Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 18, 1885
This text is also available in PDF
(675 KB) Opens in new window
– 78 –

Art. X.—Notes on a Skeleton of Notornis, recently acquired by the Otago University Museum.

[Read before the Otago Institute, 11th August, 1885.]

Some months since I was informed by Mr. Edward Melland that the skeleton of a Takahe had been found on his station, near Lake Te Anau, by Mr. Richard Henry, who, having a strong taste for natural history, had recognised the bones and carefully collected them.

The specimens were forwarded to Dunedin, and Mr. Melland was good enough to bring them to the Museum for my inspection. As the more important bones were present, and in very good preservation, I was glad to be able to purchase them, and thus to make a very important addition to the collection of native birds.

As is well known, the only recent remains of Notornis hitherto obtained are the two stuffed specimens in the British

– 79 –

Museum, procured by Mr. W. Mantell in 1849, and the skin and skeleton of a bird caught alive near Lake Te Anau in 1879. I had the honour of exhibiting the two latter at a meeting of this Institute on 6th April, 1881, and, at a subsequent meeting, of reading a paper on the skeleton.* Both skin and skeleton were sent to England for sale, and were purchased by the authorities of the Dresden Museum for £110.

Besides the above-mentioned specimens, the only remains of Notornis of which I am aware are the fossil bones in the British Museum, upon which the genus was founded by Owen.

The Te Anau specimen of 1879 naturally attracted a good deal of attention in Europe. It was exhibited by Professor Newton at a meeting of the Zoological Society, on 17th January, 1882, and subsequently furnished the subject of a paper by the first describer of the genus, Professor (now Sir Richard) Owen. After its purchase for the Dresden Museum, the skeleton was briefly described by the Director, Dr. A. B. Meyer, his account being accompanied by a series of measurements, and by four beautifully executed autotypes.§§ The latter, I have had framed for exhibition in this Museum, and am thus enabled to exhibit them to-night for comparison with the actual skeleton.

The bones which form the subject of the present communication were found, (as stated by Mr. Henry in a letter to Mr. Melland,) in a small patch of scrub, about half a mile to the east of Patience Bay—the southernmost arm of Lake Te Anau. The surrounding district consists of low-lying fern and tussock country, and the patch of scrub in which the bones were found contains a few mapau (Pittosporum tenuifolium) and “lawyer” (Rubus australis) bushes; some miko-miko (Aristotelia racemosa) and manuka (Leptospermum scoparium and L. ericoides), and an acre or two of rushes (Juncus, various species). Within a hundred yards of the scrub a small creek arises, and discharges into the lake. The pelvis, vertebræ, etc., all lay on an area not larger than a sheet of writing paper, but one of the leg bones was found thirty feet away, quite outside the scrub, and other bones six feet from the main heap. One would imagine that rats caused this dispersal of the bones, and the consequent incompleteness of the skeleton.

Mr. Henry also states that the skeleton of 1879 was found at the edge of a patch of bush, about 200 acres in extent (locally known as the “Wilderness”), situated immediately to the north

[Footnote] * “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. xiv. (1881), pp. 245, 561, and 562.

[Footnote] † “Extinct Birds of N.Z.”, pp. 173, 196, 199, and 436; and “Trans. Zool. Soc.,” iii., p. 366; iv., p. 12; viii., p. 119; and vii., pp. 369 and 373.

[Footnote] ‡ “Proceedings Zool. Soc.,” 1882, p. 97.

[Footnote] ∥ Ibid., p. 689.

[Footnote] § Abbildungen von Vogel-Skeletten, iv. and v. Lieferung. Dresden, 1883.

– 80 –

of the Mararoa river, about 3 ½ miles east of Whitestone river, a tributary of the Mararoa, and 9 miles south-east of the extreme south end of Lake Te Anau. The name, “Bare-patch,” applied by Dr. Buller to the locality,* does not seem to be in general use, since it is unknown both to Mr. Melland and to Mr. Henry, both of whom have known the district for several years.

The Dresden and Dunedin specimens of Notornis were there found, not more than 8 or 9 miles apart.

The skeleton, as it reached the Museum, consisted of the following bones:—

  • The skull and lower jaw.

  • The sternum.

  • The left coracoid and both scapulæ.

  • Both humeri.

  • The right ulna.

  • The coalesced 2nd and 3rd metacarpals of the left side.

  • The pelvis.

  • Both femora.

  • Both tibiæ

  • Both fibulæ (one broken).

  • Both tarso-metatarsi.

  • One of the proximal phalanges, probably that of the 3rd left toe.

  • Six cervical vertebræ.

  • Seven thoracic vertebræ.

  • Five ribs, more or less broken.

The skull is the most interesting part of the skeleton, since in the North Island fossil the brain-case and beak were separate, and both of them more or less broken, while in the Dunedin specimen the occiput was completely destroyed to allow of the removal of the brain. In the present specimen both quadrates and pterygoids are missing, and the left jugal arch is broken, but in other respects the skull is perfect.

