Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Up until modern times, giant wingless moa birds had roamed New Zealand for millions of years. The Maori peoples, who settled the island around the first millennium, hunted moas to extinction. English settlers, along with missionaries and scientists, who settled the land during the early nineteenth century, collected moa bones for scientific study. No confirmed sightings of the living bird were reported, but the bird’s bones were displayed with much fanfare in British museums.

Summary of Event

Giant moa birds were hunted to the point of extinction by the Maori peoples sometime before the European colonization of New Zealand during the early nineteenth century. After English settlement of the island, settlers, scientists, and missionaries found scattered remains of the bird. Tall tales of the enormous moa, much bigger than the better-known ostrich, caught the imagination of not only scientists but also the general public, who gawked at moa skeletons upon their display in British museums. Museums;natural history Moas, giant Birds;moas Paleontology;giant moas New Zealand;giant moas Maoris [kw]Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas (1830’s-1840’s) [kw]Study Remains of Giant Moas, Scientists (1830’s-1840’s) [kw]Remains of Giant Moas, Scientists Study (1830’s-1840’s) [kw]Giant Moas, Scientists Study Remains of (1830’s-1840’s) [kw]Moas, Scientists Study Remains of Giant (1830’s-1840’s) Moas, giant Birds;moas Paleontology;giant moas New Zealand;giant moas Maoris [g]Polynesia;1830’s-1840’s: Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas[1480] [g]New Zealand;1830’s-1840’s: Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas[1480] [c]Environment and ecology;1830’s-1840’s: Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas[1480] [c]Biology;1830’s-1840’s: Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas[1480] [c]Exploration and discovery;1830’s-1840’s: Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas[1480] [c]Science and technology;1830’s-1840’s: Scientists Study Remains of Giant Moas[1480] Colenso, William Grey, George Haast, Johann Franz Julius von Owen, Richard Taylor, Richard

With leg joints as tall as an adult human and necks more than one meter (three feet) in length, all topped by a tiny head, moa skeletons reached three meters in height. Similar to all ratites (flightless birds such as the ostrich, emu, rhea, cassowary, and kiwi), moas had flat breastbones and lacked the keel needed to attach wings strong enough to fly. Long ago, moas had lost even the vestigial wings that the other ratites still possess.

Large numbers of moa bones (called subfossils Fossils;subfossils because they have not undergone the mineral changes needed to transform them into fossils) were recovered from moa butchering and processing sites soon after the arrival of British immigrants during the early nineteenth century. When the first moa bone, a femur fragment fifteen centimeters (nearly six inches) in length arrived in England in 1839, John Rule took it to Richard Owen Owen, Richard , a professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Following exhaustive comparisons with bones from various mammals and birds, Owen concluded that the bone belonged to a bird he estimated to be three meters tall and belonging to the same order—the Struthioniformes—as the ostrich. He called the bird Dinornis, which he indicated meant “surprising bird.”

British scientists and Missionaries;and paleontology[Paleontology] missionaries became aware of the moa during the late 1830’s and 1840’s, and moa remains were collected by Europeans throughout the nineteenth century. Within New Zealand, missionaries William Colenso Colenso, William , Richard Taylor Taylor, Richard , and William Williams all became moa enthusiasts. Colenso and Taylor both sought recognition for being the first European to have discovered the moa in 1839. Taylor, in his book Te Ika a Maui: Or, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants (1855), referred to finding the remains of extinct “giraffe-like birds.”

Giant Moa Fossil Sites in New Zealand





Most of the three hundred known moa-butchering and food-preparation sites were excavated in the second half of the nineteenth century. More than sixty species of moa were described through studies of bones retrieved from these sites. The largest known moa kill site was at the mouth of the Waitaki River, where scientists estimated that between twenty thousand and ninety thousand moas were butchered and processed.

Through most of the nineteenth century, a number of people believed that a few moas continued to survive in the rugged terrain of New Zealand’s South Island. Scattered reports of moa sightings from sailors and tourists have continued into the twenty-first century, but at the time British settlement began during the early nineteenth century, two hundred years earlier, there was no scientific evidence to confirm any surviving moas.

