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Nuclear DNA sequences detect species limits in ancient moa


Ancient DNA studies have typically used multi-copy mitochondrial DNA sequences1,2. This is largely because single-locus nuclear genes have been difficult to recover from sub-fossil material3, restricting the scope of ancient DNA research. Here, we have isolated single-locus nuclear DNA markers to assign the sex of 115 extinct moa and, in combination with a mitochondrial DNA phylogeny, tested competing hypotheses about the specific status of moa taxa. Moa were large ratite birds that showed extreme size variation both within and among species4. For some taxa, this large variation was hypothesized to represent sexual dimorphism, while for others it was argued to reflect the existence of different species5. Our results show that moa were characterized by extreme reverse sexual dimorphism and as a result we have been able to clarify the number of moa species. For example, we show that the three recognized ‘species’ of Dinornis comprised only two monophyletic groups and that two of these ‘species’ comprised individuals of one sex only. This study also illustrates that single-locus nuclear DNA sequences can be consistently recovered from ancient material.

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Figure 1: Molecular sexing of moa.
Figure 2: Phylogenetic relationships among currently recognized moa taxa.
Figure 3: Comparison of coefficients of variation for femora lengths with female:male mass, in moa.


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This research was made possible by grants from the Marsden Fund, Massey University and the Centres of Research Excellence Fund. We are grateful to the following institutions and people: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Canterbury Museum, Auckland Institute and Museum, Massey University, Otago Museum, Waitomo Caves Museum, Whanganui Regional Museum, Te Manawa Museum, Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, J. Anderson, J. A. Bartle, A. Tennyson, T. Worthy and V. Ward. We appreciate the support of a number of iwi, especially Ngai Tahu and Ngati Kahungunu.

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Correspondence to D. M. Lambert.

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Huynen, L., Millar, C., Scofield, R. et al. Nuclear DNA sequences detect species limits in ancient moa. Nature 425, 175–178 (2003).

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