The Oldest Insect in New Zealand

by John Early, Curator of Entomology

There’s an old specimen of a giant weta in the Museum’s collections.

It was included in a collection of miscellaneous botanical and zoological specimens purchased in 1931 from a Mr W. Hill of Napier, according to the hand-written entry in the old leather-bound register where such transactions were recorded back in the day.  

What makes this particular weta of interest is that its labels indicate that it was collected in 1838 by William Colenso and was described and given the name Hemideina gigantea in a paper he published in 1880. 

That is what was written on its labels, but is it true?  Doubt existed for many years, chiefly because none of the labels are in Colenso’s handwriting, and they contain several errors. 



AMNZ21862, Deinacrida heteracantha, Hemideina gigantea

Who was William Colenso and why is the association with him interesting and important?

William Colenso (1811-1899) arrived in New Zealand from England in December 1834 to work as a printer with the Anglican church under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society, a young man burning with missionary zeal.  He was a significant and colourful figure in 19th Century New Zealand in all of his various capacities as missionary, printer, correspondent, trader, politician, linguist and first resident naturalist.

The biographies by Bagnall and Petersen (1948), Mackay (2012) and Wells (2011) give good insights into this complex man and his very colourful life. His interest in natural history, although primarily botanical, was broad and he published a number of zoological papers including several on insects.

Some recent detective work in archival correspondence between Mr Hill and Gilbert Archey, the museum’s Director at the time, confirmed that this is indeed Colenso’s giant weta specimen and I’m grateful to librarians Martin Collett and Bruce Ralston for help with this.  The full story about the weta and its provenance can be read here.   

In one of his letters, Hill wrote -

...and I believe that if the truth were known, that specimen is one of the oldest in N.Z. today.


- (Hill to Archey, 26 June 1931)

It certainly is the oldest insect in Auckland Museum’s collection.  Enquiries to fellow curators of museums and other collections in New Zealand show that Hill's prediction was correct; it is indeed the oldest specimen of a New Zealand insect in a New Zealand collection.

The weta may also be the oldest N.Z. land animal collected alive that survives in any New Zealand collection. The oldest New Zealand bird is probably a takahe at Te Papa collected in 1851,  but the oldest land vertebrate is a shore skink taken from the Bay of Islands in 1841, and is now in the Auckland Museum’s collection. It was collected by naturalists of the Erebus and Terror Antarctic Expedition under the command of James Clark Ross (1839-1943). The visit of the HMS Erebus to the Bay of Islands occasioned the meeting of Colenso and English botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.

The two young men had an instant rapport and thus began a lifelong friendship, and collaboration.  Colenso certainly showed Hooker his giant weta (Colenso 1882) and it seems probable that he (Colenso) may have seen the freshly-collected shore skink by Hooker. This is yet another link between these two pioneering naturalists who contributed so much to the early scientific knowledge of the flora and fauna of Aotearoa New Zealand.


Image (right): William Colenso, 1894, Gottfried Lindauer (b.1839, d.1926), Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 7037.

Why doesn’t it have Colenso’s original label?

This problem vexed Gilbert Archey when negotiating the purchase with Hill but it prompted Hill to provide an explanation.  The weta was originally preserved in a glass container with Colenso’s handwritten label attached to the outside of the glass.  A photograph of the weta was required but the lid of the container was firmly stuck so the jar had to be broken to remove the weta, and this destroyed the original label.

Why did it take Colenso so long to describe and name it?

Colenso originally assumed that his weta was the species Deinacrida heteracantha whose description and name was published in 1842.  He packed the weta away when he relocated from the Bay of Islands to Hawkes Bay in 1843 and didn’t unpack it until he was asked to provide a contribution to the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865.  Some time after this he decided that it differed considerably and so prepared the paper formally naming it which he presented to a meeting of the Hawkes Bay Philosophical Institute in 1880, which was published two years later.


Image (above): Excerpt from the accession register, 355-31, Auckland War Memorial Museum

A busy afterlife

Most biological specimens entering a museum collection lead a quiet afterlife in the dark depths of a storage cabinet, but such was not the fate of this weta. Details of its history prior to 1880 are taken from Colenso’s published paper.

1839: Captured in a small low wood behind Paihia according to published information (not 1838 as written on the label).

1839-43: Examined by luminaries in Paihia – Ernst Dieffenbach, Sir Joseph Hooker, Dr Andrew Sinclair, Lady Franklin and various visiting American and French naturalists.

1843-1864: Packed away in a box when Colenso moved from the Bay of Islands to found a mission station just south of Napier. This was a particularly busy and tumultuous period in Colenso’s life.

1865: Exhibited at the New Zealand Exhibition, Dunedin.

1880: Colenso decides it is a new species and presents a paper to the Hawkes Bay Philosophical Institute.

1882: The 1880 paper with Colenso’s description and name are published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute (not 1880 as the labels state).

1896: Capt. F.W. Hutton borrows it from Colenso and concludes that it is identical to wetapunga, the little Barrier I giant weta Deinacrida heteracantha which had been named and published in 1842. Hutton’s verdict is published in 1897.  This is the correct scientific name for it today.

1899: Came into the possession of H.T. (Henry) Hill’s family, Napier, following Colenso’s death,  probably bought by H.T. Hill from the estate.  The auctioneer’s catalogue mentions “1 Lot of Preserved Insects etc & 1 Lot of Specimens of all sorts (£5)”.

1931: Purchased by Auckland Museum from W.H. (Harry, son of Henry) Hill for £5 after due diligence by Museum director Gilbert Archey.

1937-43: Found its way into the private collection of Wilfred Hemingway, Honorary Entomologist, Auckland Museum.  It seems that Hemingway took a liking to it and took it home for his personal insect collection.

1943:  ‘Discovered’ in Hemingway’s collection when Mrs Hemingway donated the collection to Auckland Museum after his death.

2002: Poster girl and displayed in More than a Mummy, Auckland Museum’s 150th birthday exhibition.



Cite this article 

Early, John. ''The Oldest Insect in New Zealand", Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 28 09 2018.