Conserving our FUNGA, in addition to Fauna and Flora

Peter Buchanan, Systematics Team Leader

During Conservation Week, it’s appropriate to be reminded of Aotearoa New Zealand’s (ANZ’s) unique fauna and flora, and the efforts undertaken by government, iwi, farmers, and community agencies to conserve our special taonga.

Hypocreopsis amplectans, tea tree fingers – IUCN Red List status as Critically Endangered. Known from only 2 locations in ANZ but not seen for several years. (photo: (c) Reiner Richter, CC BY-NC-SA; scale: fruitbody typically 2-4 (-6.5) cm across)

But how about conservation of our Funga?  As a term, funga is the fungal equivalent of fauna for animals, and flora for plants.  At last, we have a word gaining in popularity to cover regional members of Kingdom Fungi – with its explanation well expounded by Kuhar et al. (2019).

ANZ’s funga might be less obvious than fauna and flora to most people, while being essential to processes supporting healthy ecosystems.  For example, our funga help roots of almost all plants in ANZ to absorb water and minerals from soils, and are the prime agents of decomposition and nutrient cycling. While their impacts are profound, their visibility tends to be low apart from the larger (macro-) fungi such as the mushrooms during autumn.

Claustula fischeri, Fischer’s Egg – IUCN Red List status as Endangered. Known from only 3 locations in ANZ. (photo: Ross Beever; scale: fruitbody 2-3 cm diameter)

ANZ’s funga, like our fauna and flora, include many threatened species that deserve our conservation awareness and action. Several of these fungi have recently been accorded international IUCN Red List status – see the Forest & Bird article by Wood (2019). Conservation is also needed at the habitat level. Old growth forests such as those comprising much of our national parks are valued for multiple reasons. In addition to their sanctuary status for fauna and flora, such forests are invaluable for conservation of fungi, many species of which are confined to growth on and within ancient trees. Their recognition adds significantly to the conservation value of these habitats.

Our knowledge of ANZ’s funga is far from comprehensive, with only about 30% of our expected funga (by international comparison) recorded to date. Nevertheless, in a preliminary assessment of threat status of our macro-fungi, two species are recognised by the IUCN Red List at the highest threat status of Critically Endangered: Hypocreopsis amplectens and Deconica baylisianaOf the 45 ANZ fungal species assessed by IUCN Red List, nine are considered to be Endangered (including Boletopsis nothofagi, Claustula fischeri, and Ganoderma sp. “Awaroa”), two are ranked Vulnerable, and the remaining 32 are in lower threat categories.

Ganoderma sp. “Awaroa” – IUCN Red List status as Endangered. An unnamed wood decay fungus known from only one location in Waikato, with no records since 1972 (photo: MWLR; scale: fruitbody 34 cm across)

Threatened ANZ funga are a focus for a number of keen amateurs and professionals, and records of target species are welcome via iNaturalist where the emphasis is on observation, accurate recording of location and habitat, and quality photographs – but not removal!

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research (MWLR) is the national centre for research and information on ANZ’s funga, and hosts the national collections of dried fungal specimens (Fungarium PDD with over 100,000 specimens) and of living cultures (Culture Collection ICMP with over 10,000 cultures), along with an exhaustive database about ANZ’s funga (NZFUNGI). MWLR staff are also represented on the Australasian Fungi Conservation Group where new members are welcome.

Also welcome are your questions and your interest as fellow conservationists to embrace our FUNGA in addition to fauna and flora.


Kuhar F, Furci G, Drechsler-Santos ER, Pfister DH 2019. Delimitation of Funga as a valid term for the diversity of fungal communities: the Fauna, Flora & Funga proposal (FF&F). IMA Fungus 9(2): 71-74.

Wood C 2019. Secret Life of Fungi. Forest & Bird 373: 20-22 [+ cover]

CSI: Wildlife

Hester Roberts, Senior Molecular Technician

Part of my work is with EcoGene®, a small business unit within Manaaki Whenua that provides DNA diagnostic services. My speciality is in ecological genetics and I focus on wildlife forensics. I describe this part of my work as ‘CSI: Wildlife’ 😊. If, for example, protected species like kiwis are being killed and the predator responsible needs to be identified, I can help to do that.

