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Scientists Unlock Mystery Identity Of Island Parrot

Fossilized parrot bones discovered on the Chatham Islands near New Zealand puzzled researchers for more than a century.

Natalie Voss

Nestor chathamensis
© Landcare Research
Nestor chathamensis, the extinct Chatham Islands parrot.

Researchers have puzzled over the identity of a set of fossilized parrot bones for more than a century, and the mystery was finally solved this month. Scientists from Landcare Research in New Zealand used DNA analysis to determine the bones, which were found on the Chatham Islands near New Zealand, belonged to a new species of parrot. The bird has since been dubbed the Nestor chathamensis, although bird watchers will have a tough time finding it — the parrot has likely been extinct from around the time the first human settlers landed on the island.

In a report published in the latest issue of Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, researchers say the bird’s classification has probably been a source of confusion because of its large thigh bones and wide pelvis, which suggest that the Nestor chathamensis spent a lot of time walking on land. Walking wasn’t its only means of transportation, however.

"We think it probably could fly,” said Jamie Wood, PhD, a researcher at Landcare Research in Lincoln, New Zealand. "When most bird species become flightless the wings tend to reduce in size. However, when we measured the wing and leg bones of this parrot and compared them to the size of the skull — to standardize for body size — we found that actually the wings hadn’t reduced in size but the legs had got larger. This suggests it did spend a lot of time walking around but probably still had the ability to fly.”

Wood specializes in working with ancient DNA, which he said can be a challenge.

"In this case the parrot bones were probably 2,000 years old,” he said. "When DNA is this old it gets pretty fragmented and is at very low abundance, making it difficult to work with.”

That extraction proved that Nestor chathamensis was most closely related to the New Zealand kaka, a medium-sized parrot with gray-brown feathers interrupted by flashes of bright red or orange under the wings. For years, scientists have wondered whether the skeleton belonged to a kaka, although the bird’s beak was too long; several also suggested it could be related to the kea or even the kakapo. In the 1990s, researchers put forth the idea that the skeleton was its own species, but Wood said no one had followed up on the idea since. His analysis of DNA extracted from the fossilized bones determined that the Nestor chathamensis was most closely related to the kaka but was in fact different enough to merit its own classification.

Nestor chathamensis was probably a descendant of a kaka that flew to the Chatham Islands about 1.75 million years ago, not long after the islands popped up above sea level. Wood said it’s impossible to know from bones what the bird’s feathers looked like, but its close relationship to the kaka would suggest it might have had a similarly dull overcoat on the upper body to help it blend in with the ground, with flashes of color under the wing.

Wood also guessed the Nestor chathamensis had a wide range of vocalizations like the kaka, which varies from screeches to whistles to melodic warbles. (Hear examples here.) The kaka does not have the ability to produce human-like vocalizations like many species of domestic parrots.

Researchers believe Nestor chathamensis became extinct because it spent so much time walking, making it easy prey for both humans and the rats that likely came over with them.

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Posted: September 25, 2014, 7:15 a.m. PDT

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Scientists Unlock Mystery Identity Of Island Parrot

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Reader Comments
If the picture that is with the article is supposed to be representative of the of the fossilized parrot that was found, then it looks something like a kakapoo. Good article!!
Rocket, manchester, NJ
Posted: 9/25/2015 6:51:49 PM
If the picture posted is supposed to be representative of the fossil parrot, then it looks sort of like an african gray. Thanks for sharing.
kay, manchester, NJ
Posted: 6/28/2015 6:48:11 PM
I love living in New Zealand. We have such underrated birds though. A lot are shy but like typical parrots the parrots here display the same inquisitive, cheeky demeanor. My favourite is the Kakapo (not the same as the kaka, quite a shy bird too). They are so chubby and look like they have fern patterns. I love their little whisker feathers on their cheeks :)
Casey, International
Posted: 4/14/2015 12:44:19 AM
Very interesting. thx.
janet, henderson, NV
Posted: 9/30/2014 6:55:47 AM
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