Study revises theory on origin of extinct bird


POSTED: Sunday, December 21, 2008

HILO » They were among the first occupants of the Hawaiian Islands, arriving when the isles bore no resemblance to today's chain.

Biologists thought the Hawaiian birds known as honeyeaters were related to Australian birds because they looked similar, with long bills and tongues described as “;brush tipped.”;

But now DNA tests on a family of native honeyeaters, including several species of 'o'o birds, have proven they are not related to similar birds in Australia, according to a report in Current Biology. It appears the unrelated birds came to look alike because they use the same method to gather food.

Instead, the honeyeaters are related to birds called waxwings, silky flycatchers, and palm-chats, said the article's author, Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian Institution.

The news comes too late to benefit any honeyeater interested in its genealogy. After as long as 17 million years in the Hawaiian Islands, the last of this isolated family of birds died out about 1985.

Arriving about 14 to 17 million years ago, the nectar-feeding birds would have been here even before today's Hawaiian Islands rose out of the sea, Fleischer said. They were introduced to the world after the arrival of Captain James Cook.

The only major trace of them left is in the name Puu Oo, applied to several locations, including the volcanic cone on the east rift of Kilauea.