Hester with a Rakiura/Stewart Island kiwi (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Much of this wildlife work is done with the Department of Conservation and protected wildlife. We are also using DNA to investigate attacks on stock and domestic animals by dogs for a number of councils. Unlike crime television series, however, the EcoGene team don’t usually investigate the actual crime scene themselves.

Taking a swab from a kiwi (photo Manaaki Whenua)

For example, a ranger might find a dead kiwi and wonder if it has been killed by a predator. Ideally they would take a photograph of the body in situ, look at the area for entrails or feathers spread around, collect the whole body and refrigerate or freeze it in a sterile plastic bag – then courier it to us overnight. Alternatively, they might send it to Wildbase at Massey University first for necropsy and Wildbase would send on the swabs to us. If the ranger has been trained in forensics, they might take the DNA swabs in situ – swabbing wounds, damp patches (potential saliva slobber), under claws if the victim has fought back. This can be really useful, because the longer trace evidence is exposed to the environment, the harder it is to find.

The EcoGene team often work in conjunction with Wildbase on protected wildlife cases. Together with DOC we will unravel what has happened to the victim. DNA is like a molecular fingerprint –it is unique to each individual and, just like in human crime forensics, DNA from a single predator can be used to identify that animal. This testing can also be brought to bear in legal cases. Prosecutions under the Wildlife Act and the Dog Control Act for instance may require DNA evidence, and we provide testing services and expert witness statements.

Feather sampling (photo Manaaki Whenua)

The aim is to make an individual ID, but this can be pricey and time-consuming. Sometimes identifying the individual animal responsible for a killing isn’t necessary – it’s the species of predator that needs to be identified so that control strategies can be tailored to the type of predator. DNA samples for analysis often come from saliva around bite wounds – so generous amounts of slobber is helpful – as is a good, fresh corpse. Fresh is best as we can struggle to recover the predator’s DNA evidence if there is a lot of insect activity. If wildlife is being killed on an offshore island, is it a bird or a mammal that’s responsible? It’s a lot harder to identify a predatory bird from DNA – possibly because they’re a lot less slobbery!

Loading the “Robot” ready for analysis (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Identifying the predator has big implications for pest control and informs adaptive management strategies. For instance, there was a case where kiwi were being killed by ferrets. We found evidence that suggested it may have been one specific ferret that killed multiple kiwi, which shows the amount of damage one rogue animal can do. This DNA evidence resulted in targeted ferret control for that region.

We also have a specific test developed in-house, which can test at once for all the mammals present in New Zealand, except our two species of pekapeka (bats), which makes mammal DNA much quicker to test. We can therefore test for pigs, stoats, ferrets… and build up a possible sequence of events. It’s important to consider whether the animal we’ve detected was the predator, or a scavenger, so necropsy can help to determine primary cause of death.

All the members of the wider EcoGene team undertake research in many roles across a range of species for a variety of purposes. Part of my research involves developing genetic tools for ecology that may end up being a commercial service provided by EcoGene®.

Work in wildlife forensics and ecological genetics is certainly varied and revealing, although possibly not for the squeamish.

The findings of a frustrated forayer

Jerry Cooper, Mycologist

Every year for the last 20 years I have gone to the annual FUNNZ fungal foray with colleagues and enthusiasts from around NZ and from overseas. Autumn is the key time of year for collecting mushrooms and the foray is the main source of specimens for my work as a mycological systematist.

This year the foray was to be on Stewart Island. I’ve never been there and so it was an exciting prospect. An exciting prospect that was dashed by COVID19. My annual foraying activity was suddenly reduced to spotting things on my daily walks with the dog around the reserve next to my house.

The joy of parks and gardens

But a mycologist can find interesting things anywhere! Over the last 20 years I have added over 100 species to the list of New Zealand fungi just from local parks and gardens in Christchurch. These are newly recognised introductions but occasionally undescribed species, and they are mostly microfungi and plant pathogens most people would not notice. Here is the tale of one new additions to the New Zealand list from my daily walk a few weeks ago during lockdown.

