The New Zealand musk duck is known from a small number of bones only, and is one of the rarest bird species in the Holocene fossil record. It and the extinct New Zealand blue-billed duck are the only members of the subfamily Oxyurinae (stiff-tailed ducks) ever reported from New Zealand. The rarity of New Zealand musk duck bones and its prehistoric extinction mean that almost nothing is known about it. We can only speculate that it shared many habits with its closest relative - the only other musk duck in the world - Biziura lobata of Australia. The New Zealand species was named after Dr. H. de Lautour of Oamaru who helped acquire fossils from Otago's Enfield swamp where the first New Zealand musk duck bone was found.
The New Zealand musk duck was a very large duck. The New Zealand species was about ten percent larger than its Australian cousin and, apart from being larger overall, had relatively large legs but relatively short wings. While it may have been evolving towards a more sedentary lifestyle, its skeletal proportions suggest that it could still fly. Presuming that it shared features with the Australian species, it would have had a distinctive appearance. The Australian species is a short-necked, thickset bird with a broad beak and a stiff tail. Musk ducks are unusual for having a large size difference between the sexes, the males emit a pungent musky smell in the breeding season, and they have a huge lobe that hangs below their bill. The Australian species is a mottled grey-brown colour, so the New Zealand species was probably fairly drab in colour also.
Distribution and habitat
Fossils of the New Zealand musk duck have been found at five sites only (representing at least nine individuals) spread throughout New Zealand. The species probably shared the habits of the closely related Australian species which is almost wholly aquatic, preferring deep, permanent wetlands, estuaries and sheltered coastal waters. During the breeding season the Australian species is thinly distributed in densely vegetated swamps but it sometimes forms flocks on open water bodies in the non-breeding season.
Rarity in the fossil record suggests that the New Zealand musk duck was largely confined to deep stable water bodies that are represented by few fossil sites in New Zealand. It may never have been common.
Threats and conservation
The New Zealand musk duck became extinct in prehistoric times, and so no records of live birds exist. One bone was found in a human food midden, and hunting for food by people is the most likely cause of its demise.
Nothing is known about the New Zealand musk duck's behaviour. The Australian musk duck makes a flimsy nest in dense vegetation. As for most ducks, incubation and parental care is by the female only, who also feeds the young. No other duck species is known to feed its young.
Behaviour and ecology
The Australian musk duck has elaborate displays, including bringing its spread tail forward to rest on its back while prominently displaying its throat lobe during courtship, and males are aggressively territorial. The New Zealand species may have shared these traits.
Nothing is known about the food of the New Zealand species, but the Australian musk duck dives for small freshwater animals.
Lalas, C.; Hamel, J.; Tennson, A.J.D.; Worthy, T.H. 2014. Southern extensions for Holocene records of Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and New Zealand musk duck (Biziuri delautouri) in New Zealand. Notornis 61: 106-108.
Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J. (eds). 1990. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds. Vol. 1, ratites to ducks. Melbourne,OxfordUniversity Press.
Tennyson, A.J.D.; Martinson, P. 2007 (revised edn). Extinct birds of New Zealand.Wellington, Te Papa Press.
Worthy, T.H. 2002. The New Zealand musk duck (Biziura delautouri Forbes, 1892). Notornis 49: 19-28.
Tennyson, A.J.D. 2013 [updated 2017]. New Zealand musk duck. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
New Zealand musk duck
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates