Emu no longer the closest relative to the kiwi – but, what is?

Research published this month reveals the closest relative to the kiwi is, in fact, the extinct Madagascan elephant bird, not the emu, as was previously thought. For over ten decades, researchers have thought the kiwi found its way to New Zealand via continental drift, 130 million years ago. However, due to recent ancient DNA advances, this new study explains that the flightless kiwi originally found its way to New Zealand through flight!

Here, Professor Alan Cooper talks to Radio New Zealand National’s reporter, Kim Hill, and explains how this research came together – a story spanning 20 years.  Unexpected museum specimen finds and the ability to “fish” for bird DNA have resulted in the over turning of results from Professor Cooper’s own PhD. But, what did toxoplasmosis have to do with it?


This recording is provided by the Terms of Use as stipulated by Radio New Zealand National of their Copyright Policy.

Researcher, Katherine Allen, isn’t a bird specialist, nonetheless she was inspired by this research and has penned a summary in verse! Reprinted here, by kind permission of Katherine, the aptly titled “Unexpected Sisters“:

An ancient island’s trove of treasure: Madagascan fauna
Tenrec, fossa, lemur, hippo, dugong, bat, iguana.
A giant bird – O, wondrous beast! – a half a ton, and tall,
Laid foot-long eggs, had beefy legs, and did not fly at all.
Another ratite, far away within the South Pacific,
The kiwi! Shy, with furry feathers, appetite terrific.
Among the old-jawed birds, you wouldn’t guess that they’re close kin,
But DNA reveals a link from deep, deep down within.
If the kiwi’s closest kin is not its moa neighbor,
Drawing up the family tree might seem a puzzling labor.
The simplest answer blows the mind – it seems that they all flew
With wings they spread across the globe, and filled in niches new.
Dinos gone (darn asteroid) left lots of open spaces,
Birds came in, diversified, flew on an as-need basis.
From this, it seems that flightlessness evolved six separate times!
The song of life, though improvised, with patterns clear it chimes.

Check out more of Katherine’s geopoetry, and other news at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, USA.

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