Biosecurity officials in Australia have destroyed rare botanical specimens after a paperwork mix-up. The samples were being sent from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris to Queensland’s herbarium in Brisbane, but never made it past quarantine.
The samples that were incinerated are thought to be daisies that were collected in the 1850s, though the researchers have not announced exactly what species they were. Their age only adds to their importance and rarity, because they could have given a valuable insight into what the plant's genetics and characteristics were over a hundred years ago, and how they may have changed since.
“They were the first type specimens collected of a species,” Michelle Waycott, from the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, told ABC News. “So literally irreplaceable collections and of high historic and scientific value.”
The authorities have said that the institutions did not provide the correct documents, missing important information, such as exactly what was contained in the samples. Somehow, while the biosecurity officials were trying to gain more details from the French Museum, the daisies were inexplicably incinerated before the researchers had the opportunity to respond. The Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, who are responsible for biosecurity in Australia, are now investigating the incident.
Unfortunately, it seems that this is not the first such occasion in which the Australian quarantine authorities have overreacted somewhat in recent times. Just a few weeks before this case, researchers from a herbarium in Wellington, New Zealand, attempted to send a collection of lichen samples to the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra, only to find that on the way they too were destroyed by biosecurity. After it came to light, it is rumored that the herbaria in New Zealand have now issued a ban on sending any samples to Australia.
Australia has some of the toughest biosecurity rules of any country, preventing even the movement of some biological material between states. And this is for a good reason. The ecosystem of Australia is unique and incredibly fragile. Time and again insects, plants, and disease have been introduced to the nation, and in many cases caused significant harm. Yet it seems that the tight biosecurity laws may be unintentionally hindering scientific research.
It’s a common practice for collections, museums, and herbariums to send their material all around the globe for scientific research. This work relies on the various institutions being able to share and loan specimens that help further our understanding of species and their biology, particularly for rare or unique items.