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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Poverty Bay's Natural History Prizes

Poverty Bay's Natural History Prizes

Historic Moa Bone, Sea Snakes and Perfect Sea Tree

Although it is improbable that the trader Joel Samuel Polack (who visited the East Coast in 1835 and 1836) came across a moa bone earlier than Captain J. W. Harris (who settled in Poverty Bay in 1831), it was he who first made it known that New Zealand had been the habitat of huge, flightless birds. In New Zealand: Travels and Adventures (London, 1838), vol. 1, p. 303, he says that, whilst he was residing in the vicinity of East Cape, he was shown several large fossil ossifications of “a species of emu or a bird of the genus Struthio … said to have been found at the base of the inland mountain Ikorangi [Hikurangi].” He adds: “The natives claim to have received tradition that very large birds had existed, but the scarcity of animal food, as well as the easy method of entrapping them, had caused their extermination.”

Whilst Captain Harris was on a visit to Sydney in 1837, he notified a Dr. John Rule (who, according to T. Lindsay Buick, was an uncle by marriage), then residing at Windsor, 34 miles distant, that he had left with a Mrs. Pike, of Sydney, a box of curios for him. His letter is dated 28 February, 1837. In regard to a piece of bone which he had included, he told Dr. Rule that the natives of Poverty Bay had a tradition “that it belonged to a bird of the Eagle kind, but which had become extinct. They call it ‘a movie.’ They are found in the banks of rivers.” The fact that Harris's informants coupled the bone with a bird of flight would appear to indicate that the eagle (harpagornis) outlived the moa in Poverty Bay.

Convinced that the bone was that of a huge, extinct eagle, Dr. Rule took it to England in 1839. He showed it to Professor R. Owen, Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons (London), who, although very sceptical at first, eventually satisfied himself, by scientific tests, that “it must have formed part of a skeleton as large as, if not larger than, that of a full-sized male ostrich, with the more striking difference that, whereas the femur of the ostrich, like that of the rhea and the, eagle, is ‘pneumatic,’ or contains air, the present huge bird's bone had been filled with marrow, like that of a beast.” A copy of Harris's letter to Rule is among the Owen correspondence in the Natural History section of the British Museum at South Kensington (London), where the Harris bone is among the exhibits.

Meanwhile, William Williams, W. Colenso, J. Stack and J. Matthews had paid a visit to Waiapu at the beginning of 1838. Colenso (Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 1879, p. 64) says that they were told by the natives about “a certain monstrous animal: while some said that it was a bird, and others a person, all agreed that it was called a ‘moa.’” It was described as an immense cock … having a face like that of a man.” The natives added that the “sole survivor lived on Whakapunake page 371 [a mountain about 30 miles south-west of Gisborne], that it lived on air, and that it was attended, or guarded, by two immense tuataras, who, Argus-like, kept incessant watch whilst the moa slept …” The tradition given to Polack two or three years earlier was that the creatures were “atuas (gods) … in the form of birds, which had waylaid travellers in the forests … killing and devouring them.”

Strangely enough, the Rev. R. Taylor (who accompanied Mr. Williams to Waiapu in 1839) avers that he never heard the name “moa” until he went to reside in Wanganui in 1843. “I found,” he says, “that the natives of the west coast [of the North Island] were totally ignorant of the name given [to the moa] on the other side of the island, viz., the ‘tarepo.’” The tarepo, however, was a wingless goose, for which Professor Owen proposed the name “Cnemiornis calcitrans.” Evidence given in March, 1895, in the Native Land Court at Opotiki (minute book No. 7) in the Kapuarangi block case suggests that the tarepo outlived the moa in the Bay of Plenty. Paora Ngamoki told Judge Scannell that kiwi, weka and tarepo [Judge's note: “An extinct bird as big as a goose”] inhabited Kapuarangi. Ngamoki added that he had obtained his information from his grandparents. Apparently his immediate forbears were unacquainted with the moa.

Moa Footprints Found at Gisborne

Moa footprints were first observed in New Zealand on the left bank of Waikanae Creek close to its entrance into Turanganui River at Gisborne. Some stone slabs bearing the markings were sent to the Auckland Museum in 1871. In an address to the Auckland Philosophical Society (29 May, 1871), W. L. Williams said that the footprints included some made by a young bird. When he first examined them in 1866 they were in such a soft state that he was unable to remove any of them, but he had preserved them by covering them with a mixture of lime and sand. A cast of one was sent to the Vienna Exhibition in 1873. Other footprints were uncovered in the same locality in 1884. G. J. Black and W. E. Goffe obtained some fine specimens in May, 1912.

An important discovery of moa bones was made, by chance, by Geoffrey Swarbrick at the back of his property at Otoko in December, 1930. Whilst he was resting on a ridge he thrust his hand into a sink-hole. It came in contact with a bone which proved to be that of a moa. Clearing away the pumice from the aperture, he was able to enter, but not to stand upright in, the cavity. It was found to contain the bones of about a dozen moas, the largest, which Mr. Goffe mounted for him, being about 6 feet high. Massive rocks formed the sides and the roof of the hole, which must have been much larger when the moas took refuge in it during a tremendous upheaval accompanied by volcanic activity.

The first discoverer of a sea-eel (or sea-snake) in New Zealand waters was a Poverty Bay native named Puni Horua. He came across one in a tidal creek near Makaraka on 24 June, 1869. It was 34 inches long and dark chestnut in colour, except in the case of the belly, which was of a golden shade. Mr. Atkinson, R.M., sent it to Wellington. It was regarded by Dr. Hector as belonging to a new species, which he named “Ophisurus Novoe Zealandioe.” As there were no organic remains in the stomach, he thought that it might have just emerged from its winter quarters in the mud. On 5 April, 1889, a specimen (4 feet long) was found in a creek near Tuparoa. A native named Jacob obtained a live specimen (2 feet long) on Waikanae Beach on 3 April, 1894. One caught at Mahia in May, 1938, was the eleventh to be found on the coasts of New Zealand.

