Mar 14, 2018 I Brett Tingley

A Mummified Claw Could Mean the De-Extinction of a Giant Prehistoric Bird

Between 1250 and 1300, Polynesian sailors settled the islands which today are recognized as New Zealand. As these first settlers began to develop the Māori culture, they hunted the local fauna, chief among which was the giant moa. This flightless bird stood 3.6 m (12 ft) in height and could weigh up to 225 kilograms (500 lbs). Like in all cases of human settlement, the introduction of the human predator unfortunately brought about a swift extinction for the several moa species on the island and today these emu relatives are known only through fossils.

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English naturalist Sir Richard Owen poses beside a near-complete giant moa skeleton.

However, many moa fragments have been discovered with soft tissues still intact. Archaeologists excavating a cave system in New Zealand’s Mount Owen a few decades ago unearthed a near-intact moa claw complete with feathers, scales, and muscle. Scientists have spent decades analyzing the sample in hopes of sequencing the moa genome. Luckily, molecular paleontology has advanced to Jurassic Park-like levels of sophistication, meaning this massive claw could soon mean a de-extinction of the moa. In a new study published in PNAS, an international team of geneticists reports the first full complete genomic reconstruction of the moa. Will this giant, terrifying (but luckily herbivorous) bird be resurrected with modern science?

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A well-preserved moa head (sans lower beak) discovered in 1949.

That’s still up in the air. Scientists have for decades speculated about the possibility of reviving the moa, but this newly sequenced moa genome represents the first time scientists have had a full genome on this extinct branch of bird evolution. Still, there are bioethicists who argue that extinct species shouldn’t be brought back out of fears of disturbing modern-day ecosystems - or worse. We all saw Jurassic Park. Or “Bart vs. Australia.” The Simpsons were pure gold back then.

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Although there's nothing funny about the ecological damage the cane toad has brought to Australia.

Still, there are dozens of animals which have gone extinct relatively recently which scientists say can be brought back. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, though. Is it best to let sleeping moas lie? Or will we soon have another white meat option on the butcher’s block? Eating a guitar-sized roast moa leg would be pretty satisfying.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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