Joseph Banks

In 1767, the year that Endeavour put to sea, Banks was 25 years old. He had inherited a considerable fortune, the estate of his father who had passed away in 1761, and had grown used to indulging his taste for life’s richer pleasures. He was a socialite among a crowd that included scientists, philosophers, artists, courtesans and scoundrels. It was a lively time for the arts and sciences—James Hargreaves had just patented the “spinning jenny”, a machine for spinning cotton credited with kick-starting the Industrial Revolution. The microscope and the telescope were pushing the frontiers of the known universe and scientists and philosophers throughout Europe were challenging superstition and religion. Like many of his contemporaries, Banks embraced the Enlightenment notion of Progress—that our growing ability to manipulate the world through technology would result in benefits for everyone. As a fellow of the Royal Society he positioned himself at the hub of this revolution of ideas, networking and engaging in lively correspondences with leading scientists, philosophers and explorers. His interest in the natural sciences encompassed zoology, geology and ethnography, but it was botany which consumed him. Botany was in fashion. In the 1760s, plant hunters were sending back thousands of specimens from North America, India and China, satisfying a growing appetite among 18th-century landscape gardeners for the new and exotic. Settling on a unified strategy for naming species and imposing order on the natural world was also becoming an issue. Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) had recently developed a revolutionary new system of classification in which he arranged flowering plants into families based on their sexual characteristics—the number of male stamens and female pistils in each flower. [caption id="attachment_143613" align="alignnone" width="430"] The elaborate moko worn by Maori fascinated Sydney Parkinson as is evidenced in a collection of painstaking portraits he compiled.[/caption] The Royal Society was sponsoring the world’s first scientific voyage of discovery and Banks perceived a great opportunity to make his name as a scientist. The converted Whitby collier Earl of Pembroke, renamed and commissioned as HM Bark Endeavour, was to be sent to the newly discovered King George’s Island (Tahiti). Its primary goal was to record the Transit of Venus—the time taken for the planet Venus to travel across the face of the sun, data from which scientists could calculate the distance from Earth to the sun. However, Banks was more interested in the opportunity the voyage afforded to botanise in virgin territory. He lobbied hard to win a place on board, volunteering to put up £10,000 of his own money to recruit and equip the science team for the voyage. However, it was still the Admiralty’s gig and their aristocracy had the final word on selecting a principal scientist regardless of what the Royal Society or any of its illustrious fellows had to say about it. Fortunately, one of Banks’ drinking buddies was the Earl of Sandwich (or “Jemmy Twitcher” as he was known to the demi-monde), who was not only famous for his debauchery but also the First Lord of the Admiralty. [Chapter Break] At 2PM on August 26, 1768, Endeavour sailed out of Plymouth Sound with Joseph Banks and his good friend Daniel Solander, the young Swedish naturalist, on board. Banks’ entourage also included the naturalist and instrument maker Herman Sporing, landscape artist Alexander Buchan and the gifted young illustrator Sydney Parkinson. From Revesby, Banks’ Lincolnshire estate, came two young African servants and his two best dogs—a spaniel and a greyhound. There was also a mountain of scientific paraphernalia. As John Ellis, another fellow of the Royal Society, observed: “No People ever went to sea better fitted out for the purposes of Natural History. They have a fine library: they have all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing, they have even a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which put into water, you can see the water a great depth, when it is clear...” There were a total of 96 men and boys on the ship, including gentlemen scientists, ship’s officers and a 12-man militia. Supplies included 1200 gallons of beer, 34,666 pounds of bread, 6000 pieces of pork, 4000 pieces of beef, 1500 pounds of sugar and a goat to provide fresh milk for the gentlemen and officers. Below decks the common sailors strung their hammocks the regulation 14 inches apart, and the accommodation provided for the officers and gentlemen scientists was accurately referred to as “hutches”. At 6’5” Banks towered over his shipmates and was in constant danger, leaving chunks of his scalp all over the woodwork. [caption id="attachment_143624" align="alignnone" width="600"] A plate annotated “View of an arched rock on the coast of New Zealand with an hippa, or place of retreat, on the top of it” was included in Parkinson’s journal, which was published in 1784. Parkinson’s drawings, various Maori artefacts and botanical samples collected by Banks and Solander enabled the character of this new-found land to be transmitted back to Europe.[/caption] He quickly established a working routine, botanising ashore wherever conditions and the captain would allow it. On returning to the ship, he and Solander would lay out the contents of their collecting baskets in the Great Cabin, which Cook, who enjoyed the company and lively conversation of the young men, generously made available to them. The detailed descriptions were written up while the plants were still fresh. At the same time, Parkinson would sketch them, adding accurate colour references so that unfinished drawings could be completed at a later date if necessary. Each new plant was then put into a folded sheet of paper and left in the sun to dry. Whenever possible, this drying process was done ashore by spreading the papers out on a sail. In Banks’ own words, “…one person is intirely employd in attending them who shifts them all once a day, exposes the Quires [folded papers] in which they are to the greatest heat of the sun and at night covers them most carefully up from any damps…” Once dried, the plants were placed in fresh quires of paper and bound in bundles for storage. Realising he’d need a lot of paper for this process, he had brought a large supply of printers’ proofs. One of the surviving bundles still has plant specimens nestling among the pages of Joseph Addison’s Notes upon the Twelve Books of Paradise Lost. [Chapter Break] Just over a year later, the first part of the Endeavour’s mission had been accomplished, but with mixed success. The observations made from Point Venus on the island of Tahiti on June 3, 1769, did not provide the conclusive data that was hoped for—intense sunlight filtering through Venus’s atmosphere had fuzzed the edge of the planet’s silhouette and Cook’s record of the time taken for the transit to occur differed by 42 seconds from that recorded by the ship’s astronomer, Charles Green, a difference that was too significant for an accurate calculation of the distance from the Earth to the sun. What’s more, three sailors had already drowned on the voyage and another had managed to drink himself to death. Banks’ team wasn’t immune to tragedy either. The two black footmen from Revesby froze to death during an ill-advised collecting trip in Tierra del Fuego, a fate shared by one of the dogs. In Tahiti, Alexander Buchan died following an epileptic seizure. On the bright side, in