The Moa

New Zealand’s moa (family Dinornithidae) isn’t the largest bird that’s ever existed (that honor goes to Madagascar’s elephant birds), but to my mind, it is the most exotic bird imaginable. Paired with its massive predator, Haast’s Eagle, the moa symbolizes the amazing turns that evolution takes when populations of a species are isolated. And New Zealand’s flora and fauna before the first people arrived about 1300 A.D. (New Zealand was the last major land mass settled by humans) are worth a note or two as well.

1) You will be wanting the stats: the two largest of the moa’s 11 species, Dinornis Robustus and Dinornis NovaeZelandiae, topped out at 12 ft and weighed about 510 lb. The moa lived on both the North and South Islands, and got to New Zealand by walking from South America and Africa across Antarctica (New Zealand split away from Antartica 70 million years ago). They ate a wide range of plant materials and scrapped out shallow nests in the ground, where they laid a single egg that could be up to 9″ tall and 7″ wide. Apparently, in some of the species, males incubated the eggs; moa species were dimorphic, with the females being as much as 150%  taller and 280% heavier than the males.

Examination of the bird’s trachea has led scientists to believe that some moa species may have had a deep, resonant call, and their feathers ranged in color from reddish brown to white to purple.

Haast’s Eagle was the moa’s only known predator.

2) The Maori arrived in New Zealand towards the end of the 13th century A.D. It took about 100 years of hunting, habitat destruction, and predation by rats to drive the moa into extinction. It is possible, though, that isolated populations survived, and sightings of the bird continued into the 19th century.

The moa genome has been sequenced.

3) New Zealand has some of the most distinctive flora and fauna found on the planet–80% of its vascular plants are endemic, as are 70% of its native terrestrial and freshwater birds. Notable species include the Kuari tree, the wetas, and the tuataras. The country’s Department of Conservation is implementing an ambitious program to protect and restore native species.


RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Elephant Bird; 2) Mediterranean Vacation: Lost Landscapes



Photo: comparison, left to right, of a kiwi, and ostrich, and a moa. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

  1. May 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Very neat. I did not realize there were that many moa species.

  2. May 14, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Thx! and thanks for stopping by! RT

  3. aubrey
    May 15, 2011 at 5:42 am

    I always thought it was such a mysterious name. To me, it speaks of prehistory, of things long vanished.

    • May 22, 2011 at 10:40 pm

      aubrey: i hadn’t thought about it, but maybe the moa’s name has something to do with my response to it…one might think the ‘elephant birds’ of madagascar, what with their world record stats & exotic locale, would have been the first to attract my attention, but i didn’t know about them until i stumbled on their wikipedia page recently… RT

  4. May 18, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Talking about extinction…we are an interesting specie, some belonging to this specie assume that they can decide that we might end for their advantages, some look away, too frighten to change their perception, and some do their best to preserve life.

  5. May 19, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Thank you for this post! You bring me back. I love the Moa! I remember learning that one of the most interesting thing about New Zealand’s wildlife is the preponderance of bird species. Being without any major mammals for such a long time, the bird species evolved to occupy all the niches that large and small mammals do in other places. Hence the flourishing species of flightless birds and larger birds like the Moa and Haast’s eagle. I don’t have a direct source for that, pulling from memory. But, I love the image of a land of birds…tiny flightless ones instead of mice, shrews and rabbits; giant running ones in place of deer and enormous flying ones standing at predator level of lions and tigers. Just amazing.

    • May 19, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      *correction, once flourishing species of flightless birds. The growth of domestic cats and other mammals introduced by British colonists have hunted or pushed them largely to extinction or extreme rarity.

    • May 22, 2011 at 10:20 pm

      Isthmus: thx for this thoughtful note–a land without birds sounds like it might inspire a poem or two on my end (or at least a fantasy novel), and I have a feeling that cloning, though so far unsuccessful and without a warm public welcome because of its potential for abuse, is probably a large step towards bringing such wonders as the moa back. RT

  6. February 7, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    My two trips to visit the Maori in their wananga have been a couple of the highlights of my life. What a landscape. I have not seen a moa, but would love to see one. Great post.

    • February 9, 2012 at 3:32 am

      TD: thanks for the encouragement (& the Maori must be something in person–I only know them through The Piano). RT

  1. November 27, 2012 at 5:50 pm

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