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Complete mitochondrial genome sequences of two extinct moas clarify ratite evolution


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.

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Figure 2: Ratite phylogeography.
Figure 1: Mitochondrial genome arrangement for Dinornis giganteus.


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We thank W. Boles, R. Cooper, R. Herzer, P. Houde, C. Mourer-Chauviré, D. Penny and T. Worthy for valuable comments, and M. Sorenson for allowing us access to unpublished rhea and ostrich sequences. We are grateful to T. Worthy and the staff of the Museum of New Zealand for the moa samples. Modern samples were kindly provided by A. C. Wilson (deceased), M. Potter and M. Braun, and laboratory space by R. Thomas, J. Bertranpetit and the Oxford University Museum. A.C. was supported by the NERC, the Leverhulme Fund, the New Zealand Marsden Fund and the Royal Society. C.L.F. was supported by the Comissionat per a Universitats i Recerca (Catalan Autonomous Government), and A.R. was supported by the Wellcome Trust.

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Cooper, A., Lalueza-Fox, C., Anderson, S. et al. Complete mitochondrial genome sequences of two extinct moas clarify ratite evolution. Nature 409, 704–707 (2001).

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