What’s an adzebill?

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We’ve all heard of moa, and probably the enormous Haast’s eagle, too, but there were a lot more giant flightless oddities running around the forests of New Zealand when people first stepped ashore, and it’s a mystery to me why we’re not talking just as much about the adzebill.

The adzebill was, as far as anyone can tell, a giant flightless killer in the shape of a goose. It had a formidable beak shaped like a pick, very strong legs, and probably weighed around 20 kilograms. We don’t know what it ate, but from its skeleton, it looks perfectly capable of running other species down, tackling and stabbing them—the All Black of the bird world, if you don’t count the stabbing.

I first heard of it because ‘adzebill’ is one of the online pseudonyms used by Mike Dickison, former curator of natural history, current professional improver of Wikipedia.

“They were just the most amazing skeletons, if you studied bird anatomy—super chunky and robust,” he told me. “They must have been doing incredible damage to something. And almost nobody in New Zealand has heard of them.

“To me the adzebill is symbolic of the gulf between what scientists know and what the public knows. They were one of the things you would almost have certainly encountered 750 years ago when you walked ashore. And any New Zealand palaeontologist—well, there are about six of them—knows about all the other things that used to be wandering around, that you were just as likely to meet as the moa.”

Have you heard of the snipe-rail, the owlet-nightjar, the musk duck?

How about the laughing owl, the wren that ran around the forest like a mouse, or the other giant predator of the skies, Eyles’s harrier?

New advances in DNA technology are telling us more about how these species lived (Kate Evans investigates six of them) but all deserve a better introduction to the public in the first place.

So it’s fitting that our story on recent discoveries about prehistoric birds sits alongside our story on citizen science. Citizen science is about the public contributing to research, but it’s also about removing barriers of access between professionals and amateurs, experts and enthusiasts.

These days, Dickison works full-time at getting knowledge that’s common among scientists out into the world—by putting it on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. (Yes, anyone. Including you.) Its accuracy is preserved by the millions of people who act as its caretakers—vandalistic attempts to introduce false information are generally corrected within minutes, if not seconds. Facts must be supported by citations, and if not, they’re excised.

Dickison recently spent three weeks at New Zealand Geographic, adding information from the magazine’s archive to the site. While he was here, he organised a group of experts and volunteers to spend an evening dramatically improving the Wikipedia page about kauri dieback, incorporating research references sourced for our story on the subject. (Creating a detailed, accurate Wikipedia page is something that the government agency charged with informing the public about kauri dieback could have done for free.)

Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited website in the world—when you Google something like ‘kauri dieback’, a Wikipedia page is one of the first things that comes up—but we lag behind other developed countries in terms of Wikipedia’s coverage about New Zealand.

We live in a world with all the tools for more open and inclusive sharing of information, but many of the old walls between institutions, professionals, experts and the rest of us still exist. Let’s keep dismantling them.

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