At last, NZ's own swan

A mounted skeleton of an extinct New Zealand native black swan species, called pouwa. Photo: Museum of NZ
A mounted skeleton of an extinct New Zealand native black swan species, called pouwa. Photo: Museum of NZ
The debate with Australia still rages over bragging rights to pavlova, champion racehorse Phar Lap and even actor Russell Crowe.

But University of Otago zoology lecturer Dr Nic Rawlence is ''ecstatic'' that recent genetic research shows one ancient, black swan species, at least, is uniquely New Zealand.

When many other New Zealand creations are claimed by our more populous transtasman neighbours, having our own species of ill-fated and extinct black swan may be of limited consolation, some sceptics might suggest.

The New Zealand species was hunted to extinction in this country soon after humans arrived in the late 13th century.

But Dr Rawlence says researchers from Otago University, Canterbury Museum and the Museum of New Zealand-Te Papa Tongarewa could now prove New Zealand's black swan - pouwa (Cygnus sumnerensis) - was a unique species.

Nic Rawlence
Nic Rawlence
''It's good to have our own swans,'' he said.

Analysis of ancient DNA, and ''weeks and weeks of measuring bones'' to clarify their dimensions showed pouwa were much heavier and larger than their Australian cousins, which were now common in New Zealand.

Dr Rawlence is director of the Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory and the lead author of the study, just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The extinct species was about one metre tall, and build ''more like a rugby player compared with the Australian swan's (Cygnus atratus) smaller and slender soccer-player physique''.

Australian black swans first arrived in New Zealand about one to two million years ago, during the Pleistocene Ice Age.

After settling here and on the Chatham Islands they swiftly became bigger than their Australian cousins, weighing up to 10kg compared with 6kg, and developing elongated legs and becoming more terrestrial in habitat.

In the 1860s, Europeans introduced Australian black swans from Victoria, and Otago researchers suspect other black swans from the same species must have flown over.

Until the mid-1990s, scientists wrongly believed the black swans New Zealand had when Polynesians arrived were the ''same as the Australian ones we have now'', she said.

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