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DNA tests reverse "extinction" of rare New Zealand seabird

(Xinhua)

14:00, September 28, 2011

WELLINGTON, Sept. 27 (Xinhua) -- A rare seabird thought to be extinct has been declared alive after the DNA detective work by New Zealand scientists.

Tests of ancient and modern DNA by the scientists at the University of Otago confirmed that the New Zealand storm petrel still flies in the country's skies.

Senior lecturer in zoology Bruce Robertson, who led the study, said the research identified the storm petrel as a "distinct species" of seabird, rather than an extinct plumage variant or subspecies.

The findings justified establishing a program to try to restore the bird's numbers, said Robertson.

The researchers began taking blood samples from captured birds after the first bird thought to be the extinct storm petrel flew into the wheelhouse of a fishing vessel in the Hauraki Gulf, on the east of the North Island, in 2003.

They compared the DNA with that from three 150-year-old skins of the New Zealand storm petrel collected in the 1800s and held by museums in England and France.

"We found they were one and the same, and these birds are a distinct species of storm petrel," said Robertson.

"Since 2003, researchers had largely accepted that the bird was the New Zealand storm petrel, but until we had taxonomic certainty, the conservation effort to protect the bird was paralyzed; there was always going to be this controversy because no one knew exactly what the museum skins were.

"Hopefully now the New Zealand storm petrel will be given a conservation priority that would be given to a nationally endangered species. This will help us to fund further study of the bird, such as where it breeds."

With more information, scientists could better direct conservation efforts and begin a species recovery program, he said.

The findings of the study were published on-line in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

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