Controlled inbreeding could save the kiwi - research

The first kiwi egg of the season, from Hodges Bush near Whangarei, has hatched a kiwi chick at Auckland Zoo. Photo / supplied
The first kiwi egg of the season, from Hodges Bush near Whangarei, has hatched a kiwi chick at Auckland Zoo. Photo / supplied

Endangered species like the kiwi could be saved by controlled inbreeding, new research has found.

Canterbury University ecology PhD graduate Sol Heber has proposed a new breeding management technique that recognises the risks of inbreeding, but shows there could be benefits to small and isolated populations of endangered species.

Species with small populations can develop genetic problems, such as reduced reduce fertility and survival, because there are no other choices of breeding mates other than relatives.

Ideally, individuals from larger populations are introduced to bring in new genetic material.

But Canterbury University Associate Professor of behavioural ecology Jim Briskie, who collaborated with Dr Heber on the project, said there were often no other populations of endangered species to use as non-inbred donors.

"That is the reality."

Dr Heber's research shows it is possible to swap members between different small and isolated populations, even though both may suffer genetic problems, with benefits to both populations.

The technique could be used not only with endangered species of kiwi, but with other species that only survive in small and isolated populations - such as the North Island kokako and the yellowhead, or mohua, in the South Island.

It could also be used in endangered insects, animals and plants around the world because the same genetic principles should apply.

Dr Briskie said further research was needed to study the long-term impact on populations.

"It may be this technique needs to be used every few generations to keep the species from again losing genetic variation and suffering inbreeding depression."

Dr Briskie said the technique was not without risks, such as spreading diseases between isolated populations, but the risks had to be weighed up against the threat of a population going extinct.

- APNZ

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