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DNA from dung – reconstructing prehistoric ecosystems

Associate Professor Janet Wilmshurst FRSNZ and Dr Jaime Wood working in the field

Posted: Thu, 3 Nov 2016

Ancient-DNA technology is a rapidly growing field worldwide, driven by new analytical techniques (next generation sequencing) and more precise extraction. In New Zealand, recently set up laboratories are powering an explosion of investigations into the past.

Associate Professor Janet Wilmshurst from Landcare Research and the University of Auckland is one of several researchers in this field to receive Marsden funding. Associate Professor Wilmshurst and her team will study DNA, pollen, seeds, feathers and parts of invertebrates and plants from newly discovered kiore (Pacific rat) coprolites (preserved dung) found in rock crevices in Central Otago. The team will also seek out other sites of kiore coprolites in the North and South Islands.

The kiore was the first and only exotic mammal to naturalise in New Zealand in the 500 years before European settlement. With the discovery of these coprolites the complete history of a rat invasion can be reconstructed, right back to the kiore’s arrival with Māori in the 13th century.

By analysing DNA in ancient kiore dung, Associate Professor Wilmshurst will find out what these invasive rats were feeding on (e.g. birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, plants). Radiocarbon dating will reveal how the diet of these rats, and their impact on vulnerable animals and plants, changed over time.

Other questions the project will address are the role kiore played in seed predation and dispersal, and whether rat predation contributed to the extinction of much larger animals such as the moa, more than is currently believed.

This project will provide a global benchmark for understanding prehistoric island invasions and rat impacts on a pristine island ecosystem.

Total Funding: $830,000 (excl. GST) over 3 years

Researchers: Associate Professor Janet Wilmshurst, Landcare Research (and University of Auckland), PO Box 69040, Lincoln 7640