Ancient DNA reconstructs genome of extinct NZ native bird

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

Scientists have reconstructed the near-complete genome of the little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis), one of approximately 9 species of extinct flightless birds from Aotearoa, New Zealand.

They used ancient DNA recovered from a fossil bone from the South Island to assemble both a mitochondrial genome and nuclear genome of a male little bush moa.

Moas were once some of the world’s largest birds but went extinct following human settlement in the late 13th century, its thought due to overhunting and the introduction of non-native species.

Dr Gillian Gibb, a senior lecturer in zoology and ecology at Massey University in NZ, who was not involved in the research, says: “…it’s great to have this genomic resource published, from a specimen which has been in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto since the late 1990s.

Gibb says this study is an update on the draft little bush moa genome which was first published in 2019: “… so it is great to see a more in-depth analysis of this genome by itself”.

“Recovering the genome for species like the little bush moa is challenging because the amount of ancient DNA you can recover is quite small. In the case of moa, extra challenges exist because the closest living relative with a high-quality genome for comparison diverged about 70 million years ago.”

A. Didiformis would have been slightly larger than a turkey, with a population size the researchers estimate to be about 240,000 individuals.

Director of the University of Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory Nic Rawlence, who also was not involved in the research, says that moa are unique among birds that they had no wings at all.

“This genome had previously been used to show that the genetic blueprint for wing formation is correct (it works!) but that the instructions to tell the body when, where, and how much wing to make have been corrupted,” he says.

“The current study backs this up and provides further avenues for future research.”

The genome also shows that moa were able to see in the ultraviolet spectrum, which Rawlence says would have helped them find food. Moa also had sensitivity to bitter foods like other birds.

“I must also commend the authors for their due diligence in trying to determine where in the South Island the little bush moa bone that contained this taonga genome came from,” says Rawlence.

“This is important so appropriate kaitiaki (guardians) from iwi and rūnanga can be determined, to ensure tikanga (cultural practices) are followed for further use of this resource. I applaud the researchers for repatriating this genetic blueprint back to Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Rawlence says engagement with mana whenua (those with authority over the land) regarding ancient DNA research on New Zealand animals can be very positive: “…but it can also be challenging and ever evolving, let alone for the bones and skins of living and extinct species housed in overseas museums.

“This is a positive start for overseas-based researchers working with mana whenua into the future.”

The research is presented in a paper in the journal Science Advances.

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