My local reserve (photo Jerry Cooper)

The reserve next door is a bit of a mess and we have just established a group of volunteers to help with weed control. Next to one stretch of path the old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) competes successfully against the boneseed (Chrysanthemoides monilifera), and there is little else to interfere with their progress, except for the bramble, hawthorn and cotoneaster. On this occasion I noticed the old man’s beard looked a bit sad. On closer inspection I could see many brown and dead leaves. Perhaps a fungal infection I thought? Perhaps a new bicontrol agent! I took some leaves back to my home office/lab and made some isolations.  [Yes – I have a reasonably equipped lab at home with microscopes, Petri dishes, agar etc. Perhaps I’ve been unconsciously preparing for lockdown for many years 😉]

Old man’s beard looking a bit sad (photo Jerry Cooper)

Pink and slimy

From my inoculations a rather pretty pink yeast started to grow across the plate. [Mycologists tend to have a unique sense of aesthetics]. Microscopically a yeast consists of lots of separate cells and in this case forming a slimy pink colony on the agar. After a week it transformed itself from a pink yeast into a dark green circular band of fungal hyphae around the pink centre.

A pink yeast into a dark green circular band of fungal hyphae around the pink centre (photo Jerry Cooper)

Photos don’t do it justice – honestly. Hyphae are the microscopic threads associated with most fungi. I had a look through my literature for candidates with these features. [Yes – I have an extensive mycological library at home].

I had a suspicion I knew what it might be, but yeasts aren’t my area of expertise, so I needed confirmation. As usual when trying to identify obscure fungi the strongest pointers to identity come from sequence data. So, I packed my samples up and sent them to Duckchul Park, a colleague, who does the real work in sequencing them. [No – I don’t have a sequencer at home – yet]

Increasingly the identification of fungi by non-specialists relies on comparing sequence data for a specimen with entries in the global GenBank database. It’s an exercise needing considerable care because GenBank contains a lot of junk data and it is easy to be misled. There is no quality control on what gets submitted to GenBank and only the subset of data based on reliably identified material can be trusted. We are lucky in New Zealand to have authoritatively named collections held in our Nationally Significant Collections (Fungarium PDD and ICMP) backed by an increasing number of associated sequences we can use for identification.

I am always excited when I get back a new batch of sequence for specimens. Will the data confirm my identifications based on morphology? What clues do sequences provide about the things I couldn’t identify? Do I have an undescribed species? Or is this a species known to others – and did they identify it correctly? There are always surprises and puzzles to be solved.

Is it or isn’t it

In the case of my pink yeast the identity based on sequence data was clear and simultaneously both a surprise and unexpected. I thought my culture was a commonly encountered yeast-like species called Aureobasidum pullulans which I have encountered before.

However, my isolate turned out to be a closely related species not previously recorded in New Zealand called Aureobasidum subglacialis.

So, back to the literature … where has his species been found before? It was originally described in 2008 from a chunk of glacial ice submerged in seawater in Norway. It has been isolated subsequently from house dust in the USA, limestone in Portugal, marble in Namibia, as an endophyte of ash trees in Switzerland, a coalmine soil-heap in South Africa, grapes in Slovakia, and oil-treated wood in the Netherlands.

Clearly this fungus gets around a bit. A new biocontrol agent for old man’s beard? Probably not.

The nearly secret world of fungal biodiversity

Peter Johnston, Mycologist

The life of a field systematist revolves around trips into the field to collect a wide variety of organisms, in my case ascomycete fungi, writing up my field observations, and for the bulk of the collecting, squirreling it away for future research. This could be by me, or by other researchers and student either in the near or the far future as all my collections become part of one of New Zealand’s Nationally Significant Collections – Fungarium PDD.

A box of my ascomycete specimens (photo Peter Johnston)

One of the things I’m doing at the moment is working through a box of fungal specimens collected from tree fern fronds from forests around New Zealand, over the past several years. The first specimen I looked at was part of a whekī (Dicksonia squarrosa) frond collected in 1989 from the Potaema Swamp track on Mt Taranaki. I had labelled it ‘Lachnum sp. or spp.’, suggesting that there was probably more than one species of fungus present. It turned out that this 20 cm long piece of whekī frond had seven different species of cup or discomycete fungi (discos) growing on it.

I had labelled it ‘Lachnum sp. or spp.’ (photo Peter Johnston)

All these discos from a single piece of dead whekī. What are they all doing there? No-one knows, but most are found only on whekī. All have some role to play in decomposing the dead tree fern tissue. Perhaps some are better at degrading some compounds than others? perhaps some like to be on the less humid outside of the clump of fronds, others on the inside? perhaps some are distributed by a certain kind of insect that also lives in this habitat? The sampling that we carry out in the forests around New Zealand slowly builds up a picture of the preferred habitats of these discos, and as they become better sampled, patterns that help reveal their lifestyle will show themselves.

