All kiwi are the same, right? Wrong. There are actually five different species of kiwi, all with their own unique features.
Delving into kiwi DNA
For much of the last century, in the days before genetic research, kiwi were classified according to their body structure. Because scientists could only work from what they could see, up until the 1980s just three species of kiwi were formally recognised: the great spotted kiwi, the little spotted kiwi, and the brown kiwi.
Genetic research in the 1980s changed all of this. It allowed kiwi DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) to be studied. For the first time, scientists could read the ‘essence’ of kiwi, not just what the scientists’ eyes could see.
By comparing the DNA of different kiwi species, geneticists have been able to infer their evolutionary history, which it turns out is much more complex than suggested by studying their anatomy alone.
From three to five species
This genetic research confirmed the great spotted and little spotted kiwi as separate species.
But it also split brown kiwi up into three distinct species: brown kiwi, rowi, and tokoeka.
Thanks to DNA, today five kiwi species are formally recognised.
And, with further genetic research under way, even more species and/or subspecies may be identified in the future, especially within the tokoeka.
In 2016, a paper published by a researcher from Toronto University and the Department of Conservation looked deeper into the different lineages of the five recognised species.
1. North Island brown kiwi
Population estimate: 24,550
Estimated 2030 population: 32,081
North Island brown kiwi are found in four distinct regions in the North Island: Northland, Coromandel, Eastern, and Western. They are known for their long noses, short tempers, and spiky brown plumage.
2. Great spotted kiwi/roroa
Population estimate: 14,800
Estimated 2030 population: 12,428
Great spotted kiwi/roroa are rugged mountaineers found in three discrete natural populations: northwest Nelson, the Paparoa Range, and near Arthur’s Pass.
3. Little spotted kiwi/kiwi pukupuku
Population estimate: 1,800
Estimated 2030 population: 2,867
The little spotted kiwi is the smallest of the kiwi species. Their shaggy plumage is a pale mottled grey. Their total number is thought to be just over 1500 and growing.
Population estimate: 500
Estimated 2030 population: 891
The rowi (Apteryx rowi) was only identified as a distinct kiwi species in 2003. Before then, it was thought to be a variety of brown kiwi. Rowi is the rarest species of kiwi.
Learn more about kiwi
How you can help
Many hands make light work. Keen to join the mission to save the kiwi? Here are some ways you can help.