Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Solid Grip on the Moa Extinction

moa

A bird bone to reckon with: Dr Morten Allentoft contemplates the shin bone of a giant female moa.

By Richard Holdaway

Were humans responsible for the extinction of New Zealand’s moa, or were they already in decline?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Nine species of moa became extinct in New Zealand within a century or so of Polynesians settling there in the 14th century. Since Sir Richard Owen recognised the existence of these large, wingless, ratite birds in the mid-19th century, moa have been as much part of the mythology of extinction as the dodo itself, with ongoing controversy over the role humans might have had in their demise.

Our research has closed the door to environmental factors by showing that, despite changing climate, moa populations were large and stable in the millennia before the arrival of Polynesians.

The fates of nine species of moa might not seem important when humans have now placed a large chunk of global biodiversity under threat. But knowing how and why moa met their end might be our best chance to understand what happens when people possessed of even the most basic technologies reach a new land, or, what amounts to the same thing, expand into previously unoccupied territory to accommodate their growing populations. If people with only fire and stone tools were around when that many species of large vertebrate died out in two or three generations, then we need to know whether they were on the way out or whether people eliminated thriving populations. If it was the second scenario, then we should be concerned.

The effects of our ancestors on pristine environments are...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.