Although these fungi can be seen with the naked eye, even the big ones are not much more than 1 mm across, so the accumulation of this knowledge is much slower than for big showy things like plants and birds. If these species had names, the rate this knowledge would increase would be greater, the name allowing knowledge about a single species to be accumulated in one place, even if it is different people making the discoveries. Do these discos matter? These are part of New Zealand’s unique biodiversity and, although they may be small, it is fungi such as these that drive nutrient recycling in our forests, turning dead plant tissue into compounds that again become available to feed the tree ferns and other plants that grow in these forests.

So what do these seven discos look like?

Disco #1 about 0.5 mm diam. (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Disco #1 Hairy, yellow, disco with red crystals on the hairs, 1-2 mm across. This is an unnamed, endemic species, very common on Dicksonia. It looks similar to the Australian species Lachnum lanariceps, but DNA sequencing shows that the two species are unrelated.

Disco #2 erupting from the tree fern tissue, at first covered by small flaps of host tissue (photo Peter Johnston)

Disco #2 Currently named Crocicreas multicuspidatum this is another Australian disco, but in this case the same species occurs in New Zealand. At around 0.5 mm in size, this truly is a tiny fungus. Over the years it has been placed in the genera Crocicreas and Cyathicula, but DNA sequences show it is related to neither of these genera, and this Australasian endemic disco needs a new genus of its own.

Disco #3 (dry specimen), up to 0.6 mm diam. (photo Peter Johnston)

Disco #3 An unnamed Lachnopsis species, now known from only one other specimen, also on whekī fronds. This species is also hairy but is a dull purple-brown colour. It is perhaps more common than we realise, its colour making it hard to spot in the dark of the forest.

Disco #4 (dry specimen), 0.3-0.5 mm diam. (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Disco #4 A disco with some morphological features that seem to match Leotiomycetes, but it is really wierd (and really ugly). Whether it is related to anything that has ever been named anywhere in the world awaits DNA sequences to tell us.

Disco #5 (fresh specimen), 0.2-0.4 mm diam (photo Peter Johnston)

Disco #5 A disco called Asteroclayx, a very distinctive fungus that is widespread on tree ferns in New Zealand. This disco in New Zealand and Australian is usually called Asterocalyx mirabilis, first described from tree ferns in tropical America. However, DNA sequencing has shown that the New Zealand and Australian specimens are not the same species as each other, and this makes it very doubtful that either of them are really A. mirabilis. Although we cannot confirm this until a tropical American species is sequenced, this is likely to be yet another of New Zealand’s unnamed endemic fungi.

Disco #6 (fresh specimen), 0.6-0.8 mm diam. (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Disco #6 Another unnamed Lachnopsis species. Although less than 1 mm wide, this one is distinctive with its very long, white hairs. It is common and widespread on Dicksonia.

Disco (dry specimen), 0.3-0.5 mm diam. (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Disco #7 Another unnamed species, but this disco is smooth rather than hairy, and is in an as yet unnamed genus.

More Than a Weaving Resource

Katarina Tawiri, Kaitiaki/Curator

Manaaki Whenua’s Pā Harakeke

Well, we got through May 2020 and are now at level 2 and Covid-19 has affected all of us in one way or another.

We might have experienced moments of reflections.

I reflected on what thoughts are sparked within people when visiting the Manaaki Whenua living plants collections (pā harakeke (Phormium spp.), māra kūmara (Ipomoea batatas), tī kōuka (Cordyline spp.) collection, aute (Broussonetia papyrifera) collection).

A drone shot of Manaaki Whenua’s pā harakeke {photo Manaaki Whenua)

Harakeke (flax) from the National New Zealand Flax Collection as seen from a drone. (photo Brad White, Manaaki Whenua)

Here are the two questions I sent to a few regular visitors:

  1. What information and inspiration did you take from Manaaki Whenua’s living plant collections that you were able to incorporate into your work?
  2. What sense of wellbeing or hauora did you take from Manaaki Whenua’s living plant collections that added to the experience of your day?

