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PLoS Biol. 2005 Jan;3(1):e9. Epub 2005 Jan 4.

Ancient DNA provides new insights into the evolutionary history of New Zealand's extinct giant eagle.

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Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre, Department of Zoology University of Oxford, United Kingdom.


Prior to human settlement 700 years ago New Zealand had no terrestrial mammals--apart from three species of bats--instead, approximately 250 avian species dominated the ecosystem. At the top of the food chain was the extinct Haast's eagle, Harpagornis moorei. H. moorei (10-15 kg; 2-3 m wingspan) was 30%-40% heavier than the largest extant eagle (the harpy eagle, Harpia harpyja), and hunted moa up to 15 times its weight. In a dramatic example of morphological plasticity and rapid size increase, we show that the H. moorei was very closely related to one of the world's smallest extant eagles, which is one-tenth its mass. This spectacular evolutionary change illustrates the potential speed of size alteration within lineages of vertebrates, especially in island ecosystems.

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