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Ancient DNA used to map extinct bird's colors

AUSTRALIAN and New Zealand scientists have used prehistoric feathers to help map the color of giant extinct birds and said tosday they believe 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 found in caves and rock shelters and believed to be at least 2,500 years old.

The native Moa - a flightless, powerfully built forager that stood over 8 feet (2.50 meters) tall and weighed 550 pounds (250 kilograms) - ranged widely in southern New Zealand before the arrival of man.

Using 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 the university's Australian Center for Ancient DNA.

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

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

The study notes that the drab camouflage plumage of several other New Zealand native birds, including the flightless Kiwi and flightless nocturnal Kakapo parrot, supports this concept.

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

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, Wood said.

This important finding opens the way to study DNA from museum birds just by clipping a small part of a single feather, causing almost no damage to the valuable specimens.

Ancient DNA center director, Prof. Alan Cooper, 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.

Alan Tennyson, fossil curator at New Zealand's national museum, called the work "another step forward to understanding what these extinct birds really looked like ... and their whole interaction with the environment."

Tennyson was not associated with the study.

"We had a vague idea of the color of different Moa species," he told The Associated Press, "but this is a breakthrough, actually being able to say these colored feathers came from this species of Moa."


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