Month: July 2014

Reviving the Moa

Recently Labour MP Trevor Mallard, in a breakfast meeting with Wainuiomata business owners, suggested moa might roam the hills again in 50 or 100 years. He was widely mocked by politicians and pundits, but could he be onto something? How difficult would it be to resurrect the moa?
Ever since Jurassic Park brought back dinosaurs the idea of de-extinction has gripped our imagination, but the science has yet to live up to the hype. Geneticists have cloned a few animals and moved DNA around in the lab, but no species has returned from the dead yet. To revive an extinct animal, we need at least three things: all of its DNA, some way of getting that DNA into a living egg, and a mother for the egg that could incubate it or bring it to term.

In the early days on moa DNA research, chunks of bone were drilled out of museum specimens, ground up, and the DNA extracted. This revolutionised our understanding of the moa family tree, but the only a tiny percentage of the genome was recovered, and it was heavily contaminated with the DNA of microbes and even people who’d handled the bones.

In the early days on moa DNA research, chunks of bone were drilled out of museum specimens, ground up, and the DNA extracted. This revolutionised our understanding of the moa family tree, but the only a tiny percentage of the genome was recovered, and it was heavily contaminated with the DNA of microbes and even people who’d handled the bones.

The first step might be the easiest with moa. The DNA we’ve recovered from moa bones and eggs is in tiny fragments, most of it is missing, and it’s contaminated by microbes, but technological advances over the last 20 years have made us better at figuring out where the fragments might fit together. We haven’t figured out the entire moa genome yet, though we’re getting closer; it’s been successfully done for Neanderthals and mammoths. This is all on computers but we don’t know how to assemble the actual fragments like a giant jigsaw yet. Even if we did, building chromosomes out of the DNA would be very tricky. Nevertheless, these problems are ones we may well solve.

 

Recently researchers have discovered that moa DNA is preserved much better on eggshell than in bones; the pores of eggs protect it from the elements and contamination by bacteria. DNA from the inside of the shell is of both male and female chicks, but from the outside is only from males.

Recently researchers have discovered that moa DNA is preserved much better on eggshell than in bones; the pores of eggs protect it from the elements and contamination by bacteria. DNA from the inside of the shell is of both male and female chicks, but from the outside is only from males.

The second step is harder. A mammal’s egg can be extracted, its DNA replaced, and the egg coaxed into dividing again until it’s stable enough to implant back into the womb; this is how cloning works. The problem with bird eggs is they have a hard shell, and puncturing this, taking out an embryo, and reintroducing it after it’s been dividing for many generations is in the Too Hard basket at the moment. We can’t even clone chickens yet with a multi-billion-dollar poultry industry backing researchers. Extinct mammals, therefore, are likely to be revived well before we get around to birds.

 

 

Uncovered in 1931 during gravel excavation near Tokomaru, this egg of Anomalopteryx didiformis, the Little Bush Moa, is one of the six most-complete moa eggs in the world. Because it’s almost the same size as an ostrich’s, it represents the largest moa species we would be able to hatch from the egg of a living bird.

This egg of Anomalopteryx didiformis, the Little Bush Moa, is almost the same size as an ostrich’s egg and represents the largest moa species we would be able to hatch from the egg of a living bird.

A final problem with resurrecting moa is which egg would we use? Giant moa had eggs 24 cm long, much bigger than even an ostrich (the largest egg available), so there’s no living species that could hatch a giant moa chick. Some of the small moa species had ostrich-sized eggs (there is one in the Whanganui Regional Museum) but there’s a second problem: ostriches are only distant relatives of moa, no more closely related than horses are to cows. Transplanting the DNA of one into the embryo of the other is an insurmountable problem, at least at the moment.
So reviving moa would be very difficult, but there are other candidates that seem much more likely. Mammoths, for example, will almost certainly be resurrected before moa are. Mammoth cells have been snap-frozen in relatively good condition, so scientists have been able to sequence their genome. They have close living relatives; woolly mammoths are actually more closely related to Indian elephants than African elephants are. And the technology for cloning mammals is far more advanced than for birds. So in theory it’s certainly possible that one day an elephant will give birth to a mammoth calf.