Katarina Tawiri with wahakura flax bassinets (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Mihi Adams, weaver

  1. Learning about the different characteristics of each plant when processed into weaving strips, this gives me an idea of how my final piece of work will look like when created.
  2. Being amongst the flax collection gives me a feeling of relief, it calms my emotions and makes me forget about my worries or thoughts. It’s such a calming and therapeutic area.

Weavers from as far as Northland coming to harvest harakeke for piupiu work (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Rita Baker, weaver

  1. Not so much incorporate (just yet) but that the same plants may grow differently in various locations and that this may alter their actual properties – such as muka content or how easy it is to extract or the size or even colour of the rau [a single flax leaf]. For future projects, this would be interesting to see how they react in different soils and how I can make use of those differences when I finally establish my own pā. Not all is as it seems 🙂
  2. This is a weaver’s heaven – that is the first thought that comes to my mind and with every visit, I feel the same, a sense of peace and utter calm and the world outside just disappears. It really calms me and my thoughts down and lets me focus the clutter in my brain.

Haeata Community Kura exploring the pā harakeke in connection with their whakapapa (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Ida Anderson, weaver

  1. I learned how to cut the harakeke and to respect the plant for what it is. Harvesting properly allows me to use the bush for years to come.
  2. It is like a healing process to be amongst the harakeke bushes. My weekly visit to Manaaki Whenua’s pā harakeke is like a weekly “fix” for my mind and body.

Hana Walton, kaitiaki

  1. Working in the pā harakeke opened up the amazing world of ethnobotany. How plants have formed cultural practices and the value of these relationships between plant and human I have found very inspiring and has helped me to fall “in love” all over again with Te Ao Māori. The techniques of harvesting and cleaning up harakeke have allowed me to “have conversations” with the natural world.
  2. It’s exciting that most others that have worked alongside us within the pā harakeke have a similar feeling of mental clarity and spiritual ease when spending time around the harakeke.

Hana Walton and Katarina Tawiri (kaitiaki/curators) weeding the collection (photo Manaaki Whenua)

My gratitude goes to the four beautiful women, who have taken the time to share openly their experiences of their visits to Manaaki Whenua’s living plant collections.

Ngā mihi aroha me te hauora ki a koutou!

To gaze on the gold and precious stones

David Glenny, Researcher Plant Systematics

Goblins’ gold

On looking into the interior of the cave, the background appears quite dark, and an ill-defined twilight only appears to fall from the center on to the side walls; but on the level floor of the cave innumerable golden-green points of light sparkle and gleam, so that it might be imagined that small emeralds had been scattered over the ground.

This is how Anton Kerner von Marilaun, an Austrian botanist described the phenomenon of goblins’ gold in 1887 (translation Crum 1973).

If we reach curiously into the depth of the grotto to snatch a specimen of the shining objects, and examine the prize in our hand under a bright light, we can scarcely believe our eyes, for there is nothing else but dull lusterless earth and damp, mouldering bits of stone of yellowish-grey color! Only on looking closer will it be noticed that the soil and stones are studded and spun over with dull green dots and delicate threads, and that, moreover, there appears a delicate filigree of tiny moss-plants.

This phenomenon, that an object should only shine in dark rocky clefts, and immediately lose its brilliance when it is brought into the bright daylight, is so surprising that one can easily understand how the legends have arisen of fantastic gnomes and cave-inhabiting goblins who allow the covetous sons of earth to gaze on the gold and precious stones, but prepare a bitter disappointment for the seeker of the enchanted treasure; that, when he empties out the treasure which he hastily raked together in the cave, he sees roll out of the sacks, not glittering jewels, but only common earth.

Gold at the Ōparara River basin

Looking for gold (photo David Glenny)

Kelly Frogley and I were searching for new populations of the moss Epipterygium opararense at Ōparara River and Wangapeka Track in March this year, one week before lockdown. While searching (successfully) for this moss we often saw “goblins’ gold”.

The Ōparara River basin is an appropriate place to find goblins’ gold as Moria Gate, Galadriel Creek, Celeborn Creek, Nimrodel Creek, and Narya Creek are names from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, given to features in the basin by members of Friends of the Earth in the late 1970s when the group opposed logging of the basin’s rimu-beech forests.

