Te Papa's fossil vertebrate collection contains some 50 000 'lots' of fossil bones and is the biggest such collection in the country. Founded in 1865 Te Papa's fossil vertebrate collection has a wealth of historical collections. It has more type specimens of New Zealand fossil vertebrates than any other institution in the country. It has an especially rich collection of birds but all fossil vertebrate groups are covered, with a focus on New Zealand species.
The collection is extensively used by researchers from New Zealand and overseas studying the history of New Zealand's fauna. Together with similar collections around the country, it underpins knowledge of what vertebrate species used to occur in New Zealand and how that has changed over time. The collection is fully databased and is an invaluable resource of ancient DNA for investigating the relationships of extinct species.
Since 1980 the fossil bird collection has grown much faster than the collection of living birds, and more rapidly than in previous decades. This is linked with an increase in studies of avian palaeontology since that time. The many new discoveries have been published in numerous scientific papers and several books.
Bird remains included in the collection are moa feathers, eggs, tracheal rings, gizzard stones, coprolites and even footprints. Complete skeletons are rarely discovered and often only fragmentary remains are found. For example, the first bone discovered of the tiny long-billed wren (Dendroscansor decurvirostris) was a partial lower mandible and several years passed before any other bones of this extinct species were found.
The fossils are stored in systematic order, mainly in dry cardboard boxes in a humidity controlled environment in Te Papa's Tory Street facility.
- About 50,000 specimen 'lots';
- Mainly consists of skeletons and part skeletons;
- Most are younger than 25,000 years old. However the collection of older (Tertiary) fossils is growing rapidly;
- Waterbirds, especially ducks, are best represented in the collection (more than 15,800 'lots'). Their abundance reflects the good preservation conditions provided by lake and swamp sediments;
- Flightless birds, such as rails (more than 5,500 'lots') and moa (more than 3,700 'lots'), which often fell into limestone potholes, are also well represented;
- There is also a big collection of seabirds, such as petrels (more than 4,400 'lots'), because their remains are often preserved in coastal dunes.