Waitomo finds are nature from the past at its best

The living, or at least the once-were-living, have the power to be just as quirky as the manmade stuff

LOUISE RISK
Last updated 14:45 04/01/2012

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The living, or at least the once-were-living, have the power to be just as quirky as the manmade stuff, or so it seems at the Waikato Caves Discovery Centre.

Ammonites and belemnites might sound like names a Hollywood celebrity would choose for their children, but these works of nature are far more enduring, and endearing.

A replica of a giant ammonite (the real deal is in Te Papa) stands snail-like in the entrance to the museum.

The centre's managing director, Celina Yapp, puts a couple of missing chunks from the model down to "human nature" and our desire to touch things.

Belemnites, fossils from a squid-like creature, could easily be mistaken for little finger-sized dark grey bullets.

Lindsay Hawke, the collections manager at the centre, says the ancient objects are easy enough to find washed up on the beach at Kawhia.

"Cave pearls" are another example of nature's incredible ability to create objects that look geometric enough to be mistaken for being manmade.

Like their oyster equivalent, cave pearls start with a grain of sand and then the calcification that occurs around them eventually creates pearl-like balls.

The calcification process that occurs in the mines around Waitomo also creates other impressive sculpture-like shapes, but Miss Yapp was quick to point out the importance of not touching or removing these artistic objects from caves.

On the subject of jewellery, a necklace estimated to have come from the "moa hunter culture period" takes pride of place in one of the cabinets.

Made from pierced oyster shells, the fibre that held the shells together has gone, but the necklace would not look out of place being worn today.

Miss Yapp and Ms Hawke debated the actual existence of a "moa hunter culture period" as an actual period, but neither doubted the appeal of the moa itself.

"Bertie" a large bush moa, stands proudly over two eggs.

"He's a beautiful beast," Miss Yapp says affectionately about the strong-legged skeleton.

Bertie is a composite – his front and back halves came from two separate birds – but the untrained eye would never tell.

An array of skeletons from a delicate little bat to kiwis and even a goose keep Bertie company.

"This is quite an extraordinary goose," Miss Yapp said.

"It's rather a big goose if you know anything about goose anatomy."

And an extinct snipe-rail – a Capellirallus karamu – looked like it would have been a funny little bird, all beak and legs if its skeleton was anything to go by.

The flightless snipe-rail was first discovered in the Karamu Cave, not far from Hamilton, in 1954.

As well as the myriad of skeletons, the Waikato Caves Discovery Centre had its share of taxidermied creatures too.

Rats and a possum are furry examples of the types of critters tourists could potentially encounter if they decide to go on one of the many caving adventures on offer at Waitomo.

Miss Yapp said she did not think anyone had been put off going on a trip after learning about their possible cave-companions.

"Not as far as I know, they haven't."

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We move from the extinct to the arguably all too common, an empty tank display was all that remained of something in between, a "rare" longfin eel.

That a museum had a live eel in the first place is fascinating, but not nearly as fascinating as the eel himself.

Wally, of unknown age when he was captured, lived in the centre for 16 years.

Miss Yapp says for most of that time he was content to live on steak, and he did have the odd freshwater crayfish to keep him company during that time.

"Until he ate them."

But when Wally hit the mature "migratory" phase, porterhouse no longer satisfied his discerning palate, and he got a taste for worms.

Big fat juicy worms laboriously dug from Miss Yapp's own garden at the height of a drought about three or four years ago.

"He wasn't sure about them to begin with, but once he got a taste for them there was no stopping him," she says.

"My garden was well dug over by the end of it."

Wally would have eventually refused to eat and died had he not been released from his tank after the urge to migrate struck him, so after being trained to eat live pray, he was returned to the same creek he had been captured in years earlier.

The exact breeding ground of the New Zealand longfin eel seems to be something of a mystery, but is believed to be somewhere near Tonga.

After the huge journey, Miss Yapp, who admits to being a bit light on scientific eel migration details, says the chaps like Wally do their manly duty, and then presumably die, leaving their larvae offspring to float back across the ocean to New Zealand.

Miss Yapp and Ms Hawke are both clearly enamoured with Waitomo and its surrounds, and all that lives or had once lived in the area.

A thoughtful road-worker working near Otorohanga had been the instigator of their latest acquisition – some large pieces of rock with a fish and a whale vertebrae fossilised in them.

This latest find shows the centre is on to something by backing nature as being able to provide something more impressive than man could make.

Another example is what appears to be a full fish fossil, an impressively-sized fish, but which is actually only the head of a fish that once swam in Waikato water.

MUSEUM FACTS

Where: Waitomo Caves

Open: Daily from 8.15am to 7pm

Website: waitomodiscovery.org

Tour guide: Celina Yapp, managing director, and Lindsay Hawke, collections manager

- Waikato

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