The Yorkshire Museum Moa

What is thought to be the skeleton of the Dinornus robustus, on display as part of the Yorkshire Museum's 'Extinct' Exhibition.

1843AD - 1863AD

It is 1843; Professor Richard Owen is very pleased with himself. He has just received a box of bones that will both save his reputation and catapult him into world-wide spotlight.

These bones belonged to the 'moa'; a large, flightless bird native to New Zealand. This gigantic bird would become a Victorian craze, capturing the public imagination more so even than the discovery of the dinosaurs a few years previously.

These specimens were the confirmation of a bold leap of scientific reasoning by Owen in 1839, when he speculated, based only on a single piece of bone, that there must have been a species of a huge bird that once existed in New Zealand. He reasoned that this bird would have been much bigger than any ostrich, and because of this huge size, it would be unable to fly.

This speculation was ridiculed by his contemporaries, who found the whole suggestion ludicrous. Owen stood by his theory, publicly stating that he was 'willing to risk the reputation' of his scientific prowess on this matter; he was determined to find more evidence to vindicate himself. So, over in New Zealand, the search for moas whether alive or dead, began.

This mysterious bird became New Zealand’s own Loch Ness Monster. Reports of sightings of these giant birds were rife whilst the Maori told of legends about the moa. However these reports were all that was available to back up Owen's theory; moas remained a mythical creature.  All this changed with the 1843 discovery - now the myth had become reality. The craze had begun: people even travelled to New Zealand hoping to be the one to capture the first live moa and make their fortune.

After the landmark discovery of 1843 there followed a spate of moa finds. The moa on display at the Yorkshire Museum was found by gold prospectors in a sand-drift on the South Island of New Zealand in 1863. It is one of the most complete moa skeletons ever found; in fact, it was so unusually complete that Owen studied it as part of his seminal work ‘Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand’. It is thought to belong to Dinornis robustus - the largest of the several species of moa, the female of which can surpass the male in size by up to half again. This female specimen was found along with eggshells and small bones, suggesting that the moa was brooding over her young when a sandstorm hit and buried them all.

Unfortunately, no live moas were ever found, it is thought that they became extinct by around 1500. Moas were easy and attractive prey as they were flightless and provided lots of meat; Victorians described them as 'stupid, indolent birds', in reality they were not equipped to cope with human hunting due to their isolated existence for thousands of years before the Maori arrived. This hunting combined with the fact that they took a long time to reach reproductive maturity meant that they quickly died out.

The case of the moas was important to the development of theories of extinction; for the first time the actions of humans were recognised as the main factor behind a species’ extinction.