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Seeds of New Zealand – a life’s work bears fruit

A seed atlas that can help researchers identify what ancient animals ate or lead forensic investigators to crime scenes was released this week. Seeds of New Zealand: Monocotyledons, by Colin Webb and published by Manuka Press, is the second (and final) volume of the Seed Atlas.

Monocotyledons are flowering plants with seeds that contain only one embryonic leaf. The first volume of the atlas, released in 2001, covered the gymnosperms (seed-bearing vascular plants in which the seed is not enclosed in an ovary) and dicotyledons (seeds with two embryonic leaves).

This volume represents all the seed types in the monocotyledon plant group, and provides descriptions and keys to aid identification, including more than 700 illustrations. The illustrations were sourced from photographs of seeds held at the Allan Herbarium collection at Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research.

The official launch of the book was on Tuesday 26 November in the Oceania (Level 3) at Te Papa, as part of the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network / Australasian Systematic Botany Society conference, held at Te Papa from 24 to 28 November.

Manager of the Allan Herbarium, Ines Schonberger, says scientists analyse seeds from the gut contents in animals and the faeces of birds. “Seeds are important for indicating historical plant distribution and have great evolutionary value. They are an important source of plant information.”

Seed identification is also important for palaeoecologists, who look at coprolite (fossilised poo) samples in order to identify what ancient animals ate. This provides further valuable insights into New Zealand’s past.

There are also forensic uses for the Seed Atlas. “If a seed is found on something that is part of a crime scene, scientists may be able to use the atlas to identify the seed and narrow down or locate the scene of a crime. They only need one seed,” says Schonberger.

Ilse Breitwieser, a plant systematist and research leader of the Seed Atlas project at Manaaki Whenua, says the guide provides, for the first time, an account of the seeds and other persistent parts of fruits for New Zealand plants.

“The Seed Atlas is an amazing achievement for Colin,” she says. “In order to understand the magnitude of the achievement, although the project was supported by our plant systematics programme, during most of the work on the Seed Atlas, Colin was not employed by Manaaki Whenua.”

Colin has a long history at Manaaki Whenua, having worked in various roles at the research institute from 1975 to 1995. As a dedicated research associate of Manaaki Whenua as well as working in demanding day jobs, he spent his evenings and weekends over the past 25 years working on the Seed Atlas. “It is hard to imagine how Colin managed to have the energy and the discipline to devote every free minute to the Seed Atlas,” says Ilse.

The publication of the book would not have been possible without the long-term financial and operational support of Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research, and generous contributions toward the publication costs from the Koiata Botanical Trust and the Charles Fleming Fund – Publishing Award. The preparation of the Seed Atlas has been supported by MBIE and its predecessor organisations, as well as by all the staff at the Allan Herbarium.

About the author
From 1975 Colin Webb worked in the Botany Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at Lincoln, and later at Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research. He was the senior author of Flora IV, but also had managerial roles. In 1995 he left Manaaki Whenua to take on roles at the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (as an investment manager, then strategist), and later worked as a strategist at the Tertiary Education Commission. During his years in Wellington he spent most weekends working on the Seed Atlas.

Colin has been a Research Associate with Manaaki Whenua since 1995.

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