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Life sciences

by Peter Clayworth

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.

Beginnings, 1769–1900

The life sciences, known collectively as biology, cover all the studies of living things. These range from the chemical processes of cells, to the interactions of living organisms with their environment.

Until the mid-20th century the life sciences were often grouped together as ‘natural history’. In the 20th century scientists tended to become more specialised, and biology split into many different disciplines.

A world view based on whakapapa

Early Polynesian settlers made profound changes to New Zealand’s natural environment, burning off areas of forest and hunting some species (such as moa) to extinction. They also developed a deep knowledge of the natural environment. People, plants, animals and natural features such as awa (rivers) and maunga (mountains) were all seen as descendants of the gods. All were connected by whakapapa – lines of genealogical descent.

The earliest European naturalists

The first to bring European scientific methods to New Zealand were the naturalists on James Cook’s 18th-century voyages of exploration: Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, Johann and Georg Forster and Andreas Sparrman. In subsequent years more scientists made exploratory voyages from the settlement of New South Wales in Australia.

Some early missionaries were also accomplished naturalists, in particular the botanist William Colenso. The settlers arriving from the 1840s included some keen amateur naturalists who recorded and collected plants and animals while exploring.

Early naturalists often sent specimens back to Britain or Europe to be identified and named by experts such as the botanist Joseph Hooker and the zoologist Richard Owen.

Scientific institutes and museums

In the mid-19th century settlers with scientific interests began setting up philosophical institutes, organisations where members could present and discuss scientific papers. The New Zealand Institute, founded in 1867, was a body that published these papers and the proceedings of local institutes.

In 1861 two ‘provincial geologists’ were appointed: Julius Haast in Canterbury and James Hector in Otago. Both had strong interests in botany and zoology.

In 1865 Hector became Colonial Museum director, based in Wellington. He employed John Buchanan as museum botanist and draughtsman.

In the 1860s and 1870s Auckland, Canterbury and Otago all established provincial museums. Haast was the first director of the Canterbury Museum, while Frederick Hutton, a geologist and zoologist, was appointed director of Otago museum.

The first director of Auckland Museum, from 1868 to 1874, was Thomas Kirk, a botanist. He had worked as chief conservator of forests from 1885 to 1887 and wrote many important botanical works. His successor, Thomas Cheeseman, museum director from 1874 to 1923, was another eminent botanist who carried out many field expeditions and wrote numerous works, including the 1906 Manual of New Zealand flora.

The Otago evolution debate

In 1876 Dunedin’s Otago Institute was the scene of a series of debates on Darwinian evolution. Anglican Archbishop S. T. Nevill attacked the scientific validity of evolution, but provincial geologist Frederick Hutton made a successful defence of Darwinism. In newspaper columns theologian William Salmond argued Darwinian evolution was incompatible with Christianity. Hutton, a sincere Anglican, countered that evolution and religion could be reconciled. The politician and staunch free-thinker Robert Stout agreed with Salmond that Christianity and Darwinism were mutually exclusive, but wanted Christianity rejected.


Frederick Hutton was appointed professor of natural science at Otago University in 1877, but in 1880 moved to Canterbury College to become professor of biology. The new university college of Auckland appointed a biology professor in 1883. Victoria University College employed a biology lecturer in 1903.

The Darwinian revolution

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species in 1859 pushed evolution to the forefront of scientific, social and religious debates. Most of New Zealand’s leading scientific thinkers rapidly adopted the idea of biological evolution of plants and animals, and, despite initial controversy, most New Zealanders were able to reconcile Darwinian evolution with their religious beliefs. This may well have been easier in a young country without entrenched religious or scientific establishments.

Biological research institutions, 20th century

Government departments

In 1926 the government set up the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) to co-ordinate scientific research benefitting the economy. The DSIR had a strong biological focus, and among the areas it worked in were crop research, grasslands science, entomology and plant disease. In 1948 an animal ecology section was added, followed by a plant physiology division in 1962 and an applied biochemistry division in 1969.

