Australians, let us rejoice that the Emu and the Cassowary can now hold their proud Aussie heads even higher with the welcome news that they are not related to that pathetic little scrub rat, the Kiwi.
A distinguished group of researchers at Adelaide University’s Centre for Ancient DNA has proven, beyond the slightest shadow of doubt, that the Kiwi’s closest relative is the long-extinct Elephant Bird which lived until the 17th or 18th century in Madagascar. Yes, their DNA is a perfect match.
Some might argue that this team – ably led by Professor Alan Cooper – should have at least waited until after the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings next year to announce their findings but, then again, the truth will and must come out.
Professor Cooper, while understandably proud of what his team has uncovered, is a rarity among Australian – he can manfully admit that he was wrong in the past for contributing to the terrible cloud of ignominy that hovered over our unique and precious flightless birds. Even he believed that our statuesque birds could have been related to New Zealand’s sad, pathetic and useless Kiwi.
I don’t want to gloat but I could have told the professor years ago that the Emu and the Cassowary didn’t share family roots with the Kiwi. I mean you only have to look at them to realise that.
Still shaking his head in surprise, Professor Cooper admitted that the result was as “bizarre as you can get”.
He continued, “It’s great to finally set the record straight as New Zealanders were shocked and dismayed to find that the national bird appeared to be an Australian immigrant. I can only apologise it has taken so long”.
I don’t want to be picky but that would have been better said thus, “It’s great to finally set the record straight as Australians were shocked and dismayed when told the Emu and the Cassowary were related to the Kiwi. I can only apologise it has taken so long”.
For those who don’t know, the Elephant Bird of Madagascar stood 2.3 metres tall when all grown up.
Professor Cooper has a fine turn of phrase for a chap who spends his life peering down microscopes at bits of long-dead animals and he explained the rapid extinction of the Elephant Bird as the result of humans realising that the bird was “KFC on steroids”.
As recently as December 2013, another Adelaide academic, Dr Trevor Worthy of Flinders University was alleging that the Kiwi flew from Australia to New Zealand after studying fossils he found in New Zealand’s South Island.
“Since it’s a tiny little bird it probably was almost certainly flighted, so this supports the idea that it flew over from Australia or the Australian part of Gondwana,” he said.
We used to be called Gondwana ages and ages ago until our wide brown land got rid of the bits we didn’t really want – like New Zealand.
Being not just a brilliant scholar but a thorough gentleman, Professor Cooper invited Dr Worthy to lunch to break the shattering news and, not surprisingly, according to the Professor, Dr Worthy “just about choked”.
A New Zealand boffin Paul Scofield from Canterbury Museum had worked with Dr Worthy on the project and said at the time, “What we haven’t found is the smoking gun which is a wing bone. The wings of Kiwis today are only about an inch long in total and for a bird that weighs two kilos that’s obviously impossible for them to fly. But if we can find those, then we will pretty well have clinched it. We’ll know that the Kiwi flew across the Tasman”.
He went on to say apropos having the Kiwi as the national bird, “I sort of feel that we probably made a mistake choosing Kiwi but remember when Kiwi was chosen as a icon over 120 years ago, hardly anyone knew what these snuffling little nocturnal birds were. They’ve really become this icon because of all of the associations with rugby teams, and even our Air Force has the flightless Kiwi as the emblem which is a trifle ironic”.
His reference to the Royal New Zealand Air Force is a gentle one – after all, the man has to live there. In fact, having the Kiwi as its emblem is entirely appropriate for an air force which has no fighters or bombers – it has a few rather elderly propeller-driven aircraft, some helicopters and some transport planes.
Even Madagascar, the once-home of the Elephant Bird, and one of Africa’s poorest countries has an Air Force which, apparently, still has some MiG-17s, a jet fighter produced by the old Soviet Union from about 1952.
I understand that the Elephant Bird is not their emblem.
Does this information surprise you? Are you more proud of the Emu and the Cassowary now or does this not make a difference? Share your thoughts on Russell’s article below.