Did you know that dinosaurs once roamed in New Zealand?
Considering New Zealand’s status as a country with virtually no dangerous wildlife, it’s tough to imagine that dinosaurs once roamed throughout the land. And it’s not just any dinosaurs either, as there’s evidence that the largest ever of these creatures once lived in New Zealand.
King of the dinosaurs
The Titanosaurid is the largest dinosaur ever known to have lived. The largest of this species was as long as 45 metres, and weighed as much as 45 tonnes. Fossils from this absolutely massive creature have been found in various places around the world, and it’s believed that they thrived between 83 and 65 million years ago.
In 2010, a fossil hunter found evidence that the Titanosaurid once roamed right here in New Zealand. Havelock North resident Dr Joan Wiffen uncovered the fossil after breaking open a rock she found while fossil-hunting in a tributary of the Te Hoe River. After slowly extracting the bone from the rock, she took it to a dinosaur expert from the Queensland Museum in Australia, who confirmed that it was from the massive Titanosaurid.
This shows that, even though it was probably 80 million years ago, the king of all dinosaurs once lived in what is now New Zealand.
New Zealand’s dinosaur hunters
Even though Dr Wiffen didn’t uncover a Titanosaurid bone until 2010, she’s been leading the charge in fossil hunting in New Zealand for years. Dr Wiffen and her group of amateur paleontologist friends discovered the country’s very first fossil back in the late 1970s, which was later identified as a tail bone of a theropod dinosaur by the same expert who would examine the Titanosaurid bone three decades later.
This small but passionate team would eventually uncover six separate species in the Mangahouanga Stream in the Hawke’s Bay, including sauropods and armoured dinosaurs.
One of the most exciting aspects about these finds is that they’re all relatively recent, having occurred within the last 50 years. That means there’s a strong chance that there are countless more fossils waiting to be found throughout the region, and possibly all over the country.
New Zealand’s living dinosaur
While we look at the bones of dinosaurs that once lived in New Zealand, we must not forget our very own living dinosaur – the Tuatara.
Perhaps fortunately, the Tuatara is roughly the size of a large rat (up to 24 cm), so it won’t be a terrifying experience should you ever run into one in the wild. Only found in New Zealand, it’s said that this reptile is a ‘living fossil’, as it’s part of the Order Sphenodontia family that lived approximately 200 million years ago.
This makes the Tuatara one of the world’s oldest species, and one of New Zealand’s most special. Sadly, the Tuatara is quite rare and can usually only be found in wildlife sanctuaries and zoos, where they are kept safe from predators and given a secure environment in which to breed. Through the eradication of pests and the reintroduction of Tuatara on some island sanctuaries, there are a handful of places where Tuatara exist in the wild – but you’d be lucky to spot one!
What bats can you find in New Zealand?
You might not think New Zealand is a place where you would find bats, but these cute winged creatures are actually the country’s only native mammal species. There once were three species in existence around the country, but sadly the greater short tailed bat is now believed to be extinct.
That said, we still have two fantastic bat species in New Zealand; the long-tailed bat, and the short-tailed bat.
The long-tailed bat
Long-tailed bats are the more common of the two species, although they are still far rarer than most of us would like. Their fur is a rich brown colour, and they have short ears and a tail hidden in a membrane between their back legs. Unfortunately, it’s still quite unlikely that you would see one in the wild as they come out at dusk to hunt.
This species feeds solely on flying insects, and research has shown that they don’t often roost in the same place more than once, which makes them particularly difficult to find.
The short-tailed bat
The short-tailed bat is only found in a few places around the country, and is identifiable with pale grey fur, a short stumpy tail, and long pointy ears. They will eat just about anything – from insects and fruit to seeds and nectar – and don’t tend to fly well after dusk.
One of the most interesting aspects of New Zealand’s short-tailed bat species is that it’s the only one in the world that forages for food on the ground. They can do this because of wings that can completely fold down so that the elbow part can be used as front legs, and also because the hind legs have small claws. For this reason, you’ll rarely see them more than 10 metres above ground.
What makes NZ birds so precious?
It’s no exaggeration when we call New Zealand a twitcher’s paradise. We are known as the seabird capital of the world, and are one of the few places with so many flightless birds, too.
There are roughly 200 bird species in the country, of which 90 or so are endemic. This high number of birds that you won’t find anywhere else in the world is due to a very special set of circumstances throughout the entire course of New Zealand’s history.
Before humans came to New Zealand
An estimated 80 million years ago, continental drift saw New Zealand move away from Gondwanaland, and effectively set itself up as an isolated breeding ground for new and exciting species.
For some reason that scientists are still struggling to explain, no mammals (apart from three bat species) ever managed to evolve here. This means that there were no possums, cats, stoats, or larger mammals to threaten birds and insects.
Emerging bird species were therefore allowed to thrive and grow. The country was something of a sanctuary where there we no predators, and therefore normally ‘weaker’ species such as flightless birds were able to survive. On top of this, the natural flora allowed plentiful food sources close to, or on the ground, offering flightless birds an array of dining options within easy reach.
What happened once humans arrived
Humans arrived in New Zealand roughly 800 years ago, and sadly, this caused a major disruption to the native birdlife.
Since then, approximately 50 bird species have become extinct, such as the striking moa, which was a relation to Australia’s emu. According to the Department of Conservation, the extinction rate of endemic land birds in the country is 34 per cent, which is extremely high.
While some of this loss is attributed to deforestation and even hunting, the majority of the threat comes from the introduction of predators. Early settlers introduced possums to diversify the fauna and create a fur trade, while cats, stoats, and rabbits were all also brought to the country.
With this, the thus-far unthreatened birdlife of New Zealand saw a surge in hungry, powerful pests that decimated populations by preying on eggs and nests. As they had evolved without any defences against such attacks, there was little they could do to survive.
New Zealand birds today
Today, more than a third of our bird species are considered threatened, but the efforts towards conservation and awareness have been exponentially improved.
The last time a bird became extinct was back in 1907 when the world said goodbye to its very last huia.
Despite the losses, New Zealand is still home to an incredible array of birds that you won’t find anywhere else. Our national icon, the flightless kiwi, has more than 90 groups dedicated to its conservation, and there are now approximately 68,000 kiwis left in the country – we usually see one during our Tawharanui night-time tours from Auckland roughly 70 per cent of the time.
Other species, such as the takahe (once thought to be extinct), the stitch bird, the black stilt, the kokako, and the pateke, are all the focus of major conservation programmes designed to rehabilitate these populations so that twitchers can enjoy this natural paradise for years to come.
Tristan Cullen - Passionate Conservationist