Art. LXI.—Macquarie Island.
[Read before the Otago Institute, 21st June, 1881 and 9th May, 1882.]
In most of the maps which I have seen, an island named “Emerald” is put down in latitude 57°, a long way to the south of Macquarie Island. This, is, however, now generally regarded as mythical, for its supposed site was sailed over by the American Transit of Venus Expedition and no land was observed. In all probability its discoverers mistook an iceberg for snow-covered land, a not unlikely mistake in misty weather.
We may therefore safely consider that Macquarie Island is the most southerly island of the outlying members of the New Zealand group, indeed,
with the exception of some of the islands in the neighbourhood of Cape Horn, it is the nearest point of land to the great Antarctic Continent. It lies considerably to the south of Kerguelen Land, or the Crozets.
On this account then considerable interest attaches to it. I therefore availed myself of the opportunity offered me by Messrs. Elder and Nichols, in the latter end of 1880, for a trip down to it in the “Jessie Niccol” schooner. It is the results of this excursion that I propose to give in this paper.
The changes which the New Zealand flora undergoes in the Auckland and Campbell Islands have been often noted, but almost nothing was known of its characters in Macquarie Island. I wished to notice how many plants survived in that high latitude, and what changes in appearance and habit these had undergone in suiting themselves to the rigorous climate; whether our New Zealand alpine forms were to be found there at the sea level, and whether there were to be found any new forms unrepresented even in the highest and most remote parts of New Zealand.
Four or five of the Macquarie Island plants had been sent to the Hooker Herbarium by Mr. Fraser, of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, about fifty years ago. I cannot, however, make out whether he had visited the island himself, or whether one of the sealers had brought the plants to him.
I was also anxious to see and study, so far as practicable, the sea elephants, which make it their summer resort. They never, so far as I know, come as far north as either Campbell Island or the Auckland group, so in this part of the world Macquarie Island is the only place where they can be observed.
Macquarie Island lies about 600 miles to the south-west of New Zealand, more than twice as far away as the Auckland group, and is separated from that group and from Campbell Island by very much deeper water than that which lies between them and New Zealand. There is a great valley 3,000 fathoms deep between Macquarie Island and the Auckland and Campbell Islands, while the sea between them and New Zealand is not 1,000 fathoms deep.
It is wrongly put down on all the charts. For the following correct position I am indebted to Captain Cowper, who, in the “Jessie Niccol,” has made a number of trips to the island:—
Latitude, north end, 54° 26′ South.
Latitude, south end, 54° 44′ South.
Longitude, north end, east side, 159° 5′ 45″ East.
Longitude, south end, east side, 159° 1′ 45″ East.
It is about 18 miles long and 5 miles broad, its east side lying N. ½ W. and S. ½ E. magnetic.
It is a solitary island, but it has two outlying rocks. One called the “Bishop and Clerk” lies 30 miles to the south of the south end; the other called the “Judge and Clerk” is 7 miles to the north of the North Head.
It is exceedingly hilly. The hills, however, are of no great height, not more than 600 or 700 feet I should think. They rise as a rule almost directly from the sea, leaving but a narrow interval of shingly beach, while occasional spurs run out from wide open bays which afford no shelter to vessels. Towards the north end of the west coast there is a greater extent of flat land between the hills and the sea. Between the steeper part of the hill-side and the shingle, there is always a more gently sloping belt of extremely swampy land. And here the tussock grass grows in “Maori heads” above the soft treacherous mud. At both ends of the island, however, the land rises in cliffs abruptly from the sea; and the North Head forms a bluff distinct from the rest of the island, and only connected with it by a narrow neck of sand, through which the sea in stormy weather has been known to break.
The west coast is, as might be expected, more cut into by the sea than the east, but there are no bays suitable for harbours. At the south-west corner of the island, there is, indeed, a beautiful deep bay called “Caroline Cove,” completely sheltered from every side except the south-west. It is completely open to that quarter however, and as the prevailing wind blows from the south-west, and therefore straight into the bay, it would rather prove a trap than a shelter to any vessel that anchored in it. There are still visible on the beach the remains of a vessel which was wrecked in this manner. The sealing vessels always lie some distance off the coast ready to slip and go to sea at any moment. The oil in large casks is floated out to them.
The Caroline Cove wreck is not the only vessel that has gone ashore on Macquarie Island; and there are still to be seen the graves of some of the shipwrecked seamen. On the bit of plank which served as headstone for one of them I was able to decipher the name, John Bilsham, but the date was illegible.
