Museums and extinct species

Natural science museum collections contain some of the huge biodiversity that we share our home planet with. A particular jewel of museum collections that curators are keen to shout about are specimens of extinct species.

Despite the promises of technological advances, once species have become extinct, we will never again share our planet with them. Millions of years of evolutionary history, billions of generations and iterations of natural selection are irretrievably lost.

Museums holding specimens of these lost species then become the only place where we can see them or learn from them. If we’re really lucky, there may even be recordings of their sounds held elsewhere. But that’s a poor substitute for enjoying them in the wild, and certainly no use in filling whichever ecological niches have been left empty by extinction.

While researching for my Bird Name of the Week tweet, I came across our Kōkako study skin. First of all, enjoy that name. Kōkako. There are two types of Kōkako, both from New Zealand. Some consider these to be two distinct species, while others consider them two subspecies within the same species. The bird skin we have in our collection had been catalogued simply as ‘Kōkako’ (I’m going to keep using this word while I have the chance!). When researching the meaning behind this name, it became obvious that our Kōkako is, or was, a South Island Kōkako. The North Island Kōkako (Callaeas wilsoni  (or Callaeas cinereus wilsoni)) is dark grey bird with characteristic blue wattles, visible in our two taxidermy mounts of this species.

Mounted brown bird with blue patches
North Island Kōkako

In contrast, the South Island Kōkako (Callaeas cinereus (or Callaeas cinereus cinereus)) has orange wattles, as seen in our study skin specimen.

Bird skin showing a brown bird with orange wattle
 South Island Kōkako

As well as their wattle colour, the North Island and South Island species of Kōkako have another very important difference. Although they are endangered, it is still possible to see a North Island Kōkako in New Zealand. However, the South Island Kōkako is now thought to be extinct, the last confirmed sighting being in 2007.

So, it seems that Leeds Museums and Galleries can add another species (or subspecies) to our list of extinct animals in our collection. The extinction of the South Island Kōkako has made this sad-looking specimen precious. It will be vital in the future, perhaps to research the genetics and conservation of the surviving North Island Kōkako, but certainly to teach us why we need to look after our planet, and what we risk losing if we don’t.

Rebecca Machin, Curator – Natural Sciences

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