It’s true. New Zealand Moa once flew. Cool.

The latest science suggests that the Moa, New Zealand’s giant and extinct flightless bird, may not always have been flightless.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,
A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell – son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,
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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11 thoughts on “It’s true. New Zealand Moa once flew. Cool.

  1. This has always been my understanding, that the Moa were hunted into extinction. There still seems to be some debate about what caused the American Mammoth to die out, and I believe it’s human predation once again. Sabre-toothed cats followed soon after. Environmental pressures were no doubt a factor, but this plus human hunting was too much. I think the indigenous peoples of many lands had to “learn” to preserve their own habitat and this learning process came with a number of mistakes being made. The extinction of the Moa being one of them.

    1. Quite right. The problem of environmental impact followed by a culture-shift towards more sustainable practise is exactly what happened in NZ. The characteristic features of Maori tikanga (culture) emerged in the fifteenth century at about the same time as the age of ‘blitzkrieg dining’ ended. Effectively it marks the switch from a ‘colonist/Polynesian’ culture to an indigenous one that was built around local characteristics. Part of the driver behind that change was the usual issue of cultural drift in an isolated community; but more particularly the fact that the Polynesian colonists had to develop new ways of coping once they had eaten their way through the flora and fauna.

      Still, the debate here – as elsewhere – has been quite polarised, and is still argued in some circles. Mostly because in today’s post-colonial academia, there is an undercurrent – never quite admitted to in as many words – that only western colonial cultures can be careless about the environment. Therefore some other reasons must be found for the dramatic shifts. This has been pushed in some quite unsubtle ways – for example, a moa display in the New Zealand national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, that shows moa falling prey to Haast’s Eagle/Harpagornis moorei – the largest eagle that ever lived, 12-foot wingspan. It occupied the same ecolocigal niche as the great cat.

      The reality? Haast’s Eagle, too, is extinct, one of around 35 species that met their doom in the decades after humans burst into New Zealand for the first time. Here’s the reference:

      Of course, as we know, ALL human societies deal to environments. The difference between our society and the earlier ones is that we industrialised it. And as you point out, all these changes reflected mixes of factors – there were certainly natural environmental factors in the conglomerate. But there’s no question that, certainly in New Zealand, the impact of humans was a key factor in the mix. It wasn’t just limited to over-consumption, because human-lit fires also destroyed the bush environment in which the Moa and other species lived. I think this is true of other environments around the world too – down here we were just the last in a succession of collisions that had been going on since the Pleistocene.

      1. Yes, I’ve seen this sort of thinking before. It leads to the belief that indigenous cultures could do no wrong. This reactionary belief stems from ( European guilt?) over the horrors perpetrated on indigenous cultures by European cultures in the Americas and Australia and apparently, New Zealand. While we did do awful things, the indigenous cultures were no less human than Europeans with all the hubris and foibles humanity possesses. To presume indigenous peoples never made mistakes, is to also presume they are not quite human, and I think that’s insulting, whether they intended insult or not.

        Indigenous peoples made mistakes, and then they learned from them, and they became wise in the conservation of their own environment. The minds of Human beings are self-programming. We don’t necessarily follow instinctual impulses, which means we may take actions which aren’t necessarily in our own best interests. A common termite cannot make such errors. They just aren’t sophisticated enough to make the errors that humans make, as contradictory as that may sound. Humans, whether the Smith family of Vermont, the Choctaw tribe, the Wintons of Westminster, or the Maori are all equally human and therefore equally flawed. I don’t think this is so hard to conceptualize.

        You know I actually had someone say this to me in all seriousness: that the people of Afghanistan honestly had no concept of lying until it was taught to them by the CIA! I was so flabbergasted I didn’t know how to respond. All human beings are sophisticated creatures that can envision things that are not real, thus giving us the capacity to lie. Without realizing it, this guy had just claimed that Afghanis are intellectually less sophisticated than Westerners. A condescending viewpoint if you ask me.

  2. Evolution, by definition, means that some species will die off. Survival of the fittest and all that. However, the vast numbers of animal species that have been eradicated, either by design or ignorance, is staggering. When I daydream, I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to see some of these fascinating creatures.

    1. It would be amazing to meet some of these creatures. I fear that the dream of re-generating them via surviving genetics isn’t practical, though. Some moa soft tissue has survived – mummified specimens have been found in caves. I had the chance to examine them, years ago. But there is no useful genetic material in them, unfortunately. A few years ago, though, someone calculated what the moa call would have sounded like, based on what we know of the trachea and throat. The sound was re-created for a museum exhibit I saw – one of those ‘push the button and listen’ displays. Kind of cool.

  3. This is sad and it’s tragic. Humans don’t have the right to exterminate entire species, but we do it quite often. We should be this planet’s shopkeepers, not a monkey playing in a china shop with a loaded gun.

    1. Richard Attenborough recently referred to humanity as the scourge of the planet. Spurred protests, but if you look at it from the viewpoint of the environmental damage we are doing, the extinctions we have caused, and so on, he was probably right.

  4. Fascinating post, Matthew, and for what it is worth, I agree with Attenborough, which is not surprising to you I am sure. In many ways, I am the polar opposite of those claiming that environmental factors were responsible for the major decline of flora and fauna on this planet. I need to move to the middle of the argument, clearly. As you say, many indigenous cultures had a greater respect for land and life than we do but it is the human that kills for more than just an immediate need and always has or so it seems to me.

    1. I agree with Attenborough too. Yes, other factors also affect the environment – but with seven billion humans on the world, many of them conditioned to over-consumption and waste as their ‘normal’, it’s hard to see us as anything other than a scourge from a planetary perspective. The curious thing is that it seems to have been like this in the Pleistocene, too, but the scale of it was so much smaller. Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ apparently details the issue – I haven’t read it yet but must track it down.

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