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Scientists and iwi work together to give new plant species a te reo Māori name

  • Cardamine panatohea flower
    Cardamine panatohea flower

A new species of alpine cress, discovered on the south-western slopes of Mt Ruapehu, has been given a species name derived from te reo Māori in full consultation with one of the local iwi, Ngāti Rangi.

The name of the white flowered cress -- Cardamine panatohea -- was gifted by Ngāti Rangi, who are mana whenua over the portion of Mt Ruapehu where the species was found.  The name is derived from the names panapana, a common name for this type of cress, and tītōhea, which is the description of the land above the bush line on Mt Ruapehu.  The term tītōhea is usually translated to mean ‘barren’, but for Whanganui tribes it means a sacred area, usually desert or mountainous, where special species live. 

Ngāti Rangi Chairman Che Wilson said that giving a te reo Māori name acknowledged the need to treat the area with great respect. “In giving this name for this specific Ruapehu-based species, it is acknowledging the need to treat the entire area, and not just the species, with special care and is an encouragement to all to remember that Ruapehu is the sacred alter for the Whanganui tribes and is recognised for both his cultural and natural heritage status.”  He says that the alpine zone of the Central Volcanic Plateau is a unique habitat with special plants and animals that should be cherished and respected by visitors. 

Discovered by scientists Peter de Lange from the School of Environmental and Animal Sciences at Unitec, and Peter Heenan, a Research Associate at Landcare Research, the cress is the first flowering plant to be found that appears to be endemic to Mt Ruapehu. Following its discovery in 2012, the two scientists wished to work with Ngāti Rangi to find a suitable species name for the plant using te reo Māori. Collectively, both parties wanted to link the find to the mountain on which it was located and the people who now help manage the land in partnership with the Department of Conservation.  Scientists Heenan and de Lange were both surprised and thrilled with the interest shown by Ngāti Rangi -- Cardamine, especially New Zealand ones, are not particularly conspicuous or showy plants.

“We believe that Mt Ruapehu is the only area where the new species is known but we’re making further investigations to establish whether this is, in fact, the case.  We suspect that Cardamine panatohea and a range of other special plants found in association with it were survivors of the Taupō Pumice Eruption of around 200 AD and somehow missed the devastation caused by it,” said Dr de Lange.

“We know that eruption wiped out most of the vegetation of the Central Volcanic Plateau but the portion of Ruapehu in which the new species was found seems to have been sheltered from the blast,” he added.

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