Coprolites reveal ecological interactions lost with the extinction of New Zealand birds

Alexander P. Boast, Laura S. Weyrich, Jamie R. Wood, Jessica L. Metcalf, Rob Knight, Alan Cooper

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12 Scopus citations

Abstract

Over the past 50,000 y, biotic extinctions and declines have left a legacy of vacant niches and broken ecological interactions across global terrestrial ecosystems. Reconstructing the natural, unmodified ecosystems that preceded these events relies on high-resolution analyses of paleoecological deposits. Coprolites are a source of uniquely detailed information about trophic interactions and the behaviors, gut parasite communities, and microbiotas of prehistoric animal species. Such insights are critical for understanding the legacy effects of extinctions on ecosystems, and can help guide contemporary conservation and ecosystem restoration efforts. Here we use high-throughput sequencing (HTS) of ancient eukaryotic DNA from coprolites to reconstruct aspects of the biology and ecology of four species of extinct moa and the critically endangered kakapo parrot from New Zealand (NZ). Importantly, we provide evidence that moa and prehistoric kakapo consumed ectomycorrhizal fungi, suggesting these birds played a role in dispersing fungi that are key to NZ’s natural forest ecosystems. We also provide the first DNA-based evidence that moa frequently supplemented their broad diets with ferns and mosses. Finally, we also find parasite taxa that provide insight into moa behavior, and present data supporting the hypothesis of coextinction between moa and several parasite species. Our study demonstrates that HTS sequencing of coprolites provides a powerful tool for resolving key aspects of ancient ecosystems and may rapidly provide information not obtainable by conventional paleoecological techniques, such as fossil analyses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1546-1551
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume115
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 13 2018

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