The mystery kiwi

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The first kiwi sent from New Zealand to Europe arrived in England around 1812. Its insides had been removed, its skin and feathers preserved, and its little body flattened into an un-lifelike shape. It was a tokoeka/South Island brown kiwi, and it became the holotype of the species, the individual animal associated with the scientific name given to it in 1813, Apteryx australis.

Where exactly the specimen came from was a mystery. Naturalists assumed it was collected in Fiordland’s Dusky Sound.

Now, cutting-edge ancient-DNA techniques have revealed its true origins—which means new scientific names will need to be found for three other groups of tokoeka.

In 2017, Canterbury Museum curators Paul Scofield and Vanesa De Pietri visited the holotype at the World Museum Liverpool, where they were given a sample of the bird’s skin the size of a fingernail clipping.

Back in New Zealand, Scofield and colleagues mapped the kiwi’s mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, then compared the sequences with the genomes of living kiwi. The results showed the specimen was genetically distinct from the Fiordland tokoeka, meaning it wasn’t from Fiordland at all. Instead, it was from the world’s southernmost kiwi population, on Rakiura/Stewart Island.

Researchers checked their finding against the historical record, and it stacked up. When the kiwi specimen was collected in 1811, Fiordland seal populations had been cleaned out, and the few sealing gangs remaining had moved to the northern side of Foveaux Strait. Using shipping data from early newspapers, Scofield’s team established that just one vessel, the Sydney Cove, was sealing near South Cape on Rakiura at the time. One of those sealers probably caught the kiwi.

When the sealing crew landed in Sydney, they sold seal and kiwi skins to Andrew Barclay, the captain of a convict ship and former privateer (during the Napoleonic Wars, he obtained a licence from the British monarchy to board and sink French ships). Barclay sailed to China, where the seal skins would be made into leather for top hats, then continued to London. The kiwi specimen ended up in the private collection of George Shaw, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, who bestowed its scientific name.

Now that we know the kiwi came from Rakiura, according to the rules of taxonomy, the Rakiura population must now take the Apteryx australis name—an appropriate one, as australis means southern.

Research continues into whether the genetically distinct populations of tokoeka on Rakiura and in southern Fiordland, northern Fiordland and Haast are separate species or subspecies. Once that’s been figured out, the three other groups will need new scientific names—an opportunity to use Māori terms for these taonga.

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