Natural Environment 

What can you tell me about the pygmy blue whale?

How was the pygmy blue whale in Mountains to Sea prepared for display?

What is a moa?

What can you tell me about tuatara?

How do tuatara live?

Are tuatara endangered?

What is kauri gum?

What can you tell me about the pohutakawa tree?

What type of dinosaur does Te Papa's dinosaur bone belong to?

Where was Te Papa's dinosaur bone found?

Who is Joan Wiffen?

What can you tell me about the kea?

What are the different kinds of kiwi?

What can you tell me about volcanoes?

What can you tell me about the weta?

What are the main facts of the Wahine disaster?

Where is New Zealand pounamu (nephrite jade)  found?

What can you tell me about Ngā Kākāhu a Papatūanuku (Te Papa's iwi planting area)

 

What can you tell me about the pygmy blue whale?

Blue whales are the biggest creatures on Earth today and perhaps the biggest creatures that ever lived. The pygmy blue whale is one of three subspecies of the Antarctic blue whale. They are long, slender, streamlined whales with a flat head and mouth about six metres long. The head and upper body is slate-blue. They have a light-coloured underbelly, and their back and sides are faintly mottled.

Their heart, as big as a small motor car, pumps ten tonnes of blood around their bodies. Their biggest arteries are so big that a child could crawl through them. Their brains alone weigh about seven kilograms, and an entire whale can weigh in at ninety tonnes (our specimen weighed about sixty-four tonnes). Blue whales live between sixty and ninety years.

Pygmy blue whales are whales of the open sea. They swim in all the world oceans, migrating thousands of kilometres every year. In winter, they migrate to breed in tropical seas, and in summer and spring they visit the polar seas to feed.

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How was the pygmy blue whale in Mountains to Sea prepared for display?

In September 1994, the whale was struck by a container ship north of New Zealand and became wrapped around the ship’s bow bulb. From raking scratches and cuts on its body, flippers, and flukes, it is clear that it had been attacked by killer whales before being struck by the ship.

When the ship arrived in Auckland, the whale was towed to Motutapu Island where it was hauled ashore and its flesh and blubber cut away (flensed) to remove the skeleton for further cleaning.

The bones were then enclosed in sea cages where marine bacteria and the action of the salt water cleaned off the remaining flesh. Te Papa and Department of Conservation staff, along with some enthusiastic volunteers, further cleaned the bones and then left them to bleach in the sun. The whole process took many months.

Afterwards, the skeleton was brought to Wellington where it was steam-cleaned to remove more of the oil. The whole skeleton was reassembled at Te Papa in October 1996. It is 20.6 metres long and was that of a sub adult (adolescent) male.

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What is a moa?

The moa is an extinct New Zealand bird. There were about ten species of moa. The smallest was about the size of a turkey, while the largest, Dinornis maximus, was up to three metres in height. The giant moa must have been one of the most spectacular sights in early Aotearoa.

From the time of the first Māori settlements, the moa provided a plentiful supply of food. But excessive exploitation led to the birds’ extinction. Recent research suggests that all moa were exterminated by Māori within about fifty years of their colonisation of New Zealand.

Visit NZ Birds Online to find out more about moa.

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What can you tell me about tuatara?

Although the tuatara looks like a lizard, it isn’t one. It is the last living member of the order of reptiles called Sphenodontia, one of only five orders to which all reptiles belong.

The tuatara is found only in New Zealand. It is called a living fossil because it has changed very little in more than 200 million years, when the dinosaurs first appeared. The last of its relatives died out with the dinosaurs about sixty-five million years ago.

New Zealand has two species of tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus and Sphenodon guntheri. Sphenodon guntheri live on North Brother Island in Cook Strait.

In Māori, Tuatara means ‘spines on the back’. The scientific name Sphenodon means ‘wedge tooth’, and punctatus means ‘spotted’. Guntheri is named after a scientist.

