New Zealand claims back the Kiwi after ancient DNA testing

Almost 20 years ago, Alan Cooper from the Australian Centre of Ancient DNA found that the Kiwi might actually originate from Australia.

Given that the emu and cassowary are the Kiwis closest living relatives and that New Zealand split off from Australia when Gondwana broke up, this was a logical suggestion.

Alan Cooper is from New Zealand himself and says: “This was a huge psychological blow in New Zealand and extremely unpopular”.

Photo: Kyle Davis and Paul Scofield

Photo: Kyle Davis and Paul Scofield

A new paper published today in Science sets the record straight. Alan Cooper and his team have been able to analyse the ancient DNA of two extinct birds from Madagascar and have found the Kiwis to be their closest relatives.

The emu, cassowary, ostrich, rhea and kiwi are known as “ratite birds” they can’t fly because they have lost the bone that wing muscles can attach to. The fact that the DNA of the kiwi closely matches the DNA of the extinct elephant bird from Madagascar means that birds of kiwi lineage must have flown at some point to get from Madagascar.

The connection between these birds undermines the idea that ratites evolved from ancestors that didn’t fly.

“Twenty years later it’s great to be able to show using ancient DNA that the kiwi is not an Australian bird. In fact its closest relative is the elephant bird from Madagascar,” he says.

“The New Zealanders will be much more comfortable with that. It’s their worst nightmare to be a derivative of Australia.”

Find out more about this story and flightless birds in Kieren Mitchell and Alan Cooper’s Conversation article and also in New Scientist, Science News and ABC Science Online articles.

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