Scientists 'rebuild' giant moa using ancient DNA

Jul 01, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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)

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User comments : 12

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WilliamHeinz
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...
vivcollins
3 / 5 (2) Jul 01, 2009
One of those could take out an Airbus all on its own
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
Bring them back. It's alive, ITS ALIVE!!! Haha
gopher65
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.
docknowledge
1 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
YES!

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

What f****** great work!
dev2000
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.
otto1923
not rated yet Jul 01, 2009
Then bring back the dodo. Then Titanis walleri terror bird. I bet it shrieks.
PinkElephant
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...
poi
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?
Birger
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.
Rute
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
finitesolutions
not rated yet Jul 04, 2009
Let's clone Hitler, Sadam and Stalin and Ceausescu and SmallPot.