Moorea Banks had persuaded Cook to allow a high-ranked Polynesian to join his entourage. Tupaia was an Aroi, a member of the Polynesian cultural elite with specialist knowledge of custom and religious matters, and a skilled navigator. He and Banks became good friends. Banks might have imagined showing off the Polynesian princeling to the high-life crowd back in London, but Tupaia was much more than an exotic human trophy. His real worth to the success of the expedition soon became evident. [caption id="attachment_143618" align="alignnone" width="941"] Banks’ Florilegium was the product of Sydney Parkinson’s meticulous botanical observations. During Endeavour’s first voyage, Parkinson sketched the specimens that Banks and Solander enthusiastically collected, making 269 paintings enroute. Then, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of specimens (30,000 at journey’s end) Parkinson simply noted the appropriate colour on each sketch. Back in London, Banks commissioned five artists to complete the 743 watercolour illustrations and, from these, copperplate engravings crafted by 18 engravers, were cut. Banks didn’t live to see the Florilegium published. The British Museum printed 315 of the engravings between 1900-1905, with further printings in 1973, but only in 1988 did a complete, full-colour set in 35 volumes go to print, more than two centuries after the collection was made. One hundred copies of this masterpiece were produced.[/caption] By September 23, 1769, the ship’s supplies of fresh food were running low and many of the pigs and chickens taken aboard in Tahiti had died. Even the ship’s biscuit, the marine substitute for bread, was crawling with insects. With the stoicism attained in the notorious public school refectories of Harrow and Eton, Banks recorded, “I have often seen hundreds nay thousands shaken out of a single bisket. We in the Cabbin have an easy remedy for this by baking in an oven, not too hot, which makes them all walk off.” Characteristically, the botanist notes that the escaping bugs “are of 5 kinds, 3 Tenebrios, 1 Ptinus and the Phalangium cancroides”. Nevertheless, like everyone else, he was eager for any sign of approaching landfall and an opportunity to take on fresh food and water. In accordance with the Admiralty’s orders, Endeavour was heading for Nova Zeelandia. Almost all that Banks would have known of the land came from Alexander Dalrymple’s Account of the Discoveries Made in the South Pacific Ocean, which detailed the experiences of the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, the only other European explorer to have visited the archipelago more than a century earlier. Without the benefit of a translator, the Dutch had catastrophically misjudged the tenor of their reception. One of the waka had charged the cockboat, deliberately ramming it. Sailors were pitched into the sea, others clubbed to death—Tasman lost four men, and several Maori were killed. But there’s nothing in Banks’ journal to suggest anxiety, only a growing sense of excitement. On October 2, 1769, Sydney Parkinson recorded that, “the sea is as smooth as the Thames, and the weather fair and clear. Mr Banks went out in a little boat, and diverted himself in shooting of Shear-waters, with one white Albatross, that measured, from the tip of one wing to the other, ten feet, seven inches; and also picked up a great many weeds of various kinds.” Banks himself wrote: “Now do I wish that our friends in England could by the assistance of some magical spying glass take a peep at our situation: Dr Solander setts at the Cabbin table describing, myself at my Bureau Journalizing, between us hangs a large bunch of sea weed, upon the table lays the wood and barnacles; they would see that notwithstanding our different occupations our lips move very often, and without being conjurors might guess that we were talking about what we should see upon the land which there is now no doubt we shall see very soon.” Both the amount of seaweed and number of seabirds indicated that land must be close. Nicholas Young, the 12-year-old lookout, was the first to sight it. On October 6, Endeavour sailed to the north of the Poverty Bay headland that would henceforth bear the lad’s name, and entered a wide open bay. Two days later, canoes were seen in the bay but they soon returned to a cluster of dwelling places ashore “low but neat” where “a good many people were collected who sat down on the beach seemingly observing us”. Banks clearly did not know what to make of the pa. “On a small peninsula at the NE head,” he describes, “a regular paling, pretty high, inclosing the top of a hill, for what purpose many conjectures were made: most are of the opinion or say at least that it must or shall be either [a] park of Deer or a field of oxen and sheep.” In the late afternoon, Banks and Solander joined Cook’s shore party in the ship’s yawl, eager for a closer look at the new country. An armed guard of red-coated marines followed in the pinnace. A group of Maori melted away into the bush ahead as the yawl made a landing near an abandoned fishing camp. Cook poked about among the fishermen’s leavings while Banks and Solander began to explore the lush coastal vegetation, filling their collecting bags with plants that were quite unfamiliar to them. Later, when they began the process of cataloguing their discoveries, they would find that many of the specimens were not just new species but completely new genera, quite unknown to European science. Soon titoki, rewarewa and tutu would acquire sophisticated Latin names—Alectron excelsus, Knightia excelsa and Coriara arborea—based on the Linnean system of classification. However, the plant hunters were rudely awakened from their botanical reveries by the sound of gunfire. Hurrying to rejoin Cook, they were alarmed to find that the yawl was no longer where they had left it. They made their way on foot back to the beach, where a distressing scene awaited them. A man lay dead on the shore, one of a small group of warriors that had launched an attack on the four young ship’s apprentices. The marines were alerted by the commotion. As the lads began to row to safety, and just as the leading warrior was about to launch his spear, he was shot through the heart by the boatswain. His kinsmen dragged the body for some distance, before retreating into the bush. This was the first time the warriors had seen white men, and the result, a chilling echo of Tasman’s fleeting experience in New Zealand, set an ominous course of relations for the two cultures. Banks recalled the dead man with forensic attention to detail: “a middle sized man tattowed in the face on one cheek only in spiral lines very regularly formed; he was covered in a fine cloth of a manufacture totally new to us, his hair was tied in a knot on the top of his head but with no feather stuck in it. His complexion brown but not very dark.” However, this description gives no indication of the emotional impact that the bloody event had on Banks. His journal was no private diary but a historical record to be handed over to the fellows of the Royal Society for scrutiny at journey’s end, so he rarely wrote with emotional liberty. The events that unfolded over the subsequent 24 hours, however, would test his professional reticence to breaking point. The following morning, Maori and Europeans confronted each other across the Turanganui River. This time, Banks’ friend Tupaia was at his side. The Moorean called across to the Maori gathered on the far bank and, to the Europeans’ surprise, it was apparent that his words had been understood. Tupaia promptly became the expedition’s chief spokesman. One of the warriors began to wade across the river but stopped near a large boulder, Toka-a-Taiau, where he beckoned to Cook. The captain responded and the gap between these two envoys narrowed until nose to nose, they shared a breath. It was enough to encourage the warrior’s kinsmen to cross the river and join Cook’s shore party. Everything seemed to be going well enough, though Banks observed that the Maori seemed much more interested in guns and swords than in the iron nails and bits of cloth that the explorers had brought as gifts. By now more than 20 warriors, armed with spears and patu, were crowded around. If they had a mind to it they could have split a dozen British skulls before the marines with their regulation flintlocks had lifted weapons to fire, but cautious curiosity prevailed. [caption id="attachment_143622" align="alignnone" width="493"] James Cook created the first complete manuscript chart of New Zealand in 1770. Drawn aboard Endeavour, whose track is shown, it was remarkably accurate[/caption] Suddenly, someone made a grab for the short sword hanging from the astronomer’s belt. Banks was the first to respond. As a keen sporting shooter he was as accurate as any of the marines and quicker. His musket was loaded with small shot used for collecting birds and small animals, and in circumstances such as he now found himself in, the use of small shot was the kind of controlled response to aggression that would be seen as permissible under the Royal Society’s guidelines. But events rapidly overtook such niceties of judgment. Predictably, Banks’ weapon had little effect on the retreating warrior. The surgeon was next to fire. His weapon was loaded with ball, and the running man fell dead in his tracks. In the uproar that followed, more shots were fired and the Maori retreated. Before ordering a return to the ship, Cook marched the marines across to a bit of raised ground. The union flag was hoisted and he took formal possession of the new country for King George III of England. Later that day, three young fishermen were abducted from their canoes. Once aboard, Cook had thought to win them over with a demonstration of hospitality and goodwill, but tragically four of their compatriots were killed in the kidnapping. This bungled attempt at commando diplomacy seems to have been the last straw for Banks. For once he allowed himself to express strong personal feelings in his journal, and the entry for October 9, 1769, reveals real anguish at the violence: “Thus ended the most disagreeable day my Life has yet seen,” he says, “black be the mark for it and heaven send that such may never return to embitter future reflection.” As for the young hostages, Endeavour must have seemed as unfamiliar as a spaceship, its inhabitants aliens—except for Tupaia. The Moorean was able to comfort them and they were soon displaying a hearty appetite for salt pork and ship’s biscuit. The next morning, they were in good spirits when they accompanied the expedition shore party, calling out to their kinsmen gathered on the far bank of the Turanganui that they had been well treated and had met a great man who was almost one of their own. Tupaia’s mana had come to the aid of Cook’s commando diplomacy. Eventually, an elder waded across the river and presented Tupaia with a green bough. Despite the uneasy truce that ensued, there was to be no more botanising for Banks. On October 11 he wrote, “This morn We took our leave of Poverty Bay with not above 40 species of plants in our boxes, which is not to be wondered at since we were so little ashore and always in the same spot.” Cook needed to find a more welcoming anchorage for the supplies of fresh food and water his crew so badly needed. As Endeavour sailed on there were frequent encounters with Maori—often hostile. In a typical encounter, Maori would perform a blood-curdling haka, often followed up with spears and stones, which would come rattling off the sides of the oak intruder. Sometimes Tupaia’s diplomacy, supported by a demonstration of Endeavour’s superior firepower, would ameliorate the aggression enough for a little trading to occur. But misunderstandings frequently arose over the exchange of goods and the consequence was often more Maori deaths and injuries. [caption id="attachment_143624" align="alignnone" width="600"] Sydney Parkinson produced a steady stream of etchings and paintings on this circumnavigation, including two views of the entrance into Poverty Bay (top) and a view of the rugged West Coast (bottom).[/caption] However, on October 21, 1769, Endeavour arrived at Anaura Bay, where Banks’ journal refers to extensive Polynesian gardens, “the ground tilled that I have seldom seen land better broken up”, where were planted “sweet potatoes, cocos, and a plant of the cucumber kind, as we judged from the seed leaves which just appeared above ground”. These plantations varied in size from one to 10 acres and, as he records, “each distinct patch was fenced in, generally with reeds placed close one by another, so that a mouse could scarcely creep through”. In total, there were between 150 and 200 acres under cultivation at Anuara Bay, “though we did not see above 100 people in all”. It was also here that the Banks and his companions collected their first specimens of puriri, the tree sometimes called New Zealand teak. His journal also describes the gardeners’ latrines and dunghills, far superior to the deficient hygienic arrangements seen in Tahiti. The womenfolk, however, were found to be less amenable to the explorers’ advances and he describes them as being “as great coquettes as any Europeans could be and the young ones as skittish as unbroke fillies”. It was early in the growing season and fresh vegetables were still in short supply, but Banks noted that people filled the gap by eating the roots of bracken fern, or as he knew it, “Pteris crenulata, very like that which grows upon our commons in England”. The roots were first roasted and then beaten with a stick to remove the tough outer layers. Someone handed him a charred tidbit to try and he found that it had “a sweetish clamyness not disagreable to the taste”. The downside were the fibres which, “in quantity 3 or 4 times exceeded the soft part; these were swallowed by some but the greater number of people spit them out for which purpose they had a basket standing under them to receive the chewed morsels, in shape and colour not unlike Chaws of Tobacco”. The following morning, a heavy swell obliged Cook to seek a more secluded anchorage a few miles to the south, now known as Tolaga Bay. Cook’s name for it may be a corruption of “turanga”, a landing place. According to Sydney Parkinson’s diaries, he, Banks and Solander roamed among “hills covered with beautiful flowering shrubs, intermingled with a great number of tall and stately palms which fill the air with a most fragrant perfume”. With proper cultivation, he proclaimed, this landscape could be “rendered a second kind of Paradise”. Banks and Solander discovered many new specimens here including whau (Entelea arborescens), milk tree (Streblus banksii), ake ake (Dodonaea viscosa) and the white sun orchid (Thelymitra longifolia), and also made reference to an abundance of parrots, pigeons and quail. Banks was surprised at the lack of four-legged animals apart from Polynesian rats (kiore) and dogs (kuri). He described the latter as “very small and ugly”, like the ones he’d seen in Tahiti. He was also