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Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, with an Appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez
by
Sir Richard Owen

Originally Published in 1879

 

With an Introduction to the Digital Republication of this Work
by
Timothy Rowe
Jackson School of Geosciences
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712

 

Introduction

 

Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, with an Appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez is a collection of many individual papers written over a lifetime by Sir Richard Owen (1804 - 1892), which he assembled into two volumes and re-published in 1879. The digital re-publication of this rare work is a tribute both to one of the greatest naturalists in history (Figure 1), and also to the immense and growing importance of the subject of this particular work, namely the rise and loss of biodiversity and humanity's role in the matter.

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Richard Owen at the age of 75, photographed at the time that Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, with an Appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez had just been sent off to press.
Figure 1. Richard Owen at the age of 75, photographed at the time that Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, with an Appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez had just been sent off to press.

 

This work holds a position of historical importance in the emergence of natural history and our modern understanding of evolution. But only a few copies were produced, fewer still survive to the present, and these rare collector's items are very highly valued. One consequence is that they remain inaccessible to the many people who will be fascinated by the thoughts and exquisite illustrations that Owen gathered together in this masterpiece. Even the original volumes are cumbersome, and the many life-sized fold-out illustrations of large bones of extinct birds bound together in Volume II are difficult to use without tearing. I had the luxury of holding these volumes on a shelf in my office for several years, but only occasionally looked at the magnificent images for fear of damaging them. Laying them out side-by-side on a table to be studied and compared was simply impossible, although Owen surely produced them for just such purposes.

The digital reissue of this work makes it available for the first time on the Web at a very high quality of reproduction, and with an improved measure of utility over the original. We hope that this edition will give new life to a work that had nearly become extinct in the mind of modern science.

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Figure 2.  One example of the many masterful lithographs produced by Richard Owen's friend James Erxleben for this work.
Figure 2. One example of the many masterful lithographs produced by Richard Owen's friend James Erxleben for this work.

 

Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand is one of the first treatises on the general phenomenon of extinction. The question of whether or not extinction is a real natural phenomenon was decisively answered by the generation of scientists who preceded Owen. The debate came to a head in the 1790's when it was led by the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832; see Figure 3). He amassed the first powerful scientific collection of fossils in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes, documenting carefully the precise geological context of each. He also amassed the first great scientific collection of modern skeletons to compare against the fossils. With this explosive armament of information Cuvier delivered the forceful, wining arguments that defeated biblical catastrophism as a valid scientific paradigm. That species and entire groups of organisms had arisen and become extinct, over the course of a long Earth history, became a basic fact of science before the end if the 18th century1.

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Figure 3.  Georges Cuvier, who discovered the natural phenomenon of extinction, as a young man.
Figure 3. Georges Cuvier, who discovered the natural phenomenon of extinction, as a young man.

 

Cuvier ranked among the most preeminent and influential scientists of his time, and he added many 'bricks' to the foundations of modern geology, biology, and paleontology. He was a huge influence on the young Owen and Owen's entire cohort of young English, European, and American scientists. Cuvier's work set the stage upon which the next generation would articulate the theory of evolution, and where a modern perspective on the history of Nature first emerged. One of Cuvier's most massive contributions was his work on extinction.

Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand contains detailed accounts of the bones of many of the first extinct birds to come to the attention of western naturalists, along with the circumstances surrounding their discovery. The bones described and illustrated here were sent to Owen at the British Museum from all over the world. The bulk of this work is dedicated to exhaustive description and magnificent illustration of the skeletons and individual bones, establishing each of many different kinds of extinct birds as a thoroughly documented fact of the fossil record.

