Moa: our ‘feathered monster’

By Rebecca Priestley In Science

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Moa - The Life and Death of New Zealand's Legendary Bird
‘First we killed them, then we ate them and then we forgot about them,” says Quinn Berentson in Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird. “Human beings have not been kind to the moa.” In this action-packed, fact-filled melding of science and history, packed with fabulous photographs, illustrations and cartoons, Berentson makes some redress for their unfortunate treatment by telling the story of the “wonderfully bizarre and improbable moa, New Zealand’s own megafauna wonder”.

The scientific discovery of the first bones of New Zealand’s “feathered monster” was the zoological find of the 19th century, providing work for colonial collectors and fuelling the interest of a science-hungry Victorian England. In London, a scientific feud developed between anatomy professor Richard Owen and geologist Gideon Mantell over the scientific description of the early moa fossils.

In New Zealand, two leading scientists, James Hector and Julius Haast, began a bitter dispute over who was the resident moa expert. When moa bones were found in old hangi pits, Haast postulated that moa were killed and eaten by an ancient race of moa hunters who, with their prey, had perished some 10,000 years earlier. But following the discovery of the first mummified moa skeleton, along with feathers, eggs and embryos, Hector – correctly – countered that the moa hunters were recent ancestors of the Maori and the last birds had perished shortly before Europeans arrived.

Along with these familiar names from New Zealand history, Berentson introduces other characters – including whalers, explorers, gold-diggers – whose tales intersect with the story of the moa. The disputes are no longer as bitter, but scientific research into the moa continues. Ecological studies have revealed the plants they ate and the plants that evolved to deter them: the young lancewood, with its dagger-like leaves, evolved to evade the “legion of giant hungry birds that could devour a young tree in one sitting”.

Recent scientific techniques – first carbon dating and then DNA analysis – have done what Richard Owen’s comparative anatomy could not, revealing that rather than the dozens of moa species once suggested, there were only ever nine species of the bird, with all the giant moa identified as female. In a comical case of extreme and unparalleled reverse sexual dimorphism, the male counterparts to some of these metre-high females were only the size of a turkey.

MOA: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF NEW ZEALAND’S LEGENDARY BIRD, by Quinn Berentson (Craig Potton, $49.99).

For active minds

Awesome Forces: The Natural Hazards That Threaten New Zealand

It was childhood books about volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis that first got me interested in science, so Awesome Forces: The Natural Hazards That Threaten New Zealand has instant appeal. It’s not just me – this is one of Te Papa Press’s biggest sellers.

This lively and well-illustrated book, edited by Geoff Hicks and Hamish Campbell and written by leading earth and climate scientists, updates the 1998 edition with material on climate change and recent earthquakes and eruptions. The book commits many exclamation-mark misdemeanours – the material is dramatic enough without them – but it’s a great read, suitable for younger and older readers with a fascination for our geologically active country.

An earthquake and a tsunami are at the beginning of Fallout from Fukushima in which former Australian diplomat Richard Broinowski gives a compelling account of the natural disasters and mishaps that led to the meltdown of the nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in March 2011. Broinowski has a self-declared “sceptical approach towards nuclear technology”, and in his coverage of nuclear-power use around the world – current, planned and recently abandoned – he predicts that the development of alternative energy sources will soon make “such an expensive and dangerous technology unfeasible and uneconomical”.

AWESOME FORCES: THE NATURAL HAZARDS THAT THREATEN NEW ZEALAND, edited by Geo Hicks and Hamish Campbell (Te Papa Press, $29.99); FALLOUT FROM FUKUSHIMA, by Richard Broinowski (Scribe, $35).

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