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Nau mai, Haere mai…

The rest of the world knows Aotearoa for its sheep to human ratio, rugby prowess, badass Prime Minister and, of course, sexy accents (yeah, nah, we don’t get it either). There are, however, a lot of other things that make this country pretty sweet. At least I think so.

Aotearoa. The Land of the Long White Cloud.

An island country left undiscovered by humankind until about 700 years ago when Polynesian settlers made the intrepid journey by waka across the Pacific Ocean. Over centuries in isolation, the settlers developed a culture and language distinct from their Polynesian roots. Today, the indigenous people of Aotearoa are known as Māori.

New Zealand. The Land of Milk and Honey.

From the mid-1600s onward, when Abel Tasman first came to the country, Māori and Europeans had increasing interactions – though sporadic. This changed in the 19th century when the first European colonists began to settle throughout the country. These Europeans were known to Māori as Pākehā, and the term stands to this day.

A lot happened in the years that followed; some good, quite a lot of bad. A lot happened in the years prior to human settlement, too. The thing is, we never learnt much about any of it in school. I intend to remedy that.

See this blog as an attempt at a reeducation on the history of my homeland. I want to look at what Aotearoa looked like before, what it looks like now, and, from time to time, what it might look like in the future. It will not be chronological, some bits will be more important than others, and some parts will be downright theoretical, but if you’re interested, read on.

The rest of the world knows Aotearoa for its sheep to human ratio, rugby prowess, badass Prime Minister and, of course, sexy accents (yeah, nah, we don’t get it either). There are, however, a lot of other things that make this country pretty sweet. At least I think so. 

I will attempt to reference where I can, and when I get something wrong then please point me in the right direction.

I believe the following whakataukī (proverb) applies here:

Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi

With your basket and my basket the people will live

In other words, if we work together, and combine our resources, we can achieve greatness.

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An Evolutionary Wonder: The Pūkeko and the Takahē

The unique circumstances in Aotearoa worked like a controlled science experiment showing that the takahē is not an evolutionary accident but a product of its environment. It could happen again, and again.

Pūkeko (left) and takahē (right) taken by L. Rennie at Tāwharanui Regional Park 2020.

We will start today with one of Aotearoa’s most defining features – it’s birdlife. Jared Diamond, a scientist of many trades (and that’s to put it lightly), once described our nations flora and fauna as “the nearest thing to studying life on another planet,” and it makes sense. This island country offers a unique peek into what becomes of birds when they are left to flourish in isolation for millions upon millions of years. But first, how did we get here?

Aotearoa split off from Gondwana, the supercontinent which dominated the globe from the Neoproterozoic to the Jurassic period, about eighty million years ago. In the process, splitting off from Australia and Antarctica, and opening up the Tasman Sea. The country is the remaining unsubmerged portion of the mini continent Zealandia, which is ten times the size of Aotearoa’s present-day landmass. Of course, it hasn’t always looked like this, but I’ll save the story of its transformation (and even on-going transformation) for another day when I have undertaken a bit more research. 

For those of us that do know a thing or two about Aotearoa’s birds, you’ll know, they are kind of useless. I say that in a loving way. Many are oversized, struggle to fly and/or breed incredibly slowly – some do it all, or did. It is no surprise that, when eventually faced with predators introduced post-human arrival, these birds were defenceless. In fact, since human arrival, we have lost 42 percent of our birdlife, and are well on the way to losing more.

Some birds came with Aotearoa from Gondwana; these include the moa, a now-extinct bird thought to resemble an emu, and the kiwi, our national symbol. Others, like the kākāpō and the kea, reached our shores around 10 million years ago, flying in from the fragments of Gondwana. Later still, you have the kererū and the korimako around two and a half million years ago. All of which have self-introduced and become naturalised. Finally, in the last 1000 years, we’ve had an increase in birds reaching our nation through human intervention, though there are a few that have made their own winged way here. Today, I’m going to draw specific focus to two of these birds which represent somewhat of a scientific wonder: the pūkeko and the takahē. They are both Aotearoa natives now and are subspecies of the rail family.

As eloquently put by Charlie Douglas, a notable West Coast explorer, the pūkeko “can fly, walk, dive and swim, but can do none of them tolerably well.” The bird reached our shores less than 400 years ago, so maybe it makes sense why it struggles a bit in this relatively new habitat? How the pūkeko reached Aotearoa is another question. It is widely believed that it flew in of its own accord from Australia. A short distance of at least 4,163 kilometres… However, there are Māori oral traditions which recall their having introduced pūkeko during the initial migration. 

