All aboard Moa’s Ark, Bob Brockie

Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand 
George Gibbs
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99,
ISBN 1877333484

Extinct Birds of New Zealand 
Alan Tennyson and Paul Martinson
Te Papa Press, $64.99,
ISBN 0909010218

Ghosts of Gondwana is a remarkable scientific narrative; Extinct Birds is a beautifully illustrated  scientific catalogue. Literary pundits urge science writers to analyse, synthesise, integrate, explain, evaluate, generalise, abstract, compare, refute fallacies and illustrate their topics. Though these are very different books, their authors do all these things with sure-footedness and style.

The appearance of George Gibbs’s Ghosts is an important scientific event because it is the first book ever to tackle the subject of New Zealand’s natural history over the past 80 million years, explores a vast array of historical speculation and scientific evidence, and brings us right up-to-date with the latest thinking on the topic. The author has spent most of his life studying the biology of the Austral world, making many collecting trips to remote fastnesses of South America, South Africa, Tasmania and New Zealand. His thorough-going story draws on his field work, his university teaching, the fossil record, on recent discoveries and details about plate tectonics, and on the latest DNA studies.

To date, he points out, plant and animal history has largely been the preserve of Northern Hemisphere biologists and geographers. Knowledge about the biogeography of the Southern Hemisphere has painstakingly accumulated over the last 150 years but cascaded forth in the last decade or two. Biological events and geological processes of the Northern Hemisphere could not be more different from the complex history of our scattered southern lands. Gibbs tells us about life on the great southern continent of Gondwana, maps the breakaway of Zealandia 80 million years ago, our drift northwards, and our changing shape.

Since David Bellamy’s tv days, most of us have absorbed his idea of huggable dinosaur trees and Gondwana animals surviving on Moa’s Ark as it drifted to its present position in the Pacific. But Gibbs says there’s much more to the story. The passenger list kept changing as plants and animals were lost overboard, and many disappeared when Zealandia all but sank beneath the waves, only to rejoin the ship  from Australia. More recently, many species floated, flew or were blown here from the Pacific only to be shaped and reshaped in response to mountains rising up and the transforming effects of the Ice Ages.

This book is one of the first fruits of New Zealand’s DNA revolution. Infinitely more historic information is coded in a DNA molecule than in any fossil bone. The magic molecule enables biologists to detect genetic connections, build detailed family trees, and put dates on ancient evolutionary events. DNA gives biologists x-ray eyes to see further and with greater accuracy into ancient history. For example, DNA reveals that Hebes arrived in New Zealand about 10 million years ago; that within the last two million years, an ancestral swamp bird flew here from Australia on three occasions, giving rise to two kinds of takahe and our present-day pukeko (and puts paid to the myth that Maori brought the bird here from Hawaiki); that one bird species flew here from Australia and lost its wings in as little as 10,000 years. DNA proves that our pohutukawa spread northwards to colonise Tahiti and Hawaii and not the other way round; that our parakeets arrived here from New Caledonia within the last half million years, and so on.

Gibb tries to identify the true ghosts of Gondwana – the founding plants and animals that boarded Zealandia 80 million years ago, and survived on board for many millions of years. Among these pioneers he lists our well-known moa, kiwi, tuatara, kauri, beech and rimu trees but also a raft of lesser-known organisms such as geckoes, wrens, frogs, whitebait, moths, sandflies, snails, velvet worms, ferns, mistletoes, horopito and gunnera. As well as ancient organisms, Gibbs gives close attention to New Zealand’s present-day native plants and animals, speculates on their varied origins and responses to overwhelming historic crises, their opportunistic breaks, interactions and vulnerabilities. He puts his finger on the many gaps, puzzles and paradoxes that remain in our knowledge of the past, and points the way to future research.

Ghosts is suffused with the author’s passion for his topic and his keenness to make his message understood. It is a handsome and tidy book – and comfortable to hold and read. It is a landmark in New Zealand terrestrial biology. Whoever tries to write the parallel story of our marine life will have a hard act to follow.

