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A Leaf from the Natural History of New Zealand


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The Natural History of these islands, compared with that of other countries, appears very defective. The only land animal which we are at present acquainted with, as being indigenous, is the rat; and the only imported one, prior to the arrival of Europeans, was the dog. The original rat is now nearly exterminated by the Norway rat, which has already multiplied to such an extent, as perhaps to be more numerous than the native one ever was.

Noxious reptiles have no place in New Zealand; neither snake, toad, nor frog, has been found. A snake was said to have been seen at Hokianga, which some captain brought with him from Sydney; but it is most probable, if such were the case, it accidentally came in the fuel, and there is every reason to hope it did not live to perpetuate its race.

The existence of a beaver in the Middle Island is also affirmed, but the foundation on which the report rests is uncertain.

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Several varieties of the lizard were in existence until lately, but none of any size; since the introduction of the cat they have so rapidly disappeared, that ere long they will most probably be either totally extinct, or so scarce as seldom to be met with. The largest kind I have seen is the ruatara, which is about eighteen inches long; but, if native reports are to be credited, very large lizards have existed, which were as terrible to them as ancient legends represent the dragons to have been, which are said formerly to have inhabited every part of Christendom; and in some parts the natives affirm larger lizards than any we have seen are still in existence. The ruatara, though viewed with extreme dread by the natives, appears to be perfectly harmless. It has a large benevolent looking eye, rounded teeth, and a serrated white comb along its back. It burrows, and is extremely slow in all its movements.

The natives also speak of a wild man of the woods—the maero, who is represented as principally residing on the inaccessible heights of the Tararua range. He is said to be as tall as a man, and covered with hair, with very long arms; it is only in scarce seasons when he is seen; he then visits the plains and carries off any unfortunate straggler he may meet with. It is not improbable a few solitary remains of a more ancient race of natives still exist in the more remote and inaccessible fastnesses of the island, and that this is the origin of the tale; the natives themselves affirm when they first came they found a thinly scattered tribe in the occupation of the soil.

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Though this country is so destitute of land animals, and there is no other of similar extent equally so, still its Ornithology presents a remarkable peculiarity. Cut off, as New Zealand is, from every other part of the globe, by a wide expanse of ocean, we cannot wonder that its fauna should be so small; still the ancient existence of several species of the apterix, and one of gigantic proportions, far exceeding any now found in any other part of the world, is very remarkable. The fabled roc here seems to have had an actual existence, except its being wingless. The bones of the Moa, which are scattered through the land on which it once lived in solitary grandeur, are equal in magnitude to those of the elephant, and on the most moderate computation, it must have stood fourteen feet high. Although native reports still assign it a place in the land of the living, we have little expectation of seeing it; like all these solitary birds it has disappeared, and as it was the largest, so has it probably been the first to depart. The dodo has followed it, and several varieties of the kiwi as well. The apterix appears to be a proscribed family, either the climate of the earth has changed, or the encroachments of men have prevailed. The natives have many proverbs alluding to the moa, from which we learn it was a fat bird, and of a red colour; and to express the total extinction of a tribe, it is said to have been destroyed as completely as the moa; there is still a hunting song in existence relative to it.

There are also the remains of another bird of the same family, equal to the emu of New Holland, page x or perhaps still larger; its bones are very abundant: and another about three feet high; this is extinct in the Northern Island, but there is great reason to suppose it still exists in the Middle Island; and last comes the kiwi, which is yet by no means a scarce bird. It is found in the deep recesses of the forest, from whence it is only driven forth by violent storms, when, its haunts being covered with water, it seeks the plain, and then its shrill plaintive cry being heard it soon falls an easy prey. It is hunted with dogs, and surprised by the light of the torch. It has a long beak, with its nostrils at the extremity; its colour is a reddish-brown, and the construction of its feathers is similar to that of the emu's. The dog and cat hunt this bird of their own accord, and are, it is to be feared, too successful in their sport.

The next family of birds to be noticed is that of the rail, which naturally follows the apterix. There are about four known genera of this order in New Zealand; the largest, the moko, is described as being almost equal to a fowl in size, and formerly so abundant as to form no inconsiderable portion of the natives' support. It is a black bird, with a red bill and red legs, and scarcely any appearance of wings. Speaking of this bird, they say that, since the arrival of Europeans, it has almost become extinct; formerly it abounded. Wherever the European goes, the dog, the cat, and the rat follow, and these are greater enemies than man himself to these helpless denizens of the forest. Next comes the weka, which is an elegant bird, rather less than a barn-door fowl page xi in size; the common name given it is the woodhen. This bird is still found in the interior of the south end of the Northern Island; —it is not seen in the North, but is most abundant in the Middle Island: it inhabits the forest, and is of a reddish-brown colour in every part except the neck, which is of a slate colour. The next is a small bird, the kakatia; and the last is the moakorua, a very diminutive one of elegant form, not so large in the body as a sparrow, with long slender beak and feet; it is found in swamps. The rail, as well as the apterix, is a night bird.

