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New Zealand: The Land of Giants | Thulitha Abayawardhana | Auckland

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Giants in New Zealand? No, and it’s not about the All Blacks. This article is actually about New Zealand’s giant animals, which are Zoologically termed as Megafauna. Although we don’t see many large animals here now, the land was once home to giant creatures that dwarfed their cousins living elsewhere.

Some of you may have heard of the Moa, a large flightless bird that once roamed New Zealand. There were nine of them. The largest one was the South Island Giant Moa (Dinornis robustus) growing as tall as three metres. The Moas, which were once abundant, were hunted to extinction after the arrival of humans. It is estimated that by 1445 A.D, they were all gone.

Even before the humans, the Moa had a natural predator. A giant eagle named the Haast’s Eagle (Aquila moorei). With a wingspan of three metres, it was the largest species of eagle that ever lived. Some say this eagle is what inspired the Maori legend, Pouakai, a monstrous bird that devoured humans. However, as their prey, the Moa went extinct so did they. So, by the 1400s they were gone too.

New Zealand was once a birds’ paradise. Before the arrival of humans, they had the land all to themselves. So, no wonder they had all the space and time to grow into absurd sizes. Two such examples were a giant parrot and a penguin. The Hercules Parrot (Heracles inexpectatus) grew up to about 1 metre in length. Due to its sheer size, it was probably flightless. The penguin Pachydyptes ponderosus stood as tall as 1.6 metres, taller than an average human child. Both these birds lived and went extinct millions of years ago, long before the arrival of humans.

All is not lost. We can still boast about a few giants left. For instance, the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), the world’s heaviest parrot. Its immense weight has even made it flightless. There’s even another surprise to this parrot heavyweight. Instead of the usual screeching noise other parrots make, Kakapo makes a long booming sound heard throughout the forest, specifically used as a mating call.

There are a few unique organisms among the invertebrates as well. Among the numerous species of Weta, a flightless ground cricket, 11 of them are giants. Out of these 11 species the largest is Wetapunga (Deinacrida heteracantha), which can fit into your palm. Then there’s the North Auckland Worm, an earthworm that can be at least 1.4 metres long. To make it even more bizarre, it can glow in the dark.

We may have lost many megafauna on land, but the sea is yet to reveal its treasures. Up to date, the largest Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) was discovered in the New Zealand waters in 2007. If you are visiting Te Papa Museum in Wellington, remember to check out the preserved specimen of this squid. In fact, the museum holds possession of two more complete specimens of this species found in 2003 and 2014.

New Zealand is home to another giant cousin of the Colossal Squid, which is the Giant Squid (Architeuthis dux). Giant Squids have been frequently reported around the country, mostly as corpses that washed ashore. Even the largest ever specimen in the world was recorded back in 1887.

The strangest-looking sea giant of them all could be the Pyrosome. This distant invertebrate relative of us and other vertebrates is actually a colony of tiny organisms rather than a single one. Shaped like a large tube, it can grow up to eight metres in length. A footage of the Pyrosome recorded in 2018 near White Island sparked quite the buzz among nature enthusiasts back then.

The largest animal ever to live on the planet calls New Zealand its home as well. It is none other than the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus). It has been discovered that there’s a genetically unique colony of blue whales living around New Zealand throughout the year.

So how did these species become so big? It is due to a biological phenomenon called the Island Gigantism. Isolated from the rest of the world with the lack of competition and predation, New Zealand has provided an environment for certain species to evolve into sizes larger than their relatives living elsewhere.

All these tales of giants from the past and present tell us one thing. That is, New Zealand is a unique ecosystem that hosts species found nowhere else. Once the Moa and the Haast’s Eagle went extinct due to overhunting. Now, the Kakapo and Weta are threatened by the predators introduced by humans. Before our remaining treasures go extinct, it is our duty to protect the fascinating wildlife of this country as its residents.

By Thulitha Abayawardhana – Auckland

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