TT: World-building Without Mammals

JANE: Alan, I was fascinated when, a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned that New Zealand has no native mammals except for one species of bat.  I even queried you off-Tangent, but didn’t want to go that far off topic.  Now, however, I’d love to circle back and take a closer look at New Zealand’s ecosystem.  It sounds like an exercise in SF/F world-building!

Kiwi (Bird?)

Kiwi (Bird?)

ALAN: I’ve done some more checking and I’ve found that we actually have three species of bat, but one of them is extinct and the other two are quite rare…

JANE: I’m guessing that the bats flew in, or, like the camels in Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent traveled in on driftwood.  Anyhow, counting an extinct creature hardly seems fair.  I’d like to look at this alien world you’re living on.

ALAN: New Zealand is certainly a very alien world. The country is geographically isolated and, if you can’t fly or swim, you don’t really have any way of getting here. Consequently, we do have populations of marine mammals (sea lions and the like), but inland all the ecological niches that mammals occupy in other places are taken up by birds and insects.

JANE: I’d love to hear about some of these.  Can we start with the kiwi bird?  When Roger and I were there, we moved out of the convention hotel (which was nice, but very generic) to an oddball place dominated by an enormous figure of a kiwi bird.  I remember it fondly.

ALAN: Everybody is fond of the kiwi.  It’s our national symbol. New Zealanders identify very closely with it and they refer to themselves as kiwis. Incidentally, it’s just “kiwi”, not “kiwi bird.”

JANE: Oh…  To Americans, a kiwi is a fruit about the size of a plum, with a fuzzy green outside and sweet/tart flavor.  What do you call those?

ALAN: We call them “kiwifruit.”

JANE: Well, that’s boring…

ALAN: Anyway, back to the kiwi. They are flightless birds which belong to the unfortunately named ratite family – emus and ostriches are also ratites. Their feathers are very fur-like and Maori used to make kiwi feather cloaks. I’ve seen some in museums and they are really very beautiful.

JANE: I bet the fur-like feathers and rounded shape led to the fruit being named for the bird. But, that’s a tangent.  For once, I will discipline myself to stay on topic.  Go on…

ALAN: The most bizarre thing about the kiwi is that it lays the largest egg in relation to its body size of any species of bird in the world! I once saw an X-ray photograph of a kiwi that was about to lay an egg. All its internal organs were squashed up into a small blob in one corner and the egg occupied all the rest of the body cavity. I have no idea how its organs continued to function while being so squashed.

To give you some idea of scale, the kiwi is about the size of a domestic chicken, but it lays an egg that is six times larger than a chicken’s egg.

JANE: Ouch!  That’s got to be painful.

ALAN: I’m sure it is!

JANE: Does the kiwi (mentally insert “bird”) fill a particular ecological niche, or is it just impossibly adorable?

ALAN: Ecologically, the kiwi is rather similar to anteaters, moles and hedgehogs. Indeed, because it has so many un-bird like characteristics, the kiwi is almost an honourary mammal in its own right! Like a badger, it digs burrows in which it lives; it has a highly developed sense of smell (most unusual in a bird), and it is the only bird to have nostrils at the end of its beak. It lives on small invertebrates, seeds, grubs, and many varieties of worms which it sniffs out and digs up with its long beak. It has very poor eyesight, but who needs to see things when you can smell them instead?

JANE: That’s cool!

The only other New Zealand critter that immediately springs to mind for me is the weta, popularized by Peter Jackson’s movie studio.  If I hadn’t done a bit of research on New Zealand when I wrote “Pakeha,” my short story set in New Zealand, I would have thought they were fictional.

ALAN: Ah, the weta – a huge insect that I always think of as being a cross between a cockroach and Tyrannosaurus rex (actually, it’s more like a very, very large grasshopper). It’s probably the largest insect in the world and it looks quite fearsome and vicious, though actually it isn’t…

JANE: “Large” is one of those vague words.  Can you be more precise?  I’ve seen some horribly large grasshoppers.

ALAN: There are several species of weta and they are all huge by insect standards. The largest is one species of Giant Weta which can reach an overall length of 20cm (8 inches for those who are metrically challenged) and which can weigh up to 70g (2.5oz). But that’s unusual – most wetas are less than half that size and weight.

JANE: Eight inches?  That’s not “large,” that’s utterly humongous!

