Sunday, 2 September 2018

New Zealand's Mystery Animal

     Going through my papers, I discovered a translation I made from the German more than forty years ago on the waitoreke, an alleged native mammal of New Zealand. It's not doing much good lying on my desk, so I might as well share it with you. Once more, I have preferred accuracy of translation to elegant English. Nevertheless, some of the terms I found obscure, so I cannot guarantee absolute accuracy, but anyone who wishes to check it can find the original document here.
     The fauna of New Zealand has suffered dreadfully from human settlement, and many species have been driven to extinction. To cite just one example: in 1986 the world's largest gecko was discovered as a stuffed specimen in the Natural History of Marseilles, and was recognized as a lizard described in Maori oral tradition, which only a single person had ever claimed to have seen alive. New Zealand is a land where flightless birds take the place of mammals, for the only native land animals are two species of bats, because New Zealand has been isolated from the rest of the world since the age of dinosaurs. It even possesses a strange reptile, the tuatara, which looks like a lizard, but is really the last survivor of a group which otherwise died out with the dinosaurs. It stands to reason, therefore, that any non-flying native land mammal may well be a monotreme, like the platypus and echidna, or something more ancient and primitive. With this in mind, let us proceed to the translation.
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The "Waitoreki", an alleged New Mammal from New Zealand
by Ingo Krumbiegel, Hamburg
[Das "Waitoreki", ein angeblich neues Säugetier von Neuseeland, Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde [Journal of Mammalogy] vol. 18, 1950 (1952), pp 110 - 115]

      It may appear idle at first to present a discussion about animals whose existence is only conjectured. Perhaps certain intermediate stages which, since Darwin, have become popularly known as "missing links", appear to make a setting out on a discussion possible. In the press, retention (as well as on the site) of often deplorable representations of animals, whose possible existence is based only on native reports or on similar weak foundations, can be found as uncritical propaganda for such types of rumours. On the other hand, even large higher animals have been discovered in the earliest times; in 1950 I gave and demonstrated a compilation of such "new" large animals, so clues for the existence of others are set out. Zoology has a duty, in the end, to follow up clues of alleged still undiscovered animals - and to be able to blow out the light of life in the earliest possible time, be it only a purely legendary beast.
     Some quite remarkable clues exist with regard to the animal set out below, and I am quoting a source which up till now has obviously been given no attention at all from zoology and also for which the later standard sources have not served as models. It is granted to me to tell in chronological order the compiled reports of this animal, which is alleged to be endemic to New Zealand, and according to all opinions, must be a mammal.
     In the 4th. edition of Brehm's Tierleben [Animal Life] it is stated in the section on Monotremes (Säugetiere 1, 1922, p 86):
     "The only indigenous land mammal of New Zealand provides an even more important contribution to the natural history of the lower mammals than the platypus. This resembles a common otter externally, lives like it on and in water, and is probably limited today to the mountains of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. It has repeatedly been sighted, once so close that a man was able to strike it with a whip, upon which it disappeared into the water with a shrill cry. Julius von Haast saw its tracks in the snow. However, he did not succeed in gaining possession of it. New Zealand has the most primitive bird life of any country in the world; so possibly its only living native mammal is as far below the monotremes as these are below the marsupials, and consequently it can provide important and perhaps unexpected information about the origin of the mammals. R.V.Lendefeld speaks about it in his work, Neuseeland. Finally, a brown, otter-like animal as big as a rabbit, which the Maoris call waitoreke ought to be found in the waters of the South Island. The original communication of Haast's is in Hochstetter's Neuseeland, merely in a footnote rendered thus: "My friend Haast wrote to me about the waitoreke on the 6th. June, 1861: 3,500 feet above the sea on the open Ashburton River (South Island, Canterbury Province) in a region where human feet have never before wandered, I have often seen its tracks. They are similar to those of our common European otter, only somewhat smaller. However, the animal itself was seen by two gentlemen who keep sheep at Lake Heron, in the neighbourhood of Ashburton, 2,100 feet up. They described the animal as dark brown, and the size of a strong rabbit. When struck by a whip it uttered a piping sound and quickly disappeared into the water among the snow grass." That was in 1861, but today, after 50 years, there is, to all appearances, nothing more known; we could not find the slightest bit extra about the mysterious waitoreke! Alfred Brehm himself had still not known the whole story; at least the first edition of Brehm's Tierleben makes no mention of it.
     Furthermore, in von Lendenfeld's original communication it is stated: No-one has yet succeeded in capturing a specimen of this interesting animal up till now . . . Especially noteworthy is the fact that the monotremes and marsupials so characteristic of Australia appear to be entirely absent from New Zealand. I say "appear", because it may be that the waitoreke is such an animal."
