So as my plane flies over the desert somewhere in the southwestern United States, let me briefly answer the question: Why New Zealand? The simple explanation is that I have always loved animals, and the more endangered and odd the more intriguing. Tectonic history sets New Zealand apart - in the most literal sense - in creating the ultimate haven to capture my fascination.
The last time the two islands of New Zealand (today known as North Island and South Island) were connected to another land mass was more than 70 millions year ago - the waning days of dinosaurs' reign over Earth. While marsupials evolved and spread across the Australian island, no species of mammals inhabited New Zealand. The Tuatara - a lizard that represents the oldest, still-living reptilian link to the time of the dinosaurs - survives into present day, but no predatory reptiles or amphibians called this island nation home. As a result, the hundreds of bird species that became isolated in the far south Pacific were left alone with no natural threats. New Zealand became the world's largest, and over time most eclectic, aviary.
Darwin adopted the phrase "survival of the fittest" to explain evolution. But the birds of New Zealand had no reason to be fit. Flight is presumed to be an evolutionary alternative for feathered creatures who could not fight, and until the Maori arrived from Polynesia during the 13th century, there were no reasons for these birds to flee. For numerous species, foraging on forest floors was a suitable solution for food; with no need to go airborne, the likes of the Takahe and the Kakapo ultimately lost their ability to fly. The Kiwi, New Zealand's national symbol, lost its wings altogether.
So in a sense, these birds returned to their evolutionary roots. As many biologists believe that birds are the direct descendents of dinosaurs - notably raptors and, hard enough to believe, tyrannosaurus - it makes sense that the feathers of the Kiwi resemble texture and composition of the fossilized plumage found on the earliest links between the traditionally thought of 'dinosaur' and the modern day 'bird.' The bulky red beak of the Takahe does look prehistoric.
These species can be found nowhere else on Earth, and few can even be found in New Zealand at this point. Uninhibited when invasive dogs and rats were brought by colonialists in recent centuries, these birds were decimated. The Kakapo have only recently reentered triple digits in universal population, and the Takahe - believed for 50 years to be extinct - only numbers around 250.
Others are gone entirely. The Moa, a flightless bird that easily exceeded the height of today's tallest bird the ostrich, once roamed across both islands. It's only threat was the Haast's Eagle, once the world's largest eagle; this gigantic raptor would swoop down from the skies and tear into the terrestrial Moa from the side. When the Moa succumbed to the Maori and European settlers, the Haast's Eagle went extinct in turn.
|A Haast's Eagle attacking a Moa, as portrayed at a New Zealand museum.|
While these incredible species have gone the way of nevermore, they still embody what makes New Zealand special for someone like me. There is no equivalent to the Moa today, and only through gigantism (the evolutionary consequence of having no predators; with no reason to hide, the bird grew larger and larger over millions of years) did it achieve such notoriety. The Haast's Eagle has a similarly fascinating evolution. According to DNA tests, it was most closely related to some of the smallest species of eagles in the world. Within a million years - an extraordinarily short time span relatively speaking - it became humongous.
The author of the latest edition of Frommers New Zealand, a native "Kiwi" herself, laments that outside of the Kakapo, Takahe, and Kiwi, her homeland doesn't "have anything very exciting in the way of wildlife." I could not disagree more, and over the next week I will hopefully send photos of other odd and unique birds that will intrigue you.
All of this goes without mentioning the amazingly diverse ecosystems that can be found between the two islands, and I am excited to share with you some breathtaking scenery.
My descent into Los Angeles is imminent, and my laptop battery has entered the red zone. My next post will be from the other side of the world.
Until then, as the locals say in Maori tradition, "Kia ora!" (The closest equivalent to this is "Aloha.")