Last week the Moa Gallery opened at the Whanganui Regional Museum in Stage I of a visible-storage project that sees the entire moa bone collection out of boxes in the basement to where people can see it, both in display cases and on the internet. But why is the moa collection so important? Why put it all on display?
Whanganui has been known for its moa bones since the earliest days of European settlement. As far back as the 1850s Anglican missionary Richard Taylor collected enormous bones from old pa sites and sent them to the eminent zoologist Professor Richard Owen in England. Owen was the first scientist to recognise that these bones could only be from a giant flightless bird, and coined the name Dinornis for them; a “terrible bird” in the same way a dinosaur was a “terrible lizard”.
Moa bones are found throughout the country, and collecting them was a popular hobby from the 19th century onward, so most museums in New Zealand have a moa collection. You can find the bones in caves from birds that wandered in, or fell down sinkholes; in dunes, where the shifting sand covered and protected their skeletons; or in swamps, where moa were trapped and sank into the mire, accumulating in huge numbers over the centuries.
One such moa death trap was near Ūpokongaro, up the Makirikiri Valley, in a swampy pool named Todd’s Hole on the Todd Family Farm. Beneath a thin crust of soil was a funnel of liquid mud full of moa bones, plus a few more from farm stock that had wandered in more recently. At first the bones could be just yanked out with an iron claw, but when the vast size of the deposit became clear, representatives from the Museum, with a £1200 excavation budget, began a proper excavation. Over 1937 and 1938 a crane, bucket and sluice were built, hundreds of cubic yards of mud sorted through by hand and about 2,000 moa bones extracted, cleaned and sorted.
Back at the Museum, the Curator George Shepherd began assembling skeletons from the pile of bones, putting together 10 in all. In those days moa classification was not well understood and many species were thought to be represented in the find, some from just a single bone.
Today with the help of DNA we can put the bones from Makirikiri into just three species: Mantell’s moa, a small species found around forest edges and wetlands; the bush moa, another small slender species that lived in the forest and seems to have been the most common kind of moa in the area; and the North Island giant moa, with gigantic females 1.5 m at the shoulder and weighing perhaps 200 kg, with males only half that size.
The skeletons were put on display in the Museum and the rest of the bones put in storage until they were re-examined in the late 1980s by moa expert Trevor Worthy. He was the first to recognise that the moa collection from Whanganui was of international importance. Although other large moa deposits had been discovered, especially in the South Island, most of those bones had been sent around the world, traded, lost, or destroyed. The Whanganui collection is one of the most important in the world because it has stayed almost completely intact, which lets scientists study an entire community of moa trapped in the swamp over thousands of years: their age, growth rate, size and male/female ratio.
The goal of the Museum is to make this collection accessible by putting it all on exhibition and also by photographing, registering, and 3D-scanning the bones so everyone in the world can see them, not just people able to visit Whanganui. The whole process will be happening in the gallery itself, where visitors can watch and ask questions. We’re hoping that our moa collection will put Whanganui on the map, not only for moa biologists but for anyone interested in these amazing giant extinct birds.
Dr Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.