Giant Moa Skeleton
The Yorkshire Museum’s South Island Giant Moa – a huge bird a long way from home
One of our more striking and well–known natural history specimens has a story that begins over 150 years ago and comes from nearly 12,000 miles away.
In 1839, the anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen was working at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was examining a single, six-inch piece of shin bone from an unidentified animal. He was busy, but his attention was captured. It had been sent over from New Zealand, found by a Māori, possibly attributed to a giant eagle.
Owen noted that the bone was substantial and not unlike that of an ox but differed in key features. It had a ‘pneumatic structure’ like that of a bird but had been filled with marrow like that of a land animal. The closest comparison he could draw was an ostrich, in that it must be a flightless bird. It was also a fresh looking specimen; could these animals even still be alive? It seemed impossible that an animal of this size had not been definitively identified before. Yet there were longstanding rumours and Māori legends of huge birds roaming the islands.
Owen was an exceptionally skilled anatomist, but the proposal of an entirely new type of animal that had so far escaped European science was risky, even for him. Owen was a proud man, and fiercely protective of his reputation. However, if his theory was correct, it would be a huge coup for his career.
He published his theory with the Zoological Society of London: ‘I am willing to risk the reputation for it on the statement that there has existed, if there does not now exist, in New Zealand, a Struthious bird nearly, if not quite, equal in size to the Ostrich’. The paper was only accepted on the basis that the responsibility for it was ‘resting solely with the author’. A hundred copies were printed and distributed around New Zealand.
Owen waited for news of more bones being discovered. After nearly four long years, a delivery arrived at his office that proved Owen’s theory correct: a box of bones was sent to him from William Buckland in Oxford, in January 1843, that had been obtained by a missionary in New Zealand. Owen was able to reconstruct the entire bird and discovered that it was in fact even larger than an ostrich. He named it Dinornis Novae Zealandiae, or moa, borrowing the latter, common name from a Māori derivative.
It was an incredible vindication, and Owen’s reputation as one of the best scientists in the world was assured. A few years later, Owen would go on to coin the name ‘dinosaur’, and in 1881 he would successfully open the Natural History Museum in London.
Meanwhile, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed in 1840, effectively bringing New Zealand into the British Empire. British colonisation in all areas of life was now full steam ahead. The race was on to discover more of these birds, and wealthy British collectors and scientists wanted their own examples.
Fast forward 20 years, and the Otago region on New Zealand’s South Island, is in the middle of a gold rush. Thomas Allis, the Honorary Curator of Comparative Anatomy at the Yorkshire Museum, Vice President of the Yorkshire Museum and former Superintendent of The Retreat asylum in York, has been following the story of the giant birds with great interest. New bones are being discovered all the time, and new species are coming to light. Prospectors are hunting for treasure, and not just gold.
Allis has put out a call for a moa specimen for the Yorkshire Museum, and in October 1863 Edmund Gibson is alerted to a complete bird discovered by gold miners in Manuherikia Valley, Tiger Hill, Otago. It was said to have been discovered in a sand bank, in association with four small skeletons, leading to the theory that it was a female incubating eggs, that had been overwhelmed by a sandstorm. The specimen was examined in Dunedin, New Zealand in January 1864 by James Hector, Otago Provincial Geologist. He measured the complete skeleton and noted that ‘mainly all the ligaments of the left knee are present. The fibula, the skin is also present and again on the foot of the same leg the sole of the foot and ligaments’.
By May 1864, the specimen had arrived at the Yorkshire Museum, presented by Dr J H Gibson, brother of Edmund. William Dallas, keeper of the museum, wasted no time in examining the specimen, describing the feathers of the moa, the first known example ever to have been found. He compared them to emu and cassowary feathers.
It was clear that this was a very special skeleton indeed. Hector wrote to Richard Owen in February 1864 to describe the circumstances of the find, and Allis took the bones to London for Owen to study. He published on the skull, part of a wing bone, and parts of the soft tissue in 1869, calling them Dinornis robustus – the South Island Giant Moa, the accepted name today.
The skeleton is still one of the most complete examples ever discovered. Only a handful of bones appeared to be missing, including a toe bone on the left foot. In recent years, a cast has been made of the corresponding bone on the right foot, in order to replace it. Sadly, the soft tissue has been removed from the skeleton in the past but most of it is still preserved in our collections and research has determined where it was once attached.
Relationships between the unique fauna on New Zealand are complicated and in 1990 some of our moa’s soft tissue was DNA sampled. Currently, there are nine species of moa recognised from across New Zealand. They are an unusual group that seem to have evolved quite separately from similar birds like the kiwi and ostrich.
We now know that it is unlikely that the skeleton was discovered in a sand bank, as the preservation is too good. It is more likely to have been found in a rock shelter or cave, like other specimens from the area. The four baby birds are unsubstantiated too – it appears these bones may have been confused with those found elsewhere. In fact, of the nine species known, the South Island Giant Moa has the greatest sexual dimorphism of all – that is, the females were up to half as large again as the males. Overall, it was the largest species too. That means that our moa, if it was a female, was a very small one – females are known to have reached three metres high! At just over two metres, our specimen may in fact be a male.
Finally, we now know that these birds are definitely extinct. While it’s unclear exactly when they reached the isolated islands of Aotearoa New Zealand, they became extinct within around 100 years of colonisation by the Māori around 1400 AD. Their only predator up to that time is believed to have been the enormous Haast’s Eagle, and as moa reproduced relatively slowly, they were unable to withstand sustained hunting by the new arrivals. Moa were an integral part of Māori life and featured in many legends and were recorded on sacred artefacts from the time. If the European missionaries, gold prospectors and scientists had spoken to the Māori who knew of many of the bones, they may have solved Owen’s mystery far sooner.
Please note: The Yorkshire Museum is home to an extensive and varied collection of items and artefacts. Whilst we make every effort to display a broad spectrum of our collections it is not always possible for all our collections to be on display at once.