Polynesia; A popular description of the physical features, inhabitants, natural history, and productions of the islands of the Pacific. With an account of their discovery, and the progress of civilisation and christianity amongst them.
Chapter IV. — Natural History.—Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Fishes, Insects, Mollusks, etc
Birds, Reptiles, Fishes, Insects, Mollusks, etc.
Although, as yet, we know but little of the natural history of New Guinea, three species of kangaroos have been discovered there; two of these belong to the remarkable arboreal genus Dendrolagus, which inhabits trees, and but rarely approaches the ground; whilst the third is a small terrestrial kangaroo, of the genus Dorcopsis. If we except several species of Phalangister or opossum, and a few of the allied genus Cuscus, which are inhabitants of the dense forests, no other land animals than the above, but bats and rats, have hitherto been observed on the coast of Papua.
In the interior of New Zealand there exists a small species of wild dog, but this is probably descended from a peculiar breed introduced by the Spaniards, or even by the New Zealanders themselves, when they first peopled the country. Of this animal Dr. Dieffenbach says, "The dog of the natives is not the Australian dingo, but a much smaller variety, resembling the jackal, and of a dirty yellowish colour. It is now rarely met with. A native dog of New Zealand is not a sufficiently powerful creature to do harm to domestic animals, as is the page 55case with the introduced and mongrel dogs. In want of better sport, they hunt young birds, and to this cause may be ascribed the scarcity of many of the indigenous birds."
Of the dogs at Brierly Island, in the Louisiade, Mr. MacGillivray remarks, "They are long-bodied, short-legged, and prickeared, with sharp snout, and long tail slightly bushy, but tapering to a point. They do not bark, but have the long melancholy howl of the dingo or wild dog of Australia." In the Samoas, or Navigator's Islands, there is also a wild dog found in the mountains. It is a small animal, of a dark, dirty grey, or lead colour, with ittle or no hair, and large, erect ears.
The common cat is at present found in a wild state in the forests of New Zealand, and is another cause of the extermination of indigenous birds. It is remarkable that these wild cats soon resume the streaky grey colour of their original stock—the wild cat of northern Europe.
The little Indian rat occurs abundantly over all the Papuan Islands, dwelling in hollow logs and holes, and climbing bushes and low trees like a squirrel. Indeed, throughout most of the Polynesian islands, rats appear to be very numerous, and in some places are used as food by the natives.
In New Zealand there exists a frugivorous native rat, called "kiore maori" by the aborigines, which they distinguish from the European species, which is introduced, and called "kiore pakeha," or the stranger rat. In former times they used the "kiore maori" for food in large numbers, but latterly it page 56has become very scarce, owing to the warfare carried on against it by the European rat. It is a favourite theme with the New Zealanders to speculate on their own extermination by the Europeans, in the same manner as the stranger rat has superseded their native one.
In the mangrove forests of Figi there roost immense numbers of a very large species of bat (Notopteris Macdonaldii). These animals measure nearly a yard across, between the extreme points of their wings. At the Navigator's Islands, the same or a very nearly allied species of bat, is a great pet with the natives of that group, who domesticate these animals about their dwellings. At Savage Island the vampire bats are esteemed by the inhabitants as a delicate article of food.
Amongst the marine animals that inhabit the coasts of New Zealand and the Auckland and Chatham Islands, may be mentioned several species of seals. The sea-lion is found on the west coast of the Middle Island of New Zealand; where also the furseal of commerce (probably the sea-bear) was formerly hunted in great numbers; now, owing to the exterminating warfare so long carried on, these animals are but rarely met with, only straggling individuals being seen occasionally.
The wide waters of the Pacific are the head-quarters of the gigantic sperm-whale, which is found ranging from New Zealand to Kamtschatka. It is equally at home in the blue tropical seas beneath the equator, as it is in the stormy regions nearer the poles. Many other species of whales, as well as of page 57grampus and dolphin, also abound in the Pacific Ocean.
Birds.—Foremost amongst the bird fauna of Polynesia must be noticed that remarkable group of gigantic wingless birds, allied to the cassowary, and now probably extinct, of which the islands of New Zealand were once the head-quarters. It is now a little more than five-and-twenty years ago since the first bones of the "moa," as the natives styled these huge birds generally, were discovered. Since that period the semifossilized, and, in some instances, comparatively recent remains of no less than ten species of the "moa" have been found; all of which have been carefully examined and described by Professor Owen, who resolves them into two genera, Dinornis and Palapteryx. In the former genus the professor includes eight species, and in the latter two. In their general aspect, characters, and habits, it is supposed that these birds resembled much more nearly the cassowary tribe, than they did the ostrich or the emeu. To give some idea of the stature of these birds, as ascertained from their skeletons, it may be mentioned that the largest species of "moa," the Dinornis giganteus, stood, when erect, ten feet six inches in height, whilst the D. dromæoides and D. elephantopus, both exceeded five feet. Of the smaller species, the D. didiformis stood four feet high; whilst the Palapteryx struthioides attained the altitude of near seven feet.
