BRIEFING: The Kiwi’s ‘bizzare’ closest relative

A new study has found that Kiwi’s closest relative is the now extinct 2.3-metre tall elephant bird from Madagascar.

An artists impression of the elephant bird, or Aepyornis maximus, in the spiny forest of ancient Madagascar. (Brian Choo)

The research from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), has solved a 150-year-old evolutionary mystery about the origins of the giant flightless “ratite” birds, such as the emu and ostrich, which are found across the southern continents. This group contains some of the world’s largest birds – such as the extinct giant moa of New Zealand and elephant birds of Madagascar.

The different “ratite” species were long thought to have formed as the flightless birds were isolated by the separation of the southern continents over the last 130 million years.

However, ancient DNA extracted from bones of two elephant birds held by the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, has revealed a close genetic connection with the kiwi, despite the striking differences in geography, morphology and ecology between the two. The study was published in the journal Science today.

The results correct previous work by ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper conducted in the 1990s, which had shown the closest living relatives of the kiwi were the Australian emu and cassowary. “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,” says Professor Cooper. “I can only apologise it has taken so long!”

“It’s about as bizarre a finding as you can get.”

The Science Media Centre held an online briefing with experts involved in the research at the Te Papa collections in Wellington. You can watch the briefing via the embedded video on the left.


  • Professor Alan Cooper, Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide
  • Alan Tennyson, Curator of vertebrates at Te Papa Tongarewa (Q&A)


The research has been widely reported around the globe. Examples include:

New Scientist: Emu-style birds have abandoned flight six times
The Conversation: Rewriting the origin of New Zealand’s kiwi bird ancestors
National Geographic: The Surprising Closest Relative of the Huge Elephant Birds
New York Times: A Theory on How Flightless Birds Spread Across the World: They Flew There
NBC News: Strange Relatives: Little Kiwi, Giant Elephant Bird Linked by DNA

Examples of national coverage include: