Question: Which country’s only native land mammals don’t spend much time on the ground?
Answer: New Zealand
The country of New Zealand may have more sheep than people, but neither sheep nor humans are endemic to the island nation. The only mammals who can truly call New Zealand their ancestral home are two species of bat: the long-tailed bat and the lesser short-tailed bat. (If you’re nonplussed by their no-nonsense names, opt for their Maori moniker: pekapeka.)
A third species, the greater short-tailed bat, went extinct about 750 years ago, after humans introduced rats to the islands. In fact, both surviving species are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Habitat loss, introduced predators, and illnesses spread by rats could cause this history of extinction to repeat itself.
Millions of years ago, the bats had some company in class Mammalia—though not much is known about their distant relatives. In 2006, paleontologists studying previously unearthed fossils discovered a femur and partial jaw fragment from a yet-to-be named animal—known as the Saint Bathans Mammal after the town where it was originally discovered. They dated the fossil from 16 to 19 million years ago, and believe it was the size of a mouse. Incomplete though the remains may be, they literally rewrote the history of life on New Zealand: The discovery proved that mammals were present when the land mass split from Gondwanaland, and that New Zealand was never a so-called “land of birds.”
Still, birds would have overwhelmingly dominated the land mass for millions of years—many of which evolved to be flightless since they had no need to flee mammalian predators. It’s just one fascinating fact about New Zealand’s historically interesting population—from prehistory to the modern day.
- Human footprint: The arrival of man wrought havoc upon the endemic species of New Zealand—nearly half of the country’s native vertebrates have gone extinct. Still, the literal human footprint on the islands is much smaller than that of most nations, with humans accounting for only 5% of New Zealand’s population. The country’s area is similar to that of the United Kingdom, but New Zealand has 4.5 million people to the UK’s 65 million. A third of the country’s land is protected as national parks.
- Latecomers: It took us a long time to get here, too. New Zealand was the last major land mass in the world to be populated by humans. The first settlers arrived from Polynesia—whose folklore and traditions would evolve into the Maori culture—between 1250 and 1300.
- This is living: To say Auckland is New Zealand’s most populous urban area is a bit of an understatement: With more than 1.4 million residents, 32% of the country’s entire population lives here—and with good reason, as surveys consistently rank Auckland among the world’s most desirable places to live. One compelling selling point? The so-called “City of Sails” is one of the only cities in the world to have two harbors on two different bodies of water, and about one in three Auckland households owns a boat.
- Tough competition: For years, New Zealand held the title of “least corrupt nation” in the world, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index—but in 2015, it slipped to #4, behind Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. The primary reason? Limited public access to official information. Time will tell whether enough has been done to reclaim the top spot, but in the meantime, fourth place looks pretty good from here: the U.S. ranked #16.
- Votes for women: If the U.S. makes history by electing our first female president, we’ll still have a ways to go to catch up to New Zealand. In 2006, it became the only country in the world where the top-ranking officials were simultaneously held by women: the Queen, Governor-General, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chief Justice. New Zealand was also the first country that gave women the right to vote.
- We can’t make this stuff up. One position that has never been held by a woman in New Zealand? The government-appointed National Wizard. Born Ian Brackenbury Channell, his legal name is now (you guessed it) The Wizard. In the 70s, officials in his hometown of Christchurch viewed his antics as a public nuisance—but eventually realized he’d become something of a tourist attraction. The city decided to maximize this appeal by appointing him Wizard of Christchurch in 1982, and the country followed suit in 1990. Among his many accomplishments as official Wizard of New Zealand? Performing a rain dance to break a drought in Australia, and chanting spells to guide New Zealand’s rugby team to victory.
Discover the natural beauty and vibrant culture of New Zealand with O.A.T. on Australia & New Zealand: An Adventure Down Under. For further proof that Auckland is one of the best places in the world to live, look no further than this film: