In the summer of 2015, in a remote valley of Fiordland National Park, two scientists discover fossil poo fragments underneath a limestone overhang. Analysis suggests the fragments are from moa and are thousands of years old, so a team returns—three years later—to excavate.
What they find is a rich deposit of moa poo—called coprolites—that accumulated over a period of two millennia, probably between 6800 and 4600 years ago.
But what use is old poo? Scientists can carefully examine the pollen, seeds, DNA and plant microfossils in coprolites to determine what kind of food fuelled the nine moa species that roamed the country.
The team determined that these nuggets of dietary information were from little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis), a mid-sized species between 50 and 90 centimetres tall and weighing 26 to 64 kilograms that inhabited lowland forests. This made it an exciting find. “Until now, only five little bush moa coprolites have previously been identified, all from Central Otago,” says lead researcher Jamie Wood from Manaaki Whenua–Landcare Research.
The poo contained very few seeds, suggesting that little bush moa were not important seed dispersers. But the fossils were rich in ground-fern spores and fronds, suggesting that fern foliage played an important role in this species’ diet, and that the moa spread the plants around.
Because the coprolites were deposited over a period of 2000 years, the researchers were able to trace how the plant matter contained within changed over time. This revealed a shift in the prevailing vegetation from conifers such as miro, mataī and tōtara to the silver beech trees that dominate today.
Nearly 50 years on from the systemic and racially targeted deportations of Pasifika New Zealanders, the scars and shame of this experience linger—as the government prepares to formally apologise for its actions of the past.
The first kiwi sent from New Zealand to Europe arrived in England around 1812. Its insides had been removed, its skin and feathers preserved, and its little body flattened into an un-lifelike shape. It was a tokoeka/South Island brown kiwi, and it became the holotype of the species, the individual animal associated with the scientific name given to it in 1813, Apteryx australis.
Where exactly the specimen came from was a mystery. Naturalists assumed it was collected in Fiordland’s Dusky Sound.
Now, cutting-edge ancient-DNA techniques have revealed its true origins—which means new scientific names will need to be found for three other groups of tokoeka.
In 2017, Canterbury Museum curators Paul Scofield and Vanesa De Pietri visited the holotype at the World Museum Liverpool, where they were given a sample of the bird’s skin the size of a fingernail clipping.
Back in New Zealand, Scofield and colleagues mapped the kiwi’s mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, then compared the sequences with the genomes of living kiwi. The results showed the specimen was genetically distinct from the Fiordland tokoeka, meaning it wasn’t from Fiordland at all. Instead, it was from the world’s southernmost kiwi population, on Rakiura/Stewart Island.
Researchers checked their finding against the historical record, and it stacked up. When the kiwi specimen was collected in 1811, Fiordland seal populations had been cleaned out, and the few sealing gangs remaining had moved to the northern side of Foveaux Strait. Using shipping data from early newspapers, Scofield’s team established that just one vessel, the Sydney Cove, was sealing near South Cape on Rakiura at the time. One of those sealers probably caught the kiwi.
When the sealing crew landed in Sydney, they sold seal and kiwi skins to Andrew Barclay, the captain of a convict ship and former privateer (during the Napoleonic Wars, he obtained a licence from the British monarchy to board and sink French ships). Barclay sailed to China, where the seal skins would be made into leather for top hats, then continued to London. The kiwi specimen ended up in the private collection of George Shaw, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, who bestowed its scientific name.
Now that we know the kiwi came from Rakiura, according to the rules of taxonomy, the Rakiura population must now take the Apteryx australis name—an appropriate one, as australis means southern.
Research continues into whether the genetically distinct populations of tokoeka on Rakiura and in southern Fiordland, northern Fiordland and Haast are separate species or subspecies. Once that’s been figured out, the three other groups will need new scientific names—an opportunity to use Māori terms for these taonga.
The soft mudstone cliffs of south Taranaki hold clues to creatures past. Fossil collectors unearthed seven specimens of an unknown species here, including a complete skull. Close analysis revealed this ancient animal was a monk seal—now extinct, but new to science.
The seal would have been a bit bigger than a sea-lion, reaching two and a half metres in length and weighing 200 to 250 kilograms, and would have frequented the waters around New Zealand some three million years ago. Researchers gave it a pop culture-inspired name: Eomonachus belegaerensis, after the largest ocean, Belegaer, in JRR Tolkien’s mythical world of Middle-earth.
The new seal has already rewritten history. Before now, monk seal fossils had been found only in the northern hemisphere, and the two living monk seal species are found in Hawaii and the Mediterranean. Monk seals are part of a sub-family called Monachinae, which also includes elephant seals and Antarctic seals.
There are several stories explaining seal evolution. The prevailing one goes that Monachinae evolved in the North Atlantic and travelled south. But with the discovery of a South Pacific monk seal, the scales tipped in favour of a different origin story. Perhaps all three types of Monachinae evolved in a “southern cradle”, and then some of the monk seals headed north.
Felix Marx, curator of marine mammals at Te Papa, is anticipating more finds. “New Zealand is incredibly rich in fossils, and so far we have barely scratched the surface,” he says. “Who knows what else is out there?”
Life in the subantarctic is difficult enough for those who arrive prepared. In 1864, castaways from two storm-wrecked ships, the Grafton and the Invercauld, landed on opposite ends of Auckland Island. Survival became a daily challenge. Each group tackled it differently: one fell to violence and cannibalism, while the other became a close-knit brotherhood. Were the wildly different fates of men of the Grafton and the Invercauld down to luck—or leadership?
The second-oldest collection of Māori artefacts in the world—exceeded only by the one amassed by James Cook—is held in Russia. These 200-year-old treasures have immense value to iwi at the top of the South Island, whose ancestors traded with Russian explorers. Now, there’s a movement to bring these taonga home.
In 1902, the steamship Ventnor was carrying the bones of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand to southern China when it sank off the coast of Northland. For more than a century, no one knew where the ship lay. Its discovery seven years ago kindled questions and disputes that blazed into controversy earlier this year. Who decides what happens to a wreck on the bottom of the sea? And what’s the rightful resting place of men who never made it home?
This animal lived on the island of Madagascar 66 million years ago, a time when dinosaurs ruled and most mammals were the size of mice. It was about the size of a cat, with robust claws, suggesting it was capable of digging. Newly named Adalatherium (or “crazy beast” in a combination of Malagasy and Greek), it’s the first complete skeleton to be found that belongs to a group of mammals called gondwanatherians, indicating what this unknown southern hemisphere family may have actually looked like. “This is the first real look at a novel experiment in mammal evolution,” says Alistair Evans from Monash University, one of the study’s authors. “The strangeness of the animal is clearly apparent in the teeth—they are backwards compared to all other mammals, and must have evolved fresh from a remote ancestor.”
Old bones are a staple of museum collections, but only a handful of people in New Zealand have the skills to prepare them for display. Recovering the skeleton of a large animal—rotting it down, preparing, cleaning and articulating it—is a long and demanding journey that only the most dedicated pursue.