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New Zealand’s curious wildlife is unique to that country

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 29 October 2012

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This edited article about New Zealand wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 774 published on 13th November 1975.

Kiwi, picture, image, illustration

The Kiwi in its New Zealand habitat

Geologists, the scientists who study the formation and history of the earth, believe that hundreds of millions of years ago New Zealand formed the tip of a great curving mass of dry land that stretched in a vast sweep from Asia to far out into the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, some geologists think that at one time the curving mass of land may have formed a bridge connecting the continents of Asia and Antarctica.

This land bridge is now called the Australasian Arc and included Australia, New Guinea and scores of the small islands which now dot the Pacific.

During the course of millions of years, the Australasian Arc gradually broke up and most of it was covered by sea. New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and a host of islands are the only dry land left.

Just as the animal life of Australia and New Guinea was to be cut off from that in the rest of the world, and so develop more slowly, so for the fauna or animal life of New Zealand time stood still. Indeed, New Zealand’s native animal life is much more primitive than that of Australia and New Guinea, so much so that New Zealand has been called a “land of living fossils”.

Take New Zealand’s birds for example. The first birds in the world probably could not fly, learning to down the centuries by longer and longer hops and leaps from tree to tree. Today, the birds native to New Zealand are still flightless.

New Zealand’s best-known bird is the kiwi, and except for the fact that it has a beak and only two legs it resembles almost everything except a bird. In fact when the first Europeans who settled in New Zealand heard descriptions of the kiwi they refused to believe that such a creature existed.

Unable to fly, the kiwi has naked and useless wings hidden under what looks like hair rather than feathers. The bird’s long beak has a tuft of feathers, more like a cat’s whiskers, at its base.

Even the kiwi’s skin is not like that of other birds. Instead of being soft and supple, it is tough and stiff. The Maori people of New Zealand used kiwi skin to cover their shields. Today shoes and gloves are made from the skin.

These strange birds do not even nest in trees. They live in burrows which they dig out of the ground with their claws and long beaks.

Kiwis are seldom seen in the daytime, when they stay hidden in their underground nests. At night they come out to hunt for the insects and other creatures on which they feed, digging them out of the earth with their long beaks.

There are several species of kiwi and their colour ranges from a dark fawn to a deep brown. The largest specimens are about the size of a farmyard fowl.

The hen kiwi lays two white eggs. The egg is enormous in relation to the bird, weighing about one pound. It is only slightly smaller than an ostrich egg.

Once an egg has been laid, the cock bird does the hatching. The hen bird visits him now and again to be sure that he is doing his duty. If she finds him off the eggs she gives him a thorough pecking until he starts sitting again.

Another of New Zealand’s flightless birds is the weka. Although it has better developed wings than has the kiwi, it uses them only for keeping its balance when running. The colourful swamp-hen, which has a blue breast and red cap, also uses its wings only for balance.

Then there is the flightless parrot, the kea. The kea has very short and feeble wings which it uses to glide about in search of food. It has a specially adapted tongue for collecting nectar.

One of the chief reasons why New Zealand’s birds never learned to fly is that there were no native mammals big enough to attack them when feeding on the ground. Consequently the birds never had to fly from danger.

New Zealand even has a miniature dinosaur. Dinosaurs were the giant lizard-like reptiles which roamed the earth 200 million years ago. Their miniature descendant in New Zealand is the tuatara.

The tuatara has a beak-like head and feeds on insects, worms and small lizards. Its home is often a burrow shared with the burrow-dwelling shearwater. Tuataras lay eggs and these take over a year to hatch.

Even the frogs of New Zealand are not like the frogs in other parts of the world. Frogs generally develop from legless tadpoles with a tail which swim about in ponds.

The New Zealand frog, however, goes through the tadpole stage inside the egg laid by the female. The young frog has a very strong and muscular tail which it uses to break out of the egg. Most of the tail eventually disappears, but the muscles that controlled it remain.

New Zealand’s insects are no less remarkable than its birds. There are several species of weta. Weta are very similar in appearance to the cricket. Like the country’s native birds, they cannot fly.

One of the biggest of the weta is four inches long. It can inflict a painful wound on anyone disturbing it by kicking out with its spiky hind legs.

Some of the smaller species of weta are to be found only crawling on the branches of trees, while others live high in the mountain regions. Another species lives deep in caves.

All species of weta were once able to fly, but the plentiful supply of food made it unnecessary for them to venture far to feed. So they gradually became flightless.

With most species of glowworms, their light is a mating signal to attract the male. But the purpose of the New Zealand glowworm’s light is more deadly.

Living deep in caves, the New Zealand glowworm switches on its light to attract to it the small insects on which it feeds. Incidentally, the glowworm is not a worm at all, but a species of gnat.

Much of New Zealand is volcanic and in these regions there are hundreds of geysers and springs of boiling water. But despite the heat and high chemical content of the water that bubbles from the ground, there are many species of insects that have managed to survive by adapting themselves to the inhospitable conditions.

Beetles and dragonflies have developed into species that are proof against the heat and chemical conditions that would kill their relatives in other countries.

There are also heat-proof water snails which flourish in the hot springs and a worm-like creature called the nematode which lives quite happily in hot mud. Then there is a species of carp which swims and breeds in the hot streams flowing from geysers.

Mammals, that is animals which suckle their young, did not develop to any extent in New Zealand. The only mammals native to the country are two species of bat, both of which live in the forests, and the seals around the coasts.

For millions of years the strange animal life of New Zealand continued unchanged to provide a vast population of specialised creatures. Two factors were to wreak havoc with the country’s unique wildlife: the coming of Man and the introduction of animals from other parts of the world.

Man did not appear in New Zealand until about 300 A.D., when voyagers from eastern Polynesia landed and set up their settlements.

One of the first victims of Man was the moa. This giant flightless bird stood 12 feet tall and was relentlessly hunted for its flesh and skin. The last of the moas was killed shortly before the first Europeans came in the 18th century.

Even the kiwi came near to extinction. The white settlers introduced weasels and ferrets which soon killed hundreds of thousands of the birds.

Eventually the kiwi became so scarce that the New Zealand government enforced strict law for its protection.

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