New Zealand broke away from Gondwana, an ancient landmass that existed approximately 80 million years ago according to scientists. Around 5 million years ago, New Zealand's two main islands began to form from a single land mass geologists have named 'Rangitata'.
The land was covered in rainforests. Many of these forests remain to this day in mountainous areas and other more isolated regions. And due to New Zealand's short European history, there was much less time to cut trees down before the world became aware of conservation. These forests are home to many unique animal and insect sprecies.
Sitting in an isolated area of the vast Pacific Ocean, the fauna of New Zealand adapted independently giving rise to numerous flightless birds of which the most famous example is the still existing Kiwi. The now extinct Moa was a more impressive bird and died out somewhere in the 18th or 19 century. Two species of moa were the tallest birds in the world. With necks outstretched they reached as high as 3.6 metres. These birds were a main food source for the Maori, but the birds couldn't reproduce quick enough. Once they were gone, the Haast Eagle followed. This eagle was the largest and most deadly aerial predator the world has ever seen. They attacked and ate Moa and probably made fair game of the first humans too.
The heaviest insect in the world still exists in New Zealand. Called 'weta', they are quite a sight to behold. WIth frightening appearance, these creatures existed even before dinosaurs. Another amazing creature is the tuatara. They are a unique species of reptile and the only existent species of its order remaining today. They are so ancient, that the creatures have body parts that baffle scientists as to their function.
New Zealand fauna lived in one of the world's most biodiverse areas for flora. Forests are lush with a myriad of fern species from ground ferns to the highest fern tree in the world, the Black Fern. The most distant Palm tree from the tropics is the Nikau Palm of New Zealand. It grows as far south as the 43° latitude in the temperate zone. It is the world's only non-tropical palm. The Giant Kauri in the north of New Zealand has more volume of wood than any tree in the world.
New Zealand was the last landmass to be discovered with humans occupation taking place somewhere between 950 and 1130 AD. Polynesians were the first to settle these islands. The Maori were known for their navigational skills with their migration to New Zealand being recognised as one of the greatest maritime feats in human history. These Polynesians named the islands of New Zealand, 'Aotearoa', which means 'land of the long white cloud'.
The Dutch were the first known Europeans to visit New Zealand. Abel Janszoon Tasman sighted the country in 1633. In 1642, Tasman was on a mission to discover a southern continent that was thought to stretch across the South Pacific. They eventually discovered the western coastline of Australia and part of coasts in both the North and South islands. Tasman described New Zealand as a "large land, uplifted high". He named it 'Staten Landt'.
How New Zealand got its name is not known. The name can be traced back as far as Captain Willem Jansz, a Dutch navigator who in 1620, sailed the south seas in search of gold and other riches. During his voyage, he observed an island off the coast of New Guinea, which he named 'Nieu Zelandt'. Maps as early as 1645 have the name 'Zeelandia Nova' ('new sea land' in Dutch). It is thought that the title might have been given later on to New Zealand because it also was a new land surrounded by sea.
Other historians think the land was named after the Dutch province of Zeelandt which was separated by sea from Hollandia. Likewise, Australia was called Hollandia Nova (New Holland) and across the sea was Zeelandia Nova (New Zeeland). Another opinion suggest that New Zealand was named after The Zeeland Chamber an important chamber of the Dutch East India Company.