Moa-Nalo Characteristics and History

A Moa-Nalo skull fragment in Oahu

David Eickhoff / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

About three million years ago, a population of mallard-like ducks managed to reach the Hawaiian islands, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Once ensconced in this remote, isolated habitat, these lucky pioneers evolved in a very strange direction: flightless, goose-like, stocky-legged birds that fed not on small animals, fish and insects (like most other birds) but exclusively on plants.

Moa-Nalo Fast Facts

  • Name: Moa-Nalo, also known by the genus names Chelychelynechen, Thambetochen, and Ptaiochen
  • Etymology: Hawaiian for "lost fowl"
  • Habitat: Hawaiian islands
  • Historical Epoch: Pleistocene-Modern, or two million-1,000 years ago
  • Size: Up to 3 feet high and 15 pounds
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Vestigial wings and stocky legs

The Lost Hawaiian Bird

Collectively known as Moa-Nalo, these birds actually comprised three separate, closely related, and nearly unpronounceable genera: Chelychelynechen, Thambetochen and Ptaiochen. We can thank modern science for what we know about the Moa-Nalo: analysis of fossilized coprolites, or petrified poop, has yielded valuable information about their diet, and traces of preserved mitochondrial DNA point to their duck ancestry (their most likely modern descendant being the Pacific Black Duck.)

Since⁠—like the distantly related Dodo Bird of the island of Mauritius⁠—the Moa-Nalo had no natural enemies, you can probably guess the reason it went extinct around 1000 C.E. As far as archeologists can tell, the first human settlers arrived on the Hawaiian islands about 1,200 years ago, and found the Moa-Nalo easy pickings since this bird was unfamiliar with humans, or with any natural predators. It likely possessed a very trusting nature, and it didn't help that these human pioneers also brought with them the usual complement of rats and cats. These further decimated the Moa-Nalo population, both by targeting the adults and by stealing their eggs. Succumbing to intense ecological disruption, the Moa-Nalo disappeared off the face of the earth about 1,000 years ago, and was unknown to modern naturalists until the discovery of numerous fossils in the early '80s.