The Department of Agriculture concentrated on animal research, but also studied pastures and horticulture. From 1972 this work came under the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The Forest Service carried out research through the Forest Research Institute at Rotorua. From 1987 this came under the Ministry of Forestry.

Crown research institutes

The DSIR and other government research bodies were disbanded in 1992. A number of Crown research institutes (CRIs) were set up in their place. In 2014 six of the seven CRIs dealt with aspects of biological science:

  • AgResearch (agricultural research)
  • Environmental Science and Research (environmental and forensic science)
  • Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (land-based science)
  • NIWA (ocean and atmospheric science)
  • Plant and Food Research
  • SCION (forestry research).

The Polish count’s ecology division

In 1939 a Polish biologist, Count Kazimierz Wodzicki, escaped with his wife Maria from Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. The Polish government-in-exile appointed Wodzicki consul to New Zealand, and he arrived in Wellington in 1941. He stayed on after the war, rather than returning to communist Poland. Wodzicki’s work on introduced wild mammals led the DSIR to establish its own ecology division in 1948. Wodzicki was head of the division until his retirement in 1965.

Museums and universities

In the early 20th century the major museums continued to play an important role in biological research. Auckland Museum was an especially active research centre in the 1930s under its director, zoologist Gilbert Archey. Staff included ornithologist Robert Falla, botanist Lucy Cranwell and conchologist Arthur William Baden Powell. Museums also organised major scientific expeditions, such as an Auckland Museum field trip to the Three Kings Islands in 1934.

There was an increase in university biological research once the University of New Zealand established a research-based doctorate in 1947. The following years saw developments in fields such as marine biology, systematics (the evolutionary relationships of species), ecology and microbiology.

The last of the all-rounders

Charles Fleming, geologist, paleontologist, ornithologist, entomologist and bio-geographer, was one of the last all-round naturalists. While working as a paleontologist at the New Zealand Geological Survey, Fleming devised the first comprehensive idea of New Zealand’s biogeography. In this he traced the patterns of how different species invaded the land. Fleming also carried out a major series of cicada studies, was a keen birder and led a range of environmental campaigns.

Marine biology – an emerging science

In the 19th and early 20th centuries individual scientists such as Frederick Hutton, George Malcolm Thomson and Charles Chilton worked on aspects of marine biology. However, it was only in the 1950s that New Zealand marine biology became an organised science.

Otago University established the country’s first marine laboratory at Portobello, directed by marine biologist Betty Batham. The DSIR set up the Oceanographic Institute, and the New Zealand Ecological Society was founded, with a strong marine research focus.

In the early 1960s three new marine laboratories were established:

  • Canterbury University’s Kaikōura laboratory
  • Auckland University’s research centre at Leigh
  • Victoria University’s laboratory at Island Bay, Wellington.

From the 1970s there was an increased scientific interest in the behaviour and biology of marine mammals. With the development of DNA analysis it became easier to identify individual animals and determine their relationships.

In the early 21st century fisheries research was carried out by Crown research institute NIWA. Work on marine biology was also done by the Cawthron Institute and the Department of Conservation and by researchers based at universities.

The Cawthron Institute

In 1921 a private research facility, the Cawthron Institute, was opened in Nelson. It initially focused on solving agricultural and horticultural problems, and employed a number of botanists, entomologists and mycologists. Among them was Kathleen Curtis, the first New Zealand woman to gain a doctor of science degree.

In the 1980s Cawthron Institute staff began working with Japanese scientists on ground-breaking research to understand and test for toxic algal blooms. Cawthron scientists also worked on other aspects of marine and freshwater ecosystems, including:

  • estuary systems
  • trout mobility in freshwater
  • marine and freshwater biosecurity, including management of pests such as didymo.

In the 1990s the institute worked on developing aquaculture methods for mussel farming. Its Glenhaven Aquaculture Centre was established in 1995. When the institute marked its centenary in 2021, aquaculture and freshwater and marine ecology remained a major focus for Cawthron scientists. Much enlarged (with about 300 employees, 10 times the number in the 1980s), the institute was also investigating the potential of plant-based products such as seaweed and algae, and planning to move into a new science and technology precinct at Port Nelson.

