Moa were a family of giant flightless ratites unique to New Zealand comprising nine species (in six genera). We don’t know exactly when moa’s ancestors got to ancient Zealandia but we know that it was more than 12 million years ago because fossils have been found of moa eggshell from miocene lake deposits. If they were already a large flightless bird then, it means that they may be one of the most ancient inhabitants of NZ. Moa were so unique that there is no closely related species alive today and our entire plant ecosystem was adapted to having moa as the apex browser. This family had flourished and diversified on the Zealandia archipelago potentially from the time of Gondwana. Moa occupied almost every niche which would be filled by a large mammal elsewhere in the world, from forest browsers, shrubland canopy nibblers and alpine grassland grazers.
The two largest species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, reached about 3.6 m (12 ft) in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about 230 kg (510 lb).
The moa's reign of millions of years was ubruptly brought to an end with the arrival of humans who misjudged the fragility of the ecosystem resulting in one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recent history. Human activities included massive habitat modification, over-hunting and the introduction of mammalian predators. Exactly when the last moa went extinct is not known but is unlikely to have been later than 450 years ago.
Because of their recent disappearance, many of the remaining ecosystems - in fact, even individual trees - are still in existance which lived alongside moa. More importantly there is strong evidence that moa performed a critical role as ecosystem engineers. A number of critically endagered plant species were commonly eaten by moa suggesting that the success of these plants depends on the presence of moa. Conversly, agressive species toxic to mammals such as Coriaria and Muelenbeckia were widely eaten by moa. Anecdotally, there is evidence that moa limited the spread of fire, provided important nutrient flux, dispersed seed, maintained open shrubland habitats and limited aggressive plant species.
An important consideration when assessing a species for reintroduction, regardless of whether it is living elsewhere or extinct is the cause of its disapearance. In the case of moa, there is a high degree of certainly that humans directly caused the extinction of moa. Unlike other extinct species with small bones, the moa's large heavy bones are likely to preserve DNA better than the bones of smaller animals. This means thanks to modern science there is a realistic chance of bringing this species back from extinction but we need your help. Thanks to the work of Allison Cloutier, we now have a near complete genome of the little bush moa. Further expanding our knowledge of this family of birds will revolutionise our understanding of New Zealand’s ecosystem. What’s more, the technology we develop will be directly applicable to countless other restoration projects around the world including those affecting living species like the kakapo.
Interested in learning more about the moa? We highly recommend Moa, the life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird by Quinn Berentson.Avian de-extinction projects have three parts:
Genetic Rescue Foundation is working in partnership with several organisations in New Zealand and abroad to sequence the genomes of all moa species and develop technology for artifical reproduction in birds. As this is the forefront of research in this area with significant technical challenges, we expect this project to run for many years. We are committed to developing the technology which will faithfully restore moa and other endangered or extinct species. As a result, the technological challenges are greater than for generating hybrids or chimeras.
Please let us know if you have expertise you would like to contribute or would like to support this project in any other way.
The first step towards moa de-extinction is to create a comprehensive moa genome. This genome is the "blueprint" of the species and is required for the subsequent genome editing that takes place in step 3. This sequencing project is challenging because unlike living species the DNA available for sequencing extinct species is degraded. However many extinct species have had their genomes sequenced and it is only a matter of time before one or more research groups succeeds in creating a moa genome.
The Genetic Rescue Foundation is actively working on the construction of a moa genome. Learn more about our progress.
Pioneering biologist Dr. Robert Etches and his team at Crystal Bioscience have shown that primordial germ cells from one species of bird will colonize the germ line of a different species of bird. Their published work has focussed on chickens and guinea fowl. However they have also shown that PGCs cultured from houbara bustards (members of the gruiforme order) will colonize the gonad of chickens (order galliformes). Because birds lay eggs that are fertilized a day or so before they are laid and before they are invested with albumen, cloning in the sense used for mammals is impractical. The proof of concept experiments showing that the germ line of one species can be inserted through the germ line of a different species. Therefore in theory the germ line of the moa can be inserted through the germ line of the tinamou or other living relative of the moa.
Introgressing the genome of the extinct species into primordial germ cells from the closest relative. This is the most difficult and under developed part of the project. Assuming we have a complete sequence of the moa and the tinamou, we would need to know which moa sequences to insert and which to leave as tinamou. At this point, the essential differences between species are unknown. This is an exaggerated version of the quest to understand the differences between breeds within a species (e.g. a Pekinese and a Great Dane) at the sequence level. Currently we can target individual genes in the avian genome but targeting hundreds or thousands of genes would be beyond the capabilities of current technology. However it's likely that de-extinction experiments will eventually overcome this problem.
Have a relevant paper you'd like to recommend? Please contact us.
David is a citizen/wannabe scientist helping to advance the scientific techniques required to prevent species extinction through genetic intervention. He's the founder of The Genetic Rescue Foundation a not-for-profit venture that leverages the power of new platforms for collaboration like Experiment and Science Exchange to fund and complete research.
The Paleogenomics Lab is a joint venture between two PIs: Beth Shapiro, and Richard (Ed) Green. Their research focuses on a wide range of evolutionary and ecological questions, mostly involving the application of genomics techniques to better understand how species and populations evolve through time.
Initial fundraising for moa genome sequencing was a complete success. Thanks to the support of our contributors our genome sequencing project is currently in progress.View Crowdfunding Campaign