Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 27, 1894
This text is also available in PDF
(2 MB) Opens in new window
– 240 –

Art. XXVIII.—Remarks on the Rats of New Zealand.

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 8th October, 1894.]

Many persons would inquire, “What is to be gained by the study of the life-history of a rat?” In answer, I would reply, “The life-history of a rat will give a small portion of historical evidence in regard to the land which it inhabits.”

This evidence is of the greater value where it extends backward into the history of the past, whereon no written records are existent. Take, for example, the land which we New-Zealanders still speak of under the familiar term of “Home,” though many of us have never lived there, and others, such as myself, never expect to see it again.

In Professor W. Boyd Dawkins's “Monograph of the British Pleistocene Mammalia” is a synoptical table giving nearly the latest information on the distribution of the mammoth and his associates in time, and from it and a few other sources we gather that in the loams and gravels of Post-pliocene age, and in the corresponding caves, there have been found, together with the bones of the larger mammals (as elk, horse, gigantic deer, lion, and ox), the minute remains of such small creatures as the mouse (Mus musculus), the water-rat (a vole, Arvicola amphibius), the short-tailed field-mouse (A. agrestis), the long-tailed field-mouse (A. pratensis), the mole, the shrew-mouse (Sorex araneus), and the musk-rat (Sorex moschatus). From this list you will notice, in looking backward on the far-away historical past of Britain, as illustrated by osteological writings, that neither Mus rattus (the black rat), which is considered to be the original rat of Europe, nor Mus decumanus (the grey rat), commonly called the Norway rat, which invaded Europe from the eastward during recent times—that neither of these two rats lived in Britain in those early times. As we have the knowledge of the late arrival of the Norway rat in Europe, so we may assume the black rat came forward, mysteriously impelled to emigrate by that remarkable instinct which is inherent in all species of rodents, but at so remote a date that written testimony to the fact is wanting.

It is probable that both species of rat made use of man as a ferryman across the English Channel. But as yet I have no evidence that the black rat has been found on board the shipping, either in former days or at the present time.

I am inclined to think that the black rat—which we have now in New Zealand—is a dweller in the fields and forest,

– 241 –

and is averse to the propinquity of man, and, if so, would rather be classed under the head Arvicola (a dweller in the field). The name Mus is synonymous with “thief,” and so rightly describes M. decumanus; and M. musculus, “Musculus” or the little thief, is a very fitting name for the mouse, who follows civilized man into all lands, feeding and travelling chiefly at the expense of his biped companion. Yet I have known this small creature make long migratory journeys over land and river in the early days of New Zealand, and which are mentioned in my former paper “On Rats and Mice.” See Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxiii., p. 194.

When the grey rat (M. decumanus) increased in Europe, especially in Britain, it destroyed, or caused the destruction of, M. rattus, the original or older inhabitant of the country, which in those parts is said to be now extinct. More than fifty years ago I and my brother John were accomplished ratcatchers, and from the age of, say, seven years had destroyed or hunted every rat we caught sight of. But we never saw a black rat, which is good proof that this rat was then extinct in England. We spoke of rats and water-rats, but I think we distinguished the water-rat from the other not by apparent difference, but simply because it tried to escape by diving in the water of the river. Nevertheless, at a very early age we distinguished between the two species of field-mice, which we caught and tamed. We were assisted by our playmate, a reddish-brown, long-coated water-spaniel, in these hunts, and, if the water was discoloured by mud, could trace the course of the diving rat by a bubble of air which would rise to the surface at a distance of every 2ft. or 3ft., and so pointed the direction and progress, under water, of our prey. These occasional bubbles were, I suppose, expended air which the animal at times liberated from its lungs. If I remember right, a wounded wild duck, when diving, could be traced in the same manner.

I am thus particular to prove that the black rat was then not found in England, for we have the question to solve, How did the black rat come to New Zealand?

This question of when and how the black rat came to New Zealand is not readily answered. Of the Chatham Islands Mr. A. Shand says, “Native rats, called ‘kiore,’ were common to the island, but it is believed they were not eaten by the Morioris. The native rat was exterminated by the Norway rat, which escaped ashore from a wrecked whale-ship.” No mention is made of the black rat at the Chathams by this writer. (Polynesian Society Mag., vol. iii., p. 87.)

The Norway rat and the mouse certainly came to New Zealand as passengers of our European shipping; but did the European black rat (M. rattus) also arrive in the same way,

– 242 –

but at a date previous to the coming of M. decumanus to Europe and the extermination of its kindred in England? Although I have written to several gentlemen who have access to good libraries I am still unable to fix the date when the black rat disappeared from Europe. And this question still remains unanswered—namely, Could the black rat be brought by the early whalers? From the Chatham Island episode we might suppose that such could not have been the case. How, then, did it come? Is it from the shipwreck of a Spanish or Portuguese ship many, many years before the time of Captain Cook?—a ship which came ashore at the northern part of New Zealand, and from which landed part of the crew—pero, a dog, and “kiore pakeha,” the black rat. This may have been the case. On my arrival in Canterbury (South Island) in 1855 I found grey rats, the M. decumanus, and most likely also the native rat “kiore maori,” living in small communities on the grassy plains: these I did not then distinguish from their larger confrère, both being greatly of the same colour. Having asked what the Maori rat was like, I was answered by those who had preceded me to the country that it was of a red colour; therefore my search was for many years the looking for a red rat, something like the colour of a squirrel.

Although I lived in different parts of the South Island for ten years I never saw a black rat, but on coming to Hawke's Bay I noticed them within three months' time. As the Bluff Harbour, in the South Island, was a place of call for whalers, if the black rat had been with them then, I should have found black rats there, and at Lake Wakatipu in 1860. So I do not think this rat was on the whale-ships, but that they brought the Norway rat (M. decumanus). But the black rat is now found in Westland and Nelson, and so must surely have arrived by shipping in recent times to those places.

