Aotearoa New Zealand is a little dot on the world map, yet it has been, and still is, home to some of the biggest creatures ever to have lived.
While the dinosaurs which were common in the lands and waters around Aotearoa New Zealand in Jurassic times are long gone, their remains are still being unearthed to this day. Fossils of giant sea-and land-dwelling have been discovered all over the country, and the waters around Fiordland were home to mosasaurs, pliosaurs, plesiosaurs and a gigantic toothed dolphin called ichthyosaur. On land, we had giant salamanders, sauropods, allosaurs, a pterosaur with a four-metre wingspan and a giant penguin as big as a man. Given the size and ferocity of some of these prehistoric giants, it may not be such a bad thing that all our natural predators died out in the ice ages.
Giant birds of the past…
Aotearoa New Zealand was once home to some of the largest birds in the world. The Giant Eagle, which died out around 500 years ago, was the largest bird of prey ever to have existed. The massive eagle had a wingspan of three metres, and fed on the huge land-birds of the time like the moa and adzebill, a flightless bird around a metre in height. Moa are Aotearoa’s most famous relic; many of the huge birds stood taller than a grown man, measuring up to three metres at the top of the head. The largest bird in history, moa are thought to have died out around 600 years ago, though sightings are still often reported. Who knows what has survived out in the wilderness of Southland!
…And giant birds of the present
Kakapo and Takahe are two of the largest birds in their species, and both come from little old New Zealand – and from Milford Sound, no less! Kakapo is arguably the world’s largest parrot; although the Hyacinth Macaw from South America beats it in length, our beloved Kakapo, a huge green flightless parrot, easily tops it in weight and sheer volume. Since it is flightless, the great green giant can grow to weights of 4kg, and up to 60cm in length. As it is prey to many of the introduced predators, most Kakapo now live on sanctuary islands, however a few may still dwell in the forests around Fiordland. While you probably won’t see a Kakapo, you’re very likely to meet its delightful, cheeky cousin Kea on your wanderings.
Takahe is a beautiful blue-and-green flightless fowl with a striking red beak. Takahe were considered extinct at the turn of last century, however they were famously re-discovered in 1948 in – you guessed it – Fiordland. It can stand 50cm high and weigh up to three kilograms, making it the largest rail in the world. Takahe are critically endangered, and you’re most likely to see them in captive breeding programmes like that at Te Anau, though there remain a few hardy survivors in the remotest forest areas.
The world’s largest snail, a huge carnivorous beauty called Powelliphanta, lives on the West Coast of New Zealand. While the majority of the endangered and protected creature live further north, there are still pockets of Powelliphanta in Fiordland, roaming the woods and sucking up earthworms like spaghetti. They can grow up to nine centimetres across, their glossy shells ranging in colour from black, through shades of browns and reds to yellows, and recently an albino one has also been discovered. They can be as large as a man’s hand and weigh as much as a small pigeon! These colossus snails are hermaphrodites, laying a clutch of eggs the size of a small birds. They can live up to 20 years, and have been the cause of long lasting battles between environmentalists and developers wanting to mine or build on the snails habitats.
There are more Coral colonies in Milford Sound/ Piopiotahi than there are people in the country! Coral, that shrubby, stone-like growth that is often used in sculpture and jewellery, is actually made up of colonies of tiny animals. There are numerous types of coral, and those delightful, clingy, jelly-like sea anemones that live in rock pools on the beach are also coral. There are close to 300 varieties of coral in Aotearoa New Zealand waters. Milford Sound/ Piopiotahi is home to around seven million colonies of coral – almost two colonies for each person in the country! There are around 60 varieties of black coral, rare red corals, and the colossal bubblegum coral, which has been known to grow to seven metres high and live for up to 500 years, is the largest living undersea invertebrate in the world, and one of the longest lived. New Zealand corals are protected, so you can look but you better not touch!
Who would have thought that little old Aotearoa was really a land of the giants?!