These galleries tell the story of Otago’s wildlife, from birds, insects and fish to the seals, sea lions, penguins and albatrosses of the Otago Peninsula.

When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand, they found islands cloaked in evergreen forest. Bats were the only land mammals, and there were few reptiles and amphibians. In the absence of mammalian predators, this was a paradise for birds – as well as being home to a wide diversity of invertebrates.

New Zealand’s ecosystems had evolved in isolation, uninterrupted by major change for around 80 million years, until the arrival of humans who brought fire, new species and hunting. 

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Land birds and fish were the most common large animals in New Zealand prior to the arrival of humans. Two-thirds of the land birds were unique to this country. In isolation, birds had diversified to fill the roles that mammals had elsewhere; some became gigantic, flightless or ground nesting.

Today, we have just a few of the original species once present in Otago. Kiwi, kākāpō, kākā, kākāriki... these uniquely New Zealand birds once thrived in the dense bush that covered much of Otago. Though still found elsewhere in New Zealand, they are now locally extinct. Introduced predators, the loss of forest habitats and hunting have all played a part in their demise.

However, the instantly recognisable voices of bellbirds and tūī are common in Otago forests and gardens. The kererū makes a loud whooshing noise as it flies by, and the distinctive ‘more-pork’ call of our only remaining native owl is still heard.

Based on known species, at least 90% of New Zealand’s land and freshwater invertebrates are found nowhere else in the world. Before human settlement, some insects adapted to become large and flightless in the absence of land mammals.

Just as the topography and climate of Otago is varied and extreme, so too are the resourceful creatures that survive in these habitats.

To absorb the sun’s heat, alpine insects are often larger and darker than their lowland relatives. Tussock-land insects burrow into soil to avoid heat, cold and their natural enemies. Nearer the coasts, where temperature swings are less extreme and shrubs provide cover, many insects live above ground.

Marine life thrives in the waters off Otago’s coast. The cool waters are rich in nutrients and support an astounding variety of marine life. From seals to sharks and sea stars to seahorses, Otago’s Ocean features an intriguing array of creatures.

Taking pride of place is Autahi the Leopard seal. Almost three metres long, this mature female died on Waikouaiti Beach, just north of Dunedin. Named after the star appearing in the pre-dawn sky at the time of Matariki, Autahi is a very special part of the Museum’s collection.