Ngā kupu i te taiao – Words in nature

Department of Conservation —  16/09/2022

Ko tēnei te wiki o te reo Māori. It’s Māori Language Week and to celebrate we thought we’d profile some beautiful Māori words from nature and share with you their meanings.

While we often hear scientific names used for species in conservation, their indigenous names can invoke, inspire and reveal some of the many wonders of nature in Aotearoa…

Werewere-kōkako (meaning: wattles of the kōkako)

The name for this beautiful, blue native mushroom takes its name from the wattles of our stunning kōkako bird. ‘Werewere’ can mean hanging or suspended, but in this case it’s the name for the wattles of a bird.

Werewere-kōkako/Entoloma hochstetteri. Photo: Bernard Spragg ©

Wētāpunga (meaning: god of ugly things)

In Māori mythology Punga was the god and ancestor of all ugly things. Our most famous insect, the giant wētā, is named after the god himself – wētāpunga. ‘Te aitanga a Punga’ meaning the progeny of Punga refers to a wide range of sea and land creatures including lizards and octopuses.

Wētāpunga/Giant wētā. Photo: Sabine Bernert ©

Pua o te Rēinga (meaning: flower of the underworld)

Pua o te Rēinga, meaning flower of the underworld, is our only fully parasitic flowering plant. It parasitises the roots of trees and remains underground until it flowers, when its pushes through to the forest floor and is naturally pollinated by pekapeka/short-tailed bats.

Pekapeka/short-tailed bat feeding on Pua o te Reinga/Dactylanthus. Photo: David Mudge/Nga Manu ©

Toka pokapoka (meaning: rock of many holes)

Coral polyps are tiny little animals that are related to anemones and jellyfish. They secrete calcium carbonate that builds up rock-hard external skeletons but leave small holes where the polyps live – hence the Māori name toka pokapoka.

Toka pokapoka/red coral. Photo: Steve Wing ©

Tauhou (meaning: stranger)

The silvereye was first recorded in New Zealand in 1832 and since there is no evidence that it was artificially introduced, it is classified as a native species. Its late arrival has earned it the Māori name, tauhou, means ‘stranger’ or more literally ‘new arrival’.

Tauhou/silvereye. Photo: Sabine Bernert ©

Hura te ao (meaning: the break of dawn)

Hura te ao geckos have black eyes, yellow-orange lips, and fine white spots. They are found in two mountain ranges in North Otago. Hura te ao means ‘to reveal the light’ but can also mean the break of dawn. Their Māori name is inspired by their colour pattern, the colour around the mouth resembling light appearing at sunrise.

Hura te ao gecko/Mokopiriraukau. Photo: Carey Knox ©

Pāhau kākāpō (meaning: beard of the kākāpō)

New Zealand’s tallest moss, Dawsonia superba can grow up to 60 centimetres, reaching heights normally reserved for vascular plants. It is the tallest self supporting moss in the world. The Māori name pāhau-kākāpō meaning ‘beard of the kākāpō’ is a reference to the spiky whiskers of our largest native parrot.

Pāhau kākāpō/Dawsonia superba. Photo: Shellie Evans ©

Kōtare (meaning: platform or stage)

The word kōtare sometimes referred to the elevated platform in a pā, used to watch for enemies. This is perfect for the kōtare which finds the perfect lookout spot, perches motionless then attacks its prey from out of nowhere.

Kōtare. Photo: John Reid ©

Please note that te reo Māori is a diverse language and there are many names and stories attributed to nature. These are just some of the names and meanings that are used.

4 responses to Ngā kupu i te taiao – Words in nature

    Joylene Steicke 18/09/2022 at 4:30 pm

    Great, interesting and beautiful photographs. I am a Tasmanian, who lived in New Zealand for 15 years, the first 4 years of which was spent caravanning on a working holiday around NZ. Couldn’t bear to leave and bought a house on the East Coast of the South Island, staying for another 11 years. Love seeing what is happening now in conservation after leaving 22 years ago, to come back to Aussie. Miss NZ, have returned 3 times for holidays, always hard to leave again, although Tasmania is the next best place in the world!

    Elizabeth Young 17/09/2022 at 2:20 pm

    Best blog I’ve seen this year! Liz Young


    Great article, team!

    Dorothy Fitzgerald 16/09/2022 at 8:36 pm

    Kia ora…thanks.