The Discovery of the Mt. Owen Claw
Nearly three decades ago, a team of archaeologists were carrying out an expedition inside a large cave system on Mount Owen in New Zealand when they stumbled across a frightening and unusual object. With little visibility in the dark cave, they wondered whether their eyes were deceiving them, as they could not fathom what lay before them—an enormous, dinosaur-like claw still intact with flesh and scaly skin. The claw was so well-preserved that it appeared to have come from something that had only died very recently.
The archaeological team eagerly retrieved the claw and took it for analysis. The results were astounding; the mysterious claw was found to be the 3,300-year-old mummified remains of an upland moa, a large prehistoric bird that had disappeared from existence centuries earlier.
The upland moa (Megalapteryx didinus) was a species of moa bird endemic to New Zealand. A DNA analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the first moa appeared around 18.5 million years ago and there were at least ten species, but they were wiped from existence “in the most rapid, human-facilitated megafauna extinction documented to date.”
With some sub-species of moa reaching over 10 feet (3 meters) in height, the moa was once the largest species of bird on the planet. However, the upland moa, one of the smallest of the moa species, stood at no more than 4.2 feet (1.3 meters). It had feathers covering its whole body, except the beak and soles of its feet, and it had no wings or tail. As its name implies, the upland moa lived in the higher, cooler parts of the country.
Left: Illustration of a Moa. Right: Preserved footprint of a Moa (Wikimedia Commons)
The Discovery of the Moa
The first discovery of the moa occurred in 1839 when John W. Harris, a flax trader and natural history enthusiast, was given an unusual fossilized bone by a member of an indigenous Māori tribe, who said he had found it in a river bank. The bone was sent to Sir Richard Owen, who was working at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Owen was puzzled by the bone for four years—it did not fit with any other bone he had come across.
Eventually, Owen came to the conclusion that the bone belonged to a completely unknown giant bird. The scientific community ridiculed Owen’s theory, but he was later proved correct with the discoveries of numerous bone specimens, which allowed for the complete reconstruction of a moa skeleton.
Sir Richard Owen standing next to a moa skeleton and holding the first bone fragment belonging to a moa ever found. (Wikimedia Common)
Since the first discovery of moa bones, thousands more have been found, along with some remarkable mummified remains, such as the frightening-looking Mount Owen claw. Some of these samples still exhibit soft tissue with muscle, skin, and even feathers. Most of the fossilized remains have been found in dunes, swamps, and caves, where birds may have entered to nest or to escape bad weather, preserved through desiccation when the bird died in a naturally dry site (for example, a cave with a constant dry breeze blowing through it).