July 6, 2009

DNA reconstruction of extinct bird created

Australian and New Zealand scientists say they have completed the first DNA-based reconstruction of the giant extinct moa bird.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide and New Zealand's Landcare Research Ltd. said they used prehistoric feathers recovered from caves and rock shelters to identify four moa species after retrieving ancient DNA from the feathers believed to be at least 2,500 years old.

The giant birds -- measuring up to 8.2 feet and weighing 550 pounds -- were the dominant animals in New Zealand's pre-human environment, but died out after the arrival of the Maori about 1280 A.D.

Australian doctoral student Nicolas Rawlence said until the new study, scientists had 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 said.

The research team also demonstrated 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, said Kyle Armstrong of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B.