Story: European discovery of plants and animals

Page 3. Expeditions and surveys: 1830s–1870s

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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.

How to cite this page:

John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals - Expeditions and surveys: 1830s–1870s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/european-discovery-of-plants-and-animals/page-3 (accessed 20 September 2020)

Story by John Andrews, published 24 Sep 2007