When I came to New Zealand, Karen a friend who I met in the Philippines, asked me to send her a picture of a New Zealand spotted milking cow. It says a lot about the stereotypes that New Zealand portrays to the world. Not surprising really as there are some 20 million sheep here (and only 4 million people) and an awful lot of cattle, both of which contribute to the largest industry in New Zealand and the number one export. So in a tribute to Karen here are some certified New Zealand "baka at tupa":
A Baka (Think Anchor butter) ..... and ..... Tupa (Think Lamb Chops)
But New Zealand was not always like this. Prior to the arrival of Humans, the only mammals found in New Zealand were a few species of bats. Then Man started to arrive ... first the Māori's who arrived from the Polynesian islands such as Tahiti, some 600 years ago, who brought along Rats, Mice and Dogs. Then the europeans arrived ... spearheaded by the British, who introduced a whole host of mammals to New Zealand. Some were brought here by accident (Rats, Insects); Some for Food (Rabbits); Some to make money (Possums); Some as pets (Feral Cats); Some to control the Insects, Rabbits and Possums who promptly bred out of control without predators (Sparrows, Stoats, Ferrets, Weasels). Then there was a host of flora which arrived, a lot of which was introduced to "mimic" the natural British landscape ... think heather and Scottish thistle. And Finally the European settlers went about burning the natural landscape to make ways for farms. The impact of all of this, not surprisingly, was the decimation of New Zealand's ecosystem.
The genus that has suffered the most was the one that made the most out of the lack of mammals ... Birds. Birds evolved to fill almost every ecological niche in New Zealand, the most famous of which is the Kiwi who became the ground scavengers of new zealand filling the niche that small land mammals fill in Europe such as anteaters and hedgehogs. Consequently, Kiwi's are more characteristic of small mammals than of birds: They have a well developed sense of smell and hearing, a face covered with whiskers, shaggy, hair-like plumage and a body temperature of 37°C. And they have evolved in a world without predators, so that have no inbuilt defence mechanisms against the likes of Stoats, Feral cats and weasels. Most of New Zealand's native birds are now endangered.
Not many Kiwi's left to run over...
Thankfully, not all is lost. I have to say that I am seriously impressed with the conservation efforts that are underway here. There is now a plethora of national parks and reserves, all managed to promotes NZ's native habitats. The Department of Conservation is deadly serious about controlling the predators that are decimating New Zealand's birds. The latest measure that they are undertaking is dropping poison (Sodium Fluroacetate aka 1080) from helicopters into the national parks to control the mammal population, mainly Possums, Stoats, Weasels and Ferrets. In many areas there are teams of people, mostly volunteers, spending large amounts of thier time setting and laying traps for predators. The finest conservation policy of them all has to be the establishment of predator free islands where the Native bird species of New Zealand can be relocated and survive without threats. They have since started establishing predator free oasis's in areas of the main land, thanks to the use of predator proof fences, one which they can't get over, through or under.
My favourite part of New Zealand's wonderful place in mammal-less evolutionary world has to be Wētā's. Theses little critters are insects that have evolved to fill niches occupied by mice and other rodents elsewhere in the world. And they look rather cool, with some of them the size of your hand.
A Bush Weta on the Heaphy Track. About 4" or 10 cm long.
I rather like them and many of New Zealand's natural parks have Wētā hotels along their trails ... wooden boxes where Wētā's like to hide allowing tourists too have a peek. We took a walk on an alpine medow while crossing Lewis's pass earlier today and came across a signpost with info on the Mountain Stone Wētā. I found out that the mountain stone Wētā's can survive being frozen for months in a state of suspended animation with temperatures down to -10°C. Apparently this is because their haemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) contains special proteins that prevent ice from forming in their cells. This has to be another one of Evolutions finest creations. But, rest assured, they are in safe hands in New Zealand. The Kiwis now lead the way when it comes to conservation of their natural habitat. This, I am sure of.