New Caledonia

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading

OVERVIEW

Explore New Caledonia and surrounding islands with Heritage Expeditions

An overseas territory of France since 1956, New Caledonia is the perfect blend of French sophistication and Melanesian tradition. Surrounded by the world's largest lagoon, the archipelago includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands and the Ile des Pins. The cosmopolitan capital of Noumea founded in 1860, sits on a large peninsula at the southern end of the island of Grande Terre and is the centre for tourism in these islands.

 

 

GEOGRAPHY

From coast to coast, New Caledonia stretches about 500 km and is home to some very diverse landscapes. It was originally part of Zealandia which broke away from the ancient Gondwana super-continent 60 to 85 million years ago. The mainland is divided lengthways by a central mountain range creating two distinctly different climates. On the east coast is lush vegetation, whereas the west has large savannahs and plains suitable for farming. The New Caledonian lagoon, one of the largest in the world with a total area of 24,000 square kilometers, is ringed by the New Caledonia Barrier Reef.

HISTORY

British navigator Captain James Cook, who first recorded sighting New Caledonia in 1774, saw a similarity between the mountainous terrain of the Grande Terre and his native Scotland, whose former name was 'Caledonia'. European contact with the islands became more frequent because of the interest in sandalwood. After that trade decreased, it was replaced by a much more sinister activity - that of "Blackbirding", a euphemism for enslaving people from the islands for work in sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland, Australia. The victims of this trade were called "Kanakas" after the Hawaiian word for 'man'.

In 1853 Napoleon III ordered Admiral Febvrier Despointes to take formal possession of New Caledonia and Port-de-France, which later became Noumea, was founded. It later became a penal colony where about 22,000 prisoners were incarcerated. The discovery of nickel in 1864 led to a mining boom and labourers were brought in to work the mines from neighbouring islands, Japan, the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina. The native population did not benefit from this boost to the economy and were even restricted to living in reservations. This situation led to a violent uprising of the central tribes, resulting in the deaths of 200 Frenchmen and 1,000 Kanaks.

During World War II the islands became an important base for Allied forces. The fleet which turned back the Japanese navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 was based at Noumea.

 

 

FAUNA & FLORA

Flora

New Caledonia's fauna and flora derive from ancestral species isolated in the region when it broke away from Gondwana many tens of millions of years ago. Not only endemic species have evolved here, but entire genera and even families are unique to the islands.

More tropical Gymnosperm species are endemic to New Caledonia than to any similar region on Earth. Of the 44 indigenous species of gymnosperms, 43 are endemic, including the only known parasitic Gymnosperm (Parasitaxus usta). Again, of the 35 known species of Araucaria, 13 are endemic to New Caledonia.

The world's largest extant species of fern, Cyathea intermedia, is also is endemic to New Caledonia. It is very common on acid ground, and grows about one metre per year on the east coast, usually on fallow ground or in forest clearings. There also are other species of Cyathea, notably Cyathea novae-caledoniae. New Caledonia also is one of five regions on the planet where species of Nothofagas are indigenous; five species are known to occur here.

New Caledonia has its own version of maquis (maquis minier) which occurs on metalliferous soils, mostly in the south. The soils of ultramafic rocks (mining terrains) have been a refuge for many native flora species because they are toxic and their mineral content is poorly suited to most foreign species of plants.

 

Fauna

New Caledonia is home to the New Caledonian crow, a bird noted for its tool-making abilities, which rival that of primates. These crows are renowned for their extraordinary intelligence and ability to fashion tools to solve problems, and make the most complex tools of any animal yet studied apart from humans.

The endemic Kagu, agile and able to run fast, is a flightless bird, but it is able to use its wings to climb branches or glide. It is the surviving member of monotypic family Rhynochetidae, order Gruiformes. There are 11 endemic fish species and 14 endemic species of decapod crustaceans in the rivers and lakes of New Caledonia. The Nautilus, considered a living fossil and close to the Ammonites which became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic era, occurs in Pacific waters around New Caledonia.

Australian Ornithologist Mike Tarburton has produced a birdlist for Melanesia which is a useful tool for birders.

Several species of New Caledonia are remarkable for their size. The Ducula goliath is the largest extant species of pigeon; Rhacodactylus leachianus, the largest gecko in the world; the Phoboscincus bocourti the largest skink in the world, thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 2003.

 

 

FURTHER READING

Di Giorgio Wladimir, member of the Pontifical Academy, in "Francs et Kanaks" (Purpose of the n° 51495 résolution).2009.

Boyer, S.L. & Giribet, G. (2007): A new model Gondwanan taxon: systematics and biogeography of the harvestman family Pettalidae (Arachnida, Opiliones, Cyphophthalmi), with a taxonomic revision of genera from Australia and New Zealand. Cladistics 23(4): 337-361

 

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