5 reasons New Zealand’s wildlife is utterly unique

Department of Conservation —  03/09/2018

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.

Our 'living fossil' the tuatara. 📷: Bernard Spragg.

Our ‘living fossil’ the tuatara. 📷: Bernard Spragg

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.

New Zealand at the southern end of the globe. 📷: NASA.

New Zealand at the southern end of the globe. 📷: NASA

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.

Yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho. 📷: Bernard Spragg.

Yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho. 📷: Bernard Spragg

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.

Pūkeko. 📷: Bernard Spragg.

Pūkeko. 📷: Bernard Spragg

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!

Bats are our only native land mammal. 📷: James Mortimer.

Bats are our only native land mammal. 📷: James Mortimer

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.

Our iconic kiwi bird. 📷: Ian Gill.

Our iconic kiwi bird. 📷: Ian Gill

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.

12 responses to 5 reasons New Zealand’s wildlife is utterly unique


    There are so many unique birds in New Zealand. It’s just hard to spot the kiwi since it is only out at night. I couldn’t really get good pictures, even in the zoo because it was too dark.


      Hi there,
      You need to come to Kiwi North in Whangarei, Northland. We have a wonderful nocturnal house where we turn day into night for our birds and the viewing for the visitor is still very, very good. Although we do not allow flashes our visitors with good cameras and patience are able to get some great photos.


        Ok I went to a place in queenstown and another location (can’t remember where). And I have a pretty good camera – but still too dark.


    What pest control efforts can we make to help?

    Martin Nicholls 03/09/2018 at 2:02 pm

    There’s a lot of revisionism concerning 1080 and how many native species it kills. The opponents of 1080 are mostly animal rights advocates and the hunting lobby who have their own vested interests for opposing 1080. No matter how often people like Graeme Elliott argue compellingly otherwise, staunch 1080 opponents will listen to no sissenting voices.

    This sums up the extent to which we humans are limiting the chances of species recovery and is a reason, I believe, why the Predator-free 2050 programme is doomed to failure.

    There are so-called scientists like Jamie Steer and Wayne Linklater who are attempting to impose some ‘rights of citizenship’ upon introduced mammals according to their time in New Zealand and who always put humans first and foremost before even those species that are truly endemic and found nowhere else in the world: species like kokako, the NZ wrens, short-tailed bat, tuatara and our native frogs.

    Linklater even advocated the culling and removal of kaka from metropolitan Wellington because, as he asserts, they don’t belong in the city and they are becoming a pest. Fortunately a great many Wellingtonians love visits from kaka to their gardens and want to see them protected and their numbers increase.

    Linklater and Steer represent a pushback movement against the Predator-free 2050 programme and have unwittingly given a voice to the cat owners in particular and the SPCA who are creating problems for biodiversity recovery, but these two gentlemen are not taken seriously by their fellow ecologists and wildlife specialists.


    Isn’t it just a kiwi not a kiwi bird, like it’s not a pukeko bird


    Umm . . . no mammals until Europeans brought them? What about kiore and kuri?


      Hi Sue, you’re right – we’ve fixed that up.

      Martin Nicholls 03/09/2018 at 1:45 pm

      True, but that’s a red herring. The author probably meant to say before humans migrated to these shores. There was thought to be a very ancient and tiny mammal based on Miocene bone fragments discovered, but it was unlikely to have been a placental or marsupial mammal.

      Very little is known about it and where it fitted in the NZ ecology at the time, or even whether it was a genuine finding. Others reported the dicovery of rodent (probably rat) remains several thousand years old, but this has been questioned and whether the dating techiques were reliable.

      Given the relatively recent lineage of rodents, it is unlikely that any could have made it to these shores, given that Zealandia (the precursor to Aotearoa) was isolated from the nearest landmass (Australia-Antarctica) for between 65 and 85 MY. By 65MY isolation was complete and Zealandia was eroding away and drowning from a landmass the size of the Indian subcontinent to an island archipelago, almost completely drowned by Late Oligocene 26MY ago. The mammalian order, Rodenta, arose in the Miocene when modern Aotearoa was beginning to form and was at its maximum isolation from the nearest landmass. Therefore, there would’ve been no rats in New Zealand before humans arrived on these shores.


    And thanks to the use of 1080 we still have many of the species and numbers are improving.