Goblins’ gold is known to Northern Hemisphere bryologists to be caused by the protonemal stage of the widespread but uncommon moss Schistostega pennata which specialises in dark cave entrances.  Of the bryophytes, only mosses have a protonemal life-stage. The protonema grow from germinating spores as delicate ribbons that resemble branched filamentous algae, and the leafy adult plant later develops from the protonema once it has established.

The reason for this luminescence is believed to be that the cells of the protonema are nearly spherical and act as a lens to focus light on chloroplasts at the back of each cell – see the illustrations reproduced from Janice Glime’s ebook Bryophyte Ecology.

Glime JM 2013: Bryophyte Ecology. Volume 1, Chapter 9-5

The goblins’ gold also occurs in New Zealand and Australia but is present in the protonema of a different moss species, Mittenia plumula. This moss belongs in the same order but different family to Schistostega pennata, and the adult plant (gametophyte) has a very similar appearance of a tiny pinnate fern.

Unlike Schistostega pennata where the protonemal cells are spherical and are obviously act as a lens, the protonema of Mittenia plumula is composed of cylindrical filaments and the chloroplasts are not on one side of each cell to take advantage of focused light. Nevertheless, under the compound microscope there is a faintly visible blue luminescence from the filament walls.

the branched filaments of the protonema that is causing the luminescence (photo David Glenny)

Wombat holes, rabbit holes and fallen trees

In Australia, Mittenia plumula and goblins’ gold seems mainly to be found in wombats’ holes.  A short YouTube video shows the phenomenon well.

Similarly in Europe, rabbit holes are habitat for goblins’ gold as shown in this YouTube video.

Goblins’ gold in New Zealand is quite common in Westland forests where trees often fall over creating a root plate that holds soil and leaves a damp depression in the ground. This is a common habitat of Mittenia plumula. This habitat is abundant at the moment after Cyclone Ita in 2013 blew down trees in large numbers in Westland forests and it is perhaps the most common moss on the tree root plates.

Root plate in the Ōparara River basin dating to the 2013 cyclone that has Mittenia plumula plants (photo David Glenny]

It is easy to photograph the goblins’ gold with a camera with an LED flash because the blue-dominant LED light is reflected back from the protonema very effectively but, appears as a luminous yellow-green glow over the soil surface.

Goblins’ gold with a camera with an LED flash (photo David Glenny)

Upon leaving the strange gems of the Ōparara Basin forests to the goblins, we found ourselves emerging into an even stranger country, one with closed borders and about to go into what we came to know as “lockdown” just one week later.


Crum, H 1973. Mosses of the Great Lakes Forest. Contributions of the University of Michigan Herbarium 10: 1–404.

Glime JM 2013: Bryophyte Ecology. Volume 1, Chapter 9-5: Light: Reflection and Fluorescence.

To bravely go where no one has gone before – the New Zealand Flora

Ilse Breitwieser, Plant Systematist

What do Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, and the Flora of New Zealand have in common? Benedict Cumberbatch, who played “Khan” in Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, and Joseph Dalton Hooker, author of the first Flora of New Zealand, in Creation a film about Charles Darwin who was his best friend.

JD Hooker (1860) and Benedict Cumberbatch as Hooker (2006)

What’s a Flora?

But what is a Flora? “It is the basic botanical book for any country, and it does two things. It describes the wild species and it shows how to identify them” – that’s how the New Zealand botanist Eric Godley explained it in his A Botanist’s Notebook (2006).

Manaaki Whenua has been responsible for developing the New Zealand Flora series covering most of our native and introduced plants. The Floras cover flowering plants, gymnosperms, ferns, bryophytes, marine and freshwater algae, and lichens.

Flora of New Zealand Volume 1, cover by Nancy Adams

However, like all good things some of them are beginning to show their age. For example, the first volume of the Flora of New Zealand is now almost 60 years old. We are building on this long history by writing new Floras and having the advantage of living in the electronic age, we can do things differently. So begins a new adventure of producing post-modern Floras that are dynamic, continually updated, and electronically based.

Why is an electronic Flora the best approach?

The people who use Floras are looking for quick access to information that is up to date and presented in a way that is easy to use. The traditional way of writing a Flora meant that from the start of writing the book until the printing and publishing it took a long time. The content of the book was only summarised information that was not always linked to specimens so, could not be easily verified. And despite there being large amounts of data and information underpinning the summaries in the book, it was often analogue and not easily available for other uses.

