Why Snakes Are Illegal In New Zealand

New Zealand: home of hobbits, mountains and flightless birds. And no snakes. Even having snakes as pets is illegal in New Zealand. Despite being so close to Snake HQ (aka Australia), snakes are currently prohibited in the land of the long white cloud. But why? Let’s find out.

Before we can understand why snakes are illegal in New Zealand, we’ve got to know a bit about the history of snakes, and of the history of New Zealand's islands.

It can be difficult to say for certain things that happened millions of years ago. But by using clues from fossils, understanding plate tectonics and by observing the world around us, we can make a good guess as to why snakes are excluded from the islands. 

In fact, no snake fossils have ever been found on New Zealand, meaning snakes have probably never lived there. Of course, this doesn’t include the 2 species of sea snake that occasionally visit New Zealand’s north coast.

As an island nation, New Zealand isn’t alone in being serpent-free. Other large snake-free islands include Antarctica, Iceland, Greenland, Ireland and Newfoundland. What makes New Zealand remarkable though, is its proximity to Australia, a country that is home to Over 140 species of snakes. But how could this have happened?

Well, it’s all a matter of timing. Back before New Zealand was the home of rugby and hokey pokey, in fact 100million years back, New Zealand was part of Gondwana. Gondwana was a supercontinent which included modern-day Antarctica, Australasia, Africa, parts of South Asia and South America. By measuring continental drift and dating fossilised plants that New Zealand and the rest of the Gondwanan land masses have in common, we know that New Zealand probably split off from the Antarctic bit of Gondwana about 85 million years ago. This time on earth was called the Cretaceous period, and was when dinosaurs were still around. 

But what about snakes?

As of early 2018, the oldest known snake fossils are 167 million years old, and have been found in modern-day England. Other snake fossils from the Jurassic have been found in Portugal and the US. The taxonomical family Madtsoiidae are the earliest known snakes to have lived in Australia. This ancient family of snakes first shows up in the fossil record in modern North Africa about 95 million years ago. Other Matsoiidae fossils pop up all over the globe as the snakes spread, but the oldest Matsoiidae fossil found in Australia is from 55 million years ago. This is about 30 million years after New Zealand’s last contact with Australia, through Gondwana.

So, snakes effectively missed the tectonic boat to New Zealand. However, since human colonisation of the islands, animals such as bovines, felines, and canines have been introduced with vigour. But New Zealand has outlawed our slithery reptile friends. This is outlined in the ‘Animals Protection Act amendment’ of 1895 and enforced by strict biosecurity laws, as well as capture programs for any serpents that might have unwittingly hitched a ride on a ship. You can’t even find snakes in zoos in New Zealand!

But why put all this effort into keeping New Zealand snake free?

After millions of years with no ophidian (or mammalian) predators, New Zealand’s birds are at the top of the island’s foodchain, but have evolved to become astonishingly defenceless. For example, the famous kiwi bird is basically a flightless puff-ball, which has the largest egg to body-size ratio of any bird in the world. Just imagine how well an egg-eating predator would gorge on such large, ground-laid eggs.

So, there are no native snakes in New Zealand because it became an island 30 million years before snakes even made it to Australia, and snakes have been outlawed to protect New Zealand’s vulnerable native wildlife population, which could be endangered by introduced predators.

Transcript from Ticket To Know (amazing guys from Australia!). 

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