The study shows the kiwi is related to the elephant bird.
It was one of the greatest wrongs ever inflicted upon New
Zealanders, and one to rival the theft of Phar Lap or Trevor
Chappell's infamous under-arm bowl.
Our national bird and treasured namesake, paleontologists had
claimed, was, of all things, an Aussie immigrant.
Twenty years later, the scientist who was responsible for
that shocking suggestion has finally set the record straight
with new findings that may finally solve the 150-year-old
mystery of how the kiwi arrived here in New Zealand.
While previous studies, as recently as late last year, had
concluded the kiwi's ancestor had probably flown in from
Australia, the result of new DNA sequencing has revealed the
bird is more closely related to the extinct, 2.3m tall
elephant bird -- a native of Madagascar.
The research by Professor Alan Cooper and his colleagues at
the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient
DNA (ACAD), published today, effectively closes the case
about the origins of the giant flightless "ratite" birds,
such as the emu and ostrich, found across the southern
This group contains some of the world's largest birds – such
as the extinct giant moa of New Zealand and elephant birds of
The different ratite species were long thought to have formed
independently as the flightless birds were isolated by the
separation of the southern continents over the last 130
However, ancient DNA extracted from bones of two elephant
birds held by the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa,
revealed a close genetic connection with the kiwi, despite
the striking differences in geography, morphology and ecology
between the two.
Professor Cooper said the finding was as "bizarre as you can
"[The kiwi] looks nothing like [the elephant bird], it's on
the other side of the world."
Kieren Mitchell, PhD candidate with ACAD, who performed the
work, also said the findings proved a real surprise.
"New Zealand and Madagascar were only ever distantly
physically joined via Antarctica and Australia, so this
result shows the ratites must have dispersed around the world
It was likely that the kiwi's ancient ancestor could have
flown here from a source population in Antarctica, at a time
the continent was more hospitable.
The results correct previous work by Professor Cooper
conducted in the 1990s, which had shown the closest living
relatives of the kiwi were the Australian emu and cassowary.
"It's great to finally set the record straight, as New
Zealanders were shocked and dismayed to find that the
national bird appeared to be an Australian immigrant,"
Professor Cooper said.
"I can only apologise it has taken so long."
The team were able to use the elephant bird DNA to estimate
when the ratite species had separated from each other.
The evidence suggested flying ratite ancestors dispersed
around the world right after the dinosaurs went extinct,
before the mammals dramatically increased in size and became
the dominant group.
The researchers believe the ratites exploited that narrow
window of opportunity to become large herbivores, but once
mammals also got large, about 50 million years ago, no other
bird could try that idea again unless they were on a mammal
free island -- like the Dodo.
"We can now see why the evolutionary history of the ratites
has been such a difficult problem," said study co-author
Professor Mike Lee, of the South Australian Museum and
University of Adelaide.
"Many of them independently converged on very similar body
plans, complicating analysis of their history."
Dr Trevor Worthy of Flinders University in Adelaide, another
co-author, said fossils of small kiwi ancestors had been
recently found, suggesting they might have had the power of
flight not too long ago.
"The genetic results back up this interpretation, and confirm
that kiwis were flying when they arrived in New Zealand."
It also explained why the kiwi remained small, he said.
"By the time it arrived in New Zealand, the large herbivore
role was already taken by the moa, forcing the kiwi to stay
small, and become insectivorous and nocturnal."
Further to this "raw deal", Professor Cooper said, the
abnormal size of the kiwi's egg was also likely explained by
the environment it lived in then.
Long before humans arrived in New Zealand, the bird had to be
wary of aerial predators, such as the Haast's eagle.
Therefore, by having large eggs, the kiwi's chicks could be
large enough to be advanced by the stage they hatched, he
As for the giant elephant bird, the species went extinct
probably in the 17th or 18th century, likely as a result of
humans discovering them, Professor Cooper said.
"You've got KFC on steroids and a whole bunch of people
turning up, it's not a good picture ... they were going to be
the first to go."
Professor Cooper found it amusing that he had travelled to
every museum in the world -- between 15 and 20 of them --
which he thought would have the giant elephant bird bones he
needed for the study, yet the specimens that would prove key
turned out to be under his nose at Te Papa.
"It turned out, ironically, that the museum right next door
had some of the best material."
That they were found in New Zealand likely suggested they had
been traded for moa bones, which were internationally sought
Professor Cooper said Dr Worthy, a moa expert who as recently
as December suggested the kiwi's ancestor that flew in from
Australia, "just about choked" when he revealed the findings
of the study to him over lunch.
Alan Tennyson, curator of vertebrates at Te Papa, said the
kiwi was an integral part of our culture and heritage.
"It's fitting that Te Papa's scientific collections have been
used to resolve the mystery of its origins."