TT: Bizarre and Marvelous

JANE: So, Alan, do you have any favorites among New Zealand’s bizarre creatures?

ALAN: I think my favourite has to be the kea, a parrot which lives in the Alpine regions of the South Island. It is the world’s only alpine parrot! The kea is renowned for its intelligence – it’s probably about as intelligent as a monkey which makes it a positive genius of the bird world.

A Taratula, Jemez Springs, NM

A Tarantula, Jemez Springs, NM

JANE: An alpine parrot?  Alpine as in snow and ice?

ALAN: That’s right. It’s a very strange world down here…

The kea loves to explore new things and play with what it finds. It’s very cat-like in terms of its curiosity and it is sometimes referred to as “the clown of the mountains.”  It will hunt around in tourists’ backpacks, peer into their boots, and investigate their cars, often causing damage or flying off with any treasures that it finds. There is an urban myth that a kea once stripped the rubber sealing off a windscreen and flew away with it as the windscreen fell out and shattered behind it. Tourists love them, but the locals find them exasperating and annoying.

JANE: Sounds like how people react to precocious children.  They’re great as long as they belong to someone else.

ALAN: It seems that a kea once flew off with a passport belonging to a Scottish tourist. From this I deduce that the kea is occupying the same ecological niche as the goat. Everyone knows that goats eat wallets, passports, and handbags.

JANE: Goats?  That’s stretching it.  However, the kea’s behavior does remind me of that of ravens, magpies, and to a lesser extent, other corvids.  I’ve never heard of a raven going for rubber sealing, but I’ve heard of them taking car keys or sparkly jewelry.  They’re large enough they can carry off more than you’d expect.

Do you have any other odd creatures there or have we exhausted the possibilities?

ALAN: We have lots more oddities. Consider the kakapo – a very large, flightless parrot. It’s a solitary bird and spends much of its time avoiding other kakapo. Not surprisingly, it’s endangered and there are only about 125 individuals left. Actually its rarity is really much more due to predation by introduced mammals than it is to the bird’s solitary nature…

JANE: So I imagine…

ALAN: One of the more famous kakapo is an individual called Sirocco. Sirocco came to the attention of the world when he was being filmed for an episode of the BBC television series Last Chance to See. He attempted to have sex with zoologist Mark Carwardine, and achieved a reasonable degree of success! Because of his world-wide fame, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key gave Sirocco the title of Official Spokesbird for Conservation in January 2010.

JANE: I wonder why?  Sirocco’s behavior seems counter to conservation of the species.

ALAN: He is certainly not a typical kakapo in that regard. Sirocco’s motto appears to be: if it moves, have sex with it. If it doesn’t move, peck it until it does. Perhaps as Official Spokesbird, he can carry his message to other kakapo and thus preserve them from extinction.

JANE: I’m laughing almost too hard to type…  Dare I ask you to continue?

ALAN: I should also mention the tuatara. They are reptiles found only in New Zealand. The tuatara is, quite literally, a living dinosaur. It is the only surviving member of the order Sphenodontia, which flourished during the age of the dinosaurs, some 200 million years ago.

JANE: What sort of dinosaur do the tuatara look like?

ALAN: It looks rather like a lizard. And it has looked like that for the last 200 million years.

JANE: Why is it designated the last dinosaur, rather than a lizard or something?  After all, the fossil record shows that turtles and crocodilians existed at the same time as the dinosaurs.

ALAN: Although it looks like a lizard, the resemblance is superficial.  It is not related to any other living species. It really is a dinosaur.

Tuatara are more than a little lethargic. I watched one in a zoo once. I stared at it for an hour or so and it didn’t move or blink. I couldn’t even see it breathing. Becoming bored, I wandered away in search of more interesting animals. A couple of hours later, I passed by its cage again and it was facing in a different direction!

JANE: If you watched it for an hour, the tuatara aren’t the only things that are lethargic!

ALAN: Actually, I think it was really just a plastic model and the zookeeper came and picked it up and changed its position when nobody was looking. I’m not convinced that tuatara actually exist…

JANE: Ah, but they must.  How could someone make a plastic model of a creature that doesn’t exist?

Are your plants as odd as your animals?

ALAN: Indeed they are! New Zealand flora are very primitive – ferns and the like. Almost none of the plants produce flowers and the few that do flower usually have rather drab, uninteresting blossoms. The reason for this is that the plants have evolved to use nocturnal insects (moths and the like) to propagate themselves and rather than having vivid eye-catching flowers to attract daytime insects, instead they have interesting smells to attract the night time bugs.

JANE: That’s fascinating!  I always loved ferns.  They do have a distinctive scent.

ALAN: I only recently learned about the way these plants propagate. We had taken a trip out to see a gannet colony. The tour guide seemed to know a lot more about plants than she did about gannets, and along the way she explained the reasons why the plants have not evolved flowers. Then she stopped the tour bus at a strategic spot and opened the windows. Instantly we were surrounded by a strong, sweet, honey-like smell. If I was a moth, I’m sure I’d find it irresistible!

I think that bees, a major plant propagator in other countries, are a relatively recent arrival here. Probably they too are an introduced, invasive species.

JANE: Hopefully a beneficial one, in this case.