After these two families must be noticed the kaka-po, a large ground parrot; its name signifies, the night-parrot; it scarcely flies: its colour is green and yellow, and its size quite that of the fowl. The natives describe two varieties, one as being larger than the kiwi. It was formerly very abundant, but now is rare, so that it is seldom met with in the Northern Island; it is more abundant in the Middle Island. I have only seen one.

There are only two birds of passage, the pipiwarauroa, a beautiful little bird, and the kohoperoa, the New Zealand cuckoo. These two birds are hailed as the harbingers of summer; they only remain about six weeks, and are called the birds of Hawaiki.

It is not improbable the pelican occasionally visits these islands, but this rests on native reports.

The white crane is sometimes seen, but so rarely, that there is a saying when any great page xii stranger comes that he is like the kotukutuku, which is only once seen in a man's life.

New Zealand possesses about six kinds of butterflies, and twice as many varieties of the beetle. The only noxious insects are the namu, a small black sand fly, the waeroa or mosquito, and a small black spider with a red spot on its back, the katipo, the bite of which appears to be very poisonous, occasioning a violent swelling of the part. In this department the most singular thing is the aweto or vegetating caterpillar, which is found in every part of the Northern Island.

New Zealand is rich in pines, possessing about twelve varieties, amongst which is the noble kauri and the durable totara, the hutu in the North and the toatoa, used in dyeing, in the South. In the North of this island the puriri flourishes, which is our teak, and by far the most durable of all the New Zealand trees, the timber of which in general is rather perishable. Several trees flourish in the North which are not seen in the South, as the hutu, a pine, the puriri, the tariri, the manawa, and the beautiful pohutukawa, which is found only on the sea coast, excepting on a small island in the Rotorua, and another in the Taupo, lake. The forest contains two species of the pepper, one resembling the cava of the South Sea Islands; the other the horopito, a laurel very pungent and aromatic. Of the trees it may be remarked, that one great proof of the natives having come from Tahiti is, that many of the names of the trees here are similar to those of that island, the natives naturally giving the names page xiii they were familiar with to the trees most nearly resembling those of their own country.

New Zealand possesses several beautiful flowering shrubs, amongst the foremost of which must be placed the kowaingutukaka; it is however very doubtful whether it be indigenous.

New Zealand perhaps has a more scanty flora than any other country of equal extent, yet it has several beautiful flowers; two species of the hibiscus, one bearing a large flower equal to the holyoke in size; this is only found near the North Cape; and a beautiful salvia, which is also peculiar to that part. In the South are several kinds of the aster. It is especially rich in ferns, mosses, fungi, and lichens; of the ferns there are more than one hundred different kinds, of the fungi nearly twelve edible ones.

In Ichthyology it numbers the mako—the shark which has the tooth so highly prized by the natives; this is only found in a certain latitude, between 25° and 35° S.

The Conchology of New Zealand numbers several fine varieties of the trochus, particularly the trochus imperialis, which is very common in the vicinity of Kapiti, a fine large grooved strombus, only found near Cape Van Diemen, and a large V. triton, peculiar to the same part.

Though land shells are rare, yet there are many different kinds of them which are all extremely interesting. The finest and largest is a cone-shaped helix, found chiefly near the North Cape, and not seen south of the Bay of Islands. The next, page xiv which is a large flat helix nearly three inches in diameter, is found between the Bay and Kawia. A third variety of the helix, about the size of the common English field snail-shell, is found as far south as the Waitara, and thence the shells become very minute; but amongst them there are three varieties of snails, which will be considered as great curiosities; they may be correctly termed the land haliolis: the largest possesses a shield one inch in length on its back, and inhabits the interior; it is very rare. The other two kinds I have only noticed in the Southern part of this island.

The Geology of New Zealand is highly interesting; but I shall only make a few general remarks upon it here. It is a volcanic country; the powers first employed in its elevation are still in action; there is a continued line of craters, which still have boiling springs in them, from one end of the North Island to the other; probably Mount Erebus, the recently discovered volcano of the South Pole, may be considered as our safety valve; in the middle and southern part of the North Island earthquakes are extremely frequent, seldom a month elapsing without a shock being felt; these are generally partial in extent, following the course of fissures, and according to their degree of power act upon the level of the land; the many changes of levels seen on the Western coast abundantly prove this to be the case, as well as the stages of elevation inland show how repeatedly the land has been raised above, or depressed below, the level of the sea; and that the same changes are going on here on a page xv smaller scale, which are still taking place in South America, with which it is parallel. The grand basis of the North Island is whinstone, above which is clay, and in most places coal. In the northern extremity of the North Island the whinstone approaches the surface, giving the face of the country a very uneven appearance; whilst in the middle it is only found at a great depth, being covered with thick strata of clay, gravel, sand, &c.; but it again makes its appearance on the surface at Wellington, the south extremity of the island.

