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Zealandia: Life in the Lost World

By inZoology |
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On the south-west edge of the Pacific Rim of Fire sits an archipelago of shaky isles. These isolated islands are the result of aeons of collisions, erosion, submergence, and fiery upheaval. One of the last settled parts of the world, New Zealand (Aotearoa) is seen as a link with the past, a different evolutionary path, a lost world.

The concept of visiting an ancient world, frozen in time, was developed by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World (1912). In this book he told the tale of an expedition that discovers an area where ancient creatures (mostly from the time of the dinosaurs) survived through to the present.

When humans arrived in New Zealand they found frogs, the leiopelmatids, from the most ancient living frog lineage; a group of reptiles, the tuatara, that had been around for over 200 million years before going extinct everywhere else; giant birds, the ratites, from the most ancient group of living birds. And so much more. Typically for most groups, over 95% of species were endemic, only found in New Zealand. Truly a lost world.

The kiwi has become the national icon of New Zealand. These species are descended from an ancient lineage of birds, the ratites (Image credit: Julie Paterson).

New Zealand has certainly become a lost world in popular culture. When you need a location that suggests another world, or an older world, New Zealand has been the place to go. On screen, New Zealand has stood in for Narnia, Terebithia, Ancient Greece, Heaven. Of course, the most obvious land is from the world of Tolkien. Through six movies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, to the upcoming TV series, New Zealand is Middle-Earth. To Tolkien, Middle-Earth was always a version of our Earth, perhaps long ago, or in some alternate universe. New Zealand nicely fills the role of the lost, or other, world.

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