The New Zealand Quail (Coturnix novaezelandiae), or koreke (the Māori name), has been extinct since 1875. The male and female were similar, except the female was lighter. The first scientist to describe it was Sir Joseph Banks when he visited New Zealand on James Cook's first voyage. Terrestrial and temperate, this species inhabited lowland tussock grassland and open fernlands. The first specimen to be obtained by a European was collected in 1827 by Jean René Constant Quoy and Joseph Paul Gaimard on Dumont D'Urville's voyage.
Koreke occupied a niche in NZ’s native ecosystem as a dry land seed and insect eater which is filled exclusively by exotic species today. Koreke were so important as a food and cultural resource to Maori, that early land court cases against the Crown mentioned the presence of koreke in an area of land as a delineation of ownership.
Research was conducted between 2007 and 2009 into whether the quails on Tiritiri Matangi Island – which was spared the worst impact of introduced predators – might be a surviving population of this species, or koreke-brown quail (Coturnix ypsilophora) hybrids. However, a genetic study showed instead that the quail on Tiritiri Matangi are Australian brown quail, Coturnix ypsilophora. Sequences were derived for all quail species within the Australian and New Zealand Coturnix sp. complex.
It has sometimes been considered conspecific with the Australian stubble quail Coturnix pectoralis, which would then be named Coturnix novaezelandiae pectoralis as the New Zealand bird was described first. However, the genetic analysis showed that they are separate though closely related species.
There are exciting new scientific techniques such as interspecific germline transmission of cultured primordial germ cells that offer hints it may be possible to revive extinct bird species. New Zealand has the unfortunate distinction of having a large number of critically endangered and recently extinct species largely as a result of human colonization. What if it was possible to undo some of the ecological damage humans have inflicted upon New Zealand?
The New Zealand Quail is one of many potential candidates for de-extinction. The reason it stands out as a logical starting point is that it has many genetically similar living relatives. The currently proposed avian de-extinction techniques rely on making edits to the genome of a similar species in order to change that genome to be the same as the extinct species. The fewer the number of genome edits required the higher the probability of success.
A successful de-extinction attempt for the New Zealand Quail would pave the way for more challenging de-extinction projects such as reviving the moa as well as perfecting techniques that would be equally valuable when applied to saving living critically endangered species such as the kakapo.
In order to understand the genetic differences between the New Zealand Quail and its other close living relatives we must create a comprehensive genome. Sequencing the genomes of extinct species is significantly more challenging than living species due to the difficulty in obtaining DNA samples that are not heavily degraded or contaminated.
Of all the extinct species upon which a genome sequencing attempt could be made the New Zealand Quail is promising. It's recently extinct with an abundance of well preserved museum specimens to obtain samples from. It also has close living relatives meaning that high quality reference genomes are available to assist with genome assembly.
Before embarking on an exploratory study of the scientific techniques that may enable avian de-extinction we must first have sequenced the full genome of the extinct species and its closest living relatives. Our current work is focussed on compiling a complete reference genome of the koreke and its close relatives.
Matiu is a molecular biologist, project manager and works by day serving the international scientific community. He's passionate about advancing the science of de-extinction and believes the New Zealand Quail is a pragmatic target species.
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