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Ancient DNA reveals extinct birds' true colors

AUSTRALIAN and New Zealand scientists have used prehistoric feathers to help map the color of giant extinct birds and said their method could help reconstruct the appearance of other extinct bird species.

The researchers retrieved ancient DNA from four species of New Zealand's extinct Moa from feathers believed to be at least 2,500 years old found in caves and rock shelters.

The native Moa - a flightless, powerfully built forager that stood over 2.5 meters tall and weighed 250 kilograms - ranged widely in southern New Zealand before the arrival of man.

With DNA analysis, scientists from New Zealand's Landcare Research and Australia's Adelaide University reconstructed the mainly plain brown plumage of the stout-legged Moa, heavy-footed Moa, upland Moa and South Island giant Moa.

"Some had white-tipped feathers to create a speckled appearance" that they used as camouflage, said researcher Nicolas Rawlence from Adelaide University's Australian Center for Ancient DNA.

The findings were published yesterday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

A co-author of the study, Jamie Wood of Landcare Research, said it is likely the Moa's drab color was to avoid predation by the extinct indigenous Haast's eagle, once the world's biggest and most powerful eagle.

Moa quickly became extinct after indigenous Maori settled in New Zealand about 1200AD.

The research showed it was possible to retrieve DNA from all parts of the ancient feathers, not just the tip of the quill as previously thought.

Professor Alan Cooper, director of the DNA center, said the findings suggest it may be possible to reconstruct the appearance of other extinct birds using feathers from fossil deposits.

"There are so many enigmatic extinct species that it would be great to see 'clothed'," Cooper said.


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