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Waitoreke: The Enigma from New Zealand
By Craig Heinselman
New Zealand, a island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, separated from the super-continent of Gondwanaland (Gondwana) and all other land masses for eighty (80) million years has evolved a unique biosphere. With only bats as the indigenous land mammals the avian fauna predominated, yet reports of a mammal living in the mountain lakes and rivers has been reported over the years. What then is this animal, the waitoreke?

Known to the natives in various incarnations as kaureke and waitoreke (various spellings waitoreke, waitoreki, and waitoteke), yet with varying descriptions from otter-like, beaver-like and seal-like in habitat and characterization, have occurred from South Island, New Zealand for over two hundred years. The more descriptions offered the more enigmatic the reality of this animal becomes. Also creating an enigma is how could this animal, this mammal (one agreement is that it is mammalian in characteristic) have arrived on an island isolated for millions of years, yet with no fossil record in existence?

That is the chore ahead. To evaluate the various theories as to what the waitoreke is, and through that process determine the most likely identification as to what the waitoreke is. We shall do so by looking at the etymology of the name of this animal, the diversities of life on and around New Zealand, the habitat of the animal, the theories (through behavior, anatomy and habitat) and the evidence thus far provided by the witnesses and chroniclers of the waitoreke.

New Zealand formed from the super-continent of Gondwanaland. Gondwanaland is the Southern Hemispheres super-continent made up of what are know known as the continents of Africa, Antarctica, Australia and South America as well as India, Madagascar and New Zealand. Gondwanaland and its counterpart Laurasia (for the Northern Hemisphere) once joined as part of Pangea, the mega-continent. As the tectonic plates shifted, the landmasses drifted apart (as they still do today). Roughly 80 million years ago New Zealand separated from Gondwanaland along the edge of what would become Australia. Australia separated about 30 million years later from Antarctica.

Since the time frame separating New Zealand was greater than of its neighbor Australia the faunas were not the same. The animal species that migrated to the islands did so on wing, in such a time when the distances between New Zealand and other coastal areas were close to each other. New Zealand boasts some of the oldest terrestrial life on Earth. The beech forests originated in South America, and the ones on New Zealand (as once part of South America via the super-continent) are perhaps the longest surviving forests on Earth.

Additionally, New Zealand boasts the tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus and Spehodon guntheri), an archaic reptile that has virtually remained unaltered for over 200 million years. The primitive genus Leiopelma frongs (Leipelma hochstetteri, L. hamiltoni and L. archeyi) are found in New Zealand as well. These constitute the oldest lineage of frogs alive today, sharing characteristics with fish and lacking characteristics associated with other frogs (aside from an American cousin Ascaphus truei).

Flightless birds like the moa, kiwi, and kakapo have evolved in this landscape. What were lacking were indigenous mammalian carnivores. There were several bat species present on the mainland; the New Zealand short tailed bats (Mystacina tuberculata and Mystacina robusta) and the lobe lipped bat of New Zealand (Chalinolobus tuberculatus ) as well as the later arrival of pinnipeds like the New Zealand sea lion (Phocartos hooker) and the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri). There may also have been a few small rodents native to the island (the fossil records of a shrew like mammal 115 million years old was found in 1997 in Australia). But lacking were the larger carnivores associated with other continental landmasses.

It was not until humans began to arrive on the islands that the animal diversities began to grow. With the arrival of the Maori (various dates on their arrival abound, typically 1000 - 2000 years ago) the ecosystem changed. The Polynesian Rat, or Kiore (Rattus exulans) was introduced as were dogs. Later when explorers like James Cook and colonists arrived in the 1700's livestock and foreign animals were introduced. Nowadays there are many mammals present in New Zealand, amongst them seven species of deer, wild hogs, wallabies, possums, and quolls to name a few are present or were present. These new inhabitants now threaten the original animals and in some cases have brought them to the brink of extinction, and over.

