History and origins of New Zealand’s vertebrates

Te Papa researchers: Alan Tennyson and Lara Shepherd

We are using fossils and DNA to investigate both the relationships and origins of New Zealand’s vertebrates, plus the impacts of humans on the unique fauna of our region. Te Papa holds the largest collection of fossil vertebrates in New Zealand and we have DNA labs and an active fossil collecting programme. The fauna of the Zealandian continent is a mix of very ancient animals and those that have dispersed here more recently.

Our research is unravelling when animals arrived in Zealandia, where they came from, as well as helping us to understand what species are more vulnerable to human modification of the environment.

Penguin fossil. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Albatross skull fossil. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Ōkārito brown kiwi/rowi. Photo by Alan Tennyson. Te Papa

Main collaborators: Colleagues from Otago and Massey Universities, and the Bruce Museum (Connecticut, USA).

Representative publications:

Ksepka, D.T.; Field, D.J.; Heath, T.A.; Pett, W.; Thomas, D.B.; Giovanardi, S.; Tennyson, A.J.D. 2023. Largest-known fossil penguin provides insight into the early evolution of sphenisciform body size and flipper anatomy. Journal of Paleontology 97: 434-453

Tennyson AJD. 2010. The origin and history of New Zealand's terrestrial vertebrates. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 34: 6-27.

Tennyson AJD. 2020. Holocene bird bones found at the subantarctic Auckland Islands. Notornis 67: 269-294.

Tennyson AJD, Martinson P. 2006. Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington. 180 pp.