Article image

Genetic study could help save helmeted honeyeaters

Researchers from Monash University are one step closer to saving the critically endangered helmeted honeyeater, an iconic bird that serves as the emblem of the Australian state of Victoria. 

The scientists sequenced the honeyeater’s chromosomes, which is a more detailed approach than a simple genetic sequencing. A high density genetic map was created, detailing over 50,000 marker positions.     

The results of the genetic analysis will allow researchers to examine the impact of breeding helmeted honeyeaters with another subspecies, and will also help experts monitor their overall health. 

Helmeted honeyeaters are beautiful yellow and black birds native to Australia. Unfortunately, honeyeater populations have declined dramatically since the arrival of white colonists in Australia. 

By the 1980s, approximately 50 individuals survived the decimation. All of the birds were found in Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve, due to habitat restoration and captive breeding, their population has grown to 250 birds. 

It’s not all a conservation story for the helmeted honeyeaters. Because the bird’s population dropped so low, most of the remaining birds are close relatives and inbreeding and reproductive problems are common. 

To combat the inbreeding, conservationists have been breeding the birds with closely related subspecies to improve genetic diversity. 

“Because the helmeted honeyeater is the last of its kind, genetic augmentation must come from a different subspecies. However, this kind of genetic mixing is not common: conservation managers generally avoid crossing subspecies for fear of losing local adaptation and distinctiveness,” explained Dr. Alexandra Pavlova.

Now, with the high quality genetic material available, conservationists can look at the consequences of each captive breeding operation. This information can be used as a guide for the conservation efforts and hopefully successfully restore the population. 

“The genome sequence and the genetic map will be used to get the right balance between rescuing the helmeted honeyeater from extinction through inbreeding, while retaining unique features that make it a helmeted honeyeater,” said study lead author Diana Robledo-Ruiz.

The study is published in the journal GigaScience.

Image Credit: Nick Bradsworth

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day