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Piecing our history together

Piecing our history together

A study at Palaecol Research is putting pieces of our past together using radiocarbon dating.

Research by Richard Holdaway is finding out when certain key species of birds became extinct, by collecting and radiocarbon dating fossil bones from natural sites all over New Zealand.

"The Moas are known to have survived until some time after Polynesian settlement began. However, we do not know when most of the smaller birds such as petrels and ducks vanished," said Dr Holdaway.

"These include species that are likely to have been affected by the first of the predatory mammals to be introduced by people, the Pacific rat.

"By obtaining the radiocarbon age of specimens of the extinct Finsch's duck and the New Zealand owlet-nightjar, it is then possible to calculate extinction dates for these key species."

Early results show that the flightless duck was well on the way to extinction before Polynesian settlement began in the mid-thirteenth century.

The research, an investment of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology has also produced an entirely unexpected outcome, information about our past climate conditions.

"We are developing a method that promises to provide important information to scientists about past climates in the southwest Pacific," said Dr Holdaway.

"We have discovered that the bone gelatin used for determining the age of bird specimens contains valuable information on the rainfall when the bird was alive. The level of enrichment in the bird gelatin depended on the amount of water available to the plants that the duck (and probably other species) fed on." Still under development, the technique promises to give information on our climate back to about 38,000 years ago.

For further information:

Dr Richard N. Holdaway, Palaecol Research Tel (03) 354 0024

Madeleine Setchell, Communications Adviser Foundation for Research, Science and Technology PO Box 12-240, Wellington Tel 04 9177806 Mobile 025 40 60 40

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