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Kiwi DNA link spurs rethink of flightless birds

Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- Research linking New Zealand's diminutive kiwi with a giant extinct bird from Africa is prompting scientists to rethink how flightless birds evolved.

A report published Friday in the journal Science says DNA testing indicates the chicken-size kiwi's closest relative is the elephant bird from Madagascar, which grew up to 3 meters (10 feet) high and weighed up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds) before becoming extinct about 1,000 years ago.

The authors say the results contradict earlier theories that the kiwi and other flightless birds, including the ostrich and emu, evolved as the world's continents drifted apart about 130 million years ago.

Instead, they say, it's more likely their chicken-size, flight-capable ancestors enjoyed a window of evolutionary ascendancy about 60 million years ago, after dinosaurs died out and before mammals grew big.

Those birds, the authors say, likely flew between the continents, with some staying and becoming the large, flightless species we know today.

Alan Cooper, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia and a co-author of the paper, said the DNA results came as a huge surprise given the differences in size and location between the kiwi and elephant bird.

"This has been an evolutionary mystery for 150 years. Most things have been suggested but never this," he said. "The birds are about as different as you can get in terms of geography, morphology and ecology."

Cooper, a New Zealander by birth, is hoping the paper will also bring him a measure of redemption.

That's because two decades ago, Cooper and other scientists discovered genetic links between the kiwi and two Australian flightless birds, the cassowary and the emu. That led to New Zealanders believing their iconic bird might have come from Australia, a traditional rival.

"There was a huge outpouring of angst," Cooper said. "New Zealanders weren't too impressed."

The nation's identity is so entwined with the bird that New Zealanders call themselves kiwis and have also given the name to their currency and the kiwifruit.

But it turns out that if the emu was a cousin to the kiwi, the elephant bird was a sibling. Cooper said it has taken until now for DNA techniques to advance enough to get a usable result from the ancient bones of the Madagascan bird.

Cooper said the bird took its name from Arabic legends that suggested it was so fearsome it could grab an elephant with its talons.

There's little basis for the legend given the bird was a flightless herbivore. In fact, it was likely humans that hunted it into oblivion, Cooper said.

Trevor Worthy, a research fellow at Australia's Flinders University and a paper co-author, said it's likely the kiwi stayed small and took to eating insects at night because it didn't want to compete for habitat and food with another New Zealand flightless bird, the moa, which is also now extinct. He said it's strange the kiwi and elephant bird are such close relatives.

"One got big, one stayed little," he said.

Massey University professor David Penny, who wasn't involved in the research but who peer reviewed it for Science, said the results are very interesting and help complete the puzzle of flightless birds.

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furlogthegiant May 22 2014 at 5:56 PM

see...science rethinking again
the Bible never rethinks

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18 replies
stengernc May 22 2014 at 5:03 PM

Nothing unusual about it....look at humans ...lots of dumb asses and lots of smart asses as well. Nature uses a shot gun to spread DNA around.....the only thing constant in the Universe is change and the only way to survive is to adapt to change so nature makes sure there is a lot of diversity in our genetic make up.....this idea that God has a plan is nothing but hooey. Why wait for billions of years to have a monkey become more human than monkey. Why create trillions of suns and planets just to have humans appear on earth after 13 .5 billion years? Our egos are a real problem....we are just a speck in the eye of the Universe....would earth even be missed if it disappeared? Wake up fools, see the real world of God not some fake superstitious stuff written thousands of years ago.....the Universe revolved around the earth....yea right.

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3 replies
Bob May 22 2014 at 3:49 PM

They evolved that way because the "creator" wanted them to. It's so simple.

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6 replies
welcome timothy May 22 2014 at 10:14 PM

So separation of continents was not the reason for natural selection and diversity in this case. Flight was the main reason for the natural selection of Kiwis into flightless birds. The Kiwis could fly to other continents, and those that made other continents their home evolved into flightless birds. Interesting.

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Pope John May 22 2014 at 6:04 PM

Birdie, birdie in the sky, why you do that in my eye? I'm sure glad elephant birds don't fly!

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1 reply
limstillme Pope John May 22 2014 at 11:08 PM

"Birdie, birdie in the sky, why you do that in my eye? I'm sure glad elephant birds don't fly!" Recent, new studies suggest that evolutionist need to rethink that scenario.

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1 reply
Tom limstillme May 23 2014 at 5:09 PM

The elephant birds did not fly of course. But a smaller ancestor of them did fly.

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LewTag May 22 2014 at 6:20 PM

Geezz...I am sure glad they have finally got that figured out...at my age of 81 I was afraid I would die without the answer.....

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1 reply
CUSACitizen LewTag May 23 2014 at 6:46 AM

I share your feeling, I have been distraught for several years thinking about the flightless Kiwi and where did he/she exactly evolve from. Was it a chicken egg or an ostrich egg? I could hardly sleep. Now with this new scientific revelation I am ready to die and I am only 72.

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1 reply
Karen CUSACitizen May 24 2014 at 2:51 AM

I'm 70 and thought the article was interesting. Hopefully I maintain curiousity in my life, unlike you and Lew Tag -- without it, life really ISN'T worth sticking around.

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Bill May 22 2014 at 6:20 PM

I wonder how many of those little Kiwis it takes to make a can of shoe polish.

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1 reply
iris cohen Bill May 23 2014 at 8:42 PM

Good one. Same number as Naugas to make a Naugahyde.

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wadisplace May 22 2014 at 4:59 PM

550 lb Elephant Bird? Now those would make some great Elephant Wings!

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bdgrizcp May 22 2014 at 4:21 PM

And yet just recently I heard (on NatGeo Wild) that the kiwi was once a much larger bird, evidenced by it egg. No other egg laying lays an egg so large compared to its body size. The indication was it was once a much larger bird and an example of island dwarfism. Does this article suggest it was once the elephant bird?

Oh, and since they mention the cassowary, if you want a good laugh go to wikipedia and look up cassowary. There's a part about cooking one. Hilarious!!

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3 replies
busterggi May 22 2014 at 4:03 PM

Well yes, kiwis stayed little however their other NZ cousins, the moas, grew about as large as the aepyornis.

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