Kōrero: European discovery of plants and animals

Whārangi 6. New directions: 1890s–today

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals - New directions: 1890s–today', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/european-discovery-of-plants-and-animals/page-6 (accessed 1 March 2020)

He kōrero nā John Andrews, i tāngia i te 24 Sep 2007