Closely allied in structure to these great birds, remains of a very ancient fauna, now all but disappeared, there still exists in New Zealand a smaller but very page 58remarkable genus of wingless birds, called Apteryx, of which three species have been described. These curious birds are about the size of a domestic fowl, with brown or grey plumage, according to the species, remarkably powerful legs and feet, and long slender beaks, which they introduce into the ground in search of grubs and worms. Like many of the New Zealand birds the apteryx is nocturnal in its habits, dwelling beneath extensive beds of fern, where it conceals itself during the day. The largest species, the "fireman" of the whalers, is from the Middle Island, and is considerably larger than the other two. The apteryx forms its nest in a burrow in the earth, and lays an egg of enormous size, in proportion to that of the bird itself.
From the fact that some of the bones of the "moa" have been discovered still containing the oily matter, and that even bunches of its feathers were not long since in the possession of some of the old chiefs as ornaments, coupled with the detailed accounts the natives themselves give us of these birds, it appears evident that but a comparatively short period has elapsed since the "moas" ceased to exist; and, indeed, it is not quite certain whether solitary individuals of one or more of the smaller species of Dinornis may not yet be discovered in a living state amongst the wild fastnesses of the great snowy chain of mountains in the Middle Island. Near Roturua the natives point out the spot where they killed the last "moa;" and several tolerably-well authenticated stories have been afloat from time to time, of whalers and sealers, and, more page 59recently, of gold diggers in the Middle Island having obtained glimpses of gigantic birds. One fact, however, seems pretty certain, and that is the existence in abundance of the various species of Dinornis and its allies all over New Zealand, at the period when the Polynesian inhabitants first arrived; and that for a long time they were killed by them for food, until at last such bulky, and probably stupid birds, easily falling a prey to the Maories, they were eventually exterminated. According to the traditions of the New Zealanders, the largest species of "moa" was of a red colour. Fragments of enormous eggs have from time to time been found in various parts of New Zealand; and, very recently, an entire egg, supposed to belong to the Dinornis ingens, of Owen, has been discovered at the Kaikora Mountains, in the Middle Island. It appears that a man, in digging the foundation for a hut, when on the side of a small mound, suddenly came upon the egg in question, together with a human skeleton. The body had evidently been buried in a sitting posture, and the egg must have been placed in the hands, as the arms were extended in such a manner as to bring it immediately opposite to the mouth of the deceased. This was probably done in accordance with the ancient custom of supplying the dead with food. Between the legs of the skeleton were found numerous weapons and implements of green jade. The egg itself is about ten inches in length, and seven in breadth, the shell being of a dirty brownish colour, and rather thicker than a shilling.page 60
That one, if not more, species of cassowary are dwellers in New Guinea, we may infer from the fact of their feathers having been found in the native houses, and their canoes being also decorated with them. In the island of New Britain, the existence of a fine species of cassowary (Casuarius Bennetti, or "mooruk" of the natives) has recently been made known. It is the largest bird now inhabiting any part of Polynesia, as far as our present knowledge extends. Not quite so tall as the cassowary of the East Indian Archipelago, it is nevertheless more robust, having very powerful legs and feet. It stands about four feet in height. The plumage is composed of coarse hair-like feathers, nearly black, whilst the naked skin on the neck is of a smalt-blue colour. The head is adorned with a horny helmet of peculiar shape. The eggs are five and a half inches long, corrugated, and of a pale-green colour. Through the exertions of Dr. Bennett, of Sydney, the Zoological Society of London already possesses full-grown living specimens of the "mooruk." Mr. Gould tells us, that "Professor Owen considers this new bird and the cassowary (C. galeatus) to be the most nearly allied living types of his genus Palapteryx; and, if this opinion be correct, we may infer that the habits and economy, as well as the kind of plumage, and the character of country inhabited by the extinct birds, were very similar. I have always considered the cassowary to belong to a totally distinct group to the ostriches, which are adapted for roaming over vast plains and open country during the day time, and to feed upon berries, page 61fruits, mollusks, and small animals generally; while the cassowary, the mooruk, and the apteryx are partially or wholly nocturnal, living reclusely in the gullies and humid parts of dense forests, feeding upon the roots of ferns and other plants peculiar to such situations. The hair-like character of their feathers bespeaks these habits and mode of life, as much as the plumes of the ostriches do their adaptation for open plains and savannahs."
Amongst the other extraordinary birds that still exist in New Zealand, constituting the remnants of a nearly extinct fauna, we may mention the Notornis Mantelli, of Owen, a single living example of which was taken a few years ago by some sealers in Dusky Bay. This bird had hitherto only been found in a fossil state, and the discovery of a living specimen of a genus once contemporary with the colossal "moa," goes far to prove that the final extinction of those great wingless birds took place at no very distant period, and probably long after the advent of the Maori people in New Zealand. The notornis, owing to the feeble nature of its wings, is incapable of flight, but runs with great swiftness amongst the fern. It is a heavy, stout-looking bird, about the size of a goose, having much the aspect of a gigantic water-hen. Both its beak and feet are large and strong, and of a bright red colour: the general plumage is a glossy bronze green, with the head and belly purplish black, and the tail coverts snow white.
