A rare sea bird that was thought to have become extinct has now been declared alive after DNA work by New Zealand scientists.

Tests of ancient and modern DNA by scientists at the University of Otago confirmed that the New Zealand storm petrel still flies in the country’s skies.

Bruce Robertson, senior lecturer in zoology who led the study, said the research identified the storm petrel as a “distinct species” of sea bird, rather than an extinct plumage variant or sub-species.

The findings justified establishing a programme to try to restore the bird’s numbers, he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

The researchers began taking blood samples from captured birds after a first bird thought to be the extinct storm petrel flew into the wheel-house of a fishing vessel in the Hauraki Gulf on the east of New Zealand’s North Island in 2003.

They compared the DNA with that from three 150-year-old skins of similar birds collected in the 1800s and held in museums in Britain and France.

“We found they were one and the same, and these birds are a distinct species of storm petrel,” said Robertson.

“Since 2003, researchers had largely accepted that the bird was the New Zealand storm petrel, but until we had taxonomic certainty, the conservation effort to protect the bird was paralysed. There was always going to be this controversy because no one knew exactly what the museum skins were,” he said.

“Hopefully now the New Zealand storm petrel will be given a conservation priority that would be given to a nationally endangered species. This will help us to fund further study of the bird, such as where it breeds.”

The findings of the study were published online in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.