Reseachers from left: Dr Leon Huynen and Professor David Lambert

Unearthing new moa species through ancient DNA

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Five additional species of moa have been identified by the University's evolutionary biologists. The researchers say they now have evidence that increases the number of known moa species from 10 to 14. One of the four additional species appears to be a giant moa of well over 140 kg about the size of the largest moa, Dinornis.

The researchers, led by Professor David Lambert, are based at the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution. Their paper on reconstructing the tempo and model of evolution with the extinct giant moas has just featured in one of the world's top scientific journals, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. They worked in collaboration with researchers at the Royal Ontario Museum and Toronto University.

The research provides overwhelming evidence to show the existence of more species. It also shows that evolution of moa was much more recent than has previously been thought by scientists, says Professor Lambert.

These findings are some of the latest made by the team whose groundbreaking research is using ancient DNA to discover much more about moa than has been previously known. They have been able to genetically type samples of ancient DNA extracted from 125 moa bones.

When and how quickly giant moa evolved has been an important question to scientists and answers couldn't be provided from fossil bone characters only. The techniques use by Professor Lambert's team using ancient DNA, have opened the way for significant new discoveries.

Professor Lambert says they have been able to construct the most accurate family tree of moa available to date.

Not only does this tell us who was related to whom but it also tells us how long ago they all separated. It's commonly thought they evolved tens of millions of years ago but our evidence suggests in fact it was from four to ten million years ago. In scientific terms, that is quite recent, he says.

The researchers say: A cycle of moa speciation events occurred about four to six million years ago, when the landmass was fragmented by mountain-building events and a general cooling. This resulted in the isolation of lineages and promoted ecological specialisation. The spectacular radiation of moa involved significant changes in body size, shape and mass. The moa radiation provides another example of the general influence of large scale paleoenvironmental changes on vertebrate evolutionary history, similar to that of the Galapagos finches and the Hawaiian honeycreepers.

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