Scientists have performed the first DNA-based reconstruction of the giant extinct moa bird, using prehistoric feathers—2,500 years old—recovered from caves and rock shelters in New Zealand. Researchers from the University of Adelaide and Landcare Research in New Zealand have identified four different moa species after retrieving ancient DNA from moa feathers. The giant birds—measuring up to 2.5 metres and weighing 250 kg—were the dominant animals in New Zealand’s pre-human environment but were exterminated after the arrival of the Maori around 1280 AD.
PhD student Nicolas Rawlence from the University’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA says until now, it was not known what the 10 different species of moa looked like. The team also demonstrated that DNA can be retrieved from all parts of the ancient feathers, not just the tip of the quill, as previously thought. This finding suggests it may be possible to reconstruct the appearance of other extinct birds using feathers from fossil deposits.