Does New Zealand have Snakes? Explained and Why

Outdoor activities like hiking and fishing are very popular in New Zealand because it is a very safe place to spend time outdoors.  

New Zealand does not have snakes – so you will never come across a dangerous snake in the wild.  Snakes are a prohibited organism. It is illegal to own a snake, and even zoos or research institutes are not allowed to hold snakes.  However, you may rarely come across a sea snake in the water.

New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world for outdoor activities.  

The biggest killer in New Zealand is the weather which can switch from mildly temperate to freezing levels very quickly, though there is a lot of advice available on how to plan for the changes.  

But back to snakes.   

Why are there no snakes in New Zealand?

There have never been any snakes in New Zealand!

New Zealand sits on a tectonic plate that spun off from Gondwanaland 85 million years ago.

Gondwanaland included Antarctica, Australia, Africa, parts of Asia and South America.  

Dinosaurs existed when Zealandia split off Gondwanaland.  And while snakes also existed during that time they only made their way to Australia from Asia 55 million years ago. 

The existence of fossils proves dinosaurs existed in New Zealand, but no snake fossils have ever been discovered. This indicates that snakes have never existed in New Zealand. 

Fun fact: 
Zealandia is the name of the huge tectonic plate that New Zealand sit on.  It doesn’t officially qualify to be officially recognized as a continent, but is a significant expanse of the earth’s crust.  

Are there sea snakes in New Zealand?

Sea snakes are seen from time to time in the waters around northern New Zealand when warm subtropical currents carry them south from out of the tropics. 

Most common is the yellow-bellied sea snake, and the rarer yellow-lipped (or banded) sea krait.

These snakes can be highly venomous, but shy.  Snakes can bite you underwater, but usually only if they’re provoked or if they feel threatened. 

However, they should not be touched if found washed up on the beach, and it is illegal to kill or possess one, or any part of one without a permit.

Sea snakes are considered a native species under the New Zealand Wildlife Act 1953.  

How has New Zealand stayed snake-free?

Many animals have been introduced into New Zealand since being settled, first by the Maori and then by Europeans, but fortunately not snakes.  

Snakes have been banned since the amendment of the Animal Protection Act in 1895.  (The first infringement penalty for importing snakes was between five and fifty pounds.)

In fact, it is illegal to own a snake and not even Zoos or research facilities can have live snakes in their collection.

Today, penalties are high if you are found with a snake with one person even being imprisoned a few years ago. 

Fun fact:
New Zealand was one of the last places on earth to be populated by humans.  

The first people came from Hawaiiki about 1300 AD by canoe.  The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. 

The first European to discover New Zealand was Dutchman, Able Tasman, in 1642, but New Zealand was settled as a British colony in 1840.

There is a continual threat of snakes arriving by boat, hidden in cargo.  

New Zealand goes to a lot of effort to keep out any organisms that could threaten either our native wildlife or our agricultural economy. So crews of biosecurity officers checking cargo boats on arrival in New Zealand ports. 

In 2021, a meter-long carpet python was discovered in a pipe on a construction site.  The snake made its way from Australia hidden in an imported length of pipe, but was dead when found and has since been added to a specimen collection in Auckland. 

If you’ve ever visited New Zealand, you will recall the declaration you completed and the seriousness of the biosecurity officers who will fine you if you lie, or even accidentally bring in any type of food, like honey, meat or fruit. 

Why is it so important to keep snakes out of New Zealand?

New Zealand is an internationally recognized world ‘hotspot’ for biodiversity, since becoming an isolated set of islands for more than 85 million years.  

That includes having only one land-based mammal, a tiny bat.  

There are no large predators.

As a result, many New Zealand birds are flightless.  Here are some fun facts on New Zealand’s 16 amazing flightless birds.

The kiwi, which is our national bird, is flightless. And New Zealand also has the only flightless parrot in the world, the kakapo. 

With no predators sniffing them out, kiwi and the other flightless birds could safely forage from the forest floor, living and nesting on the ground.

But since the introduction of rats, stoats, cats and possums many native bird populations have been decimated.

It is now a race to stop extinctions and return the birds to their natural place in our ecosystem. 

Many more people want to hear the return of a dawn chorus from a flock of tuis. 

The kakapo was almost extinct until a few years ago when protections and a breeding program were put into place to rescue the few remaining birds.  

And one of the five species of kiwi is also threatened, being reduced to just one natural population.

It is critical that snakes are not allowed to get into New Zealand.  Snakes would further decimate our native populations of rare species, many of whom live on the ground.  

We can look at what happened in Guam when brown tree snakes were introduced. They became so pervasive they destroyed the island’s native bird populations.   

Fun Fact:

New Zealand has set an ambitious goal to be free of rats, stoats and possums by 2050.  

Read more about the Predator Free 2050 vision here. In areas where this has been achieved birdlife has returned. 

I’m lucky enough to live on the Kapiti Coast, where you’ll find New Zealand’s largest pest-free island, Kapiti Island.  

Also, just an hour from my home, I can visit, Zealandia, which is an ecosanctuary in the heart of Wellington city that hosts 40 rare species of native wildlife. 

Which countries have no snakes?

New Zealand is not alone.  

Snakes also do not exist in Ireland, Hawaii, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic and Antarctica.  

Also, most of the Pacific Island countries do not have snakes, including Tahiti, Vanuatu, Rarotonga, and Samoa.  (Fiji does have snakes, though the population was decimated with the introduction of mongoose to control the rats – which were also introduced.)

Geographic areas such as near the Arctic do not host snakes because snakes, being cold-blooded, do not like very cold climates. 

Since their body temperature relies on the surrounding environment, if snakes get too cold, they will die when their blood freezes.

Does New Zealand have dangerous animals?

New Zealand, like many of its Pacific Island neighbors, does not have dangerous land-based animals. 

In fact, there is only one mammal native to New Zealand.  They are tiny bats, the size of my thumb that weigh less than 4 oz (or 10 grams).  

According to The Encyclopedia of New Zealand animals may have evolved from life forms that were in New Zealand when it broke away from Gondwana. But so few fossils have been found that it is difficult to be sure.  

Because New Zealand is isolated by a large body of water only mammals who could swim or fly could ever colonize in New Zealand.  

The nearest large landmass is Australia, which is about 1,500 miles (or 2,407 km). 

I’ve written 11 fun facts about New Zealand and Australia here

New Zealand does have plenty of sea mammals, including native seals, whales, dolphins and sea lions. 

Does New Zealand have dangerous spiders? Find out more here.

Fun fact  
New Zealand's largest predator was the world’s largest eagle, the Haast's Eagle with a wing span of 7 - 10 feet (2 - 3 meters).  That was until it became extinct about 600 years ago, along with the giant flightless Moa

New Zealand offers a safe destination for outdoor activities

Come and explore our beautiful landscapes and wildlife.  Just bring layers of warm clothes if you are going bush, even in the summer, and your camera.