Dr. Ernst Dieffenbach, in 1840, would seem to have found the black rat in great plenty in the north of New Zealand, and from what he says it seems probable that this rat had been known to the Maoris for many years, and long previous to the introduction of the Norway rat. But I will let this traveller speak for himself: “There exists a frugivorous rat called ‘kiore maori’ (indigenous rat) by the natives, which they distinguish from the English rat (not the Norway rat), which is introduced, and called ‘kiore pakea’ [sic] (strange rat). On the former they fed very largely in former times; but it has now become so scarce, owing to the extermination carried on against it by the European rat, that I could never obtain one. A few, however, are still found in the interior—viz., at Rotorua, where they have been seen by the Rev. Mr. Chapman, who describes them as being much smaller than the

– 243 –

Norway rat. The natives never eat the latter. It is a favourite theme with them to speculate on their own extermination by the Europeans in the same manner as the English rat has exterminated their indigenous rat…. The common mouse of Europe has also been introduced.”

Mr. John Edward Gray, F.R.S., keeper of the zoological collections in the British Museum, who worked up the account of the fauna of New Zealand which supplements Dieffenbach's work, adds, “Called ‘kiore’ by the natives. Said to have been introduced at an early period by European vessels.” Polack says, “It would be interesting to see whether it is the European, the Indian, or the New Holland rat that has been introduced, or if there may not be more than one kind” (vol. ii., p. 185).

On describing his first attempt to ascend Mount Egmont, Dieffenbach says, “At sunset we arrived at the cleared summit of a hill, where we found several houses for provisions, which are always built on posts to guard against the rats, and also two other houses. A thick forest surrounded this place on all sides. We had taken up our abode in an old house, where the rats ran over us the whole night.”

On a second attempt he reaches the top of Mount Egmont, and “On the summit of the mountain I found the entire skeleton of a rat, carried there, no doubt, by a hawk” (vol. i., p. 144).

So far as I can see, Dieffenbach never himself mentions seeing the Norway rat in New Zealand, nor did he seem at that time to be aware that M. decumanus was to destroy M. rattus in England, and, so far as I know, throughout Europe, as at the present time. Yet we have evidence that the Norway rat was well known to the Rev. Mr. Chapman and himself by the comparison as to size between the “kiore maori” and the Norway rat, and, to my judgment, I would suppose an implied resemblance in colour between the two, but that the Norway rat was considerably larger than “kiore maori.” This, in the main, would be fairly correct. On the other hand, I do not understand that M. rattus would in numbers scamper over the resting traveller the whole night. Rather, I would say, these must have been M. decumanus. But neither Dieffenbach nor Maori, as reported in this work, speak of other than two rats—one the imported or stranger's rat (M. rattus), and another the indigenous rat, “kiore maori.” Who shall decide this point? I for one greatly doubt the black rat having the boldness to come near a sleeping man. I have never known them other than in the open field or forest.

On closer consideration of what Dieffenbach says I am inclined to the conclusion that he did find the Norway rat in

– 244 –

New Zealand. But his wording is very obscure. He says, as quoted above, “A few, however, are still found in the interior—viz., at Rotorua, where they have been seen by the Rev. Mr. Chapman, who describes them as much smaller than the Norway rat. The natives never eat the latter.”

Now, surely it is here clearly stated that the Norway rat is never eaten. But in vol. ii., p. 130, he says, “The flesh of Europeans they consider salt and disagreeable, a curious physiological fact if true, and they stated the same regarding the flesh of our dogs and the introduced European rat.”

It is a great pity that the scientific names of the rats spoken of are not made use of, for in one sentence it is said that the “kiore maori” was destroyed by the English rat (i.e., M. rattus?), and in the following one the destroyer is called “the European rat,” which presumably must mean also M. rattus.

Then, it is said the flesh of the European rat (?) is disagreeable to the taste; elsewhere it is said they “never eat the latter,” the name in the preceding sentence being that of the Norway rat (M. decumanus). It is also remarkable that the destructive habits of the Norway rat against its congeners are not remarked on, but rather the black rat is placed in this position of the destroyer of its kinsmen in New Zealand. This position of the rats one to the other is astonishing when we remember that the black rat (M. rattus) has long ceased to exist in England, having been quickly exterminated by the emigrant grey or Norwegian rat (M. decumanus). Nevertheless, at the present time we have in parts of New Zealand all three species of rat—the “kiore maori,” the black, and also the grey rat—Iviing in the same forests, as, for example, I have taken all three at Wimbledon, in Hawke's Bay, where I now reside; but the “kiore maori” are not nearly so numerous as the black or grey—the last is most plentiful. In a former paper I remark on what Captain Crozet says of the animals of New Zealand: “The rats are similar to those of our fields and forests,” which would indicate the black rat (M. rattus). For if the M. decumanus had been referred to he should have said the rats of our towns and sewers, or barns and stacks.

This, then, would go to prove that “kiore pakeha” (M. rattus) was seen in the north of New Zealand long before any vessels were sent to southern seas to kill the whales; which leaves the question, How and when did the black rat reach New Zealand?

The first mention of the presence of the black rat in the South Island, so far as I am aware, is by Mr. Reischek, a collector of natural-history specimens about the year 1885, in a paper published in a former volume of “Transactions of the

– 245 –

New Zealand Institute.” I have a remembrance that he spoke of rats both grey and black in colour, but did not distinguish the species.

In Transactions, vol. xxv., p. 503, Mr. Colenso, in a footnote, says, in his criticism of my paper in vol. xxiv., p. 554, “Mr. White, in the passage I have just quoted, says, ‘and possibly two distinct species’ (as if this was also something new). Why, this was well known so long ago as Darwin's visit to New Zealand in 1835; and I have mentioned the two foreign species in various old publications; in particular, some fine black rats (m. and f.) I obtained here living in Hawke's Bay about 1846, and, as they seemed somewhat different, sent them (in spirits) to England to Professor Owen.” Mr. Colenso has misunderstood my meaning, which was that the small grey rat (“kiore maori”) of the North Island might have some specific distinction from the “kiore maori” found in the South Island. I did not refer to M. rattus at all, but to the M. maorium specimens taken by myself in Hawke's Bay as compared with those found in Marlborough and Nelson.

