May 25, 2013

The strangest bird at AWRF 2013

Carol from Information Services at Central City Library came away impressed with all she learned when she went to hear writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker Quinn Berentson talk about his book Moa : a history of our strangest bird. Here's her report.

Who would ever have thought that science could be so exciting? Like in a good mystery novel, intrigue, jealousy, controversy and intellectual property theft played a part in the discovery of the moa in the 19th century. And yes, there was also a villain, in the form of the esteemed English naturalist Professor Richard Owen.

In the intimate atmosphere of the Art Gallery auditorium, we were entertained by Quinn Berentson on how New Zealand's moa captured the imagination of the world. Through a series of illustrations we were told a very twisted tale of human frailty, rivalry and controversy.

It began with a small piece of bone given to a European trader by local Māori from the East Coast, with the accompanying story that it came from a monster bird which haunted the area in times past. The bone arrived in England and was handed to Professor Owen. Owen realised that such a small sample did not provide enough evidence to go on, but he realised that this was a momentous find. Because of the structure of the bone, it must have come from some sort of giant bird.

This was all happening during the era of scientific and philosophical debate regarding creation versus evolution… the time of great scientific discoveries and theories from the likes of Charles Darwin, and the discovery of fossils, proving that indeed giant monsters did roam the earth millions of years ago. Owen was introduced as an "evil professor", with a reputation for destroying his rivals and stealing their ideas. He had locked horns with Charles Darwin, and now argued with Gideon Mantell, a physician and obsessed amateur fossil collector. Mantell had come up with the idea of an "Age of Reptiles". True to form, Owen swept Mantell aside and made the official announcement himself. He coined the term 'dinosaur' (meaning terrible lizard) and became rich, successful and famous.

With more European exploration in New Zealand, more moa bones were discovered and duly shipped off to England, into the hands of Owen. The moa was officially 'discovered' on 19 January 1843, Owen naming it Dinornis novaezealandiae. For the general public of Europe, this was their first introduction to a place called New Zealand.

 Moa bones are not rare, and are found the length of New Zealand. Every large museum in the world has a collection of moa bones due to Julius Haast, who exported them worldwide. The moa can also boast that it was one of the first museum specimens to be photographed.

Although New Zealanders are now known as Kiwis, in the 19th century the moa was recognised as the symbol of our country. Illustrations of moa have appeared on stamps around the world, and there was a hilarious moment as Quinn showed a comic strip with Superman battling a moa.

Quinn concluded with current research findings. The 'youngest' moa bones are about 500 years old, and there is no definitive proof of when the moa actually became extinct. DNA testing has identified nine species of moa - three unique to the South Island. The many variations initially discovered may have actually been age and gender differences.

An intriguing final remark: the moa is actually at the top of the list of creatures that could be cloned and brought back to life. There has been sufficient DNA discovered to potentially do this.

I found the entire hour captivating. Drawing on his experience as a documentary maker, Quinn Berentson is an excellent storyteller, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy of the book, which went on to win the Royal Society of New Zealand's Science Writing Prize. An announcement was made at the conclusion of the "Issues of Science" session later on Saturday.

-- Carol, Information Services Librarian 

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 15:30
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