There’s a real kaleidoscope of unique wildlife in New Zealand. This land of snow-capped mountains and kauri forests, of gushing waterfalls and wave-smashed beaches, hosts the weird, the wonderful, and the downright ancient. It’s got an array of fauna that’s simply not found elsewhere, largely because New Zealand wasn’t really discovered by humans until the turn of the first century. In fact, the country lacked any real apex predator until then, and there were simply no large land mammals to be seen, leaving the bird and reptile populations to flourish and diversify.
From the highlands of Otago to the wild Pacific Ocean, there are oodles of amazing endemic species that can only be found in the NZ region. These are the animals that have evolved and adapted for survival in the patchwork of luscious forests, rich ocean waters, and rugged mountain terrain that the home of the kiwi is so famed for.
The truth is that birds and reptiles dominate the New Zealand biosphere. Some are thought to be leftovers from the last Jurassic age, and even have the nickname, “living dinosaurs”. Meanwhile, the South Pacific waters teem with an abundant variety of marine life, including sharks and dolphins and whales, and the mountains host rare tropical parrots and hardy lizards that can trace their lineage back millions (yep, millions!) of years. Let’s take a look…
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The kiwi bird is the national symbol of New Zealand and has even lent its name to the friendly people of these islands (Kiwi with a capital ‘K’ refers to NZ residents). Famously flightless, it has hair-like feathers and can live anywhere between 25 and 50 years. A kiwi has no tail but incredibly strong legs which can help them achieve similar speeds to humans on the ground.
There are a lot of myths about kiwi birds, some pretty darn bizarre. So, let’s get the facts straight:
- The beak is not a weapon – The kiwi’s beak is for smelling. It’s delicate and certainly not for ramming into things! These birds typically rely on their speed and claws when it comes down to a fight.
- They won’t shy away from a fight – They might look cute, but the NZ kiwi are famously aggressive, especially when protecting their territory and young. The same cannot be said for the Kiwi folk, who are some of the most welcoming we’ve ever encountered!
- Kiwi’s do not have a bird brain – Kiwis have been found to have significantly larger brains than their extinct compatriot, the moa, which was also significantly larger. In fact, kiwi brain sizes are in line with more intelligent bird species.
- They are fast – Alright so it’s no Usain Bolt, but the kiwi can clock up speeds of 12 meters per second at full tilt.
- The egg is big in relation to the small size of the bird – The egg can measure 12cm by 8cm, making it pretty heft compared to the size of the average kiwi torso.
Closely related to the cassowary and emus of neighboring Australia, the kiwi bird symbolizes the uniqueness of the New Zealand ecosystem. The best place to catch a glimpse of one is on Stewart Island, where you’ll probably need to head out in the cover of darkness (kiwis are nocturnal). Alternatively, drop into to Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park.
Hooker’s sea lion (or the New Zealand sea lion)
The New Zealand sea lion is one of the rarest breeds of sea lions in the world. And, as you might be able to guess, they can only be found in NZ! Breeding grounds used to stretch the whole length of the North Island and South Island coastlines. However, due to various threats, numbers have declined considerably in the last century. Today, the species is mostly found across the Auckland Islands, which sit a whopping 300 miles off the south coast of mainland New Zealand’s southernmost tip.
The breeding season is in the colder months, with pups typically being born in the height of the summer around December and January. Dependant on their mother for a year, pups coalesce in groups while the older sea lions go hunting. If you do see a sea lion pup, do not approach as you may cause stress or – even worse – provoke a nearby mother.
New Zealand has strict sealing legislation in place to help aid the conservation and breeding programs for the New Zealand sea lion and other marine life. The Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 has restrictions on holding or taking marine mammals, “whether alive or dead, in or from its natural habitat”. You can help conservation groups by identifying and reporting sightings.
Here are a few characteristics to look out for:
- Blunt nose and short whiskers
- One layer of ‘velvet’ fur
- Dark brown or black for the males/lighter, creamier color for the females
- Largest male specimens can grow to 400kg!
Thought to be the rarest type of penguin in the world, the yellow-eyed penguin is just another prime example of the sort of unique wildlife in New Zealand. Known as hoiho in the native Maori, they have just two main population bases in New Zealand and movement between them is rare.
First, there is the northern-based colony. They are located around the Banks Penisula on the South Island and Stewart Island and Rakiura regions. Unfortunately, these numbers are in serious decline due to lack of food, endemic disease, and all-new predators. The southern-based colony resides around the Auckland Islands and Cambell Island. There are almost double the number of breeding pairs in those parts.