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How do tuatara live?

Tuatara live in burrows. Sometimes they dig them but usually they use ones made by seabirds such as petrels and shearwaters.

Tuatara eggs take four years to develop inside the female. When they are ready, she digs a hole and lays them. There are about ten eggs in a clutch. After about a year, the young hatch out and start fending for themselves. The juveniles are active during the day. This might be to avoid the adults, which are nocturnal and would regard the young ones as prey.

An unusual feature of tuatara is the third eye, called the pineal or parietal eye, on top of the head. This is covered with scales, but may be sensitive to light.

Tuatara are carnivores. Their diet includes insects, worms, snails, lizards, frogs, and weta. Sometimes tuatara eat the bird eggs and chicks that are in their burrows. Tuatara can appear lifeless and slow, but they can move quickly when grabbing food, and have a strong and tenacious bite.

Male tuatara grow to sixty centimetres in length and weigh more than one kilogram; females are smaller. They can reproduce at ten years old, keep growing until thirty, and probably live for a hundred years or more.

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Are tuatara endangered?

Tuatara were once found throughout mainland New Zealand and on many offshore islands. But they disappeared from the mainland due to predators brought by people, and are now only found on about thirty islands in the Marlborough Sounds and along the east coast of the North Island.

Tuatara are plentiful on Stephens Island, but elsewhere their numbers are low and they are surviving safely in only a few places. Recovery programmes are underway in various institutions to ensure their survival. This sometimes involves relocating healthy individuals to predator-free islands to establish new populations.

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What is kauri gum?

The kauri tree, Agathis australis, is New Zealand's largest native tree. It is a type of conifer that grows in the subtropical northern part of the North Island.

Kauri gum is a resin that bleeds from the tree. If the bark is damaged or a branch is broken by the wind, the resin bleeds out and seals the wound. This prevents rot or water getting into the tree. The resin or gum can build up into a lump which goes hard. As the tree grows the bark is continually shed. The gum is forced off and falls on the ground around the tree.

This had been happening for millions of years before people started to use it. There are vast quantities of gum in the ground. Fossilised gum is a form of amber.

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What can you tell me about the pohutakawa tree?

The pohutakawa (Metrosideros excelsa) is a slow-growing, evergreen tree. It usually reaches up to twenty metres in height. It has a rounded shape with leaves that are glossy dark green on one side and white and hairy on the other.

During December and January, the pohutakawa flowers and produces masses of deep crimson to blood red flowers. It is because of this flowering time that the pohutakawa is called the New Zealand Christmas tree.

The cup-shaped flowers have a mass of red stamens (the organ that produces pollen) filled with nectar, which is very much sought after by birds. The birds become coated with the pollen while drinking the nectar. Some birds will then fly to the next tree and spread the pollen.

The seed capsules are brown and very hairy, and split open in June to July to release their seeds. Many seeds are dispersed but most do not survive.

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What type of dinosaur does Te Papa’s dinosaur toe bone belong to?

It belongs to the foot of a large meat-eating theropod dinosaur, a relative of the tyrannosaurs.

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Where was Te Papa’s dinosaur toe bone found?

The fossil was found in a large boulder in Mangahouanga Stream, a tributary of the Te Hoe River in the Hawke’s Bay. The boulder was a concretion that had eroded out of rocks forming the streambed. These rocks are sandstone of the Late Cretaceous Period, estimated to be about seventy-five million years old.

Joan Wiffen and her colleagues found the fossil on one of their many expeditions to Mangahouanga Stream, their most productive fossil bone locality. This was perhaps their most exciting find because the fossil was recognisable as a dinosaur bone.

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Who is Joan Wiffen?

She is a palaeontologist. In 1953, she married Pont Wiffen, and they ran a farm. Her interest in science was kindled through natural history books she shared with her children.

