New Zealand Has Snatched Back It National Bird After DNA Testing Ends Australia's Claim To Kiwi Origins

With its head towering 3 metres in the air, an artist’s impression of an elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) wanders through the spiny forest of ancient Madagascar. Image: Brian Choo.

Australia can no longer lay claim to the origins of the iconic New Zealand kiwi following research published today showing the kiwi’s closest relative is not the emu as was previously thought.

Instead, the kiwi is most closely related to the extinct giant Madagascan elephant bird which grew up to three metres tall and weighed 275 kilograms.

And the study found that both of these flightless birds once flew.

The Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide looked at the giant flightless “ratite” birds, such as the emu and ostrich, which are found across the southern continents.

This group contains some of the world’s largest birds, such as the extinct giant moa of New Zealand and elephant birds of Madagascar.

The different “ratite” species were long thought to have formed as the flightless birds were isolated by the separation of the southern continents over the last 130 million years.

However, ancient DNA extracted from bones of two elephant birds held by the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, shows a close genetic connection with the kiwi, despite the striking differences in geography and ecology between the two.

“This result was about as unexpected as you could get,” says Kieren Mitchell, a PhD candidate in Adelaide, who performed the work.

“New Zealand and Madagascar were only ever distantly physically joined via Antarctica and Australia, so this result shows the ratites must have dispersed around the world by flight.”

The results correct previous work by Professor Alan Cooper, the director of the the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, conducted in the 1990s, which had shown the closest living relatives of the kiwi were the Australian emu and cassowary.

Professor Cooper: “It’s great to finally set the record straight, as New Zealanders were shocked and dismayed to find that the national bird appeared to be an Australian immigrant. I can only apologise it has taken so long.”

The team were able to use the elephant bird DNA to estimate when the ratite species had separated from each other.

“The evidence suggests flying ratite ancestors dispersed around the world right after the dinosaurs went extinct, before the mammals dramatically increased in size and became the dominant group,” says Professor Cooper.

“We think the ratites exploited that narrow window of opportunity to become large herbivores, but once mammals also got large, about 50 million years ago, no other bird could try that idea again unless they were on a mammal free island – like the Dodo.”

Recently found fossils of small kiwi ancestors suggestthey might have had the power of flight not too long ago. The latest studies confirm kiwis were flying when they arrived in New Zealand.

Alan Tennyson, Curator of Vertebrates at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, says: “The New Zealand kiwi is an integral part of this country’s culture and heritage. It’s fitting that Te Papa’s scientific collections have been used to resolve the mystery of its origins.”

The results of the DNA testing are published in the journal Science.

An adult brown kiwi (Apteryx australis) beside the egg of a huge elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus). A new genetic study led by Kieren Mitchell and Alan Cooper at the University of Adelaide indicates that these two bizarre and dramatically different birds are close cousins. Photo by Kyle Davis and Paul Scofield, Canterbury Museum

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