What does waitoreke mean in a language aside from the Maori language (the natives of New Zealand)? John Colarusso offers that the word waitoreke and kaureke that ended with "reke" are the closest of the various spellings for translation. "reke" meaning quill or spur (knob and bone), and when put with other Maori words waitoreke translates (roughly) out to water diver (with the) spurs. Kaureke would translate to many spurs, with extension of kaurehe meaning monster and perhaps tuatara.

For all intents and purposes the term waitoreke will be used here out for this cryptid animal. Although kaureke may be a valid name as well (or a separate animal altogether), the popular and more common waitoreke will be suitable.

The habitat of the waitoreke varies little from report to report. The animal is associated with water, and is seen in it or just beside it. What does vary are the reports of what kind of home the waitoreke lives in, is it a lodge like a beaver or a tunnel system like some otters and the platypus?

In 1855 Reverend Richard Taylor's book Te Ika A Maui, or, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, was published. In it is the following note:
"A man named Seymour, or Otaki, stated that he had repeatedly seen an animal in the Middle Island [Note: Middle Island is actually modern South Island], near Dusky Bay, on the south-west coast, which he called a musk-rat, from the strong smell it emitted. He said its tail was thick and resembled the ripe pirori, the fruit of the kie-kie, which is not unlike in appearance to the tail of a beaver. This account was corroborated by Tamihana te Rauparaha, who spoke of it as being more than double the size of the Norway rat, and as having a large flat tail. A man named Tom Crib, who had been engaged in whaling and sealing in the neighborhood of Dusky Bay for more than twenty-five years, said he had not himself seen the beaver, but had several times met with its habitations, and had been surprised by seeing little streams dammed up, and houses like bee-hives erected on one side, having two entrances, one from above and the other below the dam. One of the Camerons, who lived at Kaiwarawara, when the settlers first came to Wellington, stated that he saw one of these large rats and pursued it, but it took to the water, and dived out of sight."
In this account we have references to a beaver type lodge. Yet, in 1921 one A.E. Trapper witnessed an animal while on a bridge crossing the Waikiwi River. Shortly after he found a hole in a bank in the location the animal disappeared in. And again in 1973 a G. Pollock, who had been researching the animal, found a tunnel system in the reeds of a swamp on the Taieri Plain. These two shelters described match different known animals.

So the question of living habitat is troublesome. The one item that can be agreed upon is that aside from waterways, the waitoreke lives in higher elevations towards the southern portion of South Island. Elevations vary from sea level to 3764 meters (12,349 feet) at Mount Cook in the Southern Alps across the island, with lakes varying in altitudes. There are some exceptions to this statement, as captain James Cook's crew described seeing an animal along the coast in Dusky Sound: in 1773:
"A four-footed animal was seen by three or four of our people; but as no two gave the same description of it, I cannot say what kind it is. All, however, agreed that it was about the size of a cat, with short legs, and of a mouse-color. One of the seamen, and he who had the best view of it, said it had a bushy tail, and was most like a jackal of any animal he knew."
The theory that an otter is responsible for the reports of the waitoreke is the most popular and common. In the 1867 Ferdinand van Hochstetter writes in his book on New Zealand:
"My friend Haast writes me about the Waitoreki under the date of the 6th of June 1861 as follows: "3500 feet above sea level I saw at the upper Ashburton River, in an area where no human foot ever walked before me, its tracks on many occasions. The tracks resemble those of our European otter but are somewhat smaller. The animal itself was seen by two gentlemen who own a sheep ranch at the shore of Lake Heron in the neighborhood of the Ashburton River at an elevation of 2100 feet above sea level. They describe the animal of being of a dark brown color, of the same size as a large rabbit. They hit it with a whip. It emitted a whistling sound and disappeared quickly in the water among the weeds."
Additional reports also detail some anatomical and behavioral characteristics. In 1957 a woman saw an animal near the Aparima River that was described as having small pop eyes and flat round ears. The neck was hidden, had fur like a cat and short whiskers on its face. In 1971 a hunter, familiar with NZ wildlife, watched an animal slide down a bank of the Hollyford River for a period of about fifteen minutes. This animal was described as smooth, short brown fur, small head with no visible neck or ears, tapering thick tail, and 91-107 cm (3 - 3.5 ft.).

