Expert supports Moa revival idea

MARY-JO TOHILL
Last updated 10:13 09/07/2014
mike dickison
MOA MAN: Dr Mike Dickison

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New Zealand's forest ecosystem needs the extinct moa back, a flightless-bird expert claims.

Whanganui Regional Museum natural history curator Dr Mike Dickison said resurrecting the moa in areas such as the Dart River Valley near Wanaka where they once thrived, could be vital to the survival of New Zealand's remaining native bush.

"We have to have them back to preserve the forest, and the moa are an important part of that because they were a large browsing bird," he said.

Dickison, who last week defended Labour MP Trevor Mallard's prediction that moa would one day roam the hills behind Wainuiomata, believed they played a vital role in the bush by keeping the canopy clipped with constant grazing.

Many distinctive features of New Zealand flora had been attributed to co-evolution with these extinct birds, and therefore their presence was sorely missed, Dickison said.

The caretaker of one of the world's largest moa bone collections and an expert in flightless birds also believed a moa comeback was not as sci-fi as people might think.

It was unlikely that "moa science" would return flightless megafauna, such as the South Island giant moa, anytime soon, but it was not outside the realm of possibility, he said.

Mallard's moa plan continued to be dubbed "pure science fiction" by critics, who were confronted by a notion that seemed ludicrous, Dickison said.

"If you look back over 100 years ago, we didn't even know what DNA was, so you'd be brave or foolish to say it couldn't be done," he said.

Without the genome - the moa's full DNA sequence - resurrecting the extinct bird was "absolutely impossible at the moment", he said.

It was a jigsaw puzzle, for which scientists did not have all the pieces, or even know how to put them together - yet.

"But in 50 to 100 years, who knows," he said.

If advances in moa science did hatch chicks, he also believed that New Zealand still had enough habitat to sustain them, even after a 600 year absence.

University of Canterbury palaeobiologist Professor Richard Holdaway said the moa habitat had irrevocably changed since their extinction and would continue to degrade.

"The forest ecosystems of New Zealand, even those that have never been burned, do not even function in the same way as they did when moa were alive," he said.

"We know almost nothing about their biology and very little about their ecology. They would be zoo curiosities."

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Holdaway also said the funding required should be put to more constructive use.

"What will be the point of having de-extinct moa if lack of funds has led, as it is now, to the demise of the other taxa and indeed the continuous run-down of the ecological systems themselves," he said.

Dickison was more optimistic, citing the successful re-generation of kakapo and stitchbirds, that had received supplementary feeding.

"We'd have to do the same thing for moa," he said.

"But if they can keep a cassowary happy in a zoo in New York, we could figure out how to keep moa in the New Zealand bush."

- The Southland Times

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