    Hochstetter called the animal by a different name in the German edition of 1863. If we look further for the common name of the animal in the Maori language, we thus find, apart from the names which are customary for introduced domestic animals since contact with Europeans, and distinct from the names of large marine animals, the name waitoreke, for which it could not be certain whether it referred to an otter-like or seal-like animal until recently. Due to the information of the active traveler, Julius Haast, the existence of this animal has been recently established beyond doubt. It lives in the rivers and lakes of the mountains in the South Island of New Zealand, is the size of a stout rabbit, with glistening brown fur, and may belong to the otters. My friend Haast writes to me about . . . (Here follows the communication cited by Brehm above.)
     Long before Brehm's  Tierleben, Wilhelm Bölsche mentioned the whole thing in a generally overlooked place, under a different name, and it is interesting above all for the phylogenetic background: "For years it has been reported that in the South Island of New Zealand, in remote alpine lakes, there dwells a mammal the size of a common otter. The natives call it waitoreke. New Zealand possesses no indigenous mammals apart from bats and a rat perhaps introduced by man. In the rest of its fauna it displays a character even more archaic than the continent of New Holland. So perhaps the waitoreke which, unfortunately, no zoologist has captured until now, is a monotreme or even a still older remnant of the world of primitive mammals."
     The known authorities from the country itself are, one and all, biased and critical authors who have observed the fauna and flora thoroughly. It is peculiar that, opposed to this, Reischek does not mention the waitoreki at all, although for 12 years he was intimately familiar with the South Isle, and known as a true "naturalist". Considering the progressive reduction of the endemic New Zealand fauna and flora, that Reischek, whose book first appeared in 1924 - 22 years after his death - made his journey in the seventieth year, when the essentially unchanged conditions reigned more than at present. In the same manner, Dieffenbach and Tancred, as well as Best and Drummond-Hutton contain nothing on our animal.
     To complete the review of all the available publications I has still only to mention that Sievers-Kückenthal still lists as mammals, next to the bats, the wild rat, kiore and the New Zealand dog, kararabe which, according to him, may have been introduced by the Maoris. "Furthermore, we encounter an animal like a common otter, which the natives call waitoreke, in the waters of the mid-regions of the South Island, and on the coast, whales, dolphins, and seals." No remarks are made on a source of this in a publication; it may refer back to Hochstetter, as do my own papers of 1944, 1947/48, 1950.
     Now I come to a new communication, which is the oldest in point of time and, as already mentioned at the beginning, has up till now been completely overlooked. It is therefore particularly interesting, firstly, because it contains details of its appearance and life-style, and secondly, it refers (but wholly independently from the rest of the sources) to the same animal, by which the whole matter leaves the stage of a mysterious report and gains a serious, concrete foundation.
       In his work, for which, on the basis of the title, Te Ika a Maui, or New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, no special zoological date would be indicated, Richard Taylor (1855) writes:
[E]xcepting a rat, which is now almost exterminated by the imported one, there are only reports of a kind of beaver, of whose existence we are not yet quite certain, although, very probably, it does exist in the Middle Island.
 A man named Seymour, of Otaki, stated that he had repeatedly seen an animal in the Middle Island, near Dusky Bay, on the soath-west coast, which he called a musk-rat, from the strong smell it emitted. He said its tail was thick, and resembled the ripe pirori, the fruit of the kiekie, which is not unlike in appearance the tail of a beaver. This account was corroborated by Tamihana te Rauparaha, who spoke of it as being more than double the size of the Norway rat, and as having a large flat tail. A man named Tom Crib, who had been engaged in whaling and sealing in the neighbourhood of Dusky Bay for more than twenty-five years, said he had not himself seen the beaver, but had several times met with their habitations, and had been surprised by seeing little streams dammed up, and houses like bee-hives erected on one side, having two entrances, one from above and the other below the dam. One of the Camerons, who lived at Kaiwarawara, when the settlers first came to Wellington, stated that he saw one of these large rats and pursued it, but it took to the water, and dived out of sight.
Note: Rather than retranslate Krumbiegel's German back into the original English, I have gone to the original document. The citation is on pages 394-5. Note that "Te Ika a Maui" means "Maui's Fish", since the demigod Maui is alleged to have fished New Zealand out of the ocean.
     The above passage does not appear in the second (1870), otherwise more detailed edition.  However, it does include the following:
     The mammalia are supposed to have only the rat to represent them, but there is little doubt now of the existence of another. When Captain Cook was at Dusky Bay in 1773, he stated : — "For three or four days after we arrived in Pickersgill Harbour, and as we were clearing the woods to set up our tents, &c., a four-footed animal was seen by three or four of our people ; but as no two gave the same description of it, I cannot say of what kind it was: all, however, agreed that it was about the size of a cat, with short legs, and of a mouse colour; one of the seamen, and he who had the best view of it, said it had a bushy tail, and was the most like a jackall of any animal he knew; the most probable conjecture is, that it is a new species; be this as it may, we are now certain that this country is not so destitute of quadrupeds as was once thought." [citing Cook's Voyages, vol.1, p 380] This account has recently been confirmed by reports from the neighbourhood of Wakatipu Lake. It is probable, therefore, that there is another, which is known to the natives by the name of kaurehe, but it is of a very retired character, and extremely rare.
