Heritage: Exhibition highlights extinct and endangered creatures at museum

The piopio bird
The piopio bird

A specimen of North Island Piopio (Turnagra tanagra) once native to New Zealand is part of a display at Weston Park Museum called Going, Going Gone.

This is an exhibition of animals that are both extinct and endangered, including birds such as the Passenger Pigeon, Dodo, Huia and the Piopio.

An unwary bird often seen around doorsteps looking for scraps.

The two birds – Huia and Piopio – were endemic to and found only in New Zealand.

According to reports from naturalists in 1873, the North Island Piopio was a common species.

Though some birds were collected, it did not affect the population.

However, the Pipio was an unwary bird, often seen hopping around doorsteps for scraps.

This may have been part of the reason that led to its demise, since introduced cats and dogs inhabited these areas.

The last reliable record is of two individuals encountered in the eastern Urewera ranes of North Island, but by the 1880s the North Island Piopio was considered extinct.

Museum documents record that the Sheffield specimen was donated in 1920 by Mrs Bellhous of Greno House, Grenoside.

This would be Susan Maud Bellhous, the daughter of Bernard Wake (born Caistor, Lincolnshire), a solicitor and of Jane North (born Sheffield), who lived at Abbeyfield House, Burngreave Road.

The specimens of New Zealand birds donated by Mrs Bellhous almost certainly came from the Wake side of the family, specifically Edward Wake, who was Susan Maud’s brother.

Our research shows that he visited New Zealand in 1881, making it highly likely that this specimen was collected around this time.

Sheffield’s North Island Piopio specimen is of particular importance. Only 27 specimens are thought to exist worldwide in museums today.

These specimens are an important historical and scientific record of an animal that no longer exists, as well as being a reservoir of DNA material for study.

Perhaps, most importantly however, it is a reminder of what can be lost.

Next to the North Island Piopio, in the Going, Going Gone display, are some examples of endangered species living today such as the Kakapo (a flightless New Zealand parrot).

As of June, 2016 only 154 Kakapo remain in the wild, their numbers drastically reduced due to the introduction of mammals such as mice. However, as part of a breeding programme started in April 2012, the surviving Kakapo were moved and then kept on three predator-free islands: Codfish, Anchor and Little Barrier islands, where their progress is being closely monitored.