Letters to Nature

Nature 409, 704-707 (8 February 2001) | doi:10.1038/35055536; Received 12 July 2000; Accepted 26 October 2000

Complete mitochondrial genome sequences of two extinct moas clarify ratite evolution

Alan Cooper1,2, Carles Lalueza-Fox1,3, Simon Anderson1, Andrew Rambaut2, Jeremy Austin4 & Ryk Ward1

  1. Department of Biological Anthropology and Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 6UE, UK
  2. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 3PS, UK
  3. Seccio Antropologia, Facultat de Biologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona 08028, Spain
  4. Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK

Correspondence to: Alan Cooper1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to A.C. (e-mail: Email: alan.cooper@zoo.ox.ac.uk). Software is available at http://evolve.zoo.ox.ac.uk/software.

The origin of the ratites, large flightless birds from the Southern Hemisphere, along with their flighted sister taxa, the South American tinamous, is central to understanding the role of plate tectonics in the distributions of modern birds and mammals. Defining the dates of ratite divergences is also critical for determining the age of modern avian orders1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. To resolve the ratite phylogeny and provide biogeographical data to examine these issues, we have here determined the first complete mitochondrial genome sequences of any extinct taxa— two New Zealand moa genera—along with a 1,000-base-pair sequence from an extinct Madagascan elephant-bird. For comparative data, we also generated 12 kilobases of contiguous sequence from the kiwi, cassowary, emu and two tinamou genera. This large dataset allows statistically precise estimates of molecular divergence dates and these support a Late Cretaceous vicariant speciation of ratite taxa, followed by the subsequent dispersal of the kiwi to New Zealand. This first molecular view of the break-up of Gondwana provides a new temporal framework for speciation events within other Gondwanan biota and can be used to evaluate competing biogeographical hypotheses.