Groups such as the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Penguin Rescue are working hard to protect this rare type of New Zealand bird. Various projects include:
- Monitoring and controlling predators
- Protecting habitats from human interference and pollution
- Disease and injury treatment in existing penguin colonies
- Starvation intervention
- Nest monitoring and protection
If you’re lucky enough to spot one of these little guys, be sure to keep your distance and admire them from afar.
The chevron skink looks like something plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel. It’s an amazing animal, with a distinct pattern down the whole of its back that mimics, well…chevrons. They point all the way from the tail to the top of the head in uniform divisions, colored in rich copper and dark brown – a pattern that really helps the critter meld in with its chosen habitat of decaying fern fronds and undergrowth.
The skink, as with many from its branch of evolution, like to reside close to a continuous source of water. That means they are mainly found in and around forest streams, hidden away in the nooks and crannies of natural dams or under rocks. Sadly, none of this happens on the main isles of NZ anymore, since the chevron skink only exists on the Great and Little Barrier islands about 100 clicks off central Auckland.
While booming population numbers might not be their strongpoint, the chevron skink does boast the title of New Zealand’s longest lizard. Brace yourselves: They can hit 30cm from end to end (yep, not that long!). However, they are unique in that they can make strange grunting noises, are excellent tree climbers, and were even thought to have been extinct for over 60 years!
Little blue penguin
New Zealand’s little penguin, also known as the little blue penguin, is the world’s smallest penguin. These guys weigh in at a mere 1kg and are just over 25cm tall. Their paddle-like flippers help them to fly and glide through the water, reaching speeds of 4mph in total.
Spotting these diminutive ocean birds can be tricky. However, there are organized tour groups that head out at Oamaru, Taiaroa Head, and other coastal areas in the South Island especially to go a-looking for them. They are best seen from the water, because they prefer sheltered spaces along the shore away from human settlements. Those found in the Wellington region are often part of research projects and are mostly tagged.
Despite its tiny size, the little blue penguin can be incredibly noisy, especially around breeding times. The main call is a loud bray with an inhalant squeal. There are also deep growls and a ’bark’ that is given when swimming. Similar to the yellow-eyed penguin, the little blue is part of the Wildlife Act and is a protected species. Various projects to protect the future of the little penguin include fencing off areas and providing nest boxes for breeding pairs.
Want to see a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs? The medium-sized reptile, tuatara, can only be found in New Zealand. Oh, and it has links to the Sphenodontia genus, which dates back some 200 million years. That’s older than even the T-rex, folks!
Tuatara is New Zealand’s largest reptile. They reach up to half a meter in length and can weigh in at 1.5kg. They range from orange-red to olive-green in color and shed their skin once a year. Males have a distinguishing crown of spines, running the length of the neck and going partway down the body, which fans out when courting females or fighting other males.
Now, here’s the weird bit: Unlike most reptiles, the tuatara doesn’t do well in hot conditions. Anything over 25C can be fatal to them. However, they can still survive in temperatures below 5C degrees by burrowing into the ground. Yep, there’s no doubt they deserve a place among the most unique wildlife in New Zealand!
A typical tuatara diet consists of insects, bugs, seabird eggs, and occasionally – urgh! – its own young. They do particularity well on the uninhabited offshore islands that string up the coast of North Island. Today, there are still significant populations in the Cook Strait and in the Pacific shoreline around Auckland.
Next up is the Maui dolphin, a subspecies of Hector’s dolphin. This is not only the world’s smallest dolphin but also one of the rarest. Despite the name, it’s nothing to do with America’s Aloha State. In fact, it can only be found on the West coast of the NZ North Island, from Maunganui Bluff to Whanganui. They are on the edge of extinction with an incredibly low population and they live in constant threat of fishing, over tourism, and pollution. It is estimated there are only 60-70 Maui dolphins over the age of 1-year left in the wild!
Similar to the kiwi bird, this dolphin is an important part of New Zealand’s heritage. Be sure to report any sightings to relevant conservation groups. Key features of the Maui and Hector’s dolphin are:
- A rounded black dorsal fin
- Distinctive grey, white, and black markings
- A short snout
- Females can reach 1.7m in length and weigh up to 50kg, whereas the males are slightly smaller
If you’re lucky to encounter these small dolphins, you are likely to see them in social groups typically segregated by sex. They are known to come fairly close to shore, sharing waters with fishing boats and tourism vessels.
There’s no doubt that the koura should be on this list of the most unique wildlife in New Zealand. There are actually two species of this crayfish, both of which are endemic to the country. They are well camouflaged and tend to move about under the cover of the night. The koura is a freshwater crayfish that can be found across New Zealand’s rivers, lakes, streams, and swamps.
Those found around Stewart Island and around the east coast of the South Island tend to be larger, reaching up to 80mm in length. They typically have hairy pincers and a gnarly exoskeleton. The koura around Marlborough and the North Island, meanwhile, tend to grow to around 70mm. During dry spells, these crayfish will burrow in between rocks and into riverbeds to wait for the next downpour (thankfully, that’s rarely very long in this part of the world!).
The koura are commonly known as “crawlies” by locals. However, despite this name, these crayfish get around pretty quick using their four legs, escaping predators and other threats. Their pincers are upfront and can pack a powerful punch for such a small creature. So, be wary if you try to fish one out of a river or lake!
Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who’d say that the Kākāpō is the real official bird of New Zealand. Yep, move over kiwi, this flightless parrot is hailed by conservationists and zoologists as a great symbol of the country’s unique biodiversity and downright odd native inhabitants. The reason you’ve probably never heard of it? There are only 199 left! Yep, this charming little critter is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
Thankfully, there are some pretty hefty conservation efforts underway to rejuvenate those numbers. They are all focused on the last known habitat of the Kakapo: Codfish Island, far at the southern end of South Island just a stone’s throw from equally remote Steward Island. A team of round-the-clock scientists are at work there nurturing reproduction and managing the habitat to ensure this amazing animal can survive to future generations.
And it really is amazing. The kakapo has distinct island syndrome, a strange evolutionary phenomenon that means it’s developed an extremely robust body and lost the ability to fly. They have an endearing look with a long, curved beak like the kea, along with a fan of lovely whiskers around the side of the head. Beautiful things.
The short-tailed bat is another certain addition to this selection of unique wildlife in New Zealand. Despite considerable population decline in recent decades, the species is still found in a number of select locations across the country. They include:
- The Northland
- Little Barrier Island
- Central North Island
- Whenua Hou/Codfish Island
The bats are mosey-grey and have pointed ears. When fully grown, they weigh a mere 12-15g. These bats are unique in how they catch their prey, too. Unlike standard bats who search for dinner in the air, the short-tailed bat has adapted to hunt at ground level. Because of this, they spend a lot of time in a vulnerable position on the forest floor. That’s been okay for them in NZ, though, thanks to the lack of any major stalking predators – at least until now!
These short-tailed bats are not fans of cold weather. When temperatures drop, they nestle down into their roosts and stick it out until things warm up again. There are currently several conservation projects in action across New Zealand to help the short-tail. Their aim is to protect the current communities and increase their numbers by establishing new populations. Forestry protection is the number one aim.
Behold the proud Kea. Anyone who’s ever hiked the peaks of the Southern Alps around Queenstown and Wanaka will know of these cheeky fliers. They’re not only among the most unique wildlife in New Zealand. They’re also up there with the cheekiest darn birds on the globe. (We recall a particularly hairy moment when a kea decided to chow down on the windscreen wipers of a brand-new campervan. The owners weren’t too pleased!).
The kea is classified as the only only alpine parrot on Earth. They reside in the forested midlands and highlands of the South Island. That brings them into contact with travelers a lot of the time, especially in key trekking areas and on scenic driving routes, like Arthur’s Pass and in the sub-glacial areas of the stunning Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.
Capable of clocking up 18 inches in height and nearly a kilogram in weight, the kea is no small bird. What’s more, its distinct personality only adds to the impression they bring to any encounter. Keas will often pose for photographs and beg for food. They’re also notorious thieves – one report told of a kea parrot that made away with a traveler’s passport down in the Fiordland, so be sure to keep those valuable close.
What is the rarest animal in New Zealand?
New Zealand is home to a number of critically endangered species. The short-tailed bat is one of the rarest animals in New Zealand. Their population count is unknown. The Maui dolphin might just be the rarest species in the oceans around NZ. Then you’ve got the elusive kakapo. One of the official national birds of New Zealand, they’re listed as nationally critical and critically endangered. It’s thought there’s only 200 or so left in the wild today.
What is the largest animal in New Zealand?
New Zealand’s waters host the only large mammals here. Blue whales are the largest of the lot, along with humpback whales and sperm whales. The east-coast town of Kaikoura is the best place to spot them. THere, a deep ocean canyon off the east coast of the South Island brings in food-rich currents from the Pacific.
Why are there no snakes in New Zealand?
Snakes simply never evolved on New Zealand. What’s more, no snake populations have been deposited on the islands by humans (at least not yet) and managed to establish significant populations. Once again, it’s all down to NZ’s remoteness and location out in the depths of the south Pacific.