New Zealand is home to tens of thousands of endemic plant, animal, insect and marine species, and new discoveries are being made every year — including some creatures we’re too late to see. Science reporter Jamie Morton looks at 10 new finds.

1. Chatham Islands parrot

The Chatham Islands once had its own plump and peculiar-looking parrot, with a beak described as halfway between that of a kaka and a kea.

Confusion had surrounded a set of large parrot bones collected from the islands in the late 19th century, with suggestions they might have been kea, kaka or even kakapo.

A paper published last year formally described a distinct and extinct species, Nestor chathamensis.

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That the parrot might have been an undescribed species was mooted in the 1990s, but it was analysis of ancient DNA extracted from its bones that finally gave scientists the answer they were looking for.

Study lead author Dr Jamie Wood, of Landcare Research, said the bird had large thigh bones and a broad pelvis, which indicated it spent much time getting about on the ground.

It also looked "superficially" like a kaka - and his team estimated the parrot originated from a kaka that flew to the Chatham Islands around 1.75 million years ago, shortly before the islands emerged above sea level.

As the bird would have proven easy to hunt, it was thought Nestor chathamensis was destined for extinction the day the first human settlers drifted in off the ocean.

2. Wellington's tiny secret
Niwa principal scientist Dr Dennis Gordon thinks it amusing that for more than a century, a species of jellyfish was able to hide on the back doorstep of a natural sciences hotspot like Wellington.

But then it's not until you're snorkelling among the weed that this centimetre-sized, non-stinging, kelp-clinging wonder suddenly pops out at you.

The new species of Calvadosia, a stalked jellyfish, was discovered at Taputeranga Marine Reserve on the Wellington coast, but remains to be formally described.

Dr Gordon said stalked jellyfish used to be classified along with regular jellyfish, but are now recognised as part of a separate class and are among our oldest sea species.

"They are a very ancient group in terms of their body design.

"Probably at one time, we thought we had one species in New Zealand - now it looks like we've got seven or eight."

Worldwide, there were probably only between 50 and 60 species of stalked jellyfish.

"If we end up with 10 species for the entire [Exclusive Economic Zone], I'll be really impressed."

3. Try not to step on it
This as-yet unnamed species of pirate spider measures just a tiny 3mm to 4mm in body length.

This particular spider was found in Hamilton, in a small patch of bush by the Waikato River, and brings the number of pirate spiders, or Mimetidae, in New Zealand to eight.

"There are three species that are quite widespread throughout the South Island, and the rest you find as you move up into the North Island," said Canterbury Museum arachnologist Dr Cor Vink.

"I think the subtle reds they have make them one of the more eye-catching spiders."

Dr Vink hoped to formally describe the spider later this year.

4. A snail surprise
When a colleague suggested to renowned evolutionary geneticist Professor Hamish Spencer that he read the journal Zootaxa, he wasn't ready for what came next.

There among the pages was a snail species, newly described by Russian and French researchers, and named Hortia spenceri.

Although Professor Spencer didn't know the authors, the magnitude of the honour wasn't lost on him.

The gesture had been a hat-tip to his work in recording mollusc species, an area which isn't even a main focus of work for the director of the Otago University-based Allan Wilson Centre.

As for the snail, it was from a family previously known only from fossils and found in deep water off the east coasts of the North and South Islands.

"It's a kind of whelk, which means it's almost certainly a carnivorous species of some sort - but I have no idea what it lives on."

5. Cannibal worm
Measuring in the millimetres, nematode worms are incredibly tiny, but a picture of a new species of Latronema nematode, discovered at Hataitai Beach in Wellington, showed how fierce the worms appear when put under a microscope.

Although just about one millimetre long, it's a fierce predator that feeds on other nematode worms, and its mouth is equipped with 21 retractable sharp teeth that don't leave any chance of escape.

In the process of a large study of seafloor biodiversity, Niwa marine biologist Dr Daniel Leduc has found more than 750 new species on nematode.

While that figure might seem impressive, it's been suggested that nematode worms could be a group more diverse than any other kind of life in the sea.

One estimate had put the possible figure at one million, but in recent years other researchers reined the number back and offered more conservative guesses.

6. Blending in
Given how well they blend in, you might think it was camouflage that kept these two stick insects from being described for so long.

Clitarchus rakauwhakanekeneke, stick insects. Photo / Thomas Buckley, Landcare Research
Clitarchus rakauwhakanekeneke, stick insects. Photo / Thomas Buckley, Landcare Research

But the more likely reason they went undiscovered is that the areas they were found in - the North Cape area and the Poor Knights Islands - had received less conservation attention than other areas.

Scientists from Landcare Research named the Northland stick insect Clitarchus tepaki in consultation with iwi Ngati Kuri, whose rohe covers most of the Te Paki or North Cape area.

