It’s not surprising that filmmakers chose New Zealand to play the mythical world of Middle-earth in “The Hobbit” and in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. This island nation’s beauty is otherworldly. It boasts stunning fjords, cascading waterfalls, billowing geysers and soaring mountains. It is also home to some of the world’s most unusual creatures, including the tuatara, a lizard-like beaked reptile, and the kiwi, a flightless bird with hair-like feathers.
Many of New Zealand’s animals and plants are, in fact, unique to this country. Their ancestors were either stranded in New Zealand approximately 85 million years ago when this country became separated from the supercontinent known as Gondwana or migrated there later. In this isolated world, they evolved into creatures that were suited for New Zealand’s unique environment.
For example, many of this country’s native bird species are flightless because for millions of years, there were no predatory mammals living on the islands. Without any real threat to their well-being, these birds no longer needed to take to the air.
Make sure to seek out the “fantastical” creatures that call this country home during your vacation. You may never get another chance to see them again.
With their hair-like feathers, puffy build and long beak, kiwis are endearingly cute. They are also the national symbol of New Zealand. Unfortunately, these small, flightless birds are not easy to find in the wild. For one thing, they are nocturnal. And they are also endangered.
So while you might still be able to locate wild kiwis in places like Waipoua Forest or on Stewart Island, your best bet would be to visit a sanctuary, such as Zealandia. Located outside of Wellington, Zealandia is a 550-acre sanctuary that is protected by a special fence to keep mammal pests out. It offers both night and twilight tours by torchlight for those interested in seeing a kiwi in its natural habitat.
The kakapo is one of New Zealand’s most unusual species. It is, for instance, the world’s largest and only flightless parrot. And the kakapo, which is nocturnal, is also said to smell like a peach or a flower. These large birds, which weigh about eight pounds, can’t fly, but they are able to climb high up into trees. Sadly, the kakapo is critically endangered.
There are just 100 known birds left in New Zealand, and they can only be found on three islands — Codfish, Anchor and Little Barrier. To protect these birds, access to these islands is restricted to authorized personnel only.
Although it can fly, the lesser short tailed bat — like New Zealand’s birds — has adapted to spending a large portion of its time on the ground. Using its folded wings, this bat scrambles around in search of nectar, insects and pollen to eat. Unfortunately, this habit of hunting on the ground made it easy prey for the same non-native predators — such as cats, dogs and stoats — that decimated New Zealand’s flightless bird population.
This bat is now endangered and its relative, the greater short-tailed bat, is believed to be extinct. The lesser short-tailed bat, which is New Zealand’s only native land mammal, can be found in a few areas of New Zealand, including Kahurangi National Park and on South Island.
Don’t let their appearance fool you. The tuatara may look like lizards, but it actually belongs to a separate order of beaked reptiles, Rhynchocephalia. In fact, according to New Scientist, the tuatara is as “closely related to lizards as humans are to kangaroos.”
Tuatara were once found throughout the mainland of New Zealand but, today, they mostly live on offshore islands and in sanctuaries, such as Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.
Glow worms are the maggots (or larvae) of the fungus gnat. And while they may sound gross, they can actually be quite beautiful. You see, these worm-like maggots boast special glowing lights that they use to attract insects into their sticky webs. And when these larvae live side by side on the roof of a cave, they create the illusion of a twinkling sky at night.
New Zealand is also home to one of the world’s rarest penguins, the forest-dwelling, yellow eyed penguins. You might be able to spot these waddling wonders on Banks Peninsula and Stewart Island. Little blue penguins, can also be found in New Zealand. Although these cuties aren’t unique to New Zealand, they are the country’s most common penguin. Fun fact: little blue penguins are the smallest species of penguins in the world.
Only found in New Zealand’s waters, the Hector dolphins are one of the smallest in the world. They have distinctive black and white markings, along with a more rounded fin, making them easy to pick out.
They can be found in small pods around Kaikoura, which makes it a great spot for a boat or kayak tour. In the past, the New Zealand Maori tribe watched the movements of dolphins to predict incoming weather.
New Zealand caters to active travelers, so you’ll find a large number of fun and interesting tours that will take you to see these creatures live and in person. There are, for instance, tours where you can float down an underground river through a cave, searching for glow worms. There are also vendors who will take you to swim with dolphins or fur seals in the wild.