The second mention of M. rattus in the South Island is by Sir James Hector (Transactions, vol. xxv., p. 535), who said that “this rat (M. maorium) was entirely different from others sent from Nelson at the time of the irruption of rats referred to” (formerly described by Mr. Meeson), “and which he was unable to distinguish from M. rattus.” The time referred to must be considerably more than ten years ago, and I have no later information as to whether this rat is now found in the Nelson Province. From an official report by Mr. C. R. Douglas, of the Survey Department, “On the Westland Alps,” the following is quoted: “The Norwegian rat, which was no doubt responsible for some destruction, and which swarmed in the country at one time, is now becoming extinct from some cause or other, and the native and black rats are taking its place—two animals perhaps not quite so destructive as the grey gentleman.”

This, you will allow, is a most remarkable occurrence, and would seem to be a reversal of the position out of which the late Charles Darwin and Dr. A. R. Wallace have made capital, as indicating the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence—how the Norwegian rat, having exterminated the black rat of Europe in some mysterious way, probably by cannibal feasts or otherwise, had since emigrated to the then new country of New Zealand, and at once, in a very short space of time, thoroughly exterminated the frugivorous rat of New Zealand, the “kiore maori.” Now we have it said that many in the North Island, both Europeans and also the Maoris themselves, suppose the black rat to be the original “kiore maori,” for it has so long dwelt among them, and

– 246 –

is so readily distinguished from the large grey Norwegian, that the present generation of New-Zealanders have recollection of it from their early childhood, even to this day; that the black rat is now on the west coast of the South Island, and is increasing in numbers rapidly, and, wonder of wonders, the fierce Norwegian is becoming the scarcer of the two, and even the native rat, so much smaller than the other two species, and which for many years was said to be extinct—said by Dieffenbach to be destroyed by the “kiore pakeha” (the black rat) before the year 1840—and which native rat Mr. Colenso could never find, although offering great rewards to the Maoris for specimens—that this small inoffensive. M. maorium is actually to be found, and is said to be increasing in numbers in Westland, notwithstanding the close propinquity of the two fiercer species. History does not repeat itself in this case, and I would ask the question, Has the identity of our black rat been sufficiently studied, so as to clearly prove that it is M. rattus of Europe? We may assume that M. rattus is a later arrival to New Zealand than M. maorium—that is, “kiore maori”—for the former was not known to the early settlers in the South Island, and I consider that the latter was present, but not identified; being smaller, and of a grey colour, it was thought to be a three-parts-grown Norwegian.

Mr. Cheeseman, in the Transactions, vol. xxvi., p. 219, says, “Mr. Colenso, whose knowledge of the natural history of New Zealand and close acquaintance with the Maori race should give great weight to his opinions, believes that no living. European has seen the true Maori rat—that it has vanished from the list of living beings, and has become as extinct as the moa or dodo. Others, whose views are, perhaps, equally entitled to attention, believe that the small black rat still found in forest districts, and on the outlying islands, and which occasionally makes incursions in considerable numbers into the settled portions of the country, is the true indigenous species. But, whichever of these views is correct, a comparison of skulls found in old Maori eating-places seems to have established the fact that the Maori rat was identical with a species widely distributed in Polynesia, and which has been known to have been unintentionally carried by the Polynesian natives from one group of islands to another.” (On what authority?—T. W.) “The Maoris have a tradition they brought the rat with them from Hawaiki, and, until remains of the animal have been found in deposits older than the time of the Maori occupation, we must attribute considerable weight to that view.” These remarks are made by a dweller in the North, and show the estimation in which the black rat is held in those parts.

– 247 –

The Maoris have a name for a certain rat—“pouhawaiki”—and the following are extracts from correspondence in reference to this name. Mr. Tregear says it is the Norway rat (M. decumanus), and that a certain Maori bearing this name is now living at Little River, Canterbury. Hearing this, I wrote to this Maori gentleman, asking the translation, or true meaning, of the word “pouhawaiki,” but, so far, have received no answer.

Mr. E. C. Goldsmith, of Gisborne, sends me the following by letter: “Gisborne, 17th July, 1894.—I do not know of the black rat from personal knowledge, but the Natives inform me that it was called by them ‘pouhawaiki’; that it lived in the bush, but did not come into the houses; and that it was good to eat.”

On my writing again for further information, and stating that Mr. Tregear says “pouhawaiki” is the Norway or grey rat, and that any South Island native knows that as a common word for “rat,” and that I never myself saw a black rat in the South, I received further particulars under date the 10th August, 1894:—

“‘Pouhawaiki,’ according to my informants, who should know, having eaten them, are the original Maori black rat, living in the bush. One informant tells me that he has not seen any since 1851, but up to that date there were plenty of them, and that he has eaten them, and that they were very good. He also points out that the name is ‘pou-uhawaiki,’ which would prove its being the proper name for this rat.

“I know nothing on the subject myself, and have never seen the native black rat, though I have been camped out in the bush during the last twenty-six years in places far from civilization, the only rat we get there being the common brown one.”

This above information was kindly collected for me on the east coast of the North Island; and the following is given me from the opposite coast, by Mr. W. H. Skinner:—

“New Plymouth, 17th August, 1894.—In answer to your question re the indigenous rat of New Zealand, I have asked the question of four reliable old Maoris myself, and got our Native Agent to put the same question to a roomful of natives, and in every case the answer was, ‘There was only one rat in New Zealand in old times, and its name was “Po-hawaiki” or “Pou-hawaiki.” This is the rat our forefathers used to eat.’ As far as I could gather, this rat was in the country when their ancestors came over from Hawaiki.

“You say, ‘I never saw a black rat there’ (South Island). Mr. Clarke, late Chief Draughtsman of Westland, tells me he has seen numbers of black rats on the west coast of the other

– 248 –

Island, and that they are now increasing, and gradually driving the grey rat out” (M. decumanus.—T. W.).

On the 24th August, 1894, Mr. Skinner wrote from Hawera,—

“In talking to an old chief of the Taranaki Tribe at Te Namu, Opunake, called Tautai, I put the ‘question to him (by the help of our interpreter) about the native rat. He said most emphatically that the old New Zealand rat was called ‘kiore maori,’ and that ‘pohawaiki’ is the name of the European rat (grey).

“I write this at once, in case you are making use of the previous information. I cannot understand why the natives quoted in my last letter should give the names differently, but this man Tautai is an undoubted authority on such things. His age is about eighty years, and his faculties are very clear. He is now, I think, the head chief of the Taranaki Tribe.”

