The latest science suggests that the Moa, New Zealand’s giant and extinct flightless bird, may not always have been flightless.
Yup, Moa once flew. Setting aside the prospects of what might happen to anybody caught underneath one of these giant ratites at the moment when they decided to release one of their commensurately plus-sized dollops of Moa-guano , it also raises the question about what they might have been called. Flymo, perhaps?
Moa died out very soon after humans arrived in New Zealand. We’re lucky enough to have specimens of moa tissue – mummified skin and feathers, found in dry caves. I still recall being able to examine some of these, close up, behind the scenes at the Otago Museum. A great privelige. Anyway, the latest DNA analysis suggests the likely closest relative, which definitely still flies, is the South American tinamou.
We’ve already discovered that Kiwi probably also flew – in fact, may well have flown here after New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland, near the end of the Cretaceous period.
Both they and moa lost the power of flight, once here, because there were no predators – no need to keep flying, in fact. Along the way, moa split into several distinct species. Not as many as we once thought; they seem to have also had extreme dimorphism – what settler-age analysts thought were separate species, we now know, were actually males and females of the same species.
It’s pretty cool. We’re learning more and more about these extinct creatures every year. And it is also, I think, time to put one issue to rest. The debate over whether they died out for natural reasons – or because they were hunted to extinction.
The actual answer is that they were hunted to extinction. And fairly quickly. The archaeological evidence is extremely clear. New Zealand was the last large land mass in the world reached by humans. They arrived late in the piece from Polynesia – the Cooks and Marqueses islands, mainly – around 1280 AD, probably at the Wairau bar. And a biota that had been largely stable for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly changed.
It was the last great collision between humans and Pliestocene megafauna – and the result was the same in New Zealand as it was elsewhere. Moa, in particular, were unafraid of humans; had no evolved response to them. And they were slaughtered. Hunting parties would roam the high country, snacking on moa eggs and killing the birds. Often they would partially butcher them on the spot, then carry the choicest cuts downstream to great ovens near the coasts.
All of this is very clear in the archaeological evidence. And the hunters didn’t have to kill the last moa. All they had to do was reduce the population below breeding viability. It didn’t take long. By the fifteenth century at the latest they were largely gone. It is possible that relict populations may have survived a little longer in places like Fijordland, but soon they too were gone.
The fact that this happened has been ideologically difficult to accept; the arguments have raged back and forth, mirroring the way that indigenous populations have been re-invented in post-colonioal vision as greener and more eco-friendly than our own. Which they were, to a large extent. But that doesn’t reduce the clear evidence of an orgy of slash-and-dine in fourteenth century New Zealand. We have to accept the point. Moa died out not because their population was much in decline, not because of sudden climate change – but because they were delicious.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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