Field of Science

Ka Ngaro I Te Ngaro A Te Moa

Already when the two large islands of New Zealand became colonized by the first Polynesian explorers (ca. 1.200 - 1.400 A.D.) the Moas, a family of fligthless birds with various species, was already in decline or extinct on large parts of the main islands, in bone beds found in Maori camps and dated to this period the bones represent nearly exclusively the species Euryapteryx gravis, and soon after these bird remains were replaced completely by fish bones.

The first Europeans discovered New Zealand in 1769, and
Captain Cook explored the Northern Island in 1773. Cook was very interested in the natural history of the places he explored, and he collected information's from the inhabitants about the fauna - the Moa was practically unknown to the locals, it seems that only on the southern part of the island there were some legends somehow related to big birds.
In contrast on the Southern Island the Moa appeared in man
y traditions, it was told that the bird ingested rocks and one of the hunting methods was to use small incandescent rocks, which ingested by the birds killed them from inside. The preferred habitat of the birds was said to be the swamps forests, and according to the testimonies until 1800 they were very rare animals, but still living on the island.
This seemed the last chapter of the Moa story, but then rumours begun to spread between the European colonists and stories about giant birds, 4m high, were told by seal hunters in the early 19th century.
It is however not clear if they based their stories on observation of bones or the legends of the local Maoris, for example in 1823 a hunter named Meurat claimed to have found a bone with flesh attached to it, and assumed by their apparent good preservation tha
t the remains were very recent. Joel Polack, a trader who lived on the East Coast of the North Island from 1834 to 1837, records that during a forced stop of his ship in the Tolaga Bay in 1838 he had been shown "several large fossil ossifications" found near Mt Hikurangi by the Maori in the winter of 1834.
He was certain that these were the bones of a species of emu or ostrich, also noting in his report that "the Natives add that in times long past they received the traditions that very large birds had existed, but the scarcity of animal food, as well as the easy method of entrapping them, has caused their extermination". Polack further noted that he had received reports from Maori that a "species of Struthio" still existed in remote parts of the South Island.

The German naturalist and geologist Ernst Dieffenbach also refers to a fossil from the area near Mount Hikurangi, and surmises that it belongs to "a bird, now extinct, called Moa* (or Movie**) by the natives".
He continues "On questioning the natives, as I usually did, relative to the natural history of their country, I heard a curious tradition connected with the totara-tree in the n
eighbourhood. Near this tree they said their forefathers killed the last moa. From the few remains of the moa that have been found it has been declared by Mr. Richard Owen to be a struthious bird of large size."
This story was told to Dieffenbach between the years 1839 and 1841.

In 1839, John W. Harris, a Poverty Bay flax trader who was a natural history enthusiast, was given a piece of unusual bone by a Maori who had found it in a river bank. He showed the 15 centimetres fragment of bone to his uncle, Dr. John Rule, a Sydney surgeon, who sent it to Richard Owen who at that time was working at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
Owen first hypothesised that the femur was from a horse or a bovid, but f
inally he published a preliminary note affirming that the bones were from a species of giant birds and named it Dinornis.

Fig.1. Richard Owen (ca. 1846) wearing the robes of Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons and holding in his left hand a Dinornis femur. From merely a fragment of a similar thighbone he deduced, in apparent confirmation of Cuvierian functionalism, the former existence in New Zealand of the now extinct group of flightless birds, the Moas - he considered this one of his major scientific triumphs, and 30 years later posed with a Moa-skeleton to reconfirm his reconstruction.
Daguerreotype (Timbs, Yearbook of Facts in Science and Art, 1852, frontispiece).

In July 1
847 Gideon Mantell received a letter of his son Walter, who 8 years before had left England to live in New Zealand, where he announced the discovery of fossils at the archeological site of Waingongoro in South Taranaki and the intention to send them to his father at Clapham. More then 800 fossils arrived in December; most notably Walter collected many bones of Dinornis, a complete skull and fragments of eggs.

"Because Professor Owen made this topic to his o
wn, I decided to give up the joy and the pride of a first description, and allow him to utilize all the new specimens, collected by my son Walter."

The well preserved bones and the rumours encou
raged Walter to try his luck and search for the bird.
"If a living Moa exists, my son will catch him" affirmed Gideon
not without pride. In 1847 to 1850 Walter Mantell could prove that feathers of Moa were used by Maori clan chiefs as ensigns of their authority, proving that in fact the Maori did encounter in historic times these animals.
r Walter Gideon soon abandoned the hunt for a living Moa. But despite the failings the idea that Moa were still alive in the 19th century persisted.

Fig.2. Fossil sites and sites with supposed reports and stories about "giant birds" as referred in the text.

The first naturalist who intensively sustained that this bird was still alive was the missionary and amateur palaeontologist William Colenso, which in 1842 claimed that he, altogether with two friends, William Williams and Rev. Richard Taylor, was the true discoverer of the first Moa bones.
In January 1838 he accompanied the missionary Wi
lliams to the east Coast, where they recorded the myth of "Waiapu", a giant bird with the face of a man living in a cave on Mount Whakapunake. Maori also used to collect giant bones to make fish hooks. In 1839 Williams returned to the East Coast with the Rev. Taylor and could acquire a heavenly damaged bone.
Colenso became convinced that the giant bird was
still alive, and in 1841-42 explored the eastern coast of the Northern Island:

"the people had never seen a Moa, although they had always heard of, and invariably believed in the existence of such a creature at that place" (COLENSO 1846).

Colenso in 1846 also reported the presumed encounte
r of two American hunters with a four and a half meter high bird, but the two men were to afraid to shoot the animal. In dispute with Owen about the first description and denomination of the Moa, Colenso send his collected fossil bones only to William Buckland and William Jackson Hooker, who however promptly handled them over to Owen, who in 1843 published a second, improved article on the Moa - birds.
With the fossils acquired until then Owens recognized that there were different species of Moa, "Dinornis robustus", "D. elephantopus" and "D. cra
ssus" on the northern island, and "Dinornis giganteus" and "D. gracilis" on the southern island. Owen himself included in the publication some footnotes with the remark of rumours that giant birds were still alive on the Island of D'Urville and other islands of the Cook Strait.

Fig.3. Photograph of Richard Owen and a reconstructed Dinornis robustus (now novazealandiae) skeleton from Tiger Hill in 1878. Owen is holding in the right hand the original fragment of the femoral shaft brought to London in 1839 by Dr. Rule and rests the left hand on the counterpart in the reconstructed skeleton.

To the governor Robert Fitzroy in 1844 the Maori Kawana Papai told an eyewitness report about a Moa hunt in 1790 on the southern island: "the Moa defends itself by kicking and could be hunted by two ways, hitting it on the head or letting it swallow a hot rock."
Colenso was still on the search of a living Moa, but could offer only some anecdotes to support his claim: the already taken in account "mechanic's tale" of 1842 about the two American hunters who ventured in the Marlborough mountains to a place that their Maori guide knew a moa to visit "presently they saw the monster majestically stalking down in search of food: they were, however, so petrified with horror at the sight as to be utterly unable to fire on him. Had they commenced the combat, it is, I think, highly doubtful how it might have terminated".
In the second story a shepherd affirmed to have seen an awful bird on the shores of the river Waiau in 1860, and a certain Robert Clark told that he encountered in his youth "a giant black bird with long limbs and a neck, with a crest on the head", and also in 1860 two civil servants, Mailing and Brunner, reported to have found fresh tracks of a big bird leading to an area with caves, where presumably the animal was hiding.

Fig.4. A classic, however incorrect reconstruction of a Moa standing upright and compared to three kiwis, after HOCHSTETTER 1865.

The geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, participant of the Novara expedition (1857-59), investigated the claims during his visits to New Zealand, and hypothesised that the sightings and legends were misguided observations of two more recent kiwi-species, which fossil remains were discovered by him and named Palapteryx and Megalapteryx didinus, (he estimated the discovered mummified remains approximately 200 years in age).

Legend affirms that in 1892 in a rubbish pit near Waikane, be
tween modern trash like glass bottles and horseshoes, bones of a Moa were found, seemingly supporting a very recent origin of the bones.
The legend of the Moa still living on New Zealand continued into the 20th century and as modern myth it is still well and alive until the last years. In 1993 the military officer Paddy Fearney and teacher Sam Waby claimed to have seen a large bird on the shores of a river in the interior of the Southern Island. After a first surprise Fearney managed to take a photo that was widely published in the January and February 1993 issues of various journals.
However the photo is very blurry and palaeontologists consider the photo showing only the posterior of a deer. Also it would not be the first hoax i
n the history of the Moa - in 1954 the workman Neville perpetuated a hoax with false Moa footprints by applying false claws on his shoes and creating some track ways.

It does seem that an ancient proverb summarizes best the case of the Moa:

"Ka Ngaro I Te Ngaro A Te Moa" - lost, as the Moa is lost

*Colenso in a work of 1846 refers that the denomination Moa seems to come from a mythological creature living in a cave on the east Coast, described to be half human and half bird, however it is not clear what the origin and meaning of this word is (sometimes translated as the name of a domestic fowl or chicken) and if it has any closer connection to the extinct birds.
**J.W. Harris notes in a letter of 1837 to his uncle, Dr. John Rule, that the Maoris legend refers to an Eagle-like bird as "A Movie".


ANDERSON, A. (1989): On evidence for the survival of moa in European Fiordland. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 12 (Supplement): 39-44
ANDERSON, A. (1990): Prodigious Birds: Moas and Moa-Hunting in New Zealand. Cambridge University Press: 256

COLENSO, W (1846): An account of some enormous fossil bones, of an unknown species of the class Aves, lately discovered in New Zealand. Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science II: 81-107
DIEFFENBACH, E. (1843). Travels in New Zealand. II. London: John Murray: 195
HOCHSTETTER, von F. (1865): Voyage à la Nouvelle-Zélande. Le Tour du Monde 11
OWEN, R. (1839): On the bone of an unknown Struthious bird from New Zealand. Proceedings of the Zoological Society London VII: 169 - 171
OWEN, R. (1843): No title. Read 10.1.1843, Proceedings of the Zoological Society XI: 1-2

POLACK, J. S. (1838): New Zealand: Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures During a Residence in that Country Between the Years 1831 and 1837. I. London: Richard Bentley: 303
RUPKE, N. A. (2009): Richard Owen - Biology without Darwin, a Revised Edition. the University of Chicago Press, Chicago-London: 370
WENDT, H. (1956): Auf Noahs Spuren. Die Entdeckung der Tiere. G.Grote Verlag, Hamm: 574
WHITE, T. (1892): On the Bird Moa and its Aliases. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand Vol.25: 262-273

No comments:

Post a Comment

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS