could – & should – the moa be a goer again?

I’m starting to gear up for some Schol Bio preparation days in the regions (hi, Hawkes Bay! See you in 4 weeks!) and realised that I haven’t written anything specifically focused on those exams for a while. So I thought that putting something together would be a good way to spend a rather wet Sunday. At these days we usually put quite a bit of time into working on answers to the previous year’s questions, so in this post let’s look at one from the 2015 paper.

In 2015, the examiner based question #1 on a statement by then-Opposition MP Trevor Mallard that he felt that it could be possible to bring moa back to our national parks

… the moa will be a goer, but we’re talking 50-100 years out

and expressed a desire to see

small ones that “don’t weigh much more than turkeysA … ones that I could pat on the head rather than ones that are going to bowl us over…

After providing some other contextual material (as is the norm for Scholarship Biology – be aware that you’ll need to factor a reasonable amount of reading time into your planning on the day), the examiner asked students to

Analyse the information provided in the resource material and integrate it with your biological knowledgeB to discuss:

  • the evolutionary and ecological factors that contribute to declining population numbers that may result in the extinction of species AND account for the very large increase in the rate of extinction of species in modern times. Use named examples to support your discussion
  • how humans could manipulate the transfer of moa DNA to restore a moa population to the Rimutaka Forest Park AND analyse the biological implications of this. Give your justified opinion on whether the ‘moa is a goer’.

There are a number of factors that could feed into a decline in population size. High on most lists would be a reduction in the genetic diversity of the population, something that could be due to genetic drift. If the population is isolated, there would be little or no gene flow due to migration or breeding with individuals from other populations, which would also have a negative impact on genetic diversity and result in the phenomenon of inbreeding depression. (Think of NZ’s black robins, as an extreme example.) This is why those managing endangered species such as takahe & kakapo are careful to mix breeding up where possible.

Then, if a species is a specialist, environmental change could pose a problem if the resources the organisms rely on diminish or disappear; they may lack the flexibility to change to others. Specialists are then perhaps more likely to feel the effects of loss of habitat due to climate change or a natural disaster; if they’re a non-migratory species then the problem is compounded. Either way, the population sizes of such species are likely to decline. That environmental change can include the arrival of exotic predators, competitors, & diseases – something that’s certainly had a significant negative effect on NZ’s native fauna & flora. Takahe, for example, have suffered from competition with deer, but were also badly affected by the arrival of stoats. Mustelids, rats, & feral cats kill native birds, reptiles, and insects much faster than the prey species can replace their losses. And chytrid fungus infections pose a threat to amphibian species worldwide, including our own ancient native frogs.

Ultimately their population size may become too small to be sustainable – this is where the concept of ‘effective population size‘ comes into play. If the total size is large, but most individuals are past their normal breeding age, then the effective population size is small. This means that at the population level, reproductive outputs decline. And once death rate exceeds the birth rate, extinction is on the horizon. In addition, in a small, isolated population inbreeding becomes common, and any harmful recessive alleles may be more likely to be expressed.

It may not be only that species that’s affected, either. Removal of one species from an ecosystem can have ramifications for the entire ecosystem – this relates to the concept of a keystone species.

In all of this, we should not forget or underestimate the impact of our own species. Habitat destruction accompanies human settlement, as does the introduction of new species (in NZ, rabbits, possums and pigs along with the deer, rats, cats, dogs, and mustelids). Humans are reasonably efficient predators themselves: it’s estimated that moa became extinct here within 200 years of first human arrival. (Research suggests that human arrival & expansion, coupled with climate change, is implicated in megafaunal extinction in Patagonia & elsewhere.)

So, could we bring ‘the moa’ back? (I really dislike this whole ‘the’ thing: there were around a dozen different species of moa in NZ, with their own ecological niches.) In theory, yes, we could. It’s possible to extract DNA from moa bones, and Massey University researchers used this aDNA to work out how many species of moa once existed here. Mind you, to bring any species of moa back you’d need to ensure you had its full genome!

Then, you’d need to identify a suitable surrogate parent, remove the nuclear DNA from eggs from that host, replace it with your moa DNA, and implant the egg into the surrogate. What would that surrogate be? Perhaps another ratite, such as an emu? Or – if we’re going with Mr Mallard’s wish for small & manageable moa – perhaps a turkey, given the similarities in size. You’d need to do this multiple times, with the remains of multiple individuals of your target species, and to clone both male and female moa (using the sex chromosomes to identify them), in order to end up with a genetically-variable breeding population.

Easy to say. But in reality things are likely to be more complex, & more difficult, than that. It’s debatable, for example, whether scientists could find a large enough number of P.geranoides individuals to be able to reconstitute that genetically-variable population. In that case, the threats related to inbreeding & genetic drift would still be there, and the species could well spiral back into extinction.

From an ecological perspective, moa were reasonably large, and each individual would eat a lot of vegetation each day. Given that the Rimutaka Forest probably isn’t the same as it was when moa were in their hey-day, would re-introducing moa have a negative effect on the current ecosystem, particularly on the other herbivores? We need to be able to answer that one, to avoid inadvertently causing further changes to the forest community’s species composition.

So, what would be your final opinion? You could argue, along with Mr Mallard, that yes, “the moa is a goer”. Remember that you need to justify that opinion: bringing moa species back could help to re-establish the natural biodiversity of ecosystems that human actions have damaged.

Or, you could say – as I would – that no, this isn’t a viable proposal. Firstly, as far as I’m aware, birds have yet to be cloned successfully. (There’s a list of cloned species, plus a lot more information, at this FDA link.) And secondly, this seems to be a diversion from a more pressing problem: the need to use that money & scientific effort to conserve those ecosystems and species that we currently have.


A Mr Mallard was wise to limit the size of the species he wanted resurrected. After all, the giant moa species, Dinornis robustus & D.novaezelandiae, stood over 2m tall & weighed around 250kg. The much smaller Mantell’s moa, Pachyornis geranoides, was under 0.5m tall & would have tipped the scales at 20kg ie roughly turkey-sized. Much less alarming, should you meet one in the bush!

B This reminds me that I also need to write something on what the examiner is looking for, in giving an instruction like this.

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