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. 2012;7(6):e40025.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040025. Epub 2012 Jun 29.

High-resolution Coproecology: Using Coprolites to Reconstruct the Habits and Habitats of New Zealand's Extinct Upland Moa (Megalapteryx Didinus)

Free PMC article

High-resolution Coproecology: Using Coprolites to Reconstruct the Habits and Habitats of New Zealand's Extinct Upland Moa (Megalapteryx Didinus)

Jamie R Wood et al. PLoS One. .
Free PMC article


Knowledge about the diet and ecology of extinct herbivores has important implications for understanding the evolution of plant defence structures, establishing the influences of herbivory on past plant community structure and composition, and identifying pollination and seed dispersal syndromes. The flightless ratite moa (Aves: Dinornithiformes) were New Zealand's largest herbivores prior to their extinction soon after initial human settlement. Here we contribute to the knowledge of moa diet and ecology by reporting the results of a multidisciplinary study of 35 coprolites from a subalpine cave (Euphrates Cave) on the South Island of New Zealand. Ancient DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating revealed the coprolites were deposited by the extinct upland moa (Megalapteryx didinus), and span from at least 6,368±31 until 694±30 (14)C years BP; the approximate time of their extinction. Using pollen, plant macrofossil, and ancient DNA analyses, we identified at least 67 plant taxa from the coprolites, including the first evidence that moa fed on the nectar-rich flowers of New Zealand flax (Phormium) and tree fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata). The plant assemblage from the coprolites reflects a highly-generalist feeding ecology for upland moa, including browsing and grazing across the full range of locally available habitats (spanning southern beech (Nothofagus) forest to tussock (Chionochloa) grassland). Intact seeds in the coprolites indicate that upland moa may have been important dispersal agents for several plant taxa. Plant taxa with putative anti-browse adaptations were also identified in the coprolites. Clusters of coprolites (based on pollen assemblages, moa haplotypes, and radiocarbon dates), probably reflect specimens deposited at the same time by individual birds, and reveal the necessity of suitably large sample sizes in coprolite studies to overcome potential biases in diet interpretation.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: JRW, JMW and SJW are employed by Landcare Research. There are no patents, products in development or marketed products to declare. This does not alter the authors’ adherence to all the PLoS ONE policies on sharing data and materials, as detailed online in the guide for authors.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Location and environment of Euphrates Cave.
(A) Main vegetation types near Euphrates Cave, South Island, New Zealand. Grids are 1 km2. (B) View north from eastern end of Garibaldi Plateau, showing Garibaldi Ridge, and the eastern buttress below the plateau. (C) Main entrance of Euphrates Cave at the base of the eastern buttress (note people for scale).
Figure 2
Figure 2. Pollen diagram for upland moa coprolites from Euphrates Cave.
Pollen assemblages are plotted with cluster analysis tree of coprolites based on pollen assemblages, calibrated ages of radiocarbon dated coprolites, and organic content. Colouring defines coprolites sharing highly similar pollen assemblages. Open circles represent presence at trace amounts (<2.5%). Black circles represent samples where there was insufficient sample to analyse organic content.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Ranked abundance of pollen/spore types in upland moa coprolites from Euphrates Cave vs. environmental prevalence index.
Ranked abundances are based on the summed percentages of each pollen taxon from all 35 coprolites (1 =  most abundant pollen/spore type, 45 =  least abundant pollen/spore type). Ground ferns, Lycopodium spp., and Anthoceros are not included as data used to calculate environmental prevalence index values were not provided for these taxa by . The null (cumulative frequency) distribution line represents the hypothetical distribution of the pollen taxa if their abundance in the coprolites was directly related to their environmental prevalence. Pollen taxa plotting above this line are overrepresented in coprolites relative to their environmental prevalence, suggesting they may have been directly eaten. Pollen taxa plotting below this line are underrepresented in the coprolites, suggesting they may have been eaten more rarely, or incidentally ingested. Circle colours reflect plant types: green, trees and shrubs; orange, dicot herbs; pink, lianes; purple, monocot herbs; blue, ferns; white, undeterminable.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Plant taxa detected in upland moa coprolites from Euphrates Cave using different proxies.
Plant taxa detected in eight upland moa coprolites from Euphrates Cave for which all 3 proxies (plant ancient DNA, macrofossils, pollen) were used.
Figure 5
Figure 5. Vegetation communities represented by plant taxa in upland moa coprolites from Euphrates Cave.
Occurrence of plant taxa identified in upland moa coprolites from Euphrates Cave within the nine major vegetation communities presently occurring near the cave (based on and authors observations). Single plant taxa can occur in multiple vegetation communities. Identified plant taxa are also grouped according to proxies with which they were detected (P, pollen; M, macrofossil, D, ancient DNA).

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