entranced by a natural rock archway that framed a gorgeous view of the bay. “So much is pure nature superior to art,” he declared in the journal. Maori, being less susceptible to the romantic notions of a European sensibility, named the archway Te Kotore o te Whenua, “the anus of the land”. Endeavour sailed on into the Hauraki Gulf where, on the morning of November 19, 1769, two canoes came out from the shore. Tupaia was greeted by name—the Polynesian’s mana evidently having preceded him. The following morning, Banks joined Cook in the pinnace as the Maori led the way up the Waihou River until a magnificent kahikatea forest closed around them. The botanist was overwhelmed, “the banks of the river were cloathed with the finest timber my Eyes ever beheld. Every tree as streight as a pine and of immense size...” On felling one of the smaller trees, he noted the timber to be extremely dense and heavy, and would “make the finest Plank in the world”. This was, he declared, “the properest place we have yet seen for establishing a Colony... The Noble timber, of which there is such abundance, would furnish plenty of materials either for the building of defences, houses, or Vessels.” He described the Waihou as being “as broad as the Thames at Greenwich”, and Cook was so taken with the comparison that he renamed it accordingly. In January the following year, the ship ran down the west coast where Cook, wary of prevailing westerlies, allowed it to approach the shore only as close as efficient cartography required. [caption id="attachment_143627" align="alignnone" width="891"] His imagination lit with memories of Maori warriors armed and set for battle, Banks posed for his own portrait bedecked in a flax cloak using a paddle and spear for props.[/caption] As the boat made a landing at Ship Cove (Meretoto) in Queen Charlotte Sound, a group of Maori disappeared into the forest. Driven by curiosity, they soon returned to find the visitors examining the remains of their camp kitchen. Banks had noticed that one of the provision baskets held some bits of meat and a couple of longish bones “pretty clean pickd...and on the grisly ends which were gnawed were evident marks of teeth”. Although Banks was aware of the existence of cannibalism amongst the Maori, he was “pleasd at having so strong a proof of a custom which human nature holds in too great abhorrence to give easy credit to”. With Tupaia interpreting, he learned that the bones were those of an enemy, one of seven killed in a recent skirmish. It was also while anchored in the Sounds that he was moved to write those words that have become emblematic of New Zealand’s lost dawn chorus. His description of being “awakd by the singing of the birds ashore...their voices were certainly the most melodius wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitatting small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imageinable”. After being re-caulked and repaired, Endeavour sailed out of Queen Charlotte Sound on February 6 and, over the next three months, completed a clockwise circumnavigation of the South Island. Cook’s reluctance to make any further landfalls frustrated Banks. But an even greater disappointment assailed him. He had been clinging to the hope that New Zealand would turn out to be an outpost of a vast, undiscovered southern continent—a notion that the expedition’s sponsors had also cherished. There were many aboard who were sceptical, including Tupaia, who had never heard of any great southern landmass. When Endeavour rounded Stewart Island’s South West Cape, Banks’ fervent hopes of discovering some kind of land bridge linking Terra Incognita Australis to New Zealand were finally dashed. The “no Contineters”, as he called them, celebrated by roasting a dog, and with admirable culinary economy the offal was made into a haggis. [Chapter Break] Banks’ visit to New Zealand is recorded in his Account of New Zealand, which includes detailed observations of Maori apparel, cooking methods, weaponry, fortifications and much else which represents a valuable record of a way of life that history obliterated. He admired Maori skills in boatbuilding, carving, gardening and fishing. He was frank about those aspects of the culture he found harder to accept—such as cannibalism. But the greatest legacy of Joseph Banks’ visit to these islands are the many New Zealand plants that he collected and described with the assistance of Daniel Solander—almost 400 of them and all but a handful species that were new to science. His Florilegium, a portfolio of 743 of more than 3000 plants he and Solander collected during the Endeavour’s three-year voyage of discovery, took five artists and 18 engravers to complete and wasn’t even printed within his lifetime. One of the most striking illustrations is Sydney Parkinson’s representation of harakeke, the New Zealand flax—a souvenir of the six months that the Endeavour spent in New Zealand waters. Banks wrote, “Of the leaves of these plants with very little preparation all their common wearing apparel are made and all strings, lines and cordage for every purpose, and that of a strength so much superior to hemp as scarce to bear a comparison with it. The Finest cloaths are made with the extracted fibres, snow white and shining almost as silk and likewise surprisingly strong.” Freshly returned from his voyage to the ends of the Earth, Banks had his portrait painted by society artist Benjamin West. In it he wears a flaxen cloak whose qualities he seems to be recommending. The cloak and the other items he has chosen for his backdrop suggest a lasting regard for New Zealand, for its unique plant life and the culture of its first people. But looking out over the Hauraki Plains it’s now hard to imagine that great kahikatea forest that so overwhelmed him. The swamps that he enthusiastically recommended “might easily be drained” have been, and like variegated ants, great herds of cattle swarm across the green baize of the vast snooker table we swapped it for. From Gisborne’s Cook Plaza, Young Nick’s Head is about the only thing in this landscape that the botanist would recognise today. The hills are threadbare and the mouth of the Turanganui River, where he first landed, has been re-engineered as a concrete chute. Toka-a-Taiau, the sacred river boulder where Captain Cook became the first white man to exchange breath with a New Zealand Maori, has vanished—blasted by the Marine Department to clear the channel into the harbour in 1877. We are sceptical now of the Enlightenment notion of Progress that Banks so cherished. But there is some evidence that even he had developed some misgivings, regretting, for example, his part in the destruction of his native Fens—that vast wetland, equal in size to Hauraki, that had once been so full of birdlife that it was known as “the aviary of England”. In an elegiac poem, The Mire Nymph, written towards the end of his life, he seemed to mourn the passing of that wild watery world where he fished and hunted as a boy, nurturing a growing passion for botany along its unkempt byways. Large parts of the Fens are now being reclaimed for wildlife, and European cranes are breeding for the first time in two centuries, reflecting a similar history of destruction and restoration that occurred at the hands of European pastoralists half a world away. If Banks were to revisit Meretoto, where the forests so enthusiastically felled for grazing are regenerating, he would marvel once more at the “melodius wild musick” of bellbirds and tui to which he awoke one morning 240 years ago.



