Washington: Australia can no longer lay claim to the origins of the iconic New Zealand kiwi following University of Adelaide research, which shows that the kiwi`s closest relative is not the emu as was previously thought.
Instead, the diminutive kiwi is most closely related to the extinct Madagascan elephant bird - a 2-3 metre tall, 275 kg giant. And surprisingly, the study concluded, both of these flightless birds once flew.
A new study by the University of Adelaide`s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), has solved a 150-year-old evolutionary mystery about the origins of the giant flightless "ratite" birds, such as the emu and ostrich, which are found across the southern continents. This group contains some of the world`s largest birds - such as the extinct giant moa of New Zealand and elephant birds of Madagascar.
The different "ratite" species were long thought to have formed as the flightless birds were isolated by the separation of the southern continents over the last 130 million years.
However, ancient DNA extracted from bones of two elephant birds held by the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, has revealed a close genetic connection with the kiwi, despite the striking differences in geography, morphology and ecology between the two.
"This result was about as unexpected as you could get," Kieren Mitchell, PhD candidate with ACAD, who performed the work, said.
"New Zealand and Madagascar were only ever distantly physically joined via Antarctica and Australia, so this result shows the ratite s must have dispersed around the world by flight," Mitchell said.
The results correct previous work by ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper conducted in the 1990s, which had shown the closest living relatives of the kiwi were the Australian emu and cassowary.
The findings are published in the journal Science.