New Zealand’s remote location has made its wildlife exceptional. The outlying sub-Antarctic islands are amongst the wildest, least disturbed, places on Earth. In fact, the collection of archipelagos remained unsettled by humans (and other mammals) for so long that its native animals often have characteristics unlike any others on the planet.
Because New Zealand stayed free of land-based mammalian predators for millennia, the islands were populated with a huge collection of unique birds and an ancient menagerie of reptiles and amphibians. Since humans didn’t settle and overhunt the remote islands, their waters remained stocked with marine life.
For travelers with a penchant for animal encounters, its history, and its location have made New Zealand a quietly mesmerizing destination. And, there is plenty to explore: Over 20% of the country is in national parks, forests, and reserves. In fact, New Zealand has three UNESCO World Heritage (Natural) Areas: Tongariro National Park, Te Wahipounamu, and the aforementioned sub-Antarctic islands.
So, before packing your bags for a New Zealand cruise, it’s worth getting familiar with some of New Zealand’s most phenomenal fauna in order to keep an eye out for an experience unavailable anywhere else on the planet.
Though the tropics get more press about bird varieties, New Zealand offers up a mottled flock of avian anomalies that should wow any birder. Due to a lack of predators, several species of flightless birds evolved. Seabirds are numerous and distinct. And, then, there are just plain old land and freshwater birds that are anything but plain.
- Kiwis are the animal icon of New Zealand, so much so that New Zealanders are often called “kiwis.” Five species of the flightless bird roam the landscape. They have long, thin beaks. Their wings are underdeveloped and rest atop plump bodies. The birds lack tails, and their feathers are more hair-like than vibrant plumage. They can live up 50 years, but due to introduced predators such as domestic cats, dogs, and stoats, kiwis are now struggling to survive. Serious efforts are underway to protect these birds.
- Wekas are big, brown, and boisterous. The four species are infamously inquisitive and fierce. Typically heard rather than seen, they are completely protected on the mainland. They were part of some Iwi (Maori) diets, and Europeans referred to them as “woodhens.” They have the reputation as being thieves of crops and small objects, which they’ll take to the nearest shelter for investigation.
- Kākāpōs are green, flightless, nocturnal parrots. They are critically endangered and unique to New Zealand. They live to be 90 years old, making them possibly the longest living bird species in the world. Though unable to fly, they are tremendous climbers, and the lighter females can glide for a few yards. Unfortunately, they are not prolific breeders, and they are lek breeders, meaning the males don’t help in rearing the young. Less than 200 kākāpōs remain.
- Takahes live in the Murchison mountains in Fiordland. They were able to survive in such harsh conditions because cats, dogs, and ferrets weren’t around, nor were people. They forage in alpine grasslands and must eat all day to stay nourished. They are attractive birds, with black feathers that reveal a shimmery blue-green atop their bodies. With the establishment of deer, a food competitor, and stoats, a takahe predator, the wild population of these birds is increasingly in question.
- Albatross have 22 species, 11 of which breed in New Zealand, making it the most diverse breeding grounds for albatross in the world. Albatross are the largest seabird on the planet, and New Zealand’s population includes the southern royal albatross and wandering albatross, the two largest species of the albatross. They grow to be almost four feet long, average 20 pounds and have a wingspan of about ten feet. These birds flock to the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand.
- Blue ducks are endemic to New Zealand and only found here. Their population has dwindled to under 3,000 due to habitat loss and predation from introduced species. The Maori revere these birds, which they call whio (pronounced fee-oh) to mimic that call of the male birds. They are one of the few water birds that live on year-round on fast-flowing rivers, used as a means of evading predators.
- Westland petrels are yet another breed endemic to New Zealand. While the main islands used to have several types of burrowing petrels, most fell victim to predation. Westland petrels, however, are large and plucky, which kept them somewhat safe. These birds nest exclusively on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and they weren’t discovered until the 1940s.
- Penguins are also a common sight and thirteen of the world’s eighteen penguin species have been recorded in the New Zealand region. Notable species include yellow-eyed, Snare’s crested, and Fiordland penguins (all New Zealand endemics), as well as little, king, Gentoo, eastern rockhopper, and royal penguins.
