Rodrigo B. Salvador
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.
Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com
During his heroic career Superman fought several foes. Some of these stories are truly memorable, like The Death of Superman (1992–1993), when he faced Doomsday. But many stories just ended up completely forgotten. Granted, there are some stories that most fans prefer to forget, like the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but some are curious or weird enough to eventually deserve a fresh look. The story I’m about to tell you is one of the latter kind.
This one happened during the first years of the so-called Bronze Age of Comics (1970–1985). Comic books from the Bronze Age retained lots of elements and conventions from the preceding Silver Age, but started to introduce stories more in tune with social issues, like racism and drugs. Likewise, comics also began including environmental issues and this is the topic I will focus on here. More specifically, on extinction.
THE LAST MOA ON EARTH
It is the first story on Action Comics no. 425 (July 1973), written by Cary Bates, illustrated by Curt Swan and Frank Giacoia. It is called “The Last Moa on Earth!” and by the title alone, you can see it is about a giant extinct bird.
My goal here is to guide you through the story and offer some Biology inputs every now and then, explaining some things and “correcting” the bits the comics got wrong. I do know that writers should be free to invent and I wholeheartedly agree with that – it is science fiction after all! However, there are some sciency bits and pieces that are so simple to get right that there can be no excuse for giving the public wrong information.
The story starts off with hunter Jon Halaway in a New Zealand forest, being attacked by a giant flightless bird. He shoots and kills it, and decides to visit a local scientist (in Hawera, a town on the west coast of the North Island) to confirm his suspicions of the bird’s identity.
The scientist tells Halaway that he shot a bird thought to be extinct for 500 years and that there were once thousands of these animals in New Zealand. Both pieces of information are correct. Scientists estimated that there were circa 160,000 moa in New Zealand when Polynesian settlers arrived between 1,200 and 1,300 CE (Holdaway & Jacomb, 2000; Wilmshurst et al., 2010). There were nine species of moa in total and the Polynesians (who later became known as the Māori) had already extinguished them all by the early 1,400’s CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007; Perry et al., 2014).
The scientist then says that the bird was the largest of the moa species, Dinornis maximus. While indeed this species was likely the largest, it inhabited only the South Island of New Zealand. The species from the North Island, where Halaway was hunting, is called Dinornis novaezealandiae. So the writer got the species wrong, but we cannot truly blame him: tens of moa “species” were described throughout the years, mostly because of the huge difference in size between the sexes of some species confused early researchers. Thus, the classification of moa species was really messed up until genetic studies started to be conducted from the late 1990’s onwards.
On a similar note, D. maximus is actually an invalid name; the valid name for the South Island giant moa is D. robustus (Gill et al., 2010). That is because “D. maximus” was a second name given to describe the same species; to avoid confusion, only the first name ever used (D. robustus) is valid in these cases.
Halaway estimated the size of the slain moa at 12 feet (approximately 3.6 m), which is quite reasonable. The largest known specimens would have been 2 meters high at their backs or 3 meters high with their necks held straight up (something that they did not do; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). Moreover, Halaway’s dead bird was a female, which are typically much larger than males in the two Dinornis species (Bunce et al., 2003; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).
Box 1. What’s a moa anyway?
The moa belong to a group of birds called “ratites”, which also includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi, rheas, and the extinct elephant birds. Recent research has shown that moa are not closely related to the other notable New Zealand ratites, the kiwi. Rather, they are closer to the charismatic South America tinamous (Mitchell et al., 2014; Yonezawa et al., 2017). Since tinamous still retain some ability to fly, the moa’s ancestor was actually a flying bird (Gibbs, 2016).
The loss of flight (alongside attaining a large body size) is a common occurrence on island environments where no mammalian predator is present. Other New Zealand species have also lost this ability; besides the kiwi (the typical example of a flightless bird), there are parrots (kakapo), rails (takahē) and wrens.
Halaway realizes that what he did was plain wrong. As mentioned above, during the Bronze Age comics became conscious of social and environmental problems – and extinction is a major problem, since it is usually our fault. This is important because, even though more than 350 years have elapsed after the last dodo was killed, most people still do not really grasp the idea that a species can disappear forever (Adams & Carwardine, 1900).
The “good” Mr. Halaway than devoted all his energy and resources into finding the slain moa’s egg. He succeeds and notes that the egg was being incubated in a hot spring with “strange fumes”. The egg was really big and appear egg-shaped in one panel and spherical in the other. Moa’s eggs were not spherical and not that large. Nevertheless, they were quite big and the largest known intact eggs are 20 and 25 cm tall (respectively, for the North Island and South Island Dinornis).
Halaway finally arrives in Metropolis, where he is interviewed by none other than Clark Kent. On the highway, Halaway tells Clark that he wants to redeem himself of his “unforgivable deed” and hope that scientists will figure a way to use the egg to produce more moa. The repented hunter then faints, just as the baby moa hatches and escapes, throwing the car off-balance and into a river.
Clark takes off his suit and glasses and, after he’s more comfortable in his supersuit, saves Halaway and takes him to a hospital. Now I will cut the whole weird plot short and just say that the moa created an “organic link” (whatever that is) with Halaway via a microorganism, and was draining his energy. Typical crazy comic book stuff, but that’s not the point here. So let’s get back to the baby moa.
Superman starts searching Metropolis for the runaway moa and eventually finds it flying. Yes, flying – without wings, the comic-book moa flies by “thrashing its feet at super-speed”. In fact, Superman notices that the moa can fly faster than a super-sonic jet.
