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Step Aboard the Moa Poop Time Machine


An painting of hulk moas. (Wikimedia Commons)

Coprolites, or fossilized dung, double as ecological time capsules, preserving an implausible collection of information about past ecosystems.

In Middle Earth (a.k.a. New Zealand) researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for DNA (ACAD) and Landcare Research NZ reconstructed a pre-civilization village using a bird dung time machine. Dung samples were amassed from countless sites opposite the continent. The donors: 4 class of ratite birds including the archaic hulk moa and the critically involved kakapo parrot, all of which are autochthonous to the continent. In its heyday, the moa was the widespread herbivore in New Zealand.

New Zealand has a wet, stormy history, and it’s likely birds like the moa would censor out in caves or stone shelters to stay dry and, of course, defecate often. Some of these hideouts were dull adequate to dry out the dung and safety them. Jamie Wood, of Landcare Research, orderly a dung hunt for his PhD research, pinpointing the places where animals took shelter. Then, he dug in.

“When he started his PhD he had 30 dung balls, and when he finished he had around 3,000. So he’d left out and totally changed the record of moa coprolites,” says Professor Alan Cooper, the ACAD executive who led the study.

Using hot dating, they dynamic their dung collection spans a timeline reaching back 1,500 years.

Tales from the Dung Side

Genetic research of the dung suggested information about the birds’ diet and health, which allows researchers to better know their behavior. Parasites in the dung can exhibit how they were shared and how the birds migrated.

“All those forms of information you can’t get from skeletons,” says Cooper.


A pivotal anticipating from dung was the symbiotic interactions between species. For example, researchers reliable that Moas were eating a vast suit of brightly-colored fungi sprinkled all opposite New Zealand. These fungi form a mutualistic attribute with the roots of the southern beech, which comprises about half of New Zealand’s timberland canopies.

The mildew doesn’t disseminate spores by popping open, so something must have been eating them to sunder the seeds. The study reliable that both the moa and the kakapo were immoderate the fungi, and presumably swelling them around when they pooped. And that competence be utterly critical for permitting the timberland to reinstate in areas after ecological disruptions.

In New Zealand’s history, cold phases were common which private many of the forests. The group hypothesized that the Moa was very critical for moving the seeds of the beech timberland back up into these ravaged areas.

“It’s utterly tough for the beech seeds, which are turn nuts, several millimeters in diameter, to go uphill. And so, what the dung is showing us is the kind of way many ecosystems work, how opposite factors, opposite tools of it lay together,” says Cooper. The group published its commentary Tuesday in the journal PNAS.

And that’s critical for trying to work out how the pieces were meant to fit together and what functions have been lost in systems disrupted by human activity.

Cooper says that what they’re now operative on now is helping charge efforts by bettering certain animals to take up this critical role, or by co-dispersing the mushrooms and the beech seeds in the manure as a technique to try to urge beech timberland regeneration.

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