This correspondence is very interesting as showing the extreme difficulty which arises in transmitting oral testimony on matters which were well known only fifty years ago—in fact, at a time when few of the older generation still survive.

Tautai, in saying that Mus maorium was named “kiore maori,” agrees with what Dr. Dieffenbach wrote on this subject; but, owing to my desire not to put specially leading questions in my inquiries, we have received no mention from Tautai as to the M. rattus being named “kiore pakeha,” or any theory as to why the native rat became so scarce. On the whole, I accept Dieffenbach's statement that the English or black rat (M. rattus) was called “kiore pakeha,” “the foreign rat.” This would go to prove that M. rattus came to New Zealand some time previous to the arrival of M. decumanus, the grey rat, because the Maoris told Dieffenbach that “kiore pakeha,” which he understood to be M. rattus, had destroyed “kiore maori.” What surprises me in this connection is that Dieffenbach seems entirely ignorant of what is now an asserted fact, viz., that the grey rat has destroyed the black rat in Europe. This would lead one to suppose that at that date, 1839–40, the battle of the two species had not been carried out to the bitter end. Yet both he and the Rev. Mr. Chapman seem to have been well acquainted with the Norway rat. And I am led to the conclusion, as stated previously, that M. decumanus was then in New Zealand, having come in ships bringing the early colonists.

In my paper, “On Rats and Mice,” published in the Transactions, Vol. xxiii., p. 200, which was read before your Institute in 1890, is the following quotation from “Darwinism,” by A. R. Wallace: “The black rat (Mus rattus) was the

– 249 –

common rat of Europe till, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the large brown rat (M. decumanus) appeared on the lower Volga, and there spread more or less rapidly till it overran Europe and generally drove out the black rat, which in most parts is now comparatively rare or quite extinct. This invading rat” (M. decumanus.—T. W.) “has now been carried by commerce all over the world, and in New Zealand has completely exterminated a native rat, which the Maoris allege they brought with them in their canoes from their home in the Pacific.”

From this you will see that Dr. Wallace, and, as far as I can judge, all scientific naturalists, have in an unaccountable manner overlooked Dr. Dieffenbach's report, taken from the Maoris in 1840, that it was M. rattus and not M. decumanus which had decimated their native rat; so I may take the credit for having turned up this remarkable fact after the lapse of so many years.

From the above it would seem that M. decumanus, the Norway rat, appeared on the confines of Russia or the centre of Europe nearly two hundred years ago, and, from our experience of the habits of migration common to most rodents, we may assume that they came in regular armies, in which case their influence would be as speedily apparent as that of a victorious incursion of the human race, and the black rat would be quickly swept away. How, then, do we find the black rat in New Zealand previous to 1840, and ean it really have been brought from Europe, or is it from a country south of the line?

This black rat had, in 1840, been so long in the North Island of New Zealand that it had exterminated the native rat, or, rather, caused it to be almost procurable. When it first arrived it could only be by the advent of a very few animals, and not in the army of myriads which would come forward to invade Europe—for this rat must have come by ship, possibly from a wrecked ship. These few black rats would take a number of years to increase to a formidable number, and we must not compare their rate of increase with that of M. decumanus in after-years, which latter rat would have a constant accession to its numbers from the continued stream of shipping arriving in New Zealand from Europe. When the vessels come alongside the wharf the rats during the night escape along the ropes connecting the vessel with the pier.

The black rat is, I believe, not yet found in Canterbury, Otage, or Southland, which would seem to indicate that it is not spread by the shipping, or very rarely. Professor Hutton tells me that he has no knowledge of its existence in Canterbury.

– 250 –

The Maoris have a tradition that the kiore maori” (M. maorium) was purposely carried in a box on board the Aotea canoe, and so brought as a valuable commodity or special pet from Hawaiki to New Zealand by the first Maori emigrants. This I look upon as a story founded on the fact that these people, on arrival, found their old acquaintance the “kiore” already established in New Zealand: or it may have survived the voyage, hidden among the vegetable productions with which the canoes were provisioned; but this seems hardly probable, unless rats are able to slake their thirst with the brackish bilge-water entering a vessel by leakage. This rat is found on the outlying islands of New Zealand, together with the wood-hen (Ocydromus), which has no power of flight, and this would suggest the idea that such islands were at one time a part of or connected with the main land, and so lead onward to the theory of a once gigantic continent reaching from New Zealand to Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, and other Pacific islands.

I have, in speaking of the black rat, already given you the chief remarks which Dieffenbach makes on the “kiore maori.” He further states, when referring to the rights of landed property among the Maoris, “It was formerly very common that the fat of the native rats (‘kiore’) killed on such lands should be given to the principal proprietor; and in many cases a title to land seems to have been derived from the fact of having killed rats on it. Thus a chief will often say, ‘This or that piece of land is mine; I have killed rats upon it.’”

He also states to the effect that a favourite speculation among the Maoris was that, as the “kiore maori” was detroyed by the introduced “kiore pakeha,” so would the Maori people disappear before the European. This is a remarkable theory when we remember that so few white men were in New Zealand in 1840.

The following karakia, or incantation, is given by Dieffenbach, for a translation of which I am indebted to Mr. Edward Tregear:—

He Karakia Kiore Maori. An Incantation for the Maori Rat. (That it may come to the pit and be killed.)
Taumaha ki runga, Thank-offering above,
Taumaha ki raro, Thank-offering below,
Ki taku matua wahine, To my mother,
I ki ai taku kiore, Said my rat,
Ma te reke. By the snare.
Taumaha! Taumaha! Thank-offering! Thank-offering!
Etaka to po, etaka ki tuhua. The night falls; it falls at Tuhua.
Etaka te ao, etaka ki Karewa. The day falls; it falls at Karewa.
I tutu ai he kiore. The rats gather together.
– 251 –

Or, less literally,—

Give thanks to those above;
Give thanks to those below,
According to my mother,
My rat he said
By the snare (will be caught).
Give thanks! Give thanks!
The night falls; it falls at Tuhua.*
The day comes; it falls on Karewa.
Hence the rats assemble.

