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An Exotic Ecology

As the swamp in front of my house in Minnesota springs back to life, I think back to the truly odd history of wildlife in New Zealand.

Completely isolated for eons of time, New Zealand developed a strange ecosystem which went undisturbed by man until the first humans arrived in roughly 1250 AD.

In its pristine state, New Zealand had no land animals save for a tiny bat. Birds dominated the deep rain forests, many of them flightless like the famous kiwi.

That's right: no mice, no deer, no rats, no gophers, no woodchucks, none of the critters we see here so often.

New Zealand's only large mammals were marine. Forty species of whale, a dozen types of dolphin, as well as porpoises and seals frolic in the turquoise waters off shore.

To this day, New Zealand has no snakes.

Years back, when I asked a class of Kiwi school kids to draw their image of America, one drew a picture of an Air New Zealand jet on the tarmac in the United States with hundreds of snakes slithering below, waiting for the terrified passengers to emerge.

Trees and plants native to New Zealand are leafy all year-round. There are no fall colors in the forests.

The British brought in deciduous trees 150 years ago, but they are confined to settled areas. Falling leaves are a suburban phenomenon.

Of course, when the first humans arrived to New Zealand, they brought mice. Later, possum made the jump from Australia with human help.

The introduced mammals wreaked havoc on the flightless bird population. Possum were the only road-kill we encountered in 5000K of driving.

Red deer were introduced from Europe. In New Zealand, the massive red stag antlers grow larger than usual, drawing trophy hunters from all over the world.

Only two small herds of white-tail deer have become established in the country. Hunting them is a rare privilege doled out by lottery.

Because in its native condition New Zealand had no land mammals, it is the only country in the world where the mass killing of all mammals is backed by environmentalists.

To eradicate mammals from wildlife reserves so that the original flightless birds can reestablish, New Zealand conservationists use a chemical called 1080.

Of course, the mammal-killing chemical also takes dogs, cats and livestock. As mammals, humans also can become ill or die.

No wonder there are signs in people's yards in the remote towns of the South Island proclaiming "Stop 1080!"

For the most accessible wildlife experience in New Zealand, one must go to the shoreline. Shorebirds such as terns, gulls and the enormous albatross screech over the roar of the waves.

Boats will take you to see the whales, dolphins and seals. Glass-bottom boats allow you to view the fish.

While we were in New Zealand, a fisherman won a contest by reeling in a 738-lb. tuna, the world’s record.

Inland, birds seem much less populous. New Zealand's rain forests are so thick that you hear birds but rarely see them. Birds have little reason to leave the permanent protection of the 100-foot canopy.

The largest bird native to the country, the 12-foot tall flightless moa, was killed off for food by Maori and European settlers.

As recent intruders, humans wreaked havoc on New Zealand's strange and fragile plants and animals.

Settlers burned most of the North Island forests, either to force the moa out for slaughter, or to establish sheep pasture.

The verdant hills which make New Zealand look so primeval in movies such as "Lord of the Rings" are bare today due to massive fires in the 19th century.

The monstrous kauri trees which once formed forests in parts of the North Island are now confined to a few small reserves.

Without forest cover, big rains and frequent tremors cause landslides and slippage. With New Zealand's volatile geology and vertical geography, roads and bridges are frequently wiped out altogether.

On average, New Zealand experiences 20,000 earthquakes per year, 200 of which are strong enough to be noticed by humans.

I suspect many American tourists come to New Zealand, look around, take a few pictures, say 'oh for pretty!" and go home without truly realizing how truly different the place is from here.

But as a swamp dweller, I couldn't help but compare the place to my experience of Minnesota swamp life in spring.

During our deep winters, the swamp is pretty quiet.

But when life burbles forth in spring, nature in the northland becomes more riotous than it is in the lushest sub-tropical paradise.

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