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An Extraordinary Land

Discoveries and Mysteries From Wild NZ

Peter Hayden

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Birds and insects are all nocturnal. Even insects have a fear response to overhead shadow. (The bluff weta has a spectacular tactic - rolls into a ball and flings itself off down a bank). The parrrots typically have drab plumage, unlike cousins in other lands. The kea has flashy feathers to attract mates, but under it's wings, so not visible to aerila predator. Everything is hard-wired to evade a predator that no longer exists.

NZ had two birds which were apex predators - a swamp harrier hawk, and Haasts' eagle. The eagle had a wingspan of 3 metres (twice that of any living eagle) and weighed up to 15 kg, right at the upper limits of a bird's flight. They preyed on moa, crushing either their neck or pelvis. Because no big cat carnivores, eagle cd remain at its kill for several days.

Pohutukawa and rata are, like eucalyptus, myrtles. Myrtles have spectacular flowers and leaves with aromatic oils. Eucalypts have co-existed with possums in Australia for millenia, and have evolved toxins in their leaves to stop possums feeding on them. But pohutukawa and rata have no such protection.

Possums feed on young shoots and leaves until the tree has run out of energy to produce more, and dies. Possums reached Northland in the 1970s and caused so much destruction that by 1989 just 10% of the originalcoastal pohutukawa forests remained.

Whitebait grow into one of 5 different species of nativeriver fish called galaxiids (they all have tiny spots on their backs that reminded an early observer of stars in galaxies). NZ has 18 species of galaxiids, half of which go to sea as larvae (far more plankton to eat) and half (the very smallest ones) stay in river, and so never feature in whitebait catches.

Geoffrey Orbell was an Invercargill surgeon obsessed with finding Takahe, which had been classed as extinct since 1898. Most were sure they were gone forever. On a deerstalking trip in 1948he found a strange footprint in a remote Te Anau valley. He went back to the spot with a movie camera, and was trying to figure out how he would find the maker, when a takahe nonchanantly walked out in front of him. The bird was unafraid, and stayed there as he filmed. Just as he finished, another takahe strolled round the bush - a breeding pair!

There is a fossil lake in Central Otago that existed 20 million years ago. More like an inland sea, it was 10 times the size of Lake Taupo. It had a sub-tropical climate like the far North, and supported crocodiles and giant turtles as well as the more familiar NZ moas and kiwi. We know of the lake and its size bc people exploited the low grade lignite coal. Lignite is a soft coal, formed not from buried forests, but from buried lake reeds.

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