All he was doing was cooling off on ''quite a ripper'' of a day, taking his dogs for a swim in a local swimming hole.

But Ranfurly man Michael Johnston ended up making a discovery of international
significance, putting the Maniototo into the record books by finding a series of fossilised moa footprints millions of years old.

The footprints were the first moa prints to be found in the South Island and a "glimpse into the past before the ice age'', Professor Ewan Fordyce, of the University of Otago's department of geology, said.

The imprints were found in the bed of the Kyeburn River, about 15km from Ranfurly, and
their discovery was thanks to "an amazing coincidence of circumstances'', Dr Mike Dickison, a moa expert, said.

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The moa footprints on the river bed. Photo / Kane Fleury
The moa footprints on the river bed. Photo / Kane Fleury

"I'm amazed at the luck of finding them - catching it in this very brief window between being exposed and being scoured out, and then that somebody happened to be fossicking around and went for a swim and noticed them.

"If any one of those things hadn't happened, we would never have known they were there,
and it makes you wonder how many other moa prints are buried or destroyed, or no-one knows they're there.''

The imprints were thought to have been exposed by significant flooding in the Maniototo late last year, and would likely not survive another flood event, Otago Museum natural science assistant curator Kane Fleury said.

Fleury acted immediately when Johnston sent photos of the footprints to the museum
when he found them in early March. He met Johnston at the site and used an underwater camera, snorkel and mask to examine the markings, which were about 1m under the water.

Seven clear footprints were found, each about 30cm by 30cm, and an action, preservation and excavation plan for the footprints was immediately prepared.

Fleury, Fordyce, Dickison, about another six museum, university and iwi
representatives and several contractors have been involved in the extraction of the moa prints this week from the Kyeburn site.

Michael Johnston was quite relaxed after fossilised moa footprints he discovered in the Kyeburn River were not recovered yesterday. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery
Michael Johnston was quite relaxed after fossilised moa footprints he discovered in the Kyeburn River were not recovered yesterday. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery

Resource consent and iwi and landowner permissions - the riverbed is on Land and
Information New Zealand land - were gained, and the Kyeburn River temporarily diverted
since Wednesday to pump out the water over the footprints.

The stream and swimming hole will be returned as close to its original condition as possible after the extraction of the footprints.

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Plans to extract the footprints yesterday were delayed because of rain yesterday morning that raised the river level, but today the footprints will hopefully be extracted.
They will then be taken to the Otago Museum, where they will be dried and made stable, and later put on temporary public display.

Set in stone . . . Moa footprints near Kyeburn. Photo/ supplied.
Set in stone . . . Moa footprints near Kyeburn. Photo/ supplied.

Dickison said it was likely the moa would be a new species from a branch of the "moa
family tree'' from millions of years ago, and was most likely a medium-sized moa, that could be similar to the upland moa.

Fleury said the discovery was "pretty awesome'' and a career highlight for him.
"It's not every day you find moa prints in the creek.''

Johnston said he had never been a fossil-seeker before, but he might now "walk around
the hills with wider open eyes''.

He praised museum staff for their respect for the moa prints, and museum staff praised
Johnston for reporting the find of the footprints to the museum.