The Curator, the Explorer and the Fish: A Story of 'Artedidraco shackletoni'

Thursday 23 June 2022

by Dr Rebecca Le Grice

If you head into the Museum's wet collection store, which contains the natural history specimens preserved in liquids like ethanol and formalin, you will find a special fish named Artedidraco shackletoni.

Watch the video for more about Artedidraco shackletoni.

This fish tells us an interesting story about the intersection of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Canterbury Museum Director and fish researcher Edgar Ravenswood Waite, and the Museum’s natural history collection.

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The holotype of the fish species Artedidraco shackletoni collected on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition from 1907–1909 (left) and E R Waite’s original drawing of the same specimen used to describe it as a new species in 1910 at Canterbury Museum. Canterbury Museum F208

This is the holotype specimen, meaning that this exact fish was used to describe the new species. It is is of special importance because it is the physical voucher and "name bearer", meaning that if there were uncertainties about whether another fish specimen belonged to Artedidraco shackletoni, this is the specimen it would be compared to.

Artedidraco shackletoni is from a group known as barbelled plunderfishes, which dwell on the bottom of the ocean where they sit and wait for their prey such as crustaceans to cross their path.

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A 360 degree view of the Artedidraco shackletoni specimen. Canterbury Museum F208

The story of this particular fish coming to Canterbury Museum starts at Cape Royds, Antarctica, in 1908. Shackleton’s 1907–1909 expedition on the Nimrod is most well-known for the unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole, the first successful ascent of Mount Erebus and the first successful attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole. Less well-known is the extraordinary time and energy spent collecting biological specimens, including everything from tiny plankton just millimetres in size to enormous starfish – the largest recorded at 9 inches long. Collecting marine life in Antarctica was particularly challenging as holes had to be dug into the sea ice before either dredges or baited traps could be dropped down into the ocean.

On the expedition was Raymond Priestley, 21, who was studying to become a geologist. He undertook much of the biological sampling work and his exceptional efforts are mentioned on several occasions by James Murray, the expedition biologist, in his paper 'On collecting at Cape Royds', including the excerpt below.

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An account by James Murray of Raymond Priestley’s efforts collecting biological specimens in Antarctica From: British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-9, under the command of Sir E.H. Shackleton, c.v.o., in Reports on the Scientific Investigations Volume 1, James Murray (Ed).

With his constant work battling the sea ice, it is most likely that Priestley collected the first ever specimen of Artedidraco shackletoni.

While the Antarctic expedition was underway, Waite was working as Curator of Canterbury Museum, a position he held from 1906 until 1914. Just prior to the Nimrod’s departure for Antarctica, Waite had returned from his own expedition to the sub-Antarctic aboard the Hinemoa in November 1907. As well as making many scientific observations, the Hinemoa also collected the surviving crew from the Dundonald which had been wrecked on Disappointment Island in March 1907.

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Clockwise from top left: the Nimrod on Shackleton's 1907–1909 Antarctic expedition; three members of the expedition including Ernest Shackleton (left), James Murray (middle), and Raymond Priestley (right); some crew members aboard the Hinemoa showing the frame of the boat used by the Dundonald shipwreck survivors which can be seen on display in the Museum today; the Hinemoa on the 1907 sub-Antarctic expedition anchored offshore from Motu Maha (Auckland Island). Hinemoa images: Canterbury Museum 1982.103.29, Alexander Turnbull Library PA1-q-228-09-3. All other images: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Antarctic expedition, the trip to the sub-Antarctic was undertaken for scientific discovery. However, Waite’s records from the trip imply that he had more success in collecting and observing birds than his usual fish on this trip. On arrival at Disappointment Island he writes, “I went ashore with the others and we were first greeted by a mob of penguins … which came hopping down the rocks”.

Aside from the observations and samples from the Hinemoa trip, Waite was kept occupied for several years while the Nimrod expedition was ongoing by the infamous Ōkārito blue whale, which arrived at the Museum in 1908 and which Waite described on first sighting as a "truly colossal brute".

Finally, on 23 March 1909, having grappled with the logistics of including a blue whale in the Museum’s collection for the last year, Waite writes that, “We received news that the Nimrod has arrived at Half-moon Bay and will be here on Thursday,” followed by an entry on 25 March, “Went to Lyttelton with Farr. 12:10 train but the Nimrod was not sighted till 4. We went out in the tug of the Harbour Board met the Nimrod and some of us transferred coming up harbour…. Shackleton told me that the fishes would come to me.”

Three handwritten pages from Edgar Waite's diary

Edgar Waite’s diary entries from March 1909 recording the return of Shackleton’s expedition to Christchurch and a guarantee from Shackleton that the fish collected in Antarctica would be given to Canterbury Museum. Images courtesy of the Australian Museum

Coincidentally, Shackleton’s arrival back from the expedition was the date that Canterbury Museum’s blue whale was first able to be viewed by the public. In the diary entry (above) from 23 March, Waite notes “Whale house opened to the public”.

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In Edgar Waite’s diary is the newspaper cutting from The Press advertising the Canterbury Museum blue whale when it first went on display in March 1909. Image courtesy of  the Australian Museum

On receiving the Antarctic fishes however, Waite did not immediately work on the specimens, instead spending most of 1909 in Australia, returning to the Museum in August. Shortly afterwards he was prompted to look at the Antarctic fishes. Waite’s diary entry on 20 October 1909 reads, “Letter from Murray for M. S. of Antarctic fishes, recommended work upon them”. This evidently prompted immediate action from Waite with an entry the next day of, “Stuck for want of literature, one of Shackleton’s fishes is probably Artedidraco a genus defined by Lonnberg in Swedish Antarctic Exp. Report”. By 27 October the following week, Waite had identified all of the Antarctic fishes, except one which he assumed to be Artedidraco. In January 1910 the necessary literature arrived in the post, and Waite confirmed it as Artedidraco as he suspected. However, as it did not match any of the known species of this group he gave it, and its species, the new name Artedidraco shackletoni.

Two pages from E R Waite's diary

Edgar Waite’s diary entries in October 1909 (left) and January 1910 (right) record his initial work with the Antarctic fishes where he becomes stuck for a name for one specimen, and then on receipt of further information he is able to give the fish a new species name Artedidraco shackletoni after Shackleton and the expedition it was collected on 3 years prior. Images courtesy of the Australian Museum

Some of the more notable descriptions of this fish in the species description written by Waite include: “The whole fish is scaleless, but covered with mucus” and “almost colourless”. All useful and important information to note when you have come across a new species found in a land still being explored.

Rebecca Le Grice portrait photoDr Rebecca Le Grice is Curator Natural History

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