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Kereru at the Nga Manu Nature Reserve on the Kapiti Coast | © digitaltrails/Flickr
Kereru at the Nga Manu Nature Reserve on the Kapiti Coast | © digitaltrails/Flickr

11 Awesome Native Animals You Can Only See in New Zealand

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 21 December 2017

New Zealand is home to some of the most incredible wildlife you’ll ever see. Native birds, marine animals, insects, mammals – there are loads of awesome critters to discover. Here are 11 unique species you’ll likely encounter during your travels to New Zealand.

The kiwi bird

No New Zealand native animal list would ever be complete without mentioning the country’s most famous bird. The kiwi (always lowercase, unless you’re talking about humans) is quite an interesting little bird: it’s flightless, can live between 25 to 50 years, has hair-like feathers, and has strong legs but no tail. There are five different species of kiwi and, because of its strong cultural presence, the bird is continuously being protected from extinction.

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Kiwi encounter at Rainbow Springs, Rotorua, New Zealand | © tara hunt/Flickr

New Zealand sea lion

Archaeological evidence points to the fact that native sea lions were once found along the entire length of New Zealand’s coast, from the North Island right down to Stewart Island and the sub-antarctic islands, too. Unfortunately, a population decline has meant that nowadays these majestic marine mammals are mostly confined to the Otago and Southland regions and the sub-antarctic islands. Male sea lions are darker in colour than females and the species has a life span of 25 years.

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Sea lion in Cape Saunders, Otago, New Zealand | © Rosino/Flickr

Yellow-eyed penguins

Known for being one of the world’s rarest penguin species, the hoiho (a.k.a the yellow-eyed penguin) recently experienced a steep decline in nest numbers that’s largely been attributed to human interference in its natural habitats. Provided you keep a clear distance, you can spot these birds on the South Island’s Banks Peninsula (near Christchurch), Stewart Island, and its surrounding areas.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin at Harington Point, Otago | © Bernard Spragg/Flickr

Little blue penguins

Coming in at 25 centimetres (9.84 inches) in height, New Zealand’s little blue penguin is renowned for being the world’s smallest. These tiny critters were once quite common throughout the country, but many have since relocated to the offshore islands because of predators. Colonies can be found in sheltered mainland harbours, particularly in Oamaru and Taiaroa Head, though they generally only come ashore when the night sets in.

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Little blue penguin | © Crispin Anderton/Flickr

Kereru

Also known as the New Zealand wood pigeon, kereru is a large bird with a distinctive white vest as well as lustrous green feathers on its head. Unlike many of the creatures mentioned on this list, kereru are not endangered – you can find them in any place with forested areas nearby. Its wings are known for making quite a loud sound that resonates along New Zealand’s native bush.

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Kereru at the Nga Manu Nature Reserve on the Kapiti Coast | © digitaltrails/Flickr

Weta

Weta are remarkable invertebrates that have been around since prehistoric times. These creatures vary greatly in size, but are easily recognised by their elongated bodies, spiny legs and curved tusks. New species of weta continue to be discovered – the last find was made just under 30 years ago. All told, there are 70 known weta species – 16 of which are considered endangered.

Tuatara

Not only is the tuatara an animal that’s completely unique to New Zealand, it is also the last surviving species of the Sphenodontia – an order of reptiles that thrived during the dinosaur age some 200 million years ago. To add to their unusual nature, tuatara are known for preferring cool climatic conditions not exceeding 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit). Because of scientific interest, many tuatara have been bred in captivity. In the wild, they are found on various offshore islands.

Maui dolphin

Maui dolphins, a subspecies of the rare Hector’s dolphin, are the smallest of the world – and some of the most at-risk. With approximately 63 individuals estimated to be alive, Maui dolphins are very much on the brink of extinction. They can still be sighted in some places, though: the Manukau and Kaipara Harbours as well as Port Waikato, Maunganui Bluff and Whanganui are the key locations where you’ll find them swimming in small groups.

Koura (crayfish)

The freshwater crayfish, also known as koura, hide along the country’s lakes and streams. They are hard to spot because of their dark-green shells, which camouflage quite well with the rocks down below. Two species of koura exist, the larger of which is found on the eastern end of the South Island and Stewart Island. Crayfish found on the North Island and parts of the South Island are slightly smaller and have less hairy pincers than the other species.

Short-tailed bat

This one is endangered, unique to New Zealand, and the only member of its family of bat (the Mystacinidae) to still be alive. The lesser short-tailed bat species can be broken down into three sub-species that are found in Northland, parts of the central North Island, Taranaki, and the northwest Nelson and Fiordland areas in the South Island. Another species, known as the greater short-tailed bat, is believed to be extinct as its last sighting was in 1967.

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Southern short-tailed bats on Codfish Island, New Zealand | © Jake Osborne/Wikimedia Commons

Otago skink

Skinks are slender little lizards that fall under nine different species. The Otago skink is among the largest and known to grow to length of up to 300 millimetres (11.8 inches). Unlike your average lizard, the Otago skink doesn’t hibernate, is omnivorous, and diurnal. These skinks are black in colour with blotches of yellow, green or grey, and can live up to 20 years. True to its name, the species can be found in small sections of the Otago region, particularly around the Macraes Flat area.

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Otago skinks | © Graeme Scott/Flickr