There is no clear difference between male and female pūkeko, apart from the former being slightly larger. The birds feathers are primarily indigo blue, with black heads, and black wings which have a glossy green undertone. When upset, pūkekos will flick their tails, which draws attention to the white feathers beneath. The legs, feet, bills and eyes of the bird are red. The birds dwell in swamps, lakeshores, and damp pastures throughout the country.

However by the time pūkeko arrived, there were already two species that looked remarkably similar – the takahē and the mohoau. Now extinct, not much is known about the mohoau as all we have are bones. They looked pretty similar to the takahē and were for a long time thought to be the same species. The colouring of the takahē is much more vivid than that of the pūkeko. With similar legs and beaks, the takahē’s plumage “range[s] from a dark royal blue head, neck and breast, to peacock blue shoulders, through to shades of iridescent turquoise and olive green on their wings and back” (Department of Conservation, 2020). While the takahē roamed the South Island, the now-extinct mohoau made their home in the North Island.

Takahē and pūkeko look alike, for sure, but there are some clear differences. The former are heavy, flightless, predominantly herbivorous and monogamous creatures, while the latter are flying omnivores that work within a hierarchical, nest sharing, chick raising collective. They also frequent different habitats. The untrained eye, though, would be forgiven for mistaking the takahē as a chunky pūkeko and there is a reason for their similarities. They share an evolutionary history… and, potentially, future. 

Takahē originated from a pūkeko-like bird which arrived in Aotearoa somewhere around 10 million years ago, and with no ground-dwelling mammals, it evolved to fit its habitat. The opportunity to witness the coexistence of the takahē and pūkeko is rare – for we are seeing both the precursor and the descendant at once. Research shows that given the right conditions, i.e. a lack of predators, an island habitat and evolutionary latitude, the evolution to flightlessness would occur again and again.

In the predator-free utopia of prehuman Aotearoa, the takahē filled the scrub grazing niches, gave up flying (who needs it?), and kept the population within its limits by slowing the reproductive rate just enough to maintain genetic diversity. But all good things must come to an end, and humans arrived. Since our arrival, the specialised takahē, unable to cope with the changes to its environment, was driven to alpine habitats. The mohoau, on the other hand, was driven to extinction. 

Despite being initially thought of as the same species, the North Island mohoau and the South Island takahē have different genetic backgrounds. The mohoau shares an Australian heritage with the pūkeko, while the takahē can trace its genetics back to South African swamphens.

This is very, very cool. Very.

This means that despite being two entirely different species, the mohoau and the takahē’s swamphen predecessors landed in similar conditions, looking relatively like pūkeko, and followed the same evolutionary path to the point that we thought they were the same species. The unique circumstances in Aotearoa worked like a controlled science experiment showing that the takahē is not an evolutionary accident but a product of its environment. It could happen again, and again. 

Today, the pūkeko are thriving. They had time to adjust to mammalian predators becoming the feisty, flighty birds that grace our swamplands. The takahē, on the other hand, are struggling. In fact, they had a fifty-year period of ‘extinction’ until 1948, when the last wild population was rediscovered in the Fiordland’s Murchison Mountains, just above Lake Te Anau. Now, the birds are classified as Nationally Vulnerable and have a population of just over 400, thanks to Aotearoa’s longest-running endangered species programme. For more information on that check out the Takahe Recovery Programme

You will have noticed the photo of the two at the beginning of this post. In the weekend I visited Tāwharanui Regional Park, about an hour north of Auckland City. The park boasts an amazing bird sanctuary, which is surrounded by a predator fence and supported internally by intensive trapping and monitoring – kudos to Auckland Council and the volunteer teams that keep that place in fantastic shape. While we were there we walked the Ecology Trail, which felt like a step back in time. Kauri trees towered over us, a flock of kākā screeched their way across the sky, and we were accompanied by a cheeky tīeke (saddleback). On our way out, we were ever so lucky to come across a takahē just chilling on a grassy bank, with its distant pūkeko cousin nearby. Perfect timing considering I had written this last week!

Anyway, suppose you want a more detailed and eloquent run down of the takahē. In that case, I will direct you towards National Geographics’ ‘Takahē – The Bird That Came Back From The Dead’ by Derek Grzelewski, a fantastic article of the kind I aspire to write. It also influenced much of this post. Otherwise, the rest of the information came from an assortment of DOC and NZ Birds Online articles. A quick google will get you there – but use Ecosia!

Next time: Tāne Mahuta – The God of the Forest.