The Maori or native rat (Rattus exulans Peale) was known to the Maoris as kiore. According to tradition, the kiore came to New Zealand from Polynesia in the canoe Horouta, one of the Great Fleet (c. 1350 A.D.). But it would appear that the species reached this country at a considerably earlier period, for rat bones have been found in middens along with moa remains. The kiore soon adapted itself to its new habitat, much to the satisfaction of the Maoris who regarded it as a tasty and very important food.
The kiore is a small rat. Head and body are approximately 180 mm in length, the tail being about the same. In colour it is almost indistinguishable from the ship rat (Rattus rattus), which came originally from South-East Asia, and is brown on the back and greyish-white on the underside. In Maori times when the kiore was plentiful, its most remarkable characteristic was its swarming habit which led to extraordinary mass migrations. The kiore soon became a member of the forest community and made its nests in hollow trees and holes in the ground. It was a nocturnal feeder, clean, even fastidious, and in no sense a scavenger. The principal colonies were in the high-lying beech forests where there was a plentiful supply of mast, though berries were also eagerly sought for. Because of these feeding habits the rats, which were lean in summer, became very fat in the berry-bearing season when they were trapped either in pits or in cunningly devised snares set along well-defined tracks or rat-runs which generally extended for miles. At the opening of the rattrapping season the trappers, who were under tapu, strictly followed a set ritual. As soon as the first catch was secured, the tapu was lifted. The rats were singed, plucked, and cooked in an ordinary steam oven. Sometimes, however, they were grilled and preserved in their own fat as huahua, a particularly choice dainty.
By the early 1920s it was believed that the kiore had become extinct. Today it is known to have survived in a few localities in widely separated areas. There are colonies on a number of small islands off the east coast of the North Island, from White Island northwards. In the South Island the kiore is found, sparsely distributed, in the Notornis and Doubtful Sound regions, Fiordland, and in Stewart Island.
by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.
- Introduced Mammals of New Zealand, Wodzicki, K. A. (1950)
- The Coming of the Maori, Buck, Peter (1949)
- The Maori, Best, Elsdon (1924)
- The Present Distribution of Rattus Exulans (Peale) in New Zealand, N.Z. Journal of Sc. and Technology, Vol. 37, No. 5. (J. S. Watson), March 1956.