In New Zealand folklore, the waitoreke (or waitoreki, waitorete) is an otter/beaver-like creature. It is usually described as a small otter-like animal that lives in the South Island of New Zealand
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. There are many theories on the waitoreke’s true identity, such as it being an otter, beaver or pinniped.
The origin of the name „waitoreke“ is not well documented; it may have been an invention. It does not occur in Tregear’s fairly comprehensive Māori dictionary of 1891, and was said to be „ungrammatical“ by leading Māori anthropologist Te Rangi Hīroa.
Despite this, etymologies have been put forward by researchers
The waitoreke is usually described as a small otter-like creature sometimes as big as a cat. It is described as having brownish fur and short legs. The sightings usually place the creature near or in the water on the South Island of New Zealand. Its fur is described as being short like that of an otter.
Very little physical evidence proving the existence of the waitoreke exists. Julius von Haast is reported to have obtained a waitoreke pelt in 1868. The fur was brown, with white spots, and the toes lacked webbing. This is inconclusive evidence; the pelt seems to have resembled a quoll’s. The common brushtail possum was successfully introduced in 1858 and is now a widespread pest, whereas introduction of the common ringtail possum ultimately failed. Both animals are unspotted.
„Evidence“ for the existence of the waitoreke is mainly based on sporadic accounts of an „unidentified amphibious animal“ in the country’s South Island spanning well over 200 years. Some of the more infamous accounts are dubious and/or incongruous – but a significant number of descriptions (particularly from the late 19th century onwards) share a striking similarity to each other and to species known to exist outside New Zealand. The Māori people said that in old times they used to keep waitoreke as pets (Mareš, 1997).
Some of the most notable early (claimed) accounts come from pre-20th-century explorers/naturalists:
Later accounts come from a variety of settlers, farmers, trampers, hunters, tourists and scientists throughout the 20th century. Many of these sightings were assessed in a paper on the subject of the waitoreke by G.A. Pollock in 1974 which led to a search of the area around lakes Waihola and Waipori in Otago during the 1980s.
The majority of the evidence about the waitoreke is from sightings. However some alleged physical evidence does exist. Several unidentified tracks have been found. They were described as being a few inches long and showing webbing. Otter footprints show a little webbing but beaver footprints show full webbing. In 1868 Julius von Haast obtained an alleged waitoreke pelt. It was in very bad condition and was not conclusively identified. Described as being brown and having white spots, it seems to have approximately that of quolls which are not present in New Zealand (and apparently were never: Antoni & Wodzicki 1984).
The waitoreke would be most remarkable if it exists, due to the fact that New Zealand is one of the few significant land masses on Earth to have no recent native land mammals. The South Pacific nation does play host to several native pinnipeds (seals, sea lions) and bat species (genera Mystacina and Chalinolobus; several extinct genera are known from the earlier Saint Bathans Fauna) but is most notable for its plethora of bird species that seem to have evolved without the restrictions of mammalian predation: flightless species that would have been fair game for any hunting mammal were most plentiful, and there were even some tiny flightless passerines – a thing almost unheard of, and certainly unknown in the presence of mammalian predators as small as shrews.
New Zealand’s dearth of mammals is a result of its separation from the super-continent of Gondwana approximately 80 million years ago, in the Cretaceous epoch. Recent discoveries in an Otago fossil lake bed suggest that at least one terrestrial mammal species, the Saint Bathans Mammal, existed in New Zealand before human settlement.
While there was most likely some sort of mammalian creatures on New Zealand at the time of separation (monotremes, at least one multituberculate, various „australosphenidans“ and whatever group spawned the Saint Bathans Mammal), and certainly in the Miocene, placental and marsupial mammals were almost certainly not present.
Despite the lack of fossils, and/or confirmed proof in the form of a living specimen, theories on the waitoreke’s identity include:
An escaped or new species of otter is the most likely candidate for the waitoreke. Most of the sightings resemble an otter. Also, the majority of the sightings are near water where otters are most often found. If an otter is a waitoreke it is most likely a river otter. The otter would most likely be brought to New Zealand on boats although it could have swum across the ocean what tenderizes beef. However the theory that it swam is unlikely.
Another common theory is that the waitoreke is actually a beaver. This is because several of the sightings report that the waitoreke lives in dams like those of a beaver. The fur color of a beaver is also close to that of the description of a waitoreke. However, the body shape and the tail structure of a waitoreke are different than that of a beaver. If the waitoreke was a beaver it would most likely be introduced by European settlers and would then be related to the European beaver.
Another one of the theories is a pinnipeds. Pinnipeds are marine mammals in the superfamily pinnipedia. Examples are seals, sea lions, and walruses. Pinnipeds are native to New Zealand so that makes it a good candidate for the waitoreke. The New Zealand sea lion is one of the pinnipeds native to New Zealand. It is about 5–8 feet long and the males have a brownish coat and the females are gray. Another candidate is the New Zealand fur seal. It is slightly smaller and has a brown coat.
A monotreme is an egg laying mammal. This theory is because there have been some reports that the waitoreke lays eggs. Known monotremes are the platypus and the six species of echidna, which are all native to Australia and New Guinea. The description of the echidna differs from the common description of the waitoreke. The platypus is more like the description of the waitoreke but still different. A new type of monotreme is also possible.
More recently, with the description of the Miocene Saint Bathans mammal, some authors have proposed that the waitoreke is a living representative of its mammal clade. The Saint Bathans mammal is considered to be a basal theriiforme mammal outside of Cladotheria and Allotheria. Of particular interest is that the etymology of the suffix „reke“ would be justified, since it would probably have retained the tarsal spurs omnipresent in basal mammals.
These are other theories on the identity of the waitoreke. They are less common than the theories mentioned above, but have been put forward because of the animals similar appearance to the waitoreke, or for other reasons.