Another of the more important of the terrestrial birds of New Zealand which may also be mentioned, page 62is the Ocydromus Australis, or "weka-weka" of the natives, a large species of rail, or wood-hen, with short wings, which dwells amongst the fern and underwood. Specimens of this interesting bird may be now seen alive in the gardens of the Zoological Society. Mr. H. Pease informs us that there is a wingless bird, which the natives call "moho," still existing in Hawaii, one of the Sandwich Islands, but it is now rapidly becoming extinct, having been killed off by the dogs and cats within late years.
Amongst the strange ornithological forms that occur in New Zealand is a very remarkable bird of the owl tribe, called the "wekau" by the natives. It is rather larger than the ordinary screech-owl, spotted with chestnut and black, and has long legs, and small green-coloured feet. The head is very small, and the beak like that of a hawk, thus imparting somewhat of an accipitrine character to this anomalous owl. It is found in the Middle Island, where its habits are, from its conformation, no doubt terrestrial. Its scientific name is Sceloglaux albifacies. Owls abound at the Navigator's Islands, and occur also in the Sandwich Islands, but are not known in the Society Islands and the other groups to the eastward. The largest species of Podargus (a genus of goat-suckers, of which Australia is the head-quarters) is found in New Guinea; it is upwards of two feet in length, handsomely mottled, and has a long forked tail. It is the P. papuensis of Quoy and Gaimard. Another beautiful crested podargus is also to be met with in New Guinea.page 63
Prominent amongst the numerous members of the parrot tribe that enliven the New Guinea forests may be mentioned the large salmon and sulphurcrested white cockatoos, and the great black palm cockatoo (Microglossus aterrimus), a noble bird with a long crest of sharp feathers, which frequents the tops of the tallest palm trees, and feeds upon their tender central shoots.
In the woods of New Zealand several small species of green parroquets occur. The forests of New Guinea, the Solomon, the Admiralty, and other adjacent islands, abound with brilliant species of lories of the most gorgeous colours; whilst other species of the parrot family are to be met with in the Figi Islands and various groups more to the eastward. The extraordinary Strigops "habroptilus, or "kakapo" of the natives, is a large green nocturnal parrot, formerly abundant in New Zealand, but now extinct everywhere excepting on the south-west coast of the Middle Island, where it was met with by Dr. Lyall during the exploration of that coast in H.M.S. "Acheron." The "kakapo" lives in communities in holes under the roots of trees, or beneath shelving rocks, and is never seen during the day. At night it comes out to feed, nibbling the grass and roots like a rabbit. It is about a foot and a half long, and of a metallic sort of green colour, variegated with markings of black and yellow.
A singular group of parrots, belonging to the genus Nestor, also evidently the remnants of an ancient fauna, are peculiar to New Zealand and the adjacent islands. Of four species described and figured page 64by Mr. Gould in his great work, one, the Philip Island nestor, is already extinct within the last few years; and two of the others are extremely rare. The "kaka," or Nestor hypopolius, is still comparatively common, and is frequently domesticated by the natives, who feed these birds on potatoes, and fasten them by means of flax cords to perches about their houses. The "kaka" is remarkable for the form of the beak, the upper mandible of which is very long, and produced in a hooked shape. Its colour also is singular, being composed of browns and greys, with red about the vent and tail-coverts. In size it exceeds that of the common grey parrot, so abundant in captivity in this country.
Fruit pigeons, of the genus Carpophaga, and many species of the lovely pink-headed doves (Ptilinopus), are widely distributed amongst the islands of the Pacific; indeed every group appears to have one or more representatives of these genera. Some of the latter from the Admiralty and Solomon Islands are exceedingly beautiful: nearly all the species have the crown of the head of a bright rose or crimson colour, the rest of the plumage being green, purple, white, orange, and yellow. The Carpophaga oceanica, or nutmeg pigeon, is abundant in the groves of the Louisiade; and another very handsome species, the C. Novæ Zealandiæ, inhabits the forests of New Zealand. In the Navigator's Islands the fruit pigeons are tamed by the natives. Another beautiful fruit pigeon is the C. puella of New Guinea: its plumage is golden green, with a rich purple breast, grey head, and the under wing and tail coverts deep orange yellow.page 65
The great crowned pigeon (Lophyrus coronatus) inhabits New Guinea. It is the largest of the genus, being almost as big as a turkey; and, like all the pigeon tribe, is delicious eating. It is of a fine bluish slate colour, having on its head an elegant arched crown of feathers.
We must also mention that peculiar and now almost extinct bird, the Didunculus strigirostris, or tooth-billed pigeon, of the Samoas. In the contour of the bill, the form and position of the nostrils, and several other characters, this bird differs from any other living species known; and, although of small size, it approaches nearest in all its characters to the extinct dodo, and, like it, combines the character of a rapacious bird with that of the harmless pigeon. The Didunculus "may therefore be regarded," says Dr. Bennett, "as the nearest living ally of the now extinct dodo."
