No portraits exist of one of the most important people in Pacific history. Tupaia was a man of many talents: high priest, artist, diplomat, politician, orator and celestial navigator. After fleeing conflict on his home island of Ra’iātea for Tahiti, he befriended botanist Joseph Banks, and joined the onward voyage of James Cook’s Endeavour. Arriving in New Zealand in 1769, Tupaia discovered he could converse with Māori. He became an interpreter, cultural advisor and bringer of news from islands that Māori had left long ago.
250 years on, we are barely beginning to know who he was.
It’s not a squirrel, or a bat, but a dinosaur that acted like all three. The newly discovered species Ambopteryx longibrachium lived in the forests of China 163 million years ago, climbing trees and gliding between them.
Ambopteryx, which was described in a paper published in Nature in May, is only the second feathered dinosaur to have been found with signs of membranous, bat-like wings. The first, Yi qi, or ‘strange wings’, reshaped theories about the evolution of flight following its 2007 discovery. (It’s now believed that dinosaurs developed flight up to four times, using multiple types of wings.)
Ambopteryx is a member of the scansoriopterygid family: tiny, feathered, lightweight dinosaurs. Alive, it probably weighed a few hundred grams, or about the same as a burger. It had long hands and fingers, feet suited to perching, and wrist bone called a styliform which looks like it would support a wing.
“These fossils demonstrate that, close to the origin of flight, dinosaurs closely related to birds were experimenting with a diversity of wing structures,” write the authors.
Now, the hunt is on for relatives of Ambopteryx and Yi.
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.