 
But when? It might be 50 years before mammoth cloning is a reality, and moa would take even longer. By then, what state will the Siberian tundra be in? Will the mammoths have to live out their lives in zoos? There are big ethical questions about bringing back an animal with no habitat, at great expense, when other species are dying out for want of conservation dollars.
New Zealand forests, by contrast, evolved to deal with moa browsing. We could even see moa as an essential part of our forest ecology, missing for centuries, replaced by destructive mammals like deer and pigs. Luckily, we’ve spent decades perfecting ways to wipe out introduced pests and restore damaged forests; in 50 years, if we put our minds to it, we could have prime moa habitat ready to go when the technology catches up. Perhaps our grandchildren will get to see moa in the bush again.
 
Dr Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum and did his PhD research on the evolution of giant flightless birds.

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The Tōtarapuka Duncans

Tōtarapuka, the Duncan Family estate in East Wanganui

Tōtarapuka, the Duncan Family estate in East Wanganui

During the 1840s many Scottish families chose emigration to start a new life. This is the story of one of those families.

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan, his wife Margaret and their two young sons arrived in Wellington in 1840 with other New Zealand Company migrants. A year later they completed the difficult journey by foot along the coast to Whanganui. Their first home was a raupo-thatched hut on the site of Tōtarapuka pā, near the Whanganui River in Wanganui East.
Duncan purchased 105 acres from local Māori and began farming. He increased his land holdings during the next 10 years both in Wanganui East and on Durie Hill. He built a large family estate situated on the East Bank of the Whanganui River, just north of where Wanganui Girls’ College is sited. He named his home Tōtarapuka after the original Māori settlement located in the area. The house was built from local pit-sawn heart tōtara, with front doors and window joinery of oak brought out from England. It comprised 24 rooms and a large stables, as well as a gardener’s and coachmen’s cottages.
Tōtarapuka is remembered for its hospitality; the family entertained on a lavish scale. During the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a coach stop for the horse-drawn passenger carriages that travelled to other districts. A fire in 1925 destroyed one wing of the original house. Today it forms a part of the Acacia Park Motel in Anzac Parade.
Andrew Duncan’s son John followed in his father’s farming footsteps, while his brother, young Andrew, trained as a barrister. They went on to purchase part of the Otairi block in the Rangitīkei in 1881. This farm is still run by the family today. One of John’s sons, Thomas, established the Duncan Hospital on Durie Hill in 1953.

Elizabeth Duncan née Boyd

Elizabeth Duncan née Boyd

Margaret Duncan died in 1872 and Andrew senior remarried, to Elizabeth Boyd, with whom he had four more children, Eliza, Charles, Isabel and Christina. These children were to inherit the Wanganui East and Durie Hill farms.
Andrew Duncan planted 13 acres of garden around Tōtarapuku homestead. The property was subdivided in 1917. Duncan, Boydfield and Young Streets were all named after this family, while Helmore Street is named for the Duncans’ Christchurch solicitors.
Isabel Duncan grew up at Tōtarapuka. She was sent “home” as a young woman to finish her education, travelling first in America then in England. Like her father she was a passionate gardener and further developed the gardens at Tōtarapuka. Her daughter Josephine once said “I’ve never known her cook … she’d work in the garden from five o’clock in the morning until five at night.”

Isabel Mackay, née Duncan

Isabel Mackay, née Duncan

Isabel married Charles Mackay in 1904 and they had four children: Elizabeth, Duncan, Sheillah and Josephine. Duncan died as a young child.
Mackay was born in Nelson in1875 and had established his own law firm in Wanganui in 1902. He was Mayor of Wanganui from 1906 to 1913 and again from 1915 to 1920 and was responsible for much of the growth and development of the city during this period. This energetic career was overshadowed by an event in 1920 when he was charged with attempted murder after shooting and seriously wounding Walter D’Arcy Cresswell and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. It was later alleged that Mackay had made homosexual advances to Cresswell, who then attempted to extract a letter of confession and resignation from the Mayor.

Mayor Charles Mackay

Mayor Charles Mackay

The sensational nature of Mackay’s disgrace in 1920 all but expunged from local history a career of considerable public service. Following Mackay’s release from prison in 1926 he became a journalist in England and Europe. He was shot dead in Berlin by a policeman in 1929.
Isabel divorced Charles in 1920 and reverted to her maiden name of Duncan; her daughters also became Duncans. From then on Isabel spent the New Zealand winters in California with her mother’s family. Her daughter Elizabeth moved to New York where she married George Packer-Berry in 1925 and had a daughter, Carolyn. Elizabeth died from pneumonia a year later, shortly after her 21st birthday.

Young Duncan Mackay, who died at an early age

Young Duncan Mackay, who died at an early age

Josephine was the youngest Duncan child. Born in 1917, she lived at Tōtarapuka until the property was sold in 1972. Jo Duncan had a governess until she was 13, when she went to Miss Curry’s school in Victoria Avenue. Although she wanted to continue studying her mother wouldn’t let her as she believed girls should stay at home. Her mother did encourage her to play golf and she became very accomplished. “Then before I was absolutely ruined the war came along”, she said.

Jo Duncan drove ambulances in the Whanganui region from 1939. During World War II she joined the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, trained at Trentham, was posted to Egypt then served on the hospital ship Oranje.
On her return to Wanganui she took over managing a 500 acre family farm at Rangiwahia, near Mangaweka until 1971. She gained a reputation for being one of the first women to attend and bid for her own stock at the Feilding stock sales.

Josephine and Sheillah Duncan

Josephine and Sheillah Duncan

Jo Duncan was a member of the Russell Grace golf team and played in tournaments throughout the country until she retired in the 1960s. For ten years from 1977 she was a voluntary co-ordinator at the Wanganui Women’s Emergency Refuge.
Josephine Duncan bequeathed her personal effects to the Whanganui Regional Museum. Her bequest includes many items of furniture brought to New Zealand by her family throughout the 19th century, as well as ceramics, jewelry, decorative arts, textiles, photographs, books and paintings. All of these items form a part of the legacy the Duncan family left to Whanganui.

Coining It

It must be funny in a rich man’s world. It makes the world go around. It’s all about the money, money, money.

The Whanganui Regional Museum has a coin collection dating back hundreds of years, covering the reigns of great rulers and those who were only in power for a short time. Each of these small metal discs has an interesting story behind it.

1802.3427 b

A small silver coin dating 54-68 AD comes from the reign of Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.  Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius and inherited his title upon his death. He spent much of his reign focusing on diplomacy and trade but also invested in culture, promoting the theatre and athletic games. Despite all of this apparent good work, Nero was a notorious character. He was known for ordering many executions, including his own 1802.3427 amother, and was believed to have poisoned his stepbrother. He was suspected of starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, which wiped out much of the city, to clear the space required for a new palace, and was rumoured to have dressed up and played music while Rome was burning. He was infamous for his extreme extravagance, tyranny, and persecution of Christians. In 68AD a rebellion over taxes drove Nero from the throne and he became the first Roman emperor to commit suicide. His death was reputedly celebrated by the people of Rome.

 

1964.181.1 bA small bronze coin comes from the reign of Roman Emperor Maxentius who ruled 306-312 AD. Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius Augustus was the son of Emperor Maximian and it was assumed he would take the throne one day. When his father abdicated in 305 AD Maxentius was passed over and power was given to Constantius. In 306 Constantius died and his son, Constantine, took his place. When new taxes were introduced riots broke out in Rome and some of 1964.181.1 aRome’s garrison pleaded with Maxentius to accept imperial rule. He was proclaimed emperor on 28 October 306 AD but his reign was not easy. He was joined by his father in 307 and together they faced many battles for power and land, culminating in a war against Constantine on 28 October 312.  Maxentius’ army lost the battle and the emperor himself drowned in a river fleeing his enemy.

 

1802.2794.6 bA set of silver coins date from the reign of James, known as James II King of England and Ireland and James VII King of Scotland. He ruled from 6 February 1685 until 11 December 1688. The coins are a penny dated 1687, two pence dated 1688, and three pence 1802.2794.6 adated 1686. This James was the second son of King Charles I and ascended the throne after the death of his brother, Charles II. His short reign was fraught with difficulty and suspicion as he was believed to be both pro-French and pro-Catholic. Catholicism was absolutely unwelcome in Protestant England. The birth of his Catholic heir saw Catholic-Protestant tensions reach their peak and his Presbyterian nephew, William III of Orange, was called on to invade England. He did, and James fled England, taken to be his abdication. James made one attempt to regain his crown in 1689-1690 but his Jacobite forces were defeated and he returned to France to spend the rest of his life at the French court.