The zoology of New Guinea and its neighbouring islands has long been the astonishment and delight of the naturalist; whilst the surpassing splendour of its birds and insects cannot fail to awaken admiration even amongst the most ordinary observers. These regions may truly be styled the elysium of the ornithologist; for they afford to the ravished eye forms of such exquisite beauty that the imagination cannot conceive creatures more gorgeous or more lovely. Here, indeed, are "birds of gold and of every coloured gem;" for in these rich lands are found the entire family of paradise birds, so called from the wonderful plumes and metallic splendour of colours nature has lavished upon them. page 66Formerly the most absurd fables were current respecting these magnificent specimens of the feathered tribes, viz., that they passed the whole of their existence in sailing in the air, the dew of heaven being their only food; that they were destitute of legs; that they never took rest, except by suspending themselves from the branches of trees by the shafts of the two elongated feathers which form a characteristic of this beautiful race, and that they never touched the earth till the moment of their death. From such absurdities the researches of modern naturalists have set the world free; these birds being found to possess legs of considerable size and strength. They congregate in large flocks amidst the aromatic groves and woods of Papua, where the natives themselves, not insensible to their charms, give them the appellation of "God's birds."
Sonnerat tells us that "the bodies of the dead birds of paradise serve as ornaments for the chiefs, who wear them on their heads by way of 'aigrette.' In preparing the skins they always cut off the legs, and the Dutch, who trade for them, buy them in this condition, and carry them to Persia, Surat, and the Indies, where they sell them excessively dear to the rich inhabitants, who use them to adorn their turbans."
Of the dozen or more species of paradise birds already described by naturalists, we can only give a brief notice of a few. The most common is the great emerald bird of paradise (P. apoda); it is about the size of a thrush, with the head of a golden colour, the throat of the richest metallic green, page 67and the remainder of the body chestnut and purple. From the upper part of each side of the body, beneath the wings, there proceeds a vast quantity of extremely long, loose, broad, floating plumes, of the most delicate texture, and of a bright yellow or lemon colour; whilst from the tail spring a pair of naked shafts, considerably exceeding in length the long loose plumes at the sides.
The king bird of paradise (Cicinnurus regia) is the smallest of the group. Its general plumage is of an intense purple-red, whilst across the breast runs a broad zone of green and gold, separated from the red above by a band of yellow; below this the body is white. Beneath the wings are a set of projecting feathers tipped with golden green and white; and from the middle of the tail extend two very long naked shafts, each terminating in a flat spiral web of an emerald green colour.
The six-shafted bird of paradise (P. sex-setacea) is of a beautiful deep velvety black, except the breast, which is golden green, changing in the light to every colour of the rainbow: on each side of the head are three long feathers with naked shafts tipped with oval plumes of a metallic violet-purple.
The superb bird of paradise (Lophorina superba) is a wonderful creature. The closely-imbricated feathers on its throat and breast are bronzed green with corruscations of violet; whilst the crest, the long feathers proceeding from the side of the neck and looking like a second pair of wings, together with the brilliant emerald shield of projecting plumes on its breast, altogether render any description of it page 68inadequate to convey even a faint idea of this "child of the sun."
Almost as gorgeously arrayed in velvet and gold as the birds of paradise are the rifle birds, one species of which, the Ptiloris magnifica, inhabits the dense forests of New Guinea. Its plumage is velvety black, with a gorget of shining metallic green on the throat and breast, terminating in a zone of scarlet and yellow. During flight the rifle bird emits a peculiar noise, not unlike the rustling of new stiff silk, which is caused by the action of the wings, and may be heard on a still day at a distance of a hundred yards.
Of the many beautiful kingfishers of New Guinea and the adjacent groups of islands, perhaps those of the genus Tanysiptera are the most elegant. Orange, white, and blue, with long snowy shafts extending from the tail, they at once attract the eye by the combined loveliness of form and colour.
Several species of the genus Aplonis inhabit New Guinea, New Ireland, the Louisiade, the Navigators, and the Figis. They are birds of graceful form, with a shining metallic plumage, and are about the size of a thrush.
The crow-shrikes (Manucodia) are singular-looking and elegant birds, with their glossy black plumage shot with metallic greens and purples, and long ear-like feathers projecting from the crown of the head on either side. They inhabit the forests of New Guinea, and the Admiralty and Solomon Isles.
The Buceros plicatus, or Papuan hornbill; the Ardea heliosyla, or tiger bittern, with its beautiful page 69plumage, banded all over with brown on a light ground; and several species of mound-building birds, amongst which are the Megapodius Duperreyi, and the Talegalla Cuvieri, are also inhabitants of New Guinea. Besides these are many superb flycatchers and honey-suckers, with a great variety of other birds too numerous to mention.
Although two genera of mound-building birds, viz., Talegalla and Leipoa, appear to be confined, the first to Australia and New Guinea, and the latter to Australia only, yet it would seem that another genus, Megapodius, has a wider range, and includes several species which are scattered over the Pacific islands. In the singular volcanic island of Niua-Foou, isolated half way between the Figis and the Samoas, a species of Megapodius presents itself. It was obtained there by Mr. W. T. Pritchard, after whom it has been named. It lives in scrubs in the centre of the island, about the margin of the lake filling the extinct central crater to which we have alluded in a previous chapter. Their mounds are formed of a sulphurous-looking sand, and the eggs deposited from one to two feet beneath the surface. It is only by permission of the chief of the island that the eggs can be procured. The natives informed Mr. Pritchard that the bird "laid two hundred eggs, and piled them one above another in the shape of a pyramid, the last egg forming the apex!"
