Category Archives: Endangered Species

Local Funding Supports Open Access Sequencing of the Puerto Rican Parrot Genome

The critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata) is the only surviving parrot species native to the United States. (Credit: Image courtesy of BioMed Central Limited)

ScienceDaily (Sep. 27, 2012) — The critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata) is the only surviving parrot species native to the United States. A genomic sequencing project, funded by community donations, has published September 28, in BioMed Central and BGI’s open access journal GigaScience, the first sequence of A. vittata, the first of the large Neotropical Amazona birds to be studied at the genomic level.

 

The Puerto Rican Parrot was once abundant throughout Puerto Rico but destruction of old forest habitats to make way for farming in the 19th Century resulted in a drastic decline in their population. By the mid 1970’s only a handful of individuals were thought to remain. Captive breeding programs in Rio Abajo and El Yunque and the release of these birds have had some success, but the number of these birds in the wild is still very low.

In a unique initiative (developing of the Local Community Involvement), funded entirely by contributions from the communities of Puerto Rico alongside staff and students from the Biology Department of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, researchers collaborated internationally to sequence this beautiful parrot.

Dr Taras Oleksyk, who organized the The Puerto Rican Parrot Genome Project, explained their findings, “In this project we managed to cover almost 76% of the A. vittata genome using money raised in art and fashion shows, and going door to door asking for the support of Puerto Rican people and local businesses. When we compared our sequence of our parrot, Iguaca, from Rio Abajo to other species of birds, we found that she had 84.5% similarity to zebra finches and 82.7% to a chicken, but her genome was highly rearranged.”

Dr Oleksyk continued, “We are very proud of our project and even more proud to be part of a local community dedicated to raising awareness and furthering scientific knowledge of this endangered bird. All the data from this project is publically available in GigaDB which we hope will be a starting point for comparative studies across avian genome data, and will be used to develop and promote undergraduate education in genome science in the Caribbean. Community involvement may be the key for the future of conservation genetics, and many projects like this are needed reverse the current rate of extinction of birds across the globe.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Taras K Oleksyk, Jean-Francois Pombert, Daniel Siu, Anyimilehidi Mazo-Vargas, Brian Ramos, Wilfried Guiblet, Yashira Afanador, Christina T Ruiz-Rodriguez, Michael L Nickerson, David M Logue, Michael Dean, Luis Figueroa, Ricardo Valentin and Juan-Carlos Martinez-Cruzado. A locally funded Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) genome sequencing project increases avian data and advances young researcher educationGigaScience, 2012, 1:14
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Wandering Albatross Alters Its Foraging Due to Climate Change

This is a wandering albatross in flight in rough sea. (Credit: Paul Tixier/CNRS)

ScienceDaily (Jan. 12, 2012) — Wandering albatrosses have altered their foraging due to changes in wind fields in the southern hemisphere during the last decades. Since winds have increased in intensity and moved to the south, the flight speed of albatrosses increased and they spend less time foraging. As a consequence, breeding success has improved and birds have gained 1 kilogram. These are the results of the study of an international research team published in the latest issue of the Science journal. However, these positive consequences of climate change may last short if future wind fields follow predictions of climate change scenarios, researchers warn.

For this study, biologists had combined data on the duration of foraging trips and breeding success over the last 40 years, as well as foraging and body mass over the last 20 years of wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) breeding in Crozet Islands. This archipelago lies approximately in the heart of the southern Indian Ocean (halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica). It belongs to the French Southern Territories and it is located in the windiest part of the Southern Ocean. The new findings are the result of an international research team from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS-CEBC) and the German Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ).

Thanks to miniaturised tracking devices, researchers were able to track the foraging movement of albatrosses at a distance of 3500 kilometers from the colony. They found that albatross have altered their search patterns following changes in wind conditions over the past two decades. Females used increasingly more poleward and windy areas for foraging. As a consequence their travel speed increased while the total distance covered during foraging flights did not change. “This means that they spend less time at sea while incubating the egg and thus the breeding success increases” explains Dr. Henri Weimerskirch of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS-CEBC). Researchers were surprised that both females and males have increased their body mass in one kilogram, which corresponds approximately to one tenth of their total body weight. This could be not only a result of shorter incubation periods on the nest, but also an adaptation to windier conditions.

“The wandering albatross Crozet population has decreased as a result of adult mortality on longline fishing in subtropical waters, especially females since they favour warmer subtropical waters in the north compared to the more southerly distribution of males” says Dr. Maite Louzao Arsuaga, who has been modelling albatross movement from 2009 to 2011 at the UFZ. “Due to the changing wind conditions, females are now foraging in more southward areas where such fishing is not that widespread.” However, the positive effects of changing environmental conditions of the last decades will not last in the future. Climate scenarios predict that westerly winds will move even further south by 2080 and wandering albatrosses might have to fly further to find optimal conditions for flying.

The total population of the wandering albatross is currently estimated at around 8,000 breeding pairs. All populations have shown a decrease at some stage over the last 25 years. This endangered species is threatened primarily by incidental catch in fisheries, especially longline fishing at sea, whereas the introduction of alien species (such as rats or cats) are a key conservation threat for the species on breeding colonies. Additionally, the accumulation of anthropogenic debris such as plastic and fishing hooks on albatrosses have negative effects on their populations. Thus, it is important to continue with monitoring programs of population trends and distribution at sea, as well as to undertake effective conservation measures. The foraging habitat of wandering albatrosses is managed by more than one Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, which makes it difficult to implement conservation measures for the species.

The wandering albatross has fascinated people for centuries. With a wingspan of over three meters and a half, it is the largest seabird in the world, surpassing just the Andean condor (Vultur fulvus). This elegant sailor, which spends most of its life flying, breeds on remote subantarctic islands over the Southern Ocean. They travel thousand of kilometers searching for fish and cephalopods like squids, often following ships and feeding on offal. The plumage of wandering albatrosses is variable, whitening with age. The maximum known age is 55 years old. Since the rearing of chicks takes a whole year, they breed only every second year

Apart from the study published in the latest Science issue, the research team has identified the key marine areas for the conservation of wandering albatrosses in the southern Indian Ocean published in 2011 in the Journal of Applied Ecology. This study provided the first map to support the future development of a network of priority protected areas in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, which are based on habitat predictions. “Because the species has no natural enemies and is at the top of the food web, it is particularly well suited as an indicator of the health of marine ecosystems,” says Dr. Thorsten Wiegand from the UFZ, who supervised the work of Dr. Maite Louzao. “This could help not only a single species, but the underlying biodiversity associated with pelagic key habitats to protect Southern Ocean. Moreover, we have developed methods of habitat modelling broadly applicable and can be used to assess changes in species distribution within the current global change scenario.”

Journal References:

  1. H. Weimerskirch, M. Louzao, S. de Grissac, K. Delord.Changes in Wind Pattern Alter Albatross Distribution and Life-History TraitsScience, 2012; 335 (6065): 211 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210270
  2. Maite Louzao, David Pinaud, Clara Péron, Karine Delord, Thorsten Wiegand, Henri Weimerskirch. Conserving pelagic habitats: seascape modelling of an oceanic top predatorJournal of Applied Ecology, 2011; 48 (1): 121 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01910.x