Museums and herbariums often share samples of various plant species, allowing experts around the world to study rare specimens. But a recent collaborative effort between the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane ended in disaster: a rare collection of pressed flowers was destroyed.
As Kerry Staight reports for ABC News, biodiversity officials in Australia incinerated the flowers in March because documents accompanying the materials did not comply with import regulations. The flowers, which had been shipped to Australia from the National Museum of Natural History, dated to the mid 1800s.
"They were the first type specimens collected of a species," Michelle Waycott, chair of the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, told Staight. "So literally irreplaceable collections and of high historic and scientific value." The samples included 105 flowers from the genus Lagenophora, Michel Guiraud, head of the collections of the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, tells Smithsonian.com. Six of these samples were "type specimen," which means that they act as a model for the specific features of that species.
The exact species of flower has not been disclosed, but as Staight reports, the sample would have looked similar to species of flower in the Lagenophora genus.
In a written response to ABC News, Australia's Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) said that the flowers had arrived in early January. Officials reportedly asked the Queensland Herbarium to send appropriate documentation for the flowers, but did not receive any papers until early March due to a “mix-up over email addresses.” When the new paperwork did arrive, it once again failed to meet import requirements, and the department contacted the Queensland Herbarium for more information.
Before the issue could be sorted out, however, the flowers were destroyed. DAWR said it held the flowers for 46 days longer than required, but a spokesperson told the Australian Broadcasting Corp that the “destruction of the specimens should not have proceeded while communication between the department and the intended recipient was ongoing,” according to the BBC.
The department has asked for a review of the incident.
Invasive species are pervasive in Australia, which may explain why officials are wary about importing foreign biological materials. But the flower incident reportedly marks the second time in just a few weeks that a plant species has been destroyed by Australian biosecurity officers.
Waycott told Staight of ABC News that a collection of lichen from New Zealand’s Allan Herbarium also met an unfortunate end on its way to the Australian Natural Herbarium in Canberra. DAWR said it wasn’t aware of this case, and plans to investigate the incident. But the repercussions of these bureaucratic bungles have already taken effect: the Allan Herbarium has instituted a temporary ban on sending specimens for Australia.
Update May 11, 2017: This story has been updated to included details about the lost specimens from Michel Guiraud, head of the collections of the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, which were provided after the story was published.