Strategic Initiatives

Bringing Our Rarest Birds Back from the Brink

Despite having less than 1% of the earth’s landmass New Zealand is home to 13% of the rare and endangered birds in the world. This project, which began in 2012, develops new tools to support the Department of Conservation’s management of our rarest bird species and efforts to maximise genetic diversity in future generations. Co-ordinated by AWC PI Professor Ian Jamieson, it focuses on the relationship between genetic diversity and susceptibility to disease.

Many birds including the saddleback (tīeke), robin (toutouwai), kākāpō and takahē are known to have undergone severe population losses in the past, due to the introduction of mammalian predators and habitat loss. When numbers drop in a species it can undergo a ‘bottleneck’ period, where very few individuals exist to pass on their genes to the next generations; resulting in a large reduction in the genetic variability of the species. Ian leads the Threatened-Bird Research Group at the University of Otago, which uses fieldwork, molecular genetics and population modeling techniques to explore how the loss of genetic diversity affects the survival and long-term adaptability of rare bird species. The project will build on pioneering work by Ian and his postdoctoral researcher Dr Catherine Greuber that has targeted the Toll-like receptor (TLR) genes, which contribute to the immune response, and show great promise as a new conservation genetics marker.

Key Benefits

  • Development of new genetic conservation technologies
  • Increased survival rates for our rarest animals, and reduced risk of extinction
  • Contribution to New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy

Ian speaks with Kathryn Ryan on the Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme (4 October 2012) about the genetic risks of trying to rebuild native bird populations.