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Story: Life sciences

Life sciences – studies of all living things – flourish in New Zealand. The country’s unique plants and animals fascinated settlers, and continue to inspire ground-breaking research.

Story by Peter Clayworth
Main image: Algae room, Cawthron Aquaculture Centre

Story Summary

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The first people to bring European scientific methods to New Zealand were the naturalists on James Cook’s voyages.

In the 19th century some settlers were keen amateur naturalists. Philosophical institutes were set up – organisations where members presented and discussed scientific papers. Museums and universities also became important centres of research into natural history, or biology.

In the 20th century biology split into many different disciplines, and biologists became more specialised.

Biological research institutions

In 1926 the Government set up the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) to do scientific research that benefited the economy. The DSIR had a strong biological focus, and crop research was important there. Meanwhile the Department of Agriculture carried out animal research, and the Forest Research Institute studied forests.

The DSIR and other government research organisations were disbanded in 1992, with Crown Research Institutes set up instead.

Ecology and conservation

The Wildlife Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs was created in 1945 to conserve native species, manage game animals that had been released in the wild, and control pests such as possums. Some of their research was pioneering.

The organisation was renamed the Wildlife Service in 1974, then became part of the new Department of Conservation in 1987. In the 21st century New Zealand scientists continued to lead the world in developing breeding programmes for native species along with new methods of pest eradication.

Molecular biology

In the late 20th century the life sciences were revolutionised by molecular studies, especially the discovery of the structure of DNA. Molecular biologists compare the DNA of different species to figure out the species’ origins, their history of adaptation, and their evolutionary relationships to each other.

DNA has been sampled from the remains of many extinct species, and biologists have gained many new insights into species such as moa.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Life sciences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2018)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014