Liverwort Specialist John Bartlett’S Wish Fulfilled!
One day in 1975 the late John Bartlett (oft called “Hurricane Bartlett” for his ability to zip through places collecting plants) was looking for new liverworts and mosses in Radar Bush, Te Paki, in the far north of New Zealand, when he stumbled upon a new tree species of Metrosideros. What drew John’s attention to this tree was that he had found some unusual liverworts on it, and being puzzled by the white, tissue-paper like bark, looked up to see what kind of tree it was. The liverworts he found turned out to be nothing special, but the tree is now known as Bartlett’s rata (Metrosideros bartlettii J.W.Dawson). Tragically John died in 1986 but had he lived he would have been delighted to hear that his tree does support a very unusual and apparently highly threatened liverwort, not on the bark though, but on the canopy twigs. This liverwort, a new species of Frullania has just been formally described…
Te Paki, the northern most outpost of the North Island, from the road to Cape Reinga looks a derelict place. Both sides of the road are seemingly acres of manuka (Kunzea ericoides var. linearis (Kirk) W.Harris) and kahikatoa (Leptospermum scoparium var. incanum Cockayne) dominated shrub land. However in some valley heads small pockets of remnant forest survive, and in one of these the late John Bartlett (1945-1986) discovered the first example of the Nationally Critical Bartlett’s rata (Metrosideros bartlettii). That tree, so Bartlett maintained (in litt.) was only discovered because he had found some unusual liverworts on its bark, and being puzzled by the strange, white, tissue-paper like bark, wondered what the tree was.
We now know of 36 Bartlett’s rata. Thirty of these were AFLP DNA finger printed in a landmark study started by University of Auckland student Revel Drummond, Dr Shane Wright and Professor Richard Gardner in 1996. The study, undertaken to ascertain levels of genetic variation, fundamental to the preparation of a recovery plan for the species, required long hours sampling trees discovered by Department of Conservation staff Tim Shaw, Peter de Lange, and Mike Avis, and volunteers Gillian Crowcroft and Tony Silbery during April 1991 and January 1992. Accompanying Drummond on his field work was then PhD student Matt von Konrat, who was in the initial stages of his field work on the liverwort genus Frullania (Jubulaceae). At Radar Bush, on fallen canopy twigs of the very first Bartlett’s rata to be recognised by John in 1975, Matt discovered a totally new species of Frullania. That species has just been named F. wairua von Konrat et Braggins in the December issue of the New Zealand Journal of Botany (Volume 43(4): 885-893 (2005)).
John Bartlett had he lived, would have been stunned, delighted and probably quite jealous.
Despite intensive searches, in admittedly difficult country, von Konrat & Braggins (2005) report that they only ever found Frullania wairua, on dead, fallen canopy branchlets of Bartlett’s rata. The new species, of tropical affiliation, has yet to be found elsewhere, and whilst the authors admit that surveying for a tiny, thread-like plant is fraught with problems, on available evidence, regard the new species as Nationally Critical, qualified of course, as “Data Poor”.
The species epithet “wairua” is based on the Maori word for spirit, and refers to the liverwort’s presence in bush that was traditionally part of the spiritual pathway taken by the dead on their journal to Cape Reinga, from which they departed Aotearoa (New Zealand) for the spiritual underworld. The epithet has special meaning to von Konrat, who dedicates the paper to his Sister, Tina Parsons, who died earlier this year.
Von Konrat, M.J.; Braggins, J.E. 2005. Frullania wairua, a new and seemingly rare liverwort species from Northland, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 43: 885-893.