A very singular bird, the "kagu" (Rhinochetus jubatus), is found in New Caledonia. It is something like a small heron, with a long crest and page 70grey plumage, but its habits and mode of action are totally distinct from the heron tribe. It is a most amusing and frolicksome creature, erecting its crest, spreading out its wings, and pursuing other birds, evidently for the fun of seeing them frightened. Sometimes it will seize the end of its wing or tail in its beak, and spin round like a harlequin; at others it will stick its beak into the earth, kick its legs in the air, and tumble about as if in a fit. Two fine specimens of this bird, sent home by Dr. Bennett, have lately been added to the collection of the Zoological Society in the Regent's Park, where their evolutions are a source of amusement to all who watch them.
Three distinct species of blackbird (Merula) are found in the western Pacific; one in New Caledonia, one in Norfolk Island, and one in Lord Howe's Island. Though differing somewhat in colour from their European allies, they all possess the same kind of full, lustrous eye, and yellow legs and beak.
The "huia" (Neomorpha Gouldii) is an elegant bird from New Zealand, about the size of a crow, with glossy black plumage, the tail feathers being tipped with white. The beak of the male is straight and pointed, whilst that of the female is long and curved; both have orange-coloured wattles at the base of the mandibles. The tail feathers of the "huia" are held in great estimation by the New Zealanders, being worn in the hair by the chiefs; and beautifully carved boxes are made in which to keep them. Another interesting bird from the page 71same country is the Anthochæra concinnata, or parson bird, the "tui" of the natives. This bird derives its name from two little tufts of white feathers under the throat, which contrast with its otherwise shiny black plumage; it is a very lively and amusing bird in captivity, and rivals the famous mocking-bird in its powers of imitation and song.
Many of the islands in the Pacific can boast of sweet songsters amongst the loveliness of their woods and groves; and the melody of the little warblers that pour out their notes amidst the stillness of a New Zealand forest has delighted many a traveller in that country. When the Spaniards discovered the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, more than two hundred and fifty years ago, "they found the banks of the rivers covered with odoriferous flowers and plants, particularly orange flowers and sweet bazil, the perfumes of which were wafted to the ships by the morning and evening breezes; and at the early dawn was heard, from the neighbouring woods, the mixed melody of many different kinds of birds, some in appearance like nightingales, blackbirds, larks, and goldfinches."
In the higher latitudes of the South Pacific, various species of albatross and petrel are eternally skimming the ocean in those cold and stormy regions; whilst within the tropics, boobies, tropic-birds, and frigate-birds, are equally numerous, especially in the vicinity of land.
The frigate-bird, or man-of-war hawk (Tachy-petes Palmerstoni), is very numerous in the Society page 72Islands, and is remarkable for its swift and dashing habits. It does not alight on the surface of the sea, being neither able to swim nor dive; but it hovers over the ocean with unwearied assiduity. Sailors affirm that it sleeps upon the wing. Its flight is easy and graceful; sometimes it may be seen balanced in mid air, its wings spread, apparently motionless, its long forked tail expanding and closing with a quick alternate action, and its head inquisitively turned from side to side to inspect the ocean beneath; sometimes it wheels rapidly, or darts to the surface of the water in pursuit of its prey, and at others soars to such a great height that it is lost to sight amidst the clouds of heaven. It builds its nest amidst the leaves of the wild palm on the verdant islets inside the reefs.
The blue heron may be seen on the shores of the lagoon islands, sitting motionless for hours on the low coral rocks; and there also, out on the barrier reefs, amidst the foam of the broken waves, the white reef-bird (Sterna poliocerca) passes its time in search of small fish as they are dashed upon the rocks.
Reptiles.—In the rivers and salt-water estuaries of the muddy shores of southern Papua, as also in New Britain and the adjacent islands, there exists a large and formidable kind of crocodile, the Crocodilus biporcatus, which is also found in the North Australian rivers. In New Guinea its skulls have been found in the native houses. Its average length is from twelve to eighteen feet; and its jaws, armed page 73with sharp teeth, have a remarkable waving outline, in which it differs from the African species.
Crocodiles are not found as far east as Figi; but about the beginning of this century a large one made its appearance there, probably having been drifted thither from the shores of New Guinea, or some of the larger islands to the north-west, where they are numerous. The natives fancied it had come from "bulu"—heaven—and did not succeed in catching it until it had done considerable injury.
Captain Cook mentions a gigantic lizard in New Zealand, which the natives call "tuatera." It is the Hatteria punctata of Gray, and is now nearly extinct, a small island on the east coast, in the Bay of Plenty, being the only spot where it has recently been obtained. Dr. Dieffenbach, who procured a specimen in 1841, says of this creature, "that it was formerly common about the islands; it lived in holes, often in sand-hills near the sea-shore; and the natives killed it for food. Owing to this latter cause, and no doubt also to the introduction of pigs, it is now very scarce; and many, even of the older residents of the country, have never seen it." Very large lizards are found on the mountains in Opolu and Savaii in the Navigator's Islands; and MacGillivray mentions a large lizard, about five feet long, which he saw in one of the islands of the Louisiade, and which he supposed to be the Monitor Gouldii.
