Of Moas and Men
An evolutionist professor admits that while certain fossils can yield useful (even surprising!) information, there are limits
Giant flightless birds up to three metres (10 ft) high that once roamed New Zealand have been frustrating evolutionary scientists trying to make sense of their DNA. They could analyse the DNA because moas became extinct only some 600 years or so ago, and thus scientists have access to the remains of many specimens, as Professor Alan Cooper, a New Zealander at the University of Adelaide, Australia, explains:
“The moa … I’ve been working on them my entire career. I think they’re fantastic things. They’re like an emu but XXL.1 Actually we’ve just reconstructed what they’d look like using feathers from caves all over New Zealand.”2
From analyzing the DNA from these feathers, Cooper said that he and his colleagues were able to identify “which species each feather came from”—and here’s where it got interesting. It turned out that what had been thought to be different species of moa were actually different sexes, as Professor Cooper recounted:
“I’ve been struggling with it ever since my Ph.D. In trying to do phylogenetics3 on moas I had looked at this particular group Dinornis, the one you’ll always see in a museum. If you go to a museum, you see a great big tall moa from New Zealand, that will be Dinornis. The moas come in two versions; tall and thin, and short and fat, and the tall and thin are the Dinornis group. And there were three species and they were found all over New Zealand and there’s hundreds of specimens of them, there’s even mummies of them, and it turned out I could never get any genetic difference between them, and it was driving me nuts trying to get these three species sorted out.”
Cooper and his colleagues found that the representatives of the small ‘species’ were all males—and the distinctly separate big (3 metres, or 10 ft) and medium-sized ‘species’ were all females. And all were one and the same species.
When a species exhibits such sexually-determined, consistent size differences (known as ‘sexual dimorphism’), it’s generally the other way around in birds—the males are the larger. “What we think is happening is that in ratite birds, which are the emu, the ostrich, the moas, these big flightless birds you find across the southern hemisphere, the females don’t incubate the eggs or raise the young, the males do,” Cooper explained. “So it’s actually called reversed sexual dimorphism… .”
This is not the first time that what are purported to be different fossil species are subsequently amalgamated into fewer, or even, as in this case, one species. In recent years the number of dinosaur species has been dramatically curtailed, e.g. because it was found that what had been thought to be different species were in fact juvenile and adult forms of the same species (see Shrinking dino numbers p. 8).4,5,6,7 Or because it was realized that a ‘newly discovered’ fossil species was (incorrectly) named on the basis of incomplete fossil specimens.8,9,10 On that point, let’s give the last word to an evolutionist—Professor Cooper himself. In the light of his work on moa fossils, he let slip this incisive observation about supposed fossil evidence for the evolution of man:
“So the moas have turned out to be just remarkable in so many ways about basic evolutionary processes, and you think you’ve got the whole thing sorted out … and you’ve got to remember they only went extinct 650 years ago and we’ve got thousands if not tens of thousands of skeletons of these things, and we still couldn’t work it out. And if you’re looking at our ability to completely understand human evolution and Africa from the remnants of a few bits of bone and some teeth left behind and we can understand the series of steps between the species, certainly we can see the change, certainly we can understand the general process, but the specifics? If we can’t get it right 600 years ago, how are we going to do it 500,000 years ago with a tiny amount of material?”
How did the moa get to New Zealand?
Evolutionists once believed that the giant flightless birds—moas, ostriches, rheas, emus (and cassowaries—see article page 20) were all related and were a ‘primitive‘ group which had not yet evolved the ability to fly. Now they believe the birds ‘evolved’ from flying ancestors and are not from a common stock. But loss of the ability to fly, and having no common ancestor, actually fits the creation model better than an evolutionary one. Losing the ability to fly is of course a loss of information, not a gain, and therefore is not evolution—in the sense of the claim that bog scum became birds. The changes in living things observed today that are so often presented as evidence of evolution are in fact downhill changes—the evolution ‘train’ is going the wrong way!11,12
In contrast, from a biblical perspective, the origin of New Zealand’s fauna including the moa (now presumed extinct13), fits a Creation–Noah’s Ark timeline perfectly. A Genesis historical framework means the earth’s post-Flood land areas about 4,500 years ago were completely devoid of all land animals and birds, as any creature with ‘the breath of life in its nostrils’ (Genesis 7:22) had perished in the Flood, unless it was on the Ark. The process of repopulating the earth with land animals radiating out from the Ark’s landing site in the Middle East was made easier by the presence of land bridges connecting (or almost connecting) Asia to the Americas and to Indonesia/Papua New Guinea/Australia during the Ice Age.14 But the 2,000 kilometres of deeper ocean waters separating Australia and New Zealand proved a most effective barrier to land animals. Hence the only types of creatures on the Ark to have lived in New Zealand before human occupation were those capable of flight—which would have included the ancestors of the flightless moa.