- Keas are the only alpine parrots on the planet, and they are considered amongst the brainiest of birds. They get into mischief in campgrounds, doing things like learning to turn on taps and locking mountaineers in the toilet. Stoats have ravaged these exceptional parrots, as have other issues such a lead poisoning. The birds are olive green with some orange on their backsides and beneath their wings, a tinge of dusty blue on the wingtips.
- Tuis are the largest members of a family of “honeyeaters,” and they are common in New Zealand, particularly where fruits and flowers are abundant. They are beautiful birds with beautiful songs and the ability to mimic the calls of other birds. Early colonists called them mockingbirds. Though they appear black at first, their feathers actually have several shimmering colors that change depending on how the light hits them. They feed primarily on the nectar of native flowers.
- Morepork owls garner fame due to their mournful calls, which account for their Maori name: ruru. These birds are found throughout the main islands and offshore islands of New Zealand. They mostly inhabit forested areas, and they’ll begin calling at dusk and often continue through the night. They are speckled brown and have alarming large, yellow eyes. Interestingly, female morepork owls are larger than the males.
Though the world doesn’t think of New Zealand as a hotbed of reptilian action, the reptiles and amphibians it does have are rare. They tend to have a very ancient, somewhat unevolved twitch about them. This makes spotting a reptile, frog, or lizard in New Zealand a thrilling experience.
- Tuataras are medium-sized reptiles (about 20 inches long and three-plus pounds) that date back to the age of dinosaurs, around 200 million years ago. Males have spines down their necks and backs. Their coloring runs from green to brown to orange. They are unusual reptiles because they don’t like the heat and can’t live at temperatures over 77°F, but they can take temperatures below 40°F. Also, they grow for about 35 years and live, on average, to be 60.
- Frogs native to New Zealand are a bit more primitive than those in the rest of the world. They have changed very little in the last 70 million years. There are four species: Archey’s, Hamilton’s, Hochstetter's, and Maud Island. All of them are distinct from frogs in other countries because they have round eyes, lack external eardrums, don’t croak, and skip the tadpole stage. Beyond these, there are three species of frogs that have been introduced to the country.
- Geckos are part of the lizard family, and New Zealand has close to 40 different varieties. Geckos have some interesting traits. They vocalize mostly by chirping. They can’t blink, so they keep their eyes moist by licking them. And, they are able to drop and regenerate their tails. New Zealand’s geckos are unique because they give birth to live young rather than lay eggs, and they also have long lifespans. One gecko lived to be over 40 years old.
- Skinks are the only other types of lizard found in New Zealand. There are several species, including Otago skinks and Chesterfield skinks. Chesterfield skinks were discovered in the 1990s, and only about 200 of them remain. They have incredibly strong tails that they’ll curl atop their bodies. Otago skinks are New Zealand’s largest at almost a foot long, and they have notable color patterns that make them stand-out amongst the other skinks. Unfortunately, these may be extinct in the next decade.
Secluded islands spell the perfect setting for marine mammals to get comfortable, and they have been doing so in and around New Zealand for a long time. Over half the world species of dolphins and whales frequent the waters around New Zealand, particularly around the sub-Antarctic islands. Seals and sea lions also show up in impressive numbers.
- Dolphins are plentiful around New Zealand. In fact, there are nine different species, including more familiar types like orcas and bottlenose, as well as exclusive breeds, such Hector’s and Māui dolphins. The Hector’s and Māui (a subspecies of Hector’s dolphin) are the smallest dolphins in the world, and they are only found in New Zealand waters. They are easily recognizable because of their rounded dorsal fins.
- True seals can’t turn their hind flippers frontwards, and fur is present on both sides of the flipper. New Zealand has two examples of true seals: leopard and southern elephant. Normally, these large seals are associated with the oceans and islands of Antarctica. Leopard seals have spotted skin, slinky bodies, and intimidating teeth. Elephant seals, as their name suggests, are the largest seals on the planet, and even more true to their name, the males have a snout that looks like a short elephant trunk.
