In a shocking bureaucratic bungle, Australia’s Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, which controls the country’s biosecurity, has destroyed irreplaceable 19th century plant specimens sent from France.
The collection of herbarium specimens of rare flowering plants was being sent from the Museum of Natural History in Paris to the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane to aid in research, but a combination of paperwork and human error led to the entire collection being incinerated.
In a written response the department said the specimens arrived lacking appropriate import documentation, and further paperwork provided by the recipient herbarium in Brisbane was also deemed insufficient. After a mix up over email addresses between the department and the herbarium, when further documentation was being provided a second time, the specimens were incinerated by biosecurity.
The collection included type specimens, rare pressed or preserved specimens of plants that are held by herbaria all over the world that are used to describe new plant species to science and aid ongoing research. Every plant species known to science has a ‘type specimen’ in a herbarium somewhere in the world – it is often the first specimen of a plant collected in the wild. These specimens are published in scientific journals with a highly detailed description which define the characteristics of the new species. The species is then permanently associated with that exact specimen and description, which is used as a kind of benchmark for the accurate identification of that species. These type specimens can be incredibly old, as was the case with this former collection.
Chair of the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, Michelle Waycott, said
“They were the first type specimens collected of a species, that would be the equivalent of material collected on the [Matthew] Flinders expedition. They are so literally irreplaceable collections of high historic and scientific value.”
After the bungle was made public recently, even more alarming was that it wasn’t the first time it has happened, with a similar incident resulting in the destruction of lichen specimens being sent from New Zealand to Australia just weeks before. The result, apart from science lost to stupidity, is that New Zealand now has a blanket ban on sending any plant specimens to Australia, and Michelle Waycott worries France might now do the same. She said:
“They haven’t said that officially though, but that would certainly be my response if it was my herbarium this had happened to.”
The major implication of such stupidity is that many institutions might refuse to send their specimens to Australia as well, making it incredibly difficult for taxonomists and other researchers to do their work.
The department responsible for the bungle has acknowledged the error, saying it conceded the specimens shouldn’t have been destroyed while communication between it and the Queensland Herbarium was ongoing.