A chameleon and four species of lizard are found in Figi. One of these, the Chloroscartes, inhabits trees, and is of a beautiful pale-green colour, having a body about two feet long.page 74
Many species of small lizards inhabit the various Polynesian islands. One of the most beautiful of these is the Naultinus elegans, of New Zealand. It is of a beautiful green colour, ornamented with two rows of pale gold-coloured spots down the sides. Departed spirits are supposed to transfer themselves into this lizard; hence the natives regard it with a certain dread, calling it an "atua" or god.
A large frog (Platymantis vitianus) is common about the swamps in Figi; and many smaller species are met within the other islands.
The turtle is abundant amongst the islands of the western and central Pacific; and a trade is carried on with the natives for the tortoise-shell these reptiles produce. The New Guinea people construct masks and other singular personal decorations out of tortoise-shell. The eggs of the turtle are a favourite article of food, both with the natives and the traders who frequent these seas.
Three species of turtle inhabit the tropical islands of Polynesia. In Figi the green turtle is called "vonu dina," and that which yields the tortoiseshell "vonu taku;" there is another kind which the natives term "tovonu," said to be from six to ten feet long. The two first kinds are kept by the chiefs in their turtle-ponds. The turtle was formerly held sacred in the Society Islands. A portion of its flesh was offered to the gods, and the rest, cooked with sacred fire, was partaken of by the king and principal men only.
Fortunately, the favoured isles of the Pacific are generally free from all manner of deadly and noxious page 75reptiles, but few snakes or serpents having been met with amongst them.
In the larger islands of Figi there are ten kinds of snakes, none of them, however, exceeding six feet in length. Most of these are arboreal, and probably innocuous; whilst some of them are used as food by the natives. In the Navigators also are several small species, beautifully variegated.
It is probable that eventually in New Guinea and the islands of the Admiralty and Solomon groups, other and larger species of snakes may be found to exist. In New Zealand the traveller may walk in safety through the long grass and the thick fern, without that uneasy feeling arising from the dread of treading on a venomous serpent, which pedestrians in Australia frequently experience. Dieffenbach tells a story of an English acclimatizing captain, who tried to introduce the venomous black snakes of New South Wales into New Zealand, but fortunately they all died, and so frustrated his benevolent design. Although enjoying comparative immunity from land serpents, the Pacific islanders frequently encounter sea snakes amongst the coral reefs and central lagoons, which are of a highly poisonous nature. These water serpents have broad flat tails formed for swimming, and are ornamented with the most brilliant colours, disposed in spots or stripes along their bodies. They belong chiefly to the genera Pelamys and Hypotrophis.
As the aboriginal tribes throughout Australia have their tales of the muchdreaded "bunyip"—an hypothetical monster that dwells in the swamps and page 76rivers—so the New Zealanders have their legends and songs about the terrible "tanniwha," and the slaying of three of these monsters by brave warriors of the olden time, the ancestors of the chiefs of Roturua. These traditions are handed down by the natives with extraordinary minuteness of detail, and bear a close resemblance in many points to our own legend of St. George and the dragon. According to the native story, the "tanniwha" devoured men, women, and children wholesale; it lived in caverns, or at the bottoms of rivers and lakes, was shaped like an enormous lizard of the size of a whale, and had sharp teeth and a flaming tongue. It took three hundred and forty brave men to despatch one of these "tanniwhas;"at length, after a severe conflict, they destroyed him, and he stretched himself out "like a dying grub," and expired. On cutting him open they found "his belly full of bodies of men, women, and children, together with garments of all sorts, and weapons of war innumerable."
Fishes.—Throughout the Pacific sharks of all kinds are numerous. In New Zealand the tiger shark is captured by the natives for the sake of its teeth, which are highly esteemed as ear ornaments; its flesh also forms an important article of diet at their great feasts.
The Figians hold the shark in great dread: of this scourge of the tropical seas there are no less than nine salt-water species, besides several which are found in fresh water, described by Dr. Seemann as inhabiting the Figis alone. He says, "One day we encountered a very large one on the reef, where he page 77had been left in a shallow pool by the receding tide. Our boat being near, an axe was fetched to kill him; but no sooner did he catch sight of the weapon than he made off in great haste, moving along over many hundred yards of dry reef like a serpent, without our being able to stop him."
Of the infinite varieties of fish found throughout the Polynesian islands, many are very good eating, and a great part of the food of the natives is derived from this source. They are secured by nets, spears, fish-fences, or by stupefaction by means of intoxicating plants. In the Figis the night is the favourite period for fishing on the reefs; and large parties, chiefly of women, go forth torch in hand at such times, traversing the reefs laid bare by the tide, shouting and laughing as they proceed.
The Rev. J. Williams, in his "Missionary Enterprises," mentions an ingenious method of fishing employed by the people of Samoa. He says, "A number of hollow floats, about eight inches in diameter, and of the same height, were attached to a strong cord, at a short distance from each other. To each of these a line was fastened, about ten inches long, at the end of which was a piece of fish-bone, made very sharp at both ends, and suspended by the middle, so that when the fish seized the bait, the bone pierced it in contrary directions, and thus secured the prey. The albicore, bonito, ray, swordfish, and sharks, are among the larger sea-fish eaten by the natives, in addition to which they have an almost endless variety of rock-fish, which are remarkably sweet and good. Salmon abound in page 78many of the islands, but these are caught in the salt water. They exactly resemble the English variety in size and shape, but their flesh is white."
