Ornithologists have been arguing for more than a century about just what an adzebill was. Hefty flightless birds with massive beaks, they disappeared in the first wave of extinctions following human arrival in Aotearoa and are known only from their skeletons. Their bone chemistry indicates they were carnivores, and their pick-like beaks and powerful feet suggest they were diggers, perhaps excavating tuatara and seabirds from burrows. But they were apparently unrelated to any living bird species.
When Richard Owen first described them from leg bones in 1844, he mistook them for small moa. Later adzebills were thought to be cousins to the sunbitterns, or the flightless kagu, the national bird of New Caledonia. Were they from the rail family—or something else entirely?
Finally we have an answer, thanks to new techniques that allow palaeogeneticists to extract traces of DNA from ancient bones. An international team of researchers, including palaeontologists and ornithologists from Australia and New Zealand, found that adzebills are relatives of small ground-dwelling birds from Africa, in the obscure family Sarothruridae, or flufftails. The Madagascan wood rail is a typical flufftail—a medium-sized forest bird resembling a weka.
So how did the ancestors of adzebills get from Madagascar to New Zealand? DNA suggests the split happened 40 million years ago, when the southern continents were closer together and Antarctica was further north and covered in forests.
The ancestors of adzebills could fly, and were probably spread across Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica and New Zealand, leaving modern-day descendants at each end of the range. We now know that kiwi, whose closest relatives are the extinct elephant birds of Madagascar, had similarly mobile flying ancestors.
Adzebills turn out to be another native bird that colonised Aotearoa from across the oceans, then lost its ability to fly.
What became of the ship that charted New Zealand and Australia in the 1770s? For Great Britain, Endeavour expanded the map of the world; for Aotearoa, it brought abrupt and devastating change. Now, one of the world’s great maritime mysteries is on the cusp of being solved. The Endeavour’s bones lie in American waters, awaiting final identification. Meanwhile, the only organisation permitted to investigate the ship—a volunteer marine archaeological group—is lacking funds for the next stage of work and rejecting offers of collaboration. What does the future hold for the Endeavour wreck?
Since humans arrived in New Zealand, we’ve lost nearly half of our native terrestrial bird species. Some of those extinct icons are well known, while others are recalled only by myth and bones. We will probably never know the full polyphony of that primordial dawn chorus, but old bones and new science are giving us a richer picture of life in the land of birds, back when they still ruled the roost. For the first time, we’re able to answer questions about what they ate, where they came from, how they were related to each other, and how they got so much bigger, heavier, and weirder than their ancestors.
One hundred years ago, an influenza pandemic tore across the world, infecting 500 million people, and killing between 50 and 100 million—between three and five per cent of the world’s population. But it wasn’t equally lethal everywhere it visited. In Tasmania, less than 0.1 per cent of the population succumbed, while Western Samoa saw a mortality rate of 22 per cent.
Why the disparity? A study by New Zealand and Australian researchers, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases in May, suggests that prior exposure to a non-lethal flu virus, social isolation, and ethnic immune systems are some of the factors.
Māori were 10 times as likely as pākehā to die from the flu. Study co-author Nick Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, says this was likely due to higher rates of poverty and thus more crowded living conditions. Because a greater proportion of Māori lived rurally, earlier waves of the virus, which arrived before November 1918, might not have reached them to give them increased immunity. Mysteriously, Māori men and women were affected equally. (In all other populations, more men died from the flu than women.)
Wilson says Samoa was also unusual in that the flu spread fastest through the highest social class. “This was because in Samoan culture, when a chief was sick, a lot of people would gather round him to transfer oral knowledge to the next generation—customs such as this would have increased spread.”
He says this level of global mortality from a virus is unlikely to ever happen again. “The world is so interconnected that almost everyone gets exposed to most flu viruses within a few years, as opposed to in the sailing and steamship days when populations could go decades without seeing a particular virus.”
The main cause of death during the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the flu itself, but the bacterial pneumonia that followed it. These days, it could be treated with antibiotics.
The oldest ‘true’ baleen whale fossil ever found, at more than 27.5 million years old, was excavated about 30 years ago from a dairy farm at Hakataramea in South Canterbury. In April, it was finally named: Toipahautea waitaki, which translates to ‘baleen origin whale of the Waitaki region’. The University of Otago’s Māori Affairs department and Ngāi Tāhu were consulted for help with the name.
Many New Zealand species’ Linnaean names carry te reo in part or in full. However, University of Waikato associate professor Hēmi Whaanga says while it’s important te reo is used, care must be taken because naming is often done without consultation with local iwi.
“It’s a respect thing—we need to consider the names we plan to use might be sacred, refer to history, genealogy, places, events. Using them in another context can confuse people on the true meaning, or it may be culturally inappropriate to use that name.”
Name blunders of the past include the hybrid te reo-Latin Taniwhasaurus oweni, a mosasaur named in 1874. Using te reo in Linnaean naming still desperately needs protocol, says Whaanga: “Once it’s named, you can’t change it.”
It’s the Middle Ages. Genghis Khan presides over the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. Mansa Musa gives away enough gold on his trip to Mecca to cause an economic crisis in the Near East. Dante writes The Divine Comedy. The English and French kick off the Hundred Years’ War.
And Polynesian explorers sail to all corners of the Pacific. At least one waka lands on Enderby Island, at Sandy Bay, and stays there. The explorers live on sea lions, seals, albatrosses, petrels, fish and mussels. They cook in hangi, stoking fires with rātā, and their dogs gnaw the bones.
Archaeologist Atholl Anderson investigated these earth ovens in 2003, dating their remnants to either the 13th or 14th century—about the same time that New Zealand was settled. Traces remain of visits to the subantarctic Snares Islands, as well as settlements in the Kermadecs, far to the north of mainland New Zealand, and the Chatham Islands to the east.
On Enderby, part of the Auckland Islands group, Polynesians stayed for at least one summer, perhaps more, then departed, leaving behind tools, fish hooks, scrapers and bones—including this fish hook, which was recovered from Sandy Bay and is now held at the Southland Museum.
After they left, the Auckland Islands remained uninhabited for at least 400 years. There are no signs of human presence between these remains and the islands’ rediscovery by Abraham Bristow in 1806.
While the earlier explorers may have paid only a summer’s visit, Enderby Island marks the southernmost Polynesian colony yet to have been identified.
In August 1849, Sarah and Isaac Cripps and their three children boarded the Fancy, bound for Auckland Island, 465 kilometres south of New Zealand. They were part of a group of 66 prospective colonists planning to start a new settlement in the subantarctic. As they put to sea, they imagined the sunny weather and gentle pastures that awaited them. They would not find out until December that they’d all been tricked.
Australia’s indigenous languages contain a mystery. One language family dominates: more than three-quarters of the country’s close to 400 indigenous languages belong to the Pama-Nyungan family. At some point, this language family swept across the country—it’s spoken in 90 per cent of the continent—but when did that happen, and why?
New Zealand and United States researchers adapted computer models developed to track virus outbreaks, and used them to trace the language’s family tree by mapping the history of cognates, or similar words in related languages. The study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution in March, found that the Pama-Nyungan language family originated in an area of northern Australia 5700 years ago—not 50,000 years ago, as one theory went.
But the mystery remains as to why it spread so thoroughly. Languages are known to expand through migration and technological advances, such as the development of agriculture, but the Pama-Nyungan family shows that large-scale language shifts can take place across hunter-gatherer societies.