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Tuatara: Volume 2, Issue 3, September 1949

Vertebrate Palaeontology in New Zealand

page 103

Vertebrate Palaeontology in New Zealand

In the following brief survey of vertebrate palaeontology in New Zealand no account will be given of the Pleistocene specimens. It is possible only to give a general survey as in many cases more work is required before the group is properly known, but an attempt is made to indicate the principal literature of the subject and to give an idea of the vertebrate groups represented by fossils in this country.


The fossil fishes were dealt with as a whole by Chapman in 1918, and many teleosts later by Frost. These papers list the species and their localities and it is unnecessary to do so here. Species appear to have been described only from the Cretaceous and Tertiary. Of the Selachii Chapman lists 7 species from the Cretaceous, 23 from the Tertiary and 5 common to both. These are represented by isolated teeth, which are not uncommon in rocks of Upper Cretaceous and Tertiary age. The centra of vertebrae and fin spines also occur occasionally. There are remains of 2 Holocephali, one a species of Callorhynchus, both from the Upper Cretaceous of Amuri Bluff.

Most of the Teleosts are described by Frost from otoliths, and come from beds of Early Tertiary age. He describes 44 species, 29 of which are new. Only two Teleosts seem to have been recorded from rocks older than the Tertiary. Chapman mentions scales from the Upper Cretaceous of Amuri Bluff and the Clarence Valley, Marlborough, which he attributes to ? Thrissopater sp., and a specimen of Diplomystus coverhamensis, also from the Clarence Valley. Two fossil fishes from the Abbotsford Mudstone and the Burnside Marl have been described by Chapman, and several specimens have been collected from later rocks in Frazer's Gully, also in the Dunedin district. The tail of a large Tunny from the Oliogocene limestone at Duntroon, N. Otago, and the bones of another large fish from the greensand of the Hakataramea Valley are in the Otago Museum. They have not yet been described.


Quite a number of reptilian fossils have been collected in the Mesozoic rocks in various parts of the South Island, mostly from the Upper Cretaceous. There are some tantalisingly brief references in the literature to “saurian bones,” sometimes in older rocks, but specimens are not available, and ideas as to the age of the rocks from which they came may have changed with subsequent stratigraphical research. Park refers to Ichthyosaurus bones from Mt. St. Mary, near Kurow in N. Otago, and from Mt. Potts in Canterbury. These were said to be from Triassic beds, which would be an early date for an Ichthyo- page 104saurus, the earliest known species of which come from the Triassic of Spitzbergen and California. Hector, describing the single vertebra from Mt. Potts, quotes Haast to the effect that there are there beds of conglomerate with great quantities of well-rounded pieces of bone. Park also refers to saurian bones in Triassic rocks at Wells Creek, Nelson. Romer (p. 594) lists Myopterygius from the Upper Cretaceous of New Zealand, but I have not found his authority for this statement.

The majority of the reptiles come from the Upper Cretaceous of the Amuri, Cheviot and Waipara districts in North Canterbury. First discovered by Hood in 1861, specimens were sent to Owen who described 3 species of Plesiosaurus. In 1868 Hood made another collection which was lost by shipwreck on the way to England. Haast examined the specimens before they were sent and mentions that one block contained the major portion of a skull at least three feet long. He also mentions that there were specimens, from the small seams of brown coal in the district, which consisted of a procoelous vertebra and part of a femur which he thought to be of terrestrial type and compared to that of Iguanodon! Further collections were made in the same locality, and also at Amuri Bluff, and several tons of rock containing bones were taken to the Colonial (now the Dominion) Museum and to the Canterbury Museum. These were described by Hector, who states that “portions of 43 individual reptiles, mostly of gigantic size and all of aquatic habits, and belonging to at least 13 distinct species, have been discovered.” He lists 6 species of Plesiosaurus, 1 Polycotylus and 2 Mauisaurus, all Sauropterygians, while there were 2 Mosasaurs, Liodon and Taniwhasaurus. There were also two vertebrae which he thought might be Crocodilus.

As no collecting seems to have been done for some 70 years, the writer recently visited the Waipara locality to see if more material had weathered out. The rivers here have cut deep canyons through the soft deposits, the steep sides of which are overgrown with beech trees. In the soft rock are numerous spherical concretions, up to five or six feet in diameter. They project from the cliffs and lie scattered along the bed of the streams and form a most extraordinary sight. Bones were observed in some of them, and in one case a concretion which had split in half exposed a small bone at its centre apparently forming the nucleus around which the concretion had grown. The concretions are extremely hard, and vigorous work with a pick produced little result other than a few sparks. Only one humerus of Mauisaurus, a bone some 13 inches long with a head 5 inches in diameter, and a few fragments were collected after several hours of effort.

All these reptiles are from Mesozoic rocks. The only Tertiary fossil reptiles appear to be some undescribed turtle bones in the Canterbury Museum.

page 105


The first fossil penguin bone to be discovered, the tarsus of Palaeeudyptes was found near Oamaru in 1857, and New Zealand is one of the only four localities where fossil penguins are found. One specimen is known from Australia, and many from Patagonia and from Seymour Island off the east coast of Graham Land.

The original tarsus was described by Huxley. In 1868 a number of bones, but without a tarsus, were collected near Brighton, Nelson, and attributed by Hector to the same species. About the same time, bones of two other penguins were collected near Oamaru and later described by Oliver as species of a new genus, Pachydyptes. Recently a considerable number of specimens have been collected, mostly in the greensand at Duntroon, N. Otago, but also in the Burnside Marl, Dunedin, and elsewhere. They have been described, and all the fossil penguins of New Zealand reviewed, by Marples (in M.S.S.).

