Ancient DNA Confirms Giant Flightless New Zealand Moa are Closely Related to South American Tinamous

Ancient DNA Confirms Giant Flightless New Zealand Moa are Closely Related to South American Tinamous

Ancient DNA extracted from the bones of an extinct ratite illustrates how species that look similar may not be closely related

Giant moa next to a small tinamou(Toronto, May 13, 2014): ROM researchers successfully extracted ancient DNA from extinct giant New Zealand moa birds bones suggesting that they likely evolved  from a small flying ancestor that flew to present day New Zealand and South America. This surprising finding, reported in the science journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, shows that although the large flightless Emu of Australia is geographically close and have somewhat similar shape, they are not the closest relatives of New Zealand moa.

The research presented in the article “Genomic support for moa-tinamou clade and adaptive morphological convergence in flightless ratites” gives further evidence that flightless birds, known as ratites (such as ostrich, emu, cassowary, rheas and kiwi) who share similar morphological characteristics as a result of convergent adaptations to a cursorial lifestyle and their environment.

“The debate surrounding the evolutionary relationships of the moa now has massive DNA support from which to draw conclusions” said Dr. Allan Baker, ROM Senior Curator of Ornithology.  “The ancient DNA samples, taken from moa specimens in the ROM's collections, enable us to conduct this research.  The results also show how difficult it can be to determine evolutionary relationships among species by looking at how similar they are in shape and size."

Dr. Allan Baker standing next to  a giant moa skeletonThe South American tinamou, which can fly, were not grouped with in the flightless ratites but rather considered as close relatives according to the shared structure of their palate bones.  To help clarify the evolutionary  avian tree of life of  the moa  the ROMs’ Dr. Allan J. Baker,  Senior Curator of Ornithology and Head, Department of Natural History, and his team consisting of ancient DNA expert Oliver Haddrath, Technician (Ornithology); John McPherson, Ontario Institute of Cancer Research in Toronto and Alison Cloutier, Postdoctoral Fellow, U of T,  assembled the largest dataset of 1 million base pairs of DNA sequence from flightless birds and tinamou for comparison from 1448 genetic loci and eight corroborating rare genomic events.

To obtain DNA of the moa they utilized ancient DNA from the bone of an extinct little bush moa.  Conducted in the clean-room DNA lab at the ROM, the team was able to obtain a small sample of DNA that they were successfully able to replicate to a suitable sample size for analysis.

Oliver Haddrath extracting DNA in a clean room.
To read more about the moa andtinamou connection and the work involved by the team who conducted the DNA research see the ROMblog