Giant Bird Poop Provides Glimpse of Pre-Human New Zealand Landscape


Illustration of moa by Charles R. Knight/NGS

Feces dropped by moa, giant birds now extinct, are providing scientists with an idea of what the vegetation of New Zealand looked like before the first humans colonized the islands.

A team of ancient DNA and paleontology researchers from the University of Adelaide, University of Otago and the New Zealand Department of Conservation published their analyses of plant seeds, leaf fragments and DNA found in the dried feces. The work appeared in in a recent issue of Quaternary Science Reviews, an international geological research journal.

“When animals shelter in caves and rock shelters, they leave feces which can survive for thousands of years if dried out,” said Professor Alan Cooper, Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, which analyzed moa feces found beneath the floor of caves and rock shelters.


Coprolites from three moa species identified from a DNA analysis, presented in the paper “Coprolite deposits reveal the diet and ecology of the extinct New Zealand megaherbivore moa,” Quaternary Science Reviews.

Jamie Wood, from the University of Otago, discovered more than 1,500 coprolites (the scientific name for preserved poop) in remote areas across southern New Zealand, primarily from species of the extinct moa.

The birds ranged up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms) and nearly ten feet (three meters) in height. Some of the feces recovered were up to a foot (15 centimeters) in length, according to a news release issued by the University of Adelaide.

“Surprisingly for such large birds, over half the plants we detected in the feces were under 30 centimeters [two feet] in height,” Wood said.

“This suggests that some moa grazed on tiny herbs, in contrast to the current view of them as mainly shrub and tree browsers.

“We also found many plant species that are currently threatened or rare, suggesting that the extinction of the moa has impacted their ability to reproduce or disperse.”

New Zealand offers a unique chance to reconstruct how a “megafaunal ecosystem” functioned, Cooper said.

“You can’t do this elsewhere in the world because the giant species became extinct too long ago, so you don’t get such a diverse record of species and habitats.

“Critically, the interactions between animals and plants we see in the poo provides key information about the origins and background to our current environment, and predicting how it will respond to future climate change and extinctions.”

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