Fossil poop reveals critical role of giant birds in New Zealand’s ecosystem
By Elizabeth PennisiFeb. 12, 2018 , 3:00 PM
When the first humans landed on what is now known as New Zealand 700 years ago, they didn’t find mammals. Instead, they discovered giant birds called moas, as well as a host of other indigenous bird species. Soon, they had eaten many of them into extinction.
Now, by deciphering ancient DNA found in fossilized bird droppings, researchers have a better idea of the toll those extinctions took on New Zealand’s forests and shrublands. The study shows that mushrooms and other fungi were important to the extinct birds’ diets, and suggests moas had a strong hand in shaping New Zealand’s native landscape by helping fungi spread, says co-author Alan Cooper, an ancient DNA specialist at The University of Adelaide in Australia. Now that the moas are gone, “The forest has potentially lost a potentially major way to spread.”
“This paper is a clear example of the great potential of ancient DNA-based techniques,” says Melania Cristescu, an ecological geneticist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was not involved in the work. Cristescu says she was surprised by how much information the DNA contained. “The authors were able to identify a wide variety of species and to reconstruct the ecology of an extinct species.”