The interior of the island shows the rocky tops of the hills blown perfectly bare by the wind, and fissured by the frosts; and in the hollows of the uplands lie a number of little lakes, which empty themselves by streams. These either make valleys for themselves down to the sea, or tumble down the steep hill-sides in miniature cascades.
The general appearance of a Macquarie Island landscape is barren in the extreme. There is not a tree or shrub on the island, and what vegetation there is has a great deal of sameness, long stretches of yellowish tussock, with occasional great patches of the bright-green Stilbocarpa polaris, or of the peculiar sage-green Pleurophyllum. These, with the rich brown
mosses near the hill-tops, are all that strike the eye in looking at the island from the sea. This paucity of species is, as we shall see again, one of the characteristics of the flora of antarctic islands.
The rocks of the island belong to the older crystallines, greenstones. They have occasionally an amygdaloidal structure, the amygdules sometimes containing zeolites. Mesotype, with concentric radiated fibrous structure, occurs in one of my specimens; and in another, what is probably analcime, is to be seen. The rocks are sometimes veined with quartz.
Unfortunately the season at which I visited the island was not well suited for collecting plants. I was there in November and in these latitudes spring is but little advanced in that month. I therefore found comparatively few plants in flower. This of course has added much to the difficulty of identifying my specimens, and combined with the thick weather has helped to make my collection smaller than it might have been under more favourable circumstances. There are certain plants, common in the Campbell and Auckland Islands, which may, for these reasons, have been overlooked by me in Macquarie Island, such as the Anthericum rossii, a lily, whose golden flowers are said by Hooker to form a very striking object in a Campbell Island landscape; if present, however, it cannot be at all common. Another genus which one might expect to find, but which I did not meet with, is the Veronica. A plant so common in New Zealand and in the Campbell and Auckland Islands, at all elevations, ought surely to have some representative in Macquarie Island. I have little doubt but that my collection is imperfect, but even allowing largely for that, it shows that many species have disappeared which are common in the Auckland and Campbell Islands, and that those plants which are present have a much more stunted growth.
Those plants I did collect, however, are, with one exception (the Azorella selago), distinctly New Zealand in their characters, quite as much so as those belonging to the Auckland or Campbell Islands; and they also show that all these islands agree in having, in common with all other antarctic islands, a flora characterized by few species, but what there are, growing luxuriantly. This is very distinctly seen in Macquarie Island, where the number of species of flowering plants is certainly most limited, but where great areas are covered by a close growth of Stilbocarpa and Pleurophyllum.
It is curious to contrast the poverty of Macquarie Island in flowering plants with the richness of countries in the northern hemisphere. The corresponding north latitude runs through the north of England; and even in islands in very much higher north latitudes, such as Spitzbergen, this greater richness in their flora is to be observed.
I have to thank Mr. A. C. Purdie for the trouble he has taken in the naming and arranging of my plants.
The following is a list of the plants collected, with the natural orders to which they belong. None of them are new to science; I have therefore not thought it necessary to give any detailed botanical descriptions.
1. Ranunculus (acaulis?), not in flower. Found in damp places. Occurs in New Zealand, and Auckland Islands.
2. Colobanthus muscoides, not in flower. Found on rocks near the sea. Occurs in New Zealand, Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island.
3. Acœna (buchanani?), not in flower. Found on the hillsides.
4. Acœna ascendens, Bidibidi [Piripiri], in fruit. Found on the hillsides. Both of these common in New Zealand.
5. Tillœa sinclairii, in flower. Found in damp places. Occurs in New Zealand, Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island.
6. Azorella selago, not in flower. This is a rare and peculiar plant. It does not occur in New Zealand, and has never been observed in either the Aucklands or Campbell Island. It grows on the hillsides, forming prominent globular masses often 4 feet across. These are green on the surface, where the living part of the plant lies as a crust to the great mass of debris which forms the interior. This is the decaying remains of former years' growth, through which the roots descend. The whole makes a solid mass on which one can stand. The surface crust is particularly dense. The young shoots are so closely packed together and make so uniform a surface, that lichens and other small plants are sometimes found growing on it.
This same plant is best known from its occurrence in Kerguelen Land and the neighbouring islands. There it grows more abundantly. It is also said to occur among the mountains of Fuegia.
7. Azorella lycopodioides (?), not in flower. Grows in small masses. It has often been confused with Colobanthus subulatus, and as my specimen has neither flowers nor fruit it is named with some diffidence.
