Moa likely to be resurrected by 2114
While conservationists battle to save our native birds from extinction, scientists still believe in the moa’s ‘‘deextinction’’.
A few weeks ago, flightless bird expert Dr Mike Dickison defended MP Trevor Mallard’s prediction that the moa would make a comeback in New Zealand bush.
‘‘What Trevor Mallard was saying is nothing new. It’s part of the conversation that has been going on for decades. There was nothing unbelievable or cutting edge about it, because it’s being talked about around the world.’’
Dickison said it also raised the wider issue of ‘‘re-wilding’’ New Zealand.
For instance, a group of conservation biologists recently proposed to populate western North America with African and Asian megafauna, including lions, elephants, cheetahs and camels, to create a facsimile of the big animal species which disappeared from the continent some 13,000 years ago. The Indian elephant, for example, is closely related to mammoth.
Known as ‘‘Pleistocene rewilding’’, one of the aims was to make amends for over-exploitation by our ancestors, Dickison said.
Could the clock be turned back the same way in New Zealand? Dickison believed anything was possible, and said the moa’s return was vital to the survival of our remaining flora and fauna. Moa were nature’s lawnmowers of the forest’s understorey. No animal, certainly not deer, had served the same ecological function since the moa had disappeared more than 600 years ago.
‘‘In the case of our giant birds, they all added to the ecosystem. Anything bigger than a chicken was wiped out, and we need them back.’’
Also curator of the Whanganui Regional Museum, which houses the world’s largest moa-bone collection, Dickison believed our bush could sustain a ‘‘deextinction’’ of his favourite giant bird.
Pooh-poohing the view that moa could be resurrected in the next 50-100 years, University of Canterbury palaeobiologist Professor Richard Holdaway believed moa habitat had changed too much since their extinction.
The New Zealand bush did not ‘‘even function in the same way as when moa were alive’’, he said.
But could the proof be in the poo? During Landcare Research palaeoecologist Dr Jamie Wood’s recent trip to Daley’s Flat in the Dart River Valley, Otago, to collect and examine fossilised moa faeces or coprolites, he also found ancient moa food growing higher up a rockfall, out of reach of browsing deer.
‘‘The question about whether New Zealand would currently have enough natural habitat to support moa is a complex one, but in brief I would say yes. Most of the plants we have recovered from moa coprolites in places like the Dart Valley and Euphrates Cave [Kahurangi National Park] are still found there today.’’
While Wood thought their habitat was salvageable, he believed now was not the time to put moa back in the picture.
‘‘At the moment I feel the main concerns are still issues like controlling predators and preserving the extant biota (things living now) that is currently declining. There would be no point in restoring lost fauna until these issues were under control.’’
In terms of resurrecting the moa, Dickison said ‘‘we just need to solve the technical problems, and that will take money’’.
‘‘It will probably be done overseas because we can’t fund it here, but in 100 years technology will have caught up.’’
Moa comeback: These giant, flightless birds could roam our bush once more via DNA technology advances.