Colin Miskelly (Curator of Vertebrates, Te Papa) investigates the history behind the naming of the endemic birds of the Antipodes Islands
The Antipodes Islands were so named because Captain Henry Waterhouse considered them to be the nearest point of land to the antipodes of London – i.e. the opposite side of the globe. The original name he gave in 1800 was ‘Isle Penantipode’, meaning ‘island next to the antipode’, as he recognised that the islands were a speck in a vast ocean, and that there would be no land exactly opposite London.
Despite their remote location, the islands were soon relocated by sealing captains. Over the following three decades, the islands’ fur seals were hunted to extinction, with the last recorded visit by a sealing crew in 1830. It is likely that this same team (from the Boston brig Rob Roy) captured other wildlife on the island – perhaps due to a complete lack of seals – as within a year one of the islands’ green parakeets was displayed at the zoological gardens in London.
These days, Edward Lear (1812-1888) is best known as a writer and illustrator of nonsense poems – with ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ his most famous work. But long before he wrote of runcible spoons and bong-trees, Lear made a name for himself as a bird artist, producing beautiful paintings and lithographs. His first book – published when he was only 19 years old, in 1831 – was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. This limited edition work is now one of the most sought after and expensive of all early bird books. Among the spectacular colour lithographs was a plain green parakeet that Lear named ‘Platycercus unicolor Uniform Parrakeet’.
The first scientist to visit the Antipodes Islands was the Austrian collector and taxidermist Andreas Reischek, in 1888 (also on board the Stella). Reischek named both the Antipodes Island pipit (as Anthus steindachneri) and the local form of ‘red-crowned’ parakeet (as Platycercus hochstetteri). Reischek had been based in New Zealand since 1877, but both names honoured his mentors back in Austria. The pipit was named after Dr Franz von Steindachner (1834-1919), Privy Counsellor, zoologist and Director of the Imperial Museum in Vienna, where Reischek himself returned to the following year.
The parakeet name honoured Arthur von Hochstetter, “the son of a sincere friend from whom I received many kindnesses, and who has too soon passed away”. The recently deceased friend was the geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter (1829-1884), who had visited New Zealand in 1858-59, and is himself honoured in the names of Hochstetter’s frog (Leiopelma hochstetteri), South Island takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri), Hochstetter’s giant land snail (Powelliphanta hochstetteri) and the sky-blue toadstool shown on our $50 banknote (Entoloma hochstetteri). It is unknown why Reischek chose to honour Arthur (then a 25 year-old medical student) rather than his late father – perhaps he thought the living would appreciate the honour more than the dead.
It is also unclear why this parakeet has come to be known colloquially as Reischek’s parakeet, rather than the more obvious alternative name of Hochstetter’s parakeet. The only other New Zealand bird where the person who named the bird is now recognised in the bird’s common name, rather than the person they were honouring in the scientific name, is the fossil Simpson’s penguin (Platydyptes marplesi) named by George Gaylord Simpson. In this case there was already a bird known as Marple’s penguin (another fossil species, Palaeeudyptes marplesi), and so a different name was required to avoid confusion.
The Antipodes Island snipe took nearly 40 years to acquire a valid name, due to a case of mistaken identity. Captain Fairchild collected one in 1887, and the following year Walter Buller described it as being larger, darker in plumage, and with a more curved bill than the Auckland Island snipe – but for some unknown reason, he did not give it a name. Lord Walter Rothschild eventually named the Antipodes Island snipe 5 years later, as Gallinago tristrami. The name honoured Canon Henry Baker Tristram of Durham, who had named the Snares Island snipe earlier that year (1893). However, it transpired that the specimen Rothschild selected as his type specimen was actually an Auckland Island snipe, and so Gallinago tristrami became a junior synonym of what is now Coenocorypha aucklandica aucklandica. As soon as the error was recognised (in 1927), Rothschild had another, and ultimately successful attempt at naming the Antipodes Island snipe, as Coenocorypha aucklandica meinertzhagenae. The subspecific name honours the British ornithologist Annie Meinertzhagen (1889-1928), who had published a review of the world’s snipes and woodcocks the previous year. The Antipodes Island snipe is one of only three living endemic New Zealand birds named after a woman, along with the New Zealand fairy tern (Sternula nereis davisae) and the North Island fernbird (Bowdleria punctata vealeae).