Also, even though just a few hours had passed since the moa escaped, when Superman found it, the bird had already doubled in size. And these were not the only superpowers granted to the moa by the mysterious fumes.
Box 2. The moa’s archnemesis
The moa were herbivores, browsing on several types of leafy herbs, shrubs and trees (Wood et al., 2008). They were so abundant that it is thought their presence in New Zealand resulted in the evolution of a set of counter-measures in some plant lineages, which have small and hardened leaves, and sometimes also spines (Greenwood & Atkinson, 1977; Cooper et al., 1993; Worthy & Holdaway, 2002). But who ate the moa? Well, they were were so large that one would think they had no natural predators before the hungry Polynesians arrived. But that would be wrong – moa were hunted by giant eagles.
They are known as Haast’s eagles, after the naturalist who first described them, Sir Johann von Haast. They are the largest known true raptors, in both size and weight. They could reach a 2.6 m wingspan (somewhat smallish for their bulk) and 16 kg in weight, with females being larger (Brathwaite, 1992; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). To hunt and eat their massive prey, Haast’s eagles had strong legs and feet, with huge claws. Unfortunately, these amazing birds could not survive after the moa became extinct and likely did not last much longer than 1,400 CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).
The moa also gained the ability to use its feathers as projectiles that could even pierce an elephant’s hide (according to Superman). Needless to say, birds cannot do that unless they are also Pokémon. Finally, the moa could instantly regrow lost limbs, a feat that few heroes (and absolutely no birds) can achieve.
After some more fighting, Superman understands that the bird just wants to go back home – to that place with the fumes and the lonely pink flower. Superman realizes that the flower is a “Quixa blossom”, as he calls it, and says it is a rare plant found only in northwest New Zealand.
Since my knowledge of plants is fairly limited, I asked a New Zealand botanist for help with this one. I was told that there is no flower with that name in the country and actually nothing that even remotely looks like it.
In any event, Superman finds the moa’s home and takes it back there, thus stopping the energy draining effect and saving Halaway. Superman then proclaims the area a “moa preserve” and sets up a fence around it. A thoughtful move, but one that completely overlooks the fact that the supermoa could fly.
The story ends with Halaway saying that “the world owns the moa another chance for survival”. Unfortunately, reality is not so kind: our species has wiped the moa off the face of the Earth and there is no second chance.
Overall, if you ignore the superpowers and the “organic link” stuff, this Superman story is actually a nice portrayal of an extinct species and its tragic fate on the hands of humankind. If nothing else, I hope it has inspired a reader somewhere to become a scientist or to fight to preserve other endangered animals.
Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London.
Brathwaite, D.H. (1992) Notes on the weight, flying ability, habitat, and prey of Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Notornis 39: 239–247.
Bunce, M.; Worthy, T.H.; Ford, T.; Hoppitt, W.; Willerslev, E.; et al. (2003) Extreme reversed sexual size dimorphism in the extinct New Zealand moa Dinornis. Nature 425: 172–175.
Cooper, A.; Atkinson, I.A.E.; Lee, W.G.; Worthy, T.H. (1993) Evolution of the moa and their effect on the New Zealand flora. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 8: 433–437.
Mitchell, K.J.; Llamas, B.; Soubrier, J.; Rawlence, N.J.; Worthy, T.H.; et al. (2014) Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution. Science 344: 898–900.
Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.
Gill, B.J.; Bell, B.D.; Chambers, G.K.; Medway, D.G.; Palma, R.L.; et al. (2010) Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquairie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica. Te Papa Press, Wellington.
Greenwood, R.M. & Atkinson, I.A.E. (1977) Evolution of divaricating plants in New Zealand in relation to moa browsing. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 24: 21–33.
Holdaway, R.N. & Jacomb, C. (2000) Rapid extinction of the moas (Aves: Dinornithiformis): model, test, and implications. Science 287: 2250–2254.
Perry, G.L.W.; Wheeler, A.B.; Wood, J.R.; Wilmshurst, J.M. (2014) A high-precision chronology for the rapid extinction of New Zealand moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 105: 126–135.
Tennyson, A. & Martinson, P. (2007) Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington.
Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.
Worthy, T.H. & Holdaway, R.N. (2002) The Lost World of the Moa: Prehistoric Life of New Zealand. Canterbury University, Christchurch.
Wood, J.R.; Rawlence, N.J.; Rogers, G.M.; Austin, J.J.; Worthy, T.H.; Cooper, A. (2008) Coprolite deposits reveal the diet and ecology of the extinct New Zealand megaherbivore moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 27: 2593–2602.
Yonezawa, T.; Segawa, T.; Mori, H.; Campos, P.F.; Hongoh, Y.; et al. (2017) Phylogenomics and morphology of extinct paleognaths reveal the origin and evolution of the ratites. Current Biology 27: 68–77.
I am very grateful to Dr. Carlos Lehnebach for the help with flower, to Alan Tennyson for helping me to correct some mistakes on moa/eagle biology, and to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of the photographs herein.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist/ zoologist who studies mollusks, but just happens to have a soft spot for giant flightless birds. He is a diehard DC Comics fan, but to be honest, he never really liked Superman. Instead, he prefers to read the stories of the caped crusader and his extensive Gotham “family”.
 Dinornis means “terrible bird”, just like dinosaur means “terrible lizard”.
 The largest tibia (a leg bone) ever found belongs to this species, being 1 m long (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).
 Tinamous are not typically included in the ratites group, rather being historically considered a separate (basal) lineage and grouped together with ratites in the more inclusive “palaeognaths” group. However, the work of Mitchell and collaborators (2014) have placed the tinamous well inside the ratites.