Part of what makes New Zealand so special as a country is its native wildlife. New Zealand’s isolation has nurtured creatures that exist nowhere else in the world – creatures that are just a little bit weird. Since the arrival of human beings on the islands, most of New Zealand’s unique species have become endangered and some, like the moa, have disappeared entirely. Of course, conservation efforts are in place, and you can support them by taking nature tours when you visit New Zealand. It really is a privilege to see such creatures in the wild. Here’s a list of the ten weirdest native New Zealand animals:
Kiwis are weird. (The birds, not the people of New Zealand.) For starters, they think they’re mammals. Flightless, with wings reduced by evolution to a pair of invisible stumps, they roam the forest floor like badgers – they even have whiskers and build burrows. Their feathers have become like fur; their bones filled with marrow. Their nostrils are at the ends of their long beaks, rather than at the top, and they can live until they are fifty years old. When kiwis run, it’s hilarious. They have no tail to balance themselves – they’re basically fat, fluffy balls on stumpy legs. The other peculiar thing about the kiwi is its egg: it’s enormous, about a quarter of the female’s body weight – imagine giving birth to that!
The kea is weird because it’s the world’s only alpine parrot – that’s a parrot that lives in the snow. It’s also one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. This makes them highly amusing creatures to observe, (although the tourist who returns to their New Zealand car rental to find the windscreen wipers ripped off is never quite so amused.) Rather appropriately, a group of kea is called a circus. They’re extremely curious and will investigate anything for food, or just for the fun of it. When my family was on our South Island campervan tour, we stopped at a café that had a sign telling people not to feed the kea, but they didn’t need any encouraging – they were on the tables knocking over coffee cups to drink the dregs, snatching unguarded muffins and generally observing the behaviour of the humans, no doubt hatching plans for world domination. There was a toddler in a high chair that was banging its food tray up and down and, after the family had left, a kea climbed into the high chair and started banging the tray up and down for itself!
The tuatara is the only surviving member of a group of reptiles older than the dinosaurs. This makes the species a ‘living fossil’ and, as such, it is of great importance to biologists. They live their lives at a very slow place. (The tuatara, not biologists.) They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re at least ten years old and keep growing until they’re about thirty-five. Some say that they can live for up to two hundred years, which is lucky because they can only reproduce every four years. They have the lowest body temperature of any reptile. It’s practically impossible to see one in the wild, but there are plenty of places to see them in captivity, such as Auckland Zoo.
People used to think the takahe was extinct, but it was rediscovered in 1948 and remains critically endangered. They’re solid birds with stocky, red legs and beautiful, blue plumage. I have seen one on the bird conservation island of Tiritiri Matangi – in fact it chased my friends and I for a considerable distance, its flightless wings outstretched as it ran towards us, and when we stopped running away it jumped up at me and kept biting the bottoms of my shorts with its large, red beak. Its name was Greg and it’s dead now. (I assure you I had nothing to do with it.) The takahe is monogamous and, apparently, the young ones will often stay with their parents to help rear next year’s chicks. Unfortunately, they need all the help they can get.
The weta is the most frightening insect I have personally encountered. They’re large – the giant weta is about the heaviest insect in the world – and spiny. Some of them have tusks and some can jump up to two metres, occasionally at you, and, yes, they do bite. This can be painful, but not at all dangerous. It’s not a common occurrence, but one got my nana when she opened her umbrella and it fell out onto her. Like the tuatara, the weta is older than the dinosaurs – in fact it’s older than the tuatara too. You might recognise the word weta from the name of a certain special effects workshop in Wellington responsible for the monsters in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong and, in fact, some of the characters in King Kong were attacked by a horde of weta – they needed only their size enlarging to truly look the part of monsters.
The kakapo is one weird parrot: it’s fluffy, flightless and nocturnal – and there’s only a hundred or so of them left. It’s the world’s heaviest parrot, but defenceless against the mammalian predators introduced to New Zealand by human settlers. A mottled, mossy green, they waddle about the forest floor, freezing at signs of danger, relying on their camouflage to protect them. As observed by Stephen Fry in that famous clip from Last Chance to See where that guy’s head is enthusiastically humped by a kakapo, kakapos look a little like Victorian gentlemen – it’s the mutton chops and apologetic eyes, I think. It would be a tragedy to lose them.
Tuis are iconic – there’s a brand of New Zealand beer named after them – and are found in people’s back gardens as well as in the bush. What’s weird about them is the males have a pair of white, feathery balls on their throats and, even though they sing beautifully, they have been known to imitate lawnmowers, ringtones and even human speech. They’re beautiful birds. At first they just look black with the white balls, but you soon see they’re all sorts of colours, metallic blues, greens and purples.
The Hector’s dolphin
Hector’s dolphins are the smallest dolphins in the world, and their sub-species, Maui’s dolphins, are the rarest, with just 55 individuals left. Hector’s dolphins are found only around the South Island; Maui’s dolphins only off the west coast of the North Island. The only place where you can swim with Hector’s dolphins is Akaroa on Banks Peninsula, next to Christchurch. Most of them are less than 1.5 metres long – they could easily fit into a bathtub! What’s so weird about them is they have rounded, black dorsal fins.
If you’re anywhere near the New Zealand bush at night, you’ll always hear a morepork. The morepork has a large cry for such a small owl, a haunting hoot that sounds very much like it’s demanding ‘more pork’! Rather cute-looking, they’re New Zealand’s last surviving native owl. Swift and silent hunters, they’re one of the few native New Zealand species to have actually benefited from the introduction of mammals – plenty of rodents to feast on! Their name in Maori is ‘ruru’.
The moa was long extinct by the time Europeans settled in New Zealand, overhunted by the Maori, but it is worth mentioning because it was so extraordinary. The giant moa was one of the largest birds the earth has ever seen – over three metres tall when it stretched up! It was flightless and heavy, like the kiwi only a lot bigger, with a long neck and a short beak. It was the only bird in the world to have no wings whatsoever – not even vestigial wings. It didn’t have a tail either. Despite its dominating appearance, it was a herbivore. It’s only predator – before the arrival of humans – was the terrifying Haast’s eagle. With its three-metre wingspan and claws as large as a tiger’s, the Haast’s eagle could well have hunted human beings along with the moa. It went extinct around the same time.
List compiled by Abigail Simpson