Moas and Mt. Camel

Myras's thought for the week...
What do you know about the giant Moas of New Zealand?

Everyone in New Zealand knows what a moa is... or was, but perhaps it should be explained for other people. Think of a bird about ostrich sized, some smaller, some bigger, a large version of a bird known as a ratite, or rail.

Rails exist in most parts of the world and can be found in muddy estuaries and swampy areas in general; they are secretive birds often nocturnal and seldom seen unless you, the watcher, is willing to sit quietly and wait for their curiosity to overcome their fear.

Moas were not like that. They were most commonly about the height of a grown man, their unusual size mostly due to the fact that they had no serious predators until man came along in the form of Polynesian voyagers who travelled south to settle in newer, cooler lands. It is generally considered now that there were several influxes of such people, and noted that the loss of the moa is coincident with man arriving, although there is as yet no direct evidence such as gnawed drumsticks...

Be it as it may, the moa is now extinct and all we can find are bones and occasional eggshells usually preserved in South Island caves. Scientists are interested in these remains because it is now possible to extract DNA and make observations about the environment of the time.

In the swamps of the Far North the process of digging for gum in the early 1900s let to burning off scrub and the regular discovery of handfuls of rounded pebbles the birds used as crop stones to aid in the digestion of food. These were usually white quartz and varied from marble size to duck-egg size.

These clusters of stones can still be found in the marginal sand dunes of both coasts of Aupouri Peninsula, and this suggests the birds were once quite plentiful there and that they tended to inhabit the edge of the scrublands, probably living off scarab-like larvae exposed on the sand on cool mornings.

It is difficult to identify the stones and be certain, because the sand areas were convenient places for Maoris to dump the remains of the various shellfish they ate so much of. They left small groups of fire-charred stones and immense piles of white tuatua shells plus occasional adornments of bone and stone that can be found even now after a significant blow.

It is also possible to find small white patches of eggshell. Each bit is at the most 20mm across, and each will be seen to have the pinhole perforations almost identical to an ostrich shell. When the pieces of shell are held against a curved surface it soon becomes apparent that the fragment is from an egg about 200mm long, a similar size to an ostrich.

So what creature could have produced these enormous eggs? There are no logical contenders other than a moa, in my view, and it would be interesting to get a DNA test done. If you the reader have an interest in finding fragments for yourself, the best place is on Henderson Beach, which is on the eastern side of the neck of land that makes up Mount Camel, on the Aupouri Peninsula. There are other places, but none that are as accessible.

Good luck...