Another witness in the early 1970's saw the animal eating a fish, the webbing on its feet was visible. In 1971 tracks the size of matchboxes, with indications of webbing, were found in a swamp on the Taieri Plain (same area that Pollock later found the tunnel system).

Otters constitute a taxonomic status having thirteen known species, however none is known south of the Wallace Line. The most likely candidate based on the description is of a river otter. As this otter, unlike the sea otter (Enhydra lutris), is a freshwater variety. Additionally the river otters do from time to time come in close proximity to oceanic environments, especially along the shorelines (as the Chillian variety, Lutra felina, often demonstrates). The river otters closely match the waitoreke. The have a brownish coat of short dense fur, a rounded head, short necks, thick tapering tail, short legs, webbed feet and small ears. Their size varies from 76 - 132 cm (2.5 - 4.3 ft) including the tail. River otters rarely travel beyond a few hundred meters of a water body and live in burrows in close proximity to the water. Additionally otters have been known to travel many miles overland to find rivers, and in doing so they travel by running and sliding. Additionally Walter Mantell records in 1848 an interview with Tarawhatta of the Ngatimamoes:
"He informed me that the length of the animal is about two feet from the point of the nose to the root of the tail; the fur grisly brown, thick short legs, bushy tail, head between that of a dog and a cat, lives in holes, the food of the land kind is lizards, of the amphibious kind, fish-does not lay eggs."
Again this closely matches the description of the waitoreke. Where as the main substance of the otter is fish, however they are also known to eat small reptiles, birds and mammals. This would be particularly important if the otter were to travel over land from one river to another.

The other possibility in the otter theory is that a member of the clawless otter genus aonyx may be responsible for the waitoreke descriptions. These otters typically range in size from 60 - 171 cm and are similar in appearance to the river otter. However, one noticeable difference is that clawless otters lack the clear cut webbing on their feet and posses smaller claws. This is an important consideration as the waitoreke has been described as having webbing on its feet (sighting in 1970's near Opihi River, and track finds in the same time frame on the Taieri Plains).

If the otter is to be considered, then it had to have traveled across the ocean. This could occur in one of two ways, either it was brought to New Zealand or it swam there on its own accord. G. Pollock offers the theory that Indonesians visited New Zealand before the arrival of the Europeans. As river otters are often trained to catch fish, they were on board with the Indonesians and either escaped or were released. Thus, a male and a female at a minimum had to have escaped in order to create a viable population. The other possibility is that otters became caught in a current and either swam or floated on flotsam over the distances from another continent to Oceana.

But, what do we make then of the bee-hive type dwellings that were reported by Reverend Taylor and of the 1844 report of an animal near the Clutha River that built homes similar to a beavers lodge? One of these, as the report goes, was located on Lake Wanaka.

The first down side to this is the descriptions given of the waitoreke, or for that matter the kaureke (or kaurehe as Walter Mantell wrote in 1848), that barely matches the conditions of a beaver. The basics of the animals are the same as to coloration and fur quality, however the tail descriptions are different. A beaver (genus Castor) has a flat paddle-like tail. This unique characteristic is lacking in the description of the waitoreke.

Beavers also build lodges to live in as well as dams to create still water ways (if the area is still and deep then dams may not necessarily be built). However, aside from the few aforementioned reports of bee-hive type houses, there is a considerable lack of reports of lodges being found in the waterways. Additionally there are no reports of downed trees that would be associated with the beaver's habit, even if only rarely at times, of building dams, lodges and canals. Behaviorally beavers are not prone to live around an oceanic environment.