 

1802.2796.5 aAfter James II and VII was driven out of England, the English Parliament offered the throne to James’ daughter Mary and her conquering husband William of Orange. They became co-regents, known as King William III and II and Queen Mary II of England, Ireland and Scotland. Queen Mary died in 1694. King William ruled alone until he died in 1702. His reign saw the end of an ongoing conflict between the Crown and Parliament.

 

1802.2793.1 bA solid silver coin struck in 1847 celebrates a decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. The crown, worth five shillings, is known as the “Gothic Crown” due to the nature of the elaborate lettering. Alexandrina Victoria ascended the English throne on 20 June 1837 at the age of 18 and remained there for 63 years and seven months, the longest British reign and the longest of any female monarch to date. She was known as “the Grandmother of Europe” due to her nine children’s strategic 1802.2793.1 amarriages to noble families across the continent, effectively tying the nations together. Her reign saw the rapid growth of British industry and culture, huge changes in politics and science and the vast expansion of the British Empire. Queen Victoria is famed for her long period of mourning after the death of her husband in 1861 and for wearing black until her death on 22 January 1901.

Ballance House, Northern Ireland

Former New Zealand Premier John Ballance was born in 1839 in a cottage next to the current Ballance House in Glenavy, Northern Ireland. His father was a tenant farmer on the local Hertford Estate. The cottage was situated to the rear of the present house. It appears on a survey of 1837. The cottage was built of stone with a thatched roof.

A two storey farm house was built in the 1840s to accommodate the growing Ballance family. This is what is now known as Ballance House. The exterior of the house was carefully restored to its original appearance.

Ballance House before restoration

Ballance House before restoration

Ballance House after restoration

Ballance House after restoration

Inside the house the parlour has been furnished in the style of the 1850s, when young John Ballance was living there. Over the fireplace hangs a photograph of Ballance at the age of 14. Another photograph on display is a portrait of his mother, Mary Ballance, née McNeice.

Ballance House parlour

Ballance House parlour

Ballance appears to have been uninterested in farming. When he was 14 he left school and was apprenticed in the hardware trade in Belfast.  When he was 18 he left Ireland, never to return. He first went to Birmingham, still in the ironmongery business, but was always looking for self-improvement and business opportunities.

Upstairs in Ballance House is a large exhibition space which was originally two bedrooms. The floor space above the front door is a step lower than the exhibition area and family members have said that this area always had pot plants and was a favourite place for children to play. It is possible that this area was originally intended as a conservatory; it was, however, never completed.

Also upstairs is the Wellington Room which contains a print of Wellington at the time Ballance was Premier. The room also contains a New Zealand interest library and visitors are encouraged to learn about New Zealand history. The next room is The Ballance Room which displays a portrait of Ballance and details his life.

In 1863 Ballance married Fanny Taylor. Because of her ill health, the couple decided to join her brother in Wanganui where Ballance established the Evening Herald, later renamed the Wanganui Herald. Fanny died in 1868.

The Evening Herald Office.  First building in Campbell Place, Whanganui, opened 4 June 1867.  John Ballance stands in teh doorway wearing a black coat.  C1870s.

The Evening Herald Office. First building in Campbell Place, Whanganui, opened 4 June 1867. John Ballance stands in teh doorway wearing a black coat. C1870s.

The Wanganui Herald office, second building on Victoria Avenue, Whanganui.  c1970s.

The Wanganui Herald office, second building on Victoria Avenue, Whanganui. c1970s.

Ballance remarried in 1870, to Ellen Anderson. In 1875 he was elected to Parliament as an Independent. In 1890 he led a Liberal coalition as Premier. This period triggered a great burst of social legislation in New Zealand. A world first was Women’s Suffrage in 1893, which was actively supported and promoted by Ballance.

John Ballance’s leadership qualities ensured that his Liberal Party was able to retain office for 20 years, long after his death. A contemporary cartoon shows him firing the cannon of land tax to dispel the clouds of depression, thus earning him the nickname of “The Rainmaker”.  Ballance died in office in 1893 at the age of 54.