International Society of Arachnology

Vice-President CIDA (1983-1986)

New Zealand’s greatest ever arachnologist Raymond (Ray) Robert Forster was born on June 19, 1922 in Hastings, New Zealand. He died on July 1, 2000, aged 78, in Dunedin Hospital, after a period fighting illness. Ray is survived by his wife (and fellow arachnologist) Lyn, two sons and two daughters.

Ray had a life-long interest in natural history. As a schoolboy Ray was enthusiastic about insects and spiders. Such was his thirst for knowledge that he was a frequent visitor to the Napier Museum and his youthful enthusiasm culminated in his being awarded the title of honorary keeper at the age of 13. Ray was resident in Hawkes Bay during the first influx of the cabbage white butterfly and earned pocket money collecting the adults.

After gaining School Certificate, Ray left school and moved to Wellington. There he joined the Public Trust and began studying accountancy at Victoria University. However, Ray had no intention of abandoning his interest in insects and spiders and began visiting the entomology department at the Dominion Museum (now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa). He soon caught the attention of J.T. Salmon, the entomologist at the time, and by the age of 18, Ray had secured a position with the museum.

This commenced a scientific career that would take him to the Canterbury Museum as zoologist and Assistant Director in 1948, and onto the Otago Museum as the first Director of the freshly independent institution in 1957.

Ray gained his Bachelor of Science from Victoria University while employed at the Dominion Museum. By 1948 he had added a Masters (Hons), which was followed by a D.Sc (NZ) in 1953 and D.Sc (Otago) in 1975. Ray's first D.Sc was largely based on his pioneering revision of New Zealand's Laniatores fauna. Ray would cycle home from the museum at night carrying a microscope in its cumbersome case, and cycle back the next day with the microscope and yet another completed species description. A species description a night was his goal. There were no computers or internet back then, only Ray on his bicycle.

Ray's time studying at Victoria was important for another reason, as it was there that he met his future wife, Lyn. They met as undergraduate students and were married on December 11, 1948 at St. Peters Church in Wellington. For their honeymoon they went on a camping field trip. They ate off apple crates for the first year of the marriage and their first major purchase was a brand new microscope, which had a table and chair to itself.

Prior to taking up his position as Director of the Otago Museum, Ray was a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University in 1956-1957. He returned there in 1976 as a Research Fellow. He was also a Research Associate with the Bishop Museum (Hawaii) and the American Museum of Natural History. In retirement he had a years' fellowship shared between the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. These research fellowships underline the reputation for excellence he had achieved in the field of spider systematics.

During World War Two, Ray first joined the Army but later transferred to the Navy and served in the Pacific on board the frigate Gambia as a radar mechanic. Typically, he turned this adversity to his advantage. Not only did Ray collect spiders and insects in places such as the Solomon Islands, but he also achieved a degree of notoriety for building a still to produce the alcohol he needed to preserve his collection. Much of this collection (but sadly, not the still) is now housed at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Ray explored most parts of New Zealand in his quest for new spiders, and led several expeditions into remote parts of Fiordland such as Caswell and George Sounds (1949) and Takahe Valley (1951). He has left his mark in Fiordland with the discovery of a small valley that was subsequently named Forster Burn (45°14’S 167°21’E) in his honour. In 1953 he took part in a five-week expedition to the Chatham Islands. Apart from field work in New Zealand and the Pacific, Ray's interest in spiders took him to parts of Central and North America, Australia and Europe.

Ray was involved in an impressive number of scientific and community organisations. He was a founding member of the Otago Peninsula Trust and the Goldfields Park Trust. He was president of both the Canterbury (1956) and Otago (1963) branches of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Ray was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1961, the recipient of their Hutton Medal in 1971 and Hector Medal in 1983 for his contributions to science. During the years 1983 to 1986 he was the Vice-President of CIDA and in 1998 he was made an honorary member of the ISA. Ray was a longtime member of the Entomological Society of New Zealand, holding the positions of Vice-President and later President from 1973 to 1976. In recognition of his outstanding achievements in the study of New Zealand spiders and harvestmen, Ray was made a Fellow of the Entomological Society of New Zealand in 1994. Nationally he was recognised with a Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1978 and a QSO in 1983.

