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Land and Resources, Plant and Animal Life

thorny evergreen shrub, southern right whale, hapuku, nocturnal bird, freshwater crustaceans

The plant life of New Zealand includes about 1,500 indigenous species found nowhere else in the world, including the golden kowhai and the scarlet pohutukawa. The number of introduced plant species now rivals the number of indigenous species, however. Some introduced species, such as the furze (gorse), a thorny evergreen shrub, have acclimated so well in New Zealand that they have become a menace, spreading quickly and displacing indigenous vegetation. Most of the indigenous trees and shrubs of New Zealand are evergreen, including the kauri, rimu, kahikatea, and totara. Original mixed-evergreen forests remain in only the remotest areas of the North Island and in the Southern Alps. Beech trees predominate on the western slopes of the Southern Alps. Radiata pine, a fast-growing timber tree imported from California, is found in large reforestation plantations on the central volcanic plateau of the North Island. Sown grasses predominate in many lowland plains and on the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps up to an elevation of about 1,500 m (5,000 ft).

The islands of New Zealand formed before the advent of mammals, and isolation from other landmasses allowed birds, bats, and reptiles to flourish in the absence of predatory mammals. Without predators, many bird species in New Zealand became flightless or semi-flightless, often nesting on the ground. Many of these birds, including the giant ostrichlike moa, became extinct after people colonized the islands. Some species such as the moa were hunted to extinction, while others suffered from the destruction of habitat and the introduction of foreign predators, such as rats and stoats. Some flightless birds have survived, however, including the kiwi, a nocturnal bird that is the national emblem; the kakapo, the world’s largest parrot; and the weka and the takahe, both large species of rail. However, many of the remaining indigenous species are in danger of becoming extinct. Some are officially protected as endangered species, and the government has designated nature reserves for the preservation of natural habitat.

Native songbirds such as the bellbird and tui also contribute to the country’s large population of wild birds. The sparrow, blackbird, thrush, skylark, magpie, and myna are well-acclimatized imported species. New Zealand also abounds in a great variety of seabirds, such as the albatross, and numerous migratory birds.

The only indigenous mammals in New Zealand are bats. All other wild mammals in New Zealand arrived with humans and are descended from imported species of deer, rabbits, goats, pigs, weasels, ferrets, and opossums. The populations of some introduced mammals, such as rabbits and the Australian opossum, have reached plague proportions. No snakes and few species of venomous insects inhabit New Zealand. The tuatara, a lizardlike reptile that emerged more than 200 million years ago, survives nowhere else in the world but on a few islands off the coast of New Zealand.

The rivers and lakes of New Zealand have a variety of fish, including whitebait, eel, and freshwater crustaceans, particularly crayfish. Trout and salmon are imported species. The surrounding ocean waters are the habitat of many species, including the snapper, flounder, blue cod, hapuku, tarakihi, swordfish, and shark, as well as edible shellfish such as the oyster, mussel, paua (abalone), and toheroa. The humpback whale and the southern right whale were once numerous in New Zealand’s offshore waters, but these species never recovered from the intensive commercial whaling that took place in the 19th century.

Article key phrases:

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