The pinnipeds are marine mammals that include the seals, sea lions and walruses. Their distributions are worldwide, and of all the theories as to what the waitoreke is, the pinnipeds have a leg up ahead of the other candidates. These mammals are present in New Zealand on their own. There are three pinnipeds that stand out as possibilities: the New Zealand sea lion (Phocartos hookeri), the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), and the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina)

The New Zealand sea lion, also called Hooker's sea lion, grow from 160 - 250 cm (5.2 - 8.2 ft.)depending on the sex. The males are the only ones that exhibit a brownish coat, as the females show a grayish one. They have short muzzles and round heads. Their feet are not made for terrestrial migrations or long travels on the ground, as they have adapted flippers. These sea lions are mostly segregated to coastal areas, however they have been known to travel inland a couple miles during breeding season. They are also of the family otariidae which are categorized as having visible ears, occasional freshwater habitats and pronounced sexual dimorphism.

The New Zealand fur seal grows from 130 - 250 cm ( 4.2 - 8.2 ft) depending on the sex. Their necks are large and they exhibit a brownish fur. Again their legs are made of flippers, making land excursions short. They too are of the family otariidae and as such show similar characteristics as the New Zealand sea lion. The main food source for the fur seal is of oceanic nature, being squid, octopus and fish.

The southern elephant seal is much larger than the sea lion or fur seal, reaching lengths from 200-600 cm (6.5 - 19 ft.). As such their size alone greatly reduces their chance of being the waitoreke.

There are some other pinnipeds that do reach New Zealand on occasion, these being the crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus) with a length of 203-262 cm (6.6-8.6 ft.). They have a slim body with a long muzzle. Its main food source being krill, and living predominately in Antarctica. They belong to the family of phocidae and as such show characteristics such as no external ears, some freshwater habitats and variable sexual dimorphism. The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) also occasionally arrives in New Zealand from its Antarctic home. Characterized by being 300-380 cm (9.8-12.5 ft) long and closely resembling the crabeater seal. They are also of the family phocidae. The weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddelli) also occasionally leaves Antarctica and arrives in New Zealand. Their sizes are comparable to the leopard seal.

Although adapted in most cases for a freshwater habitat, pinnipeds almost exclusively live in the oceans. There are some that live landlocked in Russia, as well as some that will travel upstream into freshwater lakes (as in Loch Ness). Although adaptable, their known sizes in that region of the world is much larger than that described to the waitoreke. Additionally the burrows (not lodges) ascribed to the waitoreke are not behaviorally consistent with the pinnipeds. The footprints found (with webbing) also indicate a terrestrial locomotion, of which pinnipeds are limited due to flippers instead of feet or webbed feet.

In 1948 H. von Haast printed the following report by Sir Julius von Haast (who previously supplied Ferdinand van Hochstetter's 1861 report) in The Life and Times of Sir Julius von Haast:
"Traces of a quadruped of smaller size, of nocturnal habits, and the stride which was between seven and eight inches, and indicates that its mode of progress was by jumps or springs, was discovered by me in the riverbed of the Hopkins, the stream which forms Lake Ohau, and as there is every reason to believe that this animal still exists in great numbers, hundreds of tracks having been found in one night in the fresh-falled snow, we may hope that some specimens of this entirely unknown quadruped will soon be obtained.".
Monotremes are the egg laying mammals, encompassing the platypus (Ornithorynchidae anatinus) and the echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus and Zaglossus bruijni). Having archaic reptilian characteristics, such as shelled eggs, skeletal structure and excretory system (end of the intestines, genial ducts and excretory ducts share one single chamber), the monotremes are considered the most primitive form of mammals alive now.

Identification of the waitoreke through the monotreme line is difficult. First the echidna needs to be discarded, as its physical appearance is alien to the descriptions of the waitoreke, having an anteater like snout and porcupine like quills. The platypus is also posses a problem identification, as its appearance is that of a biological jigsaw puzzle. Having the tail of a beaver and the snout of a duck. Such an animal stands out in ones memory, if only because of its difference. Two characteristics do match that of the platypus; its feet are webbed as described by witnesses, and it does have the right fur to match the description.

