Emu DNA uncovers size secrets of our native bird

Emu image

Genetics researchers from the Faculty of Sciences have discovered that the size of emus correlated to the size of the islands they inhabited.

Emus that lived isolated on Australia’s offshore islands until the 19th century, including Kangaroo Island, King Island and Tasmania, were smaller versions of their larger mainland relatives.

The study analysed the DNA and bone measurements of the now extinct small emus, using both ancient and modern museum specimens. The study revealed that the small stature of the island emus evolved relatively quickly.

Australia’s iconic emu is the only living representative of its genus but fossil evidence and reports from early European explorers suggest that three island forms became extinct during the 19th Century. While the King Island emu had already been shown to be of the same species as the Australian mainland emu, little was known about the evolutionary relationships of the others.

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Tagged in Research, Environmental Science, School of Biological Sciences, Ecology, Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics