Story: European discovery of plants and animals

Page 4. Sealers, missionaries and botanists

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Groups of sealers worked in the South Island, and missionaries in the northern North Island. Shore whalers were scattered around both islands. All made important discoveries of plants and animals.


A sealer was probably the first European to collect a kiwi – from either the south of the South Island or Stewart Island. The skin was taken to England in 1811 on the Providence by Captain Barclay, and the bird was described as Apteryx australis by George Shaw of the British Museum in 1813, and illustrated by R. P. Nodder, whose eccentric drawing has become quite well known.

Sealers were also involved in the European discovery of the takahē in 1849. They ate the bird but kept the skin, which they sold to the naturalist Walter Mantell. He sent it to England. Mantell is commemorated in the name of the extinct North Island takahē, Porphyrio mantelli.

Name that tree

Many naturalists are remembered in the names of species they discovered. Botanist J. C. Bidwill lives on in the bog pine Halocarpus bidwillii. The great spotted kiwi Apteryx haastii and a family of daisies, Haastia, are named for Julius Haast. The rare Hamilton’s frog, from Stephens Island, was named for Harold Hamilton, although it was first found by the lighthouse keeper’s son.


The missionary William Yate published a popular account of New Zealand’s natural history in 1835. His collection of shells, given to the British Museum by the Church Missionary Society, contained several new species.

The Reverend Richard Taylor also published natural histories. Between 1839 and 1843 Taylor, William Williams and William Colenso played a large part in the discovery of fossilised bones of the flightless moa. Their collections were sent to Richard Owen of the British Museum, whose description of the giant birds created a sensation in England.

As a missionary William Colenso made prodigious explorations in the North Island. By the time he left the Church Missionary Society he was one of New Zealand’s foremost botanists.

Besides the missionaries, geologist Julius Haast and naturalist Walter Mantell were also associated with moa bone discoveries.

Keen-eyed whaler

In 1836 John Harris, a trader and whaler from Poverty Bay, was the first European to discover traces of the extinct, flightless moa – a section of femur that was sent to Richard Owen of the British Museum. Owen described it in 1842, and named the giant bird Dinornis novaezealandiae in 1843.


In the 1820s and 1830s visiting botanists Allan Cunningham and J. C. Bidwill sent collections of plants to London’s Kew Gardens. Just as Richard Owen of the British Museum towered over New Zealand’s zoology, so Joseph Dalton Hooker dominated its botany from Kew. The work of these two naturalists marked a peak in the British Empire’s domination of science in the colonies.

How to cite this page:

John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals - Sealers, missionaries and botanists', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 February 2024)

Story by John Andrews, published 24 Sep 2007