Ecology and conservation

In the late 19th century Leonard Cockayne studied the ecology of New Zealand plants, examining their roles in natural systems. Cockayne disagreed with the popular idea that native species would inevitably be displaced by northern hemisphere competitors, which were seen as superior. He concluded displacement was largely the result of human activities such as forest clearance and swamp drainage.

Cockayne was mentor to ‘the two Lucies’, botanists Lucy Moore and Lucy Cranwell. They carried out important ecological field trips throughout New Zealand, including studies of alpine plants on Te Moehau, marine algae on the Poor Knights Islands and forest ecology on Maungapōhatu.

The Wildlife Service and the Department of Conservation

The Wildlife Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs was created in 1945 to conserve native species, manage game animals and control exotic pests. In 1946 Les Pracey of the Wildlife Branch and Kazimierz Wodzicki of the DSIR carried out the first studies into possum destruction of the New Zealand bush.

The Wildlife Branch studied game birds that had been released into the wild as well as browsing mammals including deer. It also protected native birds. Researchers pioneered techniques of pest eradication and the capture, breeding and transfer of endangered species to offshore islands.

The Wildlife Branch was renamed the Wildlife Service in 1974. It was merged into the new Department of Conservation (DOC) in 1987, and the pioneering work on endangered species recovery continued. There Don Merton received world recognition for his work with saddlebacks (tieke), Chatham Island black robins and kākāpō.

Razza the rat

In 2004 James Russell’s team of University of Auckland scientists released a single male Norway rat, complete with radio-tag, on rat-free Motuhoropapa Island. They were studying the difficulty of removing small rat populations from islands. Razza the rat escaped capture for 18 weeks, ignoring food traps, baffling trained rat dogs, and even swimming to another island. The fugitive rat made international news, was the subject of scientific papers and inspired a children’s book by Witi Ihimaera: The amazing adventures of Razza the rat.

Rodent invasion studies and island ecology

In the 21st century New Zealand scientists continued pioneering work on the ecology of offshore islands.

James Russell and Mick Clout led a group of University of Auckland scientists investigating the exploratory behaviour of Norwegian rats in the early stages of an island invasion. They deliberately introduced an all-male group of rats to a rat-free island and studied their behaviour from arrival. Another group studied the introduction of house mice to an island. Both experiments aimed to develop better methods of detecting and eradicating rodents.

Scientists have also investigated the use of genetic markers to determine whether rodents on an island following an eradication programme are new invaders or survivors from an earlier population. The expertise developed means that New Zealand scientists now work all around the world on island conservation projects.

Blue cod genetics

In 2012 Hayden Smith and Peter Ritchie began working on the population genetics of New Zealand blue cod. They wanted to establish whether New Zealand had one large intermixed population or several discrete populations in different inshore areas. Discovering more about the genetic relationships of blue cod populations would enable more careful management of cod populations around the coast.

Genomics in ecology

Genomic studies, involving the complete DNA sets of particular species, have great value in ecological studies. Genomics give precise information on species found in a particular habitat, on the structure of breeding populations, and on an area’s ecological history. Such information can play an important role in conservation management.

From 2010 Nicky Nelson, Alexei Drummond and other scientists from the Allan Wilson Centre carried out a genomic biodiversity study of Hauturu (Little Barrier Island). The aim was to categorise all species in the island’s ecosystem. One part of the study was a comparison of the plant species surviving on the island to the genomes present in organic material dug from the soil. This enabled scientists to determine which species lived on Hauturu before the introduction of browsing mammals. Such knowledge was important for making decisions about island revegetation.

The genomics revolution

In the late 20th century the life sciences were revolutionised by molecular studies. The structure of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule, through which living organisms pass on genetic information, had only been known since the early 1950s. It was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick. Maurice Wilkins, a biophysicist born in New Zealand, was one of the scientists who developed the X-ray crystallography essential to Watson and Crick’s research.