In the Transactions, vol. xxv., p. 49, is a note on Musmaorium, Hutton, by Sir Walter L. Buller, who at the same time exhibited a specimen which was taken at Nelson at the time of the great irruption of rats into that district, recorded by Mr. Meeson: “It is identical with the species of rat collected by Mr. Reischek some years ago on the Little Barrier and other islands in the Hauraki Gulf; specimens of which were taken by me to England in 1886. I compared those with specimens sent to the British Museum by His Excellency Sir George Grey about the year 1848, and found the rat to be the same. Mr. Oldfield Thomas, of the Zoological Department, … is of opinion that the species is identical with the Polynesian rat (Mus exulans) (Peale, Expl. Exped.). This form is known to have a wide range, there being specimens in the British Museum from the Fiji Islands, from Norfolk Island, and from New Caledonia.” Mr. Oldfield Thomas, by comparison of the bone framework of this rat with measurements of remains found by Professor Hutton in Maori kitchen-middens, or feeding-places, considers it identical with the rat which was contemporary with the extinct moa.

During the discussion which followed Sir W. L. Buller's paper, “Captain Mair remarked that this little rat was exactly similar to that inhabiting White Island, in the Bay of Plenty. (Transactions, vol. xxv., p. 535.)

I am in doubt as to what in future will be the scientific name of “kiore maori.” Professor Hutton, of Christchurch, writes me as follows: “The Maori rat (Mus maorium) has been identified in the British Museum as Mus exulans (Peale), which is now its name. This rat was originally described from Fiji.” On the other hand, Professor T. Jeffery Parker, Otago, writes, “I may say that Mr. Oldfield Thomas, of the British Museum, one of the leading authorities on mammalia, considers the Maori rat a good species. I believe he calls it M. maorium (Hutton), not M. exulans, but am not quite sure.”

[Footnote] * Tuhua = Mayor Island, Bay of Plenty.

[Footnote] † Karewa rock, seven or eight miles off Tauranga, where the tuatara lizard is caught.

– 252 –

I am now of opinion that a sociable species of rat which was to be found on the Canterbury Plains, near Oxford, in the years 1855–56 was M. maorium. Something of their habits are described in the Transactions, vol. xxiii., p. 195: “Taking a spade and the pointers, we would beat around, and the dogs would presently come to a stand. Going up, an area of some 10ft. would be noticed of a nice green colour among the prevailing brown, being free from tussock [Poa australis], and covered by a small flattish-leaved grass, whose leaves had their points curved or bent towards the ground. At distances apart in this green patch were numerous rat-holes…. From recollection, they [the rats] were reddish-brown, and perhaps white underneath, of a fair size, and not unlike the Norway rat (Mus decumanus). Still, I feel certain they could not be the Norway rat, but a distinct species of a more social disposition, for full-grown ones lived together to the number of eight to fourteen, and were not a family of young rats.”

Some four years ago (1890), on reading Mr. Rutland's paper in the Transactions, giving an account of the so-called Maori rat (M. maorium) in the north part of the Southern Island, I set to work to try and find the same rat in the forests here, where I am located—Wimbledon, Hawke's Bay. The grey or brown rats had so great a variety of shades of colour and size that this was no easy matter, and a collection of skins and measurements had to be made of all sorts before I could come to a decision. Ultimately, what I had at first considered to be the young of the larger species (the Norway rat) proved to be entirely distinct, and to have special characteristics peculiar to themselves.

This rat (M. maorium?) is coloured brownish-grey, mixed with black hairs; black hairs plentiful from forehead to nose, which is pinkish-skinned; belly, dirty white, also light slate-colour, very dark fur underneath. This white slate colour is often seen on the underside of the wild rabbit in New Zealand, Yellowish-brown stripe down breastbone (not always); coloured on legs down to claws, which are pink, with white hairs; ears are often, or nearly always, jimped as with small excrescences on edges (as if from disease), but this seems a distinct peculiarity of the species; face broad, outline Roman, possibly from hair standing outward naturally; ridge of bone between ears, on back of head, very prominent, sometimes with patches of black colour on the underside of the skin. A second description is: Male, ears jimped with fighting (?), reddish-brown, with black hairs slightly longer; short black hairs on head, giving a stand-up look to the coat, as of an animal very cold or sick (this may be taken as a distinct characteristic of the variety). Nose and mouth pink; under-jaw, belly, inside fore legs, blue-white, with dark under down. Faint bar of reddish

– 253 –

down breast; darker brown colour down front of fore-legs; dark-reddish ring of colour round to inside hind-legs at the hock, in the lowest of the long body-hair; top of back darker than sides; tail smooth, hardly any short hairs; toes white, hind-toes with patch of dark colour on middle knuckles; forehead or front of face looking to project, or rounded by hairs standing out; whiskers black. As with the other rats and mice, the thumb on each fore-foot is wanting the top joint and nail, and one of my specimens was actually without any sign of the thumb itself.

Of the few specimens taken, a male and a female (M. maoriium?) were forwarded to your Museum at Napier, together with a specimen which seemed distinct from either M. maorium or decumanus both in shape of outline and in having the light colour of the belly extending up the sides; also a specimen of M. rattus, taken at the same time. I have never been able to find out whether all four specimens are now in your Museum.

To support the supposition that the black rat was a survival or escapee from a Spanish vessel, besides the name “pero,” a dog, which is similar to the Spanish, we may speculate on the name “Pani,” sometimes spoken of in Maori tradition as a woman the wife of Tiki, who, having come to New Zealand and been well received by the natives, in return for this kindness made a special voyage to a far country, and returned bringing that one-time-valuable fruit the kumara, which previously had been unknown in New Zealand. This name “Pani” may be the Maori rendering of “Espani,” a Spaniard, and “Pani” is mythologically said to be the wife of E'tiki, a deified ancestor of the Maori race. Dieffenbach remarks on the word “kaipuke,” a ship, as being similar to a Spanish word. No reasonable explanation can be given of its meaning, treated as original Maori—kai, to eat; puke, the hill—and I believe this name for ship is not found among other Polynesian peoples.