So how did the moa become confined to ground? As the first arrivals began to breed, any hatchlings with some kind of mutational disorder rendering them flightless were able to safely move into a vacant ecological niche that on other continents would have been occupied by ground animals. In the absence of ground-dwelling predators (absent because they were unable to make the sea crossing), the flightless moa (along with the kiwi, kakapo15 and notornis) survived and multiplied.Eventually, however, people (the descendants of Noah) reached New Zealand’s shores16,17 and it seems that the moa was a particularly attractive target for Maori hunters, and its numbers quickly dwindled. Other impacts from human settlement, e.g. habitat clearing and introduced predator mammals, continue to pose survival challenges to New Zealand’s remaining flightless birds. The extinction threat facing them (in common with many other animal and bird species around the world) is a reminder that we live in a sin-cursed world ‘in bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:19–22) with death an unavoidable reality. Compare this to the original ‘very good’ world in which there were no mutations, and no death of the unfit—a very different world indeed.
Early explorers reaching Madagascar dismissed stories of giant birds killed for food as myths, until fossils were found there of the elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus, pictured right). Eggs of this bird have been found in Australia—the largest being around 28 centimetres (11 inches) long and 22 centimetres (8 inches) wide, “much larger” than the largest fossil moa egg known.18
References and notes
- XXL: a common clothing size code = ‘extra extra large’. When Cooper was once asked by a journalist if the moa could fly, he replied,“this is a bird that was three metres in height when it stood upright” and suggested to the journalist that “you’d need dynamite to get it off the ground”! Return to text.
- Ancient DNA reveals details in New Zealand penguins and Moas, ABC Radio National’s The Science Show program—presenter Robyn Williams interviews Dr Alan Cooper, broadcast 1 August 2009, abc.net.au. (All Cooper quotes herein from this.) Return to text.
- Trying to determine the relationships of creatures through a study of their genes. Return to text.
- Williamson, T. and 3 others, Early ontogeny of pachycephalosaurine squamosals as revealed by juvenile specimens from the Hell Creek Formation, eastern Montana, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(1):291–294, 2009. Return to text.
- Handwerk, B., A third of dinosaur species never existed? National Geographic News, news.nationalgeographic.com, 9 October 2009. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., Dino puberty blues for paleontologists: Dinosaur juveniles and adults wrongly labelled as separate species, 15 June 2010. Return to text.
- Note that the biblical ‘kinds’ of animals Noah was told to take onto the Ark would today mostly be represented by a larger grouping than what are called ‘species’. So in regard to dinosaurs, for example, Noah didn’t need to take the hundreds of named dino species on board the Ark, rather just the representative kinds, which more likely corresponded to the man-made classification of sub-family or even family. That is, about 55—see chapter 19 (“What about dinosaurs?”) in The Creation Answers Book. Return to text.
- Dalton, R., In search of Thingummyjigosaurus—There are errors in almost half the names given to dinosaurs, nature.com, 17 September 2008. Return to text.
- Benton, M., Fossil quality and naming dinosaurs, Biology Letters 4(6):729–732, 23 December 2008. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., Too many dinosaur names, 15 January 2009. Return to text.
- See Wieland, C., The evolution train’s a-comin’ (Sorry, a-goin’ in the wrong direction), Creation 24(2):16–19, 2002. Return to text.
- New molecular evidence has recently overturned evolutionary ideas about the moa and other flightless birds, but evolutionists remain unwilling to embrace the obvious alternative. See Catchpoole, D., Moa’s Ark vs Noah’s Ark?, 10 August 2010. Return to text.
- But see: Moa sighting?, Creation 17(1):8, 1994. Return to text.
- See ch. 16, ‘What about the Ice Age’, and ch.17, ‘How did the animals get to Australia?’, in Batten, D. (Ed), et al., The Creation Answers Book, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, 2008. Return to text.
- Bates, A., Parrot of the night—NZ’s kakapo, Creation 30(4):28-30, 2008. Return to text.
- See: Dennis, P., Maori memories of the Creator, Creation 18(4):22-23, 1996. Return to text.
- A witness at the ‘ends of the earth’: Adrian Bates talks to Graham and Tui Cruickshank about the knowedge of the one true God—preserved for millennia in Polynesian culture. Creation 32(1):16–18,2009. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Giant egg mystery: Beaked skull enigma may mean elephant birds lived in Australia, Creation 19(1):50-51, 1996. Return to text.
I live in NZ, where the Moas lived, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for this research to reach the newspaper science pages. Maybe in 20 years they'll change their museum exhibits and quietly place 'Female' and 'Male' signs above the different birds.
I was just about to search for the history of the Moa, the Ostrich and other similar birds on your site. Finding answers instantly on the front page kind of shocked me. Amazing article!