Reconstructed DNA of ancient bird could change how scientists study extinct species: Report

The flightless bird went extinct 700 years ago.

May 23, 2024, 2:04 PM

The reconstructed DNA of a New Zealand bird that went extinct about 700 years ago could change what we know about lost species and increase the potential of reviving them, scientists said.

Using a fossil bone recovered from the little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis), a flightless bird that was hunted to extinction by island inhabitants who considered the species a delicacy, researchers were able to assemble a complete mitochondrial genome and the first-ever nuclear genome for the species, according to a paper published Thursday in the Science Advances.

PHOTO: Annotations made by evolutionary biologist Scott Edwards show how the bush moa compares to other flightless birds, like the ostrich
Annotations made by evolutionary biologist Scott Edwards show how the bush moa compares to other flightless birds, like the ostrich.
Wren Lu

The little bush moa, a giant avian species closely related to other flightless birds like the emu and ostrich, once roamed the dense grassland and forested regions of New Zealand, Scott Edwards, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and author of the paper, told ABC News. Scientists were able to reconstruct its genome by sequencing the ancient DNA and comparing it to a high-quality genome of the related emu.

Researchers have been finding bush moa fossils for centuries, Edwards said. In the past, researchers have analyzed the DNA of nine species of bush moa.

The new discovery allowed scientists to "really look in detail at an entire genome," or the entirety of the chromosomes, Edwards said. They were able to determine previously unknown details about the species, such as their likely population size and the facts that they had a decent sense of smell and eyes that could likely detect ultraviolet light, according to the paper.

The researchers also learned that the females were larger than the males, Edwards said.

PHOTO: Paleognath tree.
Paleognath tree.
Wren Lu

The reconstruction could potentially serve as a prerequisite for de-extinction of the species, or the process of reviving a species that was previously lost, Edwards said.

While de-extinction is an "exciting prospect," it must be pursued with care and sensitivity, he added.

"It seems within the realm of possibility. I think scientists will pursue it," he said. "The important thing is that they pursue it with care and understanding for the ethical and ecological consequences."

PHOTO: Ratites line.
Ratites line.
Wren Lu

Ambitious plans to bring back extinct species such as the dodo bird and woolly mammoth are currently being concocted.

Centuries ago, bush moas were among the world's largest birds. While some bush moa stood as tall as 11 feet, the little bush moa was measured at slightly larger than a turkey, Edwards said.

But after humans colonized New Zealand, bringing non-native species, such as Polynesian dogs, the species vanished. The bush moa also served as a food base for other species in New Zealand, such as the giant eagle, once the largest bird of prey in the world, which also went extinct, Edwards added.

"It's an example of how an ecosystem can decline once an important group is eliminated," he said.

PHOTO: A rendering of a bush moa.
A rendering of a bush moa.
Wren Lu

Many aspects of the moa biology remain a mystery, the researchers said. Additional genome assemblies from the species will enable further exploration into the genetic basic of traits.

"Hopefully our study will inspire others to look in more detail at moa bones and DNA," Edwards said.

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