During July, several moa skeletons from Auckland Museum will be imaged and 3D scanned to make our collections, and their stories, more accessible to the public and researchers alike. Some of the specimens stand at three metres tall so to complete such a feat we will bring our imaging facilities into the Origins gallery in an event that will engage the public with the expertise of our staff. In this piece, our Land Vertebrates Curator, Matt Rayner, describes the 19th century frenzy to lay claim to one of these terrifying beasts and how Auckland Museum acquired & traded moa bones.

A rapid unveiling

Since the discovery that a giant flightless bird, the tallest ever, had lived in isles of New Zealand, the moa has captured the people’s imagination like no other bird. Initially described by British anatomist Richard Owen in 1839 from a series of small broken bone fragments, the first complete moa skeletons were found by European explorers in the northern South Island in the late 1850s, deep inside caves where the birds had wandered, or become trapped, and died.  Such places, offering protection to the moa remains, were soon discovered in the South and North islands including caves, swamps, and sand dune environments.  Certain locations were a veritable ancient moa graveyard with thousands of moa bones deposited over millennia.  For example, the skeleton of Mantell’s moa Pachyornis geranoides in the Auckland Museum's origins gallery was found in the sand dunes of Northland.  The question of whether moa had ever been seen by humans was soon answered with the discovery of moa bones in the middens of early Polynesian New Zealanders, and the use of bone as tools.

The museum collectable ‘du jour’ 

With newly discovered moa “graveyards” revealing moa bones by the ton, and a burgeoning interest in all things moa in the fledgling New Zealand colony, and wider world, moa remains became the collectable du jour as museums and foreign institutions clamored to have specimens of these terrifying beasts from the bottom of the world.  Huge numbers of moa bones were exported to museum collections around the world, and canny New Zealand curators were able to use tradable moa bones as a currency to grow their own collections with strange and exotic specimens to entertain and enthrall the public.  Auckland Museum was no exception and during the great exchange period, 1875 – 1905, moa bone and other objects such as fossilized footprints of moa were exchanged with institutions such as the Florence Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.  

Richard Owen poses in one of the most famous natural science images of the 19th century beside the first moa species he named Dinornis novaezealandiae, holding the small fragments of bone that he initially used to make the description.


Re-imagining moa 

Curators and scientists of the day were captured by the idea of the giant size of moa and encouraged by Richard Owen's widely published moa drawings they created moa reconstructions in an upright, height-enhancing position based off his sketches. Auckland Museums moa reflect this history including our Emu feather covered moa model and articulated skeletons which are positioned standing as moa would have only stood when reaching high into trees for food.  It is now generally accepted that, as creatures of the forest, moa adopted a humped S shaped posture, similar to its cousin the forest dwelling casowary of Australia and Papua New Guinea. 

Moa of Tāmaki Makaurau


Moa have been an important part of the Auckland Museum collection since it first opened in 1852 and tell the tale of a large and diverse moa community in Tāmaki Makaurau prior to human arrival around 1250 AD. Though there were were nine moa species in all, only four of these were present in the Auckland region including the North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae), stout-legged moa (Euryapteryx curtus), Mantel’s moa (Pachyornis geranoides) and the little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis). In Auckland the remains of these moa species have been found at a range of sites including swamps in Onehunga and Clevedon, caves in Wiri, and sand dune and midden deposits in Devonport, Eastern Beach and Great Barrier Island. Moa remains have also been found at archaeological sites on smaller islands in the region including Waiheke, Great Mercury, Tirititi Matangi, Motutapu, Motukorea and Great Mercury Island.  At these sites birds were most likely transported there as food after being killed and butchered on the mainland.  The birds were obviously a valuable food source to the first New Zealanders and the leg bones were used to make tools including fish hooks, awls and chisels as well as decorative items fashioned from moa bone. 

A fish hook made from moa bone that was discovered in Whangamata.


Moa helping kiwis lead the world


The remains of moa held in Auckland Museum, as well as in other museums, have helped New Zealand scientists lead the world in a new field of biology called paleobiology.  Paleobiology uses new and exciting techniques, such as the ancient DNA held in moa bones, feathers and eggshell, to help us understand the lost world of the moa.  At Auckland Museum we are using new high resolution imaging and 3D scanning technologies to make our collections of moa bones more accessible to the public and to researchers who might rather print off a particular leg bone on their 3D printer rather than travel across the globe to visit our collection.

Caption (right): Museum preparator Leo Cappel and his assistant Christine Condon work on a diorama for the Hall of New Zealand birds gallery, which opened in 1972. Vahry Photography Limited. 1972. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-RES-1344.



Come and view the process of 3D scanning and specimen photography at our temporary photographic studio set up in the Origins Gallery! 

On Wednesday July 11 at 1.30pm, Matt Rayner will be giving a talk on Auckland Museum's moa collection, its history and the biology of the moa.

Moa facts 

  • There were 9 species of moa ranging from the 300 kg, 3 meter high, giant moa, to the 20 kg, 0.5 meter tall little bush moa that is about the size of a turkey.
  • The first scientific name given to the giant moa, Dinornis novaezealandiae, meant the great terrible bird from New Zealand and shares its origins with the dinosaurs as both were named by British anatomist Richard Owen in the 1800s.
  • The ancestors of moa flew to ancient New Zealand 60 million years ago and then lost their wings, completely – they don’t even have the tiny remains of wing bones like kiwi do.
  • Moa used different habitats, the upland moa and crested moa lived in the mountains, little bush moa were forest specialists, stoat legged moa lived in more open country near the coast, giant moa roamed from the coast to the mountains.
  • Moa species, found across the whole of New Zealand, were bigger the further south in New Zealand you went – an adaptation to the cold called Bergman’s rule.
  • Scientists discovered that moa were sexually dimorphic; the males were much smaller than the females and did most of the incubating of their very thin shelled eggs.
  • Moa were vegetarian and ate a variety of plant material. The biggest moa could eat whole branches and even flax leaves. They swallowed “gizzard stones” to help digest their food.
  • Moa lived for millions of years in New Zealand but were extinct within around 200 years of the arrival of people in Aotearoa around 1300AD. 
  • The name moa means chicken in many Polynesian languages.
  • The closest relative of the moa is not the kiwi as was thought for a long time.  We now know that honor goes to some South American birds called Tinamous. 

Collections Online 

Search our Natural Sciences collection for more on moa