Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Aussies red-faced after destroying treasured New Zealand plant specimens

Australian border officials caused an upset when they destroyed six specimens owned by Landcare Research, among them a lichen classified as of special scientific value. Photo / Supplied
Australian border officials caused an upset when they destroyed six specimens owned by Landcare Research, among them a lichen classified as of special scientific value. Photo / Supplied

Apologetic Australian border officials have given assurances that the accidental destruction of important native plant specimens loaned by New Zealand won't happen again.

The border officials caused an upset when they destroyed six specimens owned by Landcare Research, among them a lichen classified as of special scientific value.

The lichen, collected in Central Otago in the 1930s, was originally regarded as endemic species to New Zealand, but recently similar specimens had been found in Australia.

To find out if the Australian taxon was the same, Landcare Research's Allan Herbarium agreed to loan its specimens to researchers based at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra.

But their destruction by officials prompted Landcare Research to suspend exports of specimens to Australia and an apology over the blunder.

On Monday, managers from the Australasian Herbarium Collections met with the Plant Operations Import Branch of Australia's Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR).

DAWR officials acknowledged that the herbarium material should never have been destroyed and that their actions contravened their own procedures.

They also gave an undertaking to provide a document of assurance that all future herbarium specimens will safely transit through border control.

Allan Herbarium director Ilse Breitwieser said the herbarium would loan specimens again to Australian herbaria once the assurances had been formalised in writing.

"We are disappointed we have lost an important part of our collection but we're looking forward to further international collaboration to ensure our world class science here at Landcare Research remains so."

Based in Lincoln, the herbarium contains 650,000 specimens, the largest collection of New Zealand plants in the world.

As well as physical specimens it holds digital records for the vast majority of its collection, including the lichen.

A loan from the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France, was also destroyed in Brisbane.

SEEDING THE FUTURE

Meanwhile, Crown institute AgResearch has deposited a collection of seeds in a remote Arctic doomsday vault to guard against the loss of plant species in war, disease or disaster striking New Zealand.

The deposit was made via an airmailed package delivered early this morning to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure facility on the rugged Arctic Svalbard archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

It was the second delivery of its kind from AgResearch's Margot Forde Germplasm Centre (MFGC), following an agreement established last year.

 Asmund Asdal, co-ordinator of Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, with a seed package just received from New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Asmund Asdal, co-ordinator of Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, with a seed package just received from New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

The MFGC in Palmerston North is home to thousands of species including forages used to farm livestock in New Zealand, some developed for specific traits and environments, and herbs and legumes, and endangered plant species.

Deposits from the MFGC to the Svalbard vault would continue on an annual basis to build up a sufficiently diverse collection of plant species of interest to New Zealand agriculture, including those collected from all over the world.

"We want to ensure that should a major event happen in New Zealand like earthquake, fire, or a serious plant disease; that wipes out the collection held at MFGC or a specific plant species of interest to agriculture, we have a back-up to draw on so they are not lost to us forever," said MFGC director, Dr Kioumars Ghamkhar.

"You only have to look at Syria where civil war has resulted in widespread losses of plant genetic resources and agriculture as a whole, but some of this has been preserved thanks to seed stored at the Svalbard vault before the war."

The Svalbard vault extends 120-metre into rock, and has the capacity to store millions of seeds in sealed packages in sub-zero temperatures so they remain viable.

- NZ Herald

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