- New Zealand sea lions also known as Hooker’s sea lions, are classified as eared seals, as opposed to true seals, because they have external ears, the ability to turn their hind flippers forward, and a lack of fur on the underside of their flippers. New Zealand sea lions and New Zealand fur seals are the two varieties of eared seals that can be spotted on the islands. New Zealand sea lions are amongst the rarest sea lions in the world, and New Zealand fur seals, also known as kekeno, are the most common seal in New Zealand.
- Whales are another large, the largest actually, marine mammal to be found in the seas. In fact, blue whales, the largest whale of all, are known to swim in the waters around New Zealand. Humpbacks are common and beloved for their songs and tendency to breach. The distinctive-looking sperm whale hangs around Kaikoura, a deep ocean canyon, all year. And, southern right whales have a population center around the sub-Antarctic islands.
New Zealand has an assorted number of invertebrates that spread out in many habitats, from oceans to freshwater streams to grasslands and forests. While there isn’t the space to delve into all of them here, they are worth investigating. In the group, there are some of the largest snails in the world, “living fossils” that have not changed for over 500 million years, and macroinvertebrates so small they can’t be seen without a magnifying glass.
- Wētās have been around since the time of dinosaurs, and they are the symbol of invertebrate conservation for New Zealand. There are 70-plus species of wētā, and they resemble katydids and/or crickets. They are classified into five categories: Tree, Ground, Cave, Giant, and Tusked. Sixteen of the species are endangered, and several species have been wiped out on the mainland islands and are only found offshore nowadays. Wētās are now exclusive to New Zealand.
Native Land Mammals
Natively speaking, land mammals aren’t much of feature in New Zealand. The islands only have one native land mammal. However, many domesticated and invasive species have been introduced to the islands since humans arrived. Unfortunately, these introduced species have wreaked havoc on the native ecosystem, and they have multiplied very successfully.
- Bats are actually the only “land” mammal native to New Zealand, and this, of course, is because they can fly. Only three species—long-tailed, lesser short-tailed, and greater short-tailed—originally inhabited the islands. Of those, the great short-tail bat is now thought to be extinct, the long-tailed bat is classified as “nationally critical,” and the lesser short-tailed is endangered. The lesser short-tailed bat is distinctive to New Zealand but is now only found in a few locations.
Invasive species have proven a huge issue in New Zealand, and many native animals have already gone extinct due to habitat loss, food competition, and especially predation. According to Maggie Barry, the conservation minister, introduced species account for over 25 million native bird deaths a year. In 2016, New Zealand’s government announced the intention to remove invasive mammals from the country by 2050.
- Common brushtail possums are an import from Australia. They are a major threat to agriculture, particularly cattle and deer ranches because they spread bovine tuberculosis. They are also food competition with native birds and are known to opportunistically eat their eggs as well.
- Stoats are members of the weasel family and were introduced from Britain, where they range naturally. They were being used in an effort to control the rabbit population, another mammal introduced by Europeans. Though scientists warned that stoats would go after birds as well, the warnings were ignored. Big mistake.
- Wallabies resemble kangaroos, only smaller, and are another Australian animal that has migrated to New Zealand and cause problems. There are now large populations of a few different species, and they are food competitors with native animals, such as the kiwi.
- Fallow deer were introduced to New Zealand in the mid-1800s, and now six other species of deer are on the islands: red, wapiti, sika, sambar, rusa, and white-tailed. They cause serious problems with the native flora (and fauna) because they browse selectively. Deer, particularly red deer, are actively farmed in New Zealand.
- Rats are infamously invasive and cause catastrophes on islands. New Zealand has three species: the ship rat, the Norway rat, and the Polynesian rat. Because rats are legendary breeders and omnivores, they damage the ecosystem something awful. They eat birds, snails, lizards, insects, and larvae, as well as seeds, fruit, and flowers.
New Zealand is already famous for its landscape and for being the film set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The hiking and outdoor activities there are nothing short of inspiring. And, now, we all know that the animals deserve some attention as well. They will undoubtedly add to the enjoyment of exploring New Zealand’s lush and lovely islands.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.