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Pre-human clues found in ancient bird dung

Researchers have managed to get a peek into pre-human New Zealand after finding feces of giant extinct birds buried in caves and rock shelters in remote areas across southern New Zealand.
/ Source: Reuters

Researchers have managed to get a peek into pre-human New Zealand after finding feces of giant extinct birds buried in caves and rock shelters in remote areas across southern New Zealand.

The scientists traced most of the 1,500 pieces of dung to the flightless and now extinct moa bird, which weighed as much as 250 kilograms and measured up to three meters in height.

Some of the feces recovered was up to 15 centimeters in length and dated from about 4,000 to a few hundred years ago, Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, told Reuters.

Using modern DNA technology, researchers matched the feces to specific moa species and also matched bits of leaves and seeds embedded in the dung to known plant species.

"We matched leaves, seeds to plants known to us, but where it involved leaves and seeds that have never been identified, they may involve plants that are already extinct," Cooper said.

"The giant birds were eating a range of plants of which half were less than 30 cm in height, so they were kind of like grazing, which is a major change from what we thought, that they were eating (bigger plants like) trees and shrubs," he said.

Published in the Quaternary Science Reviews, the study also appeared to explain why some plant species may be rare or threatened in current times.

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