Much alarm was occasioned among the East Coast natives in August, page 372 1891, by a report that a sea-serpent had been seen off Portland Island by the officers of s.s. Rotomahana. They stated that it had risen out of the water to a great height, that it was about 100 feet long, and that it had a black back and a white belly. Two 10-ft. fins were added to its alleged make-up. As Hawke's Bay had just experienced a severe earthquake the general opinion was that what had been seen was the trunk of a large tree which had been wrenched from the bed of the sea.

Wild rumours were current in July, 1913, to the effect that a strange monster was roaming off the East Coast. Officers of s.s. Mokoia claimed to have seen it off East Cape, and the crew of s.s. Rosamond averred that they had observed it between Tolaga Bay and Gisborne. It was described as being between 60 feet and 80 feet long, sinuous and square-headed, and equipped with three large fins along its back. There was, it was added, a large growth, like a cock's comb, where the head joined the body. A school of porpoises was said to be in attendance upon it.

Humorous Hoax

High hopes were entertained in Poverty Bay in September, 1898, that the district was again about to enrich the world's storehouse of natural history by producing, on this occasion, a specimen of the fearsome reptilian monster referred to in Maori tradition as the kumi. A deaf and dumb Maori worker, who had been sent to remove the undergrowth from the base of a rata tree on Arowhana (the property of W. D. Lysnar), returned to the homestead in what appeared to be a very agitated state. By means of signs and sketches, he informed the manager that he had been disturbed by a reptile 6 feet long and a foot high. It had, he claimed, two pairs of legs, a large mouth and curved teeth.

Mr. Lysnar and a party set out at once from Gisborne with the object of taking the reptile alive. Their gear included several rolls of wire netting to make a fence around the tree. Even when “Dummy” informed the hunters that he had returned to the spot to recover his slasher their suspicions were not aroused. On the other hand, they were greatly encouraged when he indicated that the kumi had had the temerity to put its head out of a hole and stare at him! Members of the party were stationed with guns at vantage points, and, after a long wait, the tree was thoroughly examined, but all in vain.

The subject was discussed at meetings of several branches of the New Zealand Philosophical Institute. In general, the leading naturalists proved very sceptical. Interest in the matter quickly faded when Mr. H. Hill, of Napier, confessed that, during the previous year, he had been hoaxed by this self-same “Dummy,” who had guided him to a very remote spot in Poverty Bay where, he claimed, he had found an oil spring. When they reached it the spring had disappeared without leaving a single trace!

Tuamotu Island (near the north head of Poverty Bay) was one of several localities along the coasts of the North Island in which, according to the Maoris, a forest grew on the seabed. In 1877, Captain G. Mair was shown a piece of a so-called “sea-tree.” It had been obtained off Whale Island. The natives made fishing hooks from it. Whilst it was green it was easily bent; upon becoming dry it proved as hard as ebony. Pieces from the Three Kings Island and elsewhere were, in later years, sent to various museums.

A perfect specimen of a sea-tree was brought up from a depth of 50 fathoms by Mr. Zame whilst he was fishing off the Ariel Reef (near Poverty Bay) in July, 1943, Mr. A. J. Cox sent it to the Auckland Museum. Mr. A. W. B. Powell (assistant director) informed him that it was of especial interest because it was complete with holdfast and the page 373 boulder to which it was attached. The sea-tree, he explained, was not a vegetable growth, but was produced by a black coral known as anti-patharian. Dr. Oliver (director of the Dominion Museum) wrote to Mr. Cox stating that he would have liked to have had an opportunity to examine this live specimen, with its attached organisms. “Actually,” he added, “the ‘tree’ is the skeleton of an animal related to the sea anemone.”


Several peculiar fishes have been found in and around Poverty Bay. In May, 1886, a fish taken from the Taruheru River had horns like a snail and a fin which extended all along its back. A fish caught in Poverty Bay in June, 1899, was 3 feet long and 9 inches through. Its tail was like a shark's. In the dorsal fin there was a 6-inch spine. The snout had a flap an inch wide and three inches long. A frog fish, which had “legs” and a spike above the eyes, was secured in June, 1901. Whilst the Atlanta was off Portland Island in January, 1892, a flying fish 10½ inches long landed on the deck. In September, 1938, F. Faram caught a cone fish at Opoutama. It was about 4 inches long, resembled a schnapper, and was covered with hard, bony, pentagonal plates.

The largest fish ever caught at Gisborne was a sunfish (orthageriscus mola). Whilst some men were at work on the breakwater on 12 December, 1889, they saw it on the eastern side, about a quarter of a mile off. W. J. Fox and three of his mates rowed over to the spot, brought it to the surface again by dropping a plug of dynamite, and towed it to the breakwater. After it died, a worm (like a piece of narrow tape and several yards long) emerged from its mouth. The length of the sunfish from snout to tail was 9 feet 8 inches, and its depth, from tip to tip of fins, was 11 feet 6 inches. It was covered with small red insects, the flesh was like white India rubber, and the eye opened out to the size of a 56lb. shot. In October, 1938, a smaller specimen was hooked on a schnapper line off the Gisborne breakwater.

Thirteen rats which J. B. Lee caught at Waipiro Bay in May, 1918, were greyish-white on the back and paler underneath, the tail was as long as the head and body combined, and measured up to 5½ inches, and the ears were round and large. The description tallies with that given of the Maori rat by Hutton and Drummond in “The Animals of New Zealand” (1923).