Jan - Feb 2010

Fairy terns

Mass extinctions



Joseph Banks




The day the earth stood still

There was snow on the mountains nearby, and in the dark gorge the winter water was icy. We sloshed up the meandering stream bed, examining the rocky walls as we went. Parallel layers of whitish rock containing darker interior bands plunged down to meet the stream ahead of us. The formation continued for hundreds of metres up the steep cliffs above us, up into patches of sunlight. But down where we were, there was no hint of sun. Joy Lines, my fossicking companion, and I were on a journey back to the end of an epoch. Sixty-five million years ago, life on Earth faced an apocalypse. Half of all organisms were rendered extinct, including the dinosaurs. Most ecosystems suffered massive destruction, and it took a million years or more for life to return to a semblance of order, though it was never the same as it had been. All that is left of that cataclysmic change is a scar of clay-like rock exposed in a few dozen locations around the world. I peered at the sheaf of papers in my hand, looking for congruence between the detail that appeared in the grainy pictures and the rocks beside us. Judging from the rock formations, we were certainly in the right area, but finding the exact spot—a layer of rock just centimetres wide laid down 65 million years ago—could prove tricky. When I’d spoken with Chris Hollis, a geologist from GNS Science, on the phone a few days earlier, I could hear doubt in his voice that we’d be able to find the spot. After all, we were well off the beaten track. We’d travelled with Hamish Murray (one of the family who owns 40,000 ha Bluff Station at Kekerengu, midway between Blenheim and Kaikoura) for some 30 km along a farm road in his ute, climbing over a low saddle near the eastern end of the Seaward Kaikouras and winding west towards the lower ramparts of the Inland Kaikouras. Murray pointed us in the direction of the south branch of Mead Stream and wished us luck. [Chapter Break] Geologists come from all over the globe to see the rocks in Mead Stream. Sixty-five million years ago, these formations were sludge on the seafloor off the coast of a very different New Zealand. Dinosaurs probably roamed the land and erosion was steadily nibbling away at the hills. Rivers bore the debris back to the seafloor in the process of relentless levelling that nature undertakes, gradually building up a geological record in the sediment that accumulated close to the coast. But then occurred an event that changed life here and everywhere else on Earth. It wiped out pretty much every animal on land larger than a rat, and also put paid to much that lived in the sea as well. For instance, the ammonites—a group of cephalopod molluscs resembling the chambered nautilus still found in the tropical Pacific—completely disappeared despite dominating the oceans for more than 200 million years. Most large marine reptiles vanished. Half of all organisms became extinct. [caption id="attachment_16923" align="alignnone" width="866"] You could be forgiven for assuming that the chambered nautilus (below), found in tropical Pacific waters at depths of around 300 m, are directly descended from the extinct—but once abundant—ammonites (above). In reality, nautiluses have evolved little over the last 500 million years and were considerably more varied in size and shape in the Ordovician period (some species topped 2.5 m). While similar in appearance, ammonites belong to a different order of cephalopoda to the modern nautilus and were more closely related to squid, octopus and cuttlefish. With their similar physiologies, nautiloids may have avoided extinction by employing an alternative reproductive strategy. Ammonoids produce planktonic larvae (plankton fared poorly at the K–Pg boundary), whereas those nautiloids that survived produced fewer, larger eggs.[/caption] So major was the abrupt change recorded in fossils at this time that it split geological time, ending the 180 million-year-long Mesozoic era and beginning the Tertiary, also known as the Cenozoic era. This has been commonly abbreviated to the K–T boundary—K is from the German name for the Cretaceous period (Kreidezeit meaning chalk age), the last of the three periods of the Mesozoic. These days, however, the use of T for Tertiary is being discouraged by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, and “Paleogene” is replacing it—so it is now more accurately termed the K–Pg boundary. What actually caused this sudden extinction is the subject of much debate and suggestions have been many and varied—including terminal hay fever brought on by the evolution of flowering plants! But the most persuasive notion has been a theory posited in 1980 by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, and two chemists. In New Zealand and elsewhere, the K-Pg boundary is marked by a layer of clay-like sediment, a couple of centimetres thick, sandwiched between layers of harder rocks. Alvarez and his team discovered that this layer contains high levels of iridium—an element that is extremely rare in the Earth’s crust, but abundant in most asteroids and comets. These extraterrestrial bodies also possess oddities in the abundance of other heavy metals, such as chromium and nickel, that Alvarez also found in the boundary rocks. The layer also contained tektite glass spherules and tiny quartz grains bearing stress lines. All this is evidence, the Alvarez team claimed, of a massive asteroid impact on the Earth 65 million years ago. The asteroid would have exploded on impact, spreading iridium-laden dust around the globe. Estimating the total amount of iridium in the K–Pg layer (and assuming that the asteroid contained the normal percentage of iridium), the Alvarez team calculated that the asteroid must have been about 10 km in diameter. Such a massive impact would have released energy equivalent to exploding two million of the largest nuclear bombs ever tested, throwing 90,000 cubic kilometres of rock and dust into the atmosphere. In comparison, the moderately large eruption of Mt Pinatubo—ejecting 10 cubic kilometres—in the Philippines in 1991 would have appeared a minor sideshow. Even so, ash and sulphuric acid aerosols from the Pinatubo eruption reduced sunlight reaching Earth’s surface by 10 per cent for close to three years and reduced global temperatures by 0.4°C. [sidebar-1] But the actual impact of the asteroid was merely the beginning—the environmental holocaust that followed was catastrophic. A dust cloud would have enveloped the globe, blocking sunlight and therefore inhibiting photosynthesis for