Moas became extinct about 1300AD. But the dream of bringing them back to life lingers. Paul Little goes on the hunt for the moa.
Why did the chicken get crossed with the moa?
It hasn't happened yet, but there's a good chance it will, and when it does it will be the fulfilment of a long-held scientific goal of bringing an extinct species back to life.
That possibility moved a step closer last year when a team of scientists from Harvard University, the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto announced that they had almost completed the nuclear genome assembly of the little bush moa.
It's one of the smallest of the nine varieties of moa that were here when Māori arrived and become extinct not very long after.
The dream of bringing extinct species back to life is as old as Jurassic Park. Who wouldn't love to ogle a dodo or meet a mammoth?
The process is often called de-extinction, although it's not really that. As there are, by definition, no examples of an extinct species to aid the process it's likeliest to be performed by creating a hybrid with a close-living relative – which in the case of the moa would be a chicken. The correct name for this is creating a proxy of an extinct species.
Other significant efforts to bring an extinct species back to life have involved the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth, the Pyrenean ibex and the quagga (a subspecies of zebra).
But the moa makes a better than average candidate for proxy creation, according to palaeozoologist and international moa authority Trevor Worthy.
"Because the remains are younger and because of the cool climate," says Worthy, "extinct animals such as the moa are better preserved than most places in the world.
"In short, one could not ask for a better preserved fossil species than the moa, and for that reason moa have been at the forefront of the technological revolution of extracting ancient DNA, first of mitochondria and then of nuclear material. That they have now had the genome recreated is thus not surprising."
It's mind-bendingly clever stuff. In the Harvard experiment, the DNA used came from one toe bone of a moa belonging to the Royal Ontario Museum.
The report hasn't yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and the team won't comment on it until it has.
The determined can find a "preprint" online, but it's not a great read for the non-specialist. The following passage is typical : "We identified 27,114 dinucleotide and 25,171 trinucleotide repeats, approximately half of which met our criteria for inclusion based on flanking sequence contiguity (retaining 14,876 dinucleotides and 13,942 trinucleotides)."
What is of more general interest, especially in New Zealand, is that the report seems to go out of its way to avoid mentioning the only humans on earth ever to have seen a live moa – Māori- with a single reference to the moa's extinction having "closely followed Polynesian settlement of New Zealand in the late 13th century".
An email request to team head Alison Cloutier concerning this issue - which seemed to fall outside the criteria for refusing to comment – went unacknowledged.
But the omission does not surprise Aroha Mead, senior research fellow at Victoria University, who has published extensively on indigenous intellectual property issues and bio-cultural heritage.
Mead says the "Polynesian" reference "looks like they're going to develop a narrative that takes people out of it as much as possible. Then you remove any ethical considerations. Already they are demonstrating a pattern of not having a social licence to do this work. And not really having an environmental purpose to it either."
Mead says Māori, like any other people, have shown a range of responses to de-extinction efforts. When the possibility of bringing the huia back to life arose, the people with a special connection to that bird – Ngati Huia – were in favour of it.
But moa, says Mead, are a different case.
"The moa is a national species rather than specific to a place or people. Still, I would expect that Māori scientists should be involved and there should be a public discussion about whether it's appropriate to do this."
But Māori needn't think they stand to benefit from any commercial windfall resulting from moa by-products found to cure cancer or serve some other potentially lucrative function.
Wellington lawyer Megan Neill says, in her honours dissertation Return of the Moa, "Claims for recognition of proprietary rights in taonga species [were] refuted by the Waitangi Tribunal, therefore it is unlikely that Māori will be able to claim loss of economic benefit from the rights which might be attributed by law to the developers of de-extinct species."
"The Tribunal's report states that, for claims of 'kaitiaki [guardianship], there can be no relationship with taonga if the taonga no longer exist; nor, without the taonga, can the mātauranga [knowledge] survive'. Thus the question is raised whether kaitiakitanga continues in a species' genetic resources when extinct."
Trevor Worthy does not think Māori hold any special stake in the moa's future, if it turns out to have one.
"The process will be driven by technological competence and the race of the scientist involved is irrelevant. That would be like saying New Zealand Europeans should have a say in de-extinction of mammoths because their ancestors ate the last one.
"In New Zealand, the establishment and maintenance of museums was a far-sighted action, done in the national interest, and as a result collections of moa have been made for the national good, and so their use is a national issue in which all New Zealanders have the right to be involved."
Yet, despite his years of studying the moa, Worthy is not convinced of the value of bringing it back to life.
"I would have loved to see a moa," Worthy says.
"But I would always wonder how close the reinvented animal was to the original. Morphologically it might be the same, but behaviour is the result of the animal's interaction with the environment to some degree, and the new world is nothing like that in which it once occurred. All of the animals humans might wish to bring back likely went extinct because they could not live in a world with and modified by humans."
Philip Seddon of the University of Otago's Department of Zoology chaired an international "De-Extinction Task Force", of which Aroha Mead was also a member.
The group compiled the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Guiding Principles on Creative Proxies of Extinct Species for Conservation Benefit. In other words, they tried to come up with some guidelines about bringing extinct species back to life.
The final draft of the document appeared in 2016 but may already be out of date.
