21 Animals and Birds Unique to New Zealand

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New Zealand’s Weird and Wonderful Wildlife

New Zealand was an island free of land mammals before us pesky humans arrived. In turn, this means a few unusual species of animals and birds evolved that that are well worth looking out for while backpacking in New Zealand. That’s why we’ve put this quick list together of some of the animals and birds unique to New Zealand.

From the alpine parrots to “living dinosaurs”, there are quite a few surprises to be found on land. Not forgetting the marine life living it up in New Zealand’s waters like the world’s smallest dolphins or super cute fur seals. Trust us, you’ll be impressed by the variety of New Zealand native animals.

And to be clear, we love all animals in New Zealand so this is not a list of the best animals of New Zealand, just some of the most unique ones.

Can’t get enough of those New Zealand animals? Wildlife encounters are one of the most rewarding and intriguing New Zealand travel experiences, which you can learn more about in Wildlife Encounter in New Zealand: A Quick Guide to New Zealand Wildlife.

1. Kiwi Bird

The kiwi bird is the nation’s sweetheart and probably the most iconic of all the New Zealand animals. However, you won’t just find them wandering the streets and stealing your fries. These elusive nocturnal birds mostly live in forested areas. Check out how to spot these iconic birds in Where to See Kiwi Birds in New Zealand so you too can see the “national animal of New Zealand” for yourself.©

2. Lesser Short-tailed Bat

Second on our iconic list of New Zealand wildlife is a bat! Bats, or pekapeka, are particularly special in New Zealand as they are the only native land mammal of New Zealand. However, this species unique to New Zealand is endangered and can only be found in a few sites across New Zealand. And this concludes our list of New Zealand mammals, on land at least. Let’s keep going with more!

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3. Hector’s Dolphin

As promised, New Zealand mammals can also be found in the surrounding waters. Hector’s dolphins are the world’s smallest dolphin species. They are named after Sir James Hector, who first examined a dolphin specimen. You can mostly spot them riding the waves in the South Island. More famously, there are many pods in the Akaroa Harbour near Christchurch. Find out more on where to see dolphins at the 5 Best Places to Swim with Dolphins in New Zealand.©

4. Kea

Kea are the only alpine parrot in the world and are most commonly found in the Arthur’s Pass National Park and on the road to Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park. However, there’s always the possibility of seeing them in most alpine environments in the South Island. Warning: these cheeky parrots like dismantling cars.©

5. Hamilton’s Frog

Unfortunately, Hamilton’s frogs are critically endangered with only around 300 specimens remaining on Stephens Island, an island on the Cook Strait. They are closely managed by the Department of Conservation. A fun fact: Hamilton’s frogs do not croak.

Phil Bishop© Phil Bishop

6. Yellow-eyed Penguins

Yellow-eyed penguins are found around the south-east of New Zealand, Banks Peninsula and Stewart Island. They are one of six different species of penguins found in New Zealand and it’s surrounding islands. For more information, check out the 8 Best Places to See Penguins in New Zealand.©

7. Chevron Skink

These lizards are only found on the Great Barrier Island and Little Barrier Island. These secretive lizards are New Zealand’s longest lizards and have only had around 500 recorded sightings.

New Zealand Department of Conservation© New Zealand Department of Conservation

8. Little Blue Penguins

Little blue penguins are not completely unique to New Zealand, but New Zealand sure has the most amount waddling on the coastlines and off-shore islands. Check out places to spot little blue penguins here.©

9. New Zealand Fur Seal

Once hunted for their meat, New Zealand fur seals are now a protected species in New Zealand. They are abundant on the South Island coastlines, particularly around Kaikoura, the Catlins and Fiordland National Park. However, they are even known to visit as far north as the Bay of Islands in winter. Although fur seals tend to stick to the coast, they have been known to wander into people’s backyards. Find out where to see them in the 10 Best Places to See Seals in New Zealand.©

10. Tuatara

Tuataras are the only surviving reptile species from the dinosaur era, which gives them the nickname “the living dinosaur”. Another fun fact about the tuatara, they have a third eye on the top of their heads. Many conservation centres around New Zealand house tuatara. Plus, here is a secret: in our eyes, the tuatara should be the national animal of New Zealand.©

11. Maui Dolphin

This is just a subspecies of Hector’s Dolphin. However, they are extremely endangered. Check out Find the Rare Maui’s Dolphin to see how you can help the conservation effort. And honestly, who doesn’t want more pictures of dolphins?

Oregon State University on Flickr© Oregon State University on Flickr

12. Tui

A common bird species in New Zealand, the tui is only found in New Zealand. You’re likely to hear it before you see it with its unusual robotic calls. The plumage is mostly black with streaks of blue and two white feathers under its neck. You will find tui in most native forested areas in New Zealand.©

13. Bellbird

With similar melodic calls like the tui, the bellbird often gets mistaken for the tui. These smaller species of bird unique to New Zealand have a green tinge to their feathers and are again, found in most native forested areas in New Zealand.©

14. Wood Pigeon

The New Zealand wood pigeon, or kereru, is a native pigeon to New Zealand. They are larger than your average street pigeon with magnificent green plumage. However, they are clumsy fliers so can easily be heard landing on branches in the forest canopy. Keep an eye out for them in any native forest around New Zealand.©

15. Morepork

The morepork, or ruru, is New Zealand’s only remaining native owl. The owl species is also found in Tasmania. You can often hear morepork calling in forested areas at night.©

16. New Zealand Falcon

A bird of prey species only found in New Zealand, New Zealand falcon are not too common but can be seen at bird of prey sanctuaries.©

17. The Hooker’s Sea Lion

One of the most endangered sea lion species in the world, the Hooker’s Sea Lion or New Zealand sea lion can be found chilling on the shores of the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin and in the Catlins.©

18. The New Zealand Fantail

The New Zealand fantail or piwakawaka is one of New Zealand’s best-known birds. They seem to thrive just about anywhere and are known to fly right up to people.©

19. Tomtit

This small land bird species is endemic to New Zealand. They are smaller than the robin species in New Zealand with black and white/yellowish feathers on the male and grey and white feathers on the female.©

20. New Zealand Robin

Although they are three slightly different species, the North Island, South Island and Stewart Island robins are very similar in appearance. They are not scared to come right up to people and check the ground after you have been walking.©

21. Hihi / Stitchbird

One of the rarest birds in New Zealand, the hihi (or stitchbird) now extinct from mainland New Zealand. They are only naturally found on Little Barrier Island off the coast of Auckland but have been successfully reintroduced to some of the North Island’s off-shore islands. A fun fact about the hihi is that it’s the only bird in the world known to sometimes mate face to face!

© IG: nzbirdphotography


The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Robin C.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Robin, who is the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. With more than 15 years of experience in the New Zealand tourism industry, Robin has co-founded three influential tourism businesses and five additional travel guides for South Pacific nations. He is an expert in New Zealand travel and has tested over 600 activities and 300+ accommodations across the country.

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