Rotorua and environs

Here’s a dollop of photos taken around and in Rotorua, where I was magnificently hosted by artist Geoffrey Cox and his wife, radiologist Barbara Hochstein.

On the long intercity bus ride from Wellington (7.5 hr), we stopped for lunch at a cafe where, the bus driver said, they had famous “lamburgers”, made from ground lamb. Of course I had to have one, and it was great, served with grilled onions, tomatoes, a special dressing, and salad.It was a juicy burger, and more people should serve these in New Zealand. I washed it down with a banana smoothie.

Waiting for the bus to leave, I found a ram to pet in a field next to the cafe. When I put my knee through the fence, he butted me!

Late afternoon sun on Lake Taupo, a large caldera lake that is the largest lake in New Zealand.

Sunrise from Geoffrey and Barbara’s house on Lake Rotorua. It was a gorgeous home, with a fantastic garden filled with native plants and a lovely interior filled with art.

The birds are New Zealand scaup, also called black teal (Aythya novaeseelandiae). It’s an endemic species.

Among Geoffrey’s interests are moas, and he’s illustrated books on them. He makes models of their skeletons, which takes weeks of work, since every detail is accurate and worked out in advance. First, a bit on moas from Wikipedia:

The moa were nine species (in six genera) of flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The two largest species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, reached about 3.6 m (12 ft) in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about 230 kg (510 lb).When Polynesians settled New Zealand around 1280 CE, the moa population was about 58,000.

Moa belong to the order Dinornithiformes, traditionally placed in the ratite group. However, their closest relatives have been found by genetic studies to be the flighted South American tinamous, once considered to be a sister group to ratites. The nine species of moa were the only wingless birds lacking even the vestigial wings which all other ratites have. They were the dominant herbivores in New Zealand’s forest, shrubland and subalpine ecosystems for thousands of years, and until the arrival of the Māori were hunted only by the Haast’s eagle. Moa extinction occurred around 1300 CE – 1440 CE ± 20 years, primarily due to overhunting by Māori.

Moa species names and numbers are in flux, as several species, once thought distinct, were found to be highly sexually dimorphic, with females 1.5 times as large as males and weighing up to three times more. Copulation must have been difficult!

Here’s Geoffrey with his handmade clay model of the giant moa DinornisYou can have Geoffrey make one of these for you—or nearly anything else—by going to his webpage:

A smaller moa; sadly, I’ve forgotten the species but I’ll ask Geoffrey:

H0w big were they? Below is a figure from Wikipedia. Given the lack of land mammals in New Zealand when the Maori arrived about 1280 AD, these birds would have been tempting targets, and easy to hunt. With drumsticks like these (the Maori didn’t eat much of the other parts), it’s no wonder all species were driven extinct in about 100 years of hunting.

A size comparison between 4 moa species and a human. 1. Dinornis novaezealandiae 2. Emeus crassus 3. Anomalopteryx didiformis 4. Dinornis robustus

Here’s Geoffrey’s preliminary sketch for the big moa model shown above. Tons of preliminary work go into the planning:

Moas lacked even external vestiges of wings, which even kiwis have. They were, in effect, the world’s only two-limbed vertebrates. The wing bones would have been attached to these bones underneath the ribs:

The moa’s tiny tail:

Geoffrey has done the artwork for three entire series of New Zealand postage stamps. One was of the extinct birds of New Zealand, and here’s a first day cover of the giant moa. The stamp itself is embedded in the portrait, center to the right:

A cast of the skull of a giant moa, with a $2 New Zealand coin for scale (about the size of an American quarter). This was made from a rubber mold used on a real moa skull in an Auckland museum.  Surprisingly, many moa bones survive, though not many entire skeletons or the fragile skulls.  Geoffrey even told me that two entire moa eggs, shells intact (but empty) were found by Europeans floating in a river in New Zealand.

Geoffrey also has a moa foot, with three big toes in front and a much smaller one in the rear.  The bones are genuine except for one replica bone and all the claws:

Geoffrey’s model (see coin for scale) of the fearsome talon of a Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), a giant raptor that made its living by preying on hapless moa. When the moa went extinct,the eagle did, too. After having killed a moa, the eagle could consume it at leisure since there were n0 other carnivores to steal its prey.

Geoffrey will make you a replica of almost any creature by special order. Here’s his lovely model of the skeleton of a Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

More Rotorua photos to come. . .


  1. busterggi
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I wish I had that kind of talent.

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Excellent. The models are lovely, and I did not know that moas had completely lost their fore-limbs.

    I want some moa!

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Does the moa’s hip relate to the dinosaur family- ornithofirnes I think?

    • darrelle
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Currently I think it is safe to say (?) that modern birds descended from the sub-group of theropod dinosaurs, Maniraptora.

      I’m not sure but by “ornithofirnes” you may have meant Ornithomimidae or Ornithomimus? Those are “ostrich-like” dinosaurs. Their phylogeny apparently has been and still is contentious. Going by this cladogram from a 2014 study those groups are closely related to Maniraptora, from which modern birds descended, but not within Maniraptora. So, if accurate, then no modern birds descended from Ornithomimidae or Ornithomimus.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink


        Typo is inevitable with a tiny screen and auto-incorrect


        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          Seeley named the Ornithischians for their apparent pelvic resemblance to modern birds, not their actual relationships. It has become clear since then (and may have been more or less clear when Seeley was working – the skeleton of Archaeopteryx was known by then) that the avian dinosaurs are “Saurischian” dinosaurs, not Ornithischians.
          (I use quotes on Saurischian because it’s a less well-established clade than Ornithischia ; it may well be paraphyletic.)

