Story: European discovery of plants and animals

Page 1. The first naturalists

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As they explored the natural world, people encountered plants and animals that became part of their culture. They treated them in diverse ways – incorporating them into spiritual lore or folklore, using them for food or decoration, cataloguing and scientifically describing them.

There have been several phases of this type of exploration and discovery in New Zealand.

Polynesian discovery

Polynesians, New Zealand’s first settlers, landed around 1250–1300 CE. They soon developed a distinct culture later known as Māori. The plants and animals they discovered were included in their all-embracing view of the world. The natural environment, plants, animals and people were woven into complex oral traditions which linked all things.

This contrasted with Western thought, which made a clearer distinction between people and nature.

Late medieval naturalists

At the time of Polynesian arrival in Aotearoa, European knowledge of plants and animals was informed by ancient books, and classifications were often based on folklore and biblical traditions. Animals, including mythical beasts, featured in books called bestiaries, and plants were largely the subject of herbals – books devoted to their medical uses. Around 1400 there were rough parallels in the way Māori and Europeans understood the natural world.

A century later, Europeans entered an age of exploration and discovery, increasing their knowledge of the world’s animals and plants by collecting and describing them. The sciences of botany and zoology developed from the study of collections in menageries, botanical gardens, museums and elsewhere.


In 1758, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus published the 10th version of Systema naturae, the founding document of the classification of living things. This was the first edition of his work to consistently use the binomial system for naming species – combining the genus name and the species descriptor (for example, the briar rose was named Rosa canina). Giving a unique Latin name to each species, he replaced the confusing use of many names for life forms. This began to bring order to the identification of both well-known and newly discovered plants and animals.

Cook’s first voyage

A decade after Linnaeus published his book, James Cook sailed for New Zealand on the Endeavour. On board were a team of naturalists, including Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander (a former pupil of Linnaeus) and the natural history artist Sydney Parkinson. The voyage of the St Jean Baptiste under de Surville visited New Zealand at the same time, but their records made reference to just a few animals.

The group collected plants and animals, mainly fish and birds, between Poverty Bay and the Bay of Islands, and from the Marlborough Sounds, but gained little knowledge of what makes New Zealand’s plants and animals so distinctive. Despite having the equipment and skills expected of a scientific voyage, their good intentions of publishing their findings collapsed under the weight of thousands of specimens and various distractions.

Solander laboriously wrote species descriptions on papers known as ‘Solander slips’ – documents that became one of the more useful scientific records of the expedition. There were also more than 200 copperplate engravings and a manuscript describing 360 species. A comprehensive account of New Zealand’s plants came within a hair’s breadth of publication. The manuscript was eventually used in Thomas Cheeseman’s Manual of the New Zealand flora more than a century later, but the plates were not published until 1989, as Banks' florilegium.

Not so new

Plants were grown in England from New Zealand seeds collected in 1770 by naturalists aboard the Endeavour. Some of the plants were later described as ‘new species’ by naturalists who stumbled upon them in New Zealand, even though there were specimens already growing in England.

Published work

Some of the material from Cook’s naturalists was published, thanks to an active network of European scholars who corresponded with Joseph Banks or visited his collections.

Illustrations and crude descriptions of shells from the expedition appeared in German publications in 1774, and later in England. The Danish entomologist Johann Christian Fabricius described 38 insects, including the red admiral butterfly, in 1775 – the first published scientific description of New Zealand animals. A coloured engraving of a tūī was published in 1776. The German botanist Joseph Gaertner visited Banks and in 1788 published descriptions of New Zealand plants, including the red-flowered pōhutukawa.

Widespread use of common (rather than scientific) names and a lack of good descriptions plagued early publications.

How to cite this page:

John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals - The first naturalists', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by John Andrews, published 24 Sep 2007