"People said we would see a big change in 10 years, but I think even in the next five the ability to read and write genetic material will be stunning," says Seddon.
The report was almost frustratingly even-handed examining the pros and cons of de-extinction.
"The proponents thought it was negative," says Seddon. "People who were anti felt we were drumming up support."
He says despite steady progress, there are still "some big hurdles before you'd want to embark on de-extinction".
One is that there should be an identified need for a species to be brought back – that it will have a place in the environment and serve a useful purpose. Second, that there is not "a living organism around at the moment who could do that job for us, without having to go through the technical challenges".
Any continued experimenting in de-extinction will require a social licence – a community agreement that the end is worth pursuing. At the moment, there's not exactly widespread agitation for the return of the Australian gastric-brooding frog (whose prospects, by the way, are looking pretty good).
Without a well-argued populist case from the scientific community, we could be up for a repeat of the anti-GM sentiment that did much to discourage potentially beneficial work in that field.
"I talk about the Monsanto effect," says Seddon.
"Where you have a technology bundled up with big commercial interests, people are reflexively suspicious of motivations and risk management. When you attach that to a rapidly developing field with a complicated technological base, for the average person it opens up all sorts of concerns.
"If you can decouple this from a big commercial enterprise you make a stronger case. On the other hand, we're not talking about GMOs in a lab or a paddock [where they can be closely controlled]. We're talking about a free release, whether a modified mouse or a woolly mammoth."
And then there's the cost. "It's not a cheap science," points out Mead.
"It's a major investment. Is this a priority that we need at this time?
"When we're going through our sixth mass extinction, do we want to be spending the millions on this flight of fancy to bring a species back when we're losing hundreds right now?"
That's our side of the equation, but what about the species themselves? There are serious doubts over what quality of life they would have in a world in which they did not evolve.
"If you can bring it back, where will you bring it back?" Mead asks.
"In New Zealand, what will it eat? Will it have a mate? Will it have any quality of life when all that it knew – the flora and fauna, the natural environment that existed when it roamed the earth - is no longer like that?"
Worthy asks why try to revive a species? "Is it to allay a sense of community guilt?
"Individuals of the organism cannot care as, if the species is extinct, they do not exist.
"If the root answers to these questions involve making humans feel better about themselves, then that is a rather selfish motive and one I struggle to endorse."
So are we just bringing them back because of our all-too-human god complex, creating "the living dead", in Worthy's description.
How can we justify, says Neill, bringing an animal back merely to be used for experiments or to exist as an object of curiosity in a zoo?
Then there's the whole "cleaner and greener than thou" problem.
"In terms of de-extinction, the question becomes whether genetically modified species derived from native species in fact enhance New Zealand's 'clean and green' image rather than destroy it," writes Neill in her dissertation.
"If New Zealand were to set about restoring historical ecosystems in our country with the use of genetic modification, would this increase the value of our biodiversity and international standing in conservation and as a visitor's destination, or, is our biodiversity only inherently valuable because it comes from a source which we have to believe we have made no visible modification to?"
Another argument against de-extinction that's canvassed in the IUCN guidelines is that we feeble humans will start to care even less about preserving threatened species if we have the techno-fix to bring them back.
"Public support for species conservation has been built around a sense of urgency and loss," notes the report.
"There are valid concerns that even the prospect of species de-extinction could negate the powerful message that extinction is forever and lead to reduced support for the conservation of extant highly threatened species, because of views that these could subsequently just be resurrected.
"The precautionary creation of frozen zoos could reinforce a false sense of complacency in the face of impending extinctions. This represents a moral hazard that has been discussed in the context of 'de-extinction' without any resolution, but which requires more discussion within the conservation community."
Far better, says Mead, to use the money to help preserve endangered species.
There are also existing scientific alternatives that would have some of the benefits that are touted for de-extinction.
"My area is reintroduction biologies - the science supporting the restoration of species that have been lost from the environment," says Seddon.
"A reintroduction would be an attempt to release a founder group of animals or plants and have them re-establish a population that would grow and be viable. In the past we've tended to deal with critically endangered species and been species focused: 'Oh my God, we hardly have any saddleback left, where can we release them?' "
Seddon cites the case of a population of giant tortoises that were useful to their island environment because "they grazed and trampled and created tortoise turf that encouraged native plants.
"When they were lost the ecosystem changed."
That was resolved by "ecological replacement: [introducing] a giant tortoise that wasn't native but would do what they did".
The scientific arguments — for and against de-extinction — have plausibility and good intentions on their side but they may be rendered irrelevant by the fact the idea of reviving an extinct species, as even a killjoy like Seddon agrees, is just so damn romantic it's hard even for scientists not to lose their heads.
"I've met some of the main scientists behind extinction science," says Mead.
"I wasn't impressed with their willingness to consider social and ethical issues.
"They feel they've discovered everything — which is completely wrong, but in their minds, they have. All the peoples, all the cultures, the flora and fauna. So there is nothing exciting anymore: if your passion is to discover.
"This is the next frontier."
And nothing's going to stop them.
"I liken it more to Captain Cook or Christopher Columbus claiming to discover a world that already existed," says Mead.
"This is their life's work. Their life's vision. They've developed a whole bubble around that space. They won't allow someone to burst that bubble."