About a year ago, Lab Times exclusively reported on a newly discovered bird species that lays colourful eggs, on Easter Island. Tangata manu, as the animal was later named, is a very reclusive chicken-like creature and has been part of a ritual ceremony for Easter Islanders for centuries. Now, zoologist Ernest Bunnyway from Uovo University and ethnologist Birdy Egglestone, who first made the astonishing find, are back with more data.
“It took us almost an eternity to locate and catch a specimen of T. manu in the densely wooded northern part of the island,” shares Egglestone. “Many nights we were lying in wait and also in vain for the bird to show up. It’s very shy, you know.” Then, one night, an unwary hen fell into the scientists’ trap. With several blood and feather samples taken, the two researchers had enough material to release the bird back into the wild and continue their studies in the lab at Uovo University.
“What we were most interested in, was the bird’s phylogenetic relationship. It’s well known that geographic isolation can have a tremendous effect on speciation,” Bunnyway tells us. Before you could say, Happy Easter, the scientist had already extracted the DNA from the blood samples they had collected, and sequenced it. Indeed, they found that T. manu doesn’t belong to any known bird family. Hence, they put it on a new branch of the bird family tree, the Easteridae.
Digging deeper into T. manu’s genome, Bunnyway identified a totally new gene, only present in the Easter Island bird. Naming it pascua1, the scientists hypothesise that the gene and its splice variants code for proteins involved with egg colouration and patterning (dots, zig-zag lines, etc.). Then, Bunnyway stumbled across something even more unexpected. “When I looked at the computer screen showing our sequence alignment analysis, you could have knocked me over with a feather,” says Bunnyway, still shocked. “Our chicken-like bird seems to be related to lagomorphs. Yes, that’s modern day rabbits and hares.” Unbelievable!
Do T. manu and rabbits have a common ancestor; did they interbreed? “We have absolutely no clue,” admits Bunnyway. Only further experiments will provide clarity, he says.
Surely, we will hear more from Bunnyway and Egglestone in about a year or so. Until then…