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European discovery of plants and animals

by  John Andrews

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.

The first naturalists

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.

Cook’s second voyage, and the French

The Forsters

James Cook’s second expedition to New Zealand was in 1772–75, on the Resolution. He brought the German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, and the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman – a student of Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system of biological classification.

They collected at Dusky Sound in Fiordland, and Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound. This time more birds were collected, and a number of new fish were discovered. Species of invertebrates (animals without backbones) did less well, and fewer plants were collected than might have been expected. The collections suffered a similar fate to those of the first voyage, and little was published.

On their return, the Forsters wrote three botanical publications that included New Zealand plants. Although their work was criticised for lack of detail, some of the species descriptions are still valid, including those of flax, cabbage tree and rimu. They also published a description of the little penguin. Sparrman described nine birds, including the red-crowned parakeet and the bellbird.

The records from Cook’s third voyage to New Zealand (1776–80) did not add much to earlier discoveries.

Other explorers

The visit of the French navigator Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne to the Bay of Islands in 1772 produced the first record of kauri, although his party did not collect specimens.

Archibald Menzies, surgeon on George Vancouver’s Discovery, collected ferns, mosses and liverworts from Dusky Sound in 1791. Some of these featured later in the publications of William Hooker, the founder of Kew Gardens in London.

French explorers and naturalists

Three significant French expeditions arrived in the first half of the 19th century:

  • The Coquille, under Louis Isidore Duperrey in 1824. Ports of call included the Bay of Islands.
  • The Astrolabe, under Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville in 1827. They called in at the western side of Tasman Bay, Tolaga Bay, Waitematā Harbour, Whangārei and the Bay of Islands.
  • The Astrolabe and Zélée, under Dumont d’Urville in 1840. This visit covered the Auckland Islands, Otago Peninsula, Akaroa and, again, the Bay of Islands. Dumont d’Urville was a botanist, and other naturalists doubled as naval officers.

By the time of these visits, earlier problems in conserving and describing collections were largely solved. In contrast to the earlier British expeditions, the French government promptly published and illustrated the reports.

French finds

Among the animal finds were the flax snail, southern royal albatross, grey warbler, yellow-eyed penguin, and the only known specimen of the kawekaweau – the world’s largest gecko (600 millimetres long), now considered extinct. Less spectacular was a large collection of marine and terrestrial invertebrates.

The French botanist Achille Richard, in the first attempt to treat the New Zealand flora as a whole, covered 380 species of flowering plants, ferns and mosses. He also wrote the first description of the kahikatea (a conifer).

French naval vessels later monitored the French colony at Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula. E. F. L. Raoul, a naval doctor based at Akaroa, took a substantial collection of plants from the area. Some of the French colonists at Akaroa sent plant and animal specimens back to France.

Expeditions and surveys: 1830s–1870s

Darwin and Dieffenbach

Charles Darwin paid a short visit to the Bay of Islands on the Beagle in 1835, and collected a specimen of īnanga (a species of whitebait).

Arriving on the Tory in 1839, the New Zealand Company’s naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach covered much of the North Island and the top of the South Island. His Travels in New Zealand (1843) incorporated a ‘Fauna of New Zealand’ – an attempt at an inventory of animals. Among Dieffenbach’s finds were the freshwater crayfish, the green pūriri moth, and the giant wētā. He was also instrumental in locating reptile species: several skinks and geckos, and the tuatara.

Plants were not so well served this time. Until the 1830s most exploration was done within reach of the coast, where many plants had already been described. Missionaries and others such as Dieffenbach were just beginning to collect plants new to science from the interior and mountains.

Americans and British

In 1840 the United States Exploring Expedition spent a week in the Bay of Islands, gathering a useful collection of skinks – often overlooked by other expeditions.

The British vessels Erebus and Terror arrived in 1841 via the subantarctic islands. Among their reports, J. D. Hooker’s Flora antarctica described the distinctive plants of the Auckland and Campbell island groups, and G. R. Gray described the kākāpō (a flightless parrot) for the first time.

Despite a growing local interest in collecting plants and animals, most material was still shipped back to England or France, where it came under the control of museum-based naturalists.

There were fewer major voyages of exploration after 1850.

Acheron, Novara and Challenger

The British Acheron surveyed the New Zealand coastline in 1848, and naturalists collected many kiwi and other birds, as well as invertebrates. David Lyall collected the world’s largest buttercup – commonly called the Mt Cook lily, although it is not a lily.

In 1858 Julius Haast arrived, as did the geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter, who was part of the Austrian Novara expedition. Hochstetter collected a frog that would bear his name, and a large land snail. Haast stayed on and became director of Canterbury Museum. He was a collector of plants, including many alpine species, and a leading discoverer and describer of moa fossils.

The Challenger expedition called at Wellington in 1874, while making a comprehensive survey of the world’s oceans. Its huge published output on marine species included some from New Zealand.

These explorers made major scientific discoveries of New Zealand plants and animals, in spite of being restricted to mainly coastal regions. But many important finds would be left to individuals who stayed longer, describing rare, secretive or nocturnal species.

Sealers, missionaries and botanists

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 (Rakiura). The skin was taken to England in 1811 on the Providence by Captain Barclay, In 1813 the bird was described as Apteryx australis by George Shaw of the British Museum 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 at 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 its colonies.

Naturalists: 1840s–1890s

A scientific community

In the 1850s and 1860s, New Zealand was starting to build its own scientific base, setting up scientific societies, journals, and the Colonial Museum. With the addition of provincial museums and university colleges, the infrastructure up to 1875 was remarkably advanced for a small colony with a mostly amateur scientific base.

Networks with scientists in England and with the other colonies were maintained. Groups of amateurs and a handful of professional scientists were very active, publishing the first Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute in 1868. This annual volume was the country’s major scientific publication for many decades.


In Victorian England an obsession with natural history affected people from all classes. With colonisation and the great migrations of the 19th century, those who moved away took their ideas with them. Parliamentarians, farmers, doctors, lawyers, vicars, boot makers, soldiers, scientists and others contributed to New Zealand’s natural history. Among the more notable were: John Buchanan, John Enys, James Hector, Frederick Hutton, Thomas Kirk, Walter Mantell, David Munro, Thomas Potts, George Thomson and William Travers.

Towards the end of the 19th century some became specialists, as the knowledge of plants and animals grew. Thomas Kirk, Thomas Cheeseman and Donald Petrie made significant contributions to botany. Thomas Parker worked on the anatomy of the more important vertebrate animals. Thomas Broun spent much of his time on beetles, and George Hudson concentrated on butterflies and moths. Walter Buller gave New Zealand birds an international profile, and Charles Chilton and Henry Suter increased the knowledge of crustaceans and molluscs.

Awareness of ecology

Nothing in biology was the quite the same after Charles Darwin published On the origin of species (1859). The work of biologists in New Zealand in the late 1800s and early 1900s revealed a growing appreciation of the environments in which species lived – reflected in the detail of some biological illustrations. There was a greater awareness of the relationships between plants and animals, and their interaction with the environment. Later in the 19th century biology began to move on from the relentless search for new species, or collecting for its own sake.

Trigger happy

With a swag on his back and a gun in his hand, the Austrian naturalist Andreas Reischek shot hundreds of birds for overseas collectors and museums in the 1870s and 1880s. Even Walter Buller, who wrote books about New Zealand birds, was not above shooting them for overseas collectors.

New discoveries

While mainland opportunities were declining with the loss of habitat and near extermination of rare species, some offshore islands and mountain and marine environments were relatively unaltered, and continued to be the source of new finds.

Henry Travers (the son of William Travers) found many new plants in the Chatham Islands, as did Donald Petrie in the Otago mountains in the 1870s. James Hector’s description of Hector’s dolphin was an important addition to the marine fauna when it was formally named in 1881. The flightless Stephens Island wren was not described until 1894, only to fall prey to collectors, and to cats.

By the late 1800s most of New Zealand’s main plant and animal species had been discovered. Questions were now being asked about how these life forms arose, although decades would pass before the answers were known.

New directions: 1890s–today

From collectors to ecologists

In the 1890s the government turned its attention to forestry, agriculture, and pest and disease problems, which required the development of professional science.

There was concern about the loss of native species, and sanctuaries such as Resolution Island, Little Barrier Island and Kāpiti Island were set up to help protect what remained. New branches of biology were starting, particularly ecology, evolution, and biogeography. Leonard Cockayne became New Zealand’s foremost plant ecologist, publishing well into the 20th century.

Organisations such as the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (set up in 1923), the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (1940), the Entomological Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Ecological Society (both 1951), and various botanical groups brought together amateur and professional scientists who added to the species inventory. Although species lists grew in the 20th century, there was little to attract public interest.

Then in 1948 Geoffrey Orbell rediscovered the takahē, a bird thought to be extinct, in the Murchison Mountains. This sparked a wider interest in ornithology that still continues, with a focus on endangered species.

The sea – the last unknown

From the 1950s many zoologists looked to the oceans for new material. A spectacular discovery was the giant squid Architeuthis dux, which is occasionally washed up or recovered dead from the ocean.

The threat to marine mammals – whales and dolphins particularly – from fishing and environmental change has sparked awareness and action. A northern sub-species of Hector’s dolphin called Māui’s dolphin was discovered in 2002.

Molecular identification

In the last few decades, molecular technologies (such as DNA mapping) have enabled identification of cryptic species, and an understanding of plant and animal relationships and evolution.

For example, DNA studies have overturned the idea that many species are ancient survivors, little changed since New Zealand broke away from the supercontinent of Gondwana 85 million years ago. Studies of many New Zealand plants and animals show that most have arrived more recently by long-distance dispersal over the ocean.

Identification of new reptiles, teasing out the genetic groupings of tuatara (lizard-like reptiles), separation of sub-species of Hector’s dolphin, sorting out the lancewoods and coprosmas – these and many more studies have carried on the tradition of biological discovery, using molecular technology.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by John Andrews, published 24 September 2007