GENETIC RESEARCH

To reliably identify taxa that require attention, and to evaluate progress and/or effectiveness of conservation actions, accurate status assessments are required. Genetic research is needed for a variety of conservation targets, including guidance for breeding programmes to avoid inbreeding between closely related individuals, identification of pure (non-introgressed) individuals for breeding programmes, and identification of genetically distinct lineages deserving of protection as separate conservation units.

Region-wide genomic analysis of the White-rumped Shama

A published study on the White-rumped Shama (Copsychus malabaricus) (Ng et al., 2017) showed that the main island of Singapore comprises largely of non-native individuals that could have been introduced by released or escaped captive individuals from the bird trade. Individuals from the north-eastern satellite islands (Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong) were shown to be genetically native. Although the population on the main island of Singapore was found to comprise largely escaped individuals originating elsewhere in the species’ range, we do not consider the conservation implications of this situation to be adverse. Shamas from the region are extremely closely related genomically, and historically most differentiation should have been clinal with high levels of gene flow and a lack of genetic subdivision. This study demonstrated that genomic techniques can be applied to determine the origins of introduced individuals amongst native populations.  We further confirmed that the population on Sarawak (suavis) is genomically distinct.

 

People: Elize Ng, Kritika Garg, Gabriel Low, Balaji Chattopadhyay, Rachel Oh, Jessica Lee, Frank E. Rheindt

Funded by: Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund, National Parks Board (Singapore), Ministry of Education (Singapore), and SEABIG

Contact: Elize Ng: elizeng [at] u.nus.edu; Frank Rheindt: dbsrfe [at] nus.edu.sg

Conservation genomic framework for Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush

The Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush Garrulax rufifrons is endemic to Java, Indonesia and is the only representative of its family on the island. Unfortunately, the species has been targeted for its great vocal abilities and comes under heavy pressure from illegal wildlife traffickers. The species is now listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN, with the only well-known wild population consisting of a dozen or so individuals in Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park. Much of its continued survival therefore hinges on the success of an ex-situ conservation breeding program. With less than twenty individuals available globally for such a crucial effort, a paramount drive of the ASTSG Genetics Research Group has been towards implementing a conservation genomic framework for the remaining captive individuals in the breeding program. Our work uses genome-wide DNA sequencing to ascertain kin relationships across founder individuals, in order to prevent unwittingly incestuous mating. This comprehensive dataset also allows us to calculate optimal breeding pair combinations that seek to stave off the loss of genetic diversity which is often observed in small captive breeding schemes. In doing so, we have also been able to simulate future generations of laughingthrushes, allowing a glimpse into the likely outlook of the captive population. Finally, we are in the process of addressing whether the intentional interbreeding of the two existing Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush subspecies should be undertaken seriously as a form of genetic rescue for the nominate subspecies - and indeed the species as a whole.

Genetic distinctiveness of Asian Pied Starling forms

'Asian Pied Starling (Gracupica contra) is a bird of open habitats found in agricultural areas, often associated with human habitats in South and Southeast Asia. Currently it comprises five different subspecies, four of which are found to the north of Isthmus of Kra. The most distinctive form jalla is also geographically disjunct in the Sundaic region.  It has a complete whitish yellow bill and an extensive patch of orange bare parts around the eye. This distinctiveness has warranted it a species status as Javan Pied Starling by Birdlife International. It was formerly found in Java and Bali, but is now extinct in wild and critically endangered due to high demand in bird trade in Indonesia. In the Asian Songbird Crisis Summit held in 2015, the jalla form was identified as one of the ten species of birds that needed immediate conservation action. As very few individuals of jalla are left in captivity, they have been bred with other forms like floweri to promote certain desirable phenotypes in the bird market. This has compromised the genetic integrity of jalla individuals in trade. In order to investigate the distinctiveness of jalla form, we have obtained ancient and fresh tissue samples from all forms of Asian Pied Starling (contra, jalla, superciliaris, floweri, and sordidus) from museums and bird parks, including the ones from bird trade. Through subsequent genomic research and bioinformatics, we will retrieve genetic markers from across the genome to study this form. The research is ongoing.

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