When did the last moa die?

It is hard to know exactly when the last of New Zealand’s iconic giant birds kicked the proverbial bucket, but new research has come up with the most accurate guess to date.

Credit: Flickr/Greg Hewgill

 Moa likely became extinct sometime between 1440-1445 AD, according to a new study from University of Auckland and Landcare Research scientists. The narrow five-year window is the result of combined archaeological and radiocarbon dating data and sophisticated statistical models to estimate the time line of the species’ demise.

Despite large variations in size between moa species, the authors of the study estimate that all species likely became extinct around the same time, with the exact date differing only by a few years. They also found that populations up and down the country were hunted to extinction almost simultaneously.

“This is the first time we have been able to show that extinction was both rapid and synchronous across New Zealand,” said Associate Professor George Perry of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment and School of Biological Sciences in a media release.

“Moa were hunted to the point of being critically endangered within 150 years of settlement, after which only a few small populations clung on in remote mountain regions, but only for another 50 years before they vanished forever.”

The research also sheds light on the extinction of other large, island-bound species that were decimated by the arrival of humans.

“Sadly this rapid loss of megafauna from over-hunting is not unique,” said co-author Dr Janet Wilmshurst from Landcare Research.

“Large animals that had evolved for millions of years in the absence of humans were ill-adapted for the sudden arrival of people and the associated impacts of hunting, landscape modification, and introduced predators.”

The research was published earlier this week in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

New Zealand coverage of the research includes:

Radio New Zealand: New insight into rapid moa extinction
TVNZ News: Moa’s extinction was rapid after hunting began, new study
NZ City news: Moa’s extinction quick and final: study
Stuff.co.nz: Moa extinction rapid – study – environment
Otago Daily Times: Moa extinction ‘rapid’ – study
3 News: Moa never stood a chance after arrival of humans study