8. Stilbocarpa polaris, “Macquarie Island Cabbage” of the sealers, in flower and fruit. This plant is found all over the island growing in large patches. In sheltered corners on the lower ground it is a handsome plant, and its bright green leaves are always conspicuous.
In last year's Transactions Mr. Armstrong described two varieties from Stewart Island, one of which had hairy the other smooth leaves; and last summer these two varieties were brought up from Auckland Island. I did not notice the smooth-leaved variety on Macquarie Island.
This is a very common plant in both the Campbell and Auckland Islands. It is also found in Stewart Island, and Lyall has found it on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. What is known as the “Kerguelen Cabbage” is an entirely different plant—the Pringlea anti-scorbutica.”
9. Coprosma repens, not in flower. Found in New Zealand, Auckland and Campbell Islands.
10. Pleurophyllum criniferum, in flower and fruit. This, like the Stilbocarpa, occurs in large patches all over the island. It is the handsomest plant on the island. Its long sage-green leaves and its purple flowers make it particularly noticeable. It occurs in the Auckland and Campbell Islands and there grows much larger, becoming a much more showy plant.
11. Cotula plumosa, in flower. Occurs plentifully close to the sea. It is very rare in New Zealand, but has been found in Otago.
12. Luzula crinita, in damp places. Occurs in New Zealand, and in the Auckland and Campbell Islands.
13. Luzula campestris. Occurs in New Zealand.
14. Poa foliosa. The ordinary tussock of the island. It differs a good deal in appearance at different levels, and in swampy and dry ground. Occurs in New Zealand and in the Auckland and Campbell Islands.
15. Poa annua. Found near one of the huts. Possibly introduced.
16. Festuca duriuscula. Differs from Buchanan's figure of this plant in having the inner empty glume bifid at the extremity, not acute as given by him.
17. Aspidium aculeatum var. vestitum. Occurs occasionally not far from the sea, and grows to a fair size. Common in New Zealand, and in the Auckland and Campbell Islands.
18. Polypodium australe. My specimens show an extremely alpine form of this fern. It is a very common New Zealand fern, but is not mentioned in Hooker's “Flora Antarctica” as growing on the Auckland or Campbell Islands.
19. Lomaria alpina, also common in New Zealand.
22.Batramia elongata, mixed with a Jungermannia.
29.Sphœrophoron coralloides (?).
34.Uredo antarctica, growing on the stems of Luzula crinita and campestris.
35.Sphœria phœosticta, growing on the stems of Luzula crinita and campestris.
36.Sphœria herbarum, growing on Poa foliosa.
37.Sphœria depressa, growing on Poa foliosa.
38.Hendersonia microsticta, growing on the dead stems of Stilbocarpa polaris.
39.Dothidea spilomea, on dead stems of Stilbocarpa polaris, and of Pleurophyllum criniferum.
The plants which were sent by Fraser to the Hooker Herbarium are:—
The most common birds on the island are the penguins. Of these there are four different kinds occurring, either separately or mixed, in rookeries scattered at intervals all round the coast. They were all incubating at the time of my visit.
Aptenodytes pennanti, “King Penguin.”—These build no nest. They lay their single egg anywhere in the rookery, often in running water, and sit over it, tucking it with their feet into the fold in the lower part of their abdomen. The egg is large and much pointed at one end. The young are almost as large as the adults, but are covered with a thick brown coat of down. A few of the females were sitting at the time of my visit. The King Penguins have not been known to migrate.
Eudyptes schlegeli, “Royal Penguin.”—More numerous than the other varieties. They build a nest of stones, in which they lay three eggs as a rule. They are said to discard their first egg. The young are coloured like the adults with the exception of the yellow crest. The “Royals” leave the island in June, and return in October.
Eudyptes filholi, “Victoria Penguin.”—These also build a nest of stones and lay two or three eggs. Their rookeries are generally among the rocks. The young are coloured like the adults, but have no crests. They, like the “Royals,” leave in June and return in October.
Pygoscelis tœniala, “Rockhopper.”—A name much more suited to the “Victorias” than to this variety. They have their rookeries amongst the tussock and build nests of grass. Their eggs, of which there are generally two or three, are generally much rounder than those of the other penguins. The young are coloured like the adults. They have not been known to migrate.
Ossifraga gigantea, “Nelly,” “Stinkpot.”—Lives in rookeries, generally inland. Builds grassy nests, in which are usually two eggs. The females were sitting at the time of my visit.
Phalacrocorax carunculatus, Shag.—Was also incubating. Dr. Buller, who saw my specimen, named it as above.
Prion banksii, “Night-bird.”—Makes its nest in burrows under the tussocks, where it can be heard during the day cooing like a dove. It leaves its nest at night and picks up its food at sea, a short distance from the land.
Platycercus novœ-zealandiœ, Parroquet.—Same as New Zealand form. Occurs in great numbers round the shore. Makes its nest under tussocks.
Ocydromus, “Maori Hen.”—I only saw one specimen of this bird. Its plumage was of a bright reddish-brown colour.
Rallus macquariensis.—Much smaller than the “Maori hen,” and not at all uncommon. There seemed to be two varieties—one, slightly the larger, was reddish in colour, the other was black.
Lestris antarctica, “Sea Hen,” “Skua Gull.”—Most of the eggs of this gull are hatched by the end of November. The nests are, as a rule, at a considerable elevation above the sea. The adults are as savage and predatory as they are in other parts, and it is not quite safe to go inland without a stout stick.
I did not see any nests of the ordinary white gull, which is also common on the shore.
The sealers told me that teal were occasionally seen on some of the little lakes among the hills. I did not, however, see any.
I was also informed that an albatross nest was once found on the high land towards the south end of the island. This was some years ago, and none had been observed since then.
There are no land mammals peculiar to the island, but the ubiquitous rabbit was introduced a few years ago, and now swarms at the north end, where it feeds largely on the thick fleshy roots of the Pleurophyllum. Very few rabbits were originally landed, and these, I was told, were all of the tame parti-coloured kind. It was curious to observe how their descendants, in the process of reverting to the wild type, had all become one-coloured—black, or white with pink eyes, or yellow—while many had become regular wild rabbits in colour as well as habits.
Morunga elephantina, “Sea Elephant.”—This is the largest of the seals, and receives its name of “elephant” from the curious manner in which it elongates its nose when excited or angry. It is regularly hunted for its blubber, which forms a thick layer underneath the skin. Macquarie Island is the only place near New Zealand where these elephants are found, but they are common on the shores of Kerguelen Land and the neighbouring islands, and occur even as far north as Juan Fernandez.
I judged some of the larger males I saw to be over 20 feet long. The females, however, are very much smaller. They are thick in proportion and are huge unwieldy creatures.
The usual colour is a yellowish-brown, some, however, are redder in colour. The young ones are almost black. For about one week after their birth they retain a beautifully soft furry coat, also black in colour.
The main peculiarity of these creatures is the mobility of the nose. This, when the animal is asleep or undisturbed, presents no peculiarity. Irritate him, however, or see him naturally excited, and you will soon see the curious change which rage produces in his face. He invariably, however young, rears himself, sometimes at both ends, and opens his mouth to its fullest extent, showing all his teeth and uttering a peculiar barking roar. At the same time the nose in the adult males undergoes its peculiar change. It is, partly by air being blown forcibly into its elastic-sided cavity and to a certain extent by muscular contraction, puffed out in great sacs above the animal's head. It elongates as well as swells, and hangs down as a trunk for some inches in front of its mouth. None of the plates of sea-elephants which I have seen, represent this nasal swelling at all as it is. I was fortunate enough to see two large ani als thoroughly angry.
I was not able to observe much of this animal's habits during the few days I spent on the island. I usually saw them lying asleep in groups on the shingle, or in the long tussock near the beach. I sometimes saw them gambolling in the shallow water among the kelp, and occasionally I noticed them fighting in a half-hearted sort of way. The scarred hides and broken tusks of the old males, however, show that they sometimes have savage encounters. In fighting they rear themselves against each other and try to seize their opponent with their large canines. These are the only teeth they could use for such a purpose, as the others barely pierce the gum. They are never to be seen feeding on the island, and during the breeding season live on their own fat. Little or nothing in the way of food is ever found in their stomachs, but these and the intestines are infested with parasitic worms.
The island is never entirely deserted by the sea-elephants, but by far the greatest number are to be found after October, when they come up to calve.
The period of gestation is said to be eleven months.
The cows, I was told by the sealers, suckle their young for three weeks, and then wean them by deserting them for a time. Whether this be the case or not I cannot say, but I certainly often saw very young animals lying on the beach apart from the adults.
The sealers say that a bull is not worth killing for its blubber till it is three years old.
The tongue of these animals when well cooked is excellent eating.
No fur seals are found on Macquarie Island, though they are so common on the Auckland group.
The only other seal is the Stenorhynchus leptonyx, or sea-leopard, the ordinary spotted seal of our coasts.
It is a great contrast to the sluggish sea-elephant, and is the terror of the penguins.