Page from the eFlora fascicle on Nothofagaceae (southern beech)

The analogue Floras also suffered from an all or nothing approach. So, Floras were big and took a long time to produce. The approach we are taking with the electronic Floras is to collect the data and information in a predefined way that allows it to be relatively easy to collate and publish a Flora in sections as they are completed. The same information can also be also used in other formats and tools such as facts sheets, interactive keys, weed profiles and local floras.

In the last years, we have made good progress towards this goal. It is based on new systematic research and brings together information from our network of databases and online resources. It gives everyone easy access to the most authoritative, accurate, and up to date information on New Zealand plants. But the job is not finished and much more information will need to be updated and more treatments will need to be done in the next years.

A collaboratory effort

The Flora of New Zealand is a collaborative project between Manaaki Whenua, Te Papa and NIWA.

If you want to look at the eFloras go to

The secret life of Carex

Kerry Ford, Research Botanist

New Zealand is a hotspot for Carex (a type of sedge) with 116 species. This is not far short of our biggest plant group, the hebes (Veronica), with 125 species.  The ancestor of all hebes arrived in New Zealand, and just like Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos Islands, evolved in form to fill many different habitats from the sea to the mountain tops – classic island evolutionary radiation.

So, has Carex done the same thing? The answer is well, kind of no? The diversity of New Zealand’s is the result of at least 10 separate arrivals  over the millennia. But the answer is also, yes, because two of those arrivals account for 70% of species we have today.

Species of both these two groups we often come across but may only notice vaguely as grassy or sedgy things while walking in our forests and tussock-grasslands, although one of them hook-sedges often attaches its seeds to our socks and Velcro. The other one, toothed-beak sedges, although nearly everywhere in our remnant natural areas is perhaps more easily thought of by example of their use in landscaping for their striking orange or red leaves, such as Carex testacea and C. comans.

This latter group of Carex, of about 50 species, is mostly unrecognised as a coherent group but, is also an example of classic island radiation that has adapted to many habitats. It is found coastal to alpine and from the Kermadec Islands to the sub-Antarctic islands of Campbell and Auckland. There have also been dispersal and colonisation from New Zealand to Australia and to Robinson Crusoe Island and mainland Chile. Species are found in glacial moraine landscapes, lake margin turfs, short and tall tussock grasslands, herbfield and high alpine fellfield, karst areas and cliffs, salt marshes, forest species and even in sand dunes. They seem to have speciated greatly on basic (alkaline calcareous soils) and ultramafic soils (rich in magnesium, nickel, chromium and cobalt, minerals that are toxic to many species).

The relationship of this radiation and where it fits in the world was recently worked out by a group of Spanish botanists. Using DNA and phylogenetic analyses they discovered the evolutionary link between the New Zealand lineage and another in the mountains of southern Europe and northern African. From their evolutionary framework it is almost certain that some of the unusual characteristics found in New Zealand have evolved elsewhere in the world as they are common to both lineages whereas others have likely evolved within New Zealand.

Which ones are which? The ecological preference for basic and ultra-mafic appears in both lineages and many species are found on these soil types. Another feature in common is the darkly pigmented urticles (a sort of sac) that surround the nut, and which is otherwise absent from the rest of Carex. On the other hand it seems that characters such as the presence of no stem versus a very long stem, red/orange leaves, and a very grass-like tussock habit appear to be uniquely New Zealand as they do not appear in related species outside of New Zealand but, they do appear in other unrelated Carex within New Zealand suggesting strong selection for these traits.

In a collaboration with our Spanish colleagues we are studying the evolution of both the New Zealand Carex radiations and comparing them with their related lineages in Southern Europe, North Africa and South America. We hope to date the sequence of events of dispersal and colonisation and to gain insight into rates of speciation, species diversity and climatic context. Locally we are starting a project studying speciation patterns in the toothed-beak sedges on the marble ranges of North West Nelson where there is interesting and uncategorised diversity. Speciation appears to have occurred across a wide altitudinal range and there is much varying and conflicting morphology suggesting very recent speciation on to these habitat rich mountains of solid marble reaching up to 1800 m at Mt Arthur and Mt Owen.



