The extinct moa–nalos were very large, flightless waterfowl from the Hawaiian islands. We extracted, amplified and sequenced mitochondrial DNA from fossil moa–nalo bones to determine their systematic relationships and lend insight into their biogeographical history. The closest living relatives of these massive, goose–like birds are the familiar dabbling ducks (tribe Anatini). Moa–nalos, however, are not closely related to any one extant species, but represent an ancient lineage that colonized the Hawaiian islands and evolved flightlessness long before the emergence of the youngest island, Hawaii, from which they are absent. Ancient DNA yields a novel hypothesis for the relationships of these bizarre birds, whereas the evidence of phylogeny in morphological characters was obscured by the evolutionary transformation of a small, volant duck into a giant, terrestrial herbivore.