By Johanna Cider, Writer
New Zealanders are lucky to live in a nation with such a diversity of native flora and fauna. The distinctive topography and climate have collided to produce a habitat that is home to a multitude of animal species that are truly unique.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many international visitors flock to Aotearoa each year to see the country’s native animals up close. If you want to discover a few reasons why New Zealand’s wildlife is so distinctive, keep reading below.
1. New Zealand evolved in isolation
There’s a reason people say that New Zealand is found at the edge of the earth!
Millions of years of isolation at the southern end of the globe have made the country a hub for unique organismic evolution, meaning that you’ll find wildlife in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ that you’ve never seen before.
Incredibly, New Zealand is home to 85 endemic land birds (they occur nowhere else in the world). In comparison, the British Isles have just one endemic species. This high rate of endemism is mainly the result of the country’s long isolation from other land masses. Only remote oceanic islands such as Hawaii have a similarly high proportion of endemic land birds.
2. Very few species are dangerous
New Zealand might be the best place in the world to visit for people who aren’t that keen on dangerous animals.
On this island nation, you’ll come across birds, dolphins, frogs, and lizards galore – but rarely any truly dangerous or poisonous species.
You’ll find six of the world’s 17 different kinds of penguin, but no tarantulas. You’ll glimpse the native whio/blue duck, but don’t need to live in fear of snakes. You may even come across the giant wētā treading the midnight forest floors, but you will never find bears or coyotes.
3. You can see our wildlife – in the wild
In some countries the closest you can come to the local wildlife is by visiting a zoo or wildlife sanctuary – but in New Zealand many of our native species can be seen in the city and the countryside.
New Zealand boasts vast conservation areas that span across whole regions, so you’re bound to spot our native wildlife in the most unexpected of places.
On land, you’ll likely come across at least one pūkeko while driving through the country, and if you’re near the sea, our native marine mammals will emerge to play: including unique species of dolphin, seal, and whale.
4. They’re rare and endangered
Some people may not know that, apart from bats, New Zealand was uninhabited by land mammals until the arrival of humans.
European colonisation bought introduced land mammals like stoats, possums, and rats that now pose a huge threat to our native wildlife, in fact New Zealand has one of the highest rates of threatened native species in the world.
As a visitor to New Zealand, visiting local wildlife reserves is one way for you to support efforts to protect these special species for future generations. At sanctuaries like Zealandia, Orokonui, Tirititi Matangi or Orana Wildlife Park, you can get up close and personal with endangered animals while contributing to their conservation. There aren’t many countries in the world where you can make such a fun and important difference!
5. Part of our identity
Our indigenous fauna has been a source of fascination to humans for hundreds of years. New Zealand’s wildlife constitute a major part of the country’s national story, from when the first Māori settled the land to its European colonisation.
Now-extinct moa birds, for example, occupy a key place in tales of New Zealand past. Nine different species of moa roamed the land – with some of the largest standing up to four metres tall. You can see the bones of these great birds in many of New Zealand’s museums.
The tuatara is another fascinating animal endemic to New Zealand, known internationally as the “living fossil” of the dinosaur age. And we can’t forget the iconic kiwi bird, which in all its flightless glory has come to represent New Zealand’s national identity.
Johanna Cider is a New Zealand-based writer who enjoys nature and the outdoors. Spending time at the zoo and learning about wildlife was one of her favourite childhood memories. You can find more of her work here.