Fungi in our Cabinet of Curiosities

Adrienne Stanton, Science Technician

Did you know that we have our own national collection of fungi? The New Zealand Fungarium Te Kohinga Hekaheka o Aotearoa (PDD) is a cabinet of curiosities of dried fungi specimens. A cabinet of curiosity is a “collections of extraordinary objects which … attempted to categorise and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world“.

Our Cabinet of Curiosities (photo Manaaki Whenua)

It is used to discover and describe our native and exotic species, detect how they fit into the global scene and to answer questions about plant diseases, biosecurity and trade issues. There are specimens collected from Madagascar to Mongolia, Tonga to Turkey, from snowbanks to sand dunes, bush to bathrooms, pasture to peatland, from caterpillar carcasses to dingo dung, turnips to tōtara.

So, what is on the top shelf of our PDD treasure chest? Actually – no fungi! We have a tribute to those who have gone before – Gordon Cunningham, boxer, motorcyclist, gold prospector, farmer, horticulturist, lumberjack, Gallipoli veteran and NZ’s first taxonomic mycologist, who started the collection in the 1920s

Gordon Herriot Cunningham, about 1932 (Alexander Turbill Library, ref. EP-NZ Obits-Cr to Cz-02)

And Joan Dingley, who headed the collection next, a remarkable early female scientist from the 1940s to mid-70s.

Dr Joan Dingley OBE

This history is displayed through items such as Cunningham’s wonderful microscope – which wouldn’t look out of place in a steampunk scene, though it might not be quite as old as Victorian.

There are also the impressive medals given to honour each of these scientists, including Joan Dingley’s O.B.E. and Gordon Cunningham’s ANZAC Commemorative Medallion.

And the second shelf? That is a story for another blog …


Riffle beetles in our water?

Rich Leschen, Entomologist

We have few beetles in New Zealand that could be called truly aquatic but, what we do have includes the riffle beetles in the genus Hydora. With so few beetle groups inhabiting our streams, the ones we do have pose interesting evolutionary and ecological questions. To answer these and other questions I’m working with a number of scientists from around the world.

So far, we have only seven species described from New Zealand but, based on a lot of collecting we think that number will increase to 30!

An overview (by Mike Dickison @adzebill)

Vit Sykora, a PhD student at Charles University (Czech Republic), is working on the genetics of the New Zealand Hydora and it looks like there are three main lineages. One lineage has fully aquatic adults and larvae and even mating occurs underwater. The second lineage is semi-terrestrial as adults and larvae and are present in the riparian zone, especially along smaller streams with good canopy cover and lots of mosses. My colleague, Crystal Maier (Harvard University), refers to these species as “those mossy things with bumpy larvae”. One of which was collected and described by Paul Lambert (NIWA, Greymouth) who kicked off our interest in the New Zealand Hydora.

Hydora “bumpy” larva (photo Manaaki Whenua)

The third lineage is intermediate between lineages one and two and is characterised by riparian adults that mate above the waterline with fully aquatic larvae.  The three lineages are featured in this video.

As part of a nationwide water quality monitoring programme insect larvae are capture from river gravels and counted. Hydora larvae are one of the most abundant insects in these habitats. Some of data from the monitoring was used in a recent study (Klink et al 2020) that showed that the world’s freshwater insects, unlike terrestrial insects, were not in decline. However, we need to be cautious about what this means for how individual species of Hydora are responding to environmental changes as the data was only to genus and not species level. That is, we aren’t certain if individual species numbers are on the increase, in decline, or stable. While fully aquatic and intermediate Hydora species may be common, the mossy species are less abundant and often very difficult to find.

Some of the rarest Hydora species include Hydora lanigera which is found in slow-water springs at the edges of braided rivers in the central South Island. There is also a complex of rare species present in the Otago highlands and in Wellington city, species for which we have no genetic data, and few specimens for study.

Hydora lanigera (photo Manaaki Whenua)

One of our goals is to develop tools to help identify both the adults and larvae to species. And, when Vit Sykora completes his genetic analysis we will have an exciting snapshot into the origin and evolution of New Zealand’s aquatic fauna.


Roel van Klink, Diana E. Bowler, Konstantin B. Gongalsky, Ann B. Swengel, Alessandro Gentile, Jonathan M. Chase 2020. Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science 368 (6489): 417-420. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9931