In a sense, Alan Tennyson and Paul Martinson’s Extinct Birds of New Zealand starts where George Gibbs’s story ends – with the recent history of birds and the arrival of people in New Zealand. At first glance Extinct Birds looks like an attractive coffee-table book, with its beautiful colour paintings of 58 lost species. But it’s far more than that, for the paintings are interleaved with scientific accounts of the birds, and sandwiched between a carefully researched, informative introduction and 38 pages of scholarly appendices.

Martinson’s paintings of the lost birds are quite remarkable in the way they put realistic flesh, feathers and gestures on fossil bones. The birds are imaginatively represented from every angle, many in the act of flapping, swimming, soaring and foraging, and set in astonishingly detailed surroundings, whether in the bush, the coast, rivers, lakes or mountain tops. Exquisitely drawn plants and the occasional moth, huhu beetle, dragonfly or seal set off most of the birds.

Martinson has a remarkable eye. I’m mystified by his very distinctive luminous painting technique.It looks as if an airbrush has been used to very good reflective and dappling lighting effect, and smudging background objects to look like out-of-focus photographs. I’m sorry to read that he has given up painting fossil birds. Tennyson’s explanatory text is not a regurgitation of old information but an important presentation of the latest research and thinking on New Zealand’s fossil ornithology. He weaves together insights gathered from his own extensive fossilising, his work on bird collections in the world’s museums, and the latest news from the DNA labs.

Accompanying each illustration are tables listing the species’ geographic distribution, its weight, the date and cause of its extinction, the meaning of its scientific name, the number of specimens and eggs known to be held in the world’s museums, and information about the plants and other animals featuring in each painting. Among the lost birds pictured here are moa, ducks, rails, snipe, wrens, geese, hawks, quail, pigeons, owls, parrots and others. Fourteen kinds of extinct giant penguins get a mention but they are not illustrated –  perhaps because all penguins look alike. Surprisingly, some extinct birds from Norfolk and Macquarie Islands figure in the book, but Tennyson’s maps show that these islands were geographically part of Zealandia for millions of years.

The book is peppered with fascinating information – that some of our moa probably had a highly developed sense of smell; that others may have made loud resonant calls and lived nocturnally to avoid giant eagles; that over a thousand bones and seven nearly complete eggs of the little bush moa are in the world’s museums; that Maori killed 6000 moa at one site in Marlborough; that the Chatham Islands lost 12 bird species including a huge raven; that convicts on Norfolk Island kept kaka as pets. We read of a sportsman shooting 60 brace of the now-extinct New Zealand quail before breakfast where Cathedral Square now stands, and that some lost species survive only in Maori waiata or legends. Neat diagrams track the historical demise of our birds and rank their various nemeses. With 31 extinctions, we humans were/are by far the most damaging creature, followed by the predatory Pacific rat, cats, European rats, pigs, dogs and stoats, in that order.

So fragmentary was our knowledge about Southern Hemisphere plants and animals that, a few short years ago, neither of these books could have been written. However, the recent unearthing of so many fossils, and the torrent of genealogical and historical detail revealed by DNA, have made them possible. Research in these areas moves so fast that both books are already, in a narrow sense, out of date for, within months of their publication, 23 new species of extinct birds and a true Gondwana ghost, New Zealand’s first terrestrial mammal, were identified in Otago rocks.

I have one or two grizzles about editing. The word “occurs” shows up on nearly every page; a stricter editor would have replaced this remote abstraction with “lived”,  “lives”, “happen” or some other more lively verb. Also, compared with the superb treatment accorded  Martinson’s  paintings, Gibbs’s photos get the shrinking treatment. Some are large and clear but most have been reduced to the size of postage stamps, despite being surrounded by very wide margins and plenty of empty white space.

Anybody with an interest in our native plants and animals will welcome these publications and, as reference books, they will undoubtedly be snapped up by all public, university and perhaps school libraries. Ghosts of Gondwana and Extinct Birds will widen Kiwis’ understanding of New Zealand’s ancient past, promote research in the topic, and surely launch a million school and university assignments.

 

Bob Brockie is the Dominion Post science columnist.

 

Ghosts of Gondwana won the environment category of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

 

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