might have been! Sadly, we are just a little too late in the
geological timeframe to have witnessed and nurtured the giant
moa, perhaps by as little as 500 years.
Moa and humans certainly co-existed. It was just 8km south of
Oamaru that Walter Mantell, travelling from Oamaru to
incipient Dunedin in 1852, first found and excavated a
moa-hunter camp beside what is now known as the Awamoa
stream. As recently as 2005, not far away, a hangi pit
excavated by Jill Hamel contained rotting moa material.
Quinn Berentson skilfully interweaves the threads of history,
for instance to describe colourfully how Hartley and Riley's
discovery of gold in the Cromwell George, winning 40kg by
hand in 1862, opened a fortuitous new dimension to the moa
Nothing was allowed to hinder the grim determination of the
swarming gold-rushers to create access to the fabulous new
deposits, and in remote Central Otago, the Interior of Otago
as it was called, moa bones were noticed in profusion.
Enormous quantities had been discarded by ancestral hunters,
some at rigorous altitudes of up to 5000 feet (1500m).
Were moa extinguished directly as a consequence of their food
value? This is debatable and the link may be indirect.
Extinction depends on a summation of numerous factors
impinging on the ability of a species to adapt to
environmental change, to defeat predators (in this case
humans, apart from Haast's eagle), to breed fast enough, and
many other pressures.
In the light of relatively recent research, Berentson
discusses how early Polynesian settlers of the 13th century
may have attempted to clear bush by controlled burning, but
lost control. A technique they understood well in the context
of small, lush islands was not appropriate to our much
larger, drier tracts of land. The habitat was changed, forest
was replaced with fern and bush. Simultaneously hunted and
deprived of their habitat, the moa as a species soon had no
In fact, moa were more than a single species, or genus even.
The definition of a species or senior genus can be a moving
target, especially with skeletons alone to work with. Size
became a key criterion and everyone's favourite, the giant
moa, with legs as tall as a human, was placed in the genus
Dinornis (a word not unrelated to dinosaur). Some were much
smaller. Moa are distinct from the kiwi and other flightless
birds in having no vestige of wing bones represented in the
After decades of reclassification, modern DNA sequencing came
to the rescue. Bones, particularly if deposited in a cool,
dark cave, can preserve DNA comparatively well. The findings
were dramatic: bird size had been a serious confounder. DNA
proved that many moa species had much larger females than the
males, which had previously been classified as separate
species. We now have a mere nine species, belonging to six
Quinn Berentson's book is extremely well produced,
comprehensively researched and profusely illustrated with
top-quality photographs and historic images. For every
reader's level of interest in moa, from expert to newcomer,
it is a fine work of reference, with detailed literature
sources and leads to wider reading. For the Otago reader
there's plenty about local discoveries. An excellent way to
redeem that Christmas book token.
Clive Trotman is a Dunedin arbitrator and science