So far fossil penguins have been discovered only in the South Island. One comes from Nelson, some from North Canterbury, South Canterbury near Waima'e and the Hakataramea Valley, North Otago, especially Duntroon and the Oamaru and Kakanui regions, and at Burnside near Dunedin. The oldest specimen is a fragmentary femur from Cheviot, which is at least as old as the Heretaungan stage of the Lower Eocene, while Pachydyptes comes from the Runangan stage of the Upper Eocene. Most of the specimens, assigned to the genera Palaeeudyptes, Platydyptes, Archaeospheniscus and Duntroonornis, come from the Duntroonian and Waitakian beds of the Lower and Middle Oligocene.

The fossil penguins of other countries are all assigned to the Miocene. It is interesting to notice that there are a number of differences between the fossil penguins of New Zealand and the Recent species, and that the Patagonian specimens are intermediate in structure. The Seymour Island and Australian specimens on the other hand are similar to the New Zealand ones. Even these Early Tertiary forms are fully specialised penguins, and the origin of this group from their flying ancestors must have taken place a very long time before the Oligocene. This is, of course, what would be expected from a consideration of the evolutionary history of birds in general, which does not show any important changes during Tertiary times.

Most of the species were large birds and some must have stood about five feet high. At least five genera and six species seem to be represented. Many of the specimens include a number of bones belonging to the same individual, which is important as most of the specimens found in other countries consist of isolated bones.

Flying birds as well as penguins existed in the Early Tertiary of New Zealand, but only fragments have so far been discovered. A clavicle from Duntroon, resembling that of an albatross, was described by Marples as Manu antiquus.

page 106


With the exception of the bones of a seal, said by Park to have been collected in the Burnside Marl, Dunedin, but which were never described and have been lost, the mammalian fossils are all cetacean. All the three subdivisions of the order are represented.

Skull of whalebone whale. Cetothere, in Duntroonian greensand, North Otago. Foot rule in centre. The light spots are the shells of Pectens and Brachiopods.

Skull of whalebone whale. Cetothere, in Duntroonian greensand, North Otago. Foot rule in centre. The light spots are the shells of Pectens and Brachiopods.

In 1880 McKay collected at Wharekuri, near Kurow in North Otago, a number of whale bones among which were some very large teeth of the Archaeocete Kakenodon. Other bones were attributed to page 107 this species but later proved to belong to whalebone whales, and it is doubtful how many Kakenodon bones exist. Benham has published several papers recently on fossil whales, but there are still specimens which require re-examination, and some in the museums seem to have been lost. A natural endocranial cast in the Otago Museum appears to belong to an Archaeocete (Marples) but its locality is unknown.

Bones of Squalodonts have been found in the Oligocene rocks in various parts of the South Island, and were described by Benham as belonging to the genera Prosqualodon, Microcetus and Tangaroasaurus. The last, a fragment of a jaw, was originally mistaken for that of a reptile. Some well preserved skulls and other bones are in the Otago Museum, also a natural endocranial cast probably belonging to a young Squalodont. Fragments of several individuals have been found recently at Duntroon.

Benham also described two fragments of skulls, preserved in Dunedin, and several other bones all from the Oligocene of Otago, under the name Mauicetus parki. This is one of the Cetotheres, the most primitive group of the whalebone whales. Previously they have only been known from Miocene rocks, so that Mauicetus from the Lower Oligocene is much the oldest known member of this group. Recently a more complete skull and several bones of the same individual, as well as portions of other individuals have been discovered at Duntroon in the same Lower Oligocene beds as the fossil penguins. They have not yet been developed and described but they appear to resemble Mauicetus and may represent more than one species.


Benham, W. B. 1935. A reptilian jaw from Kakanui, South Island, New Zealand. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 65. pp 232-238.

1935. The teeth of an extinct whale Microcetus hectorian, sp. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 65. pp 239-244.

1937. On Lophocephalus, a new genus of Zeuglodont Cetacea. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 67. pp 1-7.

1937. The skull and other parts of the skeleton of Prosqualodon hamiltoni n.sp. Trans.Roy.Soc.N.Z. 67. pp 8-14.

1937. Notes on some of the bones of Kakenodon onamata. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 67. pp 15-20.

1942. Mauicetus, a generic name substituted for Lophocephalus. Benham. 71. pp 260-270.

Chapman, F. 1918. Descriptions and revisions of the Cretaceous and Tertiary fish-remains of New Zealand. Palaeontological Bulletin No. 7. Geological Survey Branch. Wellington.

1935. Description of fossil fish from New Zealand. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 64. pp 117-121.

Frost, A. 1924. Otoliths of fishes from the Tertiary formations of New Zealand. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 55. pp 605-614.

1934. Otoliths of fishes from the Tertiary formations of New Zealand. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 63. pp 133-141.

Haast, J. 1869. Notes of a collection of saurian remains from the Waipara River, Canterbury, in the possession of J. H. Cockburn Hood, Esq. Trans. N.Z. Inst. 2. pp 186-189.

Hector, J. 1871. On the remains of a gigantic penguin (Palaeeudyptes antarcticus Huxley) from the Tertiary rocks on the west coast of Nelson. Trans. N.Z. Inst. 4. pp 341-346.

1873. On the fossil reptilia of New Zealand. Trans. N.Z. Inst. 6. pp 333-358.

Huxley, T. H. 1859. On a fossil bird and a fossil cetacean from New Zealand. Q.J. Geol. Soc. 15. pp 670-677.

Marples, B. J. 1946. Notes on some neognathous bird bones from the Early Tertiary of New Zealand. Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z. 76. pp 132-134.

1949. Two endocranial casts of cetaceans from the Oligocene of New Zealand. Amer. Jour. of Science. In press.

Oliver, W. R. B. 1930. New Zealand Birds. Wellington.

Park, J. 1910. The Geology of New Zealand.