Throughout these works, and in many of his other writings, Owen examined the causes and ramifications of the extinction of birds on several of the world's islands, and helped us to apprehend the meaning of extinction as we know it today. What is so remarkable is how correctly Owen perceived the causes. In a textbook on paleontology published in 18602, he described the phenomenon this way:

"That species, or forms so recognized by their distinctive characters and the power of propagating them, have ceased to exist, and have successively passed away, is a fact no longer questioned. That they have been exterminated by exceptional cataclysmic changes of the earth's surface has not been proved. That their limitations in time, in some instances or in some measure, may be due to constitutional changes accumulating by slow degrees in the long course of generations, is possible. But all hitherto observed causes of extirpation point either to continuous slowly operating geological changes, or to no greater sudden cause than the, so to speak, spectral appearance of mankind on a limited tract of land not before inhabited."

The natural phenomenon of extinction was established at the end of the 18th Century, and by the first half of the 19th century Owen recognized humans as its vector. More recently, asteroids and meteorites have appeared as a possible source of cataclysmic changes to the earth's surface. But the actual biological effects of impacts are hotly debated and their role in extinctions has not yet been proved. Even the asteroid impact at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, now well documented in itself, remains very difficult to interpret biologically in light of a concurrent and far more protracted episode of volcanic activity that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous. This event, which lasted more than a half-million years, was one of the two greatest episodes of volcanism in Earth history and teasing apart the relative influences of these phenomena, locally and globally, is an unfinished challenge1.

Owen was part of a larger community of scientists reporting on the specter of extinction in the wake of human dispersal, and the declining diversity of birds in particular. This group had a loud voice that was heard in the highest levels of government and society, and public recognition of the phenomenon of extinction catalyzed assembly of the first great natural history collections. This was the time when the first major museums were built to hold the scientific evidence from which an objective view of this deep history was emerging. But the implications of extinction were not fully felt in the scientific and environmental communities for another century, when scientists began to appraise biodiversity to be in a state of crisis3. In works such as this, the portent of extinction can be traced through more than two centuries of scientific understanding. But its full portent wasn't recognized in Owen's generation, at a time when there were only about a billion people alive4. Today, with just over 6 billion people covering the Earth, the chain of cause and effect Owen documented and described on islands has begun to manifest among continental birds, and scientists have begun a race to document today's biota before it perishes3.

 

Richard Owen and the Moas

In 1839 Owen published a short but seminal work5 establishing that giant birds similar to the Ostrich and Emu once lived on New Zealand, and that they were probably extinct. This paper is included in the present work and forms the foundation for all the rest, so it seems fitting to recount the larger story that has grown out of it. Part of this story derives from the introduction that Owen added in 1879 when the two-volume collection was published, and part has emerged from a century of subsequent research on extinct birds1.

Early tales had been told in New Zealand of gigantic birds that might still survive in remote areas never trodden by man. Traditions among the elder natives held that birds covered with 'hair' alternatively known as Atuas or Moas, had waylaid forest travelers, overpowering them before killing and devouring them. But no such birds had ever been seen there by Europeans.

Owen produced the first meager evidence that this wasn't just a myth. It consisted of only the broken shaft of a thigh bone (Figure 4) that was brought to him from New Zealand by an individual who had acquired it from a native who told him that it was the bone of a great Eagle. With this mere crumb of evidence, Owen performed a feat of scientific deduction that astonished the world and catapulted him into the limelight. He wrote, "So far as my skill in interpreting an osseous fragment may be credited, I am willing to risk the reputation for it on the statement that there has existed, if there does not now exist, in New Zealand, a struthious bird nearly, if not quite, equal in size to the Ostrich, belonging to a heavier and more sluggish species."5 From a mere scrap of bone, he reconstructed the whole animal, although he was roundly criticized by other scientists who found such a leap of faith outrageous.

Figure 4.  The first fragment of a Moa bone that was brought to Owen from New Zealand.  From this scrap, he deduced that extinct struthious birds once lived in New Zealand.  (see Plate 73)
Figure 4. The first fragment of a Moa bone that was brought to Owen from New Zealand. From this scrap, he deduced that extinct struthious birds once lived in New Zealand. (see Plate 73)

 

The bone had been brought for sale at a cost of 10 guineas to the College of Royal Surgeons, where Owen's career began. The College's Museum Committee declined to buy the specimen despite Owen's pleas, but Owen persuaded a donor to purchase it for another natural history collection, so that it could be properly studied and published upon. In a paper that had met strong editorial resistance, Owen announced the discovery of a giant extinct New Zealand bird5. But his critics demanded more substantial proof.

