Mr Moa now Doctor of Science

29 April 2011

Trevor Worthy

Calling Doctor Moa: Trevor Worthy will be conferred with a Doctor of Science from Waikato University at this year's May graduation.

The New Zealander known as ‘Mr Moa’ is being awarded a Doctor of Science at Waikato University’s graduation on Monday. Trevor Worthy is a palaeontologist, fossil-hunter and author who has been internationally acclaimed for the work he’s done on moa.

In its near 50-year history, Waikato University has conferred just ten Doctor of Science degrees. They are awarded for an original work of special excellence in a chosen field that has been published in a scholarly journal or book, work that must then be examined by a panel of judges.

“The published work usually represents the culmination of a life’s work,” says Professor Peter Kamp of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, who was an undergraduate student with Dr Worthy in the early 1970s, and more recently has jointly published research work with him.

Dr Worthy’s 2002 book The Lost World of the Moa, written with extinction biologist Dr Richard Holdaway, is considered to be the authoritative moa text book and Dr Worthy has also done extensive research into other birds and vertebrates including frogs, lizards, crocodiles, turtles and bats.

“Trevor has been responsible for the modern morphological and ecological analysis of moa bones," says Prof Kamp. “And more recently has combined with molecular biologists to establish the definitive understanding of the evolution of moa species from mitochondrial DNA sequences extracted from moa bones. His work underpins our understanding of the speciation of moa, an iconic element of New Zealand’s fossil fauna.”

Dr Worthy is currently a Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, moving to Australia in 2005 when his New Zealand research funding ran-out.

“My research has extended to the Pacific, looking at faunas lost since human arrival. New Zealand lost about 40 species after humans came, and my current research shows a similar trend in Fiji, New Caledonia and other Pacific islands. In Fiji and Niue, I have found the first fossils of several kinds of prehistoric birds.”

Dr Worthy became interested in fossils as a caver. In 2001, he was part of a team that began excavation of hugely important fossil deposits in Central Otago. These Otago deposits provide the only window on New Zealand land animals that lived between the time of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the ice ages about 1 million years ago. The work there continues.

“These internationally significant deposits of fossils of Miocene age reveal the animals that existed between 15 and 20 million years ago. We’ve got the evidence for some 35 kinds of birds, plus a dozen kinds of fish, skinks and geckoes, crocodiles, turtles, and several kinds of bats.” Dr Worthy is also doing similar research on Australia’s old fauna.

Dean of Science at Waikato Professor Bruce Clarkson was a student with Dr Worthy when he studied his bachelors and masters degrees at Waikato. “Trevor always had a passion for caving and bones and he’s gone on to be an outstanding researcher making an international name for himself piecing together how New Zealand ecosystems used to operate.”

Prof Clarkson says Dr Worthy has increased our understanding of the extent of change that’s taken place in New Zealand by finding out what used to live here.

“This kind of knowledge provides the context for us to better manage the future as we seek to establish and re-establish ecosystems.”

Prof Clarkson also says he got a real kick out of walking into Borders in New York and seeing The Lost World of the Moa sitting on a shelf. “It’s a door stop of a book, and I’m sure the publishers never imagined they’d have such a hit on their hands when they published it.”

Dr Worthy grew up in Broadwood, Northland and attended Whangarei Boys’ High School. After leaving Waikato University he worked as an independent researcher and completed a second masters degree, this time at Victoria University in Wellington. He did his PhD in palaeontology at Adelaide University. As well as receiving his Doctor of Science degree, Dr Worthy will be the guest speaker at the University of Waikato graduation ceremony on 2 May.