Story: European discovery of plants and animals

Page 5. Naturalists: 1840s–1890s

All images & media in this story

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.

How to cite this page:

John Andrews, 'European discovery of plants and animals - Naturalists: 1840s–1890s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 July 2021)

Story by John Andrews, published 24 Sep 2007