Excrement from flightless birds from New Zealand known as the moa, is giving paleontologists insight into centuries-old ecosystems.
The moa, including nine species of large herbivorous birds, lived from 17 million years ago until about 1400 A.D., when humans hunted them to extinction. They are related to the Australian Emu and Cassowary, and like these relatives, the moa had long necks, round bodies covered in feathers, long legs, and relatively small heads with long beaks.
A new report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from September 30, 2013 describes what exactly these oversized birds were eating before their untimely extinction, using an interesting object of study: their fossilized poop.
Lead author of the study, Jamie Wood from Landcare Research in New Zealand, with help from other scientists from Australia, analyzed the coprolites – fossilized feces of four different moa species. The excrement deposits were from a rock shelter in New Zealand where a population of moa lived about 400 years before the moa became extinct.
Wood and colleagues discovered and analyzed DNA fragments, pollen, and plant fossils within the moa coprolites. The fossilized poop painted a bigger story than just the details of what moa were feeding on – within the coprolites were clues to the habitats these moa were living in and what they preferred to eat. Early moa habitats, according to the findings, were unlike any analogous ecosystem we see today. The study reports, “their extinction represents an irreplaceable loss of function from New Zealand’s terrestrial ecosystems.”
Before 1400 CE, the moa were thriving in ecosystems that today wouldn’t be plausible.
The feces of long-ago creatures can tell about entire ecosystem dynamics, and the hope is that the principles of this study will extend to further coprolite research. Perhaps more importantly, the moa coprolites tell a cautionary tale of ecosystem loss, and the lesson learned when human interference weighs too heavily on nature.
Source: Wood, J. R., Wilmshurst, J. M., Richardson, S. J., Rawlence, N. J., Wagstaff, S. J., Worthy, T. H., & Cooper, A. (2013). Resolving lost herbivore community structure using coprolites of four sympatric moa species (Aves: Dinornithiformes). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume(issue) pgs. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1307700110
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.