Its official Maori name is Whe O Ngati Kuri, whe being the word for stick insect.

Ngatiwai iwi, whose rohe covers the Poor Knights Islands, meanwhile chose the name Clitarchus rakauwhakanekeneke to describe the new species endemic to the islands, with the official Maori name being Rakau whakanekeneke, or "the stick that moves".

The Poor Knights Islands are remnants of a volcanic system dating back between 11.6 and 5.3 million years ago, and unlike many of our other offshore islands, were isolated from the mainland during the Last Glacial Maximum and possibly for as long as two million years.

This solitude allowed many endemic species of invertebrates to evolve - although the islands boast only one endemic plant species.

7. An odd couple
If you wade out into the water off the Firth of Thames, Omaha Beach or the Kaipara Harbour and pick up a sand dollar sea urchin, you might find it has some funny friends.

Found crawling around its underside are a newly recognised species of oxydromus, a tiny marine bristle-worm which is only found living in association with the disc-like sand dollars.

This small critter was only recently identified and joins around 500 species of bristle-worms known in New Zealand - another 500 to 1000 are probably yet to be discovered.

Bristle-worms are incredibly abundant in estuarine mud and deep-sea sediments, where many species use special tentacles to trap particles for food.

At the opposite side of the food chain, they themselves are a source of food for fish.

8. Oldest flying seabird
Nearly 60 million years ago, there lived a rather special seabird.

Scientists think it special not just because of its status as one of the world's oldest flying seabirds, but that it could prove a missing puzzle piece in our understanding of bird evolution.

An artist's impression of long-extinct seabird Australornis lovei. Photo / Derek Onley
An artist's impression of long-extinct seabird Australornis lovei. Photo / Derek Onley

Although there are bird groups described from the late Cretaceous period - circa 70 million years ago - most belong to groups not present on the planet today.

The fossil deposits of the bird, formally described last year, were of Paleocene age, or about 58 million years old.

The fossils were formed in the deep waters of a very warm sea off the coast of Zealandia, the continental fragment that New Zealand rests upon, shortly after the event that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and many marine organisms.

Fast-forward to 2009, when Waipara amateur fossil collector Leigh Love discovered the remnants in greensand deposits in North Canterbury.

After its discoverer, the bird was named Australornis lovei - a transliteration of the Latin scientific name is Love's Southern Bird.

The fossil happened to come from the same deposits as the world's oldest penguin, Waimanu, and appeared to be most similar to two species described from the late Cretaceous of the Antarctic Peninsula.

9. One king of a kanuka
Department of Conservation threatened plant scientist Peter de Lange reckons the lofty kanuka tree he helped formally describe last year is a "bit of an enigma".

That's because the K. triregenesis, a relative of other Kiwi kanuka trees, is endemic to the Three Kings Islands, which lie about 55km to the north of New Zealand.

The discovery fitted nicely into the wider picture of biodiversity on the small cluster of islands, which had been isolated from the mainland for at least one million years.

Other endemic residents of the island include a bellbird found nowhere else in the world, a raft of snails, invertebrates, lizards and 20 flowering plants and ferns.

Dr de Lange said the Three Kings kanuka differed from the other New Zealand species in the genus by a combination of the "white, hairy margins" on its leaves, distinctive influorescences and its tree-like habitat - it could grow up to 18m tall.

"This tree had been much confused with the Great Barrier Island endemic Kunzea sinclairii - usually a small creeping shrub."

10. An (un)common dolphin
All that remained of Papahu taitapu was a skull, jaw and a few other parts - but that was enough to tell its discoverers the dolphin they'd unearthed wasn't just like any other.

An artist's impression of Papahu taitapu - a long-extinct dolphin. Photo / Moyna Muller
An artist's impression of Papahu taitapu - a long-extinct dolphin. Photo / Moyna Muller

Rather, the long-extinct dolphin was the first of its kind ever found and probably a close relation to the ancestors of modern dolphins and toothed whales that roam our oceans today.

Before being formally recognised by University of Otago researchers last year, the fossil had long lain hidden inside marine sedimentary rock in the Cape Farewell region of the northern South Island. It lived between 19 and 22 million years ago, around the shallow seas of Zealandia with ancient penguins and baleen whales, and is one of the few dolphins to be reported globally dating to the start of the Miocene epoch.

Like most living dolphins, Papahu had many simple conical teeth, but its head was probably a bit wider.

An analysis of its skull and earbone suggested Papahu would havemade and used high frequency sound to navigate and detect prey in murky water, while also using sound to communicate with other dolphins.

The researchers found Papahu taitapu - Papahu being Maori for dolphin and "taitapu" honouring the region in which it was discovered - belong to a colourfully diverse group of ancient dolphins that were spread across the planet between 19 and 35 million years ago.

To read more science stories from Jamie Morton click here.