Since the Age of Enlightenment, scientists have named new species according to strict taxonomic guidelines, guidelines they themselves developed. But knowing what we know now about the insidiousness of colonisation, we should ask ourselves who has the right to bestow official scientific names. To mark Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, Assistant Curator of Entomology Leilani Walker (Whakatōhea) reflects on the history—and future—of using te reo in scientific names.

As scientists we step out with instruments and techniques in-hand to capture information about the natural world. But sometimes the data we bring home tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the world outside. That is, the Natural Sciences collection at Auckland Museum is an important record of how we do science because, while the material we collect comes from beyond us, we built the lens with which we interpret it. 

For much of our work in the Natural Sciences collection, our ways of thinking have recent origins in Europe and the Enlightenment era in particular the writings of Charles Darwin and Carl Linnaeus – fathers of Natural Selection and Binomial nomenclature respectively. While Darwin’s Origins of Species and The Descent of Man are fundamental to understanding how species are related to one another, Linnaeus’ framework for naming species, as set out in his Systema naturae, is critical for the day-to-day work of identifying and discovering new species. 

When an organism is first formally described, it is given two Latin names: a genus (or “generic name”) and a species (a “specific name”). The former places the organism into a group of closely-related life forms which, when paired with the species name, will create a combination of names unique to that species. Names may honour people or stories just as Linnaeus himself named the birdwing butterfly, Ornithoptera priamus, “prince of all butterflies, most majestic by far” for Priam the mythic King of Troy; they may describe where a species naturally occurs as in the case of the golden kiwifruit, Actinidia chinensis, which originates in China; sometimes they simply describe the organism’s physical attributes as in the case of the yellow-crowned parakeet, Cyanoramphus auriceps, which roughly translates to cyan-beak, gold-head. 

Image: Priam’s birdwing, Ornithoptera priamus, named for the mythical Trojan King from Homer’s Illiad; RT Shannon Collection, SB0180 © Auckland Museum CC BY

Through colonisation, Enlightenment-era ideas stretched their fingers out across the globe and they, with their reach, drew back material—biological samples—to their cultural epicentre to be integrated into an understanding of natural order that located itself in the West but presented itself as universal. Centuries have passed but New Zealand’s natural historians remain part of an international community who collaborate to organise the world and to untangle the processes underlying the patterns we observe in nature.

But at the same time, colonisation and its ongoing impacts disenfranchised Māori and Indigenous peoples the world over, excluding Māori from higher education and systematically oppressing the Māori language through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet, te Reo Māori is littered through the catalogue of scientific names for New Zealand’s flora and fauna1 and such names can be seen in the museum’s own collections. In some cases, the scientific name adopts the animal’s te Reo name such as Mohoua from “mohua” or describes its origin such as in the case of the sea snail, Calliotropis motutaraensis.

Image: The scientific name for the whitehead, Mohoua albicilla, derives from the bird’s te reo name “mohua”; LB15212, © Auckland Museum CC BY


But the most common usage of te reo is the word “Maori” itself as in the case of sea snails, Maoricrypta, or the rove beetle, Waitatia maoriana. Historical descriptions often don’t explain why these names were given (which is standard practice now) and names were sometimes determined by scientists who had never set foot in New Zealand. One possible explanation for the frequency of the word “Maori” was that it demonstrated that the species comes from New Zealand. This is despite names such as “novaezealandiae”, which designate the same, having been in use since the 1800s. 

Image: The rove beetle, Waitatia maoriana, was named as recently as 2005; AMNZ25258.


Background image: The “cyan” beaked “yellow-crowned” parakeet, Cyanoramphus auriceps; LB8447; © Auckland Museum CC BY

In some respects, it doesn’t matter what the original reason was. Intention is one thing. Impact is another. Even if we take the charitable interpretation that “Maori” is a shorthand geographic description it still reduces an Indigenous people to their “geographic range”, as we might do for any other animal or object of study, which, incidentally, was part and parcel of the Enlightenment-era taxonomic project. 

My grandfather was born in the 1930s and I still remember stories about how he was beaten for speaking te reo at school. His experience was not unique. But, apparently, throughout his time and even before, what was and wasn’t appropriate usage of the te reo was being determined in research institutions, places where neither Māori or Māori knowledge were welcome, by people who weren’t Māori. 

As a museum volunteer, I had the opportunity to attend a Ngāti Kuri hui with the Natural Sciences team at Waiora marae in Te Tai Tokerau. One night, the whānau collected in the wharenui to discuss what name may be appropriate for a new species of seaweed that had been discovered in the area.

Image: Kaumatua Wayne Petera speaking at the Waiora Marae in Ngātaki

The discussion was facilitated by scientists but I remember the museum team collectively standing back, as multiple generations of Ngāti Kuri did what only they could do, debate what name would best suit a species endemic to their rohe. Whakapapa, tikanga and toi raranga were the considerations of that day, living knowledge systems that are almost wholly alien to modern science but that embody centuries of natural history observation and of environmental philosophy, passed down from generation to generation to generation and then shared with those who were present. 

Image: The oceans around the top of the North Island have some of the richest seaweed diversity in the country. NIWA scientist Wendy Nelson and Kaumatua Wayne Petera examine a piece.


Through the haphazard adoption of te reo into scientific names, we as a nation have missed out on countless opportunities for genuine connection across knowledge systems. We all stand to benefit from a science community that creates space for marginalised voices but making up for lost time is going to take a lot of frank conversations and probably a thousand pots of tea. Still, it’ll be worth it in the end. 

Image: The species name for Golden kiwifruit (Actinidia chinensis) indicates that the species originates in China; AK355285.

1 Veale AJ, de Lange P, Buckley TR, Parry K, Raharaha-Nehemia K, Reihana K, Seldon D, Tawiri K, Walker LA. (2019) Using te reo Māori and te re Moriori in taxonomy. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 43(3), 3388. DOI: 10.20417/nzjecol.43.30