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Comparing the Moa and The Elephant Bird - Two Large Extinct Flightless Birds

Updated on December 6, 2014
Drawing of Aepyornis maximus - the largest off the Elephant bird species
Drawing of Aepyornis maximus - the largest off the Elephant bird species | Source

The Moa and the Elephant bird were two species of very large flightless bird. Both appeared quite similar to the ostrich and to other modern day flightless birds - aside from the fact that they were exceptionally large. Like most other types of birds there were a number of varieties of each of these species, but unfortunately, all of them were driven to extinction a few hundred years ago.

Reconstructions from remaining bones of both the Moa and the Elephant Bird appear similar enough that it is natural to assume that they may have been closely related or shared the same habitat, but this isn't the case

These birds lived in completely different parts of the globe - the Elephant Bird in Madagascar, and the the Moa in New Zealand .Sadly, apart from their similar appearance, another feature they had in common is that their demise was suspected to be largely due to human influence.

Believing In The Elephant Bird

The Elephant bird was supposedly written about by the explorer, Marco Polo, in his accounts of Madagascar. His assertions about the giant bird were initially met with incredulity, but soon Elephant bird eggs started showing up.

Traders used them as vessels for carrying liquor and in time, and after much skepticism, the egg shells and large bones worked to confirm the existence of the Elephant Bird.

One reason the Elephant bird was such a well kept secret was that it was found exclusively on the island of Madagascar. But ultimately, habitat destruction and hunting was thought to have affected the survival and breeding of the Elephant bird. The eggs would have been a valuable source of nourishment, as each egg was massive - 100 or more times the volume of a chicken egg.

Intact Elephant Bird eggs are quite rare today but are sought after by museums and private collectors alike. In 2013 a foot long, 9 inches wide partially fossilized intact Elephant Bird Egg was sold by auction at Christies for over £65,000.

The Elephant birds themselves would have been highly sought after for food. Considering they weighed in at up to half a tonne, and stood around three metres tall, they would have provided a substantial amount of food from a single kill.

An Elephant Bird Egg at the Hungarian Natural History Museum
An Elephant Bird Egg at the Hungarian Natural History Museum | Source

New Zealand's Moa

The Moa of New Zealand has been likened in appearance to the much smaller kiwi with its similar shape and brown plumage. With some species reaching a massive 4 metres tall, the Moa was still much lighter than the Elephant bird - weighing only up to 275kg.

There were a number of species of Moa including the Heavy-footed Moa, Stout-legged Moa and the Eastern Moa. The largest of these was the South Island Giant Moa.

Moa could be found in a wide array of habitats including forests, grasslands and coastal areas. Many of them would breed in isolated pairs in rock shelters, using twigs from surrounding trees to make a nest.

The last of the Moa died out around 600 years ago.

Comparison of Bird Eggs at the Natural History Museum in London including from left to right: Elephant Bird Egg, Moa Egg and then Ostrich Egg
Comparison of Bird Eggs at the Natural History Museum in London including from left to right: Elephant Bird Egg, Moa Egg and then Ostrich Egg | Source

David Attenborough Discusses the Elephant Bird and The Moa - Heavier Vs Taller

A Path To Extinction

Apart from the Moa's generally impressive size, these birds had an unusual trait in that they were reverse dimorphic. The female moas were up to three times as big as the males. This trait in itself could have contributed to the extinction of the species. It can be speculated that the native Maori people would have sought larger, more rewarding kills, and in the Moa's case this would have been the breeding females.

The moas were valued not only for their flesh but also for their skins and feathers that were used for making clothes. The bones were also carved into fish hooks and pendants. The Moa chicks were also affected by an introduced species - the Polynesian dog known as a 'kuri' - that is also now extinct. Moa habitat was also threatened by the burning of their forest habitat.

While the elephant bird's extinction was also suspected to be affected by hunting, there were other factors that contributed to their complete demise as well - the introduction of pigs and other predators that ate the eggs and Elephant Bird chicks.

A Natural Enemy - The Haast's Eagle

While humans undeniably hastened the extinction of both of these species of giant flightless bird, it is important to realise that human interference wasn't the only threat. Despite it's impressive size the Moa did have a natural enemy - the Haast's Eagle.

The Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was the largest eagle ever to live. It had a wingspan of up to 3 metres, and weighed 13 kilograms. It had particularly strong legs, and claws measuring an astounding 9 inches long - the same lengths as a tiger's claws. This made it a formidable predator, even against prey many times it's size.

Extinction of the Moa resulted in the loss of a primary food source for the Haast's Eagle and it's own extinction followed soon after.

A model of a Haast's Eagle attacking a moa on display at Te Papa.
A model of a Haast's Eagle attacking a moa on display at Te Papa. | Source

Closest Rleatives

It would be natural to infer that the Moa might have been most closely related to the other flightless bird which is endemic to New Zealand -the kiwi. But they are in fact not as closely related as you might think. In fact, analysis of DNA from the numerous skeletons present in museums around the world has surprisingly revealed that the kiwi is actually the closest relative of the Elephant Bird - which was only found in far off Madagascar.

As for the Moa, it's closest relative is the South American tinamou - a bird which can fly.

At first glance many people think that the Moa was simply the much larger cousin of the kiwi
At first glance many people think that the Moa was simply the much larger cousin of the kiwi | Source

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An Unneccesary Loss

Having spent many years in New Zealand I always feel a sense of loss at the extinction of the Moa, in particular. I can imagine what a wondrous thrill it would have been to be in the presence of one of these huge birds. And it could have been the case - since both of these birds died out a mere few hundred years ago well and were seen and used as a food source by humans for some time. However, failure to be good stewards of these creatures has meant that we and our descendants are deprived of their beauty and place in our world.

Other animals that still exist could face the same fate if we treat them with as little regard as these giant birds were treated. And our world will be less for it.

But There May Yet Be Hope...

Recent research can offer some encouragement though. Studies conducted by the Royal Society of London in 2010 discovered how to extract DNA from Elephant bird eggs. This is a necessary first step to theoretically enable a species to be brought back from extinction. Being in possession of, and being able to access the building blocks of that extinct species.

Perhaps there will be future technology that will allow for cloning of extinct species - like the Elephant Bird - from recovered DNA. Whether that will ever occur we don't know, we can only wait - and hope.

© 2014 Rota

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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting hub that is also very informative. It's sad that we've lost the chance to see the living birds - although this may not be the case for the elephant bird, as you describe. Thank you for sharing the information.

    • Rota profile image
      Author

      Rota 2 years ago

      Thank you AliciaC, I have been fascinated with the giant birds from a young age and feel that their sad demise has a lot to teach us about how we can do better next time.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 2 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Interesting and well written. Let's hope that scientists do not find T-rex eggs that are in good enough shape to extract DNA. I would much rather run into a Moa than I would a T-rex!

    • Rota profile image
      Author

      Rota 2 years ago

      I certainly agree to that Ann1Az2! Thankyou for your kind comments

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