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Ideas for children, parents and teachers to explore and discover Ancient New Zealand – from Moa to Dinosaurs

for children

New Zealand’s past is unique. From Moa to Dinosaurs tells the story of some of the animals that are known to have lived here. Over millions and millions of years, the land that we now know as New Zealand went through many changes in shape and size, the weather changed dramatically, animals became extinct and new ones arrived.

In From Moa to Dinosaurs, we take you back in time and give you glimpses of what New Zealand might have looked like at different time periods and what animals and plants lived here. Ned has drawn pictures of the animals. For some of them he had to use his imagination since there isn’t much information about what they looked like. Gillian has written about what is known about animals that lived in different time periods and how scientists discover information about the past.


new knowledge

Knowledge about the past is based on evidence, such as fossils, that are discovered. Some fossils have been discovered by children or adults; not all fossils are found by scientists. But to make sense of these finds, scientists use technology (such as DNA) and scientific knowledge (e.g. how bird bones are different from mammal bones) to help uncover their secrets.

Scientists use evidence and knowledge to develop theories about the past. There can be a lot of debate about whether these theories are correct. As new information about our past is uncovered, for example, as new fossils are found and new technology is developed, theories can sometimes be proved wrong or right. One example of this is how scientists once thought there were many different species of moa based on the skeletons they found, but once they had DNA technology they discovered that there were only 9 species.

In this book we’ve done our best to be up-to-date. As a result, some details in our book may be different from older books on the topic. It also means that new discoveries may come along once this book is in print. Good places to find out about any new discoveries are the websites below.


be an explorer of the past

Here are some things you can do:

  • Visit local sites where fossils can be found;
  • Visit museums to see displays of animals from the past;
  • Find out about how fossils are created;
  • Read books or websites about the past.
gillian candler (author) and
ned barraud (illustrator)




I found my first fossil when I was a young child living in England. My brother and I found interesting looking stones when we were playing around in an old river bed, but we didn’t know they were fossils until our mother explained this to us. The more I learned while researching for this book, the more fascinated I’ve become with New Zealand’s ancient past, especially about the animals that lived here before humans arrived. I write a blog about nature:



I have a keen passion for the natural world and this book was a perfect opportunity to put on paper some of the most bizarre and fascinating creatures from New Zealand’s past.

If you want to see some of my other pictures you can visit my site

for parents and teachers

Zealandia split from Gondwana and changed over millions of years to become what we know as New Zealand. This ancient past includes stories about animals that are unique to New Zealand, as well as those, such as dinosaurs, that were shared with other continents. Reading about what lived in ancient New Zealand, children can learn:

  • That groups of living things have changed over long periods of time and that some living things in New Zealand are quite different from living things in other areas of the world;
  • That science knowledge changes over time;
  • That scientists use evidence to support their ideas;
  • That people’s actions impact the world’s biodiversity and affect the survival of unique species.

At the same time, children can be learning to think like scientists by:

  • Developing their observation skills;
  • Thinking about how living things can be named and grouped;
  • Exploring and acting on issues.


a note about the book

Covering more than 100 million years in 36 pages means inevitably many time stages had to be left out. We chose to focus on living things, rather than geology, and to illustrate a couple of time stages where there was a good amount of information available, rather than trying to cover every stage.


reading the book

Here are some ideas for re-reading the book – things to look for and talk about, and games to play:

  • If you have the hardback edition, the endpapers have silhouettes of creature from the book – see if children can work out which ones they are.
  • Pages 4–5: What animals can you see in this picture? Which species do you think are still alive in New Zealand today?
  • Pages 6–7: The timeline goes back from today to Gondwana times. The maps are not to scale but give an idea of the changing shape of the land. Follow up with a digital interactive that models the changes over time (see websites below); do the ‘how long is a million years’ activity; use the timeline as an alternative contents page and refer to the page numbers to read more about a particular time.
  • Pages 9, 10, 13, 21, 25, 29: All have ‘how do we know?’ boxes – discuss what kind of work scientists do to study the past.
  • Pages 14–17: Match birds on these pages with ones on pages 8–13 (not all will be in both places).
  • Pages 18–19: These animals are still surviving in New Zealand. Have you seen them anywhere? In zoos, sanctuaries or in the wild? Do you think they are endangered?
  • Page 20–23: Flip back and forth between the two pictures to name some of the animals on pages 20–21.
  • Pages 26–27: Look at the different teeth and beaks on these pages. What can you tell about what these animals ate from their teeth and beaks?
  • Page 29: Refer to the map on pages 6–7 to get a better idea of how the continent slowly split apart.
  • Pages 32–33: The circled pictures are all fossils. Talk about how different they look from the original animal or plant; ‘how did they get here’ talks about animals that arrived after the split – what animals do you know of that arrived in this way? (examples of bird species that have flown here from Australia in recent times are silvereye, spur-winged plover, white-faced heron).


