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DNA Points to Human Role in Moa Extinction

DNA analysis of moa bones

Ancient DNA analysis of moa bones from this site on New Zealand’s South Island helped reveal that moa were very well adapted to deal with the effects of climate and habitat change.

By NIC RAWLENCE

A new study of ancient DNA has revealed that New Zealand’s giant flightless moa were well-adapted to deal with the effects of climate and habitat change, leaving only overhunting and habitat destruction by humans as reasons for their extinction

Nic Rawlence is a postdoctoral researcher in palaeoecology and ancient DNA in the University of Otago's Department of Zoology.

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Most people have heard of sabre-tooth cats, mastodons, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos and giant sloths, but Australia and New Zealand have had their share of megafauna as well. In Australia there were giant wombat-like creatures called diprotodons, and a large flightless bird closely related to ducks and geese colloquially known as the “demon duck of doom”. New Zealand had the giant moa and Haast’s eagle.

The skeletons of megafauna adorn museum palaeontology galleries and inspire young kids to learn about natural history. However, there is considerable debate among palaeontologists as to what caused the extinction of these megafauna, and many others worldwide. These extinctions have occurred over the past 50,000 years resulting in the loss of at least 97 genera worldwide.

The main contenders for these extinctions are thought to be human impact (over-hunting and habitat destruction), climate and associated habitat change, or a combination of these. In some cases, like on the Pacific Islands, there is overwhelming evidence for human impact. However, in many other parts of the world, finding the culprit or culprits is difficult because human arrival and impact was contemporaneous with major episodes of climate and habitat change and was relatively far back in time, allowing erosion to destroy the evidence.

What is needed is a location where the effects...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.