Sunday, August 7, 2011

Genetic Techniques Being Developed for Parrot Conservation in Tambopata

Scarlet Macaw in Yucatan, Mexico.                                   Image via WikipediaBy Danielle Krautmann

Parrot species tend to be as endangered as they are charismatic. Threats such as habitat destruction and the capture of wild birds for the pet trade have resulted in nearly 30% of neotropical parrot species being threatened with extinction.

Major challenges to reversing this unfortunate trend include:

- Low reproductive rates of many macaws, parrots, and parakeets
- Not knowing how many birds are needed to maintain viable populations
- Information is also needed regarding the susceptibility of macaws and other parrot species to forest fragmentation.

This latter concern has become particularly relevant for the Tambopata region because of the Interoceanic Highway. This new road abuts the northern edge of Tambopata and could result in higher levels of deforestation as it becomes an increasingly important conduit between Brazil and the Pacific coast.

George Olah hopes to develop genetic techniques that can assess population size of Scarlet Macaws in Tambopata, their movements, and the extent to which they are affected by forest fragmentation.

He does this by:

- Using capture - recapture sampling on DNA extracted from blood and feather samples
- Using genetic variability to estimate population size
- Using genetic tagging to estimate territorial needs

Capture - recapture sampling works like this: imagine you are in a small town, and you start jotting down license plates. It will not be too long before you come across the same license plates. Based on how frequently you come across the same license plates, you can estimate the total size of the license plate "population", by way of statistics. The same is true of genes in DNA. Think of selected genes as license plates.

Genetic variability is another important aspect of this study. Large variability means a population is either very large, very diverse or both. The more diversity, the healthier it will be, and the least susceptible to inbreeding.
This doctoral student from the Australian National University is collecting Red-and-green Macaw and Scarlet Macaw feathers at clay licks and nests near our lodges for a genetic study that will hopefully provide the answers to:

- Determine the minimum territory required for genetically sustainable macaw populations
- Monitor the health of macaw populations over time in Tambopata
- Use similar techniques to conserve parrots in other parts of the world

We are happy to have George carry out this important project at the Tambopata Research Center and are pleased that guests staying at the Tambopata Research Center between the months of November and April in 2011 and 2012 will have the chance to speak with him in person about this ongoing study.

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