When moa bones were first discovered by Europeans in New Zealand in the 1830s, the birds were declared a scientific marvel. A number of species – some very large and some small – once roamed the country, but probably became extinct about 500 years ago. Much about them remains a mystery. For years, people have hunted for more clues, or a glimpse of any survivors.
Full story by Trevor H. Worthy
Main image: The heavy-footed moa
The Short Story
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Moa were large, flightless birds that lived in New Zealand until about 500 years ago. There were nine species of these extinct birds. They belong to the ratite group of birds, which also includes ostriches, emus and kiwi. Genetic comparisons suggest that the closest relatives of moa are the flighted tinamous of South America.
Moa were hunted to extinction by Māori, who found them easy targets. Their flesh was eaten, their feathers and skins were made into clothing. The bones were used for fish hooks and pendants.
Where they lived
Moa lived on mainland New Zealand, and Great Barrier, D’Urville and Stewart islands, where there were trees, shrubs and grasses to eat. Different species preferred different habitats, depending on the food that was available. For example, little bush moa and Mantell’s moa lived in dense forest, while the crested moa and upland moa occupied mountain zones in the South Island.
What they looked like
It is uncertain exactly how moa looked. It is thought they were similar to emus, with a domed back. They had three front-facing toes on each foot and a small toe at the back. Their feathers were rough and furry.
Female moa were usually larger than males. The largest were female giant moa, at about 2 metres tall and weighing over 250 kilograms. Some moa, such as Mantell’s moa, and males of northern populations of stout-legged moa, were smaller than a turkey.
When moa bones were first announced by European scientists in 1840, it sparked international interest. Once the largest bird to have existed, moa briefly become a national symbol, and New Zealand was called ‘the land of the moa’.