HOTSPOT: New Zealand



MOA. There were 6 species of moa, all extinct by the 15th century due to hunting and habitat loss.

KAKAPO. Ciritically-endangered, only 126 surviving individuals are known.

HAAST EAGLE. Extinct 1400s due to loss of moa

Please note that you can navigate to subtopics by clicking on a slideshow photo above.


New Zealand is a special case in terms of faunal evolution, devoid of terrestrial mammals due to a turn of fate in continental drift.

Instead of elk or deer, New Zealand had moa as large grazers.   Instead of wolves or tigers, New Zealand had the great eagle as their top-tier predators.  Instead of rabbits and rats, New Zealand had the kiwi and the kakapo as ground foragers.

The famous, unified landmass of Gondwana existed as of about 200 million years ago. What became New Zealand was mostly inundated by the sea, wedged between what later became Australia and Antarctica. Over Gondwana’s lifetime, the mineral basement of New Zealand was formed, and plants and animals pioneered this new turf. 50-80million years ago, the Tasman Sea formed, isolating what was to become New Zealand as an independent land.

This early division from the other continents was key in making New Zealand the unique and diverse land it is today. Mammals were but a twinkle in the eye of reptilian ancestors when New Zealand set sail as an independent, isolated land. This little ‘ship’ carried reptiles, amphibians, and primitive birds. Only later would bats fly across to New Zealand. In a similar way, more evolved families of birds later rejoined the more primitive bird families already established in New Zealand.

New Zealand, with its massive tree ferns, still has the appearance of a more primitive land...

Despite the later introduction of many nonnative species, today one still gets a sense of New Zealand’s unique faunal composition. New Zealand has 90 endemic birds. To humans so familiar with a mammal-inhabited world, many of these bird species seem to make no evolutionary sense: “Did they evolve just to be food?—like some kinds of fleshy fruit that succeed biologically by being consumed and dispersed in faeces…?”   Of course not, but poor New Zealand birds didn’t have exposure to so many of the predators found elsewhere and had other priority evolutionary pressures.

Relative to other countries, New Zealand seems to have better understood the importance of their biodiversity to the nation’s future. This awareness is fairly logical. Tourism is an incredibly powerful force in New Zealand, worth some 20 billion dollars annually. These tourists largely arrive in New Zealand with the expectation of getting to see some pristine panoramas and possibly some kiwis. Agriculture is worth a further 12 billion dollars per year. New Zealand’s herds and crops depend on water and soil quality, pollinator health, carbon storage, etc.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, with which I interned from 15 December through 15 January, is a very active force across the entire country. I got to see a wide range of DOC’s work, both during my internship and during the travel break I took afterwards [see linked blogs]. My initial impression was entirely impressed: NZ foments ecotourism, facilitates science and restoration work through their seemingly omnipresent reserves, and both literature and DOC staff consistently have a conservation focus.

The gate to some popular trails in Boundary Streams, the DOC site where I volunteered. This piece represents one of the many, visible signs of the recognition by the NZ govt that Maori peoples should be included in land management decisions.

With further experience, my perspective of NZ conservation of course became more nuanced. Of the 5819 plant and animal species found in New Zealand, over half of them are still considered vulnerable. New Zealand has already lost over 40 bird, 3 frog, 1 bat, 3 lizard, and as-yet uncounted insect species to extinction. I learned that the political party in power is known for their poor environmental record. Many people argue that, whilst “outdoorsy”, New Zealand tourism as currently managed is more environmentally-destructive than helpful. There exists much controversy around Maori involvement in land management; and the government is making some efforts to include Maori iwi in these processes as part of larger reparation-like activities. Also, though I still admire all the incredible work performed by DOC, there of course is much complaint [as perennial against government institutions] that DOC is prohibitively bureaucratic!

I have some already-published pages on New Zealand conservation issues, here attached. I will continue to publish a back-log of blog ideas. The comments section is now enabled, so please let me know any questions, comments, critiques, etc. you might have.


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© Copyright Emma Steigerwald | Vanderbilt Traveling Fellow