There is in Figi a most beautiful fish, about the size of a mullet, and of the finest ultramarine blue colour. It is very frequent about the coral reefs, and a finer sight can scarcely be imagined than flocks of these brilliant creatures playing in the crystal water over what looks like so much mosaic-work.
Amongst the singular forms of fishes to be found about the reefs of the Louisiade, may be mentioned the genus Holocentrum, five kinds of which were procured there by Mr. MacGillivray; one, brilliantly coloured with blue and silver, and the remainder more or less of a bright scarlet hue.
Crustaceans.—Shrimps, prawns, lobsters, and crabs, abound amongst the reefs; some of them are of extraordinary forms, and display exquisite beauty of colouring, vying with the brilliant fishes that sport amongst these gay crustaceans in the coral pools. In the rivers and lakes of the Samoas there are several species of fresh-water prawns and shrimps. In some of the Figi islands there is a very large kind of land crab (probably the Birgos latro), called by the natives "ugavule."It is fierce and strong, and is taken with some difficulty when on the ground, as it throws earth and stones into the face of its pursuers. It climbs the highest cocoa-nut trees, and not only pierces the young nuts, but removes the husk of the old nuts, and breaks the shell, in order to get at the contents. The natives have a clever method of capturing these crabs. page 79When up a tree, they take a bundle of grass and bind it round the trunk about half way up. The "ugavule "comes down backwards, and when it gets to the grass it fancies it has reached the ground, and, relinquishing its hold of the tree, it falls to the bottom, where it is stunned and easily captured. Mr. Hood, who visited the Samoas in H.M.S. "Fawn," says of the "paguri," or hermit-crabs there, "It was amusing to see walking up the trees and along the branches, sea shells of all colours and species, each being the stolen abode of one of these robbers, which, if you approach the tree, tumble down from it at once, like a shower of crab-apples."
Mollusks.—The number of molluscan animals to which the numerous coral reefs of the Pacific afford shelter, is very great; the shells of many of them are remarkable for the beauty of their forms and colours, and are therefore much sought after by conchological collectors.
New Caledonia, with its surrounding reefs, is celebrated for the vast variety of rare and beautiful marine shells it produces, so much so, indeed, that it may be styled the conchologist's paradise; whilst the shores of the Solomon Isles, the Figis, the Sandwich, the Tonga, and the Samoan groups, together with the coral islands of the Low Archipelago, all abound in richly-coloured tropical shells. The mollusks of these regions lying within the tropics, belong mostly to the "Indo-Pacific" province of conchologists, which stretches across both oceans, from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of America; certain genera and species page 80having their head-quarters, as it were, at particular spots most favourable for their development. New Zealand, lying a long way to the south, has a molluscan province of its own.
Although we cannot enter fully into a description of the conchological productions of the Pacific Ocean, a brief notice of a few of its most interesting shells may not be out of place here.
The chambered or pearly nautilus, is distributed throughout the western Pacific. There are three species, N. pompilius, which is common, and has an extensive range, N. macromphalus, which occurs on the coast of New Caledonia, &c, and N. umbilicatus, which is rare, and is found about New Georgia, New Ireland, and the Louisiade. The animal of the nautilus was, until lately, very imperfectly known to naturalists; and many fabulous stories were promulgated about its spreading its tentacles like sails, and floating at will like a miniature ship on the bosom of the sea. In the year 1829, Dr. Bennett succeeded in capturing the animal in a perfect state, in its shell, at Dillon's Bay, in the island of Erumanga, one of the New Hebrides; and from this specimen a full and complete description of it has been given to the world by Professor Owen. The nautilus lives at the bottom of sheltered bays, and in the channels between the reefs, carrying its shell on its back, and creeping about by means of its long tentacles, exactly in the same manner as the cuttle-fish, to which it is nearly allied. The natives of the New Hebrides, the Figis, and New Caledonia, capture the nautilus in page 81wicker traps or baskets, and it is much esteemed by them as an article of food. The Samoan Islanders make elegant fillets of the chambered portion of the shells, the external coat being removed so as to exhibit the beautiful pearly layer beneath, which has the brilliancy of the most highly-burnished silver.
The orange cowry (Cypræa aurantia), the "morning dawn" of collectors, is found on the reefs of the Figis. So scarce is this valuable shell, even in those localities, that the possession of one gives the wearer the dignity of a chief. Many other species of cowry are worn round the neck, or are strung together as armlets by the natives. In the Solomon Islands a large white ovulum, or "egg cowry," is much employed in the decoration of canoes, as is also "mother of pearl."In Figi, not only the canoes, but the houses, temples, and chapels of the natives are frequently ornamented with the white shells of the Ovulum ovum, which they call "buliqaqua."
Some fine pearls have occasionally been found; but as yet no actual attempt at a pearl fishery has been made on a large scale, although the pearl oyster is largely collected in the Low Archipelago.
The Triton variegatus is used as a trumpet or war-horn, not only by the Figians, but by the people of the New Hebrides and other groups. It is invariably to be seen in their large canoes.
Many fine species of volutes, harps, mitres, murices, cones, and other rare shells, are also met with on the reefs at low water.
