Dog Walker Discovers Bones of Extinct Giant Bird in New Zealand

A historic discovery in New Zealand proves that curiosity can lead to extraordinary things — especially if you’re walking a dog.

A truck driver in Pareora, New Zealand recently spotted some distinctly shaped footprints while taking a stroll on the beach with his dog Bo. Chris Sargent, 54, found at least four sets of prints on August 5. He took photos, then sent them to the South Canterbury Museum.

In a Facebook post, museum officials confirmed the footprints belonged to a moa. What’s that? Picture an ostrich taller than you and you’ve basically got it. Moas were a species of giant, flightless bird that went extinct in New Zealand about 600 years ago.

new zealand moa

An early 1900s depiction of a moa hunt by artist Heinrich Harder. Image: Creative Commons

 

Sargent only recognized the significance of the discovery because of a 2019 story about a tractor driver out walking his boss’s dog when he also stumbled on moa footprints.

But for Sargent, the curiosity resulted in more than just footprints. They led to the discovery of moa bones nearby, possibly from the same bird that left its three-toed mark hundreds of years earlier.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Sargent told The Timaru Herald. “I didn’t realize the true significance myself.”

South Canterbury Museum’s Paul Scofield, the senior curator of natural history, identified the footprints on August 12 as an adult Heavy-footed Moa or South Island Giant Moa.

Museum Director Philip Howe said these will be the museum’s first set of moa footprints.

Check out Scofield’s 3D scan of the prints below.

Moa bones found, recovered; birds continue to fascinate

Soon after the discovery, South Canterbury Museum personnel moved the findings to the museum. A team of experts will now study the bones and footprints there.

Howe said heavy rains at the site exposed the remains when they caused an adjacent pond to burst. The sudden outpouring of water removed the “shingle” that previously concealed the hard mud layer containing the footprints.

moa bones and footprints

Wet conditions at the site on August 12. Photo: Philip Howe

 

“I went down there the next morning [Aug. 6] and I was gobsmacked to see those amazing footprints preserved in a highly volatile and easily damaged environment,” Howe said. “Another key thing is that this discovery tells us a lot about how our land has changed over thousands of years.”

Moas have long fascinated archaeologists and wildlife experts, especially in New Zealand. Scientists believe nine species of moa lived on the islands, with some growing as tall as two metres.

They thrived for millions of years until the late 13th century. Their sudden decline coincided with the arrival of the first humans.

“Scientists have long wondered what role hunting by Homo sapiens played in the moas’ decline,” wrote Science.org recently. “Did we alone drive the giant birds over the brink, or were they already on their way out thanks to disease and volcanic eruptions? Now, a new genetic study of moa fossils points to humankind as the sole perpetrator of the birds’ extinction.”

Discoveries like these will help scientists answer similar questions.

But the other moral of this story is clear: When walking a dog, keep your eyes open. You never know when prehistoric history might present itself.