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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (September 1, 1934)

The Dim Past of New Zealand

page 46

The Dim Past of New Zealand

New Zealand is a country of fascinating primordial interests. Geographically the two islands may be classified as unique in the extreme. As we know them to-day they are merely two somewhat small islands; whereas, in fact, they are two fragments of an enormous, prehistoric continent that embraced one part of Australia—in two parts at that period—the West Pacific Islands and New Guinea. Also, New Zealand holds the distinction of being the oldest land-region of the world.

The tremendous cataclysm that brought about this severance must have occurred before mammalian life was in existence, or spread hither. This seems evidenced by a peculiar absence of indigenous mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In its stead we find a phenomenal variety of wingless avifauna, peculiar to New Zealand and of a highly interesting scientific nature. Many are unfortunately extinct, others rapidly becoming so. It is our duty to rigidly protect our indigenous avifauna by every means in our power; it is our duty to science and posterity.

The struthious type from which the Dinornis and Apertyx evoluted appear to have entered the prehistoric continent by a nor'-western route, and to have had an enormously wide range to judge by remains of various types that have been found in different parts of the Globe.

Bones of an extinct Rhea were unearthed in Brazil, those of extinct ostriches in Northern India. The Eocene deposits of England gave up the remains of an ostrich twice the size of the type of to-day. In the cretaceous rocks of North America were found the bones of an extraordinary ostrich, it was saw-toothed, carnivorous and a swimmer.

It appears rather strange that the avifauna of the North and South Islands are distinct, though closely allied: the southern type being heavier framed and stronger limbed. For example the “Dinornis Maximus,” is a giant amongst an .extinct giant avifauna of that period.

The tertiary deposits of New Zealand have proven a veritable treasure trove as regards our extinct avifauna. The Glenmark swamp, in so circumscribed an area as ten feet, yielded no less than eighteen skeletons, peculiar, not only in size but in formation of bone in Dinornis types, including the huge Moa. During the Moa-period it has been established, beyond doubt, a giant eagle existed; this was named “Harpagornis Moorei,” by Haast. There was also a giant goose, which was flightless, and a giant penguin. The skeleton of the former was found in the Earnsclough caves; of the latter in the limestone deposits of Oamaru.

In 1839 the fragment of a femur bone was obtained from a Maori who claimed it as that of a giant eagle. It was sent to England, where Professor Owen, after careful examination, placed it as that of a Moa. This, he explained so: eagle's bones are pneumatic, this was marrow filled; therefore belongs to a struthious type. Some of the giant birds attained the enormous height of nine to ten feet; in the fine museum of Canterbury may be seen a plate of much interest which depicts the old chief of the Ngapuhi—Tamata Waka Nene— wearing a dogskin mat and facing the built-up skeleton of a magnificent Moa.

In 1860, a Moa egg—unbroken, save for being pierced to remove the contents—was discovered in the grave of a Maori at Kaikoura. This egg was sent to, and sold in London to a Mr. D. Rowley, of Brighton, for £105, a poor price indeed for such a rarity. It is oval in shape and measures nine inches in length by seven inches in width. The colour is of a pale cream, stained brown on one side—probably by the yolk. The shell, about one-sixteenth of an inch in thickness, has a polished surface that resembles bone rather than eggshell. Two other eggs were found in the sandy loam of Upper Clutha. One, when reconstructed, contained the bones of an embryo chick.