The Moa and Then Some...

New Zealand, about the size of Colorado, is 1,200 miles southeast of Australia. It forms the southwest corner of the enormous Polynesian triangle, whose other corners are the Hawaiian islands 3000 miles to the north and Easter Island, over 3000 miles to the east. Travelers from East Polynesia settled along the 1,000 mile east coast of New Zealand about the time an unknown poet was writing his Middle English masterpiece, Gawain and the Green Knight. The history is murky. As Keith Sinclair put it in his 1959 A History of New Zealand:

“At present it seems likely that more than one group of Polynesians settled in New Zealand. Their landings may have been early in its human history, or separated by centuries. The unique Maori culture may have resulted from the amalgamation and evolution, over a millennium, of elements from different parts of Eastern Polynesia. But speculation must be cautious in view of the rapid growth of pre-historical studies.”

Whatever else they may have been, the earliest settlers were moa hunters. Dinornis Maximus, a.k.a. the moa, was a 520 pound bird and perhaps even twice that size, second only to the Madagascar Elephant bird in heft among the flightless birds of the world. The moa lived on what was the southwestern most outpost of Polynesian migration. But not for long. New Zealand was so remote that, aside from the lowly bat and the seal—both of whom arrived with their own means of locomotion—the islands knew no mammalian population: hence no predators. The poor moa was a sitting duck. It didn’t take the moa-hunters long to exterminate them and, ultimately themselves for want of a moa to hunt. They merged with the Maori and, along with their defenseless prey, are lost in the mists of pre-history.

A tiny vestige of the moa remains in New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi. The flightless kiwi has the largest egg relative to body weight of any bird in the world. A normal bird of the kiwi’s dimension might lay an egg of 100 grams at the largest. A kiwi’s egg is in the neighborhood of 435 grams, or one pound. By rights the kiwi should weigh 28 pounds, a generous Thanksgiving turkey instead of a Colonel Saunders Kentucky fried chicken.

How this came about is the subject of an illuminating essay by Stephen Jay Gould in his 1991 collection, Bully for Brontosaurus. It is called “Of Kiwi Eggs and the Liberty Bell.” The nub of his argument is that the kiwi is a dwarfed descendant of a larger bird that grew smaller over the millennia. Intra-species diminution often leaves one body part undiminished. In the kiwi’s case, it was the egg. Far enough back in time the kiwi and the moa were birds of a feather. The large kiwi egg echoes that relationship.

Today the kiwi is an endangered species. The bizarre reason is that in 1987 a wild female German shepherd went on a killing spree and slaughtered 500 kiwis of the 800 to 1000 living in Waitangi State Forest. The killing spree lasted six weeks and, as Gould notes, gave the lie to the view that only man kills for sport. Several dead kiwi carcasses were found partially buried uneaten under a covering of dead leaf litter. As with its ancestor, the moa, growing up in a mammal free environment left the poor kiwi easy prey to a wild dog.

Today the dominant mammal in New Zealand is the docile sheep. There are 40 million of them. Perhaps the meek will inherit the earth, after all.



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