Yet, there are some reports of the waitoreke stating it lays eggs as Te Taumutu states to Walter Mantell in 1848. Also of note is that the etymology of the waitoreke suggests a bone spur, this is present on the males of the monontremes. But, that is the end of the correlation. There is fossil evidence of monotremes dating back 100 million years ago as demonstrated by the fossilized jaw and teeth of Steropodon galmani from New South Wales, Australia (1985) and the jawbone of Kollikodon ritchie (1995). This time frame of the discovered fossils fits the time frame of the separation of New Zealand from Gondwanaland, and offers the possibility that New Zealand once fostered monotremata forms of life. If this lineage evolved, then the possibility arises that a fourth species of monotremes exists and is responsible for the waitoreke sightings.

Does there exist any physical evidence for the waitoreke? Sir Julies von Haast reportedly obtained a skin of the waitoreke in 1868. It was in poor shape, but is described as brown with white spots lacking webbing between the toes. Unfortunately this does not offer definitive proof for the existence of the waitoreke. In all likelihood the skin was of a variety of quoll, which were released in New Zealand in 1868. The quoll are carnivorous marsupials from Australia of which all known species have a brown coat and distinguishing white spots on their skin

Track finds are the next and final physical evidence left. Although circumstantial, they do offer some important clues. Tracks found in the Taieri Plain swamp are described as showing webbing and being matchbox size. Sir Julias von Haast had stated that that the stride of the waitoreke was seven to eight inches. Of all the animals theorized as the possible cause of the waitoreke, the track finds described point toward that of the otter or beaver.

River otters typically show a slight webbing in their tracks of the hind feet, but seldom is highly visible. An adult otter normal has a foot spread of 3 1/4 - 4 inches in width and length, with a varying stride depending on the terrain and movement of 10 to 15 inches. Compared to a pinniped track which offers no discernable foot, but a shuffle of earth. The beaver offers a distinct webbing pattern in prints and is hind feet are 2 1/2 - 3 inches wide by 5 -6 inches long.

So the identification of the waitoreke through tracks is just as troublesome as through observation.

What is the waitoreke? Even after looking at the various theories it is a troublesome question to answer. Characteristics match those of various known animals, but not all characteristics match a specific animal. Of all the animals evaluated, the otter is the best fit. The behaviors described such as sliding and diving are characteristic of the otter. The physical descriptions closely match the otter (more so than the other animals theorized). The habitat also closely matches that for the otter, with tunnel systems for living and the ability to travel long distances over land.

The native people describe two animals, one amphibious the other land dwelling. This matches the otter closely. As an animal traveling far from water (cross-country) can be associated as a different animal than one observed in the water. The smell of the musk reported on several occasions also matches the otter. Vocalizations (such as described by Ferdinand van Hochstetter) also match the otter, which is capable of a wide range of guttural sounds.

We also know that early mammals were present prior to New Zealand separating from Gondwanaland. These include some early monotremes and placental mammals. Through evolution a convergent species could have also arisen in New Zealand to fill in an ecological gap. Additionally some of the reports could be misidentifications of known animals. Small fur seals could have been misidentified and been the reports of the waitoreke along the coastal areas. Another possibility is that the early reports (prior to the 1800's) are those of something unknown, but the more recent ones are of an escaped animal kept captive during colonization of New Zealand by the Europeans. So, if an alien species was inadvertently or purposely released in the 1800's then more recent sightings may be associated with such an animal. We know that many animals were introduced into New Zealand, including ferrets, weasels and stoats (all show similar characteristics associated with later waitoreke reports). If the species released shared a similar ecosystem as the waitoreke it could in theory cause the true waitoreke to be exterminated. Thus an alien species takes over the system, and throws another twist on the tale of the waitoreke.

These are all possibilities, and none can be completely proven one way or the other. Further study of the area is needed. For if the waitoreke is ever found, its nature could change how the mammalian family tree is shaped or how the historical immigration of people to New Zealand is viewed.


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