Moa’s ancient DNA could change our understanding of the consequences of climate change

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According to experts from the University of Otago, the distribution of the moa has changed as the environment has warmed and cooled.

Ancient DNA offers a unique look at moa and climate change

Climate change refers to long-term changes in temperatures and weather patterns. These changes may be natural, but it is commonly accepted that human activities are the main cause of climate change.

Climate change affects more than humans. The planet’s wildlife and ecosystems can also experience major, and often disastrous, changes. Temperature increases have the potential to cause the collapse of fragile ecosystems and large-scale extinction events. This has led many scientists to research how species will respond to climate change.

According to a study by the University of Otago, the ancient moa DNA

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a molecule composed of two long strands of nucleotides that coil around each other to form a double helix. It is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms that carries genetic instructions for development, functioning, growth, and reproduction. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>DNA revealed information about how species are responding to climate change. Researchers from the Department of Zoology found that the huge distribution of birds changed as the climate warmed and cooled by analyzing ancient DNA from the extinct eastern moa.

According to lead author Dr. Alex Verry, the species was distributed across eastern and southern South Island during the warmer Holocene era, but was restricted to southern South Island at most. strong from the last ice age about 25,000 years ago. In comparison, the heavy-footed moa retreated to the southern and northern parts of the South Island, while the highland moa occupied four distinct regions.

“The eastern moa’s response had consequences for its population size and genetic diversity – the last ice age led to a pronounced genetic bottleneck, meaning it ended up with genetic diversity lower than that of other moa living in the same areas,” says Dr Verry.

The study, published in the journal Biology Letters May 11, 2022 marks the first time that high-throughput DNA sequencing, which simultaneously sequences millions of pieces of DNA, has been used to study moa at the population level. The findings highlight how past climate change has impacted species differently and that a ‘one size fits all’ model is impractical.

“It makes us wonder what will happen to species as they try to adapt to climate change now and in the future? Will they also try to move to new areas to survive?

“For some species this will not be possible, some species will run out of space, such as alpine species which will have to climb but will only be able to go until there is no more ‘high'”, explains- he.

Co-author Dr Nic Rawlence, director of the Otago Paleogenetics Laboratory, says the research is a rare example of the impacts of past climate change on New Zealand’s extinct megafauna. It also shows how fossil remains and museum collections can be used to answer new questions about the past.

“It really brings the power of paleogenomics to New Zealand research questions, where previously most research and interest was focused on Eurasian or American species. We are really starting to build capacity for this research in New Zealand,” he says.

This research was funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund and the University of Otago.

Reference: “Genetic Evidence for Post-Glacial Expansion of a Southern Refuge in the Eastern Moa (Emeus crassus)” by Alexander JF Verry, Kieren J. Mitchell, and Nicolas J. Rawlence, May 11, 2022, Biology Letters.
DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2022.0013

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