New Mexico flora is certainly different from what I grew up with.  Anything that can have thorns does.  An added bonus is caustic sap.  Even grasses sometimes have spikey tips.  The message is loud and clear: “Do Not Eat Me!  It’s hard enough to stay alive in this arid climate without you biting me in half!”

Some years ago, it was reported that a zealous retainer of whichever office of the New Mexico state government is responsible for responding to tourist queries had put together a comprehensive list of the state’s most common poisonous plants, insects, and reptiles.  (We have lots of rattlesnakes, some poisonous lizards, scorpions, and various poisonous spiders, including black widows and tarantulas).  Presumably, this was meant to provide due caution to anyone planning to visit here.  I heard that the list was removed from the packet sent out to prospective visitors as being detrimental to tourism.

ALAN: We score rather poorly on the fiercely thorned and poisonous plants and animals scale. New Zealand really is a very benign country. You’ll die of exposure if you stay out in the weather too long and every so often a mountain might fall on you when an earthquake happens, but that’s about it.

JANE: Falling mountains don’t sound great, but I must admit, I loved New Zealand during my one visit there.

I promise that if you ever visit New Mexico, I’ll make you a list of things to be careful of…

I’ve been delighted with your revelation of New Zealand’s biological oddities.  They’ve certainly given me some ideas I plan to weave into a fictional world one of these days!

10 Responses to “TT: Bizarre and Marvelous”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    I desperately want to visit New Zealand. The description and discussion was great. Also, I’ve seen that video of the kakapo humping the human’s head. Hilarious.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Oh don’t be modest, Alan. You guys have the Taupo Volcano, which back around 26,500 years ago produced the biggest known eruption in the last 70,000 years. You’ve got something scary to market!

    As for keas, they are fun birds. The pair that used to be at the San Diego zoo had a different set of toys in their cage every time we came by, and I suspect that was to keep them from getting bored (and perhaps to keep the keepers from getting bored, too). They certainly enjoyed playing with them. You can see what keas do to cars and boots in this video. It doesn’t seem to be as bad as what the marmots did to cars in the Sierras, but still.

  3. mittsusaru Says:

    Tuatara are wonderfully weird creatures – they have a kind of third eye on the top of their heads – just a photosensitive spot really, but third eye sounds better. They do stay perfectly motionless as Alan describes, but like many predatory reptiles, they can move really fast when they want to – I’ve seen a young one being fed at the Mount Bruce animal sanctuary – motionless, then when an insect come within range they suddenly pounce.

    Mount Bruce also has flights of Kaka – the lowland version of the Kea. They have a daily feeding where these big birds wait in the trees in a very disturbingly Hitchcockian way. You really must go there when you come back.

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    I wouldn’t be too sure about keas pulling out windshield gaskets being an urban myth. The have [or had, anyway] dead vultures hanging over parking lots at Everglades National Park because they _do_ pull the gaskets off the cars. There have been attempts to create a more appropriate scarevulture, but it seems that vulture philosophy can be summed up as “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And… ummmm… I want no part of whatever it was killed _him_”

  5. Chad Merkley Says:

    My brother just sent me a link about giant stick insects on Lord Howe Island, which is between Oz and Kiwi-Land. Very cool bug, very cool story, very cool biologists involved.

    It’s almost enough to make me wish the oxygen content of the air was higher, like it was in the Permian, so we could have more giant terrestrial arthropods.

    Here’s the link:

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Sure you don’t mean the carboniferous? Yes, giant insects would be cool, but the extra forest fires would get a bit tedious, as would all that wood that rotted slowly because termites and wood-rotting fungi had the temerity to wait until the Jurassic before evolving…

      • Chad Merkley Says:

        Right–Carboniferous is giant bugs, Permian is when everything started to die. My bad. My only excuse is I wasn’t around to keep track of things back then. 🙂

        Somewhere, I came across a suggestion that the evolution of microbes with lignin and cellulose digesting enzymes may be at least partially responsible for some of the atmospheric changes that occured around the Permian/Triassic boundary. Maybe in one of Peter Ward’s books or something on the Discovery Channel. Interesting idea.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Maybe. I don’t remember Ward’s Under a Green Sky well enough (except that he got the sky color wrong), but the Permian-Triassic extinction event seems to get blamed more on various ocean bacteria, at least when it’s not being blamed on the Siberian Traps burning their way through a vast deposit of Carboniferous coal and pitching all that carbon into the air along with whatever came out of the Trap eruption. I’m pretty sure that neither Termites nor the major wood-rotting fungi evolved until the Mesozoic (Triassic or Jurassic), and bacteria just don’t rot wood as fast as these powerhouses.*

        As a note, I used to be much more enthusiastic about Peter Ward until I ventured onto Tetrapod Zoology, and found out that he got a lot of stuff fundamentally wrong in Out of Thin Air. I now read him the same way I now read Bakker’s Dinosaur Heresies or something by Jared Diamond. They’re all fun to read, but double check everything they say to find out what the disputes are. Such is science.

        *Think about how much trouble termites, carpenter ants and dry rot are in houses. I’ve never heard of anyone having to do a major home remodel due to bacterial rot. Perhaps I’m missing something?

  6. Eric Says:

    I’d never heard of the tuatara before! What a fascinating creature!

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