Kiwi tales



Steve and a kiwi

The blogging has been a bit sparse of late, but we’re recovering from a long trip to New Zealand to visit family (and squeezing in a few hours chatting to some colleagues in the Auckland Uni….) We were half a world from the storms that are blasting northern Europe this winter and amid the sunshine gorged ourselves on the touristy stuff that always seems so boring and expensive at home!

We visited Rainbow Springs in Rotorua which, among lots of things to keep the kids happy, had a nicely laid out kiwi conservation facility. New Zealanders feel very attached, and protective, towards the different species of kiwi that struggle to exist in modern New Zealand. Some of this affection comes from the Maori traditions that tell how the kiwi has a special place in the forest environment.

Two stories

The traditional Maori story of how the kiwi came about is that the Ruler of the Forest, Tane, noticed that his domain was overrun by insects during the summer. He asked the colourful birds of the forest to consider coming down from the trees to help, but only the kiwi agreed. It’s colourful feathers became the colour of the earth, because it was now ground-based it lost its wings, and it ‘s beak changed into a long probe to hunt at night for insects. It’s because of the kiwi’s sacrifice that the Maoris hold it in high regard. Nice story, but it still fits the observable facts at the time, and was no doubt crafted by Maori storytellers around the fireside over years until it was generally accepted as in some way truth (or maybe fact).

The modern evolutionary story not nearly so clear cut. The kiwis are genetically related to the Australian emus, but the absence of kiwi fossils means that the evolutionary story is not yet set. It could be that the kiwi’s ancestors flew over to New Zealand from Australia.  Even with these pieces, the story is being crafted to fit the modern observable facts, and will be refined over the years by the publication process until it becomes accepted as in some way truth (or fact).

What’s my point?

Before I get there, I need to point out that we have two kiwi tales, separated by hundreds of years and technological advances, both explain the observable facts and both are refined by circulation and re-telling – call it peer review if you want. In a thousand years will the evolutionary story be seen the same way as we see the Maori legend? While modern man has more observations at his disposal, we need to be very careful about falling into the trap that of thinking that we have ‘reached reality’.

And so – drumroll please – this is what makes science so exciting. The exploring will never be over and there’s a new story just round the corner!

Oh, and by-the-way the picture above is a stuffed kiwi in a glass case! The real ones are far too sensitive (and sensible) to pose like that…unlike me!


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