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      It has the backwards pointing pubic bone, characteristic of birds. The whole thing about the dinosaur pelvis is looking more complicated as of late. The traditional story was that they were divided into two groups, the saurichian dinosaurs (with a forward pointing pubic bone, like other reptiles, so ‘lizard hipped’), and the ornithischian dinosaurs (with a rearward pointing pubic bone, so ‘bird hipped’ dinos).
      But the birds evolved from lizard hipped dinos, and it now looks like other lizard hipped dinos also evolved the bird hipped arrangement in a couple instances of convergent evolution.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Absolutely stunning work Geoffrey!

  5. barn owl
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Fascinating! I’m used to looking at human skeletons, but from the models shown, it appears that the moa lacks scapulae and the furcula, but that there are coracoids attached to the sternum. Is this correct?

  6. Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Somehow I’m reminded of the Yellow Dello, from Homestar Runner.

  7. rickflick
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Remarkable birds and remarkable models. A truly amazing visit. I so wish I’d known about Geoffrey’s remarkable skill when I visited NZ. I would have made a pest of myself to get an invitation to see his work and see his methods. Thanks for giving us this glimpse.

  8. darrelle
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Love your work Geoffrey.

    My jealousy of Jerry’s unfolding New Zealand adventure has not abated.

  9. Michael Fisher
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Hi Geoffrey. Lovely models.

    Have you considered getting a 3D printer? Do you use 3D modelling software? It might make the process of producing handmade replicas a lot easier [I’m not suggesting your final product is 3D printed – just the ‘sketches’]

    Here’s an article on 3D-printing Lucy:

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      And if you get bored of Lucy, there’s always Homo naledi, available at Morphosource. Berger et al have committed to releasing the data early in the evaluation process.

      • Posted April 5, 2017 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

        I like making my models out of polymer clay. I can’t see the fun in 3 D printing them. Perhaps if I was mass-producing them it would be different, but the orders I get usually entail a one-off model (I have made another pair of moa skeletons)

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          One of the reasons I’m interested in 3-d printing is that there are a local series of fossils where the bone has been completely dissolved from the sandstone, leaving a hole. For decades (50-odd years), the only way to see the fossils was to pour in the (white) moulding rubber through the discovery hole, let it set, then smash the original. [SHUDDER]
          More recently, they CAT scan the rocks at steadily improving resolutions, but you then need a way to “print” the data file.

  10. Posted April 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    “They were, in effect, the world’s only two-legged vertebrates”


    Two-appendaged vertebrates?

    • Posted April 5, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Yes, yes, thank you–fixed.

      • Lars
        Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure that was correct either. There’s an amphisbaenian (Bipes) that has only forelimbs, although there’s a pelvic remnant in the back; species of the salamander genus Siren bear only forelimbs as well. Pythons have spurs by the cloaca, external remnants of the hind limbs. There are some Australian skinks that have lost the forelimbs but not the hindlimbs (though they’re much reduced), and pygopodid lizards are the same.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Surely the whales which have lost their external (and most of the internal) posterior limbs, leaving only the anterior pair of limbs.

  11. MKray
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Re Teal
    NZers of certain age will remember another TEAL: before Air NewZealand was its predecessor until 1965 (I think) TEAL: Tasman Empire Airways Limited.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      And guess what colour it painted its planes?


  12. Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink



  13. BJ
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    How hard was the ram’s butt?

    Sorry, that came out wrong…

  14. loren russell
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Several years ago there was some interest in moas as candidates for de-extinction.. Though there isn’t a full nDNA available, there’s enough for a moa-less reconstruction, it seems.

    Lovely idea — at least the moa-less moas would be easier to manage than woolly mammoths.

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    But – how did you get to Rotorua (or Taupo) via Taumarunui?

    (There are two main routes Wellington to Auckland – one via Taumarunui and one via Taupo with Rotorua as an optional deviation. But between the two is cross country – straight enough in a car but I’d be surprised if any buses go that way.)

    And – when you got to Rotorua, did you get an immediate instinctive suspicion that the drains weren’t working? (It’s the sulphur smell in the air – from the thermal vents. Catches everybody that way).


    • Posted April 5, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      I came to Taumarunui AFTER Rotorua, via Hamilton and then south. And yes, there’s often a distinct smell of sulphur in R9torua’s air, but I didn’t mind it at all.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 6, 2017 at 12:43 am | Permalink

        Ah, that explains it. (Just that your Taumarunui post went up before your Rotorua one).

        I agree the Rotorua smell isn’t bad, once you realise where it’s coming from and discount the instinctive suspicion that a sewer is overflowing somewhere.

        Also, of course, since H2S inhibits the sense of smell, it is to some extent self-cancelling, so to speak.


        • hugh7
          Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:29 am | Permalink

          Unfortunately, the smell-inhibiting effect works at dangerous concentrations, and people have died of H2S poisoning in Rotorua without any warning.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 6, 2017 at 7:39 am | Permalink

            Yes. Those have usually been what might be called freak accidents, but what is not generally appreciated is that hydrogen sulphide is almost exactly as lethal as hydrogen cyanide (which ‘everyone’ knows is deadly poisonous).


  16. Posted April 5, 2017 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    The second moa skeleton (answering Jerry’s question) is Pachyornis elephantopus.

  17. Posted April 5, 2017 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    The connection between moas and our Latin American tinamou is really interesting. People used to explain disjunct animal distributions in terms of continental drift, but now that we have dated phylogenies of many groups thanks to DNA analysis, it often turns out that the divergence dates of the animals are much younger than the divergence dates of the land masses. The ancestors of the moas probably flew to NZ.

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