How do these horrible bugs fit in?

ALAN: Ecologically, the weta is the insect equivalent of rats and mice. They are nocturnal and omnivorous. Their major foods are vegetation and other small invertebrates. Like mice, they are very good seed dispersers because the seeds pass through them unharmed.

JANE: Hmm…  An interesting side effect of this discussion is considering the purposes our “normal” animals serve.  I don’t think I ever considered mice as seed dispersers, just as food for just about everything larger.

I wonder if weta are also edible?

ALAN: There’s a TV presenter called Bear Grylls who is an expert on surviving in hostile environments. His programmes show him being dropped into inhospitable places and demonstrating how to survive in them. The gimmick is that in every show he eats or drinks something disgusting. So over the years he’s eaten deer droppings, rancid camel fat (the camel had been dead for at least a week), beetles, a live crab (complete with sand) and goodness knows what else. So when he came to New Zealand, he obviously had to eat a weta. He almost threw up. He claims the weta has the most disgusting taste of anything that he’s ever eaten!

JANE: Hmm…  So not edible by modern standards.  Did the Maori eat them?

ALAN: No, but the Maori did eat the grubs of the huhu beetle. Imagine a maggot the size of one of your fingers and you’ll have a pretty good picture of a huhu grub. I’m told that they taste like peanut butter…

JANE: But you haven’t tried them?  I see there’s a limit to what Alan the Omnivore will eat!

Does anyone/thing eat weta or are you guys in danger of being overrun by giant bugs?

ALAN: As far as I can tell, the only things that eat weta are introduced mammals (though I suspect the kiwi may find immature wetas palatable) and as a result of this, some weta species are hovering on the brink of extinction.

My cats have occasionally brought home and eaten a weta. They don’t seem to mind the disgusting taste. Juicy! Crunchy! Interestingly, they never eat the legs which are just solid chitin with no flesh on them at all. I think they use the legs as toothpicks…

JANE: Weta sound completely horrible.  I wonder why Peter Jackson chose to name his studio after them?

ALAN: Probably because Peter Jackson loves horrible things.  Before Lord of the Rings, his reputation was largely based on some utterly gross splatter movies which have the saving grace that they are also very, very funny. I think he’d find a weta quite appealing…

JANE: Ah, then, the choice makes sense in a twisted fashion.

I was going to suggest that you pick one of your favorite creatures, but I think that’s going to need to wait for next time.


7 Responses to “TT: World-building Without Mammals”

  1. mittsusaru Says:

    I’ve eaten Huhu grubs – both raw and barbequed. They really do taste like peanut butter albeit rather weak and with very little texture to speak of. Our old farm cat used to eat the beetles – everything except the antennae.

    For what its worth, in Australia the Witchetty grub looks similar but is said to taste of almonds.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think it would be interesting to have blind taste test… “It tastes like” can sure shape reactions. I wonder what sort of almonds: roasted, toasted, blanched?

      I’d probably be wiling to try is someone wants to get me to New Zealand or Australia to be a victim… I meant “test subject.”

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    If I recall right, Peter Jackson had a bit of a freak-out when a weta accidentally showed up on one of the Lord of the Rings sets, and it’s in one of the movie out-takes. I could be misremembering it, but he does like to work barefoot.

    Anyway, no love for Moas? Or Haast’s Eagle? Or (my favorite) Keas?

    Just to show how American snobbishness and rebranding works, the kiwifruit was originally named the mi hou tao. It’s native to China, Korea, and Japan, where it and its relatives have been cultivated and gathered from the wild for quite a while. It was cultivated under the original name and as “Chinese gooseberry” in New Zealand starting in the early 20th Century. It’s not closely related to real gooseberries, but that’s another nomenclatural mess. When the New Zealanders wanted to export to California after WWII, they shipped it as “Chinese Gooseberry” and “Melonette.” The dude importing the fruit in California rejected those names, and it got rebranded as the kiwifruit. That’s how mi hou tao is sold around the world now.

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I keep thinking of the Lewis-Clark expedition where they kept running into “alien” animals.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      “Alien” meaning “strange,” in that context.

      I wonder what most people today would think an “alienist” does?

      • Peter Says:

        An alienist is either somebody who works at ILM (or Weta) or an officer of the Border Patrol, right?

        Now pardon me while I remove my tongue from my cheek…

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