His 30 years as Director of the Otago Museum saw him successfully combine his administrative workload with his research into spiders and harvestmen. He also oversaw the completion of a large new wing on the museum and the development of many new galleries, including a Natural History gallery that is widely regarded as a credit to both Ray and Lyn. Ray also took great pride in bringing the exhibition Te Maori to Dunedin, where it drew over 113,000 visitors.

After retirement in 1987, Ray and Lyn moved from St Clair to a large property on Saddle Hill on the outskirts of Dunedin. There, they covenanted a substantial forest on the property out of concern for the future of such forest remnants. They encouraged people to explore this forest and study the flora and fauna found there. Retirement also allowed Ray to indulge his passion for gardening.

Ray's talent as a writer helped him reach a wide audience through his books and popular articles. However, it was his skilful photography of spiders and insects that really brought his subjects to life. Ray's technical expertise did not end there. While at the Canterbury Museum, Ray encouraged the exhibition preparators to experiment with rubber moulds. Many outstanding displays, including a richly detailed foot-long model of a harvestman, were the result. Ray was also such an advocate of Berlese funnels that, during his Canterbury days, his contemporaries always made a point of collecting moss and litter samples for him wherever they went. The plant material was dumped in the long grass at the back of the Canterbury Museum and led to Forster's dictum, "never collect in the grounds of an institution".

Ray leaves behind a colossal legacy to science in the form of twelve spider and harvestmen monographs, 17 popular articles in New Zealand Heritage and Nature Heritage on arthropods, four popular books co-authored with his wife Lyn and numerous other articles on taxonomy, evolution and the biogeography of spiders.

Ray was author or co-author of five families, 111 genera and 670 of the approximately 1100 spider species currently recognized for New Zealand. One of Ray's most interesting discoveries was the family Gradungulidae, a group that includes Spelungula cavernicola, New Zealand's largest and only protected species of spider. Ray's influence in spider taxonomy and systematics was by no means confined to New Zealand and amongst the many species he described from overseas is Patu marplesi from Western Samoa. At 0.3 mm long it is the world's smallest spider. Ray had four spider genera and six species named in his honour. Additionally Ray's energetic collecting of other varieties of invertebrates is recognised in many species named in his honour such as the caddis Neurochorema forsteri and the earwig Parisolabus forsteri.

While best known for his work on spiders, Ray also worked extensively on Opiliones. He established one family, two sub-families, nine genera and described 163 species and sub-species of Opiliones from New Zealand. He also produced a number of papers on the Opiliones of Australia and the Pacific. In conjunction with his wife Lyn, Ray was the first to report the existence of the arachnid order Palpigrada in New Zealand.

Additionally, Ray, supported by his wife Lyn, spent fifty years amassing a huge collection of spiders. The vast majority of this collection is stored in a specially constructed storage facility at Otago Museum.

Despite ill health, both Ray and Lyn were determined to attend the launch of their new book on New Zealand spiders in November 1999. Sadly, this marked the last occasion where Ray would speak publicly.

Ray shared his knowledge freely, offering both critical comment and encouragement to aspiring natural historians, but was always modest about his impressive contribution to arachnology. Ray’s steady hand in spider classification and evolutionary studies will be missed, but his influence will live on for many generations through his publications and collections. His last publication, "New Zealand Spiders and their Worldwide Kin", co-written with his wife Lyn, will probably be the definitive reference work on New Zealand spiders for many years to come.

Based on Patrick B.H., Sirvid P.J., Vink C.J. 2000. Obituary: Raymond Robert Forster D.Sc., F.E.S.N.Z., Q.S.O. 19 June 1922 - 1 July 2000. New Zealand Entomologist 23: 95-99.