Scientists 'rebuild' giant moa using ancient DNA

July 1, 2009

( -- Scientists have performed the first DNA-based reconstruction of the giant extinct moa bird, using prehistoric feathers recovered from caves and rock shelters in New Zealand.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide and Landcare Research in New Zealand have identified four different moa species after retrieving from moa believed to be at least 2500 years old.

The giant birds - measuring up to 2.5 metres and weighing 250 kilograms - were the dominant animals in New Zealand’s pre-human environment but were quickly exterminated after the arrival of the Maori around 1280AD.

PhD student Nicolas Rawlence from the University’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA says until now, the scientific community has not known what the 10 different species of moa looked like. ”By using ancient DNA we have been able to connect feathers to four different moa species,” he says.

The researchers compared the feathers to others found in the sediments from red-crowned parakeets that are still living today, determining they had not faded or changed in colour. They then reconstructed the appearance of the stout-legged moa, heavy-footed moa, upland moa and the South Island giant moa.

Their findings were published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B.

“The surprising thing is that while many of the species had a similar, relatively plain brown plumage for camouflage, some had white-tipped feathers to create a speckled appearance,” Mr Rawlence says.

A co-author of the study, Dr Jamie Wood from Landcare Research, says it is likely that the drab colouring was driven by selection to avoid predation by the extinct Haast’s eagle, the largest and most powerful eagle in the world.

The research team also demonstrated that it is possible to retrieve DNA from all parts of the ancient feathers, not just the tip of the quill, as previously thought.

“This important finding opens the way to study DNA from museum bird skins while causing almost no damage to these valuable specimens, just by clipping a small part of a single feather,” says Dr Kyle Armstrong from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD).

ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper says this finding suggests it may be possible to reconstruct the appearance of other extinct birds using feathers from fossil deposits.

“There are so many enigmatic that it would be great to see ‘clothed’," Professor Cooper says.

Provided by University of Adelaide (news : web)

Explore further: Tuatara, the fastest evolving animal

Related Stories

Tuatara, the fastest evolving animal

March 20, 2008

In a study of New Zealand’s “living dinosaur” the tuatara, evolutionary biologist, and ancient DNA expert, Professor David Lambert and his team from the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution recovered ...

Giant bird feces records pre-human New Zealand

January 12, 2009

( -- A treasure trove of information about pre-human New Zealand has been found in faeces from giant extinct birds, buried beneath the floor of caves and rock shelters for thousands of years.

Recommended for you

Genomes uncover life's early history

August 24, 2015

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms.

Rare nautilus sighted for the first time in three decades

August 25, 2015

In early August, biologist Peter Ward returned from the South Pacific with news that he encountered an old friend, one he hadn't seen in over three decades. The University of Washington professor had seen what he considers ...

Why a mutant rice called Big Grain1 yields such big grains

August 24, 2015

(—Rice is one of the most important staple crops grown by humans—very possibly the most important in history. With 4.3 billion inhabitants, Asia is home to 60 percent of the world's population, so it's unsurprising ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.7 / 5 (3) Jul 01, 2009
Let's rebuild them for real! I'll keep one instead of my geese. Nice to deter (or maim) burglars...
3 / 5 (2) Jul 01, 2009
One of those could take out an Airbus all on its own
1 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
Bring them back. It's alive, ITS ALIVE!!! Haha
not rated yet Jul 01, 2009
That thing totally looks like a dinosaur. You can practically see the darned thing evolving as you look at it.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009

Ha, ha, ha, Amy, my old buddy from college, I told you so!

What f****** great work!
5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
Cool. First thing I thought of when I got to the comments section... I misread "burglars" as "burgers". Yum.

Moa burgers, moa money.

Haw haw haw.
not rated yet Jul 01, 2009
Then bring back the dodo. Then Titanis walleri terror bird. I bet it shrieks.
not rated yet Jul 01, 2009
I second the motion to bring back the dodo. I'm a bit on the fence regarding any "terror birds", though...
not rated yet Jul 01, 2009
so how do they do the reconstruction? seems an important part of the article although i may have missed it, did i?
not rated yet Jul 02, 2009
Kudos to Svante Pääbo and the others at the Max Planck Institute for paving the way to large-scale retrieval of ancient DNA. I assume the teams at Australian Centre for Ancient DNA have collaborated extensively with the Germans to achieve this result.
not rated yet Jul 04, 2009
In this article it is stated that The Giant Moa species measured up to 2.5 meters. In reality, the largest of the species could reach the hight of 3.6 meters (12 feet). For more information on the Giant Moas, check out Wikipedia's entry: http://en.wikiped...Dinornis
not rated yet Jul 04, 2009
Let's clone Hitler, Sadam and Stalin and Ceausescu and SmallPot.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.