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Modern Dinosaurs: Nature docos are good, but NZ nature docos are better

Modern Dinosaurs, Sunday.

New Zealand’s unique and unusual native species are measured against their cousins from across the Ditch.

Nature documentaries are good; New Zealand nature documentaries are even better. So, although Modern Dinosaurs (Prime, Sunday, 7.30pm) is a bit like something you’d see on a plane, it’s still full of lovely local landscapes and our delightfully unique fauna.

Well, largely. By way of comparison, the series crosses the Tasman to look at some of our native animals’ distant relatives. In episode one, that’s the saltwater crocodile, which is related to the tuatara and also survived when a meteor destroyed 70% of life on Earth 65 million years ago.

As the two animals are very different, the question is, how did they both survive? The tuatara is an amazing creature, the last of the order of reptiles known as Rhynchocephalia. It has no external ears, a third eye and teeth that grow directly from its jaw. It can slow its metabolism when food is scarce, and, like a lizard, can lose part of its tail.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The saltwater crocodile is amazing in other ways, a scarily dangerous apex predator that hasn’t changed since it lived alongside the dinosaurs. It can reach 6m long and weigh as much as a car. A creature less like its self-effacing cousin is difficult to imagine.

The series, which first screened on Sky’s Discovery channel as New Zealand: Evolution Islands, features a number of excited DoC rangers and geologists. In this first episode, rangers are checking on their breeding programme on Little Barrier Island. They visit their “tuatarium” and carefully remove eggs from a burrow so that they may be safely incubated and hatched. They also return small tuataras, setting them up in desirable homes where they will hopefully attract mates.

All this intensive work has brought the tuatara back from the brink of extinction. The breeding programme began in the 1990s, when Little Barrier’s population was just eight adults, and the island is still the only place that tuataras exist in the wild.

The subjects of the other episodes are not difficult to guess: the kiwi, which includes a visit to the rarest of all, the rowi kiwi of the Ōkārito  wetlands. Aussie relative: the cassowary. Naturally, there’s a visit to the kākāpō, the world’s strangest parrot, and then back to Little Barrier to look at giant insects such as wētās, centipedes and carnivorous snails. This “island gigantism” is mirrored in Australia’s marsupial megafauna.

Finally, the sevengill sharks of Milford Sound, the whales of Kaikoura and the giant sawfish of northern Australia.

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.