New research on the feeding habits of world’s largest ever birds

Published 13 January 2016

New research published in the Proceedings of Royal Society of London B uncovers important understandings on the distinct feeding strategies of New Zealand’s giant extinct flightless birds, the moa.

Figure 5Director of UNE’s Function, Evolution and Anatomy Research (FEAR) lab, Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, and colleagues from Australia and New Zealand used sophisticated 3D reconstructions of moa skulls and muscles based on exquisitely preserved mummified remains. Comparing their functionality to contemporary relatives, the emu and cassowary, the team were able to identify differences in how their skulls worked and how they fed.

The unique biomechanics between moa species, suggesting they minimised competition for food, likely explains why different moa species were able to co-exist.

The ‘little’ bush moa, for instance, possessed a relatively short, sharp-edged bill making it superior at cutting twigs and branches, supporting the proposition that they primarily fed on fibrous material from trees and shrubs.

The coastal moa, on the other hand, had a relatively weak skull, reflecting a narrower dietary niche, focused on fruit and leaves.

“Understanding how different moa fed and carved up resources is fundamental to determining how some species were able to co-exist in the same geographical region” says Dr Marie Attard, from the University of Queensland.

According to A/Prof Wroe, identifying the feeding habits of these birds helps to explain how their extinction, some 550 years ago, massively impacted New Zealand’s ecosystems.

“Little has been known about how New Zealand’s plant community changed, largely because we previously knew so little about how moa lived and co-existed,” A/Prof Wroe said.

“From this recent research we now have a slightly better explanation for the drastic changes in fire frequency, regeneration patterns and seed dispersal opportunities of plants”


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For further information, contact A/Prof Stephen Wroe on +61 2 6773 3261 or

Caption: The stress test of a moa species skull, indicating their eating habits.