DNA content and distribution in ancient feathers and potential to reconstruct the plumage of extinct avian taxa

Nicolas J. Rawlence, Jamie R. Wood, Kyle N. Armstrong, Alan Cooper


Feathers are known to contain amplifiable DNA at their base (calamus) and have provided an important genetic source from museum specimens. However, feathers in subfossil deposits generally only preserve the upper shaft and feather ‘vane’ which are thought to be unsuitable for DNA analysis. We analyse subfossil moa feathers from Holocene New Zealand rockshelter sites and demonstrate that both ancient DNA and plumage information can be recovered from their upper portion, allowing species identification and a means to reconstruct the appearance of extinct taxa. These ancient DNA sequences indicate that the distal portions of feathers are an untapped resource for studies of museum, palaeontological and modern specimens. We investigate the potential to reconstruct the plumage of pre-historically extinct avian taxa using subfossil remains, rather than assuming morphological uniformity with closely related extant taxa. To test the notion of colour persistence in subfossil feathers, we perform digital comparisons of feathers of the red-crowned parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae novaezelandiae) excavated from the same horizons as the moa feathers, with modern samples. The results suggest that the coloration of the moa feathers is authentic, and computer software is used to perform plumage reconstructions of moa based on subfossil remains.


    • Received May 1, 2009.
    • Accepted June 10, 2009.
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