Some of the bivalve shells are extremely beautiful. At New Caledonia is a species of Tellina (T. lata), page 82which is four inches across, of a shining white, rayed with broad bands of vivid crimson. Of the genera Venus, Pecten, Cardium, Spondylus, &c., there are a great number of fine and showy species.
On the reefs occur enormous "clam" shells (Tridacna), some of which weigh two or three hundred weight. The valves are frequently used in Roman Catholic churches as fonts for containing holy water. When the tide rises upon the reefs these huge bivalves open; and instances have been known of persons wading in search of beche-de-mer, and other marine productions, who have incautiously stepped into them, and on the valves closing, have been held, as in a vice, until they were drowned by the overflowing tide.
In the Sandwich Islands is a small shell of the genus Latirus, which, when dry, exhibits no extraordinary feature, but, upon being wetted, it instantly displays the most brilliant prismatic colours.
In New Zealand we meet with the imperial Turbo, the Struthiolaria; the large Haliotis iris, or "pawa" of the natives, the iridescent lining of which is used by them for ornamenting their canoes and weapons, and also for a kind of glittering fish-hooks; and several species of Elenchus; one of which (Cantharidus iris) is much valued as an eardrop when denuded of its outer coating. Oysters of various kinds are numerous throughout the Pacific; and in Figi the natives make soup of a fresh-water Cyrena.
Of terrestrial molluscs, or land shells, the Polynesian islands present several interesting groups. page 83In New Guinea, the Admiralty, and Solomon Islands, most of the snails belong to a trochiform group of Helices, known as Geotrochus: many species of this group are very beautifully spotted or banded, and their lips brilliantly tinted with scarlet, rose colour, or yellow. Several Bulimi also are found in the forests, one of which, the Bulimus miltocheilus, from the island of Gaudalcanar, is perhaps the most striking of any; it is of a delicate greenish straw colour, with the edge of the lip bright vermilion.
In New Caledonia and the adjacent islands, we find a group of Bulimi of large size, numbering more than a dozen species, with thickened, plaited mouths; they are usually of a dark-brownish colour, their interior being either yellow or red: they belong to the genus Pleikocheilus.
In the central Pacific islands small flattened forms of Helix occur, and the genus Partula is abundant both in species and individuals; whilst the Sandwich Islands, further removed to the north-east, are the head-quarters of the genus Achatinella; nearly two hundred species of which prettily painted little shells inhabit the trees and ravines of that more northern group. New Zealand has, besides a great many small land snails, three of considerable size; the Bulimus shongi, which belongs to the New Caledonian group, Pleikocheilus; and two large flattened snails, the Helix Busbii, or "papa-rangi"* of the natives, which is of a curious shining dark olive-green colour, and is found at the roots of the "rata" trees; and another species, which has lately page 84been discovered on the mountains of the Middle Island, just below the snow limits; it somewhat resembles the "papa-rangi" in form and size, but is horn-coloured, handsomely banded with black. It has been named Helix Hochstetterii, after the geologist attached to the Austrian frigate "Novara," who discovered it, on the scientific voyage of that vessel round the world.
Insects.—Of insect life in Figi, Dr. Seemann says, "Mosquitoes are very troublesome in some parts; and equally irritating are the flies, which keep one's hands constantly employed; and, in order to have a meal in peace, a boy must be kept continually employed in driving them away. Cockroaches are swarming in most houses, canoes, and vessels, and often disturb one during the night, not alone by running over one's body, but by attacking it in right earnest. Some very fine butterflies and beetles are met with; and at dusk the woods begin to swarm with myriads of fire-flies. The leaf and stick insects can scarcely be distinguished from real leaves. Some large kinds of spiders, amongst them a stinging one, have to be noticed. Centipedes nearly a foot long were frequently encountered by us in the woods; and scorpions are more abundant than one could wish." The Rev. W. Lawry tells us that the dragon-flies in the Figis are of a ruby colour; and that the Staphylinus emits a light as brilliant as that of the Chinese fire-fly.
Annelides.—In the Figis, in Samoa, Tonga, and the New Hebrides, the "balolo," a curious little marine annelidan makes its periodical appearance, page 85annually, in the month of November, generally on the 25th, in such vast quantities that the sea looks more solid than liquid with their entangled masses. They may be termed the "white-bait" of the islanders, who look for their coming with great anxiety. On their appearance the natives go out in their canoes to catch "balolo," and collect great masses of these small green worms, which they tie up in bread-fruit leaves, and cook in their ovens; these they esteem an especial delicacy, and forward presents of "balolo" to their less-favoured friends, who reside in districts where the worms do not make their appearance.
Badiata.—The beche-de-mer, or "sea slug" is plentiful in many of the Pacific islands, and is collected extensively as an article of commerce. This animal belongs to the genus Holothuria; and, when prepared, finds a ready sale in the China market, where it is used as an ingredient in rich soups. Of the beche-de-mer there are several distinct kinds, some of which are superior in quality to others. They are procured on the reefs at low water, or are obtained by diving in from one to two fathoms. In the Figis there are lucrative fisheries carried on for this article, especially on the northern side of Vanua Levu. Vessels from America and the Australian colonies visit the various islands to rrocure the beche-de-mer for the Chinese trade.
* "The shell that fell from heaven."