Moa: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of a Giant Bird
When in London, lovers of the footnotes to history construct unusual itineraries. Many head down to the Maritime Museum at Greenwich to marvel over the sea clocks with which John Harrison “wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars”. They flick back the sky-blue velvet curtains that hide William Smith’s map that changed the world. They scrabble through the undergrowth for a chance to sit in the now faded dinosaur models that graced the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace.
Another reference that should now be added to the footnote map is collection item No 44639 of the storage section of the Palaeontology Department of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. As Richard Wolfe notes in Moa: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of a Giant Bird, it was this six-inch-long fragment of bone which revealed that a huge flightless bird had once roamed the islands of New Zealand.
Wolfe traces this “unpromising fragment” of bone from an unknown river bed into the hands of John Harris, the first permanent European trader in Poverty Bay. Visiting Sydney in 1837, Harris passed the bone on to his uncle, Dr John Rule. Harris told his uncle that the bone “belonged to a Bird of the Eagle kind, but which has become extinct — they call it ‘A Movie’.”
Rule, both surgeon and scientist as so many were in those days, knew just where to take his bone. On the afternoon of 18 October 1839, he made his way to the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons to see the assistant conservator, Professor Richard Owen. (The imperious Owen was to coin the term dinosauria and recycled the Greek word “deinos” when he christened the new genus of bird from New Zealand Dinornis.) Less than a month later, Owen showed the bone to other members of the Zoological Society. Having worked his way through all the bone’s possibilities, he declared it to be from an “unknown struthious bird of large size”.
However, despite its importance, the bone initially failed to pass into public hands. The British Museum told Dr Rule that they “‘did not deal in old bones’”, and both the Royal College of Surgeons and Owen himself declined to buy the fragment. Eventually in 1841 Dr Rule, down on his luck, found a buyer in Benjamin Bright of Bristol. It was not until 1873 that the Bright family’s collection of “mildewed fossils and minerals” was transferred to the British Museum, and later from there to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.
As well as following the journey of the bone, Wolfe teases out myriad other strands of the moa’s story. For instance, we discover that one Joel Polack made the first published reference to the existence in New Zealand of a large flightless bird. Polack was New Zealand’s first Jewish settler, working as a trader in the northern North Island before starting a brewery in 1835. A dispute with a local innkeeper also gave Polack the distinction of being one half of New Zealand’s first recorded duel (although Wolfe suggests it was probably more of “a running gun battle”). Polack returned to England shortly after the duel, on the voyage back writing a book about his six years in New Zealand. Whether Owen ever read the book is not recorded, but Polack went on to become an advocate for the settlement of New Zealand, appearing before a Select Committee at the House of Commons. Polack returned to New Zealand, fighting yet another duel with his innkeeper foe, and, ever the entrepreneur, sent off a cargo of kauri gum to the United States before emigrating there himself in 1850.
These were tumultuous times in both the “new” world and in the very old world that those of scientific bent were uncovering. The detection of the world’s past from scraps of bones helped to kickstart the theory of species extinction and from that the theory of evolution. For many, the consequences of these ideas were distinctly disturbing, with geologists, at first, trying to reconcile the existence of fossils with the Biblical story of Noah’s flood. At the same time, the unearthing of fossils and other similarly quantum-shifting discoveries – and the glory that went with them – often led to some intense rivalries. In The Dinosaur Hunters, Deborah Cadbury portrays the bitter rivalry between Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell. (Mantell boasted in his journal that his lectures on New Zealand geology attracted an audience of “between 2000 and 3000 persons”.) In Longitude, Dava Sobel chronicles the struggles of clockmaker John Harrison, and in The Map That Changed the World, Simon Winchester lays bare the vicissitudes of the life of William Smith. If Moa lacks something, it is any similarly compelling human story.
However, for those of us who read the footnotes first, there are ample details to delight. For instance, we encounter Geoffrey Buckland Orbell, who in 1948 rediscovered the takahe, and learn about his distant family link to the eccentric Reverend William Buckland, a lover of “undergroundology” (as he called it) and the first to describe the Megalosaurus. Another bonus is learning that the takahe’s scientific name is Notornis mantelli, a further local link to Gideon Mantell.
The fascination with the moa continues; so do possible sightings. (One recent one in 1993 was in a riverbed in the Craigieburn Range in central Canterbury. “The fact that it was made by a publican might,” as Wolfe observes, “have been good grounds for suspicion.”) And just this year two independent groups of scientists reported to the journal Nature that the largest of New Zealand’s moa was not, as once thought, a separate species but simply the female. This discovery came from ancient DNA extracted from tiny fragments of bone once so disparagingly dismissed as “unpromising”.
Kim Griggs is a Wellington journalist. Her On Blue Ice – A Not Very Brave Journey to Antarctica is reviewed on p12.