Auckland Museum’s giant moa reconstruction was built by L.T. Griffin in 1913 from timber, papier mâché and emu feathers. Photo: Andrea Stevens.
One of our most remarkable exhibits – a three-metre tall female giant moa reconstruction – has turned 100 years old. Built in 1913, she tells a unique (but ultimately tragic) evolutionary tale and recalls museum displays over the century.
For 80 million years, species native to Aotearoa New Zealand evolved in isolation from ground-based predatory mammals. It was a land that became dominated by birds, with the only furry inhabitants being the tiny nocturnal bats/pekapeka, their body about the size of your thumb.
This extraordinary context led to the evolution of some very strange creatures, unlike anywhere else on earth.
As George Gibbs writes in his book Ghosts of Gondwana, “a few New Zealand organisms would qualify as outlandish freaks on the world stage. They do just not seem to belong amongst their relatives.”
Without the need to fly out of harms way, or nest high in trees, many bird species became quite un-birdlike, growing into giants of their kind and losing the power of flight.
They took up ecological niches that mammals did in other parts of the world. However, without an in-built cunning or ability to escape from predation, the sudden arrival of foreign species from around 800 years ago led to the naïve populations becoming quite overwhelmed. And one of the first to vanish was the moa.
The giraffe of the bird world
Moa were part of the ratite bird family – along with the kiwi, emu, cassowary and ostrich – flightless but with powerful legs. They branched earliest off the family tree, “so moa are the most primitive you might say,” says ornithologist Dr Brian Gill, “with no close relatives.”
The nine different species of moa – there is still some uncertainty on the number – ranged in size from the little bush moa (about turkey-size) up to the giant moa.
Comparative sizes of dinornis, ostrich and a man. Illustration from The moa: (Dinornis) and the probable cause of its extinction, Volume 1, Moa pamphlets, 1890. Reserve collection QE 872.D5, Auckland Museum Library.
Female giant moa stood about two metres high to the top of their back. So in an upright standing position, with their head held high, they could reach three metres tall, allowing them to pluck leaves from tall trees like a giraffe.
Their maximum weight was about 250 kilograms – as much as a cow. But while they are the tallest bird on record, they are not the heaviest. That title goes to the largest of Madagascar’s extinct elephant birds.
The giant moa were colossal birds and a natural wonder both as an example of gigantism and (along with the other moa species) as the only birds in the world with no wings at all.
Māori and the moa
The people who knew the most about the moa’s habits and appearance were the first Polynesian settlers to New Zealand, who arrived about 1250 AD.
Māori oral history tells of a large bird with ‘hair’, presumably referring to their strange feathers: like kiwi feathers, they had a loose open structure more like hair.
Archaeological evidence shows moa were a major part of the settlers’ diet. And in addition to eating the meat and eggs, feathers and skins were used for clothing, and bones were made into fishhooks, pendants and other tools. Moa were a major resource, but over-hunting led to their extinction within the first 150-200 years of human arrival.
In her book The Natural World of the Māori, Margaret Orbell writes about a “proverbial expression mate-a-moa, ‘lost like the moa’, which means ‘lost utterly and hopelessly’.”
Western science reconstructs the moa
Sir Richard Owen next to his reconstruction of a giant moa skeleton from Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, 1879. In his hand is the first bone fragment he examined 40 years earlier.
The first European to attest to the moa’s existence, and to attempt to reconstruct it, was Richard Owen, the British biologist and palaeontologist. In 1839, a trader offered him a thighbone fragment; apparently it was part of a great New Zealand eagle.
Owen deduced overnight that it was a bone, not from an eagle, but from a giant flightless bird. His colleagues doubted his conclusion based, as it was, on such a small amount of evidence.
However, within a few years he was sent further bone samples, which enabled him to start reconstructing a skeleton. He based his drawings of the moa on the cassowary. But it would appear he had not seen a live cassowary, for his illustrations show the bird in an atypical erect posture, with the moa illustration matched to it.
Based on Owen’s widely published work, colonial reconstructions of the moa were mostly made in an upright position. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a more accurate, typical posture was proposed; where the neck looped down to form an S with the body, with the head held just above the high point of the back.
“They occupied the ecological niche of a large herbivore,” explains Gill, “and before the first humans arrived here the islands were mostly forested. So the moa would have had to push their way through the forest undergrowth with their head and neck held forward. The erect posture is not a wrong position as such, as moa would have used this position if reaching up to feed on leaves or to survey the scene.”
Ancient DNA shows females could be more than twice as big as males
Analysis of recovered ancient DNA by various research institutes over the past decade “has been revolutionary to our understanding of the giant moa,” says Gill. “It has shown that there weren’t three species as was previously thought, there were only two: one in the North Island and one in the South Island. But the most surprising finding was the extreme sexual dimorphism (differences between the sexes) in the giant moa. The females could be more than twice as big as the males.”
“Each of the four main museums in New Zealand has very large moa bone collections, and the DNA researchers sampled from all these collections. You may not know exactly how collections are going to be used, but you know that, by keeping them safe and having them catalogued and available, they might have a value in the future. And the DNA work shows just how this comes true.”
Auckland Museum’s giant moa reconstruction
Moa have been an important part of the collection since the museum first opened in 1852. Successive curators have developed the collection, and associated knowledge, for over a century and a half.
In his paper History of the Land Vertebrates Collection at Auckland Museum, Dr Brian Gill recounts the giant moa reconstruction:
“In 1912 a successful public appeal was made to raise £700 for the two-fold aim of purchasing some Māori carvings and setting up a plate-glass case containing a moa “restoration,” a large moa skeleton, and mounted examples of various living ratites… L.T. Griffin built a reconstruction using emu feathers. The ratite display was finished in 1913 and placed in the centre of the Main Hall … It was inaugurated by a conversazione on the evening of 8 October 1913 attended by about 550 people.”
The giant moa model has been more or less on continuous display ever since. She has been admired and photographed by local and international tourists for 100 years and is now a historical object in her own right.
You can visit her in the Origins Gallery on level two at Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Ground level of Main Hall, Princes Street building. The photo was taken in 1928, just before the move to the current site. The giant moa reconstruction can be seen in the large glass case in the background. Photo: Auckland Museum Library, C41107.
Events at Auckland Museum
Join us for The Mummy and the Moa school holiday programme until 31 January 2014.
Radio New Zealand interview
Listen to Radio NZ’s interview with ornithologist Dr Brian Gill
Further reading at the Auckland Museum Library
- The life and death of New Zealand’s legendary bird. Berentson, Q. (2012). Moa. Craig Potton Publishing.
- Ghosts of Gondwana. Gibbs, G (2006). The history of life in New Zealand. Craig Potton Publishing.
- The Lost World of the Moa. Prehistoric Life of New Zealand.Worthy, T. H., & Holdaway, R. N. (2002). Indiana University Press.
- History of the Land Vertebrates Collection at Auckland Museum .Gill, B. J. (2000). New Zealand, 1852-1996. Records of the Auckland Museum, 36, 59-93.
Download PDF (5MB)
- The Kiwi and Other Flightless Birds. Gill, B. J. (1999). David Bateman.
- Moas – Lost Giants of New Zealand. McCulloch, B., & Cox, G. J. (1992). HarperCollins.
You can find an excellent overview of all the moa species at Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.
Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand. Owen, R (1879). This rare book has been digitally scanned by the University of Texas, with an introduction to the digital version by Timothy Rowe.
Snippets from Prof Kenneth Cumberland’s 1981 documentary series Landmarks: