New graduate hits jackpot with funds to study fossils

Last updated 00:06 23/09/2008
Bones of the past: Marsden Fund scientist Jamie Wood beside a moa in the Southland Museum and Art Gallery's moa display yesterday. Dr Wood has been given a three-year grant to study the feeding habits of moa.

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Marsden Fund  beginner Jamie Wood, of Invercargill, instantly hit the big time with plans to study fossilised moa droppings as a way of discovering more about the extinct giants.

Despite winning the award of his life — $768,000 during the next three years — and doing what many researchers take years to achieve, he is determined to first finish casual work counting fern-birds for the Department of Conservation.

The Landcare Research scientist, who will be based at Lincoln, graduated with his Otago University PhD only in May.

However, his team proposal to study what moa and other large extinct New Zealand birds ate and nibbled on more than 600 years ago shot to the top of the selection process for the blue-ribbon awards.

The other members of the study team are Janet Wilmshurst, of Landcare, and Alan Cooper and Trevor Worthy, of Adelaide.

Dr Wood, who lives in Invercargill, will shift to Canterbury to do his research.

Marsden grants celebrate research for research's sake. This year, 90 new projects have been funded for a total of $54 million from the 817 preliminary proposals received. Fund manager Dean Peterson said the 11 percent success rate was higher than during the past few years.

Dr Wood's proposal, and the decision to go for a standard grant rather than the fast-start award for new researchers, stunned the selection panel, Mr Peterson said.

"He's a brand-new researcher.

Wood has hurdled over the fast start and gone straight for the gold medal." Dr Wood's Otago doctorate had involved studying the pre-settlement flora and fauna of Central Otago.

"When I was digging around looking around for plant and animal remains I came across these bird droppings, started looking at what was in them. It threw up some interesting results," Dr Wood said.

By analysing seeds and leaf fragments in the fossilised droppings, details of the birds' diet and sex could be revealed.

Moa were the largest herbivores in New Zealand until their extinction 600 years ago.

"We hope to get samples from right across New Zealand but it seems that there's a very special set of requirements for these droppings to preserve. They have to be deposited in a very dry site.

"We have carbon-dated a few that seemed mostly between 3000 and 1000 years old. They look a wee bit like dog droppings -- some are quite big, some can be 10cm in length." A full list of recipients should be available from this afternoon

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