Museums and Ecology: The Story of “Little Frog” (Ranunculus paucifolius)

By Joanna Cobley, University of Canterbury §

One botanical specimen collected in the late nineteenth century provides the starting point for this commentary on “museums and ecology.” What can this small endemic buttercup on the verge of extinction that lives on a limestone slope at an altitude of 760 meters tell us about human-environment relationships, preservation of place, museum-collection building, and the evolution of scientific understanding about New Zealand’s unique environment?

Little Frog

Image 4_Ranunculas up close
Ranunculus paucifolius up close. Photo by D. Kimber, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

Meet Ranunculus paucifolius, a small scree buttercup with few leaves, collected by John Enys on 23 December 1879 and deposited by Prof. Arnold Wall, Professor of English at Canterbury College, to the Dominion Museum, Wellington, during its collection-building phase. John Enys and his brother, Charles, bought Castle Hill Station in 1864 and sold it in 1890, when John returned to his home in Cornwall. A keen botanist, John enjoyed observing butterflies and fishing, and helped introduce trout to the Waimakariri basin. John sent natural history specimens to the Canterbury Museum and to colonial scientists including Thomas Kirk, Thomas Cheeseman and Arnold Wall, who all visited Castle Hill and probably saw the plant growing in situ. Joseph Dalton Hooker first described Ranunculus paucifolius in the second part of the Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1867).

Little frog is specific to a particular geographic zone – Castle Hill – situated in the Torlesse and Craigieburn Ranges, a high-country farming area in Canterbury, nestled along the Southern Alps. The plant grows up to 10 cm high, and lives sheltered from the nor’west – a warm, dry foehn wind shaped specifically because of the proximity of the Alps to the Pacific Ocean (Sturman 2008:121) – in a small amphitheater of steep mountain grass and tussock-clad slopes, banked with piles of weathered and unusually shaped limestone rocks or tors. This is an ecological hotspot and home to other rare plants such as Myosotis colensoi, the Castle Hill forget-me-not.

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Little frog’s “friend,” the critically endangered Castle Hill forget-me-not, aka “mouse ears.” One of 14 endangered plant species in the reserve. Photo by D. Kimber, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

In February 1919, Wall described little frog to the Christchurch branch of the New Zealand Institute. He observed how the buttercup had adapted to the sloping landscape and the strong nor’west: it pushes its “fleshy roots 45 cm below the surface, and has learnt how to grow out of the debris” (Wall 1920:90). If the limestone surface was kept bare, and the debris blown away, the buttercup would have nowhere to live.

In essence, Wall was trying to understand the plant. Eduardo Kohn (2013:227) describes this process as an “opening of your thinking – realizing that there is a greater ‘Us’”, a thinking that extends beyond the human, and creating a space for non-human ecologies to have agency in history.

Human-Plant-Animal Relationships

In this buttercup story, humans are both saviors and predators. Deborah Bird Rose (2011:2) notes that while “people save what they love,” it is also possible for humans to “love a place and still be dangerous to it.” This story is firmly situated within the Anthropocene period. In particular, it highlights the threats of extinction-ism as animals, plants, and people were imported onto colonial landscapes such as New Zealand at the same time that western ecologists and environmentalists became aware of the need to conserve and preserve unique environments for future generations.

By the 1940s, the practice of burning high country-tussock grasslands for pastoral renewal came under scrutiny by conservation scientists due to the impact this practice had on accelerating soil erosion, which infiltrated the rivers and threatened down-country farmland. In 1948, the Lands and Survey Department decided to learn more about the Castle Hill buttercup. This is where Lance McCaskill enters the narrative due to his lifelong commitment to addressing soil erosion, preserving scenery, and protecting the high country and mountain flora and fauna. His mission was “to learn about the plant” in order “to save the plant” (McCaskill 1982).

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A community of ranunculi (“little frogs”). Photo by D. Kimber, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

Threats stemmed from sheep hooves and clumsy human feet that trampled the plants, and hares that ate them. Restricted limestone quarrying near the edges of the estimated 32 buttercups’ habitat presented another danger. The first priority was a predator-proof fence, built by Lincoln College Diploma students in 1948. Throughout the years, people regularly counted and measured the buttercups, which proved to be difficult, as the plants lived in clusters, or communities. Responding to the seasons, the humans saved and sent the rare buttercup seeds to botanical gardens in New Zealand, and overseas to Kew in London and the Edinburgh Botanical Garden in Scotland. Little frog was fickle: it didn’t like to be transplanted, too much manure burnt the plant, and saved seeds did not always strike.

In 1953, the area was surveyed, and the following year six hectares were designated as a “Reserve for the Protection of Flora and Fauna”, the highest form of protection at the time. The legislation placed restrictions on land use, keeping animals away from the plants, and controlling public access by permit (McCaskill 1972:8-9). McCaskill’s goal was to create a safe ecosystem for this bio-diverse hotspot – the first of its kind on mainland New Zealand. A “viewing area” proposed in 1971 by the University of Canterbury botany lecturer Colin Burrows, never took place (1971:5).

