Call of the Weird
Some of New Zealand’s stranger flora and fauna
I was preparing to tramp around Mount Taranaki when I discovered the stinkhorn. One of the guides I read mentioned these strange things, brightly-coloured and foul-smelling fungus. They emit a rotten meat odour to attract flies that might then spread their spores. For me it was a surprise, a reminder that the bush held things I had never heard of, or even considered. A few years tramping had been enough to let me think it was nothing but gnarled trees, flaxes and ferns, rocks, birds and the odd skink. And now the stinkhorn had proved me wrong. Because New Zealand does have its oddities, its strange beasts and weird plants.
By this I don’t mean kiwis or tuataras, but lesser known creatures, the ones which have no hope of gracing a coin or a stamp. Creatures like peripatius, the velvet worm. Nocturnal and confined to damp forests, peripatius gets about by wriggling around on tiny legs. Despite being just about blind, slow and at risk of both drying out in daylight and drowning in puddles, it is a ruthless predator. On detecting other bugs with its antennae, peripatius sprays them with a sticky goo. Trapping the poor beasts, it then bites into them, injecting a corrosive saliva. This digests them from the inside so that it can take its time to suck the innards out. The longest drink in town.
There is the Powelliphanta species of snail, the largest in the world. These can grow as big as a fist, live for up to 20 years and lay eggs like a small bird’s. Like peripatius, Powelliphanta are nocturnal, favouring damp forests, and like them they are carnivores. A DOC factsheet explains that Powelliphanta ‘suck up earthworms like spaghetti.’ And, clearly overcome by this fact, notes it a second time: ‘sucking them up through their mouth just like we eat spaghetti!’
Our weirder things are not just animals, we have some strange plants. That stinkhorn of course, but even a few more carnivores. We have seven varieties of sundew, a carnivorous plant which uses its sticky fronds to snare insects. New Zealand is also home to several types of bladderwort. Their name comes from the bladder-like sacs they use to trap and slowly digest insects. Unsuspecting bugs trigger a trapdoor, and are sucked into the ‘bladder,’ the door closing behind them.
I have yet to see a velvet worm, a Powelliphanta snail or one of our native carnivorous plants. In my four days at the base of Mount Taranaki I kept my eyes peeled for the glowing talons of the stinkhorn, without any luck. It was a disappointment, but on reflection it was lucky. Seeing and smelling one would only add them to the things I know, to the beech trees and the kidney ferns. Better to have things to wonder about, things that might be growing, sucking earthworms (like spaghetti!) or feasting on innards at any point along the track.