Recent research has linked the kiwi, New Zealand’s flightless bird, with a giant extinct bird from Africa. Proving paleontologists from over 20 years ago wrong, it has been revealed that the kiwi is related to the giant elephant bird from Africa rather than Australia as previously claimed. The research findings have changed the way one views evolution of life forms in the world and also addresses how the birds ended up being flightless.
The 150-year mystery of how the kiwi came to be found in New Zealand across continents was earlier identified as being flown in from Australia. DNA sequencing has now revealed that the bird is related to a extinct bird, the 2.3 m tall elephant bird, native to Madagascar, Africa. Professor Alan Cooper and his team from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide’s (ACAD) who worked on solving this mystery published the findings and closed the case on the origin of the flightless bird. Referring to the emu, ostrich and the kiwi as ratites, Cooper finally explained the reason why these birds are found across the southern continents.
The ratites or flightless birds which include the giant moa from New Zealand and the elephant birds of Madagascar, are thought to have formed independently after the separation of the southern continents over the last 130 million years. The kiwi’s DNA revealed a close genetic connection when it was compared to ancient DNA that was extracted from the bones of two elephant birds housed at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. Cooper found the bizarre results as there were differences in geography, morphology and ecology between the two. Back in the 1990s, Cooper had deduced through research that the kiwi must be related to Australian emu and cassowary.
The kiwi bore no physical resemblance to the elephant bird, although they are continents apart. It is assumed that New Zealand and Madagascar were joined through Antarctica and Australia and the ratties must have dispersed around the world only by flight. It is believed that both the small kiwi and the much larger elephant bird were descendants from a small flying bird from Antarctica that lived in plenty when the continent was once hospitable. Evidence suggested flying ratite ancestors spread throughout the world after the dinosaurs went extinct, leaving the mammals to reduce in size and finally dominate the animal kingdom. Using the gap in time to evolve into large herbivores, the ratites seemed to have similar body plans that complicated an analysis of their history.
Dr Trevor Worthy Flinders, University of Adelaide, also found out that kiwis did not lose their flight until recently.The kiwi bird came flying to New Zealand, but dominated by the moa, forced the kiwi to stay small, insectivorous and nocturnal. The abnormal size of the kiwi’s egg explained by the environment in New Zealand long before humans arrived. By having large eggs, the bird was advanced as they hatched and avoided predatory birds like the Haast’s eagle. Professor Cooper was surprised that he disproved his earlier findings and apologized to New Zealand for his earlier claims that the kiwi was native to Australia. What surprised him and New Zealand even more is that the kiwi its national bird, actually had roots in Africa.
By Rathan Paul Harshavardan