I really like old American cars - I like how they look and how they sound but please don't ask me anything about their inner workings. A mechanic friend of mine gave me a great line to use if anyone mentions their car is running a bit rough. "Do you think there might be a leak in the manifold gasket?" I ask. Judging by the contemplative responses I receive, I think I might be onto something.
Perhaps I can be forgiven for my lack of mechanical knowledge, but when it comes to our country's own unique wildlife, there really no excuse not to know at least a little bit.
Having a few fascinating factoids up your sleeve will allow you to drop in some clever comments about kiwi and kakapo without sounding like a turkey. The stranger the better, so rather than mundane stats such as age at maturity, gestation and suchlike, go with the animal's more peculiar qualities. Luckily 'peculiar' is something our native creatures specialize in.
Here are some great 'creature features' that will allow you to be a zoological superstar when next the opportunity comes your way:
• Our most famous reptile has a third eye, also called a 'pineal eye'. Complete with retina and lens and connected by a nerve to the brain, the tuatara's third eye is visible on top of the head in juvenile tuatara, but is covered by scales in adults. The function of this organ is unknown.
Tuatara. Photo / Thinkstock
• Despite its appearance, the tuatara is not actually a lizard. It is the sole survivor of the reptile group Rhynchocephalia (beak heads) that lived alongside the dinosaurs and appears much the same as it did sixty million years ago.
• The highly endangered kakapo holds several world records as the only nocturnal parrot in the world and also as the heaviest (males weighing up to four kilograms). It is also the only flightless parrot and could perhaps be the longest lived bird on record with a lifespan approaching one hundred years.
• Kakapo are said to have a strong smell, variously described as 'musty' or like honey. This aroma contributes to its vulnerability to predation.
Kiwi. Photo / Thinkstock
• Kiwi lay the largest egg in relation to body size of any bird in the world: the egg weighs a huge twenty percent of the animal's bodyweight. The kiwi egg also has the largest proportion of yolk which even sustains the little kiwi for a few days after hatching.
• Kiwi are distinctly 'mammal like' when it comes to their sense of smell; it is very well developed unlike other birds. Kiwi are the only bird with nostrils at the end of their beak. The part of their brain that controls smell is structured similarly to a mammal's, much larger than in other birds. Which explains their superior sniffing qualities to seek out worms and other food in the leaf litter.
Moa. Photo / NZH
• The largest of all moa species, the giant moa was over three metres tall and weighed around 250 kilograms. That makes it one of the biggest birds ever known, and apparently about the same size as Big Bird from Sesame Street. There were little moas too, with one species about the size of a large turkey.
• Moa is pronounced 'more', not 'mower'.
• Before humans and dogs drove the moa to extinction (thought to be by around 1500AD), its only predator was the world's largest eagle, New Zealand's now extinct Haasts eagle.
Giant Weta. Photo / NZH
• New Zealand is the proud home of seventy endemic species of weta, including eleven that reach gigantic proportions - for an insect. The largest, the Little Barrier weta, largest holds the record of being the world's heaviest insect, weighin in at a whopping seventy one grams - that's as much as two mice!
• Like grasshoppers and crickets, weta have 'ears' on their knees which they use to pick up sound vibrations.
Next time you find yourself amongst a conversation of the zoological persuasion, try out some of these odd facts on your soon-to-be riveted audience. You may even be inspired to find out some more for yourself.
Do you have more fascinating factoids to add about other native species?