The area was named the Lance McCaskill Nature Reserve in 1987 when the Department of Conservation (DOC) was founded and became responsible for the management of the Kura Tawhiti conservation area, as it is now called. In the 1990s, via a deed of settlement, the Ngāi Tahu indigenous people were recognized as the kaitiaki (guardians) of their ancestral landscapes and landmarks. This included the McCaskill Reserve as it was connected to a “network of trails for hunting and gathering” foods and medicines, spiritual places, and places of rest (Department of Conservation 2006:2; Anderson 2008). The kiore, the Polynesian rat, roamed the hills in the ancient past. The birdlife around Castle Hill include the kākāpō, a flightless mountain parrot, listed internationally as critically endangered, the kea, an alpine parrot, and the karearea, or the New Zealand falcon. Maintenance of the predator-proof fence is ongoing. A recent TV3 news story by Jendy Harper (2015) revealed that during the summer of 2014–15 – a mast year – mice entered the buttercup enclosure and ate the seeds, marring the regeneration of the small plant community of 67.

Museums and Ecology: The Broader Picture

This singular specimen reveals a larger story about the rituals, behaviors and practices of the variety of humans attempting to understand this endemic plant. Depositing a specimen in a museum is one component of remembering our past. The next important step is to bring the artefact into the electronic environment, and as collections are “living ecologies,” researchers can use these specimens to simultaneously “look back” at the environmental practices of the past in order to help shape an alternative future (Gorman & Shep 2006:xvi).

Enys’ nineteenth century scree buttercup provides a window into the plant’s evolution and peculiar habitat; as an object it represents the colonial period of collecting and classifying the natural world. McCaskill’s twentieth century nature reserve connects to the devastating impact of European farming practices on Castle Hill’s ecosystem and the need to preserve unique habitats for future generations. From the 1990s ecological dialogue embraced indigenous knowledge and practices, or Matāuranga Māori, relating to land use and management. Matāuranga Māori incorporates a spiritual, ancestral and physical relationship with the natural world, it is local, in-depth knowledge, and mainly transmitted orally.

Little frog’s natural habitat is protected, yet without a doubt, the plant is headed towards extinction, giving poignancy to Enys’ specimen. How and what pollinates the buttercup – a nocturnal moth perhaps – remains a mystery, the answer will require a combination of traditional knowledge and western science.

The case of the little frog demonstrates how educators working with museum collections need to intersect with local communities such as the indigenous Ngāi Tahu people, both of whom are interested in understanding ecological biodiversity and engaging in conservation management.

Image 1_Canterbury's limestone tors
Canterbury’s high country limestone tors. Photo by D. Kimber, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

Works Cited
Anderson, Atholl. 2008. Māori Land and Livelihood AD 1250-1850. In The Natural History of Canterbury, edited by Michael Winterbourn, George Knox, Collin Burrows and Islay Marsden, pp. 65-88. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press.
Burrows, Colin. 1971. Some Aspects Botany Castle Hill Basin. Canterbury Botanical Society 4: 1–6.
Department of Conservation. Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area.
Department of Conservation. 2006. Tōpuni of Ngāi Tahu: Ngāi Tahu Deed of Settlement Act 1998.
Gorman, G. E., and Sydney J. Shep. 2006. Introduction. In Preservation Management for Libraries, Archives and Museums, edited by G. E. Gorman and Sydney J. Shep, pp. xii-xviii. London: Facet Publishing.
Harper, Jendy. 2015. Saving the World’s Rarest Plant. TV3, 24 November 2015.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McCaskill, L. W. 1972. A History of Scenic Reserves in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Lands and Survey.
McCaskill, L. W. 1982. The Castle Hill Buttercup (Ranunculus paucifolius): A Story of Preservation. Canterbury: Tussock Grasslands and Mountain Lands Institute, Lincoln College. Special Publication No. 25.
Te Papa Collections Online. ‘Ranunculus paucifolius.’ Registration number SP000374.
Rose, Deborah Bird. 2011. Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
Sturman, Andrew. 2008. Weather and Climate. In The Natural History of Canterbury, edited by Michael Winterbourn, George Knox, Collin Burrows and Islay Marsden, pp. 119-142. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press.
Wall, Prof. A. 1920. Ranunculus paucifolius T. Kirk: Its Distribution and Ecology, and the Bearing of these Upon Certain Geological and Phylogenetic Problems. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society 52: 90-105.

Dr. Joanna Cobley teaches history at the University of Canterbury. This blog post synthesizes an environmental history paper “Lancelot and Little Frog” delivered at the New Zealand Historical Association Conference, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 2–4 December 2015.

This post is part of our thematic series: Museums and Ecology.