Story: European discovery of plants and animals

Exquisite and accurate paintings of birds, insects, flowers and other specimens form a lasting record of finds by early naturalists. Several were talented artists, and all were passionate collectors. They had a remarkable eye for new or unusual species as they explored New Zealand’s coast and hinterland.

Story by John Andrews
Main image: Whau

Story Summary

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Māori and the natural world

The ancestors of Māori were Polynesians who arrived in New Zealand around 1250–1300 AD. They discovered and named the plants, birds, fish, insects and other animals that are so important in Māori culture. People and living things are linked within one great family.

James Cook’s visits

British explorer James Cook came on the Endeavour in 1769. With him were naturalists who collected thousands of fish, shells, birds, butterflies and plants. Back in Europe, they told others what they had found. Some scientists then wrote about New Zealand’s plants and animals, and gave them names.

After Cook’s second visit in 1773, native species such as the bellbird, little penguin and cabbage tree were shown for the first time in British books.

French explorers

Between 1824 and 1840, three French expeditions arrived. The botanist Dumont d’Urville and other scientists found and named hundreds of plants, and birds such as the southern royal albatross and the grey warbler. Artists made beautiful images, and the French government published books.

Sealers and missionaries

  • Sealers and whalers often noticed unusual animals. A sealer may have been the first European to collect a kiwi, sending its skin to England in 1811.
  • From the 1830s, missionaries travelled around, hoping to convert Māori to Christianity. William Yate collected shells, and William Colenso helped collect fossil bones of the giant moa, an extinct bird. These finds were sent to the British Museum in London.

Later finds

  • In the 1840s, German scientist Ernst Dieffenbach explored the country and listed the animals. He discovered the freshwater crayfish, green pūriri moth and many reptiles.
  • In the 1850s Ferdinand Hochstetter, an Austrian, made large collections of plants and animals. He found a unique species of frog (named Hochstetter’s frog) and a giant snail.
  • Explorer James Hector discovered a unique species of small dolphin in South Island waters, and they were named Hector’s dolphin in 1881.

By the start of the 20th century, most of New Zealand’s larger plants and animals had been described.

How to cite this page:

John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/european-discovery-of-plants-and-animals (accessed 22 November 2018)

Story by John Andrews, published 24 Sep 2007