Ancient DNA has revealed the kiwi's closest relative isn't the emu
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Image: Eric Isselee/Shutterstock & Wikimedia

The kiwi isn't the first New Zealand icon Australia has controversially laid claim to - think Russell Crowe and the Pavlova. 

But ancient DNA has now proved that the kiwi officially didn't originate in Australia and its closest relative isn't the emu, as previously thought.

Instead, scientists from the University of Adelaide have discovered its closest relative is the extinct Madagascan elephant bird - a two to three metre-tall, 275 kg giant.

And surprisingly, the research also revealed that both the kiwi and the elephant bird once flew.

The study by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA is published in Science, and has solved a 150-year-old mystery about the origins of the giant flightless “ratite” birds, including the emu and ostrich, which are found across the southern continents. 

The different "ratite" species were believed to have formed because they were isolated by the separation of the southern contents due to the fact they were flightless.

But now the discovery of the close similarity between ancient Madagascan elephant bird DNA and kiwi DNA suggests that the ratites must have spread around the world by flight, as New Zealand and Madagascar were only ever distantly physically joined via Antarctica and Australia.

“This result was about as unexpected as you could get,” Kieren Mitchell, PhD candidate with ACAD, who performed the work, said in a press release. 

The breakthrough corrects previous work by University of Adelaide Professor Alan Cooper in the '90s which suggested the emu was the closest relative of the kiwi.

“It’s great to finally set the record straight, as New Zealanders were shocked and dismayed to find that the national bird appeared to be an Australian immigrant,” Professor Cooper said in a press release. “I can only apologise it has taken so long!”

Source: The University of Adelaide