It remains unclear exactly when the giant moa became extinct, although many scientists think that most moas were gone before 1500. Colenso Colenso, William contended that Maori oral tradition contained only sparse reference to moas, and he concluded from this that moas had died off generations earlier. Throughout his sojourns in New Zealand, George Grey Grey, George collected moa bones for Richard Owen Owen, Richard . Grey and Richard Taylor spoke to a Maori elder at Waingongoro in 1866, who recounted hunting giant moas in his youth. The elder was able to point out the ovens his hunting party used to cook their kill; upon excavation, Grey and Taylor Taylor, Richard found large numbers of moa bones in the oven.

Johann Franz Julius von Haast Haast, Johann Franz Julius von was the first scientist to study the moa in New Zealand. In 1859, Haast excavated in Glenmark Swamp (North Canterbury), where he found more than one thousand moa skeletons, along with bones of other extinct birds. Haast then determined that a large eagle, Harpagornis moorei (better known as Haast’s eagle), having a 2.9 meter wingspan, weighing between ten and fourteen kilograms (twenty-two to thirty pounds), and with a flapping rather than soaring flight, had once preyed upon moas in the forests. By 1870, Haast had opened the Canterbury Museum Museums;natural history , which displayed moa remains, including a 3.5-meter skeleton. Research on moa extinction moved from England to the growing number of scientific institutions in New Zealand.


The giant moa thrived in New Zealand’s forests prior to the arrival of humans in the region, preyed upon only by the Haast’s eagle. When humans arrived, they killed moas weighing up to 250 kilograms (about 550 pounds) for food and destroyed large portions of the moas’ forest habitat. Scientific and public interest in moas has grown considerably since the mid-nineteenth century, when museums began displaying the huge skeletons of female giant moas.

Modern research reveals the strange distribution of living ratites (ostrich, emu, cassowary, kiwi, and rhea), found only in Africa, Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, and South America, which strengthens the theory of continental drift. Scientists postulate that ratites were primitive bird forms that shared a common ancestor prior to the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana. Scientists have also concluded that these flightless birds, confined to widely dispersed landmasses, underwent significant evolutionary development and were only distantly related to each other.

With the modern advent of DNA DNA;and paleobiology[Paleobiology] analysis, all living and recently extinct members of the ratite group of birds were sequenced, with results that surprised most scientists. One of the first discoveries made through DNA studies was that ratite dispersal occurred more recently than the time of the powerful movements of Earth’s plates that separated Gondwana. The moa birds arrived in New Zealand long before kiwis, which migrated from Australasia to New Zealand relatively recently. DNA analysis also determined that the kiwi of New Zealand were more closely related to the Australian cassowary than to the moa. Both the cassowary and kiwi are in danger of extinction sometime in the twenty-first century.

DNA studies from many different moa bones indicate that there were only eleven species of moa. Scientists determined that a very large size difference existed between mature male and female moas within a single species; females were about one-and-a-half times larger than males. DNA DNA;and paleobiology[Paleobiology] studies also indicate that moa species developed separately on the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

Scientists of the twenty-first century have speculated on how quickly the Maori eliminated the moa. Some concluded that all moas disappeared within two centuries of human arrival in New Zealand, while other scientists favor a theory involving three separate moa-hunting periods during perhaps a four-century time period. Those advocating extremely fast disappearance of all moas point to evidence of overkill, in which only the one-meter-long “drumstick” legs were removed from moa kills, leaving whole carcasses.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambert, David, Craig Millar, and Leon Huynen. “Ancient DNA Solves Sex Mystery of Moa.” Australian Science (September, 2004): 14-16. Written especially for general readers, this brief article describes how scientists used DNA analysis to determine that female and male moas of the same species differed in size.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Richard. Te Ika a Maui: Or, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants. London: Wertheim & Macintosh, 1855. Facsimile ed. Wellington, New Zealand: Read, 1974. A contemporary work that examines the natural history of New Zealand.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Richard. Moa: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of a Giant Bird. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Written as a history of the Maori and the European colonization of New Zealand. Discusses the role humans played in the extinction of the moa and examines the nineteenth century scientists who built their reputations studying and describing the bird.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Worthy, T. H., Richard N. Holdaway, and Rod Morris. The Lost World of the Moa. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002. An examination of New Zealand’s flora and fauna. Begins with Cretaceous dinosaur fossils but focuses on the changes brought about by the arrival of the Maori in the first millennium. The best book about moas and other extinct and endangered species of New Zealand.

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