Recounting the story forty years later, in the introduction he added to the present work, Owen had 100 extra copies of his article "distributed in every quarter of the islands of New Zealand where attention to such evidences was likely to be attracted."5 In 1843, he received two shipments of bones in response. Pictured first in his mind's eye, Owen finally beheld the bones whose existence he had predicted. They became the type specimen of Dinornis struthoides, and Owen launched a series of papers on the extinct birds of New Zealand. As additional specimens arrived, he described more than a dozen species of extinct Moas. Many years later, having risen to the Directorship of the British Museum (Natural History), Owen obtained the original scrap of Moa bone for the national collections. As he prepeared his collections of papers on the extinct Moas for re-publication in 1879, Owen posed for a photograph (Figure 4) that became one of the most famous of the 19th Century. In his right hand he holds that first fragment of a Moa femur, while his left hand rests on the femur of a complete skeleton that towers over him.

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Figure 5.  Richard Owen in 1878, holding the first fragment of a moa in his right hand, with his left hand on the corresponding part of a complete skeleton.
Figure 5. Richard Owen in 1878, holding the first fragment of a moa in his right hand, with his left hand on the corresponding part of a complete skeleton.

 

Even in 1843, New Zealand was largely unexplored by competent naturalists. It took several years to determine that all the Moas were in fact extinct. As the European population there grew, it became impossible to deny that they were gone. But evidently, they hadn't been gone long. In 1878 a dried head with neck, legs, and skin with ligaments and feathers attached was found in a cave. These were purchased by Owen for the British Museum and became the type specimens of his new species Megalapteryx didinus. The feathers are described as very hair-like, some grayish-brown, some with a rust tinge and others tipped in white. Several other pieces of mummified carcasses have been found since then1.

Fossil Moas as old as the Miocene or Pliocene have now been recovered, but the tectonic history of New Zealand suggests that their flightless ancestors may have rafted away on the island as far back as the Cretaceous. How the Moas reached New Zealand is still an unsolved mystery. But however they got there, long before the arrival of humans, Moas had adaptively radiated on both islands of New Zealand. It has been argued that some species became extinct as the climate changed from being drier to much more rainy at the end of the Pleistocene. But there is much evidence that human hunters encountered the last of New Zealand's Moas during the Holocene1.

Before human habitation, there were approximately thirteen Moa species, ranging from the size of a turkey to the tallest bird known--a towering twelve feet (3.6 meters)7. This is far more diversified than any living ratite lineage. The adaptive radiation of Moas covered both islands of New Zealand, and the birds were abundant when the Maoris first landed on the North Island about 1000 years ago.

Moa flesh may be what convinced the Maoris to stay. Recent dating methods and finely calibrated chronological studies of the sites have enabled us to reconstruct a detailed crime scene. At numerous archaeological sites, Moa bones have been found with Maori kitchen refuse, along with bones of domestic dogs that were brought from their home to the north in Polynesia. Fires set by the Maoris in the grasses and brush near the beaches destroyed Moa breeding colonies, and other evidence suggests heavy human predation on these birds. The Maoris hunted the Moas for food and killed them in great numbers, leaving their butchered bones scattered all over New Zealand. The killing of large numbers of birds began around 1100 A. D., and over the next two hundred years, the diet of Maoris must have consisted predominantly of Moas. The hunting sites slowly spread to the South Island, where the last were extirpated. Seeds, twigs, and other stomach contents preserved in one moa carcass provided a radiocarbon date of about 1330 A.D. for the Moa's last meal1.

How much later they survived is unclear. The colonization of New Zealand began in the decades following the visit by Captain James Cook in 1769. There are reports by Europeans claiming to have seen live Moas, but these are unverified. There are also some claims of butcher marks on moa bones that appear to have been made with iron blades. Although hard to substantiate, this could represent evidence that Europeans were among the last humans to dine on Moas.

