Nothing is more disheartening for a nature-lover than to hear that a species has been declared extinct. Perhaps this is why repeated accounts of a sighting of a species thought lost to us gives us a glimmer of hope. We take delight in the slice of optimism that a significant animal still thrives somewhere undiscovered.
Such is the case of the Moa, a flightless endemic bird that grew to over 2 metres tall and weighed more than 200 kilos.
Records show that moas became extinct about 500-600 years ago due to over-hunting and habitat decline. However, until this day, explorers continue to venture deep into the wilds of Fiordland, searching for any trace of this avian giant.
Proof of the Moa’s existence
The first documented traces of the Moa begin with Joel Polack who recorded in 1838 “several large fossil ossifications” that he initially thought of like the bones of a species of ostrich or emu. In 1842, Richard Owen, an English paleontologist, declared that the bones were of a giant extinct bird and named it Dinornis. Since then, skeletal remains similar to the ones found by Polack have been found throughout New Zealand.
Explorers Rex and Heather Gilroy have been going on field expeditions for 20 years to find a living specimen. They stumbled upon something interesting on their trip to the Te Urewera National Park. In March 2000, while trekking in the dense wilderness of the mountainside, they discovered obscure footprints supposedly made by a giant bird. They claimed that one imprint came up to 17 cm in length and 10 cm wide across the two outer toes.
They came back in 2001 and were able to get footprint castings from what was believed were moa feeding and nesting grounds. In 2008, the Gilroys decided to search a different location and had a trip to Mt. Egmont located within Whanganui National Park. Here Rex was able to uncover a larger footprint, its cast measuring 30 cm in length and 41 cm width.
Extinct animal enthusiasts have not given up on the hunt for the fascinating moa. There are numerous studies and YouTube videos documenting the continued search for the two-footed herbivore. After all, the rediscovery of another flightless endemic bird, the Takahē, which was declared extinct since 1898 proves that rare birds may exist despite being undetected for a long time.
What to look out for when searching for Moas
If you’re planning to head into the wilderness and start searching, it is best to arm yourself with knowledge about the moa for better chances of an encounter and to ensure your safety as well. Take note of these important details:
- Moas mostly feed on alpine herbs, southern beeches, as well as tree fuschia, flax and other nectar-rich flowers, so your best bet is to begin searching in grasslands, forests and areas of abundant vegetation.
- The best preserved mummified remains of moa are of this species and were found in relatively dry, enclosed rocky subalpine sites. Upland moas and crested moas, however, primarily inhabited the mountainous and subalpine zones of the South Island. Check these areas on your map and plan out your trip accordingly.
- Most bones and eggshells were previously found in sinkholes or pitfalls located inside caves and rock shelters. As these areas may pose more danger if explored, be sure to consult with experts before your expedition.
- Know the weather forecast and ensure adequate supplies for your trip.
Speculations about the moa’s undetected existence in the wilderness of Fiordland and South Westland continue to attract curious zoologists and wildlife experts. You never know, a Milford Sound Cruise might be all you need to awaken the wilderness explorer in you.