I should have expected that the “kiore maori” would have been placed in the class Arvicola, or “dwellers in the field,” owing to its habits and to its being a strict vegetable-feeder. In the forest it eats the berries of the hinau-tree, and perhaps of the tawa and pines. It is quite common to see the little heaps of the empty oval cases of the hinau-berry, having a minute hole perforated by the “kiore maori” at the one end, through which the kernel has been deftly extracted—a proof that the animal picks up a single berry, and each time returns to a favourite seat, where he makes his feeding-place. But I have never seen berries of the other forest-trees so collected.

This rat also eats certain leaves, such as the karamu, and possibly of other shrubs. The black rat also eats leaves, as

– 254 –

proved by internal examination. The sociable rats living on the Canterbury Plains would perforce require to eat grass and minute plants and their seeds, and may have supplemented this fare by insects and grasshoppers.

They were mostly found at considerable distances from any speargrass, the roots of which might otherwise have been eaten.*

Mr. Douglas reports that the native rat is on the increase in Westland, as also is the black rat, but that the Norway rat is becoming scarce. This is a remarkable instance of the revival of a species at one time supposed to be extinct, and a singular reversal of the survival of the fittest, the reason of which, and the watching for future developments, is a study of great interest, worthy the consideration of the best scientists of the present time.

Besides the two specimens of “kiore maori” forwarded to Napier Museum I sent some half-dozen skins to Professor Hutton, who deposited them in the Christchurch Museum, where they can be seen by those interested in this study.

I will conclude this long paper with two anecdotes, which I think refer to M. decumanus.

When employed bushfelling about a year ago, and working among a clump or collection of trees which were all firmly tied together by the runners of supple-jacks and kiekie, it was necessary to go from one tree to the other and cut a deep scarf in each, and so work backward through these trees, which would not fall until the last of their united trunks had been also given the preliminary scarf on the side to which it was desired they should fall. This is one of the most arduous and dangerous duties of the bushman, for the mass of entanglement leaves little room for the use of the axe, or for the escape of the worker if he miscalculates the position of his surroundings. When plying the axe beneath a tree which was enveloped in numberless green heads of the climbing kiekie, something fell from above with such force on to my left shoulder that I was somewhat hurt, and thought it was a good thing that the piece of dead bough had not struck me fair, but had glanced off. The thought then came, What size was it? On looking about I saw a grey rat on the ground partially stunned. Thinking it might be a “kiore maori,” I endeavoured to secure it, but, being come to itself again, it quickly made off.

The second is of a grey rat, supposed part grown, who used to come in the daytime and sit before a window—not of glass, but of calico—as the large blow-flies, attracted by the light, settled on the calico and walked up it. This small rat

[Footnote] * Maori, “Tara-mea,” pointed thing—Aciphylla colensoi.

– 255 –

would seize each fly, not taking it with its mouth, but in its two hands, like a man fielding a cricket-ball. It would then sit up demurely, and, still holding the fly in its hands, would eat it with great relish, and then sit patiently waiting for the arrival of the next fly. Location, head-waters of Oreti River, Otago, in 1860–61.

[The section below cannot be correctly rendered as it contains complex formatting. See the image of the page for a more accurate rendering.]

In the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. xxiii., p. 201, I gave the following measurements: From point of nose to top of head—M. maorium, 11/2in.; M. decumanus and rattus, 2in. Hind leg of Maori rat—from hock to end of toe, lin.; of the other two species, 11/2in. These are not measurements of the bone, but outside the hair.

[The section below cannot be correctly rendered as it contains complex formatting. See the image of the page for a more accurate rendering.]

Maori Rat. Black Rat.
Male. Female. Male.
No.1. In. No.2. In. No.1. In. No.2. In. No.1. In. No.2. In.
Snout to root of tail 6 4/16 5 ⅛ 4 5 ⅜ 7 12/16 7 ⅜
Length of tail 5 11/16 5 ⅛ 4 6/8 5 ⅜ 8 7 ½
11 15/16 10 2/8 8 6/8 10 6/8 15 12/16 14 ⅞

The tail of M. rattus is longer than its body, that of M. decumanus is of shorter measurement than the body of the animal. The former rat is much lighter in build and general appearance than the other, and the Maori rat is considerably the smallest of the three.

P.S.—I have just received the following information from a gentleman living near Dunedin:—

“10th September, 1894.—I have made inquiry about the black rat, and find it is rather scarce now about the import-sheds. When I was in the Universal Bond, as a clerk, twenty-four years ago, they were plentiful in the bond, and every few days one would be caught in the traps. Those caught were smaller than the grey rat, and had long, rather furry hair. Their muzzles were sharper and shorter than the common rat, and altogether they were a superior-looking creature to the usual rat.—A. R.”

This letter describing a black rat in Otago is a surprise to me, for I never saw a black rat in the Wakatipu district when living there. This will likely go to prove that a black rat is found near the shipping of most New Zealand harbours. Some years ago I found the dead body of one at the entrance to Messrs. Murray, Roberts, and Co.'s stores at Port Ahuriri, Napier.

– 256 –

Our honorary secretary, Mr. W. Dinwiddie, gives me the following information:—

“I have got a derivation of ‘Pohawaiki’ from Toha Rahu-rahu, a native clergyman of the Wairoa, through Mr. James Grindell, licensed interpreter. He says, po= night, hawaiki= the far country, and the combination means that the beast was a mysterious visitor from an unknown land shrouded in darkness. He says that is the recognized derivation. He remembers the old rat—some dark, some light, and others grey or speckled. [The old black rat turns grey.—T.W.] Mr. Grindell says he recollects them (?) in New Zealand up to about 1860. But he says there is no distinction between ‘pohawaiki’ and ‘kiore pakeha.’ It was the brown rat” (which presumably is M. decumanus.—T. W.).

Mr. Dinwiddie further informs me,—

“The black rat was not known in Europe before the sixteenth century. It is first mentioned by Gesner in his ‘Historia Animalium,’ published in Zurich about 1587. It is commonly supposed to be of South Asiatic origin. The brown rat (M. decumanus) is probably from the same quarter. Bell says South Asia. Buckland says, ‘It is now agreed by most naturalists that it is a native of India and Persia, that it spread onwards into European Russia, and was thence transferred in merchant-ships to England and elsewhere (p. 62).

“Pallas fixes 1727 as the date of its appearance in Russia. (Bell). It arrived in Paris ‘beginning of eighteenth century,’ and in London ‘about the same time.’