Maori traditions recall the Moa as resembling a Cassowary, with a brightly colored neck and a comb on its head. The skulls of at least three different Moa species preserve evidence of a crest, which was probably a sexual characteristic like the crests and wattles in their living relatives. Also recalled is that the female incubated the nest while the male supplied her with food8.

In 1844, Robert Fitzroy, former Captain of Darwin's famous voyage on the Beagle and then governor of New Zealand, interviewed an elder Maori named Kawane Paipai. He claimed to have taken part in a moa hunt. Fitzroy's account was later published by extinct bird chronicler Errol Fuller: "He remembered the birds being hounded, encircled and then speared to death, sometimes with weapons designed to snap easily once the body was stuck. Trapped Moas defended themselves vigorously with terrible blows from their feet but while administering these, the monstrous bipeds were forced temporarily to support their weight on one leg. A party of hunters would launch a frontal attack - a feint - while another crept behind waiting for the moment when the Moa raised a leg; then the party attacking from the rear would strike, knocking away the supporting leg. Once down, the victim was either dispatched immediately or such grievous wounds were inflicted that the final outcome was no more in doubt."8

From the moment of this first discovery of the extinct Moa, Owen's interest in extinction was captured for life. Throughout his career, he discovered and described extinct birds of the islands of the world. Following his discoveries on New Zealand were discoveries of extinct birds from England, Australia, Newfoundland, Rodriguez, and Mauritius. The works re-published herein include the definitive morphological accounts of the infamous Dodo and the Great Auk. In reporting on the Great Auk, Owen knew the bird to be declining, but in all likelihood it was already extinct by the time he published his description9. These volumes also include his remarkable description of Notornis, a bird first discovered as fossil remains included among the Moa skeletons sent to him from New Zealand. A few years later, Notornis was discovered still to be alive, in a small population, by seamen hunting seals on the shores of Dusky Bay in the southwest angle of the South Island of New Zealand. It remains one of the rare examples of a species resurrected to life from the (apparent) state of extinction.

Since Owen began to publish on extinct birds, a huge and ominous record of evidence linking humans to catastrophic loss of bird species has accumulated in different parts of the world12-14. One estimate suggests that, on average, one species became extinct every 83 years in the early days of the Holocene3. The rate of loss increased so that by the time the Dodo died out, one species became extinct every four years, on average13. At least 92 species of birds have become extinct since the Dodo13, and the toll for this interval will probably rise as zooarcheologists study the remains of human habitation in Holocene sediments14. The most recent studies of threatened and endangered birds suggest that by the end of this century, one species will become extinct every six months3. Although human history did not begin this way, what E. O. Wilson calls a "tragic symmetry" arose in the Holocene, between the growth of human populations and the loss of biodiversity3. Owen first opened our eyes to this tragedy.

 

About Sir Richard Owen

Owen met Cuvier when the great French naturalist sojourned across England in 1830 and visited Owen in his first place of employment at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons. Cuvier did not speak English, but Owen spoke French fluently and the first meeting was a success10. At Cuvier's invitation, Owen then visited Paris in 1831 the year before Cuvier's death. Eventually Owen was revered by some as "England's Cuvier." Such accolades are often just silly, but in this case it seems especially apt in describing a multitude of parallel accomplishments. Owen and Cuvier both advanced the intellectual capital of natural history in historic dimensions, and they both succeeded in assembling bricks-and-mortar into great national museums. Cuvier profoundly influenced Owen's scientific views, aiming him toward many of the specific issues and enterprises that would occupy his career. Owen was perhaps the first naturalist to spend an entire lifetime scientifically pursuing the phenomenon of extinction. Cuvier also built a great skeleton collection and museum at the Jardin des Plantes, while Owen built what would become the second great natural history museum and fossil collection of the world, something he accomplished during the second half of his career.

Richard Owen contributed very substantially to medicine and to the policy and infrastructure of public health in Victorian England10. He was paleontologist to the stars of his day, to England's political leaders and the social elite. In Owen's hands, fossils became the center of great popular events but they also provided rationale for the founding of some of England's most important institutions and the dedication of major public funding to these institutions. From start to finish, Owen held close the question of extinction, steadily documenting the evidence pertaining to its patterns and timings, to the geography of extinction, its historic and prehistoric contexts, and the likely causes in the different settings.

Owen is most popularly known for having coined and first said aloud the name "Dinosauria" in 1841, and for publishing it in 184211 as he established the identity of a family of great extinct reptiles of the Mesozoic. Later, he invented dinosaurs in their popular modern sense as he reconstructed stupendous life-sized flesh-and-blood reconstructions of dinosaurs in concrete, launching paleontology into the center of spectacular social events of the day. He was also the first to mistakenly assert that dinosaurs are extinct, denying that birds could have evolved from his Mesozoic monsters. Owen's scientific reputation was global, and he was even cartooned on the front page of Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the newspapers of the day. "Old Bones" was his nickname. With his personal charisma and notoriety, and with great scientific issues and their contemporary relevance as his platform, he founded England's Natural History Museum, which was instantly and has remained one of the world's greatest museums.

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Figure 6: Richard Owen,
Figure 6: Richard Owen, "Old Bones," on the cover of Vanity Fair.

 

Richard Owen remains well-known among naturalists and scientists today, but mostly for his opposition to Charles Darwin (Figure 7) and for fighting against the community of scientists who first embraced what has become Darwinian evolution1. History's judgment is often hasty, and a closer reading of Owen's work reveals that he was an evolutionist of a sort. In the present volumes, Owen acknowledges that the Dodo's ancestors must have flown to Mauritius, and he correctly identified the Kiwi (Apteryx) as the closest living kin of the extinct Moas. But he never explicitly admitted to the larger picture, that all species are related and repudiated the Darwinian doctrine that was emerging around him in London's scientific community. But by engaging the Darwinians forcefully, by documenting extinction so thoroughly, Owen helped to inspire the brilliance of Darwin and colleagues like Thomas Huxley (Figure 8), who together articulated what became central tenants of modern biology.

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Figure 7.  Charles Darwin, first a friend and then a bitter rival of Richard Owen.
Figure 7. Charles Darwin, first a friend and then a bitter rival of Richard Owen.

 

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Figure 8.  Thomas Huxley, a bitter rival of Richard Owen and a great champion of Charles Darwin, holding a fossil bone.
Figure 8. Thomas Huxley, a bitter rival of Richard Owen and a great champion of Charles Darwin, holding a fossil bone.

 

Darwin and Owen knew each other socially and were collaborators in their early career, when Owen published on some of the fossils collected in Argentina during Darwin's historic voyage on the H. M S. Beagle. But they ended their careers as bitter political rivals. While Darwin's ascendancy overshadowed Owen entirely in the minds of some writers, a more critical look shows that much of Owen's world-view remains central to modern biology. Extinction and the affinities of the extinct, the morphological issue of homology, were career-topics for Owen and they remain powerful scientific issues today. The institutions that he served and founded in his long career, that embodied many of his ideas and ideals, are still powerful scientific enterprises.

 

About this Book

Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand is a rare and valuable book whose inaccessibility almost carried it into a sort of extinction of its own. It is a collection of separate manuscripts on extinct birds of the islands of the world, written and published over four decades of scholarship. At the age of 75, Owen himself assembled these individual works into this collection, which he republished, complete with illustrations, in two volumes in 1879. He included an introduction that, in six short pages, conveys a breathtaking panorama of Victorian discovery. Also included are two photographs never before published. One of the photographs, Owen standing next to the Moa (Figure 4), is perhaps the most powerful natural history photograph of the 19th century. The second photograph is a colored picture of the egg of the Great Auk. It seems likely that the second photograph in fact came from Owen himself, but it was not bound with the other illustrations, as was the first photograph, and it is not indexed in Owen's tables of contents. Possibly it was inserted between the pages by someone who owned or sold these volumes before they arrived at the University of Texas. Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand remains one of the most definitive and masterful series of reports on the extinction of species across a diverse group of organisms. It remains virtually unique in reflecting an entire career of discovery and thought on the matter.

