Box of bones fulfilled lofty ambition

By Quinn Berentson

Quinn Berentson, in his history of the moa, relates how naturalist Richard Owen astonished the world by creating a giant bird from a big bone fragment

Richard Owen was the first to recognise that a bone fragment he was shown in 1839 came from a large bird. Photo / Supplied
Richard Owen was the first to recognise that a bone fragment he was shown in 1839 came from a large bird. Photo / Supplied

In one of the most famous images from the 19th century, Richard Owen - "Father of the Moa" - was photographed in 1879 in the British Museum beside a towering moa skeleton. He holds a piece of moa femur, recovered from Glenmark swamp in Canterbury and which he was given in 1839.

If the moa could be said to have a true day of discovery, at least in terms of European science and international attention, then that date is January 19, 1843, when Professor Richard Owen opened the first of two boxes of gigantic bird bones collected by the missionaries William Colenso and William Williams from various rivers on the wild east coast of New Zealand.

Owen must have been quivering with anticipation - there was a lot on the line after all, chiefly his credibility as the true successor to Baron Cuvier as the world's greatest comparative anatomist.

He had spent three years waiting for more evidence of his 1839 claims that New Zealand was once home to the largest bird known to science and now, here before him in a large and heavy crate, was the evidence that could cement his scientific reputation.

The historic first shipment was ritually opened in the Hunterian Museum's Hall of Giants in the presence of William Broderip, another keen fossil enthusiast and member of the Royal Society. It was indeed a collection of huge bird bones, including the enormous tibia, almost three feet long (91cm), he had mentioned in his letter. Not only did Owen finally have the evidence that would totally validate his theories, the giant bird from New Zealand would surpass all estimates and expectations.

As Broderip later excitedly recalled in the Quarterly Review (1852): "That whitest day will ever be remembered. As each bone of the feathered giant was taken out it was impossible to repress exclamations; but when the enormous tibia came within our grasp, it was flourished aloft with a shout of wonder and joy that made the Museum ring again. Fortunately we wore no wig ... or it certainly would have been hurled upwards, where it would have ornamented one of the many antlers which overhung us."

The shipment included several huge and intact femur bones. Broderip later wrote:

"We well remember seeing this fragment of the shaft of a femur when it first arrived, and hearing the opinion of the Professor as to the bird to which it must have belonged. He took, in our presence, a piece of paper and drew the outline of what he conceived to be the complete bone. The fragment, from which alone he deduced his conclusions, was six inches [15cm] in length and five inches and a half in its smallest circumference; both extremities had been broken off. When a perfect bone arrived, it fitted exactly the outline which he had drawn."

It was soon evident that although Owen had been almost supernaturally correct in extrapolating the feathered monster from just one small piece of bone, the creature was much larger than he had ever suspected. His initial estimate of its height had put the bird at about 2m slightly taller than an ostrich.

When the enormous tibia was matched with an equally robust upper leg bone, the length of leg alone of this mammoth bird was some 1.6m - about the average height of a human at that time.

The crate of bones was accompanied by a letter from Williams, in which he detailed their origin and what information he had gleaned from the East Coast Maori:

"Poverty Bay, New Zealand, Feb. 28th, 1842.

"Dear Sir, - It is about three years ago, on paying a visit to this coast, south of the East Cape, that the Natives told me of some extraordinary monster which they said was in existence in an inaccessible cavern on the side of a hill near the river Wairoa; and they showed me at the same time some fragments of bone taken out of the beds of rivers, which they said belonged to this creature, to which they gave the name of Moa."

Conspicuously failing to mention that Colenso was also present at the time, Williams explained that when he had established his permanent mission station at Turanga a year later he had again heard stories of the moa but had considered the whole thing a myth or "idle fable", since no Maori in living memory had actually seen one with their own eyes. Still, he offered a large reward to anyone who could catch him a moa or bring proof of its existence. It was a long time coming but, at length, a large fragment of bone was brought from a nearby streambed and just two months before the date of the letter he had been provided with another bone, although it was small and broken. However, the reward Williams paid to its bearer proved to be a sound investment - as word quickly spread that the Pakeha holy man was paying for old bones, large numbers of enterprising local Maori combed the riverbanks for bounty. Williams was also able to supply small nuggets of information and speculation about the moa:

"1st. None of these bones have been found on dry land, but are all of them from the bed and banks of freshwater rivers, buried only a little distance in the mud; the largest number are from a small stream in Poverty Bay, Wairoa, and at many inconsiderable streams, and all these streams are in immediate connexion with hills of some altitude.

"2nd. This bird was in existence here at no very distant time, though not in the memory of any of the inhabitants, for the bones are found in the beds of the present streams, and do not appear to have been brought into their present situation by the action of any sudden rush of waters.

"3rd. That they existed in considerable numbers. I have received perfect and imperfect bones of 30 different birds.

"4th. It may be inferred that this bird was long-lived, and that it was many years before it attained full size.

"5th. the greatest height of the bird was probably not less than 14 or 16 feet. The leg-bones now sent give the height of 6ft from the root of the tail."

Five days after their arrival Owen triumphantly displayed the moa bones before the Zoological Society, completely vindicating his daring and controversial prediction of November 1839 and creating a scientific sensation. The professor now had enough remains to give the monstrous creature an official scientific name - Megalornis novaezealandiae, meaning the huge bird of New Zealand. However, he was soon informed that Megalornis was already in use for another species, and by the time his lecture was officially published in the Transactions in 1843, Owen had chosen another name, one that shared an origin with the newly christened group of extinct giant reptiles he and Gideon Mantell were currently feuding over - the dinosaurs.

Reusing the Greek "deinos" and adding "ornis", referring to the bird order, the monster was rechristened Dinornis novaezealandiae - the great, terrible, or surprising bird of New Zealand, depending on your interpretation of Ancient Greek.

Based on just the crudest crumb of evidence, Owen had correctly deduced the existence of the largest bird ever known to man - a feat of scientific intuition that astonished the world and catapulted him into the limelight. In one bold and brilliant stroke he had validated an entire theoretical framework for understanding the physical structure of animals - comparative anatomy - and confirmed his own reputation as Cuvier's heir. Owen's feat of reconstructing such a huge creature from a small piece of bone seemed to both public and fellow scientists as, "an arcane exhibition of his craft".

The confirmed existence of a bird able to peer in second-storey windows tickled the fancy of the Victorian public, increasingly tuned to the wonders and oddities of the extinct world thanks to the public exhibition of the mammoth and the dinosaurs. The story spread beyond London's elite scientific societies and into the mainstream media.

Tale of a legend

A book that weaves poems about science and ordinary life, a study of the moa and an account of science in the Antarctic are the three finalists for the Royal Society of New Zealand 2013 Science Book Prize.

The three shortlisted titles are Graft by Helen Heath, Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica by Veronika Meduna and Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand's Legendary Bird, by Quinn Berentson.

The prize is awarded every two years and aims to encourage the writing, publishing and reading of good and accessible popular science books. The winner will be announced at the Writers and Readers Festival in Auckland next month. This extract is from Berentson's book, Moa.

Moa : The Life and Death of New Zealand's Legendary Bird by Quinn Berentson (Craig Potton Publishing $49.99)

- NZ Herald

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