     The same may be said of a beaver rat which has occasionally been met with.[pp 603-4]
                                   . . . . . . . . .
The natives speak of another kind of seal, to which they give the name of Waitoreke, and describe it as a large and long animal. [p 605]
     So, for the first time,  a concrete report after all! It is noteworthy that the size comparison is different from that of the afore-mentioned authors, who had unconditionally taken over Taylor's particulars, like the musky odour, the flat tail, and the constructions.
     The native rat mentioned is Rattus exulans maorium Hutton, which is actually not endemic as a species, but as a race. The common rat,  Epimus norvegicus Erxl., is also separated quite sharply and free of doubt in the nomenclature of the natives, as is the dog, which Cook discovered on his landing. Whales, seals, and bats cannot interest us further. For Taylor's accuracy speaks his reference to the rail-like bird, Notornis hochstetteri, which animal has again been found to be extant, because it was considered extinct for many decades, and recently one last breeding colony has been discovered - after general knowledge of it had been based on only about four specimens. To that we shall return.
     The decline of Rattus exulans maorium from competition by the introduced Norway rat has also been mentioned elsewhere, and this point must interest us in connection with the waitoreki problem. As Hochstetter (1863, 428) and other authors mentioned, the kiore was eaten by the Maoris and wiped out by the Norway rat. But on p 461 he writes further: "Already at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans it was so rare that a chieftain, as he noticed our large rats on a ship, told the captain that he would like to let these rats loose on land so that they could obtain a new, large wild stock again. The scarcity of meat in Zealand is well known, first and foremost, to have led to the extermination of the moas (Dinornis) and later to the bloody tribal wars and cannibalism.
     In this light the works of Treagear on the rats is of interest. He names it next to the dog (p 167): "It was considered a valuable article of food, being bred for its edible qualities rather than for any other purpose" [original here. There is no mention of the rat on page 167] Ferner p 179: "The native rat, kiore is almost exterminated or killed off by the grey Norway rat. The black native rat is considered a sought after article of food; hunting it was accompanied by solemn ceremonies and much preparation. Rat hunts often lasted several days and led to the capture of hundreds of small animals." It was described how on these hunts whole cuttings were laid out through the forest and sections were systematically destroyed. As well as pure culinary consumption, cultic purposes were also tied up with it e.g. whole rites and songs had to be completed before the hunter was permitted to touch the bodies of the cooked animals. Here the specifics are of no further interest. Taylor (1855) states:
     The kiore, or native rat, is not above half the size of the Norway rat (mus ratus); it once abounded everywhere; it chiefly fed on the mast of the tawai, a species of beech. It was formerly valued as an article of food. [p 395]
     We can set up a kind of rule that first of all the large meat animals are endangered and decline; they offer a greater incentive than small animals and are easier to track. At first with their becoming rare one turns to the smaller animals in descending order. In New Zealand this was the wild Dinornis; it was killed off first. Then the waitoreki might have followed it, and become so rare that it may well have existed only in small colonies in insufficient territories. The already mentioned Notornis, a still declining animal like the perhaps nocturnal mammal, is able to remain still unnoticed up the present much more easily. It did no damage in the remote regions, and lived perhaps on small fish or ever plant fare, and fell no further. Animals which still exist, like the "Last of the Mohicans" we frequently know. The monotremes, Echidna, Proechidna and Ornithorhynchus, commonly valued as "primitive", are, despite their low systematic position, already much specialised: one by insect eating and the loss of teeth, the other by a horny beak and an aquatic life. It is actually not excluded that an undifferentiated remaining member of the original mammals exists.