The impetus for Joan's life work came when her husband was ill and could not attend geology night classes - so as not to waste fees, he sent Joan in his place. From then on, Joan became fascinated with fossils.

In 1975, Joan Wiffen found her first bone at the Mangahouanga Stream site in the Hawke’s Bay - several years later this fossil was identified as belonging to a theropod. In the meantime, she had to learn from scratch about extracting fossils from the rock and writing papers on her findings.

Until Joan made her discoveries, it was widely thought that New Zealand probably had not had dinosaurs. Today, the former existence of dinosaurs on the New Zealand landmass is indisputable because of her work.

At least three kinds of carnivorous dinosaur, three kinds of herbivorous dinosaur, one kind of flying reptile (similar to an Anhanguera), and marine reptiles such as mosasaurs and elasmosaurs have been found at the Mangahouanga site. Seven of her discoveries can be seen in Awesome Forces on Level 2.

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What can you tell me about the kea?

The kea is an extraordinary parrot that makes its home in snow-clad mountains - a parrot habitat that is unique.

It has mostly olive-green feathers, with scarlet ones under its wings, and weighs about a kilogram. It has a big powerful beak, strong legs, powerful claws, and a loud piercing cry of 'keee-a!' It is a sound that carries a long distance in the mountains. These birds are found only in New Zealand.

A kea is a smart bird. It uses its hooked bill and big strong claws like an icepick and crampons to climb snowy and icy slopes. Some birds have learned to remove rubbish tin lids and open ranchslider doors. One kea carried a piece of firewood to a bush hut every day in exchange for food, knocking on the door on each occasion.

Fossil bones show that kea have lived in New Zealand for at least 10,000 years.

Visit NZ Birds Online to find out more about kea.

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What are the different kinds of kiwi?

There are five identified species of kiwi (genus Apteryx). Little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii) are extinct on the mainland. One thousand birds survive on Kapiti Island and one hundred (by transfer) on four smaller islands. Great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii) are found only in the South Island (10,000 - 20,000 birds).

North Island Brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) are still widespread in the central and northern North Island.

Tokoeka (Apteryx australis) are found in the South Island, mainly Fiordland but with an isolated population of 2-300 birds at Haast, and on Stewart Island. Genetic research is continuing to determine whether or not Haast kiwi is also a distinct species.

Rowi or Okarito brown kiwi (Apteryx rowi) are found in the Okarito Forest, West Coast, South Island, with a population of 150-250 birds restricted to 10,000 hectares of podocarp-hardwood forest.

Visit NZ Birds Online to find out more about kiwi.

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What can you tell me about volcanoes?

Volcanoes come in a variety of shapes and produce a related variety of lavas, depending on levels of stickiness, or viscosity. The kind of volcanic rock they produce depends largely on the proportion of silica within the the lava.

The less silica the lava contains, the less viscous the lava. The less viscous the lava, the easier it is for the volcanic gases that brew up in the magma to escape from their surrounding solids. Low viscosity produces honey-like lava, which flows easily from a crater. High viscosity means hokey pokey-like lava, which does not flow easily and tends to be erupted explosively.

Volcanoes with a high level of silica (especially rhyolitic) are the most explosive. They build up slowly, create enormous pressure, and then erupt massively. In New Zealand, the silica-rich conditions that result in eruptions like these are found below the Taupo, Okataina, and Rotorua volcanoes. These volcanoes form huge depressions called calderas.

Volcanoes come in different shapes and sizes depending largely on magma composition. New Zealand has a complete spectrum of sizes and shapes. Our most active volcano is White Island. Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe erupt about every forty years. Our most violent and dangerous volcano is Taupo. It erupts on average every 900 years and last erupted about 1800 years ago.

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What can you tell me about the Tarawera eruption and the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces?

The Tarawera eruption is the most devastating to have occurred in historic times. It began just after 12.30am on 10 June 1886 when the first earthquake shocks were felt, and continued with violent eruptions and heavy earthquakes until 6.00am. There were at least 153 fatalities.

