Moa likely to be res­ur­rected by 2114

Central Otago Mirror - - FEATURES - By MARY-JO TO­HILL

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.

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