Due to its isolation and late human arrival, New Zealand has an extraordinarily large number of endemic species that either descended directly from life on an original supercontinent, Gondwana, or arrived by flying or swimming.
Virtually all the native invertebrates, freshwater fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and a great majority of the non-sea birds, are endemic. Of all its creatures, New Zealand is most famous for its birds. Approximately 300 species have been identified (not including the 50 species that became extinct since humans arrived).
There is a high degree of endemism among the songbirds. Because they do not typically migrate long distances over open ocean, over countless millennia, they arrived in New Zealand as exhausted individuals or as part of migrating flocks that were blown off course by storms. Adaptations appeared over time and from a relative few pioneering species, the immensely varied population of today’s songbirds developed. This same phenomenon has occurred on many other islands such as the Galápagos and Seychelles. Conversely, very few of New Zealand’s many seabirds, shore birds, and waders are endemic. They fly tremendous distances, covering huge areas of open ocean, and welcome resting places with abundant food and few predators.
Kiwis, the namesake for New Zealand residents, are bizarre birds like no others that survive today. There are five closely related species that are similar in appearance and behavior. Kiwis are medium-sized, nocturnal, flightless birds that are covered with hair-like feathers and have long whiskers. They have nostrils at the end of their long, curved beaks, and walk about slowly, quietly, and deliberately in the forest, at night, probing the ground to sniff out worms and insects. Another nocturnal, flightless bird species is the critically endangered kakapo, or owl parrot. The ground-dwelling parrot, which can weigh almost five pounds, was nearly hunted to extinction. Now its population is 208.
There is yet another parrot found only in New Zealand that is high on any bird watcher’s list. The kea is a very curious and intelligent bird that has an eclectic appetite and often steals unguarded items.
Other unique birds include the morepork (an endemic owl), takahe (a large gallinule), weka (a large rail), kaka (a parrot related to the kea), tui and stitchbird (honey-eaters), and saddleback and kokako (wattlebirds). Thirteen of the world’s 18 species of penguins can be found in New Zealand; three—the yellow-eyed, Fiordland crested, and little blue penguin—can be easily observed in their coastal breeding areas on South Island.
New Zealand is also home to the only mainland breeding colony of the royal albatross in the world. This magnificent sea bird has the longest wingspan (more than 10 feet) of any bird and always presents an exciting spectacle when observed in the air.
Napier's colony of 20,000 Australasian gannets is a sight to behold, and the sub-Antarctic islands are alive with numerous species of birds. Their numbers are impressive as well. For example, there are 99 recorded species on The Snares and the population of the endemic royal penguin on Macquarie Island is estimated at 850,000.
As for other creatures, New Zealand has four endemic species of primitive frogs, and several species of skinks and geckos. There are no native mammals other than two species of bats, and there are no snakes, but in the realm of reptiles, the amazing tuatara is of interest. The only beak-headed reptile left in the world, it has no living relatives. The tuatara is a unique relic of the past, as others like it died out alongside the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It is not a true living fossil, because the tuatara has undergone considerable evolution since the Mesozoic Era and it is a very different animal from its remote ancestor. Tuataras grow to about 30 inches in length and can live for more than 100 years. They were once found throughout New Zealand, but today only live on a few rat-free islands.
The last country to become inhabited by humans, New Zealand was first populated by Maori who hunted giant flightless birds called moas to extinction. Loss of native habitat caused by deforestation by the Maori and European settlers contributed to the extinction of other species as did the introduction of rats and mice, weasels and stoats, and cats. However, great efforts are being made to protect the native flora and fauna, and even reintroduce and/or revitalize native populations, and these efforts have met with success.
New Zealand’s whale and dolphin populations are also well known. In addition to the familiar bottlenosed and Risso’s dolphins, one can also find an appealing little creature known as Cephalorhynchus hectori or Hector’s dolphin. Endemic to New Zealand, the smallest of all dolphins grows to approximately four-and-a-half feet and weighs up to 110 pounds. Beautifully counter-shaded with black, white and gray markings and with a rounded dorsal fin, Hector’s dolphins were named for Sir James Hector, who was the curator of the Colonial Museum in Wellington when the species was first described in 1881. They are endangered, with a population of approximately 7,000; its main threat is being caught in fishing nets.
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