“The brown rat speedily mastered the black in England, but it is difficult to say at what date they would be said to be exterminated. They must have been common enough up to the first quarter of this century, especially in shipping localities. Buckland, writing in 1857, says the brown rat has ‘nearly exterminated the black rat.’

“Bell (2nd ed., 1874, largely rewritten; 1st ed., 1839) says the black rat is now rarely found, except in old houses in large cities. Fifteen or twenty years ago this animal was not rare in several localities in Warwickshire, ‘but we now doubt the possibility of obtaining a single example.’ He records the finding of a colony at Pitlochry, in Scotland, in 1860, as ‘the first ever heard of within the memory of any person living in the country.’ In Ireland it is now rare, though not so thirteen years ago.

“In 1859 Sallin exhibited specimens to the Linnaean Society, and both he and Buckland speak as if they were readily obtainable. Buckland says at that time the chief locality was the Isle of Dogs. I should think that even later than that it was to be found among shipping on the Thames.

– 257 –

“I can find no authority as to whether the black rat exterminated the Maori rat. It is generally supposed that the brown rat is responsible (Buckland, p. 63). That seems to have been the impression of the early travellers and missionaries in New Zealand (E. Dieffenbach and Rev. T. Chapman, quoted in Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. iii., p. 1). But it seems probable to me that both brown and black had a hand in it. No doubt both species were brought by ships, and existed, or even exist, in the colony together, as, according to Moseley (‘Challenger’ Exp.), they do in Malay Islands and elsewhere.

“I may mention that Darwin found-rats at Galapagos and Keeling, which he calls black rats. Although somewhat smaller than the English variety, he does not think it necessary to make a new species.

“Chapman says that in old times there was a second native rat larger than the Norway rat, which was always rare (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol; iii., p. 1).”

I take this opportunity to thank those gentlemen who have so kindly assisted me in collecting material for this paper, and will now give an extract from “An Introduction to the Study of Mammals,” by Sir W. H. Flower and Richard Lydekker (just come to hand).:—

“The brown or Norway rat (M. decumanus) is.a heavily-built animal, growing to 8in. or 9in. in length, with a bluff, rounded head, small ears, and a comparatively short tail, which is always shorter than the head and body combined, and generally not longer than the body alone. The colour is a uniform greyish-brown above and white below, the ears, feet, and tail being flesh-coloured. Black varieties, which are often mistaken for true black rats, are by no means rare, but the differences in size and proportions form a ready means of distinguishing the two. The brown rat is believed to be a native of Western China, where a race (M. humiliatus) has been discovered so like it as to be. practically indistinguishable. Both this and the next species agree in their predaceous habits, omnivorous diet, and great fecundity. They bear four or five times in the year from four to ten blind and naked young, which are in their turn able to breed at an age of about six months, the time of gestation being about twenty days. The black rat (M. rattus) is a smaller and more lightly-built species, generally not more than 7in. in length, with a slender head, large ears, and thin tail of about 8in. or 9in. in length. The colour is usually a glossy bluish – black, somewhat lighter below; but in the tropical variety described as M. alexandrinus the general colour is grey or rufous, and the belly white. The disposition of the black rat is milder than that of M. decumanus, and the white and pied rats kept as pets mostly belong to this

– 258 –

species. In many localities where it was formerly abundant it has been entirely superseded by M. decumanus, but it is said that in some parts of Germany it has been lately reasserting itself.”

This article is, I believe, contributed by Mr. Oldfield Thomas. A figure of the heads of these two rats is also given.

In answer to my inquiries, Dr. James Hudson, of Nelson, writes, under date 18th September, 1894,—

“The migration of rats which occurred here in 1884, and which Meeson reported, was certainly a dark rat, but not ‘black.’ It was very much smaller than the ordinary-Norwegian rat—in fact, about midway in size between a mouse and that animal. It was again fairly numerous in 1888, and occasionally since, but is very scarce just now. The Maoris here called it the native rat. When I get a good specimen I will send it to you. The only two kinds of rats I have any knowledge of here are this small rat and the ordinary Norway rat.”

Note I.—Mr. Grindell, as above quoted, says “pohawaiki” is the same animal as “kiore pakeha.” Which animal is he meaning, M. decumanus or rattus? I suppose he refers to M. deccumanus, for you notice how these terms have different values according to the species prevalent in districts wide apart. If we take Dr. Dieffenbach's report in 1840, “kiore pakeha” is M. rattus, which no doubt was the correct name in north New Zealand at that time. M. decumanus was probably found only on the coast, near the larger harbours, at that date. Dieffenbach writes “kiore pakea.” He drops the “h” in most Maori words as written now.

Note II.—Hunting the water-rat.—At times this rat, when exhausted by diving, would come to the surface, keeping its body inclined perpendicularly, and remain seemingly perfectly motionless, with only the small pointed tip of the nose and nostrils at the junction of air and water, so getting a breathing-space, till the disturbed mud cleared away and he was detected. The hair would be wet, and plastered close to the body, illustrating the old saying, “As wet as a drowned rat.”

The name “kiore” would seem the general term signifying “rat” throughout Polynesia—as Samoan, ‘iole; Tahitian, iore, a rat; Hawaiian, iole, a mouse; iole nui, a rat or rabbit (nui, large).

Of other words meaning “rat,” besides “pouhawaiki,” are “hinamoki,” which would seem an older form, taking notice of the Moriori word hinamoko, to squeak. Investigating the structure or composition of hina-moki, we find hina, grey hair of the head, which would seem to mean white rather

– 259 –

than our standard of a grey colour, as of a rat or rabbit. If so, if seems hardly applicable in this case. But hina is a personifieation of the moon, and supposing the original form to have been mokai, rather than moki, we have “Hina's pet,” the animal moving about at night. For comparison see hina-po, twilight (po = night); hina-pouri, very dark (pouri = darkness); hina-moe, sleepy (moe =sleep). “Hinamoki,” a rat, was likely used by the Moriori of the Chatham Islands, and by a pre-Maori race in New Zealand.

