Giant bird feces records pre-human New Zealand

January 12, 2009
Giant bird feces records pre-human New Zealand
Giant moa bird. Image courtesy iStockphoto.

( -- A treasure trove of information about pre-human New Zealand has been found in faeces from giant extinct birds, buried beneath the floor of caves and rock shelters for thousands of years.

A team of ancient DNA and palaeontology researchers from the University of Adelaide, University of Otago and the NZ Department of Conservation have published their analyses of plant seeds, leaf fragments and DNA from the dried faeces (coprolites) to start building the first detailed picture of an ecosystem dominated by giant extinct species.

Former PhD student Jamie Wood, from the University of Otago, discovered more than 1500 coprolites in remote areas across southern New Zealand, primarily from species of the extinct giant moa, which ranged up to 250 kilograms and three metres in height. Some of the faeces recovered were up to 15 centimetres in length.

'"Surprisingly for such large birds, over half the plants we detected in the faeces were under 30 centimetres in height," says Dr Wood. "This suggests that some moa grazed on tiny herbs, in contrast to the current view of them as mainly shrub and tree browsers. We also found many plant species that are currently threatened or rare, suggesting that the extinction of the moa has impacted their ability to reproduce or disperse."

"New Zealand offers a unique chance to reconstruct how a 'megafaunal ecosystem' functioned," says Professor Alan Cooper, Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, which performed the DNA typing.

"You can't do this elsewhere in the world because the giant species became extinct too long ago, so you don't get such a diverse record of species and habitats. Critically, the interactions between animals and plants we see in the poo provides key information about the origins and background to our current environment, and predicting how it will respond to future climate change and extinctions."

"When animals shelter in caves and rock shelters, they leave faeces which can survive for thousands of years if dried out," Professor Cooper says. "Given the arid conditions, Australia should probably have similar deposits from the extinct giant marsupials. A key question for us is 'where has all the Australian poo gone?' ".

The team's findings have recently been published in Quaternary Science Reviews, an international geological research journal.


Provided by University of Adelaide

Explore further: Early humans linked to ancient Australian extinction

Related Stories

Early humans linked to ancient Australian extinction

October 22, 2015

While the anthropogenic impact on global species diversity is clear, the role of ancient human populations in causing extinctions is more controversial. New data presented this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology ...

The largest to have existed—giant rat fossils

November 6, 2015

Archaeologists with The Australian National University (ANU) have discovered fossils of seven giant rat species on East Timor, with the largest up to 10 times the size of modern rats.

Loss of large land mammals could change landscapes forever

October 26, 2015

Large land animals such as elephants, wildebeest and other big plant-eaters are worth preserving in part because their disappearance could have permanent effects on the plants and animals they coexist with, according to an ...

Recommended for you

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
Holy ancient S&#^!
not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
Dear "Former PhD student Jamie Wood, from the University of Otago",

You should have studied Astrophysics, instead.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2009
Come on Australia, get your S&#^! together.
not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
Wolf if Jamie can't get a Ph.D. in poo how can he make it in Astrophysics?
not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
Hey, any headline with the word feces in it is an instant winner in my book.
not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
'where has all the Australian poo gone? - That's easy -
not rated yet Jan 12, 2009
Sophos, the reference to Jamie Wood being a "former Ph.D student" does not indicate that s/he failed to gain a Doctorate, indeed, the immediately following paragraph refers to him/her as "Dr Wood". ("Jamie" is not necessarily exclusively a male name.)
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2009
Endangered Feces would seem to be a logical consequence, or at least an "end" result, of Endangered Species.
not rated yet Jan 13, 2009
'where has all the Australian poo gone? - That's easy -

*high five*
1 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2009
Endangered Feces would seem to be a logical consequence, or at least an "end" result, of Endangered Species.

rotflmao. so needed that laugh on a monday. thx!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.