Researchers from Oakland University are mapping genomes from the amazon parrots in an effort to save them from extinction. The study published in the journal Genes Provided the necessary data that can be used to save these wonderful parrots from the Caribbean. There are six species under this group of parrots which are native to Puerto Rico, the Yucatan Peninsula, in Central America, and the four Greater Antillean islands of Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola. All of these species are under threat especially the ‘Peurto Rican Parrot’ which is classified under the ‘critically endangered category of the IUCN red list. Therefore, saving these magnificent birds from extinction is a critical point in saving the local ecosystem of these regions.
The Puerto Rican parrot is one of the last remaining native parrots in the U.S. territory and has inhabited the native island for nearly 700,000 years. Over the years their population has alarmingly reduced by deforestation and the illegal pet trade. At their lowest in 1975, it was said that only 13 of them were left and government-sponsored conservation led to an increase in their population to about 600 in the 2000s. But that effort was short-lived as hurricane maria had taken away half of their population in 2017. And the biggest of all they are facing is the loss of genetic diversity.
One of the lead researchers Oleksyk added that the Peurto Rican Parrots are of the most inbred genetically homogenous species and that’s the main reason they required intervention so that they won’t lose any more diversity. He also added that genetic diversity is one of the crucial things for a species to adapt and survive in changing conditions. And lack of such diversity can lead to greater threats, especially diseases he further added.
The conservation efforts
The sequencing of the Puerto Rican parrot genome was essential to support its conservation efforts. When funding was difficult to obtain, the team organized art shows, fashion shows, and campaigns to raise the necessary amount needed for genome sequencing. This effort was hailed and appreciated very much as an excellent example of citizen science. Oleksyk added that people donated time, energy, and money to save a beloved species. He also further added that mapping genomes will help in conducting breeding programs that will help to avoid inbreeding and preserve genetic diversity.
The sequencing done was able to help the researchers understand the time frame and the idea behind how each species formed. By the sequencing of the Caribbean amazons, it is evident that the ancestral population of these birds came from Central America to Jamaica via the landbridge that existed at that time. One should also note that the water levels at that time were significantly low due to the ice age which occurred about 3.5 million years ago. And when the ice melted the water levels rose and the islands became isolated. This ancestral population that settles in Jamaica evolved into a Black-billed Jamaican Parrot.
When the parrots from Jamaica flew to Cuba about 1.39 million years ago they became the Cuban parrot. Then, a group of Cuban parrots flew and settled on Hispaniola approximately 770,000 years ago. They came to be known as the Hispaniolan parrots. And finally, a group of parrots from this population flew to Peurto Rico around 690,000 years ago and became the Peurto Rican Parrot. In addition to this, evidence also suggests that a group of Cuban parrots flew back to Jamaica and became the Yellow-billed Jamaican Parrot.
Counting the differences to future
Al this was calculation was made possible by counting the number of mutations between the above-mentioned species. Oleksyk added that counting these differences enabled them to estimate the timing because mutation accumulates at a constant rate. The Hispaniolan and the Peurto Rican Parrot had the most genetically similar among the Amazon parrots with only 1000 differences out of their 17000 DNA pairs. These genetic differences also can unfurl mysteries in the coming days. Olekysk also adds that the parrots’ genome maps will help researchers identify those genes that vary between species. Moreover, this also helps to learn about the evolution of the species.
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