     The authors speak expressly of an "otterlike" shape or compare it to a beaver; a confusion with such important animals thus need not be discussed. From the description of the waitoreki would be understood approximately as a nutria-like animal, but with a horizontal, flat, beaver-like  tail - only obviously agile, more referable to a prey animal than to the lifestyle of a peaceful herbivore. Among the insectivores, the otter shrew (Potamogale) would be a similar animal. The comparative size (tracks somewhat smaller than an otter's, the size of a good rabbit, twice the size of a Norway rat) agrees approximately. A direct confusion with a different animal is up to now excluded by the hitherto physical reports. Water adaptations are common. I am thinking of the fish rat, Ichthyomys among the rodents, the yapok, Chironectes among the marsupials, etc. A low form of animal could also erect small dams like a beaver, constructions just like bean baskets - the platypus also lays out earthen dwellings, though not with pieces of wood drawn together, but rather like a mole in the bank. And the bird world offers no support for hypothetical little houses, and still less for constructed dams. The size also excludes the common water vole (Arvicola amphibius), which lays out dwelling places, and perhaps in a new homeland aberrant customs could be adopted. Noteworthy is the musky odour, which show that a person must have actually somehow had the hypothetical animal in his hands. The tail is perhaps a store of fat? As to the names found up to now (waitoreke - waitoreki - waitoteke) it can be said that the ending -teke was evidently only a scribal error. Brehm went back to Lendenfeld for the ending -ki. Now it is striking that up till now nobody has cared for the significance of this name. Wai means "water", but with this fact one cannot yet begin a definition. It could be a case of the whole standing by itself for a particular creature. Only a complete expert in the Maori language can provide the information, if it isa primitive Maori word or, for example, it can be considered an improvised word for an apparently new type of animal introduced from Europe, as the expression "Meerkatze" (guenon) was improvised in Europe for the first long-tailed monkey of the genus Cercopithecus.
     Now Mr. Peter H. Buck, Director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, has shared with me the following particulars (26.4.1950): linguistically, the name, waitoreki is generally incorrectly rendered. It consists of wai = "water". There is no such word as "toreki", but the word, "toreke" means "forsaken, left behind" etc. The named informant supposed that the native eye-witness connected the wai with the symbol of his mythical animal; such mythical beings occur several times in the legends of the Maoris. Buck mentions the alleged existence of light skinned people in the New Zealand mountains before the coming of the Maoris (turehu). Here is should be said that whatever fabulous creatures are named in other countries, the existence of concrete animals should not be ruled out. And in fact, for a relatively unobtrusive, smaller water animal to figure as a legendary form possesses no great probability. Now the zoologist of the Bishop Museum, Dr. C. H. Edmondson has kindly drawn my attention to the fact that in the 1870 edition of Taylor's work he noted two animals traceable to small rodent species. One is "a beaver-rat which has occasionally been met with" - obviously the animal described precisely in 1855. Nevertheless, Taylor calls this in the newer edition a "semi-apocryphal animal". Then there was still a catlike, short-legged animal which was seen by many people. Edmondson points out that it is not unlikely such a water animal arrived in pre- or early European times.
     Mr. Gilbert Archey, Director of the Auckland Museum, kindly gave me the information that no-one has heard anything more about the animal, and in the face of the very ancient isolation of New Zealand, he denies the existence of such a species.
      Just the same, it is noteworthy that the characteristics of a small species of mammal known up till now would fit in very well (if one does not want to approach the rare otter shrew, Potamogale of the Congo, which is even smaller): a swimmer and diver on the banks of streams, rivers, and lakes, fast running, twice the size of a rat, or the size of a rabbit, brownish, shiny fur, skin adapted to swimming, thick, long, flat tail, a musky odour, constructions with underwater entrances on banks, damming up streams. Still, if there is no such animal, at least it was not a waste of time to have the publications compiled so as to eventually have shone the light of day on an extant animal and to have smoothed the road of clarity.


Best, A., 1921/22 - The Maori, 2 vol., - Wellington
Bölsche, W., 1896 - Entwicklungsgeschichte der Natur 2. - Neumann, Neudamm, p 418
Dieffenbach, 1843 - Travels in New Zealand 2, p 177 - Gray, J., Fauna of New Zealand
Drummond, J., and Hutton, F., 1905 - The Animals of New Zealand - Christchurch
Heck, L., 1912 - Brehms Tierleben, 4 th edition, 10. p 86 - Bibliogr. Institut, Leipzig
Hochsterrer, F. v., 1863 - Neuseeland - Stuttgart, p 427
Krumbiegel, I., 1944 - Gibt es noch unentdeckte Großtiere? - Kosmos, Stuttgart, p 161
 ditto, 1947/8 - Vom Lebenwunder in Pflanze und Tier, pp 117-118 - Reinbek
 ditto, 1949 - Wunderinsel Neuseeland - Arch Noah 1, p 171
 ditto, 1950 - Von neuen und unentdeckten Tierarten - Stuttgart
Lendenfeld, R. v. , 1900 - Neuseeland, pp 58/59 - Bibliothek der Länderkunde 9, Berlin
Reischek, A., 1925 - Sterbende Welt - Leipzig
Sievers, W., and Kükenthal, W., 1902 - Australien, Ozeanien und Polarländer, 2nd ed, p 220 - Leipzig and Vienna
Taylor, E., 1855 - Te Ika a Maui, or New Zealand and its inhabitants - London, p 394 - 2nd ed., 1870, p 684
Tregear, E., 1904 - The Maori Race, p 167 - Wananui

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.