Extinct bird’s droppings yields details of pre-human New Zealand

January 13th, 2009 - 1:05 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Jan 13 (IANS) Droppings of a giant extinct bird, buried beneath cave floors and rock shelters for millennia, have yielded a mine of information about pre-human New Zealand. Ancient DNA and palaeontology researchers from Universities of Adelaide, Otago and the New Zealand department of conservation came forward with their analyses of plant seeds, leaf fragments and DNA from the dried faeces (coprolites) to start building the first detailed picture of an ecosystem dominated by giant extinct species.

Former PhD student Jamie Wood, from University of Otago, discovered more than 1,500 coprolites in remote areas across southern New Zealand, primarily from species of the extinct giant moa, which weighed upto 250 kilos and three metres in height. Some of the faeces recovered were up to 15 cm in length.

“Surprisingly for such large birds, over half the plants we detected in the faeces were under 30 centimetres in height,” said Wood. “This suggests that some moa grazed on tiny herbs, in contrast to the current view of them as mainly shrub and tree browsers.”

“We also found many plant species that are currently threatened or rare, suggesting that the extinction of the moa has impacted their ability to reproduce or disperse,” he added.

“New Zealand offers a unique chance to reconstruct how a ‘megafaunal ecosystem’ functioned,” said Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, which performed the DNA typing.

“You can’t do this elsewhere in the world because the giant species became extinct too long ago, so you don’t get such a diverse record of species and habitats.”

“Critically, the interactions between animals and plants we see in the poo provides key information about the origins and background to our current environment, and predicting how it will respond to future climate change and extinctions,” he added.

The team’s findings have recently been published in Quaternary Science Reviews, an international geological research journal.

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