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The bird that came back from the dead: Extinct flightless species ‘comes back to life after evolving for second time’

A white-throated rail has been brought back to life due to rare process called iterative evolution. Credit: Charles J sharp/University of Portsmouth/PA

A flightless bird that became extinct when its home island became flooded by the sea has been brought back to life.

Scientists said the astonishing resurrection of the bird, a type of rail, occurred due to a rare process called iterative evolution.

It is the first time this has been seen in rails and is one of the most significant in bird records.

Experts found that on two occasions, separated by tens of thousands of years, a rail species was able to successfully colonise an isolated atoll called Aldabra in the Indian Ocean.

And on both occasions, the white-throated rail – indigenous to Madagascar– evolved completely independently to become flightless.

The research from the University of Portsmouth and Natural History Museum has found the last surviving colony of the flightless rails is still found on the island.

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A University of Portsmouth spokesman said: “This is the first time that iterative evolution – the repeated evolution of similar or parallel structures from the same ancestor but at different times – has been seen in rails and one of the most significant in bird records.”

He explained that the rail species are persistent colonisers that would migrate from Madagascar during frequent population explosions.

One group colonised the Aldabra atoll and because of the lack of predators, like the dodo of Mauritius, they evolved in a way that they lost the ability to fly.

He explained: “Aldabra disappeared when it was completely covered by the sea during a major inundation event around 136,000 years ago, wiping out all fauna and flora including the flightless rail.

“The researchers studied fossil evidence from 100,000 years ago when the sea-levels fell during the subsequent ice age and the atoll was recolonised by flightless rails.

Wing bones fossils of flighted (right) and flightless Dryolimnas rails Credit: University of Portsmouth/PA

“The researchers compared the bones of a fossilised rail from before the inundation event with bones from a rail after the inundation event.

“They found that the wing bone showed an advanced state of flightlessness and the ankle bones showed distinct properties that it was evolving toward flightlessness.

“This means that one species from Madagascar gave rise to two different species of flightless rail on Aldabra in the space of a few thousand years.”

Dr Julian Hume, avian paleontologist at the Natural History Museum, said: “These unique fossils provide irrefutable evidence that a member of the rail family colonised the atoll, most likely from Madagascar, and became flightless independently on each occasion.

“Fossil evidence presented here is unique for rails, and epitomises the ability of these birds to successfully colonise isolated islands and evolve flightlessness on multiple occasions.”

Co-author of the study published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, Professor David Martill – from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, said: “We know of no other example in rails, or of birds in general, that demonstrates this phenomenon so evidently.

“Only on Aldabra, which has the oldest palaeontological record of any oceanic island within the Indian Ocean region, is fossil evidence available that demonstrates the effects of changing sea levels on extinction and recolonisation events.

“Conditions were such on Aldabra, the most important being the absence of terrestrial predators and competing mammals, that a rail was able to evolve flightlessness independently on each occasion.”