It completely destroyed the Pink and White Terraces, which were claimed by some to be the eighth wonder of the world. They had attracted many overseas tourists in the late 1800s, and fortunately many paintings and stories about the terraces survive.

The Pink and White Terraces were made from silica and located in Lake Rotomahana. The pink colour was due to the presence of fine alloys of gold. The lake was completely destroyed by the eruption.

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What can you tell me about the weta?

The name weta is applied to a large wingless insect related to grasshoppers and locusts. It is derived from the name of the Māori god of ugly things, Wetapunga.

Similar looking relatives occur in other parts of the world. In Australia, they are known as king crickets, in South America as red crickets, and in South Africa as Park Town prawns. However, nowhere else do they reach the great size that some of our species do, nor does there seem to be such a diversity of species. The name weta is unique to New Zealand as well.

Weta are an ancient group of insects. Weta fossils have been found in 190-million year old Australian rocks. This, and the presence of weta and weta-like insects in the southern hemisphere, suggests that weta have been around a long time, pre-dating the break-up of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland when New Zealand, Australia, and other lands began to drift apart.

Most weta are herbivores (plant eaters), but some species are carnivorous. However, immature weta of all kinds scavenge on dead insects, and they even eat their own cast skin after moulting.

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What are the main facts of the Wahine disaster?

  • Date: 10 April 1968.
  • Cause: Cyclone Giselle developed in the tropics of the Coral Sea on 5 April and travelled south; by noon of 10 April it was lying east of Kaikoura.
  • Wind gust: Peaked at 270 kilometres an hour at Oteranga Bay on the edge of Cook Strait.
  • Wind speed: Clocked at 200 kilometres an hour in Wellington.
  • Most destructive feature: The inter-island ferry Wahine, carrying 734 passengers, was disabled by the storm at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. At 6.41am, the ferry struck Barrett’s Reef and the engines failed. After drifting for some time, her anchors held at a point off Steeple Rock near Seatoun. But a change in the tide threatened capsize, and just after 1.20pm the order was given to ‘Abandon ship’. The ferry sank shortly after 2.00 pm.
  • Death toll: Fifty-one.
  • Financial losses: Total losses due to the storm were estimated at $14 million.

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Where is New Zealand pounamu (nephrite jade) found?

New Zealand pounamu or greenstone is found primarily in the valleys of the Arahura and Hokitika Rivers that drain part of the west side of the Southern Alps, in the South Island. Pounamu is exposed in only a few localities in the steep mountainous terrain, occurring within the rocks of Haast schist.

However, between the mountains and the sea considerable quantities of pounamu exist as boulders and cobbles in gravels in the riverbeds and glacial outwash deposits associated with these river catchments.

The area is close to the Alpine Fault, one of New Zealand's longest fault lines and its most active.

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What can you tell me about Ngā Kākāhu a Papatūānuku (Te Papa’s iwi planting area)?

Ngā Kākāhu a Papatūānuku (Te Papa’s iwi planting area) is situated by Chaffers Marine Parade and is the start of the outside access leading to Te Ara a Tāne and up on to the Marae, Rongomaraeroa.

Ngā Kākāhu a Papatūānuku means ‘the clothing of Papatūānuku’. The iwi planting arose from the Māori creation story which tells of Tāne, god of the forests, rivers, and lakes, separating his parents, Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. This was so their children could be free from the constraints of their parents. It also let in Te Ao Mārama (the world of light).

Tāne felt sorrow for his mother being exposed naked to the elements, so he clothed her with all the plants that he could think of. Māori commonly refer to this as Te Wao Nui a Tāne, the great forest of Tāne, which represents all the native flora of New Zealand.

The iwi planting was developed so that iwi from all over the country could nominate plants significant to them and record the stories of these plants from their own tribal areas. Over 250 plants were contributed by iwi.

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