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Between 80 and 85 million years ago, Gondwanaland, a giant continent made up of what today is Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America, broke up, thus causing what is now New Zealand to become separated from the larger landmass. After the separation, any creature unable to cross a considerable distance of ocean could not migrate to New Zealand. Snakes and most mammals evolved after the separation. Thus there are no New Zealand snakes, and bats, which flew there, and seals, which swam there, were the only mammals on New Zealand when Polynesian settlers (the Maori) arrived there about a thousand years ago.
When the Maori arrived in New Zealand, they encountered birds that had been evolving for 80 million years without the presence of mammalian predators. The most striking of these animals must have been moa. Now extinct, moa were gigantic wingless birds that stood as much as 10 feet (3 meters) tall and weighed as much as 550 pounds (250 kilograms). They are known from a diverse array of remains including eggshells, eggs, a few mummified carcasses, vast numbers of bones, and some older fossilized bone. The species of moa that are currently recognized occupied ecological niches customarily filled elsewhere by large mammalian browsing herbivores. They may have had relatively low reproductive rates; apparently, they usually laid only one egg at a time.
It seems possible that when Captain James Cook first visited New Zealand in 1769, moa (or at least one of the moa species) may have still survived in the remote areas in the western part of New Zealand's South Island. If so, these individuals would have been the last of their kind. Climatic conditions in New Zealand appear to have been relatively stable over the period during which moa became extinct. Different factors could have worked in concert to account for their abrupt disappearance.
Vegetation was considerably altered by the Maori occupation of New Zealand, a change not easily explained by climate variation or other possible factors. Forest and shrubland burning appears to have reduced the prime habitat of many moa species. However, the main forest burning started around 700 years ago, after what current archaeological evidence indicates was the most intensive stage of moa hunting. While there appears to have been extensive burning on the east side of New Zealand's South Island, large forest tracts remained in the most southern part of the island. Because major habitat destruction seems to have occurred after moa populations already were depleted, and because some habitat that could have sheltered moa populations remained, it would seem that other factors were also at work in the extinction of these birds.
For South Island, human predation appears to have been a significant factor in the depletion of the population of moa. At one excavated Maori site, moa remains filled six railway cars. The density of Maori settlements and artifacts increased substantially at the time of the most intensive moa hunting (900 to 600 years ago). This period was followed by a time of decline in the Maori population and a societal transition to smaller, less numerous settlements. The apparent decline fits the pattern expected as a consequence of the Maori's overexploitation of moa.
Finally, the Maori introduced the Polynesian rat and the dog to New Zealand. The actions of these potential nest predators could have reduced moa populations without leaving much direct evidence. The Maori may have also inadvertently brought pests and disease organisms in fowls, which could have crossed over to eradicate moa populations. The possibility of analyzing ancient DNA to identify past diseases of extinct animals is being explored. However, evidence of such diseases is difficult to determine directly from paleoecological or archaeological remains. For these reasons, it is hard to determine the likelihood that introduced disease organisms were a cause of the decline of moa, but they are potentially significant.
While the last of these possible causes remains speculative, definite clues exist for the action of the first two causes. The story of moa species and their demise raises ecological issues on the vulnerability of species to human-caused changes-including altered vegetative cover of the landscape, change in the physical environment, and modification of the flora and fauna of a region by eliminating some species and introducing others.