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DNA Barcoding Give Clues about Extinct Moa Birds

Mar 04, 2014 04:40 PM EST

Researchers have used DNA barcoding techniques to undertake a study of the moa, an iconic and extinct species of bird native to New Zealand.

Scientists know there were at least nine species of moa endemic to New Zealand, but because the flightless bird died out hundreds of years ago due habitat decline and overhunting, it is challenging to gain a complete understanding of the birds, some of which could stand as high as 12 feet with their necks fully extended.

"Despite more than 100 years of research being devoted to the issue, determining species status is challenging, especially where there is an absence of substantial morphological, physiological, and behavioral data," said lead study author Leon Huynen an ancient DNA expert based at Griffith University.

"Moa were comprised of a relatively large number of species that can be grouped into six genera. One of these genera, Euryapteryx, has been difficult to characterize into its constituent species, so this is the genus we have focused upon," Huynen said.

"Using a DNA barcoding technique we were able to show that two species were likely to have existed in the genus Euryapteryx, with the possibility of some subspecies," he added.

The technique, however, did not yield as much information as the researchers would have liked.

"Although DNA barcoding is very successful in determining most other species of birds, including the other moa species, for some reason the results were not as clear with Euryapteryx and therefore it is not possible to precisely discriminate possible species," said study co-author David Lambert.

"Using this DNA barcoding technique we have been able to show that species status in Euryapteryx is very complex with there is no clear separation between various individuals and that this is possibly the result of repeated hybridisation events within the genus.

"Our results do provide a clearer picture of the species status of Euryapteryx, however, and support the suggestion that two species of Euryapteryx may have existed during the Holocene as well as a subspecies (possibly attributable to E. curtus curtus) that is found solely on New Zealand's North Island."

The research is reported in the journal PLOS One

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