The mandible is also quite perfect, and the strnum and pelvis nearly so. The right fibula is broken, only the proximal half being left, but the other limb bones are quite uninjured, as also are the scapulæ, the coracoid, and the vertebræ.

From an examination of the Dresden specimen, Meyer has concluded that the Notornis of the South Island, represented by the stuffed specimens in the British Museum and by the Dresden skin and skeleton, is specifically distinct from the North Island form, represented by the original fossil bones. As it was upon these latter that the species N. mantelli was founded, Meyer proposes to form a new species, N. hochstetteri, for the Southern form. The differences relied upon are in the proportions of the leg bones, which are as follows:—

N. hochstetteri. N. mantelli.
Femur 10.9 cm. 12.2 cm.
Tibia 16.5 " 200 "
Tarso-metatarsus 10.0 " 12.9 "

Judging from the minute differences of plumage, etc., which are considered to be of specific importance by ornithologists, one is disposed to concur in the formation of the new species,

[Footnote] * “Manual of the Birds of N.Z.,” p. 65.

– 81 –

however much one may regret the restriction of a well-established and widely-known name.

From the point of view of zoo-geography, it is decidedly interesting to find Notornis, like Orthonyx, Petœca, Turnagra, Glaucopis, Orydromus, and Apteryx, represented in the two Islands by distinct species.

On comparing the bones of the present specimen with the published figures of Owen and of Meyer, the only matters I consider to be worth mentioning are one or two points of difference in the skull.

In both the Dresden and Dunedin specimens the beak presents a somewhat stronger downward curvature than in Owen's specimen, and the nasal aperture is slightly smaller. A more obvious, although still comparatively unimportant, difference is seen in the relations of the well-marked ridges which bound the temporal fossæ above and behind. The distance between these ridges, or in other words the width of the flattened roof of the skull in the parietal region, is very markedly less in the Dresden and Dunedin specimens than in the North Island fossil figured by Owen, the proportion being about 2 : 3. In the latter, also, the ridge in question forms a very even curve, whereas in both the Te Anau skulls there is a distinct angulation at the junction of the supra-occipital and the parietal. This may be expressed differently, by saying that the temporal muscles are larger in N. hochstetteri than in N. mantelli: whether the difference is one of age or of sex it is of course impossible to say, but all three skulls appear to be fully adult. The distance between the temporal ridges, at the narrowest point, is 21.75 mm. in Owen's figure, 13.5 both in Meyer's figure and in the present specimen.

Whether an ornithologist would consider a difference of this nature of any importance I cannot say: as far as it goes, it tends to support Meyer's view of the distinctness of the Northern from the Southern Notornis.

In conclusion, I give a series of comparative measurements of the Dresden and Dunedin specimens. I may mention that certain discrepancies between the measurements of the Dresden skeleton, as given by Meyer and by myself in the paper referred to above, are due to the fact that Dr. Meyer has—no doubt, correctly—given in every case the greatest length of the bone, whereas I have given the length of a median longitudinal axis. This makes a great difference, especially in such bones as the sternum. In the following table the measurements are taken so as to compare exactly with Meyer's:—

Dunedin Specimen. Dresden Specimen.
Skull.—
Length from posterior surface of occipital condyle to end of beak 98 mm.
Greatest breadth 45 45 mm.
– 82 –
Humerus.—
Length 90 87.5
Breadth of head 21 23.5
" " condyles 15.5 18
Circumference of shaft 19.25 16
Ulna.—
Length 75 75.5
Breadth of proximal end 14 13.8
" " distal end 9 8.7
Metacarpals.—
Length 46.5 46
Femur.—
Length 109 109
Breadth of proximal end along axis of neck 25 27
Breadth of distal end 22.5 27
Circumference of middle of shaft 34 34
Tibia.—
Length 165 165
Breadth of proximal end 32 31
" " distal end 18.5 22
Circumference of shaft 29.5 29
Fibula.—
Length 108 112.5
Breadth of proximal end 11.5 12.2
Tarso-metatarsus.—
Length 98 100
Breadth of proximal end (transverse) 19.5 22
" " " " (antero-posterior) 21.5 24.3
" " distal end 21 23
" " shaft 10.2 10
Sternum.—
Greatest length 74 75.5
Length of median longitudinal axis 62* 66
Height of keel 9 8
Coracoid.—
Greatest length 47 43.5
Scapula.—
Length in a straight line 74 74.5
" along the curve 80 80
Breadth of middle 5 5
Pelvis.—
Greatest length 116 130
" width 54 55
Width of sacrum 23.5 23

[Footnote] * The middle ziphoid process is broken in this specimen.

Picture icon

To illustrate Paper by T. White. M.E.W. del.