Monday, February 1, 2010

What Makes New Zealand So Special?

I've been excited about visiting New Zealand since I was in high school and the first Lord of the Rings movies were released.  I was captivated by the amazing scenery, and I enjoyed watching the documentaries about filming the movie in NZ as much as I enjoyed the movies themselves.

Mt. Ngauruhoe, inspiration for film version of Mt. Doom, photo by Don Swanson, 1984

Since I made the decision to go to New Zealand, I've tried to learn a little about the land and its native species.  I've lived my entire life in New York and New Jersey in the United States.  My frame of reference, my concept of "outside," is a forest of oak and pine or maple and beech, or a gorge lined with hemlock.  I expect to see grey squirrels in the oak trees, white-tailed deer wandering through the pines, and blue jays zooming through the canopy (or terrorizing the chickadees).

New Zealand is completely different (not surprisingly--it is on the other side of the globe).  What is surprising are the extent to which and the reasons why it is unique.

Coromandel rainforest, photo by James Shook, 2005

Click the link below for more about New Zealand's otherworldly ecology!

First, New Zealand's plants are something out of a science fiction movie.
  1. You can't see this anywhere else.  Nearly 80% of NZ's ~2,500 native species of conifers, flowering trees, and ferns occur only in NZ.
  2. Not all leaves are green.  Some plants in New Zealand have leaves with pigments other than chlorophyll, such as the mountain horopito (red) and young lancewood (brown).
  3. Cross-species luvin'.  White pines make baby white pines.  A white pine and a scotch pine can't make a baby hybrid pine.  In NZ, though, there are an unusually high number of species in the same genus that can make hybrid offspring.
  4. Humans aren't the only species with strange looking adolescents.  While it's relatively common for juvenile animals to look different from their adult counterparts, NZ has an unusually large number of plants that follow the same pattern (see lancewood, again).
  5. Divaricating:  it's not a medical diagnosis.  Imagine a shrub that looks like a sponge:  small leaves, twisting, interlocked, dense twigs.  That's the form of a divaricating shrub, which is an uncommon shrub form that happens to be common in NZ.
  6. Flowers like a lady.  Many flowers rely on flashy, brightly colored petals and sweet smelling nectars to attract pollinating insects.  NZ has an unusually large number of plants that pollinate via the wind; thus, many NZ flowers are small and understated.
Second, New Zealand animals generally don't act like you expect they would.
  1. Mammals don't exist.  Ok, that's an exaggeration:  there are three species of native bat.  The lack of native predators has allowed for the evolution of flightless birds (nothing to eat them!) and other species.
  2. Birds don't fly.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a flightless bird (heh).  Besides the national symbol, the kiwi bird, NZ is or was home to weka, kakapo, moa, and penguins.  Penguins! 
  3. Frogs don't come from tadpoles.  Unlike North American frogs, NZ frogs don't go through a tadpole stage.
  4. Lizards don't come from eggs.  NZ geckos and skinks are born live (with the exception of one species).
  5. Animals are not trying to kill you.  Your changes of getting eaten, bitten, or stung in NZ are pretty low.  No large mammals; no venomous snakes; only one poisonous spider.
  6. Except the giant, carnivorous snails.  Just kidding.  The giant, carnivorous snails won't eat you, unless you're a giant, carnivorous snail.
  7. Oh yeah, don't forget...  flies that no longer fly (the New Zealand batfly); grasshoppers that swim instead of hop (the weta); and bats that can walk around on the forest floor with the stumps of their wings (the short-tailed bat).
Little penguin (blue penguin), photo by Tanya Dropbear, 2007

How did New Zealand become home to so many unique plants and animals?  Talk about isolated:  the last time the NZ islands were in physical and ecological contact with another land mass, dinosaurs ruled the planet, the landmass now knows as India was located just west of the landmass now known as Australia; and flowers had only existed for 30 million years or so.  After separation from the ancient continent of Gondwana 80-100 million years ago, flora and fauna had a long time to evolve in response to NZ's unique environment, without outside influence.  New Zealand was the last major land mass to be settled by humans.

The sum of these unique features is greater than the individual characteristics alone.  The interactions between the living creatures (the trees, ferns, grasses, mosses, birds, lizards, spiders, fungi, and so on), non-living aspects of the environment (the weather patterns, micro-climates, topography, soils, and so on), and with the human-instigated effects on the environment (introduced non-native and invasive species, deforestation, water and air pollution, changes to topography and watersheds, and so on) create ecology.

Milford Sound, photo by Thorney, 2005

I am so excited to have the opportunity to experience this amazing land and its ecology!


Dave's New Year present to me was the book Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest.  This is a field guide, so there is a lot of information about genus and species identification, but it also has a great focus on ecology and natural systems.  The introduction of this book was the main source for this post.  Highly recommended!

The New Zealand Department of Conservation has an incredible website with information about native plants and animals and threats to them.

The fonts on this site are funky, but what's not funky about penguins?  New Zealand Penguins is a great resource dedicated to my favorite flightless marine bird.