Giant Moa (Dinornis)

giant moa
The Giant Moa. Heinrich Harder

Name:

Dinornis (Greek for "terrible bird"); pronounced die-NOR-niss; also known as the Giant Moa

Habitat:

Plains of New Zealand

Historical Period:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-500 years ago)

Size and Weight:

Up to 12 feet tall and 600 pounds, depending on species and gender

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; long legs and neck

 

About the Giant Moa (Dinornis)

Although the 600-pound Giant Moa (genus name Dinornis) wasn't the heaviest prehistoric bird that ever lived--that honor belongs to the half-ton Aepyornis, better known as the Elephant Bird--it was definitely the tallest, with some individuals attaining 12 feet in height, or over twice as tall as the average adult human.

Considering its enormous size and bulk, though, Dinornis seems to have been a relatively gentle creature, subsisting entirely on leaves, shrubs, nuts and fruits, unlike its omnivorous and carnivorous giant bird cousins (for example, the contemporary Thunder Bird of Australia, only a few hundred miles to the north, was a devoted meat eater). See a slideshow of 10 Recently Extinct Birds

One of the odd things about the Giant Moa was its high degree of sexual differentiation: the females were one and a half times as tall, and almost three times as heavy, as the males. (In fact, what were once classified as two separate species of Dinornis--D. robustus and D. struthioides--were later determined to correspond to the females and males of D. robustus, the South Island Giant Moa; a second Dinornis species, D. novaezealandis, is known as the North Island Giant Moa.) Given that the females of the bird kingdom are often showier and more colorful than the males, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, but it's no wonder that Dinornis mothers laid such enormous eggs!

Like other giant birds of the Pleistocene epoch, Dinornis was doomed by the fact that it evolved in a relatively isolated island environment (New Zealand) bereft of any natural predators, and thus was not compelled to develop any natural defenses. The arrival of human settlers in about the 10th century AD spelled the Giant Moa's doom, as trusting individuals were easily hunted down for their meat (and their eggs stolen and eaten) over the ensuing centuries.

(Amazingly, it may be within the reach of modern science to "resurrect" the Giant Moa via the program known as de-extinction; the key ingredient would be a healthy chunk of preserved Dinornis DNA, with which the genome of a closely related extant bird could presumably be spliced.)