months or years. Temperatures would have plummeted. While most plants, phytoplankton and organisms dependent on plants would have perished—along with the carnivores that preyed on the herbivores—scavenging animals that fed on detritus could have survived, as would fungi that thrive on dead wood. Fragments from the asteroid impact—heated by being blasted right up through the atmosphere and then falling back to Earth—may have triggered widespread fires. The oxygen content of the atmosphere was very high (30–35 per cent) during the late Cretaceous, supporting intense combustion, but the geological record demonstrates that oxygen levels plummeted in the early Paleogene. It’s possible that the excess of oxygen was literally burnt up by K–Pg fires, becoming carbon dioxide in the process. Once the atmosphere cleared, the elevated carbon dioxide levels would likely have caused considerable global warming—perhaps by as much as 10°C—a hot spell which could have lasted for centuries and killed off some of what had survived the dark and cold. The Alvarez paper created a furore at the time, and one problem with the hypothesis was that there was no crater of suitable size known—something 200 km in diameter and the right age. However, a decade later, in 1990, a 180 km-wide crater of suitable age was discovered on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico’s east coast. [caption id="attachment_16924" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Joy Lines examines boundary rocks beside Mead Stream in Marlborough. The boundary runs diagonally from near her left elbow, and the dark chert above (formed from the siliceous skeletons of radiolarians and diatoms) contrasts with the older Cretaceous limestone below, composed of calcium from forams and cocolithophores which vanished at the boundary.[/caption] The impact site was a gypsum (calcium sulphate) bed on the coast, indicating the presence of an ancient sea and raising the prospect that a devastating tsunami had added to the destruction. Vaporised by the force of the impact, the gypsum would also have produced massive amounts of carbon dioxide and given rise to a vast sulphur dioxide aerosol that would have further diminished sunlight and eventually fallen back to Earth as acid rain—making a catastrophic situation even worse. Since the Yucatan discovery, several other possible impact craters have been discovered that are about the same age. It’s conceivable that a larger asteroid broke up and peppered the Earth with fragments in much the same way that more than 20 pieces of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smacked into Jupiter over a few days in July 1994. (Although the largest fragments there were only 2 km, the impacts produced large visible effects in the Jovian atmosphere.) The largest of these other terrestrial craters is 600 km x 400 km and lies in the seafloor west of Mumbai, India. It was named Shiva by Texas paleontologist Shankar Chatterjee, although there remains some uncertainty as to whether it really is an impact crater. Lesser craters include the 24 km-wide Boltysh crater in Ukraine and the 20 km-wide Silverpit crater in the North Sea. All are dated at about 65 million years ago. A rival explanation for the K–Pg extinction has been a sudden increase in volcanic activity at the Deccan Traps, a series of vast volcanic outpourings that cover half a million square kilometres of western India to a depth of up to two kilometres. Before erosion took its toll, lava probably covered three times that area. This series of eruptions are thought to have occurred about 65 million years ago, over a span of between two million and 30,000 years. Gases released by the eruptions would likely have caused dramatic global warming—perhaps by as much as 8°C. Given the proximity of Shiva and the fact that it’s a similar age, it’s been suggested that it was the asteroid impact that triggered the Deccan eruptions. If an asteroid was the sole destroyer, extinction should have had a very abrupt onset in the fossil record. If volcanism or some other mechanism lay behind the mass extinction, a more gradual timetable might be found, including extinctions before the iridium anomaly. And to distinguish between those possibilities, we need to turn our attention to the rocks themselves. [Chapter Break] Sedimentary rocks laid down at the K–Pg boundary in the New Zealand area have been uplifted by tectonic forces and exposed in a number of places around the country—the best collection of such exposures in the Southern Hemisphere. And since New Zealand lies on the other side of the globe from the Yucatan Peninsula, the records from our rocks can provide an insight into the global dimensions of what happened 65 million years ago. Furthermore, our rocks were deposited in a range of different environments—some in deep water, others at shallower depths or even on the floor of a lake in one instance. While most of the sites do not contain large fossils, microfossils are abundant. They are the minute shell-like remains of plankton—unicellular organisms such as radiolarians, foraminifera and dinoflagellates. Paleontologists can break down or dissolve most sedimentary rocks and release a cargo of these microfossils, and since many species are restricted to a particular environment (oceanic, coastal waters or estuaries), the conditions under which the rocks were deposited can often be determined. Many species occur in the fossil record for only 2–10 million years and are globally distributed, making microfossils invaluable for assigning accurate ages to sedimentary rocks and also providing information about the climate of the time. [gallery ids="16927,16926,16925"] In the Clarence River region of south-eastern Marlborough, a nearly complete 650-metre-thick sequence of sedimentary rocks laid down from 70 to 40 million years ago lies exposed in several gullies. And the place where the most complete sequence can be seen is Mead Stream, where each millennium has been recorded in 0.7–3.5 cm of rock for geologists to read. Once Joy and I found it, the K–Pg boundary seemed completely unremarkable—a two centimetre-wide crevice between harder rocks. A tiny turquoise cross was painted onto the rock where the drawings and photos indicate the boundary lies, and Joy pointed out a couple of inconspicuous bore holes nearby made by geologists. Younger rocks higher on the wall contain records of three other globally significant climate events—the late Paleocene carbon isotope maximum (59.5–56 million years ago), the initial Eocene thermal maximum (55.5 million years ago), and the early Eocene climate optimum (53–50.2 million years ago)—a volume of the planet’s tumultuous history cast in stone which is being closely studied by scientists concerned about climate change. But unlike these other events, the K-Pg boundary is obvious even from hundreds of metres away. Above the boundary the rocks form a conspicuously darker band, 20 metres wide, of hard, glassy and splintery chert—the fine-grained sedimentary rock derived from the silica shells of diatoms and radiolarians—while the surrounding white rock is softer, rich in lime or calcium carbonate. The change in colour and geology represents a total revolution in the ecology of the ocean following the K-Pg event. It scribes a line clean through the geological record, through mountains and gullies; an unmistakable pattern spelling out a change of guard in black and white. White, where the sediment laid down in the Cretaceous was rich in foraminifera which had shells made of pale carbonate; and black, where those micro-organisms were rendered all but extinct in an instant and rapidly replaced by diatoms and radiolarians, with shells made of dark silica, which went on to dominate the marine ecosystem during the cool conditions that prevailed for a million years following the event. It is odd to think that this unremarkable, dull layer of sediment was formed at a time of unimaginable catastrophe. It seems too bland, too commonplace, altogether too nondescript, but it is all that remains of one of the most destructive events in Earth’s history. [Chapter Break] Later that day, Joy and I drove a little north along the Kaikoura coast and walked back down to Wharanui Point into a blustery southerly. A narrow reef, resembling a set of decayed molars, marched down the beach and out into the surf, resisting the gnashing waves. The strata here run almost vertically, tipped on end by the geological forces that have shaped New Zealand over the past 65 million years. Woodside Creek, the original New Zealand K–Pg boundary site, flows into the sea just a few hundred metres north of the point, and its gorge, where the boundary rocks are exposed, is in low hills just a kilometre or two inland. Between 10 and 20 km to the north lie three further exposures of the boundary, at Needles Point, Flaxbourne River and Chancet Rocks. By analysing the minerals and microfossils found in the boundary rocks of the area that is now eastern Marlborough, geologists have learned much about what went on 65 million years ago. [caption id="attachment_16928" align="alignnone" width="414"] Often termed “living fossils”, tuatara are the last surviving members of Sphenodontia—an order that flourished 200 million years ago. Unlike many other reptiles, tuatara are not particularly specialised and unusually well-adapted to cold weather, two qualities that help explain their survival beyond the K–Pg extinction event.[/caption] But first, it’s important to understand that much of modern Marlborough was once under a good deal of water, to the north of a very different proto-New Zealand near the eastern edge of what was termed the East Coast Basin. The land once stretched out east to west over 3000 km and lay at 60° South. For 1200 km east of the East Coast Basin stretched the land of the Chatham Platform (which is now largely an undersea ridge), and south of this long finger of land lay the Canterbury Basin. Water upwelled, bringing nutrients to the surface to stimulate blooms of the microscopic plankton whose shells dominate the seafloor deposits that would become today’s limestone hills. The site of the Flaxbourne River today was once some 250 km from shore—with Woodside Creek, Mead Stream and Branch Stream representing progressively shallower coastal zones. Even the site that Branch Stream now occupies was perhaps 50 km out to sea and in 500 m of water. Because of the distance of the sites from land, most of what accumulated on the seafloor was the remains of minute organisms that lived in the water above or in the seafloor itself—radiolarians, foraminifera (forams), diatoms, coccolithophores and dinoflagellates (see sidebar). Farther west in the basin—today’s coastal Wairarapa—the seafloor was closer to the ancient shoreline, meaning that the sediments which accumulated were richer in mud and detritus derived from the land. There is no doubt that a major cataclysm occurred at the K-Pg boundary in Marlborough. It’s evident in the darkening of the rock, which signals the almost complete and instant disappearance of the rich calcareous-shelled plankton (foraminifera and coccolithophores) that had dominated Cretaceous seas. It’s a different story for the silica-shelled microfossils, such as the radiolarians and diatoms. Remarkably, there appear to be no extinctions at all in these groups although, at least for the radiolarians, there is a major rearrangement in the relative abundance of groups of species, implying a dramatic change in ocean conditions. Larger, more complex species were rapidly replaced by smaller, simpler bacteria-feeders, and diatoms (very simple phytoplankton with cell walls made of silica) suddenly became extremely abundant. After about a million years, as the seas and atmosphere recovered, there was a return to the deposition of carbonate-rich rocks (limestone), signalling the recovery of the calcareous plankton that had dominated the late Cretaceous. [Chapter Break] While the rocks in Marlborough give us a good sense of changes to life in the open ocean 65 million years ago, to understand the effects on and closer to land, Joy and I headed into the Waipara River gorge in north Canterbury, another place where the K–Pg boundary is exposed. Last year, we came here looking for fossils of marine reptiles, but this time it was later in the season following a lot of rain. The river that we waded along easily last year was now deep, muddy, swift and uninviting. We clambered over hills and through scrub to get down to where the boundary was exposed on a bank above the water. Here there were no clearly defined strata, just a rubbly grey cliff bearing assorted yellowish streaks and smears like faded graffiti. In Marlborough locations, the rocks were laid down in deep water, but here the rock was formed in shallower waters close to the coast with a lot of sediment present. Along with marine microfossils, pollen and spores from land plants are abundant in the deposits. And here at Waipara in late Cretaceous and early Paleocene rock samples, spores and pollen from some 82 plant taxa have been found. Seventy-one species were found in the top seven metres of Cretaceous rocks (perhaps representing half a million years of deposition)—45 