…in old Aotearoa. Can’t get ‘em, they’ve et ‘em, they’ve gone and there ain’t no Moa.”
Would I be able to resist the overwhelming urge to quote, or worse, sing those lines? Surely Quinn Berentson would have heard them many times before? The man has a Masters in Science Communication and those lines communicate the science of extinction in a commendably pithy way, so perhaps he would be understanding.
Moa the Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird takes a bit longer to explain how “first we killed them, then we ate them, and then we forgot about them”. In 2009 Berentson set out to follow the trail of the creature that became so large and strange that they were almost as much mammal as bird.
He discovered that there was far more to the story of the moa (it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘more’, not ‘mower’ – who knew?) than he had ever imagined. It’s not just the story of the birds, but also of the scientists who ‘discovered’ them and what we know about them now.
Berrentson pointed out that this was not as easy as it might seem as everything about the giant birds, from their biology, to their evolution and then to their extinction has been argued over and re-examined for the last 170 years.
The moa story came along at just the right time. It had been newly discovered that the world had once been dominated by huge creatures that no longer existed. When moa remains were first discovered the public’s imagination was captured by it as a bizarre and grotesque monster. They featured on the front page of popular newspapers and were world famous; often the first thing people had heard about New Zealand. They were one of the first museum specimens to be photographed and every museum had its own skeleton.
While this was all very interesting the real fascination of this session was the personalities of the men who made the moa. Richard Owen , the ‘father of the moa’ was ‘extremely malignant’ according to mild-mannered Charles Darwin, who wrote him out of history after a long and acrimonious relationship. Talk about survival of the fittest.
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Owen though, as he stole the credit for the work and ideas of Gideon Mantell, an amateur whose wife found the ‘Mona Lisa of fossils’ - considered to be the first dinosaur fossil found. This treasure happens to reside at Te Papa, although it is not on show. Snarky comment resisted.
Mantell’s obsession with fossils lead to his wife and his son severing contact with him. He suffered a terrible accident which resulted in his becoming a hunchback and was in such pain that he self-medicated, becoming an opiate addict. He was a Dr. so access to the opiates was not a problem.
Then his son Walter Mantell came out to New Zealand. He found moa bones that he sent back to his father in an attempt at winning his approval. But Mantell Snr had to give them to that evil genius Owen. When he sent his last batch back Owen’s perfidy was no longer a problem because Gideon Mantell was dead of an overdose. You couldn’t make it up.
This was a great session and I could go on but really the best thing is to read the book. Although I must add that the moa is close to the top of the list of animals that could be cloned because we have recovered so much DNA. Coming soon to a swamp near you?
And I did resist singing.
- Moa has just won the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2013 Science Book Prize.
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