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Tuatara: Volume 24, Issue 2, August 1980

Book Reviews: — The Geological History of New Zealand and Its Life

Book Reviews:
The Geological History of New Zealand and Its Life

As Sir Charles Fleming explains in the preface, this book is an updated reprint of an article entitled The Geological History of New Zealand and its Biota, published in 1975 in volume 27 of Monographiae Biologicae. The average student and lay reader will be grateful to the publishers for this new version. The book is not just for the initiated, but carefully worded to be understood by the novice. The attempt to simplify the language goes a little too far in places. For example, the title of Chapter 5, “Pleistocene Ice Ages”, perpetuates a long-standing layman's misconception, and is inaccurate. Even a first-year undergraduate today should know that the “ice ages” to which the author refers started well before the Pleistocene Epoch, and also that the Holocene Epoch which is treated in the same chapter is not a part of the Pleistocene. I foresee endless explanations to students who read this chapter.

I don't want to discredit the book; far from it! It is going to be very useful for teaching, containing suitable material for all undergraduate stages, and for Continuing Education classes. It is also a useful research reference both for the highly authoritative views of the author and for locating the many sources of his data. It is a very versatile book, Syntheses of New Zealand geology are all too few, and very seldom as comprehensive as this one.

The main purpose of the book is to outline the biogeographic history of New Zealand, as far as it is known at present. The student of geology must not be put off by this reference to biogeography. The author disassociates himself from particular biogeographic theories and philosophies, drawing attention to Wallace's comment in 1855 that the fossil record provides indispensible data for understanding how the modern biogeography has developed. The book is strongly oriented towards geology as is to be expected from an author page 88 who, while he has never forgotten his training in biology, has spent his working life in the employment of the New Zealand Geological Survey gaining renown as a geologist.

Sir Charles has always been the most prolific writer on New Zealand's biogeographic history, and it is natural therefore that his book draws heavily on his own earlier articles. Two that were probably the most widely read were published in previous issues of Tuatara (1949, 1962). Others have appeared in various New Zealand and international journals. The book is not merely a rehash of the earlier articles and the concepts laid down in them are modified and amplified in the light of modern data and ideas from many sources, as attested by the long list of references (which itself is invaluable for the student).

Within its 141 pages the book encapsulates an up-to-date outline of the last 250 million years of New Zealand's paleogeographic history — from a minuscule part of the giant Gondwanaland continent's edge to the present microcontinent alone in the Southwest Pacific. Together with this is a wealth of information about the fossils, both plant and animal, their nature, distributions and relationships. Pre-Permian geological history receives only a passing mention because not much has been known about the pre-Permian fossils until very recently (since the book was written). Five pages are devoted to the Palaeozoic, 22 to the Mesozoic, 27 to the Tertiary and 36 to the Quaternary. This proportional representation reflects the geological law of increasing returns with decreasing age. It would not happen in Britain where the Tertiary is poorly developed (a bit of dirt on top), and probably not in North America. But here in New Zealand the Tertiary and Quaternary Series form the most important part of our geology, both aerially and economically. Chapter 5, despite its inaccurate title mentioned earlier, is perhaps the most entertaining one in the book, bringing together for the first time accounts of the Quaternary climatic influences on plants, marine invertebrates, land snails (Paryphanta), parrots and wrens, and cicadas (the author's hobby-study); there is also a brief but informative section on the influence of the Maoris and their introduced animals.

The book is amply illustrated by black and white diagrams and drawings of fossils. Many of the diagrams are taken directly from the author's earlier publications, and quantitative ages on some of them have not been brought up to date. Because the diagrams were originally published at different times the quantitative ages are sometimes inconsistent. For example the base of the pliocene is dated at 7 million years on figures 13 and 15 and about 13 million years on figure 31. Since the early 1970's the generally accepted age for the base of the Pliocene has been about 5 million years. The serious reader can cope with this by pencilling in revised ages. The drawings of fossils vary in quality because the block-maker has had to contend with originals from different sources with different page 89 line thicknesses and intensities of shading. Many are too black. Readers will accept the imperfections because a comparable set of fossil illustrations is not available in any other popular publication.

The faults of the book are outweighed by the virtues. It is to be dipped into from time to time, rather than read from cover to cover. New Zealand's biogeographic history is still too poorly known to provide better than a series of episodes. As this stage of our knowledge no author could pretend to give any more than a progress bulletin. Sir Charles does not intend anything more; he is fully aware of the limitations of the data at present, and of the rate at which the data are increasing. His book will serve admirably for a time. At seven dollars it is good value for money.


Department of Geology
Victoria University of Wellington