Strange stories of strange birds and even stranger fossils were coming from the end of the world during the 19th century.
The first Europeans spotted New Zealand in 1769 and Captain Cook explored the Northern Island four years later. Cook was very interested in natural history and collected tales about the fauna and flora from the locals. On the Northern Island nothing unusual was reported, however on the Southern Island legends involving a monstrous bird existed. These legends explain an unusual hunting method for a large bird. Hunters would use incandescent rocks, which swallowed by the bird would then burn it from inside. The preferred habitat of these birds was said to be the swamps and forests and according to some legends until 1800 they were very rare animals, but still living on the island.
In the year 1823 a hunter named Meurat claimed to have found a bone with flesh attached to it. He assumed by the apparent good preservation that the remains were very recent. Joel Polack, a trader who lived along the eastern coast of the Northern Island, records that during a forced stop of his ship in the Tolaga Bay in 1838 he had been shown “several large fossil ossifications” found near Mount Hikurangi by the Maori in the winter of 1834. He was certain that these were the bones of a species of emu or ostrich, adding in his report that “the Natives add that in times long past they received the traditions that very large birds had existed, but the scarcity of animal food, as well as the easy method of entrapping them, has caused their extermination“. Polack further noted that he had received reports from Maori that a “species of Struthio” still existed in remote parts of the Southern Island.
The German naturalist and geologist Ernst Dieffenbach also refers to a fossil from the area near Mt. Hikurangi and reports that it belongs to “a bird, now extinct, called Moa* (or Movie**) by the natives”. He continues “On questioning the natives, as I usually did, relative to the natural history of their country, I heard a curious tradition connected with the totara-tree in the neighbourhood. Near this tree they said their forefathers killed the last moa. From the few remains of the moa that have been found it has been declared by Mr. Richard Owen to be a struthious bird of large size.“
In 1839, John W. Harris, a trader based in Poverty Bay who was also a natural history enthusiast, was given a piece of unusual bone by a Maori who had found it along a river. He showed the 15cm long fragment to his uncle, Dr. John Rule, a Sydney based surgeon, who sent it to Richard Owen who at that time was working at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
Owen first assumed that the femur was from a horse or a bovid, but finally he published a preliminary note proclaiming that the bones were from a species of giant birds and named it Dinornis.
Fig.1. Richard Owen (probably in 1846) wearing the robes of a Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons and holding in his left hand a femur of Dinornis. From merely a fragment of a similar thighbone he deduced the former existence in New Zealand of the now extinct group of flightless birds, the Moa – he considered this one of his major scientific triumphs, and 30 years later posed with a Moa-skeleton to reconfirm his reconstruction. After a Daguerreotype published in “Yearbook of Facts in Science and Art”, 185 (image in public domain).
July 1847 physician and palaeontologist Gideon Mantell received a letter from his son Walter, who 8 years before had left England to live in New Zealand, where he announced the discovery of fossils at the archaeological site of Waingongoro in South Taranaki. In December of the same year more than 800 fossils were send to England, most notably Walter collected many bones of Dinornis, a complete skull and fragments of eggs.
“Because Professor Owen made this topic to his own, I decided to give up the joy and the pride of a first description, and allow him to utilize all the new specimens, collected by my son Walter.“
The well preserved bones and the legends of the Maori encouraged Walter to search for living specimens of Moa – “If a living Moa exists, my son will catch him” affirmed Gideon not without pride. In 1847 and 1850 Walter Mantell could prove that feathers of Moa were used by Maori clan chiefs as ensigns of their authority, proving that in fact the Maori did encounter in historic times these animals.
However Walter Gideon soon abandoned the hunt for a living Moa, but stories about encounters with supposed Moa still persisted during the 19th century.
The first naturalist promoting that this bird was still alive, was the missionary and amateur palaeontologist William Colenso, which in 1842 claimed that he, altogether with two friends, missionary William Williams and Rev. Richard Taylor, was the true discoverer of the first Moa bones.
