New species of kaka discovered - a bit late

Last updated 05:00 02/09/2014
Chatham Islands kaka

NEW, BUT LONG GONE: The extinct Chatham Islands kaka was about the same size as its mainland cousin but spent more time on the ground and had a longer bill.

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A new species of bird has been found - but sadly it has been extinct for several hundred years.

DNA detective work has enabled some Kiwi and Australian scientists to confirm the Chatham Islands kaka - nestor chathamensis - as its own distinct species.

They believe they have solved a mystery that has puzzled scientists since the Chathams were first reached by Europeans. One of the lead scientists on the project, Jamie Wood of Landcare Research, said fossilised bones had been found on the Chathams since the 19th century but nobody was sure exactly what sort of bird they had belonged to.

The team had proved the bird descended from mainland kaka that found their way to the Chathams about 1.75 million years ago, he said.

Large thigh bones and a broad pelvis suggested the bird spent most of its time on the ground, but had not yet lost the ability to fly, as some New Zealand birds did.

"We think it could still fly. Normally in flightless island birds, the wings are dramatically reduced, but in this case the wings haven't changed . . . but the legs have got a lot bigger." The bird also had a longer bill than a mainland kaka.

Scientists at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA extracted the DNA from a fossilised bone collected in 1967 and compared its genetic code with kaka and kea.

"You can look at the amount of genetic difference between the Chatham bird and the New Zealand bird and estimate how long they've been apart . . . [we] were able to say roughly how long they had been separated."

Unfortunately for the kaka, it would have been easy prey for the first Polynesian settlers in the Chathams and went extinct shortly after human arrival.

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- The Dominion Post


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