Volume I includes the text of 41 papers that describe and interpret nearly as many species of extinct island birds, including the infamous Dodo, the Great Auk, and an entire evolutionary radiation of Moas on the islands of New Zealand. Volume II reproduces nearly 200 sketches, lithographs, and two photographs, mostly of the fossils. The illustrations are mostly by the master engraver and lithographer James Erxleben, and this collection reflects a standard of excellence in scientific illustration rarely matched, or exceeded in its sheer volume in a single work.

The rare copy of Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand that was used in this project survives today in the Walter Geology Library at The University of Texas at Austin. The work has been digitized at a very high standard. We disbound the two volumes to facilitate conversion. We performed full optical character recognition to provide fully searchable text, and high resolution scans of the exquisite imagery that accompanies the work. The Web is still young, and already concerns are mounting that the first generation of quick-and-dirty digital conversions (especially of imagery) which many digital libraries serve today will be regarded as mere palimpsests 20 years from now. An important goal to us was the development of protocols for the highest possible fidelity in digital conversion, within our means for this project, in the aspiration that these volumes will never have to be re-scanned. Scanning was done with an overhead DigiBook scanner; text pages were registered in 400 dpi resolution, while plates were done in 800 dpi. Document analysis of the electronic text (tagging, encoding, and metadata creation) was done with the "METAe engine", also known as "DocWorks". All work was done in-house.

This project was conceived, managed, and produced by members of the rich community of informatics experts in the University of Texas Libraries. Uri Kolodney, Digitization Manager, and Dennis Trombatore, Librarian at the Walter Library, led the project. It would not have been completed successfully without the hard work of a team of student technicians at the Libraries Digitization Center, and especially Amy Baker, Graduate Research Assistant who managed the hands-on parts of the project. Programming was by Minnie Rangel. We thank to the Geology Foundation of the University of Texas for its generous sponsorship of this project.

 

Bibliography

1) Dingus, L., and T. Rowe. 1998. The Mistaken Extinction - Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds. New York, W. H. Freeman & Co., 322 pp.

2) Owen, R. 1860. Palaeontology, or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, page 399.

3) Wilson, E. O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, Belknap Press; Quammen, D. 1996. The Song of the Dodo. New York, Schribner; Menard, H. W. 1986. Islands. New York, Scientific American Library.

4) Cohen, J., 1995a. How many people can the Earth support? New York, W. W. Norton & Co; Cohen, J., 1995b. Population growth and Earth's human carrying capacity. Science 269: 341-346.

5) Owen, R., 1839. Exhibited bone of an unknown struthious bird from New Zealand. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 7:169-171.

6) Owen, R. 1879. Preface to Memoirs on the extinct wingless birds of New Zealand, with an appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez. London, John van Voorst, two volumes.

7) Cracraft, J. 1976. The species of moas (Aves: Dinornithidae). Pp. 189-205, in: S. L. Olson (ed.), Collected papers in avian paleontology honoring the 90th birthday of Alexander Wetmore. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 27.

8) Fuller, E. 1987. Extinct Birds. London, Viking/Rainbird.

9) Lucas, F. A., 1888. The expedition to Funk Island, with observations upon the history and anatomy of the Great Auk. Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1888: 493-529.

10) Owen, R. 1894. The Life of Richard Owen. London, John Murray, 2 volumes.

11) Owen, R., 1842. Report on British Fossil Reptiles, 1841. Report of the Eleventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Plymouth in July, 1841: 60-204.

12) Strickland, H. E., and A. G. Melville, 1848. The Dodo and its kindred. London, Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, page 10.

13) Greenway, J. C. 1967. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. Second revised edition. New York, Dover.

14) Steadman, D. W. 1995. Prehistoric extinctions of Pacific island birds: biodiversity meets zooarchaeology. Science 267:1123-1131.