyes and the animal is not posed in a life-like position. Study skins enable measurements to be taken of external features like feathers, wings, feet and beaks. They can also provide material such as toe pads for DNA samples and feathers for isotope research. It is important to try to collect a range of specimens from each species to help show change and variation over time and geography. If researchers have a question about how a bird looks on the outside then a study skin is a good place to start – for example, birds can see ultraviolet light so Auckland Museum’s bird study skins have been scanned to see if there are differences between males and females in ultraviolet patterns of the plumage.

LB2305, North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB5837, kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Close up detail. LB5837, kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB2123, kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB1272, king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Close up detail. LB1272, king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Fossil and sub-fossil bones
Most of New Zealand’s known land vertebrate fossil record consists of sub-fossils. Sub–fossils are parts of animals that are not yet fully fossilised like dinosaur remains are. The majority of these date from the Holocene epoch (up to 12,000 years old) and a well-known New Zealand example is the extinct flightless giant moa. There were nine species of moa throughout the country, but the sub-fossil remains of bones and eggshells provide a reasonable record of their distribution and, once carbon dated, can tell us the time period they were in use by their owner. Sub-fossils can often contain enough DNA to be analysed and so reveal a lot of information about creatures no longer present today. Sub-fossils also help with comparisons between similar species and add to our understanding of animal biodiversity prior to human arrival.

Pelvis and leg bones. LB5946, heavy-footed moa (Pachyornis elephantopus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Skull. LB5946, heavy-footed moa (Pachyornis elephantopus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Modern skeletons
Modern skeletons are specimens that have been prepared specifically to obtain an animal’s bones. This is done via a process called maceration – where dissected animals are placed into tanks, drums or jars of water to allow bacteria to rot the soft tissue away. Unlike many sub-fossil bones, prepared modern skeletons are often complete but are not joined together or articulated. Bones can provide a great deal of information for research that includes morphological, chemical, and molecular study. The many varied lifestyles of birds can be seen in the differences between bones of diverse species, particularly the skull, wing and leg bones. This can be important in determining who belongs to what species and can shed light on how the evolution of birds occurred. As with study skins a museum will try to collect multiple specimens from individual species so that different places, sexes, ages and time periods are represented. This allows changes in populations and the environment over time to be measured.

LB14145, North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB14145, North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Egg collections
A majority of the bird eggs at Auckland Museum come from historical private collections and cover most species from New Zealand. Small holes are carefully made in them and the contents are blown out followed by a period of time to dry. Often egg colour and size can help to identify the species that produced it. Having many eggs from different individuals of the same species can help with information about variability with populations. The museum also maintains a small collection of bird nests which show the diversity of style and material used by birds for raising a family. Traditionally, nests are only collected in small numbers to represent species rather than having multiple specimens from a species as for the study skins and skeletons.

LB9528, common blackbird (Turdus merula)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB10416, common raven (Corvus corax)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Feather sheets
The purpose of feather sheets is to show individual feathers plucked from a single bird. These are mounted on paper sheets like those used for botanical collections. Each feather can be viewed in its entirety, and the standard at Auckland Museum is to display all the feathers from one wing and the whole tail, as well as a sample of body feathers showing variability in colour, size, pattern or shape. This individual detail cannot be seen in study skins as feathers are densely overlapped to create continuous cover, especially important for birds that fly. The feather sheets at Auckland Museum are often used to identify unknown feathers from varied sources like feather cloaks or ornamental wear, nest linings, or those found on a beach. Artists seeking the finer detail of feather structure also use the sheets for inspiration and reference.

LB14715, shining cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Close up detail. LB14715, shining cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

LB14666, kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Spread wings
Once a study skin specimen of a bird is dried, its wings can no longer be opened. They are fixed. This means the underside of the wing cannot be seen and limits detailed study of the feathers in their natural location. Spread wings are wings that have been disarticulated – separated at the shoulder joint – from the main body, spread out, and dried in place to show the array of colour, pattern and order of the feathers. Wings can contain the greatest diversity of feather type, often having the complement of full primary and secondary flight feathers; greater, lesser and marginal coverts; alula feathers (winglet) and tertiary feathers. As spread wings keep the arrangement of the feathers intact they can also help answer questions about bird moult – a process where birds shed and replace worn feathers.

LB12382, kea (Nestor notabilis)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Close up detail. LB12382, kea (Nestor notabilis)
© Auckland Museum CC BY

Credits: Story

These works are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

© Auckland Museum CC BY


Discover more about our Natural Sciences Collection at

www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/topics/query/natural%20science

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