6 Dec 2018

Place names tell a story about lost species

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 6 December 2018

Places that are named after plants and animals can tell us something about what used to be found there in the past.

The Kakanui Mountains in North Otago, for example, were once home to kākā, although the forest parrot hasn’t been seen there for decades.

The nearby Shag River, meanwhile, is still home to shags.

Palaeo-ecologist Jamie Wood says that place names such as these provide a useful clue as to what species have disappeared from different parts of New Zealand.

While Shag River is still home to shags, it is many decades since the Kakanui Mountains in Otago last saw a kaka.

While Shag River is still home to shags, it is many decades since the Kakanui Mountains in Otago last saw a kaka. Photo: LINZ / NZMS

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At the recent New Zealand Ecological Society annual conference Jamie Wood, from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, gave a talk on the ‘Biogeography of New Zealand place names: using maps to trace the distribution of native species.’

Jamie’s research focuses on “looking into the past to see what plants and animals used to live in New Zealand, and how they were distributed across New Zealand.”

He usually studies fossil bones or ancient DNA, but he recently enlisted help from the Gazette of New Zealand Place Names.

He went searching for the names of plants and animals, in both Māori and English. By mapping them across the country he could see how distributions of some species had changed over the past couple of centuries.

Jamie says this was just a preliminary look to see if he could find anything meaningful, but was pleased to find that the distribution of place names matched the natural range of some plants. Kauri, for example, is a common name in the north but doesn’t turn up further south. Jamie says that he found at least 78 place names that refer to kauri.

Totara was very common, turning up in at least 133 place names.

Among the more common bird-related place names Jamie found were kākā, kākāpō, kea, pigeon or kererū, and shag. Some bird names such as kākā turn up as part of longer words, for example Kakanui.

Some names occurred multiple times - Jamie found 14 Duck Creeks across the country.

A road sign showing a Kiwi

Kiwi sign Photo: 123rf.com

Jamie says that he found some interesting patterns.

“About fifty percent of the place names relating to kiwi don’t have kiwi there anymore,” he says.

He was interested to see how often moa turned up in places names, even though they have been extinct for hundreds of years.

He says he found only a few invertebrate place names, such as Weta Hill and Beetle Gully, but “one thing that we found were a lot of sandfly and mosquito place names.”

“They’ve clearly made a big impact on early explorers, and they seem to fit quite well, as they’re concentrated along the West Coast of the South Island.”