There are over 2000 marine mammal specimens in Te Papa's collection. They consist of skeletal material (articulated and non-articulated), preserved animals or parts thereof, skins, casts and mounts of individual animals.
The collection was founded in 1865 when the Colonial Museum was formed. Sir James Hector, Director of the Colonial Museum, was the first New Zealand scientist to study whales and dolphins, and had two species named after him (Hector's dolphin and Hector's beaked whale).
The collection is world famous for its beaked whale specimens and other rare species (e.g. pygmy right whales). Both New Zealand and foreign scientists interested in anatomy, morphometrics, general biology and taxonomy of whales use the collection for research.
Samples are obtained mostly from strandings - if the animal is small enough to be transported easily carcasses are dissected in the lab, otherwise all examination must be carried out on the beach before the animal is buried. Tissue samples are prepared and stored for DNA and isotope analyses, and skeletons are cleaned by burial or maceration. Samples are retained on the basis of rarity and age, sexual, and geographic representation for current and future research projects.
Te Papa also has large collections of New Zealand fur seals Arctocephalus forsteri, endemic New Zealand sea lions Phocarctos hookeri and several species of antarctic pinnipeds.
The marine mammal collection also houses representatives of some foreign taxa.
The collection includes:
- 2,000 marine mammal specimens, including:
- 230 beaked whales
- 107 endemic dolphins
- 650 New Zealand and Antarctic seals
- 11 type specimens