Review: Magical taonga revealed

Review: Magical taonga revealed

Friends of Te Papa recently ran one of their fascinating sessions about the collections at the storage facility in Tory St – this time focusing on whales, harvestmen and sponges. These sessions are a chance to hear from scientists who are passionate about their specialist areas and learn a bit more about the world around us. It’s the third time I have been lucky enough to visit this world-leading facility and every time I thoroughly enjoy listening to experts talk about the many varied taonga stored here.

Phil Sirvid talked about harvestmen – arachnids that have some amazing endemic species here in Aotearoa. I was familiar with a foreign import that we often see in the house and garden – I grew up calling it a Daddy-long-legs. But as Phil explained, that name can be confusing because in other places different insects are called ‘daddy-long-legs’. Phil took us through many of the wonderful species of harvestman here and I learned so much I am tempted to dig through some old logs in the garden just to see if I can identify some.

Our next  session was with Felix Marx and included whale evolution, fossils and the promise of a unicorn. His explanations sparked my imagination; from fossil casts of the land ancestor of whales to the reason why Aotearoa has so many whale fossils (shallow but extensive coastline at the right time), I was intrigued.  And the unicorn? I got to touch the twisted tusk of a narwhal, which was over 2m long. Thought to be the origin of the mythical unicorn, the tusks of the male narwhal are still shrouded in a bit of mystery.  This incredible session let me touch a little piece of magic.

From here, we enjoyed crackers, cheese and wine while we heard Belinda Alvarez tell us about sea sponges. Interestingly, sponges are not plants but living animals. We discovered there are around 115 species of sponges in Aotearoa, including a freshwater sponge living in Lake Taupō. There are 2,100 specimens preserved in alcohol here in the collection. Her studies encompassed the medicinal possibilities of different sponges, for example making a sponge smoothie and squirting it into cancerous cells to assess its potential. Belinda also told us about a sponge that extracts silica from the seawater and constructs glass straws that might have a use in fibre optics. Wow.

Keep your eye out for more of these fascinating sessions that showcase our local experts and the world class storage facility at Te Papa.

Angela Gilbert