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Researchers from Landcare Research and Adelaide University in Australia have managed to extract ancient DNA from feathers belonging to four species of the extinct moa. The prehistoric feathers, believed to be at least 2,500 years old, are part of fossil deposits found in caves and rock shelters from a variety of sites around New Zealand.

What did moa look like?

Moa were giant birds, measuring up to 2.5 metres and weighing 250 kilograms. They were the dominant animals in New Zealand’s pre-human environment. However, they were quickly exterminated after the arrival of the Māori around 700 years ago.

The scientists are using the DNA to reconstruct the appearance of 4 species of moa, the stout-legged moa, the heavy-footed moa, the upland moa and the South Island giant moa. So far, the scientists have successfully analysed the DNA to match the feathers to particular species and determine the colour of the extinct birds. Until now, people hadn’t really known exactly how the different species of moa looked.

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 means that it might be possible to study the DNA of other extinct species preserved in museum bird skin collections by removing a very small segment of feather and causing almost no damage to the specimens.

Mostly drab coloured feathers

One of the surprising findings 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.

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 being eaten by the extinct giant Haast's eagle, the largest and most powerful eagle in the world.

The New Zealander who directs the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, Professor Alan Cooper, says that it may be possible to reconstruct the appearance of other extinct birds using feathers from fossil deposits.

There are so many enigmatic extinct species that it would be great to see ‘clothed'

Professor Alan Cooper

 

Find out more about extracting ancient DNA.

    Published 14 September 2009 Referencing Hub articles