out and about activities

Look for fossils or other interesting geological evidence. Local historical societies may have descriptions of places to visit or even run trips to see fossils or interesting geological evidence. The Kiwi Fossil Hunter’s Handbook by James Crampton and Marianna Terezow (Random House, 2010) is child-friendly and describes places across New Zealand where fossils can be found.

Visit a native animal sanctuary to see the animals that are survivors of the past and to learn about what New Zealand must have looked and sounded like to the first people that came here. Some sanctuaries, such as Zealandia in Wellington, have displays about extinct animals.

Visit a museum or exhibition, even small local museums will usually have fossils and other finds that indicate New Zealand’s ancient past. Larger museums may have displays of how New Zealand might have looked or interactive exhibits that show changes to the land.

Visit limestone caves that contain remains of animals, for example at Waitomo, Oparara or Takaka.


things to do at home

  • Draw life-size moa, Haast’s eagle, giant penguins etc with chalk on a pathway or make an outline with string on the lawn. Or make a life-size cardboard silhouette that can stand up.
  • Create your own fossils and organise a pretend ‘dinosaur dig’.
  • Create your own imaginary ancient and now extinct creature – what time period did it live in? What did it eat?
  • Find out more about extinct birds of New Zealand from New Zealand Birds Online or the illustrated book Extinct Birds of New Zealand by Alan Tennyson and Paul Martinson (Te Papa Press, 2006).
  • Make models of extinct animals and create your own diorama showing animals in their habitat.
  • Make a movie about an extinct animal using claymation or other animation techniques.
  • Imagine you were in a time machine and able to travel back in time – what time would you like to travel back to? Create a story, play or movie about your travels.
  • Find out how tectonic plates move. Watch YouTube clips and create your own models to demonstrate tectonic plates using ideas from Pinterest.
  • Take the fossil challenge and draw an animal based on its fossil remains.
  • Watch television/YouTube documentaries that will keep you up-to-date on dinosaur discoveries around the world.

See Pinterest pages for some ideas for crafts and activities as well as information sources:


more information about Ancient New Zealand

Adults might like to read Ghosts of Gondwana by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton, 2016) to learn more about up-to-date theories about the history of our iconic animals.


The following websites have information that is reasonably accessible to children: – Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand – Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa: includes online fossil collections – Department of Conservation: information on surviving native species – New Zealand Birds Online: includes information on extinct birds – GNS Science: lots of information about New Zealand fossils – Auckland Museum animation showing changes of Gondwana to today – Another Gondwana animation – Learning Zone about fossils (not New Zealand specific)


other sources that may require more adult guidance to understand are: which describes some of New Zealand’s fossil records which is a mixture of blogs from scientists as well as cultural curators. Look for blogs by Alan Tennyson, Colin Miskelly and Leon Perrie, for example.


there are also some other blogs or articles from scientists on specific topics such as: – fossil penguins – whale evolution

and discussions about what extinct animals might have looked like and how to represent them


curriculum links

Te Whariki

Strand 5: Exploration

Goal 4: Children experience an environment where they develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds.

The New Zealand Curriculum: Science

Nature of Science

Understanding about Science, Investigating in Science, Communicating in Science, Participating and Contributing.

Level 1–2 Living World

Students will:

Explain how we know that some living things from the past are now extinct

Level 1–2 Planet Earth and Beyond

Students will:

Explore and describe natural features and resources

Describe how natural features are changed and resources affected by natural events and human actions.

Level 3–4 Living World

Students will:

Explore how the groups of living things we have in the world have changed over long periods of time and appreciate that some living things in New Zealand are quite different from living things in other areas of the world.


classroom resources

For more information about ancient New Zealand and for assessment and teaching ideas see: – Designed for schools, this site has lots of interactive material, child-friendly explanations, videos of New Zealand scientists and other information. Look for topics such as: dating the past, Joan Wiffen, ferns, moa, Gondwana.

Building Science Concepts Series: Book 41 Fossils: digging up the past, published by the Ministry of Education – GNS Science for teaching ideas about New Zealand fossils

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