In the 1980s the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) brought a further revolution in the ability to study the structure of DNA molecules. The PCR process allowed small sections of DNA to be copied many times, creating enough material for effective analysis.

Allan Wilson

New Zealander Allan Wilson was a biochemist and evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. He was the first to test the ‘molecular clock’ theory: because molecules change at a steady rate, comparing the variations of molecules from different species should indicate their evolutionary relationships. In 1967 Wilson and anthropologist Vincent Sarich compared a particular blood protein from humans and chimpanzees. They reached the controversial conclusion that human and chimpanzee species had diverged only about five million years ago.

Wilson went on to study human evolution through mitochondrial DNA, which is passed directly down the female line of ancestry. In 1987 he proposed another controversial theory, that all modern humans could be traced back to one ancestor, ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, who lived in Africa around 200,000 years ago.

Genomics and bioinformatics

A genome is the complete set of DNA in the cell of an organism. From the early 2000s the genomes of many species, including humans, were sequenced. Genomics and other genetic techniques produce masses of information, which have to be analysed by a combination of computing, mathematics and statistics. These systems are known as bioinformatics. Genomics, combined with bioinformatics, has led to great advances in such fields as ecology, evolution, microbiology, epidemiology and biosecurity.

New Zealand institutions carrying out genomic related studies include:

  • the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution – a national collaboration between Massey, Auckland, Canterbury, Victoria and Otago universities
  • two Crown research institutes: Plant and Food Research and Landcare Research
  • Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery – based at Auckland University and carrying out biomedical and biotechnological studies
  • Regulatory Genomics Laboratory at Otago University, which in 2014, led by Dr Chris Brown, concentrated on deciphering genomes
  • Bioinformatics Institute New Zealand at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland – which uses advanced mathematics and statistics to investigate a wide range of biological subjects
  • New Zealand Genomics – a government-funded body carrying out DNA sequencing, microarray analysis and bioinformatic work.

DNA barcoding

An international scientific project began in the early 2000s to identify all species of life on earth by a scheme known as ‘DNA barcoding’. The scheme involves sampling and comparing the same specific section of DNA from different organisms, in the hope that this sequence can be used to accurately identify species. In New Zealand and internationally the early studies for this project were carried out on birds. The idea was to build up a genetic picture of a well-known group of species to test the accuracy of the barcode against the existing knowledge of bird identity.

Evolutionary science

By comparing the DNA sequences of different species, scientists have gained a better idea of their systematics, or evolutionary relationships. Species include:

  • the New Zealand parrots – kākā, kākāpō and kea
  • takahē and pūkeko, along with swamp hens from neighbouring countries
  • New Zealand geckos
  • cicadas
  • many types of plants including Veronica (formerly Hebe), Dracophyllum and kauri.

Genomic work on systematics has been particularly useful in looking at the relationships of invertebrates. Thomas Buckley of Landcare Research has worked on stick insects, wētā, earthworms and terrestrial molluscs, showing how they came to live in their current habitats. This work has assisted efforts to save rare species such as giant wētā and native snails.

Citizen science

Amateur researchers have always played an important role in science. The internet has expanded the potential for the public’s involvement in science. One such project is the annual garden bird survey when people around New Zealand record the birds they see in their gardens over one hour. The results are then sent in to the co-ordinators of the study. Another project is the the ebird scheme run by Cornell University, in which New Zealand bird watchers can now add observations to an international bird database.

Since 1984 DNA has been sampled from the remains of many extinct animals, including cave bears, mammoths and moa. Ancient DNA studies have given insight into the number of moa species, the relationship between moa and kiwi, and the relationship of New Zealand’s extinct Haast’s eagle to surviving eagle species.

Studies on living and extinct species have indicated that the majority of New Zealand’s plant and animal species are descended from ancestors that reached the islands after the split from the larger continent of Gondwana.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Life sciences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 October 2014