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Why Did The Moas Disappear? Blame Humans

New research shows that the moa birds of New Zealand died out because of humans.

Jessica Pineda

There were once nine species of wingless moas in New Zealand, all of which were large herbivores. The largest moas — Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae — were around 12 feet high, and weighed around 510 pounds. The birds went extinct roughly around the time that the Maori arrived in New Zealand in the 13th century, but scientists and researchers were never sure what the cause was. Was it climate change? The spread of disease? Volcano eruptions? Or was it simply humans?

Megalapteryx huttoni
A moa bird by Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, in the book "Extinct Birds."
In the report "Extinct New Zealand megafauna were not in decline before human colonization” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), researchers determined that humans were the cause of the moa extinction. In the report’s abstract, the researchers wrote, "We sampled 281 moa individuals and combined radiocarbon dating with ancient DNA analyses to help resolve the extinction debate and gain insights into moa biology. The samples, which were predominantly from the last 4,000 years preceding the extinction, represent four sympatric moa species excavated from five adjacent fossil deposits. We characterized the moa assemblage using mitochondrial DNA and nuclear microsatellite markers developed specifically for moa. Although genetic diversity differed significantly among the four species, we found that the millennia preceding the extinction were characterized by a remarkable degree of genetic stability in all species, with no loss of heterozygosity and no shifts in allele frequencies over time.”

When a species is in decline, their genes show it, which wasn’t the case with the moa. The moa population was actually on the rise by the time humans found their way to New Zealand. And, as with most meetings like this, the birds ultimately lost. "The extinction event itself was too rapid to be manifested in the moa gene pools,” the researchers wrote.

In fact, the researchers point out, the moa may have been the most rapidly human-caused extinctions to date.

Want to meet other New Zealand birds that are not extinct?

The Kakapo
The Kea

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Posted: March 25, 2014, 12:15 p.m. PDT

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Why Did The Moas Disappear? Blame Humans

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Reader Comments
I am a maori & my nanny told me when i was a little girl that the moa was still around before the pakeha came to New Zealand, so we were there for hundreds of years before they were extint and we were bought up being told these stories by word of mouth and she would have been told these stories by her nanny and koro. The story is very much like the Tasmanian tiger in Tasmania (Australia) which dissappeared after the pakeha got there.
Jennifer, International
Posted: 2/6/2016 4:34:33 AM
As always happens with animals and exotic species, everything that humans sets out to do, doesn't turn to gold. Humans, it seems are always doing things to destroy everything and anything in sight. An example of this is, the Dodo bird, which history tells, was a very friendly bird. And how was this friendly bird's gentleness rewarded? That's right! Humans brought it to extinction by hunting, by no other than humans. Let's just hope and pray that the Kakapo and the Kea, don't go the way of the Moa and the Dodo birds. An example of humans' excuses for destroying wildlife, is the events of the Copenhagen Zoo, with the killing an 18 month old zebra and their lame excuses for doing so and now they did it again, by killing two adult lions and two lion cubs.
Cecilia, Brooklyn, NY
Posted: 3/29/2014 8:01:03 PM
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