In January 1838 he accompanied Williams to the eastern coast of the North Island, where they recorded the myth of “Waiapu“, a giant bird with the face of a man living in a cave on Mount Whakapunake. Colenso became convinced that the giant bird, which bones were also found in the region, was still alive, and in 1841-42 explored the regions along the coast:
“the people had never seen a Moa, although they had always heard of, and invariably believed in the existence of such a creature at that place” (COLENSO 1846)
In dispute with Owen about the first description and denomination of the Moa, Colenso send his collected fossil bones only to geologist William Buckland and naturalist William Jackson Hooker, who however promptly handled them over to Owen, who in 1843 published a second, improved article on the Moa – birds.
With the fossils acquired until then Owens recognized various species of Moa, “Dinornis robustus“, “D. elephantopus” and “D. crassus” on the northern island, and “Dinornis giganteus” and “D. gracilis” on the southern island (today classified in various genera). Owen himself included in the publication some footnotes with the remark of rumours that giant birds were still alive on the Island of D’Urville and other islands of the Cook Strait.
Fig.3. Photograph of Richard Owen and a reconstructed Dinornis robustus (now novazealandiae) skeleton from Tiger Hill in 1878. Owen is holding in the right hand the original fragment of the femoral shaft brought to London in 1839 by Dr. Rule and rests the left hand on the counterpart in the reconstructed skeleton (image in public domain).
Colenso was still on the search of a living Moa, but could offer only some anecdotes to support his claim: the “mechanic’s tale” of 1842 about the two American hunters who ventured in the Marlborough mountains to a place that their Maori guide knew a moa to visit “presently they saw the monster [a four and a half meter high bird] majestically stalking down in search of food: they were, however, so petrified with horror at the sight as to be utterly unable to fire on him. Had they commenced the combat, it is, I think, highly doubtful how it might have terminated“.
In another story a shepherd claimed to have seen an awful bird on the shores of the river Waiau in 1860 and a certain Robert Clark claimed that he encountered in his youth “a giant black bird with long limbs and a neck, with a crest on the head“. In 1860 two civil servants, Mailing and Brunner, reported to have found fresh tracks of a big bird leading to an area with caves, where presumably the animal was hiding.
The geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, participant of the Novara Expedition (1857-59), investigated the claims of living large birds during his visits to New Zealand and hypothesised that the sightings and legends were misguided observations of two more recently extinct large kiwi-species (Palapteryx and Megalapteryx didinus, both regarded today as Moa-birds).
The legends of the Moa still surviving in New Zealand continued into the 20th century and as modern myth it is still well and alive until the last years. In 1993 the military officer Paddy Fearney and teacher Sam Waby claimed to have seen a large bird on the shores of a river in the interior of the Southern Island. After a first surprise Fearney managed to take a photo that was widely published in the January and February issues of various journals.
However the photo is very blurry and palaeontologists consider the photo showing only the posterior part of a deer. Also it would not be the first hoax in the history of the Moa – in 1954 the workman Neville perpetuated a hoax by applying false claws on his shoes and creating some Moa footprints.
Today, based on radiometric dating of subfossil remains of Moa, it is assumed that most species of this group didn’t survive after 1600. Most legends and eyewitness accounts involving encounters with strange animals describe a large and erect-necked, with the neck and legs covered by feathers, bird. However mummified remains and prehistoric art don’t support this outdated 19th century reconstruction.
It does seem that an ancient Maori proverb summarizes best the case of the Moa:
“Ka ngaro i te ngaro a te Moa” – Lost, like the Moa is lost.
Fig.5. Caricature by Trevor Lloyd (1863-1937) “The arrival of the Maories” (Between 1900 and 1910) (National Library of New Zealand, image in public domain).
*Colenso in a work of 1846 refers that the denomination Moa seems to come from a mythological creature living in a cave on the east Coast, described to be half human and half bird, however it is not clear what the origin and meaning of this word is (sometimes translated as the name of a domestic fowl or chicken) and if in fact it has any closer connections to the extinct birds.
**J.W. Harris notes in a letter of 1837 to his uncle, Dr. John Rule, that the Maoris legend refers to an Eagle-like bird as “A Movie”.
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