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Unrecorded New Zealand now being catalogued

Media Release September 30 2008

Unrecorded New Zealand now being catalogued

Forty-five scientists are hard at work around New Zealand identifying our huge treasure trove of unique, unrecorded plants, insects, bacteria and fungi.

The research, which has investment of $19 million over four years from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, will catalogue and describe as many species as possible of key groups of unrecorded New Zealand flora, fauna and fungi.

Other aims include improving national biosecurity and playing a critical role in protecting food exports.

“New Zealand is still in a phase of major discovery in the area of classifying and documenting the diversity of life around us,” says Dr Ilse Breitwieser, a research leader and biosystematics specialist with Landcare Research at Lincoln, Canterbury.

“We rank among the 25 global biodiversity hotspots in the world, but much of our flora, fauna and fungi is yet to be scientifically recorded. We could discover a new species every day, for a long time, with the right level of resources applied to the task.”

The science of naming and classifying species is called biosystematics and one of the only research programmes currently being carried out in this area in New Zealand is led by Dr Breitwieser, with the Foundation’s Outcome Based Investment “Defining New Zealand’s Land Biota” supporting the work of 45 scientists and technicians around the country.

They are looking at both native and introduced plants, insects, fungi and bacteria to describe new land-based species and improve the information available about those already identified.

Dr Breitwieser says around 48,000 species have so far been discovered in New Zealand and its surrounding Exclusive Economic Zone, representing around half of the expected total. Of the known species, around a quarter are yet to be fully described, or understood in terms of their relationships and ecology, including many large organisms such as trees, shrubs, beetles and mushrooms.

“New Zealanders are constantly being confronted by the potential consequences of invasive alien species getting established. Unless we know what they are, and what is already here that could be at risk from new invaders, it’s difficult to respond appropriately. Accurate knowledge of our biota that might hide away among export products is also vital to minimise disruption of our international trade.

“Accurately naming organisms is the key to retrieving all other knowledge about them, from publications, databases, biosecurity listings and ongoing research projects. Wrong names lead to incorrect and misleading information and limit our ability to protect New Zealand’s unique biodiversity.”

Work carried out to date by Dr Breitwieser’s team is wide ranging and includes, for example, investigating species of New Zealand algae which possess features found in few other algae in the world and could hold clues to improving knowledge about the evolution of the earliest green plants.

In addition to being important components of ecosystems, algae contain huge genetic resources which hold promise for delivering green technologies in the future. Other recent research by the team is improving understanding of how past logging has impacted on fungi in native forests and how imported fungi affects native ecosystems.

Dr Breitwieser says the biosystematics research is already proving it can play a critical role in protecting New Zealand’s primary produce exports.

For example, Australian restrictions on imports of New Zealand avocados were lifted after Landcare Research scientists proved through DNA analyses that the disease, Avocado Scab, is not present in New Zealand.

“We were able to check the validity of a report that New Zealand avocados had been affected by the disease, by checking a fruit sample against a diseased avocado specimen from the United States. This threat to New Zealand’s avocado exports could be rapidly resolved only because of the long term storage and maintenance of samples through the research programme.”

Dr Breitwieser says there are challenges in maintaining capability in biosystematics, with few tertiary training courses available and a growing shortage of local experts. For example, the only remaining New Zealand expert who can identify weevils – which are significant for New Zealand’s biosecurity – is a retired researcher, aged 90.

“Biosystematics is an area of science that is vital for sound, long term decision making, and to ensure environmental sustainability. It’s seen by some as an old fashioned discipline that is no longer necessary but it’s actually an essential building block for many of New Zealand’s most important industries and for trade,” says Dr Breitwieser.

The work is detailed and can sometimes be slow – a native buttercup first spotted in the North Otago mountain ranges by an amateur botanist in 1998 was only confirmed as a new species last year, after exhaustive testing and DNA sequencing. It was immediately placed on the New Zealand list of the 50 most endangered plants.

Specimens of new discoveries like the buttercup join national collections overseen by Landcare Research and information about them is available on a range of databases available through Landcare Research’s website. Landcare Research also runs a plant identification and information service which is available to members of the public as well as government and commercial organisations.


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