Through the interior runs a limestone range which is remarkably destitute of fossils. In general it crops out in the form of pillars, and gives a very romantic appearance to the landscape. Chasms abound in those regions, but they contain no fossil remains. In the interior there are numerous craters, but from one only is fire occasionally emitted. Tongariro, the loftiest mountain of the North Island, always smokes, and sometimes sends forth flames, which the natives believe to be a sure token of a bloody war. Boiling springs are numerous both at Taupo and Rotorua; in the neighbourhood of the former they deposit silex, in the latter chiefly pipe-clay. One spring at Taupo possesses the power of turning whatever substance is immersed in it into stone, preserving all the original characteristics of its nature, but completely converting it into a beautiful silicious stone; but whatever substance any of the water happens only to flow over, is, on the contrary, merely covered by an incrustation. Sulphur in those parts abounds. Copper and lead ores, together with good coal, page xvi have been found in considerable quantities. It is very probable as we become better acquainted with the Middle Island, that all these and the more precious metals will be found in much greater abundance. Granite has not been discovered in the Northern, whilst it abounds in the Southern, Island.

From the Geographical position of these islands, it appears highly probable that they once formed part of a grand chain extending from Papua to the Auckland isles. There are soundings from the Three Kings to Norfolk Island; and whilst some of the productions of this country are found in Norfolk Island and Lord Howe's Island, many also are found in the Auckland isles.

The general features of the country are far from being pleasing, with the exception of the interior grassy plains—the country is covered either with dense forest or with fern; the greater portion of the surface is very mountainous; in this country all the hills are sharp pointed, as if nothing had disturbed them since their first upheavement. The present surface may be viewed as only the back bone of a future country. The shallow seas off both the East and West coasts, and the frequency of earthquakes, render it more than probable that at some future time extensive districts of level land will be gained from the sea, although it is now making great inroads on both those sides of the island.

The two highest mountains in this island are Tongariro and Taranaki, the former being estimated at 16,000 feet high, the latter at 9,000.

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Wherever there are inland craters, there are lakes which are proportioned in size to the elevation of the mountain. Taupo has a diameter of thirty-five miles each way, and is styled te moana, the sea; and around Rotorua there is a cluster of about sixteen lakes of various sizes. The principal rivers take their rise from Tongariro; these are the Waikato and the Wanganui, the former having a course of about four hundred miles, the latter of half that distance.

There can be but little doubt that the aboriginal race, at no very remote period, came from some of the South Sea Islands. The resemblance of person, manners, customs, and language, clearly assures us of this; to which may be added their own traditions, which preserve the name of the country they came from, as well as the names of the canoes with the chiefs who came in them; they have also traditions of the food they introduced, and a genealogical table of their generations from the time of their arrival to the present period. Whether Hawaiki, the island they came from, be one of the Sandwich islands or not it is difficult to say, although the similarity of name seems to identify it. The affinity of language with that of the Malays seems to point out a common origin to the two; but it is not improbable the Malay, as well as the New Zealander, may have wandered from another spot. Where the source of this wide spread race is to be found is yet to be discovered.*

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Few aboriginal races have been so distinguished for cruelty, love of war, and cannibalism, as this; yet it is remarkable that the natives of New Zealand have no regular canine tooth; and they say that their sanguinary disposition has been acquired only since their arrival in this country.

They have always been a religious people; and debased and degraded as they originally were, they still undertook no enterprise without prayer, and in all their difficulties invoked the aid of their deities, most of whom were deified chiefs; and it is remarkable that in the district of Wanganui only was image worship used. Their ideas of the Creation are curious; each department of nature not only having a separate Creator, but also the different divisions of the same department, the dog, the rat, the lizard, had each its particular father, as they styled him. The tapu, which is common to this wide spread aboriginal race, is to be viewed more as a political than a religious institution, intended to uphold the authority of the chief, and to maintain his dignity amongst those who viewed themselves too much on an equality to yield obedience to his will without this adjunct to his power. A more intimate acquaintance with the religious customs of this singular race will tend to throw light on their origin, and well repay the page xix search. The remarkable resemblance of many of their customs to those of the Jews would almost entitle us to suppose they were connected with the lost tribes of Israel. Whatever may be the case, to those who have made this country their adopted home it must be a subject of the greatest interest.

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* There is a tradition preserved amongst the natives of the interior, of their having had three distinct migrations before they reached New Zealand. The point from which they first came being called Hawaiki-tawiti-nui, from thence they arrived at Hawai-patata, where they remained for a certain period, until perhaps their numbers were too large for the island, when they abandoned it and came to Hawaiki-kite-moutere, where they also stayed some time, and thence finally reached New Zealand.