per cent of them conifers, 40 per cent ferns and 10 per cent flowering plants (including beeches). The species present indicate that the climate was mild and temperate, with little ice and frost but sufficient rain for the large range of ferns. [sidebar-2] But from the K–Pg boundary, for the next 20 cm of rock there is evidence of an abrupt change in the flora. Fern spores increased dramatically in abundance and conifer and flowering plant pollen halved, representing a major shake-up in the structure of plant communities—forests seem to vanish in the blink of a geological eye, to be replaced by little more than ferns. The types of fern present also differed from those in the Cretaceous. The very earliest Paleogene was dominated by species of forked ferns (gleichenids), which are pioneers in the wake of environmental disturbance such as burning. Later, these gave way to tree ferns. It was not until hundreds of thousands of years after the event that the number of fern spores dropped to about half their original abundance, whereas conifers and flowering plants resurged to much greater populations than in the Cretaceous, suggesting that the climate was both cooler and drier. [Chapter Break] It was a damp afternoon on the West Coast as I tried to find my way to the old Moody Creek coal mine in Dunollie, north of Greymouth. I parked in the Solid Energy Spring Creek car park and entered an old house that served as the office. Inside was a small pot-belly stove exuding warmth. I came upon two men who confessed to being mining geologists, and asked if they had ever heard of the K–Pg boundary. “Well, I hadn’t until January,” answered one of the geologists. “But then I took a party of geologists up there to find it.” We hopped into a ute and headed up a narrow road into the hills. “Down here,” said Michael Nickerson as he clambered out and headed down into a dark gully. We descended to a murky-looking stream. “The boundary layer would be right on the water level over there. In January, when I came with a party from a geological conference, some knew all about it.” Again, a completely inconspicuous site. You wonder how much field work it took GNS paleontologist Ian Raine to locate the site some 20 years ago. Here the rocks looked quite shaly and were a sombre grey—a soft carbonaceous mudstone—and there was a vague outline of the coal seam at stream level that contained the boundary. Above the boundary was a fern-covered bank, dark in the fading light. Despite its dour appearance, this was another K–Pg boundary site of great international significance. Unlike any other site in the country, the rock here was deposited in the bed of a lake or within a boggy mire, and the fossils were pollen, spores and leaves from plants growing on the surrounding hills. Here, analyses have given evidence of even more dramatic changes than at Waipara. The iridium is up to 71 parts per billion, the highest value found in non-marine rocks anywhere in the world. In the late Cretaceous, conifers dominated the ecosystem here, but at the K–Pg boundary, fern spores increased to 90 per cent of the plant community. Flowering plants disappeared completely from the deposits above it and represent less than five per cent of the flora for perhaps a million years afterwards. Recently, a four millimetre-thick layer containing only fungal spores and cells has been recognised at Moody Creek above the last remains of Cretaceous plants and before the spike in ferns. Fungi don’t depend on photosynthesis at all but get nutrients from decomposing wood and other plant remains—exactly the sort of materials that would have been abundant in the years following the asteroid impact. The fungal layer here is yet more evidence of extensive forest destruction—and about as far as you can get from Yucatan and other possible impact sites. [Chapter Break] The rocks in New Zealand bear compelling evidence for Luis Alvarez’s asteroid hypothesis, an event so catastrophic that it abruptly and radically altered the forests and seas of our remote archipelago half a world away from the site of impact—rather than slow changes that might have been wrought by an effusion of gases from the Deccan Traps. And by studying the effects of the K-Pg event here, it now seems unlikely that any part of the world escaped devastation. The fungal and fern spikes immediately after the iridium anomaly tell us that the forests here died off, either through lack of light, acid rain or burning. Thirty thousand years after the impact, tree ferns replaced more opportunistic fern species and then conifer forests dominated for the next million years. And in the seas, as in other parts of the world, the New Zealand K–Pg boundary is defined by mass extinctions among the calcareous-shelled plankton. However, in marked contrast to other regions, there was no general collapse in plankton production, rather an abrupt reorganisation in silica-shelled plankton that begins directly above the boundary clay and lasts for at least a million years, indicative of a prolonged period of cool climatic conditions in the New Zealand region. How and why this happened, and whether it occurred in other regions, is still under study. And though it now seems that Alvarez and colleagues had it right, the details of what happened after the K-Pg boundary, one of the most significant events in the history of our planet, remain lost in pre-history. However, relics of the creatures and forests of 65 million years ago remain preserved in the sediment in which they perished, a geological tomb that may yet hold more clues to their demise, but one that does not give up its secrets easily.


Lovely bones

Anton van Helden, Te Papa’s collection manager for marine mammals, extracted a pack of cards from his pocket and made one of those movements in which the cards seem to pour from one hand to the other.



Dismissed as worthless, pestilent places, wetlands—where the water table is at or near the Earth’s surface—are anything but. They purify water, prevent floods and erosion, store carbon, provide resources like peat and flax, process nutrients, act as nurseries and offer recreation and aesthetic value.

Living World

Away with the fairies

The New Zealand fairy tern is our rarest breeding bird. Each season it must prevail over its predators, the summer rush of beach-goers, inclement weather and the incoming tide to hatch and fledge. Will conservation triage—a new approach to species management—benefit the bird or consign it to the fate of the 33 other New Zealand species that did not survive the last century?


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