A third name is “maungarua,” the cave in the hill (rua, a hole, a cave for storing crops): Maunga is also to dwell or reside (in); rua, the storeroom. This last definition is very suitable for a rat. A fourth name for a rat is “riroi” (roi=fern-root). Dieffenbach describes a store cave seen on his journey between Lake Taupo and Rotomahana (vol. i., p. 378):—

“The sides of this small ravine consisted of pumice-stone or tufa, and here the proprietors of the potato-ground had hollowed out deep caves, which were secured from without, and were full of potatoes. Snares made of flax-leaves were laid all around the entrance for the purpose of destroying the rats. One of the holes filled with potatoes had been left open for the use of travellers, as is customary in New Zealand, and to us this liberal custom proved a great relief.”

Elsewhere Dieffenbach mentions that the Maoris were necessitated to build pataka, or storehouses elevated on poles or posts, to preserve their provisions from the rats. They also Kept the bones of some of their friends in boxes at the top of poles set up in the pa or fortified enclosure where they lived.

Some of these rat names may have been only in temporary use during the time a chief was named kiore—as Nga-te-kuri, the descendants of kuri, the dog; Nga-te-ruru, the descendants of ruru, the owl.

Conclusion.

In this paper I purposely refrain from making a summary of the various statements therein, for my opinion is that after a lapse of ten or twenty years the subject will be more readily understood when the then history and habits of the three species of rats are remarked on and compared. For example, a careful inquiry should be made at once to discover whether M. rattus is frequent about the stores at different shipping-places, and if any of the Polynesian rats arrive in the small vessels which convey fruit and island produce to New Zealand. If it is correct that the “kiore” came to New Zealand in the Maori canoes from Rarotonga or elsewhere, may not this same arrival of M. maorium to New Zealand be still continned by European shipping at this date? If so, we have no certain proof that the “kiore” was not exterminated and

– 260 –

afterwards reintroduced to New Zealand. The finding of this-rat in such an out-of-the-way place as Wimbledon would almost be conclusive proof that the “kiore” of the Maoris was not exterminated, but was only greatly reduced in numbers.

I am firmly convinced that Dieffenbach found M. rattus in great numbers in the north parts of New Zealand, as far south as Lake Taupo, and Taranaki and Wanganui on the west. But M. rattus was not known in the South Island from Nelson through Canterbury to the Bluff in 1855–57, and if now found at these places it has been recently introduced. In the South Island M. decumanus, and not M. rattus, would compete with or destroy M. maorium. But in the north we are clearly told by Dieffenbach (1840) that the Maoris informed him M. maorium was destroyed by “kore pakeha,” the foreign rat, and that this rat was not the Norway rat, but the English rat (M. rattus).

Note.—M. rattus in country places lives in the forest or field, and is not seen in the houses.

I would direct your notice to the undoubted fact that neither Dieffenbach nor Mr. J. E. Gray, of the British Museum, mentions that the Norway rat (M. decumanus) was found in New Zealand about the year 1840; in proof of which Mr. Gray heads the paragraph thus: “The Rat—Mus rattus, Linn.?” but seems still to have doubts as to what rat is meant, for he says, “It would be interesting to see [that is, himself to see] whether it is the European, the Indian, or the New Holland rat that has been introduced.” By “European” M. rattus is referred to, for you will also notice Dieffenbach in his description says, “which they [the natives] distinguish from the English rat (not the Norway rat) which is introduced.” And further on this is varied-thus: “owing to the extermination carried on against it by the European rat”; and a few lines-further on, “in the same manner as the English rat has exterminated their indigenous rat”: “(not the Norway rat),” which is between brackets, but “the English rat, which is introduced.”—that is, the black rat (M. rattus).

M. decumanus is not mentioned as introduced, but “The-Mouse—Mus musculus.” “The common domestic mouse of Europe has also been introduced.”—Dieffenbach. The cat, pig, horse, ass, sheep, and ox are next mentioned; the dog having previously been spoken of.

This reading of the rat question has seemingly been overlooked by our scientists, and, if it had not been for the heading, “The Rat—Mus rattus,” attracting my notice, I also should possibly have passed it without comment.

Since writing this paper I have found a portion of a rat's-skin which, from the dark under-fur, may have belonged to a “kiore,” M. maorium: upper or back reddish-brown, sprinkled

– 261 –

with black hairs; under or belly and sides a faint sulphur-colour, with dark-bluish down at the base of the yellow-tinted hairs. This down is not visible unless the hair is parted.

When Mr. Gray says, “It would be interesting to see whether it is the European, the Indian, or the New Holland rat that has been introduced,” &c., he has entirely thrown over Dr. Dieffenbach, and is following the leading of Polack, who says, “Called ‘kiore’ by the natives; said to have been introduced at an early period by European vessels.” Take special notice: Gray is speculating on his own account about M. maorium and not alluding to M. rattus. He had never seen specimens of this rat, and is just leading the reader astray. It is extremely probable that Polack is speaking of the black rat, “kiore pakeha.” The “kiore maori” he probably never saw, as it was likely to have at that time become scarce, owing to competition with M. rattus.

You will notice also that Gray follows after Polack on the subject of the dog (kuri), or rather Gray leaves both Polack and Dieffenbach, and, although the latter clearly says this dog was entirely different from the dingo of Australia, yet Gray gives this heading to the paragraph: “The New Holland Dog—Canis familiaris australis, Desm.; Canis dingo, Blumenb.” From this we must on no account take for granted anything interpolated by Gray on the subject of the New Zealand “kiore” or “kuri,” for he knew nothing whatever about either animal.

The rat seen by Dieffenbach, and most probably by Polack, was the progenitor of the black rat which inhabits the north part of New Zealand at the present time, and which rat, until proved otherwise by osteological evidence, we assume to be identical with Mus rattus. This rat, the Maoris told Dieffenbach, was “kiore pakeha,” the foreign or stranger rat.

The first to arrive in New Zealand was “kiore maori.” Then, in a mysterious manner, comes “kiore pakeha,” the black rat. Then, according to Dieffenbach, “the mouse accompanies the early settlers.” (The Norway rat, “pouhawaiki,” last of all.) That is to say, in the North Island. The black rat was not found in the South Island, and there the Norway rat spread inland some years in advance of the mouse, a fact which I recorded in a former paper.