Skip to main page content
Access keys NCBI Homepage MyNCBI Homepage Main Content Main Navigation
, 3 (1), e9

Ancient DNA Provides New Insights Into the Evolutionary History of New Zealand's Extinct Giant Eagle


Ancient DNA Provides New Insights Into the Evolutionary History of New Zealand's Extinct Giant Eagle

Michael Bunce et al. PLoS Biol.


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.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Images and Phylogenetic Analysis of New Zealand's Extinct Giant Eagle, H. moorei
(A) An artist's impression of H. moorei attacking the extinct New Zealand moa. Evidence of eagle strikes are preserved on skeletons of moa weighing up to 200 kg. These skeletons show the eagle struck and gripped the moa's pelvic area, and then killed with a single strike by the other foot to the head or neck. (Artwork: John Megahan.) (B) Comparison of the huge claws of H. moorei with those of its close relative the Hieraaetus morphnoides, the “little” eagle. The massive claws of H. moorei could pierce and crush bone up to 6 mm thick under 50 mm of skin and flesh. (C) Maximum-likelihood tree based on cyt b data (circa 1 kb), depicting phylogenetic relationships within the “booted eagle” group. Extraction numbers or GenBank accession numbers are shown along with taxa name. Harpagornis moorei (red) groups exclusively with the small Hieraaetus eagles, and genetic distances suggest a recent common ancestor about 0.7–1.8 million years ago (early to mid Pleistocene). The tree uses an HKY + Γ4 + I likelihood model enforcing a molecular clock; maximum-likelihood bootstrap consensus values greater than 60% are shown.

Similar articles

See all similar articles

Cited by 9 PubMed Central articles

See all "Cited by" articles


    1. Worthy TH, Holdaway RN. The lost world of the moa: Prehistoric life of New Zealand. Bloomington (Indiana): Indiana University Press; 2002. 718 pp.
    1. Holdaway RN. An exploratory phylogenetic analysis of the genera of the Accipitridae, with notes on the biogeograhy of the family. In: Meyburg BU, Chancellor RD, editors. Raptor conservation today. Berlin: WORLD Working Group on Birds of Prey and Owls and the Pica Press; 1994. pp. 601–649.
    1. Palkovacs EP. Explaining adaptive shifts in body size on islands: A life history approach. Oikos. 2003;103:37–44.
    1. Cooper A, Poinar HN. Ancient DNA: Do it right or not at all. Science. 2000;289:1139–1139. - PubMed
    1. Krajewski C, King DG. Molecular divergence and phylogeny: Rates and patterns of cytochrome b evolution in cranes. Mol Biol Evol. 1996;13:21–30. - PubMed

Publication types