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Moa

The Moa, also known as the Giant Moa, was a genus of large-size birds that were endemic to the island nation of New Zealand several centuries back. These flightless birds, which existed in nine species under six genera, lived in the country for several thousand years before the Māori colonists settled in the country in around 1300 AD. In recent years, efforts have been undertaken by scientists for the revival of this extinct creature.

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Scientific Classification

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Aves
Infraclass Palaeognathae
Clade Notopalaeognathae
Order Dinornithiformes      
Type species Dinornis novaezealandiae

Quick Facts

Pronunciation mo-A
Time of Extinction 1300 – 1440 ± 20 years
Size Varied between species; the two largest species, D. robustus and D. novaezelandiae, had a height of about 3.6 m (12 ft)
Weight Varied between species; the two above species weighed about 230 kg (510 lb)
Average Lifespan Perhaps 50 years or so
Location/Distribution & Habitat Shrubland and subalpine regions of New Zealand
Climate/Environment Largely temperate to subtropical
Diet Herbivorous
Birth Type (Reproduction) Oviparous (36 eggs discovered)
Locomotion Bipedal

History of Extinction

Paleontologists estimated that there was a population of about 58,000 moas during the time the indigenous Polynesians settled in New Zealand in around 1280. The moas had gone extinct 300 years prior to the arrival of the European settlers.

Soon after the arrival of the Māoris, the entire genera of the bird were soon taken to extinction by means of regular hunting. The colonists hunted the moas by driving them into pits, as also, robbing their nests. They were killed for food.

Another reason for their extinction was loss of habitat, to some extent. As the Māoris entered the then New Zealand for the first time, they needed miles of land for making houses and farming. The new inhabitants began clearing the jungles that practically covered the entire island. With the rapid increase in human population, the inhabitants began clearing the woods, eventually leading to their habitat loss.

Finally, by 1445, all moa went into extinction, along with the enormous Haast’s eagle, which was the primary predator of the moa birds and relied on the latter for survival.

Recently, research on their extinction using carbon-14 dating strongly suggests that the incidents and causes leading to the disappearance of these giant birds took less than a century, rather than a long time period of their exploitation lasting a few centuries that was previously hypothesized.

Discovery of Moa Remains

From the mid-1860s to the 1980s, several amazing specimens of moa remains have been found in the semi-arid region of Central Otago, the aridest region of New Zealand. These specimens, exhibiting soft tissues like muscle, skin, and feathers, were mostly preserved through desiccation when the moa died in a naturally dry site (e.g., a cave with a dry wind blowing constantly through it).

Some of the discovered specimens include dried muscle on bones, an articulated foot, several fragmented bones, a lower leg along with skin and muscle, an entire feathered leg, a head, etc.

These specimens are now preserved in different museums in New Zealand, like the Museum of New Zealand, Otago Museum, as also in London’s Cambridge University (Zoology Department), Natural History Museum, Yorkshire Museum, etc.

There has been occasional speculation and claims of moa survival since at least the late 19th century, and as recently as 1993 and 2008; however, there was no supporting evidence in support of these claims.

Attempts for Revival of the Moa

The genera has been mentioned frequently as a potential candidate for revival by means of genetic cloning. Presently, a Japanese geneticist Ankoh Yasuyuki Shirota has undertaken a primary work relating to the extraction of DNA of this bird.

Physical Description

Thirty-six complete eggs of different species of moa, which have now been collected by the museums, differ greatly in size, starting from 120–240 mm (4.7–9.4 in) in length and 91–178 mm (3.6–7.0 in) in width. The specific length and other features largely varied between the different moa species; however, it is clear that all the moa bird species largely resembled the emus and ostriches. Their feathers were large and up to 23 cm (9 in) long.

Reportedly, the feathers bore a wide range of colors including white, reddish-brown, purplish and yellowish. Dark feathers having creamy to white tips have also been discovered, indicating that some species of moa might have had plumage that had a dappled appearance.

Behavior & Diet

Moas were primarily solitary birds that lived in the regions with dense to mixed vegetation. Morphological analysis of skull and beak, fossilized contents of the gizzards, as well as stable isotope analysis of the bones,  suggested that these birds were herbivores, and fed on a wide variety of plant species and plant matters, including leaves and fibrous twigs collected from shrubs and low-lying trees.

Interesting Facts

  • In the early 1900s, famous painter Heinrich Harder portrayed the bird being hunted by the Māori people in his classic German collecting cards about extinct and prehistoric animals named Tiere der Urwelt.
  • An animated character named Dinornis, the Giant Moa was featured in two commercials by Nissan Cup Noodle.
  • In a collection of poems from New Zealand, The 1979 Anthology of New Zealand Poetry, a poem about the moa “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch” was released by poet Allen Curnow.
  • Genetic studies revealed that the closest extant relatives of